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Swinging for the fences: Esmeralda Santiago writes ‘The Puerto Rican Gone with the Wind.’

July 18, 2011

Esmeralda Santiago

Despite  three well-regarded memoirs, including the bestseller When I Was Puerto Rican, Esmeralda Santiago still wasn’t satisfied she had an answer to the question, “Where did I come from?” So she turned to fiction in an attempt to write her way to the truth.

Esmeralda Santiago will be at Books & Books bookstore Tuesday at 8 p.m., 265 Aragon Ave. Coral Gables, for a reading and signed sponsored jointly by the Florida Center for the Literary Arts. Free.

The result is Conquistadora, an ambitious epic set on a Puerto Rican sugar plantation at the time of the American Civil War — a period that ended with Puerto Rico becoming one of the first three New World colonies or nations, with Brazil and Cuba, to outlaw slavery.

“My father was very dark,” Santiago tells USA Today. “His ancestors probably came from Africa. My mother was very fair, with European roots, probably Catalan or Basque.”

I haven’t read Conquistadora yet, but I do admire a writer who takes on a big subject and produces a big novel relatively late in her career. Now 63, Santiago’s first book, When I Was Puerto Rican (1993), came out when she was already in her 40s.

Conquistadora earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which calls it “the Puerto Rican Gone with the Wind.” Santiago accepts this accolade with humor and grace, although, as she tells USA Today, “she has a less romantic view of slavary” than Margaret Mitchell.

Instead of Gone with the Wind, Santiago is more influenced by “all those big fat Russian novels.” She cites George Eliot’s Middlemarch, too, which succeeds in recreating an entire community (in this case, the British Midlands of the 19th century). That’s what Santiago has tried to do with 19th century Puerto Rico — encompassing slaves, slaveholders and everyone else living there at the time.

Santiago certainly gives us a more sympathetic heroine than Scarlett O’Hara, who, after all, was analyzed by pioneering psychiatrist Harvey Cleckley in his 1941 classic The Mask of Sanity, and found to be a psychopath.

By contrast, Esmeralda’s heroine, Ana Larragoity Cubillas, deeply feels the suffering of the slaves on her plantation – she’s just not willing to “sacrifice her own ambitions to change their circumstances.”

Indeed, says Santiago, not so long ago she would have been unable to imagine writing about a heroic character who owned slaves.

“I had to get over myself,” Santiago says. “I had to consider what could make a person live with something like that. We’re all products of our history.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 18, 2011 8:25 pm

    Good for Santiago. I like big 19th century tomes too and will be sure to get her 21st century version, probably snuggle up to it and hope it never ends. Thanks for passing the word on, Chauncey.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 18, 2011 10:57 pm

      My pleasure, Duff. Report back and share your response.

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