A Conversation with Reyna Grande, Author of Dancing with Butterflies
1. Four distinct voices lead us through Dancing with Butterflies: each woman has her own, unique style of narrating. Please tell us about the experience of writing from four different points of view. How did you develop their separate voices? Was one narrator harder to envision than the others?
My first book, Across a Hundred Mountains, is told from two points of view. It gave me the training I needed to tackle four different characters. I used the same techniques I had learned in Mountains—pay attention to the voice, the way the characters talk, the way they see the world around them. I also worked on each character individually, spent a lot of time trying to get to know each woman, without the distraction of the other three. Having said that, writing from four points of view was a lot harder than I imagined! I think for my next book I will try just one. The hardest character for me was Yesenia. Since she’s ten years older than I am, and is going through a different stage in her life, I was having a difficult time getting into her head. I ended up using my older sister as a model for Yesenia, and sometimes, when I was stuck, I would call my sister and say, “So tell me again about the time you….” Adriana was the easiest for me because I understood her. I grew up with an alcoholic father who physically abused me for many years, and later on, in my twenties, I too was looking for men that were like my father (not physically abusive, but controlling). Luckily I escaped those relationships and got over that right away, and I found a wonderful man to marry (like Ben!).
2. Each chapter opens with one of your graceful line drawings of Folklórico dancers. Why did you choose to include these drawings? Have you ever felt you had to choose between two art forms, as Adriana struggles to choose between dancing and ranchero singing?
The drawings came very late in the process, right before I turned in the final draft to my editor. I had thought about it for a long time. Because I was writing about such a visual topic—Folklórico—I felt that the drawings would complement story. I couldn’t find someone to do them, and I didn’t feel confident enough to do them myself. But one day I said, why not? Why not at least try? So finally I decided to do them myself, just to see. And I ended up liking them enough, and when I showed them to my editor she liked them, too. Like Adriana, I felt torn between the passions I had. I loved music and from 7th grade up until my first year of college, I was a member of the marching band (I marched the Rose Parade three times). From middle school to college, I took drawing and painting classes because I loved doing that, too. I also started writing when I was thirteen years old. At UC, Santa Cruz I met a teacher who once told me that even though it was a good thing that I had many passions (I was also doing film and dancing at the time that I met her), I needed to choose one thing that I really loved, above all others, so that I could focus on it and be great at it. Otherwise, as the saying goes, I would just be a jack of all trades. So I chose writing. I’m glad I listened to her, because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to complete my first novel, which requires a lot of discipline and commitment, but once in a while I still dance Folklorico, and I still draw. Having my drawings included in Dancing with Butterflies was, what can I say, extremely fulfilling—to see two of my passions come together, at last.
3. Sibling rivalry is a prominent theme in the novel, with Elena and Adriana’s constant conflict, as well as Soledad and Stephanie’s less explosive rivalry. Why did you focus on siblings in this novel?
How can you write about siblings and not have rivalry thrown in the mix? I have four siblings, and there is always some drama going on. The only time we are drama free is when we avoid each other! The rivalry between Elena and Adriana was inspired by my relationship with my older sister—not the way our relationship is, but how it could have been if things had turned out differently. Like Adriana, my older sister left me in a hellhole—my alcoholic father’s home. She didn’t take me with her when she left, and the two years I was at my father’s without my sister were two of the worst years of my life. To this day my sister apologizes for not taking me with her. I forgive my sister. But Adriana isn’t as forgiving. When I wrote about Adriana and Elena, I asked myself: how would my relationship with my sister be if I had held a grudge and not forgiven or understood my sister’s choices? (She was only 21 and could barely take care of herself, but at the time all I thought about was that she had left me and saved herself.)
With Soledad and Stephanie, I wanted to write about siblings that belong to two worlds. Most immigrant families have siblings who were born in this country and others born in other countries. Even in my own family, my two youngest siblings were born here in the U.S., but the three oldest (myself included) were born in Mexico.
4. Soledad faces enormous challenges in her efforts to cross the U.S.-Mexican border. What inspired Soledad’s story?
Soledad was the last character to make an appearance. One day when I was at Mr. Vences’s house (the director of the dance group I researched), Elías Roldán, the group’s costume designer, was there, showing Mr. Vences a costume he was designing for the group. As I watched them talk about the costume and what changes needed to be made, I realized that I was missing a crucial part in my novel—the point of view of Alegría’s costume designer! Mr. Roldán was very generous with his time, and I visited him at his house to interview him several times. Like Soledad, he used his dining room to do his sewing, and every corner of the living room and dining room was covered in bolts of cloth. In the interviews he not only talked about costume making and cloth, but he shared with me his dream of having his own shop and everything that was keeping him from making his dream come true. But now I’m happy to say that Mr. Roldán has his own shop in East L.A., and his business is thriving. Although Dancing with Butterflies ends before Soledad makes her dream come true, this is the kind of future I envision for her. In terms of the challenges she faced crossing the border, it was inspired by all the stories I hear from immigrants that have had to make the dangerous journey north (myself included).
5. Despite all the challenges that your characters face, there are many light-hearted moments, as well. How did you manage to balance serious subjects and humor? Do you have a favorite humorous moment in the novel?
I tend to write depressing stuff, and writing funny isn’t my strength. Whatever funny moments appear in the novel were not planned. But a little humor goes a long way, and it gives the reader a break from all that sadness, so I’m glad I managed to have a few funny moments here and there. One of my favorite humorous moments is when Adriana and Ben go out for sushi and she mistakes the wasabi for Guacamole. I was twenty years old when I first had sushi, and like Adriana, I was very ignorant about what wasabi was. I put a lot of it on my sushi, and boy, did that hurt!
6. Frida Kahlo is featured prominently in the novel, as Adriana’s favorite artist. How does Kahlo’s work affect you?
Frida Kahlo is an inspiration to many Latinas. She was a fighter. For most of her life she was in deep physical (and emotional) pain. Yet, her passion for art helped carry her through the toughest moments of her life. Writing has been my salvation. When things got bad at home, I wrote. Writing kept me sane. Kahlo painted herself many times. When I write, I use myself as the starting point for my characters. Elena, Adriana, Soledad, Yesenia, they are all a facet of me. They are not self-portraits, no, not like Kahlo painted her self-portraits. My self-portraits (my characters) are drawn in a style like Picasso’s, very distorted, but somehow recognizable. Like Adriana, my favorite Kahlo painting is “The Two Fridas.” When I lived with my father, I developed a second personality, another Reyna, so to speak. One Reyna was afraid, depressed, lonely. But the other Reyna was strong, brave, and smart. When things got tough, that second Reyna was the one that would give me the push I needed to keep going. I could hear her in my head telling me, “Things won’t always be like this. One day they will be better.” When I saw “The Two Fridas,” I saw my dual personality represented in that painting, and I fell in love with the painting and with the woman who painted it.
7. Although the main characters in Dancing with Butterflies are Mexican or Mexican-American, they face many of the same problems as women from other backgrounds and cultures. Which of the characters’ challenges do you feel are the most universal? Which feel more culturally specific to you?
Just a few weeks ago my older brother asked me why I don’t write books with no Latino characters or themes. He said that I am “limiting my audience” and therefore (or so I read between the lines) I will never have a bestseller. At first I felt furious about his comment, especially because I was showing him the advance copy of Dancing with Butterflies and instead of just saying, “Good job, Reyna,” he asks me that question! (Sibling drama? Yes!) But the thing is that even though I write about Latino characters, ultimately I am writing about human beings. No matter what ethnic background we come from, first and foremost we belong to the human race. The problems the women in Dancing with Butterflies face are universal. Like Yesenia, who hasn’t thought about aging and being frightened by it? Who hasn’t thought about the body’s limitations and what it can and cannot do as we get older? Elena gave birth to a stillborn baby. What mother, at some point during a pregnancy, hasn’t feared the worst? And for some, no matter their ethnic backgrounds, the worst has come to pass. What culture hasn’t had sibling rivalry, dead relatives to mourn, dreams that haven’t come true, obstacles to overcome, marriages that fail, illicit love affairs, forbidden love?
8. Your first novel, Across a Hundred Mountains, also centers on immigration and families. Do you plan to continue these themes in your future work?
I like to write about things that are important to me. My older sister once asked, “Why are you always writing about Mexico?” My father once said, “Why don’t you just forget about the past and move on? Why do you need to write about it?” I write about things that I care about, that matter to me. The immigrant experience is one of them. Right now I am working on a memoir in which I write about my childhood in Mexico, living in poverty, being raised by my grandmother because my parents were here in the U.S. working. I write about what it was like to come here as an illegal immigrant and the difficulties of trying to close the gap created by eight years of separation between me and my father. So to answer the question, yes, I do plan to continue writing about immigration and families, among other things. I am always looking for new ideas and topics. One has to grow as a writer, and one way to do that is to take chances and try new things.