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Interview with Lyn Miller-Lachman
1. How do you feel about the cover? Is it what you imagined while writing the book?
As I was writing the book, I imagined the cover would have a photo of the teenage characters Daniel and Courtney, like a lot of other novels do. But I was hoping for something a bit different because a lot of the novels look like each other, even using the same stock photo images.
The cover I got impressed me beyond all my expectations. To begin with, the cover designer had himself been a political prisoner under the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile (which lasted from 1973 to 1990) as a result of organizing student strikes for democracy and human rights. Like Daniel's father and several other characters in the book, he endured torture. After his release, he came to the United States as a refugee and now lives in California. Several years ago, he went back to Chile and took pictures at Villa Grimaldi, a former torture center that has now been turned into a peace park. In his photo, there were two pigeons-though in Spanish the word for pigeon and dove is the same, “paloma”-in an abandoned swimming pool that was once used to dunk prisoners to get them to confess and reveal the names of friends and associates.
2. If you could have chosen a different name for your main character what would it have been? Why?
Ever since I conceived of the novel, years ago, the main character had the name Daniel, and I never thought of any other name for him. Daniel is a popular name both in the United States and throughout Latin America. It's spelled the same way in both English and Spanish. The accent is on the first syllable in English, but in Spanish it's on the last syllable, so that even though the name looks the same in both languages, it's pronounced differently. I meant to do that because it symbolizes Daniel's character. In many ways, he's the kind of person who can fit in anywhere and really wants to fit in and be like everyone else, no matter where he lives. Of all the people in his family, he's the first to embrace the ways of the United States, and we learn early on that he's secretly begun the process of getting his U.S. citizenship even though his mother, his sister, and especially his father expect to return to Chile. The different pronunciations of his name reveal that no matter how much he wants to, he cannot totally cast off his Chilean identity. He still speaks English with an accent, five years after coming to the United States. And ultimately, when his name is called-and I love the tag line on the cover, “When history calls your name, how will you answer?”-the accent is on the last syllable.
3. Was it hard to write from the perspective of a male character (since you are female)?
Before Gringolandia, I had written several books entirely or in part from a male character's perspective. My first YA novel, Hiding Places, a riches-to-rags story about a teenage runaway in New York City had a 17-year-old boy as the protagonist. The main character of my adult novel, Dirt Cheap, is a 44-year-old college professor with leukemia who pursues the chemical company that he believes gave him his illness and contaminated his upscale suburb. I've actually found it more of a challenge to write from a girl's point of view. My current work in progress is the first thing I've written entirely from a girl's point of view.
I didn't grow up around a lot of girls. I have a brother, and all my cousins my age were boys. Most of my friends in school, from elementary school on, were boys. In high school, I always hung out with my boyfriend and his friends, and then and in college I worked for several radio stations, which tend to be very male-dominated places. So when I started writing fiction with teenage characters, it was only natural that I'd write about boys, because that's who I knew best.
4. While writing was there ever a time you felt any strong emotions- sadness, happiness, excitement?
All the time. I think it's important for a writer to feel emotions, because if the story doesn't move the writer, it's not going to move the reader. For instance, there's a scene in Gringolandia when Daniel's 18-year-old girlfriend, Courtney, travels to Boston, where his father, Marcelo, is on a speaking tour, because she worships Marcelo and wants to write his story. But a suspicious-looking guy starts following her around while she follows Marcelo around. At a party after one of his lectures, Marcelo, who's already quite drunk, tells her the guy is a CIA agent and he needs her to help him escape. So Courtney finds herself in an unfamiliar city on a cold, rainy night, trying to find a safe place to go with a drunk, sick, paranoid man, who until then she had worshipped without question and who's her boyfriend's father. And maybe Marcelo isn't paranoid after all and the guy really is from the CIA. I was scared and a little creeped-out when I wrote the scene-it brought back memories of some of the potentially dangerous situations I got myself into when I was 17 and 18.
I worried that the scene was too strong and I should take it out. I didn't, and several reviewers have cited this scene as a highlight of the novel.
5. What was the main message you were trying to spread by writing Gringolandia?
Sometimes I worry that people will dismiss this book because Chile is such a small, isolated, and distant country, and no longer in the news. But Gringolandia is about more than one country at one particular moment. Fundamentally, it's the story of a boy on the cusp of adolescence who witnesses something terrible happen to his father, and when his father returns five years later, the boy has changed into one kind of person and his father into someone else. Daniel tries to escape the larger forces that have upended his life-he wants nothing more than an ordinary life that is stable and secure. Once his father returns, he realizes he cannot escape his past. It's part of who he is and the people he loves.
Much as we try to avoid it in the United States, all of us are vulnerable to forces that are larger than we are. Those who were affected by the September 11, 2001 attacks, by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and by the economy today already know this. You try to survive, protect the people you love, and seek a community where you can feel secure and where you and your activities are valued. These are human desires whether we live in the United States, Chile, or anywhere else.
I'd also like readers to understand how difficult it is to restore a democracy once it has been lost. The Chileans who ended 17 years of dictatorship had to endure great pain and hardship, and possess extraordinary courage. Their mostly nonviolent struggle is one of the inspiring stories of the latter half of the twentieth century, along with the end of apartheid and the fall of communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. A year before Gringolandia was published, I did a test reading at an alternative high school in Troy, N.Y. Afterwards, one of the students, whose older sister had traveled to Chile through her employer, said, “Chile isn't like that today,” to which I responded, “It's because of the heroism and sacrifice of Marcelo, Daniel, and millions of other Chileans who risked their lives to bring democracy back to their country.”
Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the Editor-in-Chief of MultiCultural Review, the author of the award-winning reference book Our Family, Our Friends, Our World: An Annotated Guide to Significant Multicultural Books for Children and Teenagers (1992), the editor of Once Upon a Cuento (2003), a collection of short stories for young readers by Latino authors, and the author of the novel Dirt Cheap (2006), an eco-thriller for adult readers. For Gringolandia, she received a Work-in-Progress Grant from the Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrators.
Though haunted by memories of his father's arrest in Pinochet's Chile, Daniel Aguilar has made a new life for himself in the United States--far from politics. But when his father is released, Daniel sees what years of prison and torture have done. Trying to reach his father, Daniel, along with his "gringa" girlfriend, finds himself in the democracy struggle of the country he thought he left behind.
Wow!Gringolandiais going to be a really hard book to review. It was such an amazingly personal look at something I’ve barely even heard about. The scenes where Marcelo was describing what had happened to him just tore my heart. It’s scary to think something so horrible can still happen today and in a country not so far from our own. The details were amazing and the story just flowed completely. Every character, every twist in the plot, every event- it all was amazing. I couldn’t put it down from the first page. It was one of those books that as soon as I finished I just sat there for a little bit thinking about it. I’m not usually one for “sad” books, but I highly recommendGringolandiato everyone.
The chapters were different narrations at times and it really opened my eyes to each person’s perspective. For me, the scariest parts wereMarcelo's.Although, reading about Daniel’s reaction to seeing his father after six years of torture and imprisonment was horrible in itself. This is definitely a young adult novel, but the descriptions of torture were vivid, and you could feel the characters pain. Definitely for high school students plus. I hate books where they skimp over what’s actually happening, to “protect young readers”.Gringolandiawas refreshing and proved to me there are still some authors more concerned with the truth then what some people want. The vivid details were what added to my love of this novel. It’s hard to say I loved it because even when I was finished it still haunted me, but I learned a lot about time I’ve never read about before.
All in all, I would highly recommend this book to people, and have already shoved it into my family's hands insisting they read it. Gringolandia is a vivid, terrifying look at life in Chile in the 80s and a book I will remember for a long time to come and I am anxious to read more by Lyn Miller-Lachmann.
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