Esmeralda Santiago, author of best-selling memoir When I was Puerto Rican, and numerous other titles (Almost A Woman and The Turkish Lover) has a new, historical novel hitting bookstores this week. Conquistadora (Alfred A. Knopf), an epic tale set in 19th Century Spain and Puerto Rico, is already being hailed as “storytelling genius,” by Booklist.
Conquistadora tells the story of a brave and brazen Ana Cubillas, as she sets off on a decades-long journey of love, adventure, and self-discovery. The rebellious heroine, born into a noble family in Spain, had always been drawn to the island of Puerto Rico. She makes her way there (by charming a handsome set of twin brothers) and arrives to find a country steeped in havoc and change; a place on the brink of a new identity; a home. Ana fearlessly forges her way through the beauty and dangers of the untamed island. But, she cannot escape the perils of falling in love with a man as wild and passionate as she is.
Esmeralda shares what she learned in her journey as author, as well as what we can learn from her protagonist.
Read Related: Q&A With Author Diana Lopez
Mamiverse: Please tell us why you wrote Conquistadora?
Santiago: I have been thinking about a historical novel for ten years, and took the plunge when the research began to creep into my dreams and daily conversations.
Mamiverse: We understand a candelabrum set you off on this journey and helped light the way to your past and that you now have a fuller understanding of your own history. What did you learn that you most treasure?
Santiago: As a memoir writer, I took great pride in how much I remembered. Conquistadora has taught me just how much we forget. It’s an important lesson for an adult, because the older we get, the more we look back—sometimes to make amends, sometimes to learn more about our history, sometimes because memories float in uninvited. What I most treasure from this experience, is the book. In the process of writing Conquistadora I’ve learned about Puerto Rican history, and have captured my own.
Mamiverse: How is this novel different from your previous works?
Santiago: Because it’s a novel, Conquistadora gave me the opportunity to use my imagination, unfettered by the reality of my life. I had permission to create mine and the history of my family’s ancestors, forgotten until now.
Mamiverse: You’ve said that in your research you ran into gaps, so to speak: You began to doubt whether someone like Ana existed; how only blancos left records and how it was hard to find information on Puerto Rican slaves…in the end, you resolved all of these issues for your novel. Are there any lessons we can all draw from this dearth of information?
Santiago: The more frustrating the process became when I couldn’t find information, or when historical data was conflicting or incomplete, the more determined I became to look for a way to learn more, to organize the stories, to set aside judgement about people. The more you learn about history, the more you realize that history does not take place in a vacuum. It is people who create history — the only creatures on this planet that do that.
Mamiverse: What can women today learn from Ana?
Santiago: Modern women can learn from Ana that you can create your own life, that in order to do so you must be determined, tenacious, brave, and value your ambition.
Mamiverse: You became a writer after a career as a writer/producer of documentary and educational films, what advice can you offer aspiring writers?
Santiago: Writers must read. Writers must read everything including what they don’t like. They must read so they can understand how other writers solve literary problems and they must learn to critique other writers’ work so that they can be better editors of their own work. I can’t tell you how often people tell me they want to be writers but they don’t like to read. Well, this is going to be a problem when they have to read their own work!
Please share your favorite Mami moment or memory. (Either as a mother, with your child/children; or as a daughter, with your own mother/mother figure.) As a mother and as a daughter it’s impossible to choose one favorite moment or memory. There are many—hundreds, thousands perhaps—that are memorable. Each one is precious, unforgettable, and part of who I am.