I've known New Orleans author Mary Helen Lagasse for a few years. She's the only author I know who was born in New Orleans, but whose parents are from Mexico. Lagasse emphasized that her father instilled a pride in being Mexican and only allowed his children to speak Spanish inside the house. She regrets not retaining a strong command of the language. Her first novel, The Fifth Sun (Curbstone Press 2004), won the Miguel Mármol Prize and the Premio Aztlán Literary Prize. Eleven years later, Curbstone also published her new novel, Navel of the Moon, which mines Lagasse's childhood in the Irish Channel of New Orleans. The Irish Channel, a neighborhood settled by Irish immigrants in the early 19th Century.
Set in the 1960-70s Irish Channel, the novel is the coming of age story of Vicenta Lumière, "Vicky," a young girl whose street and intellectual savvy lead her to become a journalist who visits Lonnie, her childhood friend, in prison. It's clear from Vicky's feisty and precocious personality that she will prevail. What makes this book endearing is the sense of community brought to the place and the secrets that unfold as Vicky befriends a holocaust survivor and her sister.
Heart of the Channel was the working title of the novel. Lagasse says she reserves the right to settle on a final title until the themes become more defined, a process that takes three or four drafts. At the center of Navel of the Moon is Mimi, Vicky's grandmother, who steals the show from Vicky as she delivers the title line and declares to Vicky and her friend that she is from the navel of the moon. For Vicky, a traviesa dreamer who wants to right the wrongs of the world around her, the navel of the moon symbolizes a place of safety and refuge, says Lagasse. For the grandmother, navel of the moon is the more literal term for the nahuatl word for mexica.
Betrayal is a central theme of Lagasse's novel, from betrayal of the Catholic priests to betrayal among family and friends, Lagasse weaves a truthful story and infuses her characters with so much complexity that the novel reads like non-fiction. However, the author assures us that the events and characters are made up. "Some of my most vivid or 'real' characters sprung whole and complete from my imagination," Lagasse said, "Valentina Himel and her sister, The Cat Layd, Holocaust survivors are one hundred percent fictional, as are the parental figures." But the adage of write what you know certainly adds vividness to the novel set in the milieu of Mary Helen's real childhood in New Orleans. For Lagasse, lyricism and word choice are important in her narrative. "I will wrestle to find the right word that moves me," she said. "I strive for a beautifully written work." Lagasse also took the photograph to the cover of Navel of the Moon. She taught herself Photoshop to produce the perfect cover for her novel.
Navel of the Moon by Mary Helen Lagasse
Lagasse's next book takes on the subject of Irish immigrant workers who died at the New Basin Construction site in New Orleans. Her current working title for this book is Brigid Fury.
Mary Helen Lagasse's book launch for Navel of the Moon will be at Octavia Books, July 30 at 6pm.