A Talk with Vanessa Diffenbaugh
What is the language of flowers?
The Victorian language of flowers began with the publication of Le Language des Fleurs, written by Charlotte de Latour and printed in Paris in 1819. To create the book—which was a list of flowers and their meanings—de Latour gathered references to flower symbolism throughout poetry, ancient mythology and even medicine. The book spawned the science known as floriography, and between 1830 and 1880, hundreds of similar floral dictionaries were printed in Europe and America.
In The Language of Flowers, Victoria learns about this language as a young girl from her prospective adoptive mother Elizabeth. Elizabeth tells her that years ago, people communicated through flowers; and if a man gave a young lady a bouquet of flowers, she would race home and try to decode it like a secret message. So he would have to choose his flowers carefully.
Where did you come up with the idea to have Victoria express herself through flowers?
I’ve always loved the language of flowers. I discovered Kate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers in a used bookstore when I was 16, and couldn’t believe it was such a well-kept secret. How could something so beautiful and romantic be virtually unknown? When I started thinking about the book I wanted to write, Victoria and the language of flowers came to me simultaneously. I liked the complication of a young woman who has trouble connecting with others communicating through a forgotten language that almost no one understands.
When Victoria begins working for a florist, she discovers someone at the local flower market who knows the language of flowers as well as she does—someone who understands the messages she has been sending into the world. In what ways does this become a turning point for her?
After Victoria receives mistletoe (“I surmount all obstacles”) from the mysterious flower vendor, she lies in the comfort of the empty flower shop, thinking about the meaning of the flower she has been given. In this moment it becomes clear to her that the language of flowers has become an obsession of hers not only because it is her last remaining connection to Elizabeth—the person who loved her the most—but also because speaking in a language that no one understands is emotionally safe. Passion, connection, disagreement, rejection—none of these are possible in a language that does not elicit a response. By choosing to continue her conversation with the flower vendor, Victoria is choosing to open herself up to an entire range of emotions and experiences she has to this point spent years protecting herself from.
Why does Victoria decide to create her own flower dictionary, and what role does it come to play in the novel?
In many ways, Victoria exists entirely on the periphery of society. So much is out of the scope of her understanding—how to get a job, how to make a friend—even how to have a conversation. But in the world of flowers, with their predictable growing habits and “non-negotiable” meanings, Victoria feels safe, comfortable, even at home. All this changes when she learns that there is more than one definition for the yellow rose—and then, through research, realizes there is more than one definition for almost every flower. She feels her grasp on the one aspect of life she believed to be solid dissolving away beneath her. In an effort to “re-order” the universe, Victoria begins to photograph and create her own dictionary, determined to never have a flower-inspired miscommunication. She decides to share that information with others—a decision that brings with it the possibility of love, connection, career, and community.
I understand Victoria’s impulse completely, and I included a dictionary in the back of the book for the same reason. If readers are inspired to send messages through flowers, I wanted there to be a complete, concise, relevant and consistent list of meanings for modern communication.
How does The Language of Flowers challenge and reconfigure our concepts of family and motherhood?
One of my favorite books is Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. In it, Rilke writes: “It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.”
To love is difficult. To be a mother is difficult. To be a mother, alone, with few financial resources and no emotional support, is so difficult as to be nearly impossible. Yet society expects us to be able to do it, and as mothers, we expect ourselves to be able to do it as well. Our standards for motherhood are so high that many of us harbor intense, secret guilt for every harsh word we speak to our children; every negative thought that enters our minds. The pressure is so powerful that many of us never speak aloud about our challenges—especially emotional ones—because to do so would be to risk being viewed as a failure or, worse, a danger to the very children we love more than anything in the world.
With Victoria and Elizabeth, I hope to allow the reader a window inside the minds of mothers who are trying to do what is best for their children but who lack the support, resources, and/or self-confidence to succeed. The results are heartbreaking for so many mothers who find themselves unable to raise their children. It is my belief that we could prevent much child abuse and neglect if we as a society recognized the intense challenge of motherhood and offered more support for mothers who want desperately to love and care for their children.
When Victoria opens her own business called “Message,” she quietly starts revolutionizing the bridal industry in the Bay area. Do you think The Language of Flowers might transform the way brides plan their weddings in real life?
I have no idea—we’ll see! For me, once I discovered the language of flowers I could never look at flowers the same way again. I don’t know how (or if) this knowledge will affect my readers, but I am very curious to find out.
The Language of Flowers sheds light on the foster care system in our country, something with which many of us are not intimately acquainted. Did you always know you wanted to write a story about a foster child?
I’ve always had a passion for working with young people. As my work began to focus on youth in foster care—and I eventually became a foster parent myself—I became aware of the incredible injustice of the foster care system in our country: children moving from home to home, being separated from siblings, and then being released into the world on their eighteenth birthday with little support or services. Moreover, I realized that this injustice was happening virtually unnoticed. The same sensationalized stories appear in the media over and over again: violent kids, greedy foster parents, the occasional horrific child death or romanticized adoption—but the true story of life inside the system is one that is much more complex and emotional—and it is a story that is rarely told. Foster children and foster parents, like children and adults everywhere, are trying to love and be loved, and to do the best they can with the emotional and physical resources they have. Victoria is a character that people can connect with on an emotional level—at her best and at her worst—which I hope gives readers a deeper understanding of the realities of foster care.
Victoria’s foster mother Elizabeth is single, and she makes some unusual decisions about Victoria’s upbringing—to home school her, for example. Yet the more “traditional” families Victoria has been placed with seem far less qualified to care for her. How much flexibility is there in the foster care system with regard to foster parents like Elizabeth?
Because each country administers foster care, rules and regulations vary greatly county-by-county and state-by-state. But a decision such as home school would be recommended by a social worker and approved by the juvenile court judge (although I decided not to include those details in the novel).
Victoria is such a complex and memorable character. She has so much to contribute to the world, but has so much trouble with love and forgiveness, particularly toward herself. Is she based on someone you know or have known in real life?
People often ask me if I drew inspiration for the character of Victoria from our foster son Tre’von, but Victoria is about as different from Tre’von as two people could ever be. Tre’von’s strength is his openness—he has a quick smile, a big heart, and a social grace that puts everyone around him at ease. At fourteen, running away from home barefoot on a cold January night, he had the wisdom and sense of self-preservation to knock on the door of the nearest fire station. When he was placed in foster care, he immediately began to reach out to his teachers and his principal, creating around himself a protective community of love and support.
Victoria is clearly different. She is angry and afraid, yet desperately hopeful; qualities I saw in many of the young people I worked with throughout the years. Though Victoria is entirely fictional, I did draw inspiration in bits and pieces from foster children I have known. One young woman in particular, who my husband and I mentored many years ago, was fiery and focused and distrusting and unpredictable in a manner similar to Victoria. Her history was intense: a number on her birth certificate where a name should have been; more foster homes than she could count. Still, she was resilient, beautiful, smart, and funny. We loved her completely, and she did her best to sabotage it, over and over again. To this day my husband and I regret that we couldn’t find a way to connect with her and become the stable parents she deserved.
The notion of second chances plays a major role in The Language of Flowers for many of the characters. Does this in any way relate to your personal advocacy work with emancipating foster youth?
As my four-year old daughter says to me on a regular basis: Mommy, you aren’t perfect. We all make mistakes, and we all need second chances. For youth in foster care, these mistakes are often purposeful—if not consciously so; a way to test the strength of a bond and establish trust in a new parent. A friend of mine called recently, after a year of mentoring a sixteen year-old boy, completely distraught. The young man had lied to him, and it was a major lie, one that put him in danger. My friend, in his anger, said things he regretted. My response was this: good. Your response might not have been perfect, but it was real and your concern was clear. As long as he was still committed to the young man (which he was), it didn’t so much matter what my friend had said or done; what mattered was what he did next. It mattered that he showed his mentee, through words and actions, that he still loved him, and that the young man’s mistake couldn’t change that.
The last sentence of the book is: "Over time, we would learn each other, and I would learn to love her like a mother loves a daughter, imperfectly and without roots." In what way is this a metaphor for giving and receiving love?
About three quarters of the way through writing this novel, I was at a dinner party talking about moss and maternal love when a biologist friend of mine chimed in. I love that, he said, because moss is the only plant that grows without roots. I knew instantly that this concept would form the end of my book. The idea that moss (maternal love) grows without roots (separate from everything around it) felt freeing to me—almost revolutionary. Victoria believes the love she has for her daughter is not enough—that because she was not loved, she cannot love. It is a belief in our society that we mother as we have been mothered; that both love and abuse pass through generations like plants draw water from the ground. But the truth is that love—like moss—is self-contained. It draws neither from our past nor our future; it is separate even from those we love. It projects out but stays whole within itself and does not attach. When we look at love this way it is possible to see that we are all capable of loving our children, deeply and completely, regardless of our past or our circumstances.
The Language of Flowers is one of those stories that will stay with its readers for a very long time. What lasting impression do you wish the book to leave them?
I believe that people are spurred into action when they both see the injustice of a situation and the possibility for change. With The Language of Flowers I tried to write a book that was honest and true, but hopeful enough to inspire people to act. Each year, nearly 20,000 young people emancipate from the foster care system, many of them with nowhere to go and no one to go to for support. I am launching a non-profit with the goal to connect every emancipating foster child to a community—a book club, a women’s club, a church group—to support them through the transition to adulthood and beyond. It is my hope that readers everywhere will read my book and become inspired to partner with emancipating young people in their own communities.
If you were to represent yourself with a bouquet, which flowers would you choose and why?
Helioptrope (devoted affection), Black-Eyed Susan (justice), Hawthorn (hope), Liatris (I will try again), Lisianthus (appreciation), and Moss (maternal love). These flowers represent how I am—devoted, affectionate, maternal, and grateful—and also how I want to be—hopeful, determined, and constantly working for justice.