Monday, September 05, 2011

"How I Came to Write This Story" Richie Narvaez

How I Came to Write This Story: R. Narvaez


Published in Indian Country Noir (Akashic Books, 2010)

My kooky, bawdy, college-educated Aunt Terry and I had often discussed our family's Taíno roots. My family comes from Puerto Rico, and the Taínos were the Native Americans who inhabited the Greater Antilles and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean at the time when Christopher Columbus arrived to gentrify the 'hood. Some say every trace of Taíno blood was erased by the Spanish and by time. But, according to the study funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, 61 percent of all Puerto Ricans have Amerindian mitochondrial DNA. Indeed, Taíno showed on the faces of all the women in my family, especially Terry, high cheek-boned and reddish skinned.

So, in 2009, when editors Sarah Cortez and Liz Martinez told me they were doing an anthology of Indian Country noir and asked if I had any Native American blood (since they wanted to feature some Native American writers in the book), I answered that while I didn't look it — my own face, mixed with my father's Puerto Rican but somewhat Spanish features, is hardly typical Amerindian — that, yes, I believe I did. And my aunt would back me up.

("Indian country," by the way, while sounding politically incorrect, is a term often used by Native Americans to describe Native American reservations, communities, and trust lands.)

And so I was invited to contribute a story. Now, although I was familiar with the Taínos, I am best described as a Nuyorican (a New York-born Puerto Rican), and Puerto Rico is, in many ways, a strange country to me. How could I write about a people few people knew about in a place that was nowhere near as familiar to me as the streets of Brooklyn?

First, research, of course. I found that a recent archaeological dig in Ponce, Puerto Rico (my mother's home town), had uncovered many Taíno artifacts. Así, I had my dingus. Also, Neo-Taino people had been trying to revive the culture. Conflict!

Next, I mined personal experience. I had gone to PR years before for a cousin's wedding — during hurricane season. My own dealing with family and using my choppy Nuyorican Spanish gave me some ideas as for a protagonist's issues. Also, I had visited a reconstruction of Taíno village, which gave me some insight in Taíno culture and details for a key scene. And then, ironically lucky for me, a hurricane hit when I was there. It was not an apocalyptic storm, but it did damage; the chaos that I watched outside my hotel window as the hurricane approached and the traumatized landscape I witnessed as I walked around the day after made a big impression on me. This gave me the mood I was looking for.

Then I remembered that the word "hurricane" is derived from the Taíno word "Juracán," their name for the deity in charge of chaos and disorder. And so I had a title.

Character + dingus + conflict + mood. That was enough to inspire me to come up with some darkly appropriate for the anthology.

Sadly, my Aunt Terry died of a heart attack a few months the book came out. So she never got to read my take on Taíno noir (she might have said it needed more sex scenes). But I think of her every time I think of the story and how I came to write it.

R. Narvaez has had work published by in Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery, Indian Country Noir, Mississippi Review, Plots with Guns, Spinetingler, and You Don't Have a Clue: Latino Mystery Stories for Teens.


Anonymous said...

Patti - Thanks for hosting Richie.

Richie - Thanks for sharing the background of your story. I think it's so interesting the way authors' own pasts and family pasts play a role in what they right, and I'm glad you were tuned in to what your aunt used to say. I wish you much success.

Charles Gramlich said...

Enjoyed the details in this. So many things do come together to make a story. And I learned something too. I don't know why I didn't think of it before but had never really considered the Native Americans who were settled in Puerto Rico before the Europeans

Jane Hammons said...

Loved this story in Indian Country Noir. Great to hear its story. (The only time I've ever referred to myself as Native American is in my classrooms at Berkeley :) Otherwise, I call myself Indian, and then, of course, I have to explain my mixed Irish/Cherokee/German/Cheyenne background.

R. Narvaez said...

Thank you for the great comments!