Interview With Award-Winning Poet and Author Melinda Palacio

The Autry Museum will present 'Book Talk With Melinda Palacio' on Saturday, Sept. 17

By LatinoLA Contributor
Published on LatinoLA: September 4, 2011

Interview With Award-Winning Poet and Author Melinda Palacio

Melinda Palacio's "Ocotillo Dreams" is set in Chandler, AZ. This emotionally potent and captivating tale explores themes both intensely personal and politically timely. Against the backdrop of the migrant sweeps of 1997, Isola arrives in Chandler to put her late mother's affairs in order, only to unearth concealed depths she never knew existed, and encounters the people whose lives her mother touched.

Inspired by her time spent living in Chandler as well as by events in her personal life, Palacio, who lost her own mother at roughly the same age as the character of Isola, has crafted a narrative that offers a window into the charged atmosphere surrounding the undocumented immigrant community, while exploring the emotionally evocative terrain of a young woman facing both enormous loss and the possibility of finding love.

Palacio notes that what she experienced while living in Chandler provided a rich store of dramatic material. "The neighbors suspected that the house I bought was a way-station for undocumented immigrants," she recalls, adding that although she lived there more than a decade ago, recent developments in the immigration debate and socio-political landscape in Arizona have imbued her story with a fresh relevance.

Question: Isola, the central character in Ocotillo Dreams, loses her mother at age 24, about the same age as you lost your own mother. How much did that real-life experience influence you to create a character at this age and stage of life?

Answer: The fact that I experienced the death of my mother at age 24 was both paralyzing and empowering. Paralyzing because the loss is such a shock and empowering because I was forced to make choices and decisions without the benefit or expectation of a mother's approval. I wanted to instill that dichotomy in the character of Isola.

The death of my own mother was the strongest emotion I've experienced. In my own life, I leaned on the paralysis of the situation. Empowerment, for me, came with time. However, the events of the novel are compressed. Isola doesn't have the luxury of time. She inherits a house in Chandler and her choices set her in motion. Writing Ocotillo Dreams years later, woke me up. I wish I had thrown myself into fiction and poetry sooner.

Q: The story unfolds in Chandler, Arizona, where you lived around the same time as the setting of the novel, 1997. What was it about that time and place that compelled you years later to place the story there and then?

A: When I first moved to Chandler, the neighbors speculated that the house I lived in was a "way station for illegals." There were several questionable coincidences about the house. For example, the owner of the house didn't reside there. He lived in Mexico and presumably rented out the three-bedroom home to several different families who never spoke to any of the neighbors. When I moved in, I met some of the previous residents, none of whom seemed related to each other. They were supposed to have vacated the home before I took possession.

Meeting some of the families was an important seed idea for Ocotillo Dreams. I vaguely recall their modest possessions and shy demeanor. Had I known their stories would play such an important role in my novel, I would've spent more time talking to them. However, we were each sensitive about not intruding on the other's space. They seemed very nice and rather apologetic that they were still gathering last-minute items and waiting for someone to bring a truck and help with their move.

Q: How many parallels are there between the Chandler of 1997 and the situation in Arizona today?

A: I was stunned by the INS raids of 1997. I had never witnessed such a violation of the rights of citizens. However, border anxiety and extremist and terrorist action is not new. In the 30's and again in the 50's with "Operation Wetback," our government unjustly raided and deported Mexicans, especially after they were no longer needed when World War II ended. In Arizona today, the state's government is attempting to pass laws that target Mexicans who are employed and exploited in this country. In 1997, the raids were not justified by racist and unconstitutional laws.

The current government in Arizona wants to provide a justification for making citizens feel uncomfortable in their home state by targeting people who look Mexican and making them carry their papers. Although I was not rounded up in the INS Sweeps of 1997, it was easy for me to imagine the situation. I thought I would be writing a historical novel about an unfortunate situation that happened in the past. I never thought the events would repeat themselves and the law of the land would become more hostile.

Q: It's not often we meet a central, Latina character such as Marina, who was an overtly political, bohemian figure, a true "child of the 60's." Did you mostly draw inspiration from your own mother, or have you known many Latina women who had similar social and political values?

A: My mother considered herself a child of the Sixties. She instilled in me a fascination for the era. I continue to be influenced by the idea that community and the beliefs of individuals can change the world for the better. I drew on the experiences of all the men and women who espoused those free-thinking attitudes. Imagining a character with heightened social and political values wasn't far-fetched, given my mother's circle of friends who were political activist and revered people such as Cesar Ch?ívez and Dolores Huerta.

Q: The themes and tone of your novel range from the very intimate, that of mother and daughter, and of lovers, to the more political or societal, that of the confrontation between the undocumented workers and law enforcement or the "establishment." How do you balance those themes?

A: The political and intimate converge to tell the bigger story of the novel. Balancing the two themes was important in order to give equal weight to the characters and the underlying social situation exposed their inner strengths and weaknesses. Ocotillo Dreams isn't solely a family drama or a political thriller. A tight and quick pacing to the story helped balance those themes. I didn't bask in the narration of Isola's life story. There are a few scenes from her childhood and adolescence that explore her upbringing and early consciousness, but the novel develops with Isola as an adult who has lost her mother.

Q: You also manage to navigate quite skillfully between the perspectives of the different characters: Isola, who is educated, driven and sometimes dubious of her own emotions; Cruz, who comes from a more humble background, who is most concerned with survival and subsistence, and who, though very passionate, rarely takes his eye off his own purposes. Then there is Pifi, who again, has had such different experiences from Isola and who interacts so differently with those close to her. Though this is clearly Isola's story, how do you give voice to the other characters in such a full-bodied way?

A: After spending a great deal of time learning the history of every major and minor character, I realized that each could have their own novel. However, ultimately I chose to reveal only the details that moved the story forward and leaned on the judicious and sparing side when it came to how much of each character I exposed. As a poet, I enjoy carefully choosing my words and scenes. Lately, I enjoy reading plots that move quickly and keep you turning the page.

Q: In the novel, Marina had a central, almost mythical, role in the group Rescate Angeles, a volunteer organization that helps undocumented immigrants to cross the border safely and rescues those who may be in peril. How much did you research such groups and what was your experience of them?

A: Although I heavily researched this fictional novel, I had no direct experience with such a group. Most of the details I imagined or extrapolated from various interviews. When I first started writing the novel, I took copious notes from newspaper articles and radio shows. The detail of the police units on bicycles was something I could never make up. Who would think to ride around in the desert heat on a bicycle, stopping and arresting people in their own neighborhood? At some point, I abandoned my notes and allowed the characters to tell their story. There were certain details, such as the events of the INS sweeps which I felt I had to get right in order for the novel to have historical accuracy. I strove to maintain a balance between the historical accuracy and the fictional world of the narrative. I wanted enough details to write a historical novel and then SB 1070 happened and my historical story became a timely, contemporary novel.

Q: Your collection of poetry Folsom Lockdown has received much praise and was recognized by Kulupi Press as the winner of the "Sense of Place" Poetry Chapbook Contest. You create a strong sense of place in your work. Can you discuss the importance of "place" in a novel and in poetry?

A: I noticed that I treat place as another character. Most of what I write, whether it's fiction or poetry, takes place somewhere. That somewhere or sense of place has always been important. I am keenly aware that the place where I grew up has shaped who I am. My more vivid and powerful poems narrate a particular place. It's fun to play with words and write something that has no connection to a person or a place, but to me that's more of an intellectual exercise. Ocotillo Dreams must be set in Chandler, Arizona because I am writing about the INS sweeps that happened there in 1997.

Q: Can you discuss how you are able to transition from poetry writing to writing a novel? What are the differences in the creative process? Similarities?

A: I have to go back to my days of writing non-fiction and journalism pieces to figure out how I transitioned to writing poetry. The answer is complicated because I think I've always been a closet poet, even before I knew what poetry meant, and before I ever envisioned myself as a writer. When I first took a poetry-writing workshop, I realized I had drafts of poems in various notebooks I kept hidden away. I also wrote things down in a notebook.

Perhaps, this is why the creative process for me always begins with pen and paper, instead of my computer.

I think beginning writers shy away from the blank page or computer screen. When I want to linger on sounds and language, I know I'm writing a poem. A novel is a piece of writing on a much grander scale, a longer story you live and breathe life into and wait until is done or you are satisfied with the ending and character developments. When I set out to work on a novel, there's no doubt I'm creating an entire world where events happen and characters change. I can have a similar feeling of living with a poem before it is finished.

Info on the September 17 book signing at the Autry here.

Author's website

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