“We write from where we have been to where we wish we could be.”—Nancy Osa
Nancy Osa is the winner of the Delacorte Press Prize for a First Young Adult Novel for Cuba 15.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Write what you don’t know . . .
Don’t you love reading about your hometown in a book or seeing it in a movie? I sure do. It makes you feel a part of something important. Reciprocally, it’s fun to learn intimate details about other settings, other lands, or other worlds through fiction. I’m not sure which is best. In writing Cuba 15, my novel about a Cuban American girl interested in her past, I was able to savor the thrill of hometown recognition and the intrigue of a far-off place, and pass them on to readers. These elements hold a special meaning for young people who want to write.
Beginning writers are always told to “write what you know.” The question is, with limited years behind you, what do you know well enough to write about? Without fail, everyone has a beginning. You might start there. What’s your early history, in twenty words or less? I was born in Chicago, and my family moved to the south suburbs when I was five years old. Though I didn’t set out to write a book about the area, Chicago and the suburbs are part of the foundation for Cuba 15.
See? You probably know enough about yourself to begin writing a fictional setting. But I think that a good story entails writing beyond what one knows. I like to use realistic details, such as setting, as a jumping off point and then go on to explore mysteries or what-ifs. Though my father is from Cuba, I grew up in a very “American” household, so in writing Cuba 15 I first had to admit how much I didn’t know about Cuba and my family history. As I learned, a book began to take shape. I considered what it would be like to grow up with that information. And my main character, Violet Paz, was born.
Although the research and writing process was long and complex, I was fascinated to see where my knowledge and ignorance collided or overlapped. Things that used to seem so black and white were suddenly every shade in between. The realization that I was the culmination of three selves—American, Cuban, and Cuban American—gave me wings. And as Violet came to this same realization on the page, I stopped struggling so much with my own identity.
Writing about others is a great way to learn, because the questions just keep coming, begging for answers. Considering some questions, however, requires special bravery. Setting this book in and around my hometown helped to bring my fears of the unknown—my Cuban roots, the current relationship between the U.S. and Cuba—down to earth, to make them smaller. And so I was able to address the question of Cuban American identity. The 61,500-word response became Cuba 15, and it all started because I wondered about where I came from.
In the novel, Violet notes that her father already knows where he belongs on the family tree: “The rest of us have to find out for ourselves what being Cuban is about.” If I could, I’d tell Violet that, while knowledge may be power, ignorance is the greatest teacher.
Maybe she should write a book.
Nancy Osa learned to write novels, break rules, and appreciate the absurd while at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. She has been reading, writing, wandering, and wondering in the Pacific Northwest ever since. Learn more at www.nancyosa.com.
A CONVERSATION WITH NANCY OSA ABOUT CUBA 15
Q. Readers–and aspiring writers–are often curious about what inspires a story and from where authors get their ideas. How did Cuba 15 originate? Did you draw from experiences with your own family and adolescence?
A. Like Violet, I had to actively learn about my Cuban side. While my American Cuban family may have eaten turkey and frijoles negros on Thanksgiving, we were more “apple pie” than “flan.” When I started researching Cuban culture in order to write a novel, I was thunderstruck to find that I had never heard of the quinceañero tradition. I never celebrated Sweet Sixteen, either. Not exactly a social superstar, I wondered how I would have reacted if I had been faced with a quince party to plan. That’s where Violet came in. I think she handled it all fabulously. That’s where we differ–she’s stronger, and funnier, than I am. But I gave her a lot of help. Yes, there are some reflections of my family in the Pazes . . . although I never met my Cuban grandparents.
Q. Violet experiences a lot of anxiety regarding her role in the quinceañero and her performances for speech class. Do you ever experience writer’s anxiety, or moments of doubt regarding your work?
A. A writer’s life is so filled with doubt and risk on the business side that it leaves no room for creative doubt. The phrase “finding one’s voice” means that a writer gains the knowledge needed to arrive at a style that works for her. All she can do is write with all the honesty and trust she can muster. Obviously, it’s not a scientific process, so of course I make many false starts. But, whether a work is published or not, everything I write becomes part of my pool of creative resources, to which I can return at any time. When I am unsure of which direction to go with a story, I use my time-tested remedy: Think about it. Then write. I also find that discussing work in progress is vital. Early readers keep a writer honest and on track. Belonging to a fantastic writers’ group keeps me down to earth and propels me to higher heights than I could ever scale alone. And it feels great when I can make them laugh.
Q. On that note, do you ever get up onstage and perform as Violet does?
A. Hmm. I wrote, directed, and starred in my first play when I was in third grade. In grade school classes and Girl Scouts, I reigned as the queen of skits. Puppet shows, horse shows, piano recitals . . . yep, I guess I am and always have been a performer. I enjoyed mild success in Original Comedy and Reader’s Theater on my high school speech team, and now I enjoy performing slices of Cuba 15 for readers at book events, complete with all the voices, drama, and humor involved. When I write, it’s like performing for myself, inside my mind. Though sometimes I find myself laughing or crying out loud!
Q. Violet has keen comic perception. Where do you get your sense of humor? Ever think of becoming a stand-up comic?
A. Cubans have a unique sense of humor, and some of it seems to have flared up in me. I use humor in my writing because it puts the reader at ease and makes learning–a wonderful side effect of reading–more fun. I have always loved stand-up comedy; George Carlin and Steve Martin are my idols. But there wasn’t much of a comedy scene for women until I had already become interested in writing fiction. Some of my comic chops were cut in a college playwriting class; my professor passed on a good instinct for slapstick. Pa-dum-pum!
Q. How did you become interested in the politics and history of Cuba? How can the average kid become informed and involved in foreign policy issues like this?
A. I have family in Cuba whom I have never met, and this is a direct effect of U.S. foreign policy. When I began corresponding with my Cuban relatives as an adult, I faced many legal and cultural hurdles. Suddenly I needed to know why ordinary citizens–family members–in both countries were still being kept apart. As an American born between the 1959 Cuban revolution and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis (which posed a direct threat to the United States), I had only a hazy notion of the bad blood between the two countries. When I tried to send pens and paper to my cousins in Cuba, to ensure that they could answer my letters, I was refused. The postal clerk told me small packages were not allowed, and told me to “say hi to Castro.” Dealing with postal regulations and ignorant remarks brought the whole international affair down to a personal level.
In learning more about the longstanding embargo that restricts trade and travel between the U.S. and Cuba, I was impressed by the efforts of IFCO/Pastors for Peace. This organization [IFCO stands for Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization] has been challenging the embargo and promoting cultural exchange and peace with Cuba since 1992. Local Cuba groups across the country work with Pastors for Peace to change the laws and circumstances that divide rather than unite neighbors and families. Kids fit right in with such humanitarian efforts. They’re in the process of discovering their places in society and are natural bridge builders. But the simple act of learning more about a “forbidden” culture is a first step in reconciliation.
Q. Señora Flora asks Violet “How do you see yourself?” Violet defines herself by what she is and what she isn’t. How would you define yourself in these terms? Do you have any “half talents” you’re still growing?
A. How do I see myself? Well, first of all, I’m not the quince type. I don’t wear dresses or high heels–you’re more apt to find me in jodhpurs and boots. I would generally rather be alone at my desk or on horseback than onstage in front of an audience. But I am at home in a lot of environments. I like to get lost in the crowd on a downtown city street as well as lost in thought in the woods. I’ll also strike up a conversation with just about anyone, to share a little bit of life or get a fresh insight. “Half talents” are my specialty, and they make for lifelong learning: That’s why I’m glad my Spanish, my horseback riding, and my cooking can really use some work! As a writer, my half talent is exploring human nature, for I can never truly comprehend all its subtleties. But I can keep trying.
Q. Abuela asserts that it is women who carry tradition forward and see that it lives on. Do you agree with her? If so, why do you think this role often falls to women?
A. I was thinking about food and holiday events, which are most often women’s domain. Even though my mother is not Cuban, she learned to cook my father’s favorite Cuban dishes. So when I was growing up, a lot of Cuban culture was served up in the form of congrís, arroz con pollo, and lechon asado. Visiting a cousin’s house in Miami one year, I encountered the Cuban tradition of eating twelve grapes at midnight on New Year’s. Most of my Cuban traditions came to me through food, as part of a gustatory collective unconscious. Who makes the Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas ham in your house? Who plans the get-togethers? Maybe Dad, but in years past the women stayed home and made these tasks part of their day, while the men went out and earned a living for their families. So perpetuating tradition through food and family gatherings was what women did. Nowadays, this type of traditional learning is probably fading away. Who spends two days marinating and slow-cooking a roast when they can microwave a fajita? (Answer: the author.)
Q. Do you recall an experience or a moment of realization in your young life that made you feel you had grown up?
A. No. I didn’t have an aha! realization until I was thirty-seven, and, you know, that was right for me. Coming-of-age ceremonies were probably begun as a practical means of keeping young girls from becoming mothers too early. While the focus was on honoring the girl, the event may also have been a social tool for restraint aimed at men, in much the same way that other social taboos work. Violet’s quinceañero is not grounded in this tradition but does embrace the goal of moving a young woman toward her next phase in life. For Violet, all that process really takes is some thought and action: considering who she’d like to be, and then trying to effect that. Some people can do that at fifteen. It took me a while longer.
Q. Are you good at dominoes? What are the highest stakes you’ve ever played for?
A. When it comes to poker, backgammon, and dominoes, luck is my friend, strategy a stranger. The highest stakes I’ve ever played for? My good image and ten cents. I probably lost on both counts.
Q. What would be the theme of your quinceañero? What would you include in the ceremony to make it reflect your personality (or just for fun)?
A. My theme would be “Let the Good Times Roll.” I would enjoy blending all the elements of my roots–there would be Cuban music, Chicago blues, and food from both ends of that spectrum. Instead of a planned agenda, guests would encounter roving entertainers–an improv troupe, fire jugglers, Latin dancers–and have fun with a giant maze, an arts-and-crafts station, and a go-cart track. And, of course, before the cake was cut, there would probably be some sort of a performance by the quince-babe herself . . . dressed in her jodhpurs and boots.
—Winner of the Delacorte Press Prize for a First Young Adult Novel
“I love the rambunctious, funny voice of this novel. It will appeal to readers not only of a Latino background, but of all backgrounds.”—Julia Alvarez