It's not like I didn't know some English at ten when we landed in New York City. But classroom English, heavily laced with Spanish, did not prepare me for the "barbaric yawp" of American English -- as Whitman calls it. I couldn't tell where one word ended and another began. I did pick up enough English to understand that some classmates were not very welcoming. Spic! a group of bullies yelled at me in the playground. Mami insisted that the kids were saying, Speak! And then she wonders where my storytelling genes come from.
When I'm asked what made me into a writer, I point to the watershed experience of coming to this country. Not understanding the language, I had to pay close attention to each word -- great training for a writer. I also discovered the welcoming world of the imagination and books. There, I sunk my new roots. Of course, autobiographies are written afterwards. Talk to my tías in the D.R. and they'll tell you I was making up stuff way before I ever set foot in the United States of America. (And getting punished for it, too. Lying, they called it back then.) But they're right. As a kid, I loved stories, hearing them, telling them. Since ours was an oral culture, stories were not written down. It took coming to this country for reading and writing to become allied in my mind with storytelling. All through high school and college and then a graduate program in creative writing -- you can get all the dry facts in my attached resume -- I was a driven soul. I knew that I wanted to be a writer. But it was the late sixties, early seventies. Afro-American writers were just beginning to gain admission into the canon. Latino literature or writers were unheard of. Writing which focused on the lives of non-white, non mainstream characters was considered of ethnic interest only, the province of sociology. But I kept writing, knowing that this was what was in me to do.
Of course, I had to earn a living. That's how I fell into teaching, mostly creative writing, which I loved doing. For years, I traveled across the country with poetry-in-the-schools programs, working until the funds dried up in one district, and then I'd move on to the next gig. After five years of being a migrant writer, I decided to put down roots and began teaching at the high school level, moving on to college teaching, and finally, on the strength of some publications in small magazines and a couple of writing prizes, I landed a tenure-track job.
1991 was a big year. I earned tenure at Middlebury College and published my first novel, How The García Girls Lost Their Accents. My gutsy agent, Susan Bergholz, found a small press, Algonquin Books, and a wonderful editor, Shannon Ravenel, willing to give "a new voice" a chance. I was forty-one with twenty-plus years of writing behind me. I often mention this to student writers who are discouraged at nineteen when they don't have a book contract!
With the success of García Girls, I suddenly had the chance to be what I always wanted to be: a writer who earned her living at writing. But I'd also fallen in love with the classroom. I toiled and troubled about what to do. After several years of asking for semester leaves, I gave up my tenured post. Middlebury College kindly invited me to stay on as a writer-in-residence, advising students, teaching a course from time to time, giving readings.
So here I am living in the tropical Champlain Valley. (That's the way…