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Know yourself and find a voice

Bainbridge author Kathleen Alcalá reads from her essay collection this weekend.  - Photo courtesy of Kathleen Alcalá
Bainbridge author Kathleen Alcalá reads from her essay collection this weekend.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Kathleen Alcalá

Kathleen Alcalá explores writing, family and culture in a new book of essays.

There are many ways to tell a story.

When Kathleen Alcalá set out to unfold and re-craft her family’s history, she started with a short fictional version and then grew it into a trilogy of novels. But questions remained unanswered, so she stepped back to examine the situation.

“People would ask, ‘What was your family really like?’” Alcalá said.

Essays turned out to be the tool of choice for unearthing and examining the answers to that question. This weekend, Alcalá will share some of those revelations when she reads from her new collection, “The Desert Remembers My Name: On Family and Writing,” at Eagle Harbor Book Co.

The book represents Alcalá’s attempts both to shed light on the factual mysteries of her Mexican family and to contextualize what she learned in terms of her identity as a writer of color and a spiritual and political being.

The collection starts with reflections on a childhood spent straddling literal and figurative borders. Growing up with Mexican parents in Southern California, Alcalá and her family made periodic family visits to Mexico where the author observed that she and her Mexican cousins were “on very different trajectories, directions determined, in large part, by which side of the border we lived on.”

In adulthood, Alcalá returned to Mexico for research on her family-centered books; the first set of essays captures slices of these trips, conveying curiosity and longing for Mexican culture amidst a certain distance. The collection as a whole attempts to resolve that tension while revealing truths about the writing process itself.

“Each essay is a revelation for a writer,” she said. “There’s a moment when something new is revealed.”

Later essays move outward toward larger cultural themes. “The Woman Who Loved Water” juxtaposes Mexico’s best-known legend with the trial of Texas mother Andrea Yates, who drowned her children in the family’s bathtub in 2001.

As Alcalá followed the Yates tragedy and “flinched with each additional detail,” an idea clicked.

“Something about that case...made me realize that this was the story of La Llorona,” she said.

The details of the legend vary but the basic story has a woman and man falling in love, marrying and having many children. The man leaves, and the woman drowns the children in the river. After being put to death for her crime, her ghost haunts the river in a white dress crying for the children.

On one of her research trips to Mexico, Alcalá said she relentlessly asked family members and even strangers to recount their versions of the story. She found key differences; sometimes the husband left for another woman, and the wife drowned her children out of spite. Sometimes the man left to find work but left the family hungry, forcing the wife to kill her children to prevent death by starvation.

In many versions Alcalá heard, the husband was upper class and light skinned, and the woman lower class with darker skin. The river that La Llorona haunted was always the river that ran through the storyteller’s locale. And invariably, women and men offered very different tellings.

As she looked at La Llorona alongside transcripts of the Yates trial, Alcalá saw powerful cultural themes emerge not just of sexism and classism but also the consequences of being silenced and the importance of finding a voice, which Alcalá points out neither Yates nor La Llorona had.

Launching from this essay-driven discovery, Alcalá now uses the story of La Llorona as the basis for teaching young Mexican kids to write. She asks them to look at the story, change something about it and then write stories of their own lives.

Alcalá says that she falls prey to the procrastination-ridden fits and starts that most writers experience. But at the same time, she’s discovered through working in both the fiction and nonfiction forms that writing is a spiritual act.

“I definitely see it as a progression toward some sort of enlightenment,” she said.

Alcalá has also discovered writing as an act of political subversion. She learned of a flap last summer in Gwinnett County, Ga. in which the county library system approved the use of $3,000 to buy Spanish language materials but then pulled the funds, some say because residents voiced objections to using taxpayers’ dollars for library goers who might not be legal residents.

The funds were later re-instated, but the situation compelled Alcalá to act. This past weekend when she gave the keynote speech at Seattle’s Rainbow Bookfest, an annual conference for authors of color, Alcalá asked authors to send copies of their work to the Gwinnett Library to help populate its shelves.

Alcalá hopes that her call will become an annual Rainbow Bookfest award to help a deserving collection somewhere in the country expand its supply of multicultural resources.

“People often perceive that writers of color are always asking for more,” she said. “But we have these things to give back.”

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Family history

Kathleen Alcalá reads from “The Desert Remembers My Name: On Family and Writing” at 3 p.m. May 6 at Eagle Harbor Book Co. For information, call 842-5332 or visit www.eagleharborbooks.com.

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