Author Reyna Grande on ‘The Distance Between Us’

Reyna Grande reads at the Iowa City Book Festival on Saturday October 4. — photo courtesy of Reyna Grande

Reyna Grande discusses her latest book The Distance Between Us: A Memoir this Saturday as part of the Iowa City Book Festival. The event begins at 7:30 p.m. in room C20 of the Pomerantz Center on the University of Iowa campus.

The Distance Between Us details Grande’s family life and upbringing in Mexico and the U.S., which she moved to at age nine as an undocumented immigrant. The book was selected by the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights as its 2014 One Community One Book project.

Grande lives in Los Angeles with her husband and children, and teaches creative writing at UCLA. Little Village recently interviewed Grande by email about her memoir, her desire to communicate her perspectives on immigration through writing, and her advice to aspiring writers.

Little Village: What first drew you to writing?

Reyna Grande: When I first started writing at 13, it was my way of trying to learn English more quickly. I had been living in the U.S. for three years and learning English was very difficult. Once I got a better hold of the language, I continued to write because I discovered that writing was a form of self-expression.

I wrote about everything and everyone I had left behind in Mexico. I wrote about my struggles in the U.S.. By writing those things down I always felt better. Writing helped me to understand and cope with what was going on around me.

In your latest book, The Distance Between Us, you write some very personal and revealing things about your parents. Is it hard to write so publicly and honestly — and sometimes, so harshly — about people so close to you? How do you balance your dedication to the craft, and to the story, and dedication to those around you?

Before I wrote my memoir I wrote two novels that were somewhat autobiographical but fictional nonetheless. I wrote fiction because it was my way of hiding from the truth. But my fiction never healed me in the way that the memoir healed me. And that was because it made me finally confront my past, and as painful and hard as it was to write about my family and my experiences, I finally found peace.

There were times when I wanted to stop writing the memoir, when I was uncomfortable with what I was writing, or when I worried about what my family would say — but there is no point in writing a memoir if you aren’t going to be completely honest, if you aren’t willing to go to those dark, painful, uncomfortable places. So I pushed myself to do it.

I was very worried about what my father was going to say. I didn’t want to hurt him by writing what I wrote about him. But at the same time, I was writing the truth. I thought about all the pain he’d caused me and my siblings when he’d been physically abusive to us and I thought that when he beat us up, he hadn’t been worried about hurting us, either.

This is not to say this was a revenge memoir. Everyone I wrote about in the book was neither hero nor villain, but rather, real human beings with all of our complexities.

Do you ever feel pigeonholed as a Mexican-American writer — as though people primarily view you as a Mexican-American first, and a writer second, or as looking to you to write only about issues specific to Mexico and immigration?

I don’t know if pigeonholed is the right word for me. I choose to write about immigration and about Mexico, no one is making me do it. The day I decide to write about something else I will do it. For now, I write about the immigrant experience because I care deeply about it, and because I am an immigrant myself and that is the lens through which I see world.

However, as a Mexican-American author, I do sometimes feel that I don’t have the advantages that a White/mainstream author has. When you see major literary events happening, a tiny percentage of participants will be Latino authors. For example, there’s a huge book festival in L.A. where about 500 authors get invited to speak, and only ten of those 500 authors will be Latino authors–and this is in a city where 50% of the population is Latino.

I see this scenario being played out over and over again in different forms. Another example is this: a huge percentage of movies are based on books, but I can tell you right now that almost none of them are Latino books. Last year, only one film that was based on a Latino book came out — that was “Bless Me, Ultima” by renowned author Rudolfo Anaya. It took over 40 years for his book to be made into a movie. These are just some examples of how I see Latino authors being left out.

You’ve now published three books. How do you sustain yourself as an author? What inspires you to continue to write?

I want to contribute to the conversation that our country has been having about immigration for many, many years. Every book I’ve written has to do with immigration, but from a personal perspective. I like writing about immigration because I want people to think of immigrants as more than numbers or statistics — I want them to remember that we are human beings.

What is your advice for young writers hoping to find an audience, and dealing with the many challenges that writers face?

My advice is to write from the heart. Don’t follow trends. Also, educate yourself about the business side of publishing. The success of your book will not be determined by the grace of God. Sometimes you get lucky, but most of the time you will have to work very hard to find your readers.

Be realistic in your expectations. Have a backup plan. Don’t quit your day job until you are in a good place in your writing career. If you were meant to write, you would write whether or not you were making much money. Do it because you love it, because writing gives meaning to your life.

What are you working on now?

Right now I am writing a novel that takes place during the Mexican-American war. My main character is an Irishman in the U.S. military, but due to all the discrimination and lack of opportunities he and his countrymen faced, decides to defect and switch sides to fight for Mexico.

This is a true story. The Irish have now been incorporated into the mainstream, into White culture, but there was once a time when they were treated the way Latinos are being treated now. That time in history — and the Irish immigrant experience — completely fascinates me.

What are you reading these days?

I am currently reading Hector Tobar’s new book, Deep Down Dark, about the 33 Chilean miners that were stuck in a mine for 69 days. It is a wonderful book and I highly recommend it.

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