Running Straight Into the Devastation: Reyna Grande Goes to War
Reyna Grande is the author of several books, including the bestselling memoir, The Distance Between Us, (Atria, 2012) and the sequel, A Dream Called Home, released in 2018. Her latest novel, A Ballad of Love and Glory is a sweeping historical saga set in the1840s that follows Ximena, a Mexican army nurse and John Riley, an Irish-immigrant soldier who must fight for their survival and their love, amidst the calamity of the Mexican-American War.
I first met Grande at Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in 2019, but had long admired her apparent ease in moving between long forms of fiction and non-fiction. She read an essay about her mother that left me in tears and reminded me of my own immigrant mother’s refusal to bend to American standards of self-worth.
During our conversation about Ballad, she offered a corrective version of American history that engages omitted historical facts. She has much to contribute by way of how we as fiction writers can affect America’s dominant narrative and forge a revised version that is closer to the truth. This novel speaks to the current moment—of superpowers invading countries unable to defend themselves—with a force that will strike readers as inimitably strong and crucially important.
The Rumpus: Tell us a little about your writing process for this novel. How did you research for this book? How long did it take? Did you travel to the places you describe?
Reyna Grande: I started writing this book in late 2013 and early 2014, so I worked on it for seven years, on and off. I kept putting it away and published two other books during that time. I switched to other projects because I felt overwhelmed writing a war story. I never saw myself as a writer who could or would ever write a book about war and politics, but I became very intrigued by the US invasion of Mexico and by the Saint Patrick’s Battalion [Editor’s note: Also called the San Patricios, this was a unit of mostly Irish fighters led by John Riley who fought alongside Mexican soldiers against the United States during the Mexican-American War]. I wanted to explore this time in history and teach myself about it because we don’t learn about it in school.
The research involved dozens of books on the Mexican-American War. I read books on the Saint Patrick’s Battalion and on the Texas Rebellion. I read memoirs—Antonio López de Santa Anna’s, excerpts of Ulysses S. Grant’s, and Juan Seguín’s, and then a bunch of diaries, journals and letters written by US soldiers. I read a lot about the flora and fauna of the area that I intended to write about. This helped me immerse the reader in the landscape.
I went to Veracruz to visit Santa Anna’s hacienda, which is now a museum. In Mexico City I visited the Plaza San Jacinto where some of the San Patricios were hanged [as well as] Chapultepec Castle and the Convento Churubusco. I visited the site of the Battle of Palo Alto, the first battle in the war near Brownsville, Texas.
Last year, I went back to some of these places, and it was so different visiting them now that I finished the novel. I was more emotionally attached to these locations in a way that I hadn’t been before.
Rumpus: Working on a novel for seven years means you likely changed a great deal as a writer over the course of the book’s creation. Would you change anything if you could go back and revise the book?
Grande: If I had had more time to work on the novel, I might have given one last look to the pacing. I’m kind of torn about it because on the one hand, my writing style has always been plot-driven and the pace [in my other books] moves a little quicker than in this novel. Ballad is a little slower than what I usually prefer, but this war has been forgotten for so long, I didn’t want to rush the reader through it.
Rumpus: I wouldn’t cut any of it. The emotional stakes are so high.
Because I follow you on Instagram, and I love how much you post about your garden, when it came to writing Ximena as a curandera whose healing practices are based on herbal remedies and plants, I wondered how much of that you already knew. And how much of that was researched?
Grande: I didn’t know a whole lot because I wasn’t too familiar with the region along the Rio Grande where she lives. I did have to do a lot of research on the local medicinal plants that she and her grandma would have access to. Fact checking took so much effort because sometimes I found contradictory information. In one place I read that the leaf of the agave plant is good for curing wounds. So, I used that in one of my scenes, but later when I was double fact checking, I learned that the agave plant is not good for healing because the sap can lead to swelling and rash. So, I had to fix it. I spent a lot of time making sure t I got things right—that my plants were blooming when I said they were blooming, and that the right animals lived where I said they lived. For example, I had read in a history book a mention of jackals roaming the battlefields, so in my book, Ximena sees a jackal, but when I checked another source—guess, what? There were no jackals in Mexico. So my jackal became a cougar.
Rumpus: It was such a great idea to have Ximena be a healer. She travels with the Mexican army assisting the medics, and with her intimate knowledge of the landscape, it becomes very immersive. You know, I Googled some of the remedies in the novel and found them to be real. I was really astonished at the amount of research that it must have taken to be accurate.
Grande: It was fun because I didn’t know much about natural remedies beyond the basics. I learned a lot while I was doing my research. But what’s interesting with Ximena is that even though I gave her some of my own personal traits—beyond plants, for example, her grandmother’s character is based on my grandmother—she’s very different from me, including the fact that she’s very spiritual. I’m an atheist and I don’t really do candles, incense, or incantations. It was interesting to shape her in a way where I wasn’t forcing my own personality traits on her. I let her be her own character.
Rumpus: I was very curious about your crafting of Ximena as a character. She’s so devoted, just as the Saint Patrick’s Battalion and John Riley are very religious. We see faith as one of the through-lines that really unites Ximena and John Riley, as well as a fervor for freedom and personal liberation. How difficult was it to write Ximena’s character as opposed to John Riley?
Grande: Ximena was very hard to write. I had an easier time writing John’s chapters. He’s a historical figure so I was able to more or less understand his timeline—when he joined the army, when he deserted, what battles he fought in—so the challenge was tapping into his psychology to understand why he deserted, why he fought for Mexico, and stayed in the Mexican army even though they were losing. I kept asking questions about his motivations. I got to know him really well, and I was able to give him a lot of my own immigrant trauma and my immigrant nostalgia. For immigrants, there is a constant longing for home. We shared that. When my father emigrated to the US, he left my mom, my siblings, and me in Mexico. He came here and left us living in poverty. He wanted to give us a better life. But then he met another woman who was a nurse’s assistant and he fell in love with her. He left my mother for this woman. When I was writing about John’s inner turmoil, about his wife back home and then his falling in love with Ximena, I tried to imagine what my father might have experienced. But I think John was generally a better husband than my father. He was able to do the honorable thing. Respect his marriage vows, something my father never did.
But with Ximena, I didn’t know anything about her except a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier: “The Angels of Buena Vista.” It’s about a woman named Ximena out in the battlefield tending the wounded. And I was fascinated by this poem because it’s written by a white poet, but it’s very pro-Mexican. So, this Ximena character came from this poem, but I had to create her entire backstory and how she ended up living in that area and who her family was. She gave me a hard time in terms of being able to tap into her character. Once I started reading more about the Texas Rebellion, I decided that Ximena is from Texas and witnessed the Battle of the Alamo.
She was not easy to write at all but I like that through her story, the reader learns about what happened to the Mexican-Texans in the new Republic of Texas.
Rumpus: I’m also interested in hearing you speak to the theme of solidarity in the novel. For the San Patricios, what ultimately leads most of the soldiers we meet in the book to desert the US army is that they were treated badly by nativist soldiers. We see this snowball with mainly Irish soldiers but there are other European soldiers. The solidarity stems from religion but also the recognition of historical wrongdoing. How did you arrive at solidarity as an element of the novel?
Grande: Solidarity was one of the themes I discovered as I went along. Another theme that really surprised me was the divided loyalties. And there’s a lot of that with John Riley. When he was part of the British Army, he was seen as a traitor by the Irish because he joined the British Army and they were oppressing his homeland. So, even though he loves Ireland and he’s such a patriot, he was still in the British Army. So there’s that divided loyalty. Once he joins the US army, there’s a divided loyalty again. He knows he made an oath to the United States, but when he looks at Mexico, a Catholic nation, he feels a connection with them and wants to help the Mexicans. Then, with Ximena’s father, his loyalty was divided, too. Some Mexican-Texans (Tejanos) betrayed Mexico to ally themselves with the white Texans in the rebellion. And Ximena’s father was among those Tejanos Even Santa Anna himself experienced divided loyalties and would constantly switch sides, too. When I saw that theme emerge and realized that was what I was tackling in the novel, it surprised me.
Rumpus: There’s so much brutality in your battle scenes. I’m curious about how you wrote them. How do you take care of yourself as a writer when you’re tackling that kind of violence?
Grande: That was something that really surprised me too because, like I mentioned earlier, I never thought I would ever write a story about a war. I didn’t know I had it in me to write such brutal battle scenes. Because of all the research I did, I was able to really see it in my head—the violence and devastation of an invasion. Once I started writing those scenes, I didn’t want to rush through them or skip them. It’s important for the reader to be able to experience that brutality. There are very few novels written about the Mexican-American War and most shy away from the battle scenes; the war becomes a backdrop. I decided that in my book, I was going to run into the fray, not run away from it. It’s like that metaphor in the novel: When a storm comes, the buffalo runs into the storm instead of running away from it. I took that as inspiration for myself even though I was afraid of writing battle scenes. I ran straight into that devastation.
Rumpus: You definitely became a hell of a buffalo.
It’s really gory but it was necessary. In a book like this the violence must be violent. Especially when you think about the dynamics of the battle: On the Mexican side which is losing, there’s so much discontent among the lower ranks and among the government officials there’s so much in-fighting. As a reader, we’re so invested in these characters, and we know that so often the stories we hear of battles are from the victor’s perspective where the violence is justified in order to achieve triumph. In the absence of winning the war on the national stage, triumph for Ximena and John Riley becomes about emotional and personal liberation. All the violence heightened and clarified that for me.
Grande: The other thing I was aware of as I wrote the book is that I know if this level of violence had been written by a male writer, no one would question all the violence in the battles. It is what would be expected from a male writer. But it’s surprising coming from a female writer. But I just feel that this war has been kept in the background for so long, to the point that it’s been forgotten and erased from our collective memory. I want us to remember that this brutality really happened, and we have to confront it, even if it makes us uncomfortable. Also, we ourselves are witnessing an invasion playing out on our TV screens at the moment, and we can see for ourselves the ugliness of a superpower wreaking havoc on a weaker nation.
Rumpus: What is it you’re hoping this book does to bring to the forefront this historical moment that has been either intentionally or unintentionally erased?
Grande: One of my intentions is to subvert the dominant narrative, the national mythology. We’re always cherry-picking our history and what we teach our children. We leave out the parts that make us uncomfortable. The Mexican-American War has been deliberately omitted because it is a war that makes you aware the US has been invading other countries throughout its history. The Mexican-American War was the first time the US invaded a sovereign country. It was the first time the US occupied a foreign capital. We don’t want to tell that story of the US as an invader, that showcases US aggression, especially right now with Russia invading Ukraine. But the US has had its share of invasions and not just in ancient history, but even our recent history has included invasions of other countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rumpus: It’s such a critical aspect of the current conversation that our country is having right now, especially in the context of enslavement and Black history and 1619. Reading this book, I was thinking about how this country can decide there’s a narrative that we’re all going to celebrate and how any aspect of the narrative that doesn’t fall inside of that—however historically accurate it is—will be hidden.
Grande: There’s so much at stake, especially with all the book banning going on. People are demanding that we stop lying to ourselves. Why are we banning books just because they don’t fit into the story that we want to tell about ourselves? We are at a time period where people are demanding the revision of our history. This novel offers some new perspective but also a corrective version of the history that we have been taught.
Rumpus: And yet, at the heart of this book about war there’s a love story.
Grande: Yeah, I am so bad at talking about that love story. Every time I talk about the book it’s always about the war!
Rumpus: I was very smitten with this love story. Because it is such an impossible love. Anyone can Google or look at a map and figure out the outcome of the war—but what will become of these two people caught up in an impossible love?
Grande: I struggled with that when I first started looking at the novel. Right off the bat you know there’s no hope, right? We know Mexico lost half its territory. I kept asking myself how am I going to keep the reader engaged, wanting to turn the page to see what happened? That was a challenge for me, but I figured the love story would propel the narrative because even though it is a story about a war, without John and Ximena’s romance there wouldn’t be much of a story. In my research, I learned that there was a rumor that the real John Riley had fallen in love with a Mexican widow. That was when Ximena came into the story—I decided that she was the Mexican widow who stole John’s heart. This isn’t a romance novel, but a war story imbued with a romance. Yet wondering if John and Ximena will survive the invasion and have a future together drives the narrative.
Rumpus: I was also thinking about how John ascends quickly in the Mexican army because of his skills but also his whiteness; we see him recognize his privilege. He sees the hypocrisy that what made him scorned on the U.S. side makes him automatically of a higher class on the Mexican side.
Grande: As a society, we talk a lot about white people having to check their privilege and how even the ability to not recognize it or being unaware of race is a privilege. My husband is white. We’ve had lots of conversations about race and about his white privilege, and he’s always trying to be aware of it. I like that about him, and when I was writing John, I wanted to give him that awareness. I also wanted to remind the reader of the historical context too because nowadays when we look at Irish-Americans, we see them as part of the mainstream, dominant culture, but in the 1840s his white skin and blue eyes didn’t protect him from US nativism. I didn’t want anybody thinking of John as a white man in the terms [in which] we see whiteness now or to see him as the white savior. However, in Mexico, it completely elevated him because Mexico had a caste system. White skin and blue eyes were automatically seen as part of the elite.
One of my favorite lines in the book is when he says that nobody who looked at him would see that he had more in common with the Mexican landless peasant than with the higher born.
Rumpus: Since you’re a writing teacher, what is the advice that you find yourself most often giving to emerging writers, and is that different from the advice you would give your younger self?
Grande: Have really high expectations of your writing and don’t settle for good. You want to aim for great writing. That means that you’re going to have to revise the heck out of the work that you’re doing, and even when you think it’s done, that you cannot look at it anymore, you need to do one more round of revisions. That can really make the difference in the writing.
Also, it is important to understand that writing the book is only half the work. Once the book is published, you have to sell it. You must switch from seeing it as a work of art to seeing it as a product with a price tag on it and now you must become a salesperson. You must learn how to promote your book. That’s something I think a lot of writers struggle with because we want to write. Promoting takes a completely different kind of mentality and a different kind of energy, but it is so crucial that you learn how to do it to make sure that you have a writing career. Healthy book sales are crucial; I spend as much time promoting as I spend writing.
Rumpus: Do you think you’re going to do more historical fiction?
Grande: I think later I will. For now, I have another project about to hit the shelves. Somewhere We Are Human: Authentic Voices on Migration, Survival and New Beginnings comes out in June. It’s an anthology I co-edited with Sonia Guiñansaca that gathers forty-one contributors, all undocumented or formerly undocumented Americans. What I love about this project is that we are representing over twenty countries!
In terms of writing historical fiction again, I would love to. I don’t feel as intimidated by the genre anymore. I’m still fascinated by the time period and the aftermath of the war, and what happened to all the Mexican families who were living in this land that was taken from Mexico. They woke up to discover the border had crossed them. There were so many Mexican American families that were here before the land was considered the United States but to this day, Mexican Americans continue to be looked at and treated as outsiders. I’d like to explore their experience after the war.
Author photo courtesy of Ara Arbabzadeh