Countdown to Publication: Week Three


            We took my mother to visit her sister in Bangor, Michigan this past weekend and we were talking about the old days at the kitchen table when my mother mentioned how years ago when she visited Spain, she had gone to a library to research the origin of Vera—our family name.  According to Mami, our ancestors walked down from their mountain home on the vereda (footpath) from which came the name Vera.  It made me think about how important interviews with people close to you can be to your writing. Oral interviews bring a layer of detail to a historical work that might not come up from your research.  They can also help you bond with your interview subject and with your own history. 

            My novel IF I BRING YOU ROSES is not a story about my parents or my family. Although fictitious, I used details and anecdotes from my own family history to write it. This is something that you She Writers can do too, if you don’t already.  I wanted to write about the first wave of Puerto Ricans to migrate to Chicago in the 1950s.  Since my parents did arrive in Chicago during that period, my mother was able to answer questions. More importantly, my mother and her sister, (my godmother) who is six years older, were able to give me a feel for their childhood in 1940s Puerto Rico.

            Family stories supported my traditional research. During World War II, German submarines patrolled the Atlantic Ocean off Puerto Rico blocking American ships from arriving with food supplies. My godmother recalled how her family didn’t have rice (which was imported) for many months during the war which led my grandfather to plant his own rice. 

            The stories and details that my mother and godmother gave me helped ground my imagination in the 1940s and also gave my setting an authenticity that my book might not have had. Not only was I rewarded with relevant information but I also assigned details to my characters. My godmother would eat the quenepa fruit that birds would pick from the tree and drop to the ground after taking only a bite.  I had Felicidad, my female protagonist; eat quenepas that birds would drop to the ground just as my godmother did. My mother told me how her father, my grandfather, was known for his intricate plaiting of banana leaves in weaving aparejos—similar to a saddle blanket for horses.  She wasn’t exactly sure how he did it because it was man’s work.  So my mother enlisted another family member, her brother, my uncle, in Puerto Rico to describe it.

            Research into family history, while fascinating, is sometimes bittersweet. My aunt recalled how she paid for her twelve-year-old sister’s coffin.  As was the custom, the coffin was set down on the kitchen table during the velorio or wake. It made me think of Francisco Oller’s famous painting “El Velorio.”

            Don’t discount the personal interview or oral history. I thought about how through the years I would call my godmother and ask her to tell me about growing up in Puerto Rico or how I asked my mother to describe again how she did a particular chore.  This communication helped me forge a special bond with each of these women and also with the culture and history of my ancestors.  

            IF I BRING YOU ROSES would have been a much different novel if it hadn’t been for the generosity of the two most important women in my life. If you haven’t done it already, you might think about calling up a relative to ask a few questions. 


She Writes Amigas, Who would you talk to?


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Comment by Barbara Bell on October 18, 2011 at 6:09pm

Thanks,Marisel, for your comments. Sadly, only my younger sister and I are left. There's no one to interview. But I literally have crates full of "stuff": photos, notebooks, ration books, letters, nightclub tickets and dance cards, etc. No one seems to have thrown anything fact I don't really know where to begin. I've been transcribing the letters onto the computer, to have them in proper chronological order, but don't know where to go from there...


Comment by Marisel Vera on October 18, 2011 at 2:45pm
Hi Barbara.  You certainly have the makings of a story here.  How lucky you are to have your parents' letters! Try to interview any surviving family members if you can but when it comes to your grandparents just make stuff up! Imagine what their lives would have been like. Of course, I always think in terms of creating fiction.
Comment by Barbara Bell on October 15, 2011 at 9:42am

My mother grew up in Havana, Cuba during the 1930s and 1940s. She was a little girl when she arrived from New Jersey with her parents to live in the Anglo-American "colony" of ex-pats and businessmen. I know she always intended to write about her experiences and even as a senior citizen she joined a writing group to begin her autobiography. I have her 8-year-old's diary as well as many other notes and memories she compiled over the years. These will enhance my writing about our family's history - and make it significantly more personal and real.

I also have all the correspondence between my parents during WWII, before they were married (they were to have been married in 1941.) These create a very detailed view of life in the US during the War, as well as my father's emotions and experiences while overseas.

I'm the oldest of my remaining family and no one else remembers as much as I do. If I could interview my grandparents it would be my fondest dream.


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