Claiming a History, Creating a Story: An Interview with Eleanor Parker Sapia

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There are stories that spread from parent to child; from mouth to ear; and from hand to paper. And then there are those stories that connect us beyond borders. These stories make up a narrative, which we keep like muscle memory or a scar, passing them on from generation to generation. For Puerto Ricans, the act of storytelling takes on significant importance given our nomadic nature, our dispersion beyond the island. Eleanor Park Sapia’s most recent novel, A Decent Woman, makes a tremendous effort to contribute to our collective narrative. In this English-language historical novel set in Ponce, Puerto Rico, we follow a friendship of two women at the turn of the century. Serafina, a young widow with two children, struggles to fit into the high socialite life as she marries a new wealthy husband. Ana, an Afro-Cuban ex-slave midwife, is struggling to survive in an ever changing society. Together, with their contrasting point-of-views, these women’s personal tragedies and struggles illuminate the opportunities and challenges women in Puerto Rico may have encountered as it transitioned into a territory of the United States. In this interview, we talk with Eleanor about her background, her creative process, and how she developed this novel.  

Charlie "isa" Guzmán: Let’s start with telling a little bit about you. What is your background? How was it like being raised on, and beyond, the island of Puerto Rico?

Eleanor Parker Sapia: My mother, her parents, and my great-grandparents were born in Ponce and La Playa de Ponce, Puerto Rico, with ancestors from Tenerife in the Canary Islands and Florence, Italy. My dad's family is from Massachusetts with Polish and Russian roots. I was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico in 1957, where my parents met during his second Army tour. My parents were stationed in Puerto Rico two more times during my childhood and again when my father was deployed to Vietnam. Dad retired from the Army in Puerto Rico the same year I graduated from the all-girl, Liceo Ponceño High School in Ponce.

I was a creative child who enjoyed and thrived on change, new experiences, travel, and meeting new people, and nothing has changed in that regard. By the age of 18, I'd crossed the Atlantic seven times, and had attended eight schools. I grew up speaking Spanish and English at home, seamlessly adapting to life in the US, in Europe, and in Puerto Rico, where my heart resides.

I married a US Army officer and while raising my kids in Belgium, I painted and exhibited as a member and board member of the first English-speaking art group called Art Perspectives International. After my divorce, I worked as a Spanish language Family Support Worker in Northern Virginia. Four years later, I decided I needed to return to the creative life I'd always led, which meant a move to West Virginia where I could afford to write and paint full time. 

Isa: On your website you mention that you first got the idea for your novel, A Decent Woman, during your time in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Why did you want to write this story? What about the area first brought up the idea?

Eleanor: I come from a long line of great storytellers. I instinctively knew oral storytelling was important at an early age, and I paid good attention to my family's history. The stories which interested me most were their stories of raising children, healing with herbs, espiritismo, and midwifery, which included my grandmother Eloina's midwife, an Afro-Caribbean woman named Ana, who was thought to be from the island of Martinique.

When I was pregnant with my first child, my grandmother gifted me with a cloth doll that she'd fashioned to look like Ana, complete with white turban, argollas (hoop earrings), a long, floral skirt, and a white blouse. Two weeks before my daughter was born, my mom and grandmother visited me in North Carolina and again, the stories of Ana and life in early Puerto Rico flowed as we waited for the birth. I always felt a strong connection to the midwife Ana, but it wasn't until my children were in high school and headed to university in the US that I decided to write.

I consider Ponce my hometown, so it was the natural setting for the book, which I began writing in 2005. The original manuscript was the story of Serafina, loosely based on my maternal grandparents, with Ana as the midwife. My grandmother was born in La Playa de Ponce, and later the story moved to the city center of Ponce after the character Serafina marries and raises her family. As I worked with editors, I realized I was drawn to Ana and her story as a former slave turned midwife.

It has always been important to share my love of Puerto Rico with friends and people who don't know a lot about the island and our complex history. I'm proud of my Boricua roots and always happy to educate others when they are surprised that I'm Puerto Rican and speak fluent Spanish. I am quick to set the record straight historically—Puerto Rico is a diverse, racially mixed island whose first settlers came from the Caribbean, Africa, the Canary Islands, and several European countries to include Spain, Holland, France, and Germany.

I was aware that the African legacy on our Puerto Rican history is often overlooked, which is why I created Ana, who was born and raised a slave in Cuba before sailing to Puerto Rico. Her story is important as Afro-Boricuas have shaped our history, language, music, food, and culture.

Isa: Did your experience as a Puerto Rican who happens to be part of the diaspora shape the way you approached the novel? 

Eleanor: Yes, who I am directly influenced the way I wrote the novel. When I attended elementary, middle and high schools in the US and Puerto Rico, I was aware and often confused by the incomplete, often incorrect, history of Puerto Rico in my American History books. The only mentions of Puerto Rico I recall were regarding the US invasion of Puerto Rico on the shores of Guánica in 1898, colonial rule, and that the island of my birth was a territory of the United States. There was nothing about our writers, poets, and musicians, or our statesmen and women. Nothing about the slave trade in Puerto Rico and the rich contributions of Afro-Puerto Ricans to our culture.

In my early teens, I began learning about Puerto Rican history and discovered Puerto Rican literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I read El gibaro by Dr. Manuel A. Alonso, a collection of verses whose main theme was the poor Puerto Rican farmer, and La charca by Dr. Manuel Zeno Gandía, a book about the hard life of the coffee farmers in Puerto Rico. I was highly influenced by these writers and many others, whose stories came alive when we'd visit my grandparent's farm in the mountains of Jayuya, the town where the Nationalist upraising of 1950 took place. Later, I fell in love with the lyrical poetry of Julia de Burgos and Lola Rodríguez de Tió.

Isa: Afro-Caribbean and Puerto Rican culture play a vital role within the novel. Why do you feel it is important to share this culture with the readers?

Eleanor: I'm fascinated with history and learning about different cultures and world religions, and I love reading historical novels about ordinary people living in extraordinary times, doing extraordinary things. When I wrote the first manuscript of A Decent Woman in 2005, there weren't many books written in English about the lives of Puerto Rican women on the island, and as far as I knew, at the time, there weren't any books in English with women protagonists of Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican descent. Puerto Rican culture has elements of African, European, and Taíno Indian traditions in food, language, music, spirituality, and customs, so it was important to share what I'd learned and experienced with readers and friends.

Isa: Speaking on process, what was the process of writing the novel? What research did you do? Where did you start?

Eleanor: Writing historic novels requires tons of research. My library at home continues to grow with books on Cuban and Puerto Rican history; Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Puerto Rican, and Puerto Rican culture and traditions; and books on Yoruba and Santeria traditions. I collect old maps, vintage photographs, and inherited old letters and documents that belonged to my maternal grandparents, which describe life in early 1900 Puerto Rico. For every book I write, I have several notebooks full of historical timelines, hurricane timelines, and notes on old remedies, medicinal plants and herbs. 

During the editing process, I traveled to Puerto Rico with visits to Ponce, San Antón, and La Playa de Ponce. I took photographs, visited the archives in Ponce, and took extensive notes at every turn, in addition to interviewing older family members. It's important for a writer to pay attention to sights, smells, and sounds.

Isa: What is the most important lesson about creativity that you would want to share? And why is the art of storytelling so valuable?

Eleanor: The art of storytelling is extremely valuable in that our stories are the legacy we leave our children and to the world. There was no bigger joy than to dedicate my books to my children, which began as oral stories from the women in my family, sitting around the kitchen table with tazas de café con leche. I feel the invisible, unbreakable cord that runs from my ancestors, through me, and to my children every time I write or tell a family story.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 29 January 2016.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.