Monday, August 29, 2011

John Desjarlais on Writing Cross-Culture (and Cross-Gender Too)

Please join me in welcoming John Desjarlais to The Fascination Files! John's latest novel VIPER is out now (please check out The Mojito Literary Society's review of this outstanding mystery to see why I'm so enthusiastic about having him as a virtual guest). Today, John explains the intricate nature of the research involved in bringing his protagonist, Selena de la Cruz, to literary life.

I’m a college instructor in Mass Communications, Composition and Creative Writing, so research is almost second nature to me and I’m accustomed to teaching about research. However, research for academic work is different from researching for fiction. In stories, there’s no quoting and citation involved, and everything learned must be embedded in the narrative so that it doesn’t show (unless you’re James Michener, who piles it on to his fans’ delight). Once your research starts to show, readers notice and awaken from their fictional dream.

That’s what frightened me about my latest mystery novel, VIPER, featuring a Mexican-American woman as the protagonist.  How could I, an Anglo man, presume to portray a Latina for the lead?

It wasn’t just a matter of writing from a woman’s point-of-view. I had done so a few times in earlier novels, in some scenes. The scary thing was maintaining the cross-cultural aspect across an entire novel. I wanted to be sure I got all the cultural material right and I was respectful with it.

Lacking experience as a Latina, I immersed myself in the experiences of Latin women vicariously in many ways. There are many new books in circulation by Latinas about coming to terms with Old-World expectations placed upon women while trying to fit into New-World American society. I read most of them and took careful notes, as with any other research I had to do for VIPER (DEA undercover operations, police interrogations, snake handling, Aztec religion and so on). I subscribed to Latina magazine for fashion, beauty, relationship and lifestyle issues. I paid attention to any news related to this community, especially immigration issues. I browsed Latinas’ blogs and web sites to see what everyone talked about, especially with regard to living with a bi-cultural identity. They said just what the Dad says in the movie Selena: “We've gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans both at the same time. It's exhausting!"

I had stacks of cards that I browsed through obsessively to remind myself of small details that were of possible use, as in this description of the character:

Selena slipped into the faux leopard slingbacks and examined the fall of her pinstriped pantsuit leg over them in the hallway mirror when the doorbell chimed promptly at 1500 hours. She brushed away a little excess of powder from the corner of her sienna eyes and primped her mouth, the lip liner two shades darker than the magenta gloss to match her caramel complexion. Always dress so you will not be mistaken for the help, mija, she heard her mother saying. But no make-up could ever soften the Aztec hatchet of a nose buried in the middle of her face.

This combines research from Latina magazine and an interview with a Latina about her relationship with her mother.

Or consider this memory from Selena’s Chicago neighborhood (btw, she drives a 1969 Dodge Charger – something else I had to research):

     When Selena wheeled the Charger onto 18th Street in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, the throaty rumble of the big engine turned the heads of young men in tilted White Sox caps. In the air, Norteño bands playing plaintive corridos on button accordions competed with the thump-thump of quebradita, a blend of North Mexican banda and Aztec punk rockers singing in Spanglish. Like Julia Alvarez once said in a poem, Selena felt her Spanish blood beating.
She crossed herself and kissed her thumb and forefinger held together when she passed Saint Adalbert’s Elementary in the shadow of the church’s skyline-dominating steeple. In the sixth grade, Sister Mary Beatrice -- who every kid called Sister Mary BattleAxe -- caught Selena speaking Spanish in the back row. She was asking Gloria García for an eraser. Sister pulled Selena by the ear into the corner.
“You’re in America now,” the Polish nun had reprimanded, her milky finger in Selena’s mocha face. “We speak English here. If you want to be an American, speak American. If you want to speak Spanish, then go back to Mexico.”
Selena asked if there was a difference between speaking English and speaking American.
Sister Beatrice kept her after school for talking back.
Ay, you don’t talk back,” her mother chided her when she got home. Mamí’s high Zapotec cheekbones colored like the red hot lava of Mount Popocatépetl and the obsidian-black bun on top of her head, Selena could have sworn, was spinning.
Muchachitas bien criadas, girls brought up well, don’t mouth off,” her mother said, wringing the dishtowel. “Do you want to called habladora? A big mouth that talks too much? Is that what you want?”
Mamí, all I did was ask a question.”
En boca cerrada no entran moscas,” her mother said, tapping her lips with a finger. Flies cannot enter a closed mouth. “You must be quiet, and keep your eyes low in respeto, like La Virgen de Guadalupe.”

There’s so much here that I can’t recall all the places I drew from. Let’s see: Google maps gave me a view of the Pilsen neighborhood, an Internet search gave me the proverbs (‘dichos,’ very important in Mexican culture) and interviews – mostly – gave me the other childhood details. General research made me realize how important Our Lady of Guadalupe is to the Mexican community, and, in fact, She is a minor character – sort of – in the story.
Research always opens new possibilities for a story, and for me, it helped me create a believable Mexican-American woman.  When one of my Latina readers told me, “I am SO into Selena!”, I knew I’d done my research right.

  *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *    
 Haunted by the loss of her brother to drugs and a botched raid that ended her career with the DEA, insurance agent Selena De La Cruz hoped to start afresh in rural Illinois. But her gung-ho former boss needs her back to hunt “The Snake,” a dealer she helped arrest who is out of prison and systematically killing anyone who ever crossed him. His ‘hit list’, appended to a Catholic Church’s All Souls Day ‘Book of the Deceased,’ shows Selena’s name last. Working against time, prejudice and the suspicions of her own Latino community, Selena races to find The Snake before he reaches her name while a girl visionary claims a “Blue Lady” announces each killing in turn. Is it Our Lady of Guadalupe as many in the Mexican community believe, or is it, as others believe, the Aztec goddess of Death?

Visit John Desjarlais at

VIPER is available at Amazon and through Sophia Institute Press.