Sunday, September 27, 2020

Marjorie Agosin

Marjorie Agosín is the Pura Belpré Award–winning author of I Lived on Butterfly Hill. Raised in Chile, her family moved to the United States to escape the horrors of the Pinochet takeover of their country. She has received the Letras de Oro Prize for her poetry, and her writings about—and humanitarian work for—women in Chile have been the focus of feature articles in the New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Ms. magazine. She has also won the Latino Literature Prize for her poetry. She is a Spanish professor at Wellesley College.

Agosin's new novel is The Maps of Memory: Return to Butterfly Hill.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The title of this book is the heart of the story; it came later to me, when the narrative was done. The characters of the book have created maps of the places their disappeared classmates lived. Each map becomes a memory of a lost life due to political upheavals. To create a cartography of a life is also to create a memory.

The editor liked this title. This collection is part of a series, and the first book is titled I Lived on Butterfly Hill, so we added a subtitle after The Maps of Memory: Return to Butterfly Hill. I love titles and I always give them as gifts to our fellow writers so this came as if it just happened. I am sure the unconscious plays a central part of a title but this one simply came and it is the perfect one.

Chile is a very long and thin country and everyone says, Oh yes Chile I have seen it in a map. This title evokes the story of a young adult involved in very brutal times, when a Dictator took over the nation and made those that did not think like him to simply disappear. The Maps of Memory wants to honor those that vanished and those who had ideals and wanted to create a better nation specially for those marginalized by the very wealthy.

What's in a name?

I gave the name Celeste to my character. It's beautiful in many languages but I love that Celeste also means sky or celestial and she is a dreamer and always gazes at the Chilean sky, one of the most pure and beautiful skies of our planet. The other characters are named after real people in my family, like my mother Frida. Celeste's grandmother is named Frida and Celeste's nana is named Delfina for my own nana that raised me.

The other name that is important to remember is Esmeralda, from Emerald like the stone. I did not know that Esmeralda would be the central part of the novel. A torture ship used by Pinochet forces is called La Esmeralda.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

My teenage self would love the story and be surprised that so much is happening and that the novel moves fast.

I am a poet and poetry reads slowly but my teen age self would read it all at once. I mean without skipping a beat ... and this is also part of the adventuresome spirit of the novel.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

For me it is always the beginning as it sets the tone of the story. It was hard to find the beginning, as each chapter felt like a beginning but my editor helped me find the right one. It begins with Celeste's mother looking at the ship where she was captive, La Esmeralda, and I knew this is how this novel had to begin.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I see a lot of myself in this novel. Celeste is a poet and a dreamer but she is more courageous than me and dares to do a lot, like looking for her parents and her friend who disappeared. I am also a doer but in a quieter way. Celeste is a young girl of action and deeply engaged with history and the world around her... but her longings and her love of the Spanish language and love of the country she left are very much my own emotions.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I have been inspired by world literature and world history and politics. I see that all of our shared humanity longs for freedom and dictators always leave. I am also inspired by Chile, a country of poignant beauty and was able to write about Chiloe, an island in the south of Chile where much of the story takes place. I am also inspired by the life of my family who fled the Holocaust and made Chile their home. Their courage has made me want to tell this story.
Learn more about The Maps of Memory: Return to Butterfly Hill.

--Marshal Zeringue