Narrowing the distance between us and Reyna Grande



Matthew Sheridan

Reyna Grande traveled to the United States as an undocumented immigrant when she was a child. She has since become a well-received author of three books. Her memoir “The Distance Between Us, ” is the 2015 Villanova One Book. When she came to campus last week, The Villanovan sat down with her to discuss her career as a writer.

TV: What initially drew you to writing and eventually making a career out of it?

RG: Well, like I talk about in the book, when I found my way to writing it was mostly as a way to learn English faster. I wanted to learn English, and I did that by reading a lot and then writing and using the vocabulary words that I would use in stories and poems. So it became more a tool to learn the language, but then I discovered that I really loved writing as a way to express myself. When I eventually did learn the language, I learned to write it with correct grammar and all that, but when I spoke it I still had a thick accent. I was ashamed of my accent so then I said, “Well, when I write, you cannot hear my accent.” So that’s when I just used writing as a way for self-expression. But I didn’t think of myself as a writer until I met that teacher in college who inspired me to pursue writing as a career and who exposed me to Latina writers. That was when it changed for me. In college I studied creative writing, so I learned the craft of writing and how to write scenes and develop characters. But the one thing I didn’t learn in college was the business side of writing, so when I graduated I didn’t know how to become an author. I learned that there are no job openings in the classified ads, where you can look and say, “Oh, who’s hiring a novelist?” So that was quite a wake-up call for me, because I had dreamt of being a writer without really knowing how I would get there. After I graduated from Santa Cruz, I think that’s when I had to switch from thinking about the craft of writing and more learning about the business side of writing, and how to know enough of the two so I could finally be able to find my way as a published writer.

TV: That’s one thing that is striking to me. Business-wise, it’s not a particularly straightforward thing, and given your position as an immigrant to the United States, I feel like, even amongst students born and raised in the United States, growing up and attempting to be a writer isn’t the most secure of jobs. Did that ever worry you? What kind of state were you in when you were first trying to begin as a young person being a writer, having those issues and those responsibilities and those dreams, but then add to that those of trying to come to the United States to make a living for yourself?

RG: I think one thing that I had to my advantage was that when I was in college, I didn’t have much of a relationship with my parents. Even though that was very hard, to be on your own with no parental support, at the same time it’s quite liberating, because then you don’t have to have someone tell you what you should study or what you shouldn’t, and you don’t have anybody’s expectations to meet but your own. I never had to explain to my parents why I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t have to fight them on it. 

TV: What is your writing process and your creative process like when you are working on a book?

RG: I am a binge writer. I don’t write every single day from whatever time to whatever time. It’s more like being possessed by your characters. Sometimes they take over your body and that’s all you think about. And I have to write, write, write, write, write. And then they leave and I don’t write for a few weeks, or whatever, and then all of a sudden it comes again, and I write, write, write, write. It’s like a yo-yo diet.

TV: What challenges have you faced as a Mexican-American in the world of literature? In a place where it is a lot of white men, have you faced any issues in terms of breaking through, getting recognized or what your reception is?

RG: Well, I think it’s worked for me and against me. I think it has worked for me in that sometimes there are schools that really want to expose their students to other kinds of authors and other kinds of experiences, and that’s when they look at my book and they look at me and they say, “Oh, we should pick Reyna’s book because she is a Mexican author writing about immigration.” But then sometimes it has been a little bit of an obstacle, in the sense that, in terms of the mainstream culture we are not readily accepted. Look at things like Oprah, with her book club, for example. She only picks white or African American authors.  She doesn’t pick Latino authors for her book club. I was looking at her list, and of all the books she’s chosen for her book club there’s only been two Latino authors: Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and they’re part of the mainstream. She didn’t take that much risk. It’s either black or white for her book club. 

TV: Do you see this book as, in addition to your own personal memoir, a political statement on the realities of immigration in the United States?

RG: I didn’t put politics in there blatantly. It wasn’t obvious. And I didn’t really have any statistics or anything, except in the epilogue when I mentioned that 80 percent of the immigrant children in US schools have been separated from parents. I made a conscious choice to not go that route, and I wanted to be strictly personal and stay away from the statistics and all that stuff. But in there is woven my politics of immigration and my own political view. 

TV: What goals do you have for the rest of your career as a writer?

RG: Well, I turned 40 on Monday (9/7), and I was looking at my thirties and I published three books in my 30s, so now in my forties I want to publish four. So I have set my goal now and I put it on Facebook for everybody to see. You can hold me accountable. I am declaring right now that I will publish four books in my forties. I want to keep writing about immigration. People sometimes ask me if I am afraid to get pigeonholed as the writer who writes about immigration, but that’s what I care about so that’s what I want to write about.