September 2009

Brittany Shoot

features

An Interview with Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa

Perhaps the first novel of its kind, Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa's Daughters of the Stone traces five generations of Afro-Puerto Rican women. From slavery on Puerto Rican plantations to life in modern day New York City, the characters contend with issues of identity, systemic racism, language barriers, underemployment, and ghosts of the past -- literally and figuratively. In strikingly beautiful prose, an often ignored story is told in all its rich complexity, and throughout, matriarchal strength and familial bonds are honored. Never losing touch with their African heritage, the women cherish their spirituality as they triumph over heartbreak and poverty. While their struggles are never romanticized, a hopeful glow surrounds their lineage.

Humbled by her stories and deeply impressed by her writing, I recently emailed Llanos-Figueroa about her personal history and her work on her debut novel. Daughters of the Stone will be out in September.

Daughters of the Stone is your first novel. How long did the entire process take, from inception through edits to publishing?

When I started writing what would end up being Daughters of the Stone I had no idea I was writing a novel. Whenever I went home to Puerto Rico to visit family, I was fascinated with a world that was quickly disappearing and so I started collecting stories and recording as many of them as I could in my journal. And then there were the stories around me in New York City. The entries covered different time periods, geographical locations, and cultural traditions. The book didn't come to me in sequential order, and it took years before I recognized that my little stories were evolving into a long narrative that someone else might want to read. I realized that I needed to use the tools of fiction to weave my stories together. I needed the freedom to create characters, set up conflicts, introduce different points of view -- in short, to fill in the blank spaces. And so the bits of memoir grew into a novel organically, out of my need to create a seamless and cohesive context for my life stories.

The short answer is, it took twenty years and eight complete drafts before the manuscript was ready for publication.

Some people would say that a novel about five generations of Afro-Puerto Rican women is the first of its kind. Then again, many would say this type of writing is long overdue in terms of being released by a major publisher and publicly praised. How do these kinds of political associations with your work make you feel?

I didn't set out to write a novel with a political message but, of course, everything we write has a message one way or the other. The best way to answer you is to tell you that from the time I was a child I loved reading stories. I spent long hours reading in my room but I could never find myself in the literature I was given to read. Even as a literature major in college, I read many books I loved but none of them included the essential me. None of the media sources had realistic representations of my life and the lives of people I knew. What I did see on TV and the movies was the oversexed, red-clad, wild Latina, the gypsy-like curly haired, hoop-earringed Latina, the wisecracking, foul-mouthed gangsta Latina. Then there were Rita Moreno, and Chita Rivera and even Raquel Welch, the more palatable Latina.

But none of them looked like me. None of them went to school and got good grades. They didn't work an 8-hour shift and come home to cook for a growing family. None of them worried about making the rent or saving for a washing machine. I resented more and more the fact that my world was totally omitted from the reality of the American artistic landscape. When I graduated, I was ready to write, but write what? I felt I had such an ordinary and uneventful life. But I started collecting the stories of the people in my world -- family, friends, students, acquaintances, myself. I wrote about our loves and fears and troubles and triumphs. It all went into my journal. I suppose I wrote my book because I had to say here I've been and here I am and here I'll stay.

Of the literature of Puerto Ricans in the United States written in English, my novel may be the first to attempt to cover the long journey from slavery to colonialism to immigration to acculturation to rediscovery and to synthesis. I hope my book is just one of a long line of novels by the many voices that have been omitted and are only just beginning to be heard.

Like the book's youngest character, Carisa, you were born in Puerto Rico and live in New York City as an adult. How much of your own experience is reflected in Carisa's story?

Some of my own experience is absolutely reflected in Carisa's story. But this isn't memoir or biography. Every incident and experience was approached from the point of view of what was necessary for the integrity of the story. I certainly used my life as a mould or outline in which to create Carisa's life, but her life is her own.

Oral histories are critical links between generations, and this is reflected throughout the women's lives in the book. How much are oral histories a part of your own personal past?

Daughters of the Stone is all about oral histories. I felt I had to speak out for my ancestors who never had a public voice but had tales to tell. The novel is an attempt to reclaim the oral histories of a people that have been silenced by traditional historic sources. There is an African proverb that I love: You'll never know what happened on the hunt until the lion tells his tale. I like to think of my novel as the lion telling her tale.

On a personal level, oral histories are integral to me because they hold memory and memory is a vital part of personal history. And in the end, personal history is the glue that holds us together individually and as a people.

In the book, the stone has particular significance and is a symbol of many things: matriarchal bonds, African religions, and curanderas. What inspired your use of this emblem?

I needed to find an item that could symbolize the survival of the essence of Africa with all its mystery and mysticism and spirituality and magic. And yet I also had to be very practical. It had to be an object so insignificant that the slavers wouldn't think twice about it, and it had to be something that a captive could hide even when stripped of everything else. A small stone seemed perfect. In my head, it is a small piece of hematite, a black stone with an ethereal inner light that sometimes seems to have a quiet life of its own, a perfect vessel for this voyage.

There are almost no actual dates mentioned, which makes the stories feel a bit more free, less tied to a certain time or generation. Why did you make the decision to leave out that historic specificity?

There are various reasons for this. First of all, I wanted the focus to be on the personal stories rather than the historical context. The historical events in the novel provide a canvas for the narrative but shouldn't overwhelm it. Story comes first and the historical events are in the service of the story. For instance, the hurricane in the novel is modeled after San Felipe, an actual hurricane that hit the island a decade or so before the time needed within the context of the plot. The plot took precedence. Secondly, I felt that specificity would take away from the universality I was trying to create. It doesn't matter what hurricane or when. The important point is the experience. Anyone who has experienced a natural catastrophe can relate to the upheaval and chaos that is left in the aftermath of disaster. Lastly, I am not a historian. There is an enormous responsibility in telling historical truth. I leave that to others. I am a storyteller.

The end of the book leaves readers open to the possibility of more to follow. Is there a second novel in your future?

Well, let me just say this. I had to cut over two hundred pages from the original manuscript. I haven't thrown them out.