Monday, June 26, 2006

Her Story

Immigration novel drew from writer's own journey

By Daniel A. Olivas
[This profile first appeared in the El Paso Times]

Creative-writing professors often admonish their students to "write what you know." Apparently Reyna Grande took this advice to heart with her debut novel, Across a Hundred Mountains (Atria Books, $23).

Grande eloquently and with great power puts a human face on undocumented immigration with Juana, a poor Mexican girl who leaves her small town to find her father in the United States.

"I used many of my own experiences to give shape to Juana's life," Grande said.
For example, when she was just a few years old, her father and later her mother left for the United States to earn money to give their children a better life. In the novel, Juana's father leaves when she is 12.

The crushing poverty Grande's family endured in Mexico also made its way into the novel: "When my parents left, my siblings and I lived in a little shack made of bamboo sticks and tar-soaked cardboard, which is exactly like the shack where Juana lives." The nearby canal flooded their shack during the rainy season; Grande made that a pivotal plot element in Juana's story.

Grande's journey to the United States as an undocumented immigrant imbues the novel with realistic and horrifying details that could only come from experience: "I still remember the helicopter flying above us, and the dead man we found hidden under some bushes." Of course, Grande had to research aspects of her narrative when she lacked experiences to draw on, but this is the job of a novelist who wants to get it right.

Grande's next project is an as-yet-untitled novel that explores the world of folklórico. "Mexican folk dancing is a subculture in the Latino community, but it isn't written about much," she notes. In the novel, she writes about five women and their relationship to folklórico. An excerpt will be published in Latinos in Lotus Land: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature, which will be released in 2007 by Bilingual Press.

There is no question that Grande is living the American dream. She was born in Guerrero, Mexico, in 1975, and entered the United States at age 9. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in creative writing from the University of California at Santa Cruz. With that, she became the first person in her entire family to obtain a degree. In 2003, Grande became a PEN USA Emerging Voices Fellow, which led to her getting a literary agent who placed Grande's novel with Atria Books.

Grande hasn't let critical acclaim go to her head: "I struggle to improve my life little by little because I have a son who looks up to me."

A child couldn't ask for a better role model.

Praise for Across a Hundred Mountains:

 Publisher's Weekly gave it a "starred review."

 The prestigious Kirkus Reviews called it "an affecting debut on Mexican poverty, illegal immigration and cosmic injustice."

 The El Paso Times praised the book in a review ("Not so alien after all") April 16.

Yvette Benavides offers a recent review in the San Antonio Express-News.

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