I have to credit my librarian friends at the Tuckahoe Region Public Library with introducing me to the work of Laura Resau. The Queen of Water is written with an anthropologist’s eye and a poet’s heart. Laura opens us to realities of growing up as an indigenous girl in Ecuador and lays bare the racism and abuse that mark the experience. To say that she’s writing about a strong girl is an understatement. What I especially admire is that she was also writing the true life story of someone she knew. In this Q & A, we asked Laura about the elusive place where fact and fiction meet and about fitting an entire life into a manageable story. MM
The Queen of Water is a novel is based on the true-life experiences of Maria Virginia Farinango, whom you met in Colorado. Did you have any worries about taking on the project? How did it compare in difficulty or in reward to the solo work you’ve done on other novels (The Red Glass, The Indigo Notebook, etc.)?
At the beginning, I was blissfully ignorant of the extraordinary amount of work it would entail over the next six years! After we’d done hundreds of hours of interviews and story-telling sessions, and after I was well into the first draft, the challenges became apparent. In my other novels, although I was inspired by real people and situations, I had the liberty to let my imagination run wild. If a story needed more suspense here or an extra character there, I could easily invent stuff. But in The Queen of Water, since I had to stick closely to reality , it was much more work to structure the story with a suspenseful narrative, develop relationships and characters, and weave in major themes. I also spent a great deal of time running ideas by Maria Virginia, asking her highly detailed questions about scenes, setting, and characters. With my other novels, I could just have those conversations with myself inside my head!
Why do you consider it a novel and not memoir?
I felt it was more ethical and accurate to call this “a novel closely based on a true story.” I was writing about someone else’s life, and as hard as I tried to imagine myself in her heart and mind and body, the fact is, there’s a tiny bit of me in there, too. Another issue was the “tweaking” that is necessary in any memoir. In personal essays I’ve written about my own life, I’ve felt at liberty to do a little fudging when it came to providing little details that I couldn’t precisely remember (like what I was wearing, what the weather was like, etc.) But in The Queen of Water, I felt uncomfortable inventing even the inconsequential details necessary for setting and character, while calling it straight non-fiction. I didn’t want readers to feel betrayed when they discovered the book wasn’t 100% true. It felt more respectful to readers to acknowledge the 2% fictionalization (if I had to quantify it) by calling it a novel. Maria Virginia and I had several conversations about this, and she agreed with me.
What sorts of questions did you ask yourself as you made decisions about what the parts of her life to use in the novel and the parts to omit? Were there any missing aspects of her life that you wish you’d had a way to work in?
It was painful to choose which parts of her life to omit! All Maria Virginia’s memories were utterly fascinating to me—some funny, some sweet, some terrifying, some tear-inducing. We had over a thousand pages of material from our interviews and conversations. It soon became clear that we needed to select the scenes that would a) fit thematically, b) contribute to her character arc, and c) create narrative tension and suspense. We had to cut out repetitive scenes, too. No matter how interesting the scene was—if it didn’t move the story forward, it had to go. Here’s one of the deleted scenes that I posted on my blog, if you’re curious. Many early childhood memories were originally entire chapters that I had to (sadly) reduce to just paragraph-long flashbacks given later in the book. And in choosing where to end her story, we had to cut some wonderful scenes from her late teens involving her now-husband– I was heart-broken to have to leave those out, too.
Were there characters (other than Virginia) that you especially liked working on? Were there any that were hard to shape for the story?
I thoroughly enjoyed writing her short-lived romance with Antonio and her crush on MacGyver (does he count as a character?) When Maria Virginia recounted these crushes to me, her eyes lit up and she got all giggly. It was so sweet to witness her reliving this. I could completely relate—I think the dreamy thrill of first love is a near-universal experience.
The Doctorita was the toughest character to write. She was so horribly abusive to Maria Virginia, which made it challenging for me to round her out as a three dimensional character. Ultimately, I tried to acknowledge some of the Doctorita’s positive aspects, like the fact that she’d achieved an advanced education and professional success despite the societal obstacles—being a woman, being considered unattractive, having an assertive personality. I also made sure to show her vulnerabilities and insecurities, to make her more human.
As the story unfolded, I was continually amazed at the enormous pressures that Virginia faced. The life she led would have broken many, many girls in her shoes. What do you think was the source of her resilience, even in her earliest years?
Maria Virginia has always been (and still is) incredibly smart, stubborn, creative, and resourceful. She always thinks outside box. She rarely accepts no. She has a strong sense of self-confidence that allows her to reject society’s attempts to tell her what she can’t do. She sets her goal, and if an obstacle gets in her way, she either figures out a way around it, or she forges a brilliant new path to her goal.
Overcoming her enormous sense of cultural shame was a major hurdle for Virginia. She has to find pride in her roots and her identity, despite pervasive racism all around her. We in the US are no strangers to the lasting damage of racism. How do you think that issue/message applies to young Latinos reading this novel in the US right now?
Our society, like many, has a tendency to put people in boxes according to ethnicity, socioeconomic group, gender, race, etc. As a teen, your identity is fluid; you’re figuring out how the world works, exploring your place in it. I think this identity exploration is potentially an even bigger challenge for young Latinos, who might feel forced into uncomfortable categories. Maria Virginia found a way to break out of these categories and become her own person—she refused to let others define her. She created her own identity, which made her powerful and successful on her own terms. We’ve been really honored to get emails from young readers (both Latina and non-Latina) who’ve felt inspired by her story as they face similar struggles in their own lives.
You’re not Latina by birth, but you certainly seem to be Latina by soul. What has been the attraction? Are there other cultures that appeal to the anthropologist in you?
In college, while studying anthropology, I became interested in indigenous women’s issues. After college, I wanted to immerse myself in another culture, so I randomly sent job applications for ESL-teaching around the world. A university in a rural, indigenous region of Oaxaca, Mexico made the first job offer. I snatched it up, and lived there for two amazing years. Back in the US, I found that speaking Spanish and having lived in a rural indigenous area in Mexico opened doors for me to build close relationships with Latin Americans of all backgrounds. Through these friendships, I realized that similar dynamics of class, race, gender, and ethnicity are present in many countries in Latin America. For example, I’d already met a number of young indigenous girl maids in Oaxaca by the time I met Maria Virginia, who’d been a young maid in Ecuador.
I feel that I have a lot more exploring to in South and Central America, but I would also love to visit Southeast Asia and get to know people in some of the cultures I studied in grad school.
You’ve said: Writing this book [The Queen of Water] has changed my life. What do you mean by that?
It’s a rare and precious thing to get to know another person’s memories and feelings as intimately as I’ve come to know Maria Virginia’s. The many hours of deep, soul-baring conversations we’ve had for this book are very special to us—a kind of closeness that we haven’t even had with our own husbands or siblings or friends. Maria Virginia jokes sometimes that I know her memories better than she does. I feel incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to become so close to someone whose life has been so drastically different from my own. It was absolutely worth all those years of writing and rewriting!
You donate a portion of your royalties to indigenous rights organizations. Why do you offer that support?
Before publishing my first novel, I’d published some short stories and essays about indigenous Oaxaca. I gave half of my payment to the Oaxacans whose stories inspired mine, and who welcomed me into their homes and families during my research. However, I realized that my payment system would become too complicated with a book-length work. Dozens of people have inspired each book in so many different ways over the years. I didn’t have many people’s contact info at that point. I was also concerned about creating problems in the villages by paying some people and not others. (“Envy” is considered a health issue in many indigenous communities.) After considering different possibilities, I decided to donate to organizations that would empower entire indigenous communities. (With The Queen of Water, however, Maria and I split payment down the middle, and individually donate to organizations promoting indigenous rights.)
Right now I’m donating to Reading Village, which supports empowerment through youth literacy in rural indigenous Guatemala.
Are there new projects in the works?
I’m at the early stages of a new novel that is more fantastical than any of my other novels. It is partly set in the Lacandon Jungle in Chiapas, Mexico, where I spent some time over a decade ago. It involves Mayan mythology, indigenous land rights issues, and chocolate. I actually just started a Pinterest page with inspirational images. Of course, I have to eat lots of chocolate as I write…
Finish this sentence for me. Strong girls … think outside the box to creatively define themselves, their dreams, their goals, and their lives.
Thanks so much for your wonderful, thoughtful interview questions, Meg! It’s a joy being here!
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