August 2012

Brigit Young


An Interview with Lyn Di Iorio

When Lyn Di Iorio gave the most heavily attended debut reading that New York's Upper West Side Barnes & Noble had ever seen, with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor sitting in the front row, smiling up at the author, there was a palpable excitement in the audience. When Di Iorio started reading the beautifully vulgar yet poetic words of her protagonist, Fina, that excitement was clearly justified. Di Iorio's Outside the Bones, her first novel, has now won ForeWord Review's 2011 Silver Award in literary fiction, was a finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Prize, and was named Best Debut Novel on the 2011 Latinidad List. It seems that to encounter this work is to be entranced.

Outside the Bones tells the story of Fina, the bruja of her neighborhood, who, through her infatuation with a musician who's followed by some heavy spiritual baggage, and through the tutelage of a Palo Monte master (a Palero) and his cauldron of bones, becomes intertwined with a vengeful spirit and a dark mystery back in her homeland of Puerto Rico that needs to be uncovered. I was fortunate enough to have the chance to sit down with Di Iorio in her office at City College, City University of New York, where she is a faculty member teaching classes in a range of subjects including Magical Realism and the Gothic. We discussed the origin of her fascination with Palo Monte, where the research on it led her artistically, and how the book's take on the spirit world could be seen as having a connection to the "world" of a writer's life.

Outside the Bones features a protagonist who practices Palo Monte, an Afro-Caribbean religio-magical system that involves the spiritual art of housing spirits in cauldrons, a practice that's not well known in the United States. How did you come upon this practice and why did you choose to write about it?

Well, when my father died, I was feeling directionless, and I decided to go see a santero in Puerto Rico and ask him questions. Santeros are practitioners of Santería, a religion that is a mixture of Yoruba and Roman Catholic beliefs and that was originally practiced by slaves in Cuba. Santeros very often convey the idea that they can give you some answers through different divination systems. So I went to see this santero in a very working class neighborhood in Puerto Rico, and we had a long reading, and it wasn't ultimately that helpful. But when the reading ended, we walked down this stairway in his three-level house, and, as we were walking down the stairway, I saw something that looked strange to me -- a big black cauldron. When I got down the stairs and got a better look at it, I said to him, "What's that?" He said, "That's the dead one." And I felt, just... Wow. The dead one. There's a dead person in there. A body in this cauldron, right? Or a spirit. What was going on here? I was just so riveted.

Long after that reading, which was not necessarily the most successful reading, I still kept thinking about that image, and so I started learning more. At first, I thought this was a part of Santería, but I learned it was from a different religion called Palo Monte, and that it was often considered to be a dark aspect of Santería, which in actuality it's not. It is a separate religion. I learned that there's a difference between and a santero and a Palero, and that a Palero will put the bones and skull of somebody who has died very badly into a cauldron and generate this agitated and angry energy in there in order to commandeer that spirit. Eventually, I started to think about it as a metaphor for the relationships that one has with the past. Especially if you're coming from the Caribbean, or if you're specifically coming from Puerto Rico, which is a colonized place, and you have a relationship to the past that you want to unearth. The image of this spirit that had been badly hurt in life, coming into full consciousness and starting to learn about what really happened to it when it was alive became a powerful metaphor to me for the horrible past and the violence in the Caribbean that has been erased by colonialism. By writing the novel, I started to explore these gaps and absences.

In the novel, we see Palo Monte as it is practiced in New York City. Is there a secret, magical underground here in New York, happening in apartments all over the city? Are these conjured, agitated spirits traveling with me when I take the subway?

Yes! In my research, I became involved with Palo Monte in Spanish Harlem. It was there that I was presented to the pantheon. One Palero in particular introduced me to Palo Monte. A whole room in his house was filled with all these different cauldrons belonging to all the different deities of Palo Monte. And it's funny that you mention the subway because he did tell me once about seeing somebody on the subway and actually conjuring him in a way that made him fall down flat on his back.

Is that why the religion is considered a darker form of Santería?

It is considered to be a dark religion because people only go to it when they are very desperate. When Santería seems to fail, you go to the Palero because the Palero is supposed to get results by resorting to the types of spiritual measures that will allow that to happen. This can be effective but is looked at by some people as dark. That particular Palero would refer to it as "crude" energy. It's much more earthy and basic. Palo was a religion that was practiced by runaway slaves in Cuba in the bush. So it is almost primal in that sense. On the other hand, here in an urban setting, Santería has displaced itself into apartment living in a way that makes it seem as if it always happened in these domestic places. Palo Monte connects to the bush because the Paleros seem to almost recreate the bush in the artifacts of Palo Monte here. The Palos that give the practice its name represent the forest (each cauldron contains sticks of wood), and the forest is the place of the old spirits, the ones from Africa. On the cover of Outside the Bones, the sticks in the cauldron are tree branches that have been polished to represent the trees, symbolizing what's above -- the spirit world -- connecting with what is down below.

The characters in your novel are Puerto Rican, and the novel often intertwines Spanish and English. In your book of literary criticism, Killing Spanish, you wrote about Latino authors that are "bound to Spanish." Do you feel bound to Spanish? What is the relationship between Spanish and English in your writing?

I write in English, but I am perfectly bilingual and very connected to Latino culture. My husband is Latino, I'm part-Latino, and I speak Spanish all the time. So yes, I am bound to Spanish. My way of expressing a Latino identity, or expressing my ideas in my novel, is by trying to relate Spanish to English in some way. I am very interested in how, for Latinos, the use of Spanish connects to English, and breaks it, and marks it, and how there's this dance the two languages have with each other. They're playing with one other, the two languages. However, because we're in New York, English is very dominant, and Spanish is trying to connect and establish how it's going to have a little more power in this relationship. In Outside the Bones, Fina takes from Palo what she needs from it, and she creates her own spiritual environment, and she's still using Spanish. So I think that relationship can be seen there.

In a passage from Outside the Bones, the Palo Monte master, Tata Victor, says of a spirit possessing Fina (a nfuiri) that she "gives you her ears, she gives you flight, above all and beyond she gives you the gift of vision. She ain't just some slave. She's ascending in the spiritual hierarchy... when she directs you towards something, you have to let her go in that direction." Reading this, I immediately thought about the act of writing.

Yes, I do feel that writing-as-possession can be found there. I think that Fina starts off having this crush on Chico [a musician] partly because she's entranced by the way he allows music to take him over. He becomes one with the music. And she can't do that. She wants to enter that in some way, so she starts to get possessed by this spirit, and eventually she enters into this ability to allow a connection between herself and the spirit world.

I wondered if there is a connection, even if it's abstract, between this possession and the magical aspects of the creative arts.

There's a way in which that is connected to allowing any kind of artistic inclination to take hold of you and to go where the voice you've found is taking you. And sometimes that can be difficult. In the book, there is a connection between spiritual possession and the idea of music, with the way music possesses people. And, in a sense, this is a little bit gendered because the Latino music world tends to be dominated by male artists. So as the book goes on, Fina has this way in which she wants to find her voice, too, and it comes through her understanding of how she can shape this strange religio-magical practice, and how she can understand the world through this it. You've also hit on something very true. The practice of Palo can definitely be seen as a metaphor for writing, for creating something new out of old materials. This is also a way of showing how writing can be a space, certainly as it applies to women writers, to let their voices go, and explore things in this very artistic way.

You have all these genres swirling around in Outside the Bones, which is part of what makes it such a great read. When you were writing it, did you say, "I'm going to write a magical realist-Latino-mystery book?"

No. [Laughs.] No, I did not. It's all of those things and also none of those things. I love the idea of it being a mystery because there is a mystery aspect to it. As a kid, I loved Agatha Christie books and I read every single one of them, but I didn't set out to write this as an Agatha Christie type of mystery. For Fina, though, this search for this spirit's life story is a mystery. She is trying to discover this whole idea of a spirit coming into to being, and, further, what the horror of this spirit's life was. I also wasn't necessarily thinking, "I'll write magical realism." I was simply thinking that the "spirit" aspect of the story is going to be told at points from that spirit's point of view.

So there is not going to be an Outside the Bones Two, Three, and Four, with Fina solving spirit-crimes all over the country?

No, but in my second novel that I am working on right now, The Sound of Falling Darkness, there is a character who in some ways is fighting crime much more straightforwardly. So maybe in the second book I am entering that mystery genre world more fully!