The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Vanessa Blakeslee
At a time when some US presidential candidates are calling for walls between countries and generally pigeonholing Latin Americans, I wanted to talk with author Vanessa Blakeslee about her perceptions of Latin America, its women, and the many misconceptions North Americans still hold about people south of the US border.
It takes a perceptive writer with a big heart to capture a country other than her own. This is exactly what I found last year when I read and reviewed Blakeslee’s IPPY Gold Medal Award-winning collection of short stories Train Shots. She may be a native of Pennsylvania, but in several of those short stories she nailed Costa Rica, a country where I’ve lived for more than twenty years. Her ability to capture the expat’s life—not only how foreigners view themselves but also how they are seen by others—was extraordinary.
That brilliant collection of short stories made her new novel, Juventud, a must-read for me. This time Blakeslee has gone deep in a character study of a young Colombian Latina, Mercedes Martinez. Think political thriller set against a backdrop of Colombia’s cartels, drugs, and rebel groups. But the novel is also about love, the power it holds over us, and how sometimes a single event can damage our soul, leaving us to question everything.
Most people’s lives tend to play out not in black and white but within the much more complex spectrum of gray. Blakeslee gets this, and it was fun to interview someone so insightful about human nature and Latin America.
We bounced our thoughts back and forth across the Internet, but it felt more like we were sitting across the table from each other having a café con leche and a piece of queque seco.
The Rumpus: First, let me say that I loved this book, Vanessa. As an American expat in Costa Rica, I found your depiction of life in Latin America quite believable. It must be difficult for a non-native to try to capture that essence.
Vanessa Blakeslee: It is both heartening and somewhat of a relief to hear that Juventud resonated with you, someone who knows the setting and culture of Latin America so intimately. As you may imagine, even though I had spent months living and traveling in Costa Rica just before drafting the book, I was keenly aware of my fixed position as an outsider to the world of Mercedes Martinez, my protagonist. Although Mercedes is technically Colombian-American, at the novel’s opening she is wholly Colombian, having been estranged from her Jewish-American mother since infancy. With so many resources at our fingertips via the Internet, getting the facts right about a fictional work is fairly easy now for writers. The finer cultural details aren’t so easily captured, however, and these are the crucial ones—for not only instilling believability in the world and confidence in the author, but relaying the author’s compassion and respect for the subject matter. Throughout the process, I was always asking myself, have I done my due diligence? Will this read authentically to native-born Colombians, and to those who know the region? Stepping into the shoes of others who’ve grown up in vastly different circumstances is among the tallest of orders for a novelist. And I couldn’t agree more, that while North Americans are becoming increasingly familiar with the cultures and issues plaguing our neighbors to the south, there are numerous aspects about day-to-day life in Latin America that gringos remain unaware of.
Rumpus: When I wrote the book review, some people took issue with your young protagonist, Mercedes—and her desire to complete university and become a flight attendant. They felt this was an unworthy goal. Would you comment on why you used this as her chosen career path?
Blakeslee: I love that readers took note of the minor but salient detail of Mercedes’s whim to one day become a flight attendant. Certainly for a bright, privileged American teenager, Mercedes’s choice of “dream job” would strike the reader as odd, if not implausible. However, I found when I lived in Costa Rica this was indeed the case—for bilingual, university-educated, middle-to-upper class young people, positions with airlines and hotel chains such as Marriott or Hyatt were considered highly desirable and competitive to obtain. In Costa Rica our landlady’s daughter, upon finishing her university degree, was excited to land a position as a flight attendant, which sparked my curiosity in this hallmark of the culture, and subsequently inspired me to make this Mercedes’s wish, at least initially. Of course, this changes for several reasons—the flight attendant career is more of a childish fantasy for Mercedes at the novel’s opening. When we first meet her she’s fifteen, and has long admired her aunt, a mother-figure who once worked for an airline and fell in love with an American pilot, who swept her away to a tranquil life in Costa Rica. As Mercedes matures, becomes more politically active, and eventually leaves Colombia and finishes her schooling in the States, the notion of such a path falls away. Clearly her varied experience, social class, and education make her destined for greater things. But was that not the case and had Mercedes remained in Cali, the daughter of a sugarcane baron, a career in the tourist industry would have been a respectable and believable path for her, indeed.
Rumpus: My family had a Chilean exchange student and that was her career path as well. Along those same lines, do you think Latina women are more or less empowered than American women?
Blakeslee: You know, it’s funny—I’m tempted to say off the bat that American women are obviously more empowered. In Costa Rica, I couldn’t walk down my road alone for five minutes without being catcalled by every male-occupied vehicle passing by. I don’t dress nearly as provocatively as many Latinas, and yet in a casual skirt and tank top I’d be ogled by men of all ages at the local markets. When accompanied by my boyfriend such reactions abated, but not by much. Such behavior I absolutely can’t stand; I don’t know if the Latinas just accept it, shrug it off, or what. But I felt the attitude toward sex to be more pragmatic there than in the US. For better or worse, the pharmacies are less regulated in Latin America and birth control pills can be bought over-the-counter. And yet abortion is illegal throughout Latin America. I was utterly fascinated by these two major discrepancies in North and South American attitudes and policy, and knew I wanted to touch on this in the novel if the subject matter naturally opened the door, trace the various outcomes of the characters’ beliefs and choices. Many North Americans are likely aware that abortion is illegal across Latin America. What they probably don’t know about are the methods Latinas seek out when they have an unwanted pregnancy. In the novel, Mercedes’s cousin Jacki mentions the optician’s store downtown that operates as a front for an illegal abortion doctor—a nugget of information that came directly from real-life conversation.
I don’t see Latinas as more or less empowered than American women, but differently empowered. I think there’s more of a reverence in some of those cultures for the mature woman—the matriarch as pillar of the family and community. Which would partly explain why Costa Ricans have elected a female president while Americans have not. In the United States, the patriarchy breeds a wariness of women and what we’re capable of. So I’m not saying that misogyny doesn’t exist in Latin America—it certainly does—just that the manifestations are different.
Rumpus: I suppose another misconception is the assumption, because of the presence of the Catholic Church, that girls are chaste until married. I was impressed you tackled this issue head on. Mercedes, her friends, and her cousins are quite worldly.
Blakeslee: Again, I gleaned this cultural insight from conversation with Latinas—how most of them had started dating in their early teens. I wonder how much the Catholic Church has to do with this cultural attitude, ironically, even among those who aren’t religious or who remain single or childless for longer. The family plays a central role in Latin American culture; perhaps there’s more of an acceptance that the young will naturally be interested in sex, and should be. I think many modern day Catholics in Latin America simply “look the other way” when it comes to premarital sex and preventing pregnancy, as we do here.
I also wanted to explore the assertiveness in Mercedes’s character through her sexual coming-of-age—to show a young woman who is comfortable enough in her body and her relationship to be proactive about losing her virginity in a healthy way, and up front about experiencing and deserving her own pleasure. She and Manuel “wait” a respectable amount of time before having intercourse, so they get to know each other’s character; I saw them as trusted friends by that point, and hope readers will, too. There are too few instances, in books and on the screen, that tastefully depict young men pleasuring young women, which prompted the bedroom scene with Manuel and Mercedes on the night of her birthday party. I’m not aware of cunnilingus concluding a chapter elsewhere in literature. Please enlighten me if such a scene exists!
Rumpus: I’m laughing here. But seriously, I’ve been surprised at the willingness of Costa Rican women to raise children alone. Most Latinas I know are single, have been… or will be. Maybe there is just less stigma to being a single mother. Certainly sex at a young age is more accepted than in the US. Even prostitution is legal in Costa Rica.
Blakeslee: I’m glad you brought up these points. I also encountered women who held rather matter-of-fact attitudes about raising children without a man. Prostitution remains much more peripheral in the novel than the contraceptive subplot, but no less important. The openness and prevalence of prostitution in Latin America is perhaps what shocked me most during my travels. Colombia has laws similar to Costa Rica regarding prostitution, meaning that it’s legalized and regulated to certain zones, bars, brothels, etc. This, along with mandatory STD testing, serves to protect women (and society at large) as well as eliminate pimping. I hesitate to say “empower” because I find the practice of selling sex hardly healthy or empowering; if you’ve ventured into any of these “whore bars,” the mood is unmistakably sad. Mercedes’s brief brushes with putas are crucial to contrasting the different social classes: paths available to women, and lack thereof. This, I hope, illustrates the privilege of Mercedes and her circle—there are only so many jobs with airlines, hotel chains, or zip-lining tourists through the jungle, and far more women who must fend for themselves and provide for children, with far more limited options. I hope these subtle, more tertiary notes shed greater light on Mercedes, her dreams and fears. At one point when her plans to flee to Medellín with Manuel are taking shape, she mentions her fears of ending up in a barrio among prostitutes and the displaced. How quickly may any of us fall, without a safety net? Again, in this context, her fixation on a flight attendant career path ought to make more sense. I hope astute readers will see some of the broader social justice issues that the storyline barely scratches.
Rumpus: That job would also help her visit her extended family. I appreciated that Mercedes had relatives not only in Costa Rica but also the United States. I’ve certainly found that true. Our lawyer, for instance, has extended family in Argentina. But what led you to give her such a far-flung family?
Blakeslee: The reason Mercedes’s family came to be far-flung is twofold: I’d met numerous Colombian expats as well as Latinos of other nationalities who’d become Costa Rican citizens, that being a stable country to where many from turbulent neighboring nations have fled. So it made sense that Diego’s sister and her daughters (Mercedes’s aunt and cousins) would have migrated to CR during their homeland’s civil war. But moreover, artistically I wanted to set up as many parallels as the story could realistically bear to illustrate the differences between Colombia and similar countries in the region—to show that lasting peace is possible in Latin America. But I also intended for these parallels to tie-in on a more global scale. I wanted to show the differences between North American culture and South American, so when I considered who Mercedes’s mother was, I decided that if she is American, that’s interesting and propels the conflict. Down the road, I figured, Mercedes would somehow end up in the US and have to grapple with that part of her identity. Similarly, I wondered how else Mercedes might feel alienated from her peers in Cali—and if she’s part Jewish as opposed to Catholic, and attending Hebrew School, that would make her different, indeed. Which planted the seed for her birthright trip to Israel as a young adult. As a novelist I’m always thinking about mirrors, contrasts and parallels, because that’s where not only the conflict, but the wisdom of the book, the thematic resonance, gains its power. I don’t want to waste readers’ time with a several hundred-page novel that’s not relevant to the wicked problems we’re facing today.
Rumpus: A good literary tool that also plays to reality. I suppose, too, that people are always trying to find a place where their money goes further, budgeting for expenses. Which reminds me, most middle-class people I know in Costa Rica have domestic help as a matter of course. Americans are shocked by this.
Blakeslee: North Americans are indeed shocked by the affordability of domestic help in Latin America; if I hadn’t been given the head’s up about this facet of life before arriving, it would have shocked me. In the novel, for the Martinez household not to have a few servants would be unusual enough for readers who know the region to raise an eyebrow. Diego Martinez runs a successful sugarcane plantation, it’s true. He’s comfortable, certainly upper-middle class, but doesn’t own a private jet or multiple homes. Ana’s family is clearly wealthier, and Manuel’s less so. So again my aim was to depict a spectrum of middle-to-upper class families true to the socioeconomics of the region—and highlighting the contrast between those classes in developing countries vs. the US.
Rumpus: While there is a rising middle class and things are getting easier, Colombia is still notorious for its cartels and their violence. I loved that you wove that into the narrative, but you also made the daily threat of minor burglaries and petty theft quite palpable.
Blakeslee: Depicting crime accurately was important to me, and I felt an added pressure to get it right because I realize audiences will be coming to the novel with preconceived, Hollywood portrayals of cartel and guerrilla violence. The horrors of Papi’s past and the inset story of Father Juan I conceived from research and gave a fictional twist; both cartels and paramilitaries are guilty of horrific murder tactics. We’re seeing these atrocities now in Mexico. But I would have been remiss to exclude the pervasiveness of petty crime, and how Gracia is truly lucky she’s not robbed of her Walkman when Mercedes meets her in downtown Cali. Gringos and expats are often targets of home invasions and carjackings south of the border, but these crimes happen to ordinary citizens too—you visit friends and chat with private guards at gates, you hear the stories. Again, these are middle-class homes and subdivisions, not necessarily mansions, and even smaller, modest homes feature barred windows and gates. Armed guards stood outside the World Gym with automatic weapons—this was in relatively peaceful Costa Rica! From early on I knew Mercedes would have a driver/bodyguard and ride in an armored car; this is not far-fetched but reality in an uneasy world split between the “haves” and “have nots.”
Rumpus: On a lighter note, I was delighted by your descriptions of people and places in the book. I was pretty sure I recognized the beach vendor in Puerto Viejo, for example. Where did you get your inspiration for these?
Blakeslee: Nearly all of these arose from memory—the old street performer with the karaoke machine, the vagrant black man with the tin foil jacket and headphones, the woman hollering for passersby to purchase lotto tickets. And of course, the men and boys who hang out on the medians and street corners, beckoning drivers to buy vegetables and any number of odd items. I’m not sure that I recalled an exact vendor in Puerto Viejo, but I’m confident my subconscious turned up an accurate composite! Not to mention the howler monkeys. Since I’ve never traveled to Colombia, I did my best to “steal like an artist,” borrowing details from what I knew of Costa Rica, transferring them to Colombia, and when necessary, giving them a fact-checked adjustment based on my research of the Valle de Cauca. With the less crucial details, I gave myself more leeway. The Mirador, for instance, is a real restaurant in the Central Valley of Costa Rica, but it could just as well exist in Cali. This was one of the most delightful aspects of writing the book, bringing the sensory world of Latin America—its often maddening juxtaposition of beauty and angst—to life.
Rumpus: Your debut collection, Train Shots, contains several stories that take place in Costa Rica. Will you return to Latin America in future books?
Blakeslee: The collection I’m assembling now, which with any luck will be my second, contains several stories set in Costa Rica, Guatemala, and other locales outside North America, and continues to mine expat themes and social justice issues. I can’t say for sure, but I sense I’ve completed my exploration of that part of the world, and feel ready for whatever subject matter and terrain inspires me next. If one is truly open as a writer, for whom the practice is a dharma, the fiction that has yet to be written remains a mystery.