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Review and Interview: Gringolandia (Miller-Lachman)

Author: Lyn Miller-Lachman
Genre: YA, POC/International
Pages: 272
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
FTC Disclosure: I bought this one with my own money
Challenges: To Be Read (#3); Rainbow Connection (G); Young Adult (#5), POC
Summary: (from the inside flap): Daniel Aguilar's papa, Marcelo, used to play soccer, dance the cueca and drive his kids to school in a beat-up taxi---all while publishing an underground newspaper that exposed Chile's military regime. After Marcelo's arrest in 1980, Daniel's family fled to Wisconsin. Six years later Daniel has a new life far from politics. A junior in high school, he plays lead guitar for a rock band and dates Courtney, a minister's daughter.

When his father is released and rejoins the family, Daniel sees what prison and torture in a brutal police state have done. Marcelo is partially paralyzed, haunted by nightmares, and bitter about exile in "Gringolandia." Daniel worries that Courtney's scheme to start a human rights newspaper could bring back papa's past and drive him further into alcohol abuse and self-destruction. Daniel dreams of a real father-son relationship, but he may have to give up everything to save his papa's life.

Review: This sort of book, one with an international element is right up my alley. Throw in some political intrigue and I am all over it. Miller-Lachmann does a great job of showing just how destructive Pinochet's torture prisons were on the victims and their families. And, she also shows (not tells) the reader how immigration, prison, and alcohol chip away at a family's very core.

The description of this book makes it sound depressing, but it's not. It makes the reader think about what s/he would do when faced with injustice and inhumane conditions. The characters in this book choose to fight, each in their own way (some with words and some with actions). I particularly like the article that one of the main characters wrote that serves as the final chapter; it is poetic and thought provoking.

Gringolandia was just named one of 2010's Best Books for Young Adults by YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association)!

I feel very fortunate that Lyn Miller-Lachmann agreed to be interviewed via email. 
Recently there has been a lot of talk amongst book bloggers about reading more books by and about persons of color (POC) sparked by the idea of holding publishers accountable for covers that do not accurately portray POC on their books’ covers.

You are the editor-in-chief of Multicultural Review. Why do you think it’s important for people to read books about characters from a variety of backgrounds?
     Reading books about diverse characters benefits everyone. It’s crucial for readers to see themselves in books, especially readers of color whose lives and experiences receive validation when those books are published—and when characters that look like them appear on the cover. Books that honor the histories, lives, and struggles of people of color offer role models and encourage the development of a new generation of readers and writers.
     While it is important for books to provide mirrors for readers of diverse backgrounds, it is equally important that the books offer windows into cultures besides the readers’ own. For those who have grown up with a sense of privilege—who, for them, nearly every book is a mirror—multicultural literature opens up the world and the perspectives of people who the readers may not have met personally but whose lives and experiences are important. Such books foster empathy, critical thinking, and the ability to live in a world in which white, middle class, English-speaking people are a minority.

What do you think makes a good POC book?
     A lot of the things that make a good POC book are what makes any book good—meaningful conflict, three-dimensional characters, vivid writing and evocation of setting, a story line that makes sense but is not predictable, to name a few. But authors of books with characters of color have a special obligation to present characters and their environment in a way that is authentic, honest, and free from stereotypes—stereotypes defined as attributing characteristics of a group to every individual within that group. Writers, both cultural outsiders and cultural insiders, should depict the diversity of personal histories and experiences of people of color and look beyond the stories that everyone seems to be telling.

What was your inspiration for Gringolandia?
     In the 1980s I became friends with many people who had fled the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile and along with my friends organized concerts of Chilean musicians whose songs protested the lack of freedom and human rights in their country. Many of the musicians lived in exile in Europe, banned from returning. Others, still in Chile, were forced to perform and to sell their recordings in secret while struggling to make a living in other ways and enduring the constant threat of arrest or death. I was moved by the heroism of these talented artists, and the stories they told.
     One of the musicians was imprisoned and tortured after the military takeover in 1973, then expelled from Chile and separated from his young children, who remained behind with his ex-wife. Twelve years later, his son, then 18 years old and a talented musician in his own right, came to live with him. On tour through the United States, they stayed at my house for several days. Seeing them together gave me the idea for writing a novel about a son and a father separated for many years and then reunited after experiences that had so dramatically changed them both.

Gringolandia is about Daniel, an immigrant from Chile during the Pinochet years. I grew up as the child of immigrants and I think it’s a different experience from those whose parents are from the US. Did you have an immigrant experience in your life?

      My husband is the son of immigrants from Nazi Germany, and, in fact, members of his mother’s family were unable to get visas to the United States and ended up in Chile. I met my future husband when we were still teenagers, and visiting his home I really felt the difference. There were different foods, family members who spoke little English, and a circle of friends whose experiences were nothing like my experience of growing up in a white, middle class, native-born neighborhood in Houston, Texas. At the same time, his parents gave their children “American” names and encouraged their assimilation, so that he never learned German at home and when he took beginning German in college, he barely passed the course.

Do you have a favorite scene or character in Gringolandia?
     Daniel is my favorite character in the novel, though now that I’m working on the companion from his younger sister Tina’s point of view, I like him less and her more. (That’s what having different points of view will do; each character tries to convince you she’s right and he’s wrong, especially when they’re siblings.) What I like about Daniel is how he faces his weakness, his fear of confrontation, out of love for his father. He doesn’t know his own strength and power, but it’s there, under the surface, much as his Chilean identity is there even though he wants to become a U.S. citizen.
     My favorite scene in the book is the final scene but I can’t say anything about it without spoiling the book. And you have to make the journey to understand its power.

Where and when do you like to write? Is there anything you need to have with you during the process?

     I have a really great office where I write. It’s a huge room, formerly an open porch that my husband and I enclosed when we moved from the suburbs into the City of Albany five years ago. It’s four doors down from a park and small lake, and looking into the backyard, I can’t tell that I’m in the middle of a city. Since it’s also the office for MultiCultural Review, the space is rather cluttered, though.
     I tend to write best in the evening and late at night. Once I get started, it’s very hard for me to stop, but I spend a lot of time creating stories in my head before writing them down.
     Necessities when I write include music that matches the mood of what I’m writing, coffee in the morning, and Diet Dr. Pepper in the afternoon and evening.

How has technology affected the way you write or the way you publicize your books?
     Technology has made my writing much easier, especially at the revision stage. I think it’s improved my writing because revising isn’t such a painstaking process, and I actually enjoy revising and shaping the story as much as writing it down in the first place.
     Gringolandia is the first of my books in which I used social media, such as blogs and Facebook, to promote the book. With my earlier books, I relied on the publisher to do most of my promotion, but the publisher of my last three books, Curbstone Press, had fallen on hard times following the death of its founder and editorial director, Alexander “Sandy” Taylor, at the end of 2007. Fortunately, Gringolandia was already in production and scheduled for publication, but I had to take over much of the work of publicizing the novel. From what I’ve heard, though, authors even with major publishers have to handle most of the publicity themselves, so I’m in practice for the next book.

Are you going on tour for Gringolandia? Where and when?
     I haven’t done a lot of speaking outside my immediate area. Again, Curbstone Press used to organize speaking engagements for authors, particularly in high schools and community centers in traditionally underserved areas. But that came to an end following Sandy Taylor’s death.
     So far, many of my speaking engagements have been in two- and four-year colleges. For instance, at the end of February I’m speaking at Bloomfield College in New Jersey, and in April I’m going to Adirondack Community College in upstate New York and doing a Skype chat for a class at the University of Connecticut. I’d like to do more presentations in high schools as well.

How does it feel to see your books in bookstores?
     It’s thrilling, but I also hope the novel sells when it’s there. Bookstores have the right to return books they don’t sell, and having too many returns goes down on your permanent record. (I know it sounds a bit like high school, but that’s the way the business works.)

Have you heard much from your readers? Do you have a favorite comment or question that you have heard?
     Yes, I have received a fair number of fan letters, from both teen and adult readers. I always write back, too. I’m especially happy when they ask me if I’m planning to write a sequel, and if it’s going to be about Tina and what happens to her, because…

What book are you working on now?
     My next project, which I’ve just finished revising and am sending out to find an agent and publisher, is the story of Tina, three years later. She’s turning 16 and finally found a place where she fits in—all good except she’s being sent against her will to Chile to get to know her family there. And while in Chile, she takes up with a very dangerous boyfriend.

You also host a weekly radio show that plays Spanish and Latin American music. How did you get involved in that?
     A friend from Chile has been a fan of the show ever since he moved to Albany ten years ago, and during that time he got to know the host, who he now helps with some of the translations (the show is bilingual). He introduced me to the host at a concert four years ago, and after an audition, I was taken on as the assistant host.
     The show is called “Los Vientos del Pueblo” and it airs every Sunday from 2-5 pm, Eastern time. You can listen live at www.wrpi.org. I usually post the featured artists on my Facebook page the Friday before each show.

Who is your favorite YA author to read and why?
     I like reading books by authors who don’t talk down to teens, who are honest in their depictions of characters, settings, and situations, and whose characters are multidimensional, interesting, and often surprising. A lot of the authors that I like have also written for adults and understand that teen readers deserve and can handle complexity. Although he has only written one novel marketed as YA so far, I’d have to say my favorite is Sherman Alexie, whose The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is one of my all-time most memorable reads.

Who would you like to meet and why?
     I’d like to meet Deborah Ellis, author of the Breadwinner trilogy and a number of other works of fiction and nonfiction about children in war. She endorsed Gringolandia when it was still in the manuscript stage, and her support for my work has opened a lot of doors for me. I’ve never met her, and I’d like to thank her in person. In addition, I’ve always admired her writing and would like to hear more about her work with refugee children around the world.

If you couldn’t be an author, what would you do?
     Who said I couldn’t be an author? I’d have to overthrow them.


Karen said...

I appreciate your review and interview. Now I'm even more excited to read Gringolandia.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

Thank you for the opportunity to be interviewed. These were thought-provoking questions and I enjoyed answering them. Interesting that your favorite scene turned out to be mine as well.

Suko said...

Very interesting and thoughtful interview. Thanks for posting this.

Katy said...

Awesome interview! :)