Jan/Feb 2016  •   Reviews & Interviews

Bloom & Balm: An Interview with Vanessa Blakeslee

Review by Kristie Smeltzer

Once upon a time in grad school, Vanessa Blakeslee and I became friends. Recently we reconnected in advance of the debut of her first novel, Juventud. This work follows publication of her short story collection Train Shots (Burrow Press), which won the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction and has been optioned for a feature film script. In Juventud, we follow Mercedes Martinez from formative experiences in her teens into her soul-searching mid-20s, doing a fair amount of globetrotting in the process. This alluring, challenging book about love, deep secrets, political intrigue, and finding one's sense of self leaves the reader satisfied yet still pondering the course of a life in progress. Vanessa and I connected to discuss Juventud during her book tour.


KS     Mercedes starts the novel as almost a blank canvas, just beginning to understand who she really is. She then has a lot of life experiences happen quickly—they reveal character and move her to act, sometimes before she may be ready. How do you see Mercedes' development of her sense of self—in relationships, professionally, and as a member of her family—as something girls and women can relate to?

VB     I very much wanted to explore the assertiveness in Mercedes's character through her sexual coming-of-age—to show a young woman who is comfortable enough in her body and relationship to be proactive about losing her virginity in a healthy way and up front about experiencing and deserving her own pleasure. She and Manuel "wait" a respectable amount of time before having intercourse, so they get to know each other's character; I saw them as trusted friends by that point, and hope readers will, too. There are too few instances, in books and on the screen, that tastefully depict young men pleasuring young women, which prompted the bedroom scene with Manuel and Mercedes on the night of her birthday party. I'm not aware of cunnilingus concluding a chapter elsewhere in literature. Please enlighten me if such a scene exists!

Moreover, I was most interested in Mercedes as an embodiment of the global citizen of today, the highly-educated Millennial who inhabits several different identities and cultures, and how she navigates the paths available to her. Education and access to birth control are enabling women around the world to make strides and command their destinies for the first time in human history; I found myself invested in giving a female protagonist full rein, seeing how her roots in a conflicted country leave their mark on her emotionally as she otherwise achieves success.

KS     I'm both proud and a bit chagrinned about publicizing an interview that includes the word cunnilingus—but mostly proud. We both share an Italian Catholic upbringing, so you get that, I'm sure. Religion, in particular Catholicism and Judaism, features prominently in the novel. Catholicism is key to some of Mercedes' relationships in Colombia, and she later spends time with her Jewish mother in Israel. What impact or tension do you see these religions having on the setting and relationships in the novel?

VB     Colombia is an overwhelmingly Catholic country; the very philosophy behind the guerilla movements in South America is that of Marxist liberation theology, which interprets the Christian faith from the perspective of the poor, and in the early days of the guerilla movements, the 1950s and 60s, adopted Marxist teachings in their advocacy for social justice. When I came across the ELN revolutionaries kidnapping the congregation of La Maria Church in a wealthy district of Cali, I knew this had to affect my characters somehow. La Maria Juventud and its leaders, Emilio and his impassioned brother Manuel, were born.

Much like the young activist brothers, Diego, Mercedes' father, is also Catholic. But he had come of age at the height of the cartels and lost his faith. Brought down by his ego, Diego's struggle is to reclaim himself.

The Catholicism also prompted me to bring in the Jewish thread to the book—I'm always looking how to complicate threads further to create more contrast and meaning. Wouldn't it be interesting, I thought, if her mother is not only American but Jewish, and if her mother is on an identity-quest of her own, and if Mercedes eventually goes to visit her in Israel? And then we have the contrast between another decades-long conflict, that of Israel and Palestine, and the Colombian civil war. So in the latter half the book expands outward to reflect not just the issues of social justice and violence in South America, but the global conflicts still raging today. The common ground between Judaism and Christianity is unearthed, but also the divide between the religious and secular.

KS     In the novel, we see Mercedes come-of-age as a teen and also follow her into her adulthood. What influenced you to have the novel span that amount of time in the protagonist's life?

VB     I felt strongly early on that for the story to carry significance, we had to follow Mercedes into adulthood and witness the impact the harrowing events of her adolescence has on the rest of her life. And I also felt this wasn't a YA novel—although it certainly could appeal to the sophisticated younger reader, the Honors and AP English students who are already devoted to literature. I very much hope it does.

Some reviewers have pointed out that the second part of the book is considerably shorter than the first—Part One covers the first six months of 1999 in Cali, until Mercedes escapes, and Part Two spans the next 15 years. But I think this criticism is shortsighted; first of all, plenty of novels throughout literature do this, play with very unequal time frames. The rule in fiction is, you only need to show the crucial moments, and when I sat back in Part Two and asked if I should be spending more time there, time and again, the answer was no. Fifteen years in 100 pages was all I really needed to depict how Mercedes has been marked by her past, and specifically the events befalling her involvement with La Maria Juventud. So the first two-thirds of the novel depicts the coming-of-age love story, the final third who Mercedes becomes as an adult, and the fateful return where she ultimately is forced to reckon with, and say goodbye to, her youth.

KS     The novel also explores intense feminist issues. At times even 15-year-old Mercedes sees how she's being controlled. How does feminism inform your writing? Do you feel it's important as a woman writer to contribute to the feminist conversation?

VB     First, I'm so glad to hear Mercedes' cognizance of how she's being manipulated at times by the men around her came through; getting her burgeoning awareness to hit the right notes took numerous drafts. I am a feminist, and I am a writer. Your questions remind me of the quote by Flannery O'Connor, from her wonderful collected writings, Mystery and Manners: "Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing." Because I believe in a woman's right to have control over her own body, no matter what, in access to safe and affordable birth control, that as soon as any state power gains the ability to control a body, it has then seized control of the individual, male or female—these beliefs naturally trickle up through my imagination and into my fiction.

Prostitution remains much more peripheral in the novel than the contraceptive subplot, but no less important. The openness and prevalence of prostitution in Latin America is perhaps what shocked me most during my travels. Colombia has laws similar to Costa Rica regarding prostitution, meaning that it's legalized and regulated to certain zones, bars, brothels, etc. This, along with mandatory STD testing, serves to protect women (and society at large) as well as eliminate pimping. I hesitate to say "empower" because I find the practice of selling sex hardly healthy or empowering; if you've ventured into any of these "whore bars," the mood is unmistakably sad. Mercedes's brief brushes with putas are crucial to contrasting the different social classes: paths available to women and lack thereof. This, I hope, illustrates the privilege of Mercedes and her circle—there are only so many jobs with airlines, hotel chains, or zip-lining tourists through the jungle, and far more women who must fare for themselves and provide for children, with far more limited options. I hope these subtle, more tertiary notes shed greater light on Mercedes, her dreams and fears.

KS     We Americans seem to have a fascination with Colombian narcotics trafficking, as evidenced by the popularity of Netflix's docudrama Narcos. How did your research on the subject influence its role in Juventud? What other aspects of the novel would you like readers to respond to?

VB     Americans have a long history of being drawn to Colombia and the narcotics trade—a nagging pull that perhaps stems from our complicit role as a leading consumer of cocaine. Yet many Americans have a cursory, if erroneous, understanding of the conflict in Colombia, gleaned from sound bites they've picked up about the drug war, cartels, perhaps the FARC, but little else. The more I researched the history of the guerilla movement and the formation of the cartels and the key incidents on the timeline, both on the Internet and in fairly dense scholarly works, the more riveted I became in telling a story that more truly captures the sociopolitical landscape of Colombia—one that shines a light on the atrocities of the paramilitaries as much as the guerillas and narco-traffickers, and includes the millions of displaced alongside the wealthy. The depictions we're so used to seeing from the movies play up the "sexy danger" of Latin America: armored cars, bodyguards, lavish estates, gorgeous women. Those exist in Juventud, too, but in a way that I hope is much more balanced, lyrical, and revelatory. I haven't seen Narcos, but from what I've heard the series is one of the most authentic onscreen portrayals of the drug wars to date. I'm glad to hear it and intend to watch the show eventually—once the book tour dies down.

Not surprisingly, the more facts I unearthed in my research fed the shaping of the characters: their wants, actions, and the eventual themes. I studied everything from YouTube videos of Colombian peace rallies from the time to AP releases on hostage crises to interviews with paramilitary leaders. I also reached out to Latin American Studies experts for the most recent, reliable, and often dense, texts on the subject. The brutality of the guerilla and paramilitary atrocities' in the lives of peasants is unbelievably horrifying and propelled me onward—the book became much more than a love story I wanted to tell, but about the voices of so many in Latin America who scrape by day-to-day in terror, and are silenced.

KS     The novel is peppered with Spanish words, which add to the sense of immersion in Colombian culture. How did you decide when and where to incorporate Spanish? What authors influenced your approach to using snippets of multiple languages in the novel?

VB     I settled on a less-is-more approach for a few reasons with the Spanish. Namely, the reader knows the characters are native Colombians and therefore are speaking Spanish throughout Part One, and it struck me as unnecessary, jarring, and frankly hokey, to include too many phrases—plus then you run the risk of alienating the English-speaking reader who doesn't know Spanish. But a little bit of Spanish, here and there, does sufficiently remind the reader that we're in South America. I decided to eliminate almost all uses of Spanish in dialogue except for Papi and his workers calling Mercedes, "princesa," since that's more of a signature phrase.

Many writers string foreign words and phrases throughout their novels, but keep in mind, this is often to signal an interjection of a foreign speaker in dialogue that is otherwise being delivered in English. I wanted to avoid the annoying Hollywood faux pas in the reader's mind of Latino characters speaking English with Spanish accents, when in fact the reality is they're speaking Spanish the entire time, at least throughout Part One.

Part of what drew me into the novel in the early chapters is the interesting aspects of Mercedes life that are likely completely foreign for many Americans—having a driver, living in a large hacienda with guards, and other aspects of her life that are both about privilege and safety. What kind of research informed those aspects of Mercedes lifestyle? How does the juxtaposition of those realities in her early life with the life experiences of her activist friends and later her own experiences in America and Israel impact the story?

Many of the details which readers are finding alluring are those that I first heard of when I was an undergrad at Rollins College, where I'd become acquainted with several students from Latin America. They told stories of getting driven around by private chauffeurs in armed cars, having maids dress them until they were twelve. Then in 2008 I lived in Costa Rica; our landlady was a Colombian expat. The house my then-boyfriend and I rented had barred windows and a gate; we adopted a stray dog, hired a maid. Suddenly I found myself in that world, as you mention, of both privilege and safety. So after that experience I felt I understood and was writing from that place and researching as needed to fill in the gaps. The different circumstances of the subplot characters in comparison to Mercedes are, I hope, what give the book its poignant resonance. Ana is the most privileged, and we see how those who have the most find themselves in the greatest harm; not so for the characters of ordinary means, Inez and Fidel, who face a different set of troubles.

Mercedes retains a more pragmatic view after she arrives in the U.S., even though she remains a privileged young woman, because of having witnessed extreme poverty and hardship, and her own grapples with loss. Her ability to navigate both worlds is what makes her equipped to venture out by herself in Israel; had she been raised solely in America, I can't see her connecting with Asaf nor embarking on her explorations of Jerusalem during a violent period. And certainly it is her unique upbringing that makes her ideally suited, eventually, for her State Department job.

KS     I know you're a trained dancer (thanks, Facebook), performing with a professional company for a while. A supporting character in Juventud I felt most drawn to is Gracia, Mercedes' good friend who's a flamenco dancer. How did your dance practice inform writing Gracia and influence the novel in general?

VB     I had started taking Middle Eastern and world dance classes—folkloric, Polynesian, Romani— shortly before writing the first draft, and in many ways, dance was my salvation. Dance classes two or three times a week proved not merely a physical reprieve from the hours spent glued to my laptop, but an emotional release and a different kind of creative meditation. There were times when I'd be stuck, or just need a break from the world of words, and dance gives me that. I firmly believe I wouldn't have become as skilled of a literary writer today if not for those hours in the studio, learning choreography—almost like immersing oneself in a foreign language. Because of the book tour I haven't been dancing, and I feel almost sick without it. I have to accept I can't do both for now, and I hate that. But soon enough.

Fiction is about following passionate characters—these passions may or may not be noble, but they should be believable and intriguing. I wanted the arts to play a role in the novel with both Manuel and Carlos being avid guitarists, and when it came time to round out Mercedes' girlhood friends, Ana and Gracia, I sensed one of them needed to also be an artist. By then I was familiar enough with dance that I felt I could draw upon it convincingly for Gracia. But I was also responding to my experience living in Latin America—the street parade scene at La Maria is taken directly from my memory, and when I researched footage on YouTube, I came across numerous dance performances. Then of course, discovering that Santiago de Cali considers itself the world champions of salsa dancing—I couldn't invent a group of young people from Cali and not have at least a couple of them be really terrific salsa dancers. So that's how my own dance practice and research fell in step together, and left their imprint on Juventud.


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