Monday, July 06, 2015

Graciela Limón: “The crime ... demanded that I build a novel around it”

 An interview by Daniel A. Olivas

Graciela Limón, the daughter of Mexican immigrants and a native of Los Angeles, is best known for her much-taught novels, Song of the Hummingbird and In Search of Bernabé — the latter of which won the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award in 1994.

Her long list of novels now includes a new book The Intriguing Life of Ximena Godoy (Café Con Leche, paperback, $15), which traces the life of the title character from Mexico during the Revolution to Los Angeles of the early 1950s.

Part historical novel, part noir mystery, Limón brings all her storytelling talents to the table to create a thrilling and consequential narrative.

Q: What (or who) inspired you to create Ximena Godoy?

A: When I was a child, a crime of much notoriety happened here in Los Angeles (my hometown). A well-known couple, husband and wife, who were also owners of a swinging nightclub on Sunset and Alvarado, were the victims of a botched holdup. The husband was shot to death by the assailant, and the wife was left behind in shocked disbelief.

The whole thing made big news in the city’s then very thriving newspapers. I still remember the huge front-page photo of the wife, knocked to her knees, holding the bleeding head of her husband.

They were Mexican American, and the people of my own East Los Angeles barrio talked of nothing else. This included my mom and dad, and all the grownups in the family. What was interesting was that the chisme was heavily spiced with the suspicion that the wife was implicated in the crime, and the assailant was her lover.

To my knowledge, the crime went unsolved. This story has stayed with me all these years until it finally demanded that I build a novel around it. And this is the heart of Ximena Godoy — a crime of greed, betrayal and murder.

Q: Your novel runs from the Mexican Revolution to Los Angeles in the early 1960s and has a well-researched feel to it. Did you immerse yourself in Mexican and Los Angeles history?

A: I did, very much so, but I’ll say that Mexico and Los Angeles are really a part of me anyway. I think it’s because I’m the daughter of Mexican immigrants with roots here in Los Angeles, but also in Mexico.

My parents’ frequent trips to Mexico to visit brothers and sisters who had been repatriated at the time of The Repatriation were the main reasons for those trips, and as a child, that world of colonial homes and churches captivated my imagination. The family had several storytellers who told of the Revolution, of their migration up to Los Angeles, and even of their deportations back to Mexico. Included in all of that storytelling were, of course, the scary tales of ghosts (animas), as well as of cemeteries and leaders. This also captivated my imagination, and has stayed with me.

Then, as an adult, I resided in Mexico City for two years as I achieved a master’s degree. This experience exposed me to the deep heart of Mexico’s indigenous and pre-Christian people.

Although I’m a native of Los Angeles, I felt at home and part of that beautiful and mystical land. I believe this powerful feeling shows not only in “The Intriguing Life of Ximena Godoy” but in my other work.

Of course, Los Angeles is part of me. I was born here and went to school here. The city is under my skin, so to speak. I love my city and its streets, its history, its incredible mix of people, so that I feel always at home writing about it.

[This interview first appeared in the El Paso Times.]

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