Self-Celebration Transforms You: An Interview with Reyna Grande

At the beginning of our Zoom interview, Reyna Grande fanned herself with a paper towel and told me about her garden. “After the residency, I wanted to go out to my garden and decompress,” she said. “Pruning, watering, and tending to my plants always helps me.”

I couldn’t help smiling. She looked beautiful, glowing with purpose, a look of satisfaction on her face.

“I was out there for two hours,” she said. “One thing led to another.”

We laughed together about this, but as she drank ice water from a tall glass, I told her she shouldn’t be gardening in the heat of the day in direct sunlight. Late June in inland Northern California, where Grande and I live, is known for searing temperatures. That day was nearly a hundred degrees. I couldn’t help talking like a mother to her, even though Reyna Grande is one of my literary heroes.

Reyna Grande is the award-winning author, motivational speaker, and writing teacher who crossed the US/Mexico border when she was just a girl, joining her parents in Los Angeles, who had already been living and working there. The harrowing journey is chronicled in The Distance Between Us, Grande’s first memoir and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Her second memoir, A Dream Called Home, is the story of how she made a life in the United States, becoming a homeowner, mother, writer, and wife. Her fictional works include the novels Across a Hundred Mountains, winner of a 2007 American Book Award, and the breathtakingly beautiful novel Dancing with Butterflies. All of her work champions truth, freedom, growth, and knowing oneself.

Reyna and I spoke about the power of gratitude, her writing community, and her culture, and why it’s so important to have a financial strategy when you’re supporting yourself as a writer.

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Janet Rodriguez: Thank you for coming to Antioch and thank you for just being YOU. I love your whole body of work, fiction and nonfiction. When people ask you what kind of writer you are, what do you say?

Reyna Grande: I think I’m evolving as a writer, and I’m actually glad about that. I try to challenge myself as much as I can, especially when I’m scared of tackling a particular writing style or project. That’s when I push myself even harder. When I first started writing, I wrote fiction, which was easier to do than to write about myself. That’s where I learned about the craft of writing, such as how to develop characters and how to start and finish a project. Only after I gained that confidence in my writing was I able to go to the next step—to write the two memoirs. It’s a challenging thing to do, because you become so vulnerable when you write about your life. You expose things about yourself and your family. Still, I found it to be a transformative experience. Memoir helped me to heal from my traumas in a way that fiction didn’t. With fiction, I was able to have distance between the story and my pain. I didn’t have to confront the traumas of my past, but as soon as I started writing nonfiction, I had to face those ghosts that haunted me. I was able to come out of it a changed person, though, so I was really glad I wrote those memoirs.

JR: I read The Distance Between Us and A Dream Called Home first, so I always saw you as a writer of nonfiction.

RG:  Fiction was my first love. Nonfiction is more of a challenge, but I’ve enjoyed it, too. Lately I’ve been writing essays, which is a form I always considered to be a little boring (laughs). I never really thought of writing essays, but now I’ve managed to produce several op-eds and personal essays. The one I read, “My Mother’s California,” was published in Freeman’s. Now, I’m not so scared of writing essays anymore.

 The generation of writers that came before me wrote in such a way that inspired me and impacted my writing. I think I’m doing the same thing for emerging writers now, and their writing will impact the next generation of writers.

JR: The personal essay has come a long way, hasn’t it?

RG:  I think so. The first time I read a creative personal essay was when I was still at Antioch. One of the lecturers recommended we read something from The Best American Essays, and I remember being really impressed with the one we read. It wasn’t the typical essay you were supposed to write in school. It was creatively structured and well put together. I thought, “Wait, you can do that with an essay?”

JR:  You have a personal style of writing about personal issues—the Mexican-American journey—in your writing. If someone comes up to you and says, “Thank you for who you are and what you’re doing for Latinas in literature, what do you say?

RG:  It’s a very strange feeling, because I say that to writers I admire. So, it’s funny when someone says it to me. Then, it makes me think of how we’re all part of a circle. The generation of writers that came before me wrote in such a way that inspired me and impacted my writing. I think I’m doing the same thing for emerging writers now, and their writing will impact the next generation of writers. So, I’m part of a circle, a constant cycle. Even so, I think of how gratitude is a wonderful thing. When someone comes up to me and expresses gratitude for what I’m doing, I’m grateful; in the same way, I’m grateful for the generation of writers before me. It is kind of surreal. Sometimes, I feel like I’m dreaming. I think back about that young girl I was, fantasizing about being a writer. Now, I’m on the other side of the journey, looking back—I’m not the same person who was once uncertain about the road ahead.  It’s nice not to be uncertain or afraid.

JR:  Do you think people are just grateful that you told the truth about your life? 

RG:  I think people can relate to my stories, fiction and nonfiction, and they can see themselves on the page. It’s important for readers, especially young readers, to have books that reflect their own experiences. When a reader feels a connection to a writer, it’s because something about the story is like theirs. The reader can say, “Maybe I’m not alone in the way I feel, or in my own experiences, and I’m not alone in the mistakes I’ve made, because she seems to have made the same mistakes.” There’s something really empowering and beautiful about not being alone.

JR:  You’ve talked about the difference between being a novelist and a memoirist. Do you notice a difference in the way you take care of yourself when you’re writing fiction, as opposed to when you’re writing memoir?

RG: I definitely notice a difference in my body when I’m writing memoir, and I have to relive all these emotions. I notice how I carry these emotions with me, sometimes for the rest of the day. I feel sad and I might need to lie down and rest sometimes. When I’m writing fiction, it’s different—it’s easier for me to detach—because when I’m finished writing for the day, I can put it down. I don’t walk around carrying the pain of the characters with me during the day.

JR:  What’s your normal writing process like? Do you get up early and write?

RG: Oh no! I’m a night-writer. Usually, I get most of my writing done between nine o’clock at night and three o’clock in the morning. Sometimes, I’ll do a little bit of writing between lunch and dinner, but never in the morning. I can’t put two sentences together in the morning.

JR: (laughs) Neither can I. Is it wonderful that now you’re able to devote all of your time to writing?

RG:  Yes and no. One of the blessings of quarantine has been that I have been able to devote so much time to writing. Usually, I do a lot of traveling, and I have speaking engagements, like keynotes or lectures. I do miss those events, but when I have a ton of trips, I spend a lot of my time writing speeches. I actually got used to having these events. Once the quarantine began, all the events I had previously accepted were cancelled. Financially, this was hard because those events and speaking engagements are part of my income. When they dried up, I had a lot of time to focus on the novel; I was able to make a lot of progress on it and I was able to sell it.

JR:  Congratulations!

RG: Thank you. I just received the first part of my advance. Now I can write full-time and finish this novel I’m working on. As a writer, when you’re constantly worrying about how you’re going to pay the bills, it distracts you from your craft. Every writer wants to be able to concentrate on their writing, but if you can’t sustain yourself financially, you have to have other jobs.

JR:  What is the best advice you ever received about craft?

RG:  I always liked teachers who kicked my butt, but in a good way (laughs). I’ve had plenty of teachers who tried to bring me down and insult my writing style, but the best teachers are the ones who can push you in a loving way. Those are the kinds of teachers I like. Those teachers encouraged me to go above and beyond what I’m capable of and who inspired me to be better.

JR: Do you ever miss being a full-time teacher? 

RG: Not really. I used to teach middle school, but it was a full load, with a lot of planning and responsibilities. I do miss the way I was able to connect with students, having daily interaction in their lives. What I really love about teaching is the one-on-one experience, or the small group focus, which is probably why I like writer’s workshops so much. Last year, I taught at Bread Loaf, and I’ve also loved working with VONA, Macondo, and now here at Antioch.  I love how there’s a residency, and then I get to work with mentees, but I can’t picture myself returning to traditional teaching. That’s why I do this.

JR:  Do you think you love mentoring because you had good mentors?

RG:  Yeah, I’ve had great writing mentors, and sometimes I can still see myself as a mentee. I kept calling myself an emerging writer (smiles), “I’m emerging… I’m emerging…” One day, a former mentor of mine said, “Reyna, you have emerged. It’s time to start giving back.”

JR: (laughs) That’s good advice. Do you keep in contact with your former mentors?

RG: Oh, yeah! It’s really important to maintain those relationships in your writing community. Even though I’m writing my sixth book, I still need guidance. I still need to have someone to call and talk to. During this residency, I emailed my manuscript to one of my writing mentors so she could take a look at it. I send my work to one of my former college professors, who proofreads for me. She says she doesn’t want me to damage my reputation by using bad grammar (laughs). So, everything I write has to go through her.

JR: There’s so much to being a writer, isn’t there? My friend, Lisa, was in your workshop, and said you talked to them about the business aspect of writing, encouraging them to think long-term as writers.

RG:  There are so many things to consider as a writer, and I think too many writers don’t do enough research about the business of writing. They focus so much on the craft, writing their books, polishing them up and then, they don’t know what to do. Also, the all-time end goal cannot be how to get published, but rather, how to stay published. Writing and publishing is a business, and I know too many authors who wrote their book, got it published, and then they didn’t do much to promote it. Publishing one book doesn’t guarantee that you will publish another. If your book doesn’t sell well, it gets harder to publish your next book.

I’m a believer that when you write a book, you have to promote it for the rest of your life. Make a list of all the topics you write about. Then make a list of the experiences you’ve had, the groups you fit into, etc.—and use this to pitch yourself as a speaker. For instance, I write a lot about immigration, so I contact immigrant groups or any other organizations that advocate for immigrants. I also write about being an English Language Learner, so I contact bilingual teachers, ESL programs, etc. I also write about being a child of an alcoholic, a victim of childhood abuse, so I reach out to those organizations. By making connections and finding events where you can speak, you’re maximizing your opportunities to address more audiences, and are often more successful than just targeting bookstores or book festivals for readings. Becoming a public speaker takes time and practice, but the more you do it, the better you get at it. You get paid an honorarium (speaker’s fee) and will often have good book sales. You have to think outside the box on how to promote your books.

JR: This is helpful, and we don’t really get a chance to talk about this.

RG: That’s why I’m saying this. We don’t learn how to promote at school. No one teaches us. But by planning and strategizing, you can make a living as a writer. Research conferences. Make friends with librarians. Pitch your book and pitch yourself to non-literary organizations. Instead of hosting your book reading in a traditional setting, why not use it to raise money for a non-profit, for example?

JR: One of the things that touched me about your writing is how you write about language. My own family came from Mexico, but because of assimilation practices, I don’t speak Spanish. I feel ripped off. I read how the third generation of your family has also been cheated out of Spanish. I cried in those places… Do you get a lot of feedback about this?

RG: About the language trauma? Oh, yes!

JR: Exactly! Thank you for calling it trauma!

RG:  That’s what it’s called—language trauma. We all experience it in one way or another. As an immigrant, you feel robbed of your language because when you go through US schools, they make you ashamed of your native tongue and they force you to replace your language with English. Then there’s people like you, who were not taught Spanish by your parents, and now feel robbed of your language. You’ve been denied a language that should have also been yours, and it’s not. You’re third generation, and still feel so connected to your Mexican roots, so you’re dealing with loss. So, we Latinos suffer from it in different ways. I’m not sure if European cultures suffer in the same way about the loss of language. I wish I could do more research about it. My husband’s great-grandparents are from Finland, but the pain and regret of having lost the language isn’t that strong, and no one, including himself, is making him feel ashamed of not speaking Finnish.

I do know this has to do with assimilation and acculturation, and if you have blonde hair and blue eyes, you’re able to assimilate and acculturate so much better because you never feel othered. You feel accepted into the dominant culture and no one expects you to hold on to the language or traditions of your ancestors. There’s a double standard there that we need to deal with. Latinos are often shamed for “selling out,” for losing the language and culture of their antepasados. Presidential candidate Julian Castro, for example, was criticized and forced to explain why he doesn’t speak Spanish. I don’t see the white candidates having to explain why they can’t speak German, or Gaelic, for example.

For a long time, it used to hurt me so much that my parents had immigrated and broken up the family, and now I understand that because of that decision, I now get to be the parent they could never be—I get to stay with my children and see them grow up.

JR: In your seminar, you said, “To heal means that you understand and then you find meaning in the process.” I thought this was so beautiful.

RG: Thank you. I was talking about writing about the trauma we’ve experienced. I think about everything I went through with my parents, and I know it’s made me a better mother. For a long time, it used to hurt me so much that my parents had immigrated and broken up the family, and now I understand that because of that decision, I now get to be the parent they could never be—I get to stay with my children and see them grow up. I found the meaning in those experiences, which helped me to heal. The more love I give to my children, the more the little girl inside of me can heal.

There’s a process of confronting our trauma and understanding what it means. How has it affected you? How has it shaped you? At some point, you reach an understanding that these experiences made you who you are. In accepting that, a healing begins to happen. When you learn to celebrate who you are, you transform from being ashamed to being empowered. Once you stop regretting your past, that is when you really begin to heal from it.

Janet Rodriguez is an author, teacher, and editor living in Northern California. In the United States, her work has appeared in Eclectica, The Rumpus, Cloud Women’s Quarterly, Salon.com, American River Review, and Calaveras Station. She is the winner of the Bazzanella Literary Award for Short Fiction and the Literary Insight for Work in Translation Award, both from CSUS Sacramento in 2017. Rodriguez has also co-authored two memoirs, published in South Africa. Her short stories, essays, and poetry involve themes of duality in faith communities, and a mixed-race experience in a culturally binary world.  She is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Find her on Twitter @brazenprincess and Instagram @janetmario.