A Conversation with Natalia Sylvester / by Peter LaBerge

BY LETICIA URIETA

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Born in Lima, Peru, Natalia Sylvester came to the U.S. at age four. In 2006, Natalia received a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Miami. A former magazine editor, Natalia now works as a freelance writer in Texas and is a faculty member of the low-res MFA program at Regis University. Her work has appeared in Latina Magazine, Bustle, Catapult, Writer’s Digest, The Austin American-Statesman, and NBCLatino.com. Her first novel, Chasing the Sun, was named the Best Debut Book of 2014 by Latinidad, and was chosen as a Book of the Month by the National Latino Book Club. Her second novel, Everyone Knows You Go Home, is out now from Little A Books.

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If you follow Natalia Sylvester on social media, you know that she is an outspoken advocate and activist for equity in publishing and immigrant rights. I have followed her work since hearing her read an excerpt from her first novel, Chasing the Sun, at Resistencia Bookstore in Austin, TX. She has been a strong supporter of my work and the work of other women of color in our community, always pushing for more room in literary spaces for voices that are still going unheard.

Her latest book, Everyone Knows You Go Home, is a beautiful touchstone for the ways in which narratives surrounding migration and familial bonds sometimes need to be wrenched from the mouths of pundits and reporters to return them to the world of flesh and blood, to the daily lives of the people living these stories. This was one of many topics we discussed in a conversation we had last spring.

Leticia Urieta: Where did this project (Everyone Knows You Go Home) begin for you?

Natalia Sylvester: I like to say that there is the spark of the idea and then what sustained it. The spark of the idea was that my husband and I were married on the Day of the Dead and people used to say, “Oh, that’s so interesting,” or they’d say, “Oh, that’s so funny,” and so I just took that to the next literal place. And what became interesting to me was that idea of, What if it was a spirit that came on that day, but no one would speak with him? And then, who would? And I thought, maybe this daughter-in-law. I thought also of the very special bond that would develop year after year, but also the strain that bond would have on a new marriage—if she is developing a special bond with this father-in-law that no one else wants to speak with, and he is visiting on every anniversary, at a time which is supposed to be all about her and her husband. That was the spark of it, really, but what ended up sustaining it (the project) for me, or where I feel the heart of the book came from, was the many stories that I have heard over my life that people had shared with me, whether family or friends, or even just people who I would speak with growing up. We moved a lot, first to Miami and then to the Valley (Rio Grande Valley), and I would talk to people and learn about their different experiences as immigrants, from all over Latin America, and they are just trying to make a home here. There are many different ways that those experiences have so much in common and also ways that they have very unique perspectives, as well. In some ways, I had always carried those stories and thought about them my whole life, and as a writer you wonder sometimes, Of all the things that I carry, will I ever find the right story to hold them? I was waiting for the right story to come along that would bring all of these stories about immigration together in a way that felt truthful and that could, in some way, honor those experiences. I wanted to explore the invisible spaces, the in-between spaces, how we often feel their presence so much. It became this story about how, once you’re here and you’re trying to make this home and you don’t know where you fit, there can be a lot of life and richness in that in-betweenness, too.

LU: As the novel moves back and forth in time to Omar’s crossing in 1981, there are many moments when he inhabits a space that is not a space. I wondered how place, both in this novel and perhaps in your first, is an engine for storytelling?

NS: I think I’ve always been fascinated by place and how we are connected to them even after we’ve left them. When I was very young, there were many years that I couldn’t go back to Peru because I was going through the immigration system, and it’s almost like you’re stuck. But even when I was little, I was very aware of migrants being people who had moved, and yet, in order to find out if we can or can’t stay, we can’t go anywhere. And so, it was a weird thing to have experienced. Most of my memories are of the U.S., and my idea of home was in the U.S., but I remember that it still felt, if not temporary, then fluid and a place that had not committed to us, though we had committed ourselves to it. That’s a weird thing to navigate, and when we did go back to Peru, I was struck by how much I didn’t remember, but that this was the place I came from, and the question of belonging was no longer there, at least initially. There is a very different connection there that was almost unconditional. Here [in the U.S.], it always felt that we had to prove ourselves. And so I thought, Is there a difference between a place you call home and a place that you are from?

LU: Do you feel that there is a spiritual in-between place in the book, such as in the desert crossing, when the characters often feel that they are in no place?

NS: I think that came out of a place of feeling lost and the physical and spiritual borders of these characters who are risking everything for the chance to reach the end of that path, but the in-between is where you can really not know if you will come out on the other end.

LU: Can you speak a bit more about the reasons why you chose to move back and forth in time in this narrative, especially considering Omar’s origin story?

NS: One of the questions that was really driving this story for me was the understanding that when my parents left Peru, it was a choice that seemed impossible to make and one that required them to leave everything they knew and loved. Can we really call that a choice? And so throughout my life, I wondered how bad things could have gotten for them to have made that decision. I ended up asking that same question about Omar and Elda. He leaves her, and in my mind I know he loved her and his family deeply. I wondered what would it take for that to happen, and in order to figure that out, I had to go back to find out what they had been through together. It became important to me because I have been frustrated with the conversation around dehumanizing immigrants—like, we just up and left, como si nada, like it was an easy thing to do, to take the easy way out. And it’s never like that. It’s probably the hardest decision anyone ever has to make. Omar’s story came out of me wanting to fully see what the sacrifices were that came from my own family, and [those sacrifices were] expressed through this love story.

LU: Does this help to humanize Omar?

NS: I hadn’t thought of that at first because, in my mind, I already knew him. His voice always came through pretty clearly for me. For a reader it might be a different experience, but in my mind, I thought, This is who he is, because, though I didn’t know his whole story, I knew enough to understand him and to not start out by judging him.

LU: Are the questions that this book is asking distinct from your first novel, or are there questions that you think they are both are asking?

NS: I think it’s a mixture. Both came out of a desire to see and witness the sacrifices of my parents and people like them. There are many things I will never know. There are so many things about why we are here, how we got here, that my parents will probably never tell me or that they will protect me from. That’s how families go—we keep so many secrets. That came out a lot more through Elda’s character. She would rather not talk about her sacrifices and would rather protect her family. Both books came out of that, in a sense.

I can usually step back after I finish a book and see what I was interested in, or see obsessions that come back, like marriage, family, immigration stories. This story felt more personal to me. The first one (Chasing the Sun) was more about uncovering the history of my family, which I didn’t grow up knowing fully, whereas this one felt more personal because it did come from experiences that I had or I had seen from other people around me, and it felt closer to me. I can’t separate that [fact that] I am an immigrant from the way that I see the whole world. It might not be the only part of my identity that is important, but I can’t deny my experiences. I never thought I was “important” enough to tell these stories (migrant stories), only that I wanted to. The difference is whose voices are being amplified and who is given a platform. As writers we have incredible privilege to tell these stories, but there are people living them, and that is valid and heroic in itself. I don’t feel that I am any more heroic than someone else. We each carry these stories in our own way, and I am just carrying this story. I process things by writing about them. Someone else might carry their story differently, just by making sure that their children have the life they hoped for, or in everyday ways that don’t get that spotlight. The everyday is what is so rich in bravery, in triumph and joy, and that is what is overlooked so much. Immigration is politicized, but that conversation overlooks the daily moments of our lives we are just trying to live.

LU: What does it mean to you to depart from realism and explore forms of haunting in this novel—both the literal haunting of Omar, and the haunting of things unsaid from the past of this family?

NS: So much of this was about the unknown of my own past. Even though the story only crosses two generations, I was interested in the idea of crossing generations and ancestry. Especially when you come from a history of roots that are actively oppressed and erased, to me what haunts me is the amount of names and stories that I will never know, which is very much a result of colonization and of knowing about my European ancestry, the Italian ancestors, but not of the indigenous ancestors, and how much of that has been erased. Unknowing has haunted me for a long time, because I struggle with how much I can claim when I don’t know so much of the cultures I come from, but then, I can’t deny that they exist. I do not want to turn away from what they (my ancestors) worked for that made me.

It wasn’t as important for the characters to know all of the family secrets. Even in the end, not all secrets that a person carries are revealed—sometimes they are taken to the grave. Do they have life beyond? Do they cross over? This is the way intergenerational trauma and silence works. You can still feel the pain and the scars. Even when the characters don’t know the full stories, they feel the presence of them, and they carry it inside them. We have these borders that are invisible spaces that, day by day, are made more tangible and difficult to cross, and they affect us, but they are still very much manmade.

LU: What have you been reading that is asking the same questions, or that influenced you as you were writing this book?

NS: I will say that one book I read a year or two before was Anatomy of a Disappearance, by Hisham Matar. That absence is such a presence in that book was so beautifully done. I instantly memorized the first sentence: “There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest.”

LU: How have other Latinx people or Mexican/Mexican American people been reacting to the book?

NS: This is a question that means a lot to me. What has meant a lot is that a lot of people have told me that they connected to it and related to the characters and that they felt seen by a particular character. Some people have even said, “Oh, I see myself in this particular character,” which is kind of surprising—like Claudia, because she is a more peripheral character. I like getting these responses from Latinx people, and I want to listen more for their responses. People often ask, “What do you hope the audience will get out of this story?” and I always ask, “Which audience?” because that matters. We can’t always assume a default white audience because if we do, then people will think of the story as a plea for humanizing these characters, which I have such an issue with because we shouldn’t have to plea for our own humanity. I hope that other Latinx people can relate, too. It is a multifaceted experience as it is, but I think that there is something powerful in us being able to see each other and to feel seen and heard at times when we usually don’t. People have even said, “We liked your first book, but we loved this one,” and I say thanks because you hope that you grow as a writer over time, that you’re putting better work out each and every time. I’m grateful for that.

LU: How do you see this book fitting into the current, and turbulent immigration debate in the U.S.?

NS: I began writing this book in 2013. What surprises me is when people seem surprised by the threats that the immigrant community faces today because the xenophobia and racism that fuels it—and that our administration has been stoking since day one of the campaign—is deeply rooted in our history. None of it is new to us. And though I wrote this book first and foremost out of love, as an act of simply witnessing the love and sacrifices and struggles and strengths of our community, I couldn't do that without also writing the oppression. And in doing so, of course there’s an element of hoping to protect, of calling oppression out in hopes of fighting it, or, if not killing it at least weakening it. I think this highlights the biggest disconnect between how the publishing industry treats books by POC or any marginalized groups and why we write. We do it out of protection, out of hoping to prevent our realities from becoming nightmares. But we are not heard as much when we give warnings, only when we are proven, too late, to have been right all along. And then suddenly our books are called timely and necessary, and suddenly only our pain seems to matter, not the full lives we’ve been trying to uplift all along. What a privilege it must be, to not have to exist in a world where brown babies are kept in prisons, for your work to be deemed necessary.

LU: Is it important for you to be identified as a Latina writer?

NS: Actually, yes. Because we live in a time where to not take someone’s identity into account is to automatically assume they are white. I don’t want that part of me to be denied or erased. I hope that we can get to a place where we don’t see these aspects of our identities as ways to be pigeonholed or niche, but that’s not on us. That’s something we have to hold people (publishers and readers) accountable for. Yeah, I’m Latina. Does that mean you can’t relate to my work? I’ve spent my whole life relating to yours. I think the Latinx identity is an interesting one, because it doesn’t exist in the same way outside of the U.S., and so it is very much tied to our existence in the U.S. as people who came from all over Latin America. That’s a specific space that is worth claiming and that I want to claim. 

LU: How are you balancing promoting the book with what you are working on now?

NS: I have kept writing during this book tour. For my first book, I stopped writing for months and months and didn’t start this book for a while. As soon as this second book sold in 2016, I was already working on something else. Air travel has been great for me to write a bit here and there. I want to try to check-in with the manuscript, even with one sentence, or some journaling. It’s not balanced, but it’s about surrendering myself to process, and there’s times in which I just keep living and know I’ll come back to it.

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Leticia Urieta is a proud Tejana writer from Austin, TX. She works as a teaching artist in the Austin community. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and holds an MFA in Fiction writing from Texas State University. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cleaver, Chicon Street Poets Anthology, BorderSenses, Lumina, The Offing and others. She has recently completed her first mixed genre collection of poetry and prose and is currently at work completing her novel that tells the story of a Mexican soldadera caught up in the march to Texas during Texas’ war with Mexico.