Can You Just Trust That We’re Human: The Millions Interviews Natalia Sylvester


“They were married on the Day of the Dead, el Día de los Muertos, which no one gave much thought to in all the months of planning, until the bride’s deceased father-in-law showed up in the car following the ceremony.” So begins Natalia Sylvester’s new novel, Everyone Knows You Go Home, whose premise involves the firm rule that the deceased father-in-law, Omar, will only appear one day a year. Those regular appearances give the novel structure but also presented a problem: how to portray a world that had only a touch of the supernatural?

It was a craft challenge that took on a moral dimension. Sylvester had to find a tone and approach that honored the natural intrigue of the premise and opening sentence but that also portrayed it as a natural occurrence in the novel’s world and not an exotic caricature of a real cultural tradition.

But it wasn’t only the spirits that risked being exotified. Because many of the characters are immigrants, Sylvester was writing into established narrative expectations, not only for fiction but journalism as well, for what might happen to them: through overwhelming difficulty and suffering, desperate people struggle to reach their goal. The focus is on the terrible things that happen to them (encounters with cartels, coyotes, and ICE agents), and this novel certainly has those elements. But Sylvester didn’t want her novel to frame her characters’ lives around them.

She wanted to tell a different narrative. An immigration story isn’t only a story of crossing a border, she said. It’s a story about everything that happens afterward, of making a new home.

The Millions: How did you figure out the direction this novel would take? It begins with a spirit, and I would imagine that it would be very tempting to use that spirit every chance you can. That’s the direction that Coco went: into the land of the dead. But you went a different direction.

Natalia Sylvester: I knew I had these two people who were going to develop this very special and interesting bond. And already there were certain rules. He could only come once a year. One of the things I kept thinking of was, “What’s happening in between?” Even though you have this premise of the story, you forget that there’s the in-between moments of what’s happening. There’s what we think is happening, but then there’s actually what’s happening in between. It just so happened that with this story, there would be a lot of life going on in the year. That’s really what it became about. I had to shift that focus to what’s going on in the meantime and how’s that going to affect what happens when November 1 rolls around, and how is November 1 going to affect what happens in the year. 

TM: So much of the novel is built around journeys: Omar’s journey from beyond the grave, of course, but also the journeys taken by the group of immigrants in March 1981 and the different travels that the characters embark after they arrive. How did you manage to organize these different storylines?

NS: I didn’t intentionally think, let me make these journeys. I actually thought let me just think about their lives once they arrive. For me, when we moved to the U.S., we still had to move around so much. My whole childhood was defined by, okay, we’re in Miami, now we’re in central Florida, and then we moved to the valley. I remember those years being really defined by this idea of “but when will we be home.”

For the first 50 or so pages, I was alternating between the time lines, but it got to be too hard to keep track of. It was becoming too much about the timing and how each one led to the next and what note are you hitting on this one and the rhythm of it, and I thought, that’s not really helping the story. So I wrote that one out from beginning to end and then went back and started rewriting the present ones. On one of the last revisions—when I figured I was close to figuring out what it’d look like as a whole—I began weaving them together. A lot of the feedback was about the pacing was off. The first half was a little slow, but then you hit this one point. So it was then about how can you get to that one point, not necessarily faster but in a way that makes it more engaging.

TM: Was that revision focused on moving things around or cutting?

NS: Both. I went scene by scene and decided are there things that are in two scenes that could be in one. I started condensing. There was a whole perspective that I cut. The coyote, who only got one chapter. 

TM: Why?

NS: I feel like to choose a protagonist is, not necessarily to choose a side, but to say, “Here’s someone who deserves to be heard right now.” It’s not to say that someone like that doesn’t ever deserve to be heard, but I felt that there were all these others characters I wanted to focus on. So he only got that first one, which was really an establishing thing. On a plot level, the chapters with him, if you took them out, you could still figure out what had just happened because of the other characters. 

TM: It sounds like the decision to cut his sections amounted to a kind of moral choice.

NS: I think it is. And I think people aren’t aware sometimes that it is a moral choice. There is so much responsibility to writing. Even when you’re saying, I just want to write a book that’s fun for someone. A book can have the power, while being entertaining, to change how a person thinks or lay the groundwork for it or make them say, “I never thought of that before. Let me delve into that a little more.” So, it’s something that needs to be done very carefully. I know there’s some resistance to that, as if it’s telling someone what to think. People tend to react against it as if it’s censorship.

This is art, but it’s a powerful art, and so how about wielding it well? It’s about the craft, too. It’s going to make all of the book stronger. In the revision, it’s a step back, of thinking, what am I trying to say and what have I said? You can never know completely, obviously, because people are going to interpret everything a lot of different ways, but you try to do your best. It was helpful to me to get a lot of readings. The choice with the coyote was the result of a conversation with a friend, who said, “You don’t have to put him in there.” I said, “Well, it’s a lot of different perspectives,” and she said, “Why why why?” And I realized, actually, I don’t think this needs to be there.

TM: Beyond the coyote, there are characters with compelling stories who make only occasional appearances in the book. In particular, I’m thinking of Marisol, who crossed the border with Omar and Elda and who is part of one of the most gripping scenes of that trip. Were you ever tempted to give her more space in the book?

NS: She’s one of my favorite characters even though she’s not in there as much. I felt that she was strong enough to be okay with not having to be in the spotlight. She has agency and enough—not control, but this strength that allows me to know she’s okay. She’s got this. She’s got a lot of crap going on, but she’s going to be okay. Even if I turn away from her and leave her alone for a bit, she didn’t me need me looking over her, making sure she’s okay or exploring what’s going to happen next with her. It was important for me for her to be that way. When I did write her, I got all of her. To me, she was very captivating in whatever small bits she was given.

We have these immigration stories that are so often all about suffering and hardship. They’re a fetishization of the pain of all these different ways of being human. I didn’t want it to only be about her pain. That’s why I was willing to let her go, let her live her life and just check in and let her have these small triumphs.

TM: Did anyone ever suggest that you give her bigger triumphs or add more details about the suffering and pain the characters experience while crossing the border? The novel begins with Isabel and Martin, and in many ways, their story is unremarkable. They live in a nice house, have jobs, have plans for the future. They’re happy.

NS: Sometimes you don’t realize the things you’re pushing up against until someone pushes back. One of the things that someone said when the novel was out submission—and it came up a few times—was could it be more bombastic, that we get a lot of these everyday, mundane things. I really got very upset by that. I think this is a story worth telling. When we talk about universal stories that speak to universal truths, they often are very mundane stories except that they happen to be mostly told by white men. At one point, my agent said, “What do you think about this feedback? Should we do something about it?” I said, “No I don’t think we should. I’m only getting this feedback because they expect the story to look a certain way, to adhere to this idea that all life is suffering, that immigrants are border crossers.” I was also equally interested in what happens once you’re there. 

TM: It’s not like Isabel and Martin have no drama. They’re young newlyweds, and suddenly they’ve got Martin’s cousin Eduardo living with them.

NS: Exactly. I wanted to know, what is it like if you’re these newlyweds and suddenly you’re essentially raising a teenager? While I was writing this, at one point I went back to Peru because my grandfather was dying. I went back with my father. I remember we sat in the hospital with him for several days, and I kept thinking about what it was I had missed. You leave a whole country, you leave your home. Immigration also means a death. You’re leaving one life for another. You’re ending this whole life and existence that you had in order to hopefully live this new one. So, what’s the tradeoff. What’s lost in that trade?

We tend to think that what’s authentic is all these exoticized stories about suffering. It’s not that they’re not real, but they’re not the only ones. I grew up with a lot of different immigrant experiences, not just in my life but in the people around me. I didn’t think it would be fair to ignore this wide spectrum of experience. I’ve had some family members for whom it was a real struggle—friends for whom it was a real struggle—and others who were very lucky. For me, it wasn’t so much about the physical journey but what happens when you’re here and trying to make a life. What does that look like?

One of the questions that has always stuck in my head when I think of my parents leaving everything to come here is, how bad do things have to get for you to leave? I’m about the same age as my parents when they came here, and I can’t imagine picking up and leaving. What would make someone go? It’s a question I didn’t end up exploring through an immigration story but through Omar and Elda and what would make him want to leave her. Here’s someone you love with all your heart. It’s not that much different than leaving your whole country and life and all the people in it. That became the catalyst for so much in the book.

That question, what would make someone leave, is really saying to a reader, please try to understand this.

TM: What sort of research did you do to find out what would make people leave?

NS: At one point, I reached out to my friend group and asked, “If anybody has an experience they’d like to share, please reach out to me.” I did some personal interviews that way. I had conflicting feelings about the interview process. If you have to do it so much, then should you be writing this story? The people I was interviewing didn’t tell me everything, but I felt that if I could listen enough, then I could be able to try to put myself in their shoes and imagine it in a way that is compassionate and understanding and coming from a place of listening.

I feel that’s a choice I made in my first novel, Chasing the Sun, too. A lot of people ask, why don’t we get more details about what happens to Marabela when she’s kidnapped. I think that when you’re telling a story, you have this choice about how much someone needs to know. Who are you telling this for? Is it voyeuristic? To get someone to put themselves in the shoes of a person, do we need to divulge all of our pain and secrets? Do we need to relive all of our worst moments for you, or can you just trust that we’re human? Do I need to open up my veins for you and bleed to show you I’m human? That is something that applies especially to anyone who’s marginalized because we get this thrown back at us all the time: Is it authentic enough? Oftentimes that feels like code for, have you delved deep enough? Have you opened the veins? I’ve become very protective of the characters because they’re not just characters. They’re representative of the people I know and love.

I never used any actual details, taking someone’s story and reusing it as it happened in the book. I tried to understand the emotional aspects of it and tried to think about my characters and what would happen had they been in the same situation. Nothing in the book is based on people I talked to. 

TM: What was it like to write Omar’s scenes? On one hand, he’s a spirit, which is awesome, but he also can’t do much. Mostly, he talks, which isn’t inherently dramatic. How did you approach those scenes?

NS: I’m so glad you said that! It was hard to write those scenes because they only happen four times. There’s a lot to pack in there. I remember feeling, he can’t just keep coming over to just talk. What is he making happen? What are the results of his coming in? He doesn’t have a lot of power in a physical sense. It ended up being about what he was revealing. The idea of him taking her to the cemetery was not part of the original plan. It came through in the revision process. I thought, what would he want to do on that day.

We’re told so often that protagonists must be active, but what does that being active look like? Especially in a world where not everyone has the same power? Does someone who doesn’t have the power to be active all the time, don’t they also deserve to be seen and heard? Also the power of what power and agency look like, what being proactive looks like, how much of that is informed by what we think it looks like. For example, someone like Marisol doesn’t have a lot of power, but I think she’s a very powerful person because she makes choices that maybe are invisible to people or to people who might never know who she is, but I thought, I see her, and I hope that other people do to even though she’s not the main character and rising up against all these forces—because in her own way she is.

We frame strength as having power. But isn’t strength also when you have no power but you still manage to maintain your integrity, even though the world is completely beating you down, you still managing to raise this loving child that is going to grow up and fulfill every dream that you never got to have?

The Kansas Literary Renaissance: A List

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To write books about Kansas as a Kansan, is, to some extent, to write without precedent. Evan S. Connell’s middle-class Kansas City drawing rooms and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s virgin prairie haven’t existed for a lifetime or two. More recent books have tended to turn Kansas into a metaphor for the country (Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?), dive deep into the minutia of local history (William Least Heat-Moon’s history of Chase County, PrairyErth), or take a form unlikely to reach readers without subscriptions to The New Yorker (Antonya Nelson’s short stories, sometimes set in and around Wichita).

In this vacuum, who was a budding young Kansas writer to look to for guidance and examples? For decades, the answer was no one. It was as if some Kansas Tinkerbell had ceased to inspire readers’ imaginations and up and died.

And yet somehow the state is experiencing a literary renaissance (read another account of the state’s possibilities for writers here at The Millions).

Five books of fiction and two memoirs set in Kansas have been published in the last few years or are forthcoming soon—by writers who were born or raised in Kansans. (My own Kansas story about love, meth, and anhydrous ammonia was included in Best American Mystery Stories 2016.) The characters in these books buck up against religion, politics, drugs, guns and wild hare ideas. If there is a running theme in these books, it’s that the characters are trying to figure out who they have become while no one is paying attention.

Here are the writers at the heart of the new Kansas literature.

Farooq Ahmed

Kansas has a long, complex history with race and religion. In the years before the Civil War, the preacher Henry Ward Beecher famously sent rifles to anti-slavery factions within the state in boxes marked Bibles. Yet today Secretary of State Kris Kobach has become the leading figure in a national movement to enact voter ID laws that target Democratic-leaning black and brown voters and laws designed to harass undocumented immigrants into “self-deporting.” Ahmed’s novel Kansastan, just announced as forthcoming in 2019, is set in the middle of this tension. It takes place in a new-future revival of the border war, with a young Muslim boy plotting to take over his mosque and lead his parishioners into battle against Missouri.

LaShonda Katrice Barnett

Technically, Barnett grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, but the fortunes of the two Kansas Cities have always been intertwined. In her novel Jam on the Vine, Barnett offers a riveting and eye-opening view of the city, as seen by Ivoe Williams, a journalist who moves to Kansas City from Texas to work at a newspaper modeled after Kansas City’s real-life black paper The Call. Ivoe reports on prison abuses and lynchings in a story that reveals how Kansas City’s problems with public schools, housing, and other civic institutions are the lingering symptoms of a persistent systemic racism.

Zach McDermott

As a 26-year-old public defender in Brooklyn, McDermott became convinced he was being secretly filmed for a TV show, a bipolar episode that would eventually lead to his hospitalization and return to Wichita to live with his mother. In his memoir The Gorilla and the Bird, he tells the story of his recovery and his family’s complex relationship with psychiatric illness and drug abuse. It’s a personal history that conflates with a larger one. For years, the state’s criminally-insane were locked up in the Larned Correctional Mental Health Facility while, at the same time, the Menninger Clinic and Sanitorium in Topeka was on the progressive edge of psychiatric treatment. For McDermott, it’s not an institution but his mother who nurses and drags him back to health.

Becky Mandelbaum

Mandelbaum’s debut collection, Bad Kansas, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, an appropriate award since Mandelbaum shares with O’Connor a taste in characters whose outsized and idiosyncratic traits border on the grotesque. In her story “Bad Bear,” for example, a recent college graduate is escaping her flea-infested apartment by hanging out at Clinton Lake, where she meets a man on a real-life bear hunt. The story hinges on a small piece of dialogue that reflects a neat observation about rural Kansas. The man takes the woman home and says, “This here is some of the only wilderness left in Kansas.” She replies, “I didn’t know Kansas had any wilderness.”

Andrew Malan Milward

Milward has written two story collections. His most recent, I Was a Revolutionary, tries to make sense of the messy history encapsulated by the John Stuart Curry mural of a Bible-and-rifle wielding John Brown that graces the capital building in Topeka. The stories feature the dreaded William Quantrill, along with the black exodusters who settled towns like Nicodemus and conmen like John R. Brinkley, who convinced men to travel to his “clinic” in Kansas so that he could implant them with goat testicles. All of these threads converge in the title story, about a University of Kansas professor whose past as a member of the Weather Underground gets discovered by his students and conservative media.

Sarah Smarsh

History also plays a role in Sarah Smarsh’s forthcoming memoir, originally titled In the Red but soon to be announced with a new title (see her Year in Reading here). The memoir tells the story of the circuitous path that Smarsh’s family took between small southern Kansas towns and Wichita, eastern Colorado, and Chicago. It’s a story of scarcity and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps only to have those straps yanked away. Smarsh has published essays about economics and class markers such as lack of dental care. That essay, “Poor Teeth,” was long-listed in The Best American Essays 2015.

Cote Smith

The undertow of class lurks just beneath the surface in Cote Smith’s Hurt People. Set in Smith’s hometown of Leavenworth, the characters live in the shadows of four prisons, including the maximum-security penitentiary that has housed everyone from James Earl Ray to Michael Vick and was mentioned as a possible new home for the political prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. In the novel, there’s a prison break and also a magnetic stranger who promises two young friends an escape from their cash-strapped lives and uncertain futures. It’s a coming-of-age novel like so many others, except that its set in a place that has never before been the host of such a story.

Image: Wikipedia