Rain Village


Tricked and Exposed, from Powells.com

When my first novel, Rain Village, was published this fall, one of the hardest things for me was having to talk about it. I had no idea it would be so difficult. I have been asked about what is real and what isn’t, who inspired certain characters, how much of the main character is me. For years I actually believed I was making up the characters and places out of thin air. I am not four feet tall with hands as small as plums, like my narrator Tessa. I have barely ever been on a farm. I have never traveled with a circus or flown on the trapeze. Even the thought of swinging back and forth above a net gives me a headache.

It has only been in the last few months, and slowly, that the book is coming into relief, becoming a weird web of associations and emotions I don’t quite understand. I don’t know if this is something all writers go through, but I feel tricked and exposed, even astonished at how the book gathers all my myths and obsessions and weird fixations and offers them up to the world with a bow.

One inspiration that seemed pretty clear-cut was Mexico. Tessa ends up moving from the Midwest to a villa just outside Mexico City, the winter quarters of the Velasquez Circus. My mother lived in Mexico City from when she was 9 to 17, after her father, a plant manager for a brick company, transplanted the family from a small town in Missouri. I remember hearing about Mexico for as long as I can remember hearing stories. When I was a little kid in Illinois my mother was friends with a Venezuelan woman named Irene, an exchange student with a thick accent and a penchant for eating the thick white parts of a chicken. They would speak Spanish together and we would be reminded that my mother had experienced this other, secret life, in a strange part of the world where people rolled their r’s and kept parrots as pets.

But it is only with the book in front of me that I realize how Mexico is one of the great myths shaping my life. That that is how stories work, I suppose, and how mothers work, too.

My sister and I always knew that we were lacking, not financially or emotionally, but in some other nameless, intangible way. Our teenage years were spent in the middle of Pennsylvania in the ’80s—my father was a professor at a few different universities when we were growing up—in a college town full of disaffected youth, with nothing to do and hours of farmland in any direction. We had to make our own fun. We smoked pot, listened to punk rock, shoplifted. Had gropey, awful sex. Our lives were like a bad teen movie. We spent hours in the local diner drinking coffee and smoking endless cigarettes. We cut class, hung out downtown—big groups of us sitting in grass, smoking and talking behind the wall that separated the town from the campus. I think we all wanted desperately to be anywhere else.

Against this, looming over it, was my mother’s past. The ’50s. Mexico City. Where there were dances in the plaza, live music, mariachis. She and her friends would dress up in full skirts with crinolines and put combs in their hair and dance with boys in suits under the stars. My mother lived in houses with balconies and tile floors and iron gates, with maids who taught her to embroider pillows and make mole from scratch. Her family wasn’t rich, but that’s how things were then, there, for Americans. How lucky she was, I thought, to have been whisked away from the Midwest and taken to this beautiful, magical place. In Mexico, they had pet parrots and pet burros. They ate sopapillas and flan. My mother had boxes of jewelry from back then, full of wild and wonderful, darkened silver. I used to sit in front of the mirror and hold those crazy dangling earrings with Mayan gods carved into them up to my ears.

My mother kept a stash of high school yearbooks in the cabinet under the stereo. Thick, moldy things, all in black and white. I used to spend hours poring over them, staring at those faces, wondering what those people were like, what happened to them after. She went to the American High School in Mexico City, and in the ’50s it was a very glamorous place, with students from all over the world, the children of ambassadors and international businessmen. I picked out all the boys who looked like movie stars with their suit jackets and pompadours, their suave European faces, the girls with curled hair and lipstick and sweaters. I memorized the pictures of students spread over the football field at lunch time, smiling up in groups with the sun in their faces, the girls’ skirts flaring around them, making circles in the grass. Here was an alternative life. Another way to grow up, to relate to the world.

My mother talked about a boyfriend she had, Luis, who played the guitar and was a gentleman, a tall, dark-haired, dark-eyed boy. He was the alternative to the awkward drunk boys we went to schools and parties with. Once, my mother said, Luis had serenaded her under her balcony, singing sweet songs to her while playing his guitar. I knew plenty of boys who played the guitar, but not like that, not without shouting into microphones and scowling out at us in filthy beer-can-littered basements. I always imagined Luis as Mexican, shy and fluttery, and he probably is the basis for my character Mauro, the beautiful tightrope walker Tessa eventually falls in love with. I even named one of Mauro’s charismatic tightrope-walking brothers Luis. Only in talking with my mother about this essay did I realize that Luis (Louis, as it turns out) was actually an American.

All of this went into Rain Village, which is about a strange misfit girl from a Kansas farm town who grows up to become a star of the trapeze in an old-time traveling sideshow and circus based in Mexico. And it is about the magical, storytelling librarian Mary Finn who gives her the means to get there, who shows her what other selves she can be and hands her a new life, a real life. Of course I would write about the Midwest, and imagine a girl escaping to the Mexico my mother had described for me, to a villa perfumed with gardenias and jacaranda, with open windows and crucifixes and bare tile floors.

I have never been to Mexico City. In fact, I’ve only been on a day trip to Tecate, right after I moved to Los Angeles for graduate school, after which I had terrible food poisoning that kept me in bed for days. But I always knew that the Mexico City my mother spoke of was lost. “It is not the same place now,” she would say, her face twisting up. “With all the crime and the pollution.” I always picture the city as being so dirty you can’t walk down the street without coughing, the sky pitch black and pressing down. The Mexico City I long for does not exist and maybe never existed except in my mother’s story, my memory, my book.

This fall I asked my mother what happened to those yearbooks. I wanted to look at them again, and she was surprised and wondered what on earth I would want to look at them for. She had thrown them away, it turned out, a few years ago. I was shocked: how could she? But for her they were old, dusty things. She had no idea what they meant for me, what dreams they fueled against my life that seemed so flat in comparison, how I would one day write about a girl stuck in a farm town who ends up in the most magical place, the winter quarters of a circus located right outside Mexico City. It is strange, I think, how myths works, how fantasies are born, how the stories you tell can transform in the mind of the one listening, and create a world for them.