Author Reyna Grande Speaks to Students About Making Sense of the World
On Monday, September 29th, Diana Sung took two of her classes on a field trip to Boonsboro to see guest presenter Reyna Grande, author of The Distance Between Us, the One Maryland One Book selection for 2014.
One Maryland One Book is in its seventh year. It was designed by the Maryland Humanities Council in order to “bring together diverse people in communities across the state through the shared experience of reading the same book” (mdhc.org.) Past OMOB winners include Song Yet Sung by James McBride, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and King Peggy by Peggielene Bartels and Eleanor Herman.
The 2014 theme was “The American Dream” and Grande’s poignant memoir fits it perfectly. It is the “story of a childhood spent torn between two parents and two countries. As her parents make the dangerous trek across the Mexican border to El Otro Lado (The Other Side) in pursuit of the American Dream, Reyna and her siblings are forced into the already overburdened household of their stern grandmother. When their mother at last returns, Reyna prepares for her own journey to El Otro Lado to live with the man who has haunted her imagination for years, her long-absent father” (mdhc.org.)
That summary on the back of the book alone was enough to pique my interest, before I knew Grande is an award-winning author as well as an inspirational speaker. She has written two other novels that were also successful, Across a Hundred Mountains and Dancing with Butterflies.
The awards she has received include the El Premio Aztlán Literary Award, the Latino Book Award, and an American Book Award. She was also a finalist for the esteemed National Book Critics Circle Awards in 2012.
Grande was not, however, focused on self-promotion when she spoke at Boonsboro. She simply shared some of her story, including why she decided to write her memoir and what it means to her, before inviting us to participate in a question and answer session. She was open, sincere, and even made the audience laugh out loud several times.
Grande has been writing since the age of thirteen. “Writing was my way of making sense of the world around me,” she said. She described how the trauma of her childhood had weighed her down for years and in explanation of why she chose to write a memoir said, “If I wrote about it I thought maybe I could finally find some peace and lay my ghosts to rest.”
Much of The Distance Between Us is written about Grande’s life when she was very little and didn’t understand what was going on around her, from the collapsing economy in Mexico to why her parents couldn’t be by her side. She told us, “What I saw as a child when my parents left was that they didn’t love me enough to stay with me.” When she and her siblings were living with their grandmother in Mexico, they were afraid that something would happen to their parents in the U.S.; they wondered if they would forget or replace them with babies “made in the U.S.A.”
Although Grande’s journey to the U.S. and experiences there with her father were far from a fairy tale, she still considers herself lucky for getting here. She is thankful that she at least had her father, when there are some immigrant children that come here all alone. She is grateful that she had the opportunity to legalize her citizenship as well. She told us that once she was living here and had her green card, she realized “the only thing standing between me and my dreams was myself.”
Grande was the first member of her family to graduate from college. “That was my American dream, being a college graduate,” she said. She attended Pasadena City College for two years before obtaining a B.A. in creative writing and film and video from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Later on she received her M.F.A. in creative writing from Antioch University. When asked about what advice she would give to future writers, Grande said that they should “read a lot about the business side of publishing” and not just the craft. She also insisted that we are “not too young to start getting published.”
One student asked Grande how she felt about sharing her story with the world. Her initial response was met with some chuckles from the audience: “It’s free therapy—here you guys are!” She then explained how she had constantly written from that “place of pain,” inspired by her past, and was almost worried by how happy she felt after she finished The Distance Between Us. She admitted, “My other books are also very depressing. I make people cry with my books,” and wondered if the relief from getting it down on paper would make it harder for her to write future stories. She is, however, actually working on her next novel already.
Sung asked Grande who she sees as her “primary audience.” She answered that she had to put that sort of stuff out of her head so that she could write. If not, she would become too concerned with “who was going to read my book…and what they might say.” Grande also emphasized how no matter who reads her books, she hopes they will help them to “empathize with other cultures and learn about other peoples’ lives.”
One student’s rather personal question especially stood out to me. He asked about whether or not Grande ever wanted to run away from everything she was going through. She honestly answered, “There were times when I wanted to run away and escape what I was going through, but sometimes there are circumstances you can’t run away from and you have to find the strength to face them and overcome.” She did offer some words of encouragement though, in that “there are things you can’t control outside of yourself but you can control inside of yourself.”
Grande was an amazing speaker overall and left us with the inspirational fact that after everything she has been through, “It was worth it, all of it was worth it, because I’m here now and I like the person I’ve become.”
Photos: provided by Patricia Wishard and by Boonsboro High School Photography Department.