Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Grande Memoir Well Worth Reading

Review: Reyna Grande. A Dream Called Home. New York: Atria Books, 2018.
ISBN 9781501171420
Michael Sedano

I stared past the point of my bayonet and focused my gaze across Monterey Bay to the misty spot where Santa Cruz lay hidden behind the morning fog. The first chance I got, I promised myself, I would go there, to the city with the roller coaster, but especially seeking the complete opposite of the Army, the University of California campus. When I finally got there, I couldn’t find it.

Entering the roadway marked as “UC Santa Cruz” I couldn’t see the University for the trees. Astounding, the forest primeval all around. I stopped the car on an empty road. Somewhere to my left came the notes of a string quartet. Desperate, I pulled to the roadside and my wife and I headed in “route step march” through the redwood forest detritus. I pushed aside a ferny growth and spotted a rough-hewn timber structure. We had found UC Santa Cruz, the student union, and in Mozart’s enchanting rhythms, the opposite of military marching cadences.

Reading A Dream Called Home does that to one. Reyna Grande’s memoir of her first year of college at UCSC pumps up a reader’s own memories of that first year, whether that was in Isla Vista or back East. The roommate. Eating anglo food. The isolation of being the only brown face in sight. For Grande, she arrives feeling a refugee and liberated. She’s also nearly completely unprepared. For her, being away at college is not just about growing up, it's about eating.

Grande settles into a dorm as the only raza. She doesn’t know that a suitable population of raza across the gully and into the woods in one of the other residential colleges. A community college transfer, PCC hadn’t guided her post-acceptance process, so she took residence hall potluck.

What if she had known? What if her father hadn’t left her in Mexico? What if her mother hadn’t left her in Mexico? What if the Grande sisters and brother had lived an alternate life? It’s a question fundamental to memoir. Grande raises it early in the book in one of the author’s characteristic sparkling passages.

Betty turned to me and said, “Do you think things would have been different if they had never left? Do you think we would all be together as a family?”
Reyna Grande at Vroman's Pasadena CA

In the preceding paragraphs, Grande builds to Betty’s question. The girls led parallel lives. Reyna got beaten regularly by her father, often having no idea what she’d done. Betty was beaten regularly, by mother and stepfather, who screamed her sins as they pounded her flesh. Thus, Betty’s question, and big sister’s responsibility to paint a rosy picture.

If Reyna wanted to lie, the setting itself--grandmother’s home in Iguala--composes the writer-sister’s response, “silver moonlight streamed through the gaps in the wall made of bamboo sticks tied together with rope and wire. Her moonlit eyes looked at me with so much hope and innocence” Where big sister calls home now, redwood forest scents the night air.

“There’s nothing we can do to change it, Betty. But know what I want? I want to one day look back and say that it was worth it. All the pain, all the heartache.”

It’s up to readers to help answer if that dream is coming true. Riveted-to-the-page readers will be asking the same question because so many immigrant readers will share their own versions of this immigrant’s experience. The difference is, of course, Grande is a Writer, with a capital “W,” while the average reader eagerly devours any literature where they see themselves.

Reyna Grande is an immigrant from Mexico. That’s a big deal, according to the executive editor of the press, Johanna V. Castillo, who welcomes readers to “this magnificent memoir, a potent contribution to the ongoing discussion of immigration in the United States.”

That’s how marketing sees A Dream Called Home. There’s a montón of second- and third-generation, and longer time Californ' raza readers with twenty-two bucks to spend for a chance to see themselves in a book. Sabes que, though? There’s lots more in this memoir if a reader, or critic, or marketer, looks beyond Grande’s Chicanidad.

Alex Espinoza listens to a gesture
Memoir, especially, is a literature that offers what Kenneth Burke calls “equipment for living,” meaning a reader sizes up ambiguous experience through the lens of the memoirist’s story. The literary character and the reader, of course, lead separate existences. The writer’s art draws and binds them together.

The story of first-in-the-family to go to University addresses an enormous readership. Choosing to spin immigration will sell books and make an impact in a substantial market. Seeking that grander public challenges marketing expertise, but the payoff in sales alone makes the effort valuable.

Doesn’t matter if you’re a Southie from Boston or a Sureña from Bell, you won’t know to bring your own bedsheets that first night, unless you learn from this immigrant. Clearly, A Dream Called Home makes its “potent contribution” across class and ethnic lines. Every first generation college kid is going to recognize commonalities with that kid from Highland Park and Pasadena City College.

Spanish phrases and appositional translation indicate some effort to expand readership to the monolingual in English reader. For example, the girl going to college tells her mother farewell and all mom can muster is ahi nos vemos. Four pages later, the words are still digging into the author’s thoughts when, watching parents dropping scions off at the dorm loaded with good stuff, she feels Sin padre, sin madre, sin perro que me ladre. Italics call out the expression in standard if outmoded style, and the next sentence goes: “Without a father, without a mother, without a dog to bark at me.”

The remark is one of those gems people who appreciate structure get a kick out in when they read A Dream Called Home. Grande packs the writing with relentlessly engaging literariness that sneaks up on readers who don’t see how they’re being forced to turn the page then find rich reward thirty pages later. A visual approximation of Grande’s literary structure often comes in film. A vast blackness discerns a tiny spot of light. Zooming in, the light grows into a planet. Zooming down onto the landmass, there’s a city, a street, a house, a window, a particular story.

In this conceptual movement, Grande plants seeds she grows into fruitful story elements and verbal gems. From the opening pages--a preview in the tradition of “tell’em what you’re going to say,” organization--in which Grande defines setting, characters, point of view and voice, she drops an awful fact: her father refused to let me go to UCI, she claims, and moves on.

Pages after this, she’s fluidly connected global insights to ever more intimate experience, she gets to the UCI story, a long line of connections and background laid down and the ugly statement makes sense.

After the harrowing first days in the foreign land across the bay from Ft. Ord, Grande begins to settle in. She counsels a homesick homeboy that college is a lifetime opportunity and clearly believes the truth behind that cant, she’s thinking like a literature major comparing her situation to an eighteenth century French literary creation.

And she has a male roommate—coed dorms—who installs a cute animated screen saver on her monitor, “a little dog ran around the screen, and I could feed him, give him water, and throw balls for him to catch. He even barked! That old Mexican saying didn’t apply to me anymore. I still didn’t have a father or a mother, but I finally did have a dog to bark at me.”

And that’s all in Inglés, there’s no Spanish apposition about her perra suerte. She’s begun to fit in. Then she discovers raza at Santa Cruz, and ahi nos vemos, home and more evidence in that "was it worth it?" debate.

Alex and Reyna enjoying one another's company
Grande’s experience in the middle school classroom takes a reader back to that night in Iguala, about it being worth it, and all. Becoming a best-selling author and welcomed into the heart of disparate communities to talk about her book, has gotten the author out of those classrooms, good and bad, a good thing, no? Yes, for the reader, this Chicana Up the Down Staircase makes it worth it, and so, Goodbye Mrs. Ship. (Like Abuela Evila’s name, that’s a bilingual pun.)

Reyna the critic shines as teacher and mother mature to a critical point in the writer’s career. Shel Silverstein fans need to brace themselves for Grande’s keen critique of classroom-approved materials like The Giving Tree.

“Years later he returns as an old man—just as miserable as always—and the tree is nothing but a stump with nothing left to give of herself. He says, “I don’t need anything. Just a place to sit.” So, she offers him her stump to sit on.
When I finished reading the story, I wanted to hurl it out the window and never let my students read it—especially my girls. I refused to believe that to be a good mother I would have to give and sacrifice all until what remained of me was only a dead stump.”

Reviewing a memoir is akin to that ekphrastic philosophy that measure a picture’s value at a thousand words. Coming in at just over 300 pages, A Dream Called Home is better read than reviewed. Given all those “hey, I did that, too!” and “so that’s what it’s going to be like” pictures, readers will be reading and pausing, remembering and smiling, and saying, yeah, it was worth it. Or, check with me in ten years, but so far, yes, it is worth it.

Home is, when you dream it, you get to write it. For readers, it’s worth it.

A Dream Called Home will sell out al local booksellers, so get your order in right away. Grande's touring the book now. It's an ideal book to read while waiting in line to vote. Word is, GOTV this year will bring long, long lines of gente who know voting on 6Nov18 is worth it. See the publisher's page for the deluxe treatment Reyna's garnered from this major Manhattan publisher. link.


Antonio SolisGomez said...

beautifully written, intelligent review

Unknown said...

Gracias, Michael Te aventaste

Daniel Cano said...

Your review captures much, not only of Grande's book, but of your own memories and experiences, the differences between cultures--Mexican, Chicano, and American, as well as the blurring of what it ultimately takes to become American. Thanks for a fine piece, Michael.