Interview: Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s books include Rogue, Gringolandia and Surviving Santiago, the recently released sequel to Gringolandia. Here, Tina returns to Chile, to her homeland and to her father for her summer vacation. Chile is in turmoil lynunder the rule of Pinochet and her father spends more time fighting for justice than getting to know his daughter. While Lyn is also a champion for social justice, she has managed to balance motherhood, writing, translating, editing, Lego-ing and even blogging. Her most recent post, “On Flags and Diverse Books: How We Can Make Attention” calls attention not only to the price paid to get the flag removed from the state house in South Carolina, but it also looks at Jet Blues attempt to improve literacy in urban areas by providing free books that lack characters of color or Native Americans. She urges readers to visit Zetta Elliott’s blog and sign the letter.

So, how did Lyn happen to decide to write about Tina, Chile and Pinochet? I’ll let her tell you that!

Why should people in the United States know about Chile?

Chile has a long history of peaceful democratic rule dating back to the early nineteenth century, and a long history of interaction with the United States. For instance, Chilean miners arrived in California during the Gold Rush and brought more advanced mining techniques. But in 1970 when the Chileans elected socialist Salvador Allende as president, the U.S. government declared that it would not tolerate a leftist government in Latin America and worked with opposition leaders and the military to overthrow Allende. The U.S.-sponsored military coup ushered in a 17-year dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet, whose name has become synonymous with repression, torture, and murder.

We take our freedoms in the United States for granted, so much so that many people don’t even bother to vote. Under the Pinochet dictatorship, the Chilean people weren’t allowed to vote. They had no control over a government that ruled every aspect of their lives, and many people suffered and died in the process of getting their rights back.

41UCGaCJegL._UY250_Chile today is a vibrant, interesting, and increasingly tolerant country, very different from the place I depict in Surviving Santiago and Gringolandia. For the most part, Chileans don’t want to be defined by their tragic past, but there’s an important story in the sacrifice that so many people made to change their country into the thriving democracy it is today.

From your author’s notes, you actually lived in Chile. While you were there, how did you become familiar with the culture, with the day-to-day lives of the people who live there?

Before going to Chile to research the (never-published) book that would eventually lead to both Gringolandia and Surviving Santiago, I lived one summer in a house of Chilean exiles who had taken up new lives in Nicaragua. I also worked with an organization of exiles and refugees in Madison, Wisconsin called the Pablo Neruda Cultural Center and through them met several musicians who were still in the country, working underground to restore democracy. I stayed in the home of one of those musicians, Nelson Schwenke, in the month that I was in Chile and got to know his extended family. He and his wife took my husband and me everywhere they went, including the beach house belonging to her family. We corresponded over a period of five years, and he sent me materials from the “NO” campaign in the 1988 plebiscite that ended Pinochet’s rule and the 1989 electoral campaign won by the democratic opposition known as the Concertación.

FC9780762456338My knowledge of Spanish helped a lot in researching this novel and learning about the daily lives of the people. Most of the research materials, including newspaper articles, human rights reports, and first-person accounts, are not available in English. Without knowing the local language, I would have a hard time researching a historical novel taking place in another country, particularly a novel that portrays the lives of ordinary people.

Surviving Santiago is set in 1989. I remember 1989! You got the Lego in! Were you also a fan of St. Elsewhere? What are some of your other personal interests that you embedded into the story?

Yes, I watched St. Elsewhere religiously, both new shows and reruns. I also wanted to give Boomer a hug. (And I felt so cheated by the final episode!) I couldn’t do a lot with Lego because one could only find the basic sets in Chile, but I brought one of the first Pirate sets as a gift for my friend Nelson’s two boys when I arrived. I had a lot of fun putting the Eldorado Fortress together with the older boy, but his younger brother kept breaking it.

I wasn’t a fan of heavy metal at the time, but I was surprised to see how popular Metallica and other U.S. bands were. In a way, it wasn’t surprising because the Chilean groups playing local or indigenous music were banned or severely censored because of their overt or veiled protest against the dictatorship. And the government wanted to import culture from the United States out of admiration for U.S. capitalism and gratitude for continued U.S. support. Ten years later, my son became a fan of Metallica, and that’s when I realized how much I liked their music. Before then, I saw them as the regime-sanctioned replacement for the folk music that I appreciated so much and helped to bring to Madison as part of the Pablo Neruda Center.

In my review for Surviving Santiago, I mentioned a little about the inability to give up on people or places. Tina was unable to give up on Frankie. She trusted him. How difficult is it to convey trust to a reader?

One of the things I’ve learned over the years as a writer is how to convey difficult emotional states and processes through metaphor. At the beginning of the novel, we see Tina bonding with her new stepfather over restoring old houses. When you work on a decrepit house, you run into problem after problem, many of them unexpected, and it’s so tempting to walk away or tear it down and build something new. In fact, both Tina’s aunt and Frankie talk about how they would tear down and build anew. To restore an old house, you have to trust in the value of the house and in your ability to be up to the job.

Tina doesn’t give up on houses, and she doesn’t give up on people either, much as she would sometimes like to. Before believing in Frankie, she believes in her father and holds out hope that behind this wounded, cold man is the loving father she remembers from before his arrest. She also wants to believe that Frankie genuinely loves her and looks for every shred of evidence that he does—that he is fundamentally a good person caught up in a bad situation. And that she can save him from that situation.

Do you think her trust in Frankie in any way reflected her belief that Chile could be a better, more just place to live? What made her hold on to him? Tina was so self-centered (so typical of her age), she seemed to have little interest in the country or for what her father was fighting.

After eight years in the United States, Tina has finally come to see her new country as home and absorbed many of its values—a sometimes naïve idealism, greater openness vis a vis her aunt’s sexual orientation, her refusal to accept the traditional gender roles that still dominate in Chile. That’s really her frame of reference now, so that when she arrives in Chile, she’s a stranger in the land of her birth. She dreams of bringing Frankie to the United States to give him the advantages that she has come to appreciate in her new life. This is also what Frankie wants—to escape his situation and start over again in what he has idealized as the land of opportunity. Yet Tina’s immersion in the culture and values of the United States is part of what causes her to miss warning signs about Frankie—along with her loneliness, her physical attraction to him, and all the things they appear to have in common.

Like many of my own friends’ children, Tina will never return to Chile permanently. She has successfully navigated immigration, and the United States is her new home. Her acceptance of her stepfather exemplifies this. But while she retains her identity as an assimilated immigrant, she comes to love her father as he is and admire his dedication and courage. In his idealism and willingness to put his life on the line for what he believes, he has inspired Tina to do the same. She may go back home to Wisconsin, but she is still her father’s child.  

Tina’s relationships with her father and with her aunt do give her—and the reader—hope that Chile can be a better, more just place. Here, Tía Ileana plays a key role as Tina’s mentor. She shows the possibilities that come from reaching out to people who do not understand, having the courage to enter into dialogue rather than violent confrontation. While the United States sponsored the military coup, the Chilean people themselves restored their own democracy through peaceful means. Tina has played no role in this—it’s naïve of her to come from the United States and tell people how to live their lives—but she learns a lot about hope, persistence, acceptance, and reconciliation from her time in Chile.

Was it difficult to find the Chilean Spanish?

I knew a lot of the Chilean words and expressions from my interactions with Chileans both in the United States and in Chile. I also had a reference book of Chilean slang to check the expressions against and to check the spelling. I interact with people from the country online, mostly on music sites or Instagram, which serves as a refresher and a way of learning new slang (that I then can’t use for a book set more than 25 years ago). Because of their relative isolation between the mountains, the desert, and the sea, the people of Chile have developed some unique expressions that can also lead to misunderstandings when interacting with Spanish-speakers from other countries.

Thanks, Lyn for taking the time to provide such a thoughtful interview!

Sunday Morning Reads

On 13 June, this blog quietly celebrated its 9th birthday. It honestly doesn’t feel like I’ve been blogging that long. It also seems odd that a blog would hang around that long. I suppose I should change wholeheartedly to Tumblr, but that too would be outdated in time as well. Over the next few weeks I plan to update my layout here and try to come up with something new and different to freshen things up here and CrazyQuilts so that my reader-and myself- will keep coming back. And, maybe I’ll prepare some sort of celebration for my 10th anniversary!

IMG_5059I spent my morning in the garden as I do most Sundays and my mind filled with blog posts, as it will do in that peaceful place. I reflect on how much I enjoy the garden because of its diversity: the wide variety of flowers and plants and well as the age and ethnic diversity that makes up the gardeners themselves. This year, I planted black-eyed peas and crowder peas, simply because my mom used to grow them.

Yesterday, I went to the local farmer’s market and met a new friend. At this market, the vendors must have produced everything they sell. So, I was amazed when my new friend told me she bought a mango. Ah, yes, a Midwest mango: a bell pepper. I told her of friends who used to call the pepper a mango, but they quite when they had a real mango. She replied that she always has and always will call it a mango.

How do you affect things that are stem from the core of who others are? Goethe said “Everybody wants to be somebody; nobody wants to grow.” I don’t want to be somebody, if I did, I would have taken a different career path. I want to facilitate growth in others through literacy. Not only should readers, all readers, be able to find themselves in books but, they should realize how words and information position them in the world. Native American children and children of color receive a very direct message that they are positioned outside mainstream America when they see how outnumbered they are on most bookshelves in America. Crystal Paul, a black woman, learned a lot from books when she was growing up.

I, like any child writer, was basically making the characters into magical versions of myself, using my own experiences and personality. But, still, the characters were always white. I didn’t notice this until later. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? At an age where imitation is everything, I learned that stories were only written about white characters, so even when I wrote about my own life, made up my own characters, the heroines in my mind was always white.

I appreciate her honest sharing of this frightening fact of life.

Comics are going hip hop with this Public Enemy Ops from PE Comics and Marvel Comics preparing to release hip hop themed covers in October. Marvel’s move is not without controversy.

So I say “no” because Marvel Comics uses black culture and people as decorations, window dressings. They are objects that are to be used when convenient but rarely respected or valued in their own right. I mean, come on: with the right hand, you’ve got the EiC announcing hip hop variants in October, and then with the left, the company announces at SDCC that the new Blade book is going to done by white guys. Again.

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And of course, there was the big Comic Con news from Reginald Hudson, Denis Cowan, Derek T. Tingle and Orlando Jones regarding Milestone 2.0 and plans for Static Shock, Christopher Priest and the Dakota Universe. We cannot underestimate the messages comics deliver our young people about the world around them.

Everyday, we become more aware of how those in libraries, publishing house and technology control the information. So, imagine what happens when a black women tries to take control of the message, write the code and make a living at doing it.

“I naively thought that if we were great at what we do, if we had the “facts” on our side, we would get a ton of support from the tech community. What I totally underestimated was how being so damn great, without permission to be “great” or even “be” in tech, without explicit sponsorship, meant the likelihood of us receiving sizable support was as close to zero as statistically possible.”

Read more because this story does have a good ending. It taught these black women the language of asking and resulted in funding for the documentary #ReWriteTheCode “a data collection project we started in Feb 2015 to find, document, and share details on black women startup founders.” We have to learn from each others’ stories. We have to find ways to tell them ourselves because there are people like Jane Resh Thomas who led one of her students to write

I am angry that someone [Resh] who speaks every semester on writing gently and truthfully about pain placed her own need to feel heard over the pain of others – including the children we all are learning to write for. I am angry that someone with the comfort and privilege of a position of power above us students gave this lecture On High about how others’ pain can be invalid… if we cannot personally feel it. Or rather, if an old, straight, white woman cannot feel it.

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This screams of the need for more Native Americans in Academia and in publishing and in editing and banking and economics and writing and illustrating and librarians and in technology. In places where we can write not only the words and images but also the codes. But if we don’t see ourselves doing these things in books or movies or television shows, why would we ever imagine we can? Literacy should empower and if it doesn’t, then does it do any more than enslave us?

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I brought some flowers home, too!

We do have the power (though not always the finances!) to be in some spaces where conversations are had, dreams are crafted and movement is financed. We can sometimes make the choice to venture to the clubs, the workshops and the conferences. So many conferences every summer. I have to admit the International Literacy Association was a new one on my radar but I wasn’t too sure about a literacy event with Shaquille O’Neal and Octavia Spencer as the headliners. I’ll look for reports in the following days. I really appreciated Dr. Marilisa Jiménez Garcia’s reflections on the Children’s Literature Association’s annual conference, only confirming that I need to put this conference in my calendar. 

ChLA is an organization which has historically been committed to social justice. Overall, I think it would benefit from relationships with scholars doing ethnic studies and education research, an initiative listed in their Diversity Committee Plan 2009-2013. Collaboration with these fields would enable exchanges from the perspective of theories such as critical race theory (CRT) and Latino critical theory (LatCrit). I would also encourage children’s illustrators and authors to attend the conference to see how their work is impacting future frameworks and interpretations. ChLA is still a smaller and more manageable conference than meetings such as American Library Association (ALA), Modern Language Association (MLA), and/or National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE). It’s smaller, welcoming environment perhaps makes it more suitable for increasing the participation of scholars of color through mentoring events or spaces designed to nurture the needs of future faculty. Katherine Slater of Rowan University and chair of the Membership Committee said that ChLA plans to incorporate activities, including panels, speakers, and discussion groups that nurture diversity.

The next conference will be 9 June 2016 at Ohio State University in Columbus, OH, a very easy drive from here.

Well, I came home from the garden with lots of tomatoes, cucumbers, jalapeño peppers and sweet potato leaves. I lined a pan with the leaves and placed tomatoes, peppers, cooked rice and tilapia on top. I roasted the dish, as my dear friend from the Congo taught me to do and I had a very different, very delicious meal.

Wishing you a very diverse reading filled week! I’ve got an interview with Lyn Miller-Lachmann coming in my next post!

Saturday Trailer: The Boy Who Carried Bricks: A True Story

What better day for a book trailer than a Saturday?

The Boy Who Carried Bricks: A True Story by Alton Carter; Roadrunner
Abandoned by his father, neglected by his mother, shuttled between foster homes and a boys ranch, a young African-American man refuses to succumb to the fate that the world says should be his. Told by the man who lived it. (ages 12-18)

This video features the author briefly describing his childhood in foster care and why he wrote this book. This nonfiction book is a first hand account of perseverance.

July Releases

Show and Prove by Sofia Quintero; Knopf
The summer of 1983 was the summer hip-hop proved its staying power. The South Bronx is steeped in Reaganomics, war in the Middle East, and the twin epidemics of crack and AIDS, but Raymond “Smiles” King and Guillermo “Nike” Vega have more immediate concerns. Smiles was supposed to be the assistant crew chief at his summer camp, but the director chose Cookie Camacho instead, kicking off a summer-long rivalry. Meanwhile, the aspiring b-boy Nike has set his wandering eye on Sara, the sweet yet sassy new camp counselor, as well as top prize at a breakdancing competition downtown. The two friends have been drifting apart ever since Smiles got a scholarship to a fancy private school, and this summer the air is heavy with postponed decisions that will finally be made.
Raw and poignant, this is a story of music, urban plight, and racial tension that’s as relevant today as it was in 1983.

Hollywood Witch Hunter by Valerie Tejeda; Bloomsbury Spark
From the moment she first learned the truth about witches…she knew she was born to fight them. Now, at sixteen, Iris is the lone girl on the Witch Hunters Special Ops Team.
But when Iris meets a boy named Arlo, he might just be the key to preventing an evil uprising in Southern California. Together they’re ready to protect the human race at all costs. Because that’s what witch hunters do. Welcome to Hollywood.

Down By Law (Throwback Diaries) by Nini Simone; Dafina
Lesson #1: You come for me, I come back even harder for you. Fair exchange. No robberies.
Isis Carter got schooled early on in surviving the streets. When some girls put a beatdown on her, she took back what was hers. When her brother was killed and her mom, Queenie, bailed, Isis fought to stay strong. And when her dad abandoned her for his new family, sixteen-year-old Isis buried the hurt by looking out for herself—and hookin’ up with bad boy Fresh…until a run-in with the law shatters Isis’s world and threatens to destroy her future.Now the only person Isis can rely on is herself…until her secret crush K-Rock steps in. But when Isis lets her guard down, will she be given a second chance to get her life straight or will it cost her everything?

The School For Good and Evil #3: The Last Ever After by Soman Chainani; HarperCollins
In the stunning conclusion to the New York Times bestselling School for Good and Evil trilogy, everything old is new again, as Sophie and Agatha fight the past as well as the present to find the perfect end to their fairy tale. Former best friends Sophie and Agatha thought their ending was sealed when they went their separate ways, but their storybook is about to be rewritten—and this time theirs isn’t the only one. With the girls apart, Evil has taken over and the forces of Good are in deathly peril. Will Agatha and Sophie be able to work together to save them? Will they find their way to being friends again? And will their new ending be the last Ever After they’ve been searching for?

Book Review: Surviving Santiago

FC9780762456338title: Surviving Santiago
author: Lyn Miller-Lachmann
Date:Running Press Kids; 2015
main character: Christina “Tina” Aguilar

We first me Tina Aguilar in Lyn’s previous book, Gringolandia. There, she was a minor character in her brother’s story but here, she takes center stage when she returns to Chile to spend time with her papá. The deal her parents made was that Tina would spend time with papá if he were to sign divorce papers so that his wife, Tina’s mom, could remarry. Rather than spending time with her friends, Tina is on a plane to visit a father she no longer knows. She does have good memories of him, but they’re from when she was really little and before he spent time in prison in Chile. Papá seems to have a level of respect for his outspokenness, but Chile in the 1980’s was not a country that freely provided such privilege. Papa’s isn’t safe and is surrounded by bodyguards. The stress of the oppressive regime and the pain of his injuries has taken its toll on him and is numbed by alcohol.

He’s been to America before, yet he remains in Chile. One has to wonder why he would maintain such an allegiance to his homeland, why not leave for a safer, more secure life. While his daughter sees him as a weak, pathetic man, we come to realize a richness to him that speaks volumes not only about him but also about the country to which he is so loyal. His loyalty is exemplified by both the fact that he stays and because he fights for his country. He doesn’t give up. This theme of loyalty plays out elsewhere in the book, relationships that make us question when do we give up, when do we move on? And, when do we fight?

Miller-Lachmann became interested in Chile under the Pinochet regime after spending time there in the 90s. She authenticates the story through personal and professional research which she documents in the Author’s Notes. In her story, she’s able to document the politics and economics of life under this regime, including the oppression faced by gay and lesbian individuals. In Surviving Santiago, Lyn writes about a country and a time that really isn’t that far from where we are now. She uses teen angst and budding romance to interest today’s readers in the past, something that few writers can do so well.

In full disclosure, Lyn Miller-Lachmann is someone I know personally and truly admire for her dedication to young people and to social justice. And, yes to Legos. Lyn is the former Editor of MultiCultural Review. For Gringolandia, she received a work-in-progress award for a Contemporary Young Adult Novel, given by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She lives in New York City, New York  and is active in organizations for peace, human rights, and a sustainable environment.

Saturday Trailer: Stella By Starlight

What better day for a book trailer than a Saturday? Coretta Scott King Award winner Sharon Draper used her own family th-1history to write Stella by Starlight (Atheneum, January 2015). While the book is set in the early 20th century, many of the societal issues still exist. Draper’s writing of the past provides young people today an opportunity to understand our world in ways that they can relate.

In describing her relationship with her grandmother, Draper states

“My grandmother was my spirit muse, my writing inspiration, and neither she nor I knew it. She was a little girl living in 1915, yearning for more than working on a farm.  She wrote in a journal at night, under the stars, because that’s the only time she could do it.  Seventy-five years later, when she passed away, she gave the last remaining notebook to my father, who eventually gave it to me with the instructions, “Write my mother’s story.”  It took me a very long time to finish what he asked me to do.  The novelStella by Starlight is fiction, but the essence of the story is based on pure truth.”

Read more of the interview here.

Indentification

Her problem is not that she identified with Black culture, that she lied about who and what she was. Was it a personal connection with Black and Native culture that led to the misrepresentation, or a disconnect with her own? Honestly, those two sentences are the most thought I’ve given Rachel Dolezal since the story broke. I’ve found the fallout more interesting.

She appeared on the Today Show this morning and stepped around very direct questions from Matt Lauer. This issue, which we’re going to label a ‘race’ issue actually became an American issue. I’d never heard so many white people comfortably use the term ‘white’ or ‘Caucasian’ (which I equate with “Negro” and, by the way, why is it so difficult for so many people to say ‘White” in connection to people?). It’s not often that the Today Show crew has addresses an issue upon which they do not comment. Heaven forbid that the all white crew openly talk about a white women identifying herself as black. That’s a black issue, right?

Black books, Latino books, those are for those readers, right? Please don’t write about being a lesbian, what it truly means to navigate the world as a lesbian and do not explore any issues of identity that relate to race, religion, gender or disabilities. Not entertaining enough, right? 21st century media must entertain.

We debate back and forth about White authors writing characters outside their specific identity. To me, it works when you’ve immersed yourself in that world, but too many think a little research will carry them a long way. And, I also think it works when author’s of color are provided the same opportunity to be published.

So, what happens when an Asian or African American writer creates a character outside their identity? Are these books marketed to White readers? Black? Asian? All of the above? Are these authors seen as sellouts to their skin? Have they mastered the economics of the game? Or,  are they creative geniuses?

It matters and I wonder if it will ever, ever not matter.

I try to blog about non-racial issues as often as I can so that my readers will know I don’t think about race constantly and continuously. Seriously, people who know me in real life would wonder who really writes this blog because I hate talking about race. But, I have a mission here and I have children under my wings. Diverse books won’t change the world, but they do expand the complexion of our collective identity and they do get us closer to having that discussion. Who doesn’t want to talk about a good book?

There are conversations that should be had, long overdue conversations that would allow cultural diffusion to continue, for that pot to melt and for people to self identify as they may. The problem is that she lied and the bigger problem is that we don’t let people be who they are.