Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Reyna Grande

Posted on: March 30, 2017

Reyna Grande is the author of The Distance Between Us, a novel about family. Born in Mexico, Reyna was two years old when her father left for the United States to find work.  Her mother followed her father two years later, leaving Reyna and her siblings behind in Mexico. When Reyna was ten, she and her siblings entered the U.S. with their father as undocumented immigrants. Reyna become the first person in her family to graduate from college and today she is well-known speaker and author. To find out more, check out my interview.

ALLISON: Tell readers something about yourself that they won’t learn from reading The Distance Between Us.

REYNA: I love gardening. I especially like creating butterfly gardens. My daughter and I raised monarch butterflies for a while and it was the most amazing experience. I think every child should have a chance to witness the transformation of a butterfly with their own eyes. It’s powerful. One of my favorite quotes, that I actually have framed and hanging on my wall, is: “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.” It inspires me.

ALLISON: You were born in Mexico. What is a favorite memory from Mexico?

REYNA: One of my favorite memories that I didn’t write about in the book is the time when I went on a pilgrimage with my grandmother, Abuelita Chinta. We went with the group from our local church. The procession walked to the churches in nine different towns. It was long and tiring to walk there, especially since I was only eight years old, but the people at every town would welcome us with a delicious meal cooked over an open fire. I can still taste those meals–pork in green chile sauce, rice, beans, and hot oatmeal drinks we call atole served with a piece of sweet bread. The pilgrimage was one of those times when we ate very well! I went there to pray for my mother’s return. I don’t think my prayers were answered, but at least I still have the memory of the food I ate.

ALLISON: When you returned to Mexico, you found yourself almost a stranger. Have you taken your children to Mexico? What has been their experience?

REYNA: I take my children almost every year because I want them to know the place where I came from, so that they can have at least a small connection to the place and the family I have there. I hope that by seeing the poverty I came from will help them appreciate what I’ve been able to give them in the U.S. They enjoy going to my hometown but they also complain about the lack of luxuries that they are used to here–like running water!  Over there, they have to boil their bath water on the stove, then put it in a bucket and throw the water on themselves with a small container. On the other hand, they very much love the food that my aunt cooks for them and they like the freedom that children have over there–such as being able to walk around the neighborhood, to go to the store by themselves, to play in the street with other children, things that here in the U.S. children don’t get to do because parents tend to be over-protective and their isn’t as much a sense of community as there is in Mexico.

ALLISON: You concluded in your memoir that despite the strain immigration put on your family, the hardship was worth it. What would you tell young people about overcoming challenges?

REYNA: I would tell them to do everything they can to overcome those challenges because otherwise, their lives would get worse instead of better. If you find yourself in a hole, try to climb out of it–you do that by making the right choices. Focus on school, on your dreams, on your future. If you make bad choices out of desperation, you only dig yourself deeper.  Remember, things don’t always have to be that way–they can get better, they can change. You just have to keep focused, stay strong, and above all, don’t lose hope.

ALLISON: You gave a special tribute to a teacher who changed your life. Have there been other mentors in your life? If so, what has been their influence?

REYNA: I had another teacher at UC, Santa Cruz who was very important to me. Her name is Marta Navarro, a Spanish and Chicano Literature teacher, and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. She–like my former teacher that I write about in the book–also encouraged me to keep writing. She introduced me to more Latino authors, and she was always available to talk whenever I needed someone to listen. I’m still in touch with her too, and she even came to my wedding!

ALLISON: The Distance Between Us is based on your adult memoir. What process was involved in rewriting it for young people?

REYNA: I didn’t want to water down the story for young readers so I did my best to stay true to the original. Mostly what I did was to put the book on a diet–meaning–I trimmed off all the extra stuff, details, backstory, inner thoughts, and only left what was essential. I cut out about 100 pages. I took out my  crazy uncle, and also some details about my love life that was inappropriate for young readers.

But by cutting 100 pages, it gave me some room to expand on things that young readers would find interesting, such as the border crossing. In the original, my border crossing is only one chapter long. In the young reader’s version, it is three chapters. I added more details so that young readers could really have a chance to experience that moment in my life that was very traumatic but also life-changing.

ALLISON: You’re open in your memoir about both the highs and lows of your family’s life. What has been the reaction of your family to your memoir?

REYNA: My siblings have been very supportive of my writing and they really loved the book. My mother didn’t read much of it because she said it was too painful. My father passed away before the book was published. My aunts from the Grande side got mad at me for writing about how mean my evil grandmother had been. But, that is how she was, and I wrote the truth of my experience living under her roof. I don’t feel guilty about what I wrote, and I understand that since she’s dead, my aunts would rather I had honored her memory by writing more positive things–but unfortunately, I had nothing positive to write about because all my memories of her are unpleasant and painful. Writing memoir is very tricky because you are writing about your family and they might never speak to you again if they don’t like what you wrote! Ultimately, if you write memoir, you have write your truth and no one else’s. You aren’t writing to please anyone. You are writing so that you can heal from the wounds of your experience.

ALLISON: You wrote The Distance Between Us to provide an awareness. What would like people who are not immigrants to understand? What books would you recommend a person starting out in their awareness of diversity to read?

REYNA: I would like for non-immigrants to remember where they came from. Everyone here–except for native Americans–came from somewhere. Perhaps it was a great-grandparent or grandparent who immigrated, who went through the trauma and heartbreak that new immigrants go through. If people honor the memories of those who came before them–their ancestors–I think it will make them more compassionate and understanding towards new immigrants. The U.S. has a history of discrimination against specific immigrant groups. Even those who managed to assimilate very well into American culture (like the Irish) at one point or another were heavily discriminated. I think it’s time that we accept that we are a multi-cultural society. We have people from all over the world who live here, and that is a beautiful thing!

Recommended Reading:

1) Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami

2) The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

3) Broken Paradise by Cecilia Samartin

4) Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

5) A Cup of Water Under My Bed by Daisy Hernandez

6) Tell Me How it Ends by Valeria Luiselli

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Fall 2017: Focus on Cats!

All things cats ahead! I will post roundups of cat training books, cat Trap-Neuter-Release books, cat coloring books, and cat cozies. For all other animal lovers, I will also post roundups of dog cozies and zoo books.

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