Saturday, 12 April 2014

I see myself as the chronicler or recordkeeper of the family!

An interview with Lorena Martin 
by Karolina Małkiewicz

Karolina Małkiewicz: Lorena, I'm very happy to be able to interview you. When reading "Inventing Gods" I sometimes felt the urge to ask you some questions. We — the readers circle in Poland — were anticipating the book's premiere with excitement from the moment we learned about Bukowy Las's plans to publish it. Family sagas usually meet with great interest, but your novel was exceptional: the granddaughter of Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz has come to Poland to look for the lost branch of family tree but found material for a book. I was intrigued and impressed by your determination! Was this Polish streak in your family history the main reason for writing the book or did the idea originate earlier? Although you stress that the novel is literary fiction, readers are surely wondering to what extent was it inspired by the experiences of your relatives. The book's main hero, Mexican American woman named Amada, comes to Poland in search of descendants of the Jewish girl that became the love of Amada's Mexican grandfather's life. How much of Amada is in Lorena Martin? To what extent her quest was your quest? Did you too manage to talk to Irena Sendlerowa? What was the result of your search?

Lorena Martin: First of all, permit me to emphasize it was never my intention to make this book about me. It’s true that Amada is based on a younger, more naive version of myself, but I never wanted her to be the main hero of "Inventing Gods". I see myself as the chronicler or recordkeeper of the family, not a character. Whilst I live a simple life dedicated to my work, it is the truly remarkable characters of my clan who deserve being chronicled. This is why the true heroes of this novel are my two grandmothers and the Jewish woman who disappeared without a trace.

I saw Irena Sendlerowa in early 2007, when I was still searching for my Jewish relatives. For this, I went to the Jewish Historical Institute, to Beit Warszawa, and several other places that have a strong Jewish connection. At Beit Warszawa I met, and later befriended, Rabbi Schumann.

He took my search very seriously and was the first person to truly assist me in what you call my quest. I believe it was during our first meeting that he told me about Irena Sendlerowa, whom he deeply admired for her untiring labor and the many sacrifices she made to spirit Jewish children out of the ghetto. In March 2007, Irena was honored by the Senate. I managed to tag along when Rabbi Schumann paid her a visit on behalf of the community to congratulate her. This was before the film based on her life starring Ana Paquin was made (I believe Hollywood finally got the idea after Irena was nominated for the Nobel prize). This visit compelled me to pay tribute to her in my book. Rabbi Schumann fully encouraged the idea and gave me material about her.

Sixty five years after the war, Irena couldn’t remember if she had saved a child for whom I didn’t have a name. It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. When I began to put Inventing Gods together, I searched less and wrote more, but I’ve continued to be informally affiliated with Beit Warszawa. In 2012, I volunteered to teach English to some of its members. A man who was taken out of the ghetto by Irena Sendlerowa was my student, so talk about life imitating art. Another very good friend was an erudite who has taken it upon himself to share his memories from the war with me.

KM: The backdrop of "Inventing Gods" is impressive. It's a travel throughout two continents: uncertainties of Mexican revolution, Spanish civil war and hell of Warsaw ghetto. When and how did you learn about your family's complex history?

LM: I grew up hearing these stories in my grandmother’s beauty salon. On her side of the family, we are the descendants of a very complex political dynasty that was deposed after many decades in power. Together with the longevous dictator, there is a former Municipal President, a poet, and of course the Pretender, a man who was murdered when he was on his way to challenge the presidential candidate (1876). Though many of these events happened before I was born or when I was a child, it was impossible not to witness the anguish that clouded a family deeply fractured by the consistent decimation of its male members. It’s why we became exiles — not exactly political exiles, but exiles for the sake of survival because my mother gave birth to three sons. It’s easy to understand why she fled to the US, where I was born.

Because my sisters and I were girls, we had more freedom to travel to Mexico to see our grandmother. This is how I came to attend school both in the United States and Mexico. Whenever I was in south Mexico, I loved hanging out at the beauty salon because I found the stories told there fascinating. When the time came for my class to have a history exam on the Porfiriato (the thirty-year dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz), I said to myself, piece of cake. There wasn’t a day when his name wasn’t mentioned at the salon or an anecdote about him told by her clients. I flunked the exam because I answered the questions based on what I had overheard. I had never seen my grandmother so furious before. Not because I flunked the test, but because in my exam I wrote our version of this history instead of sticking to the “official” narrative given in my text books. This is how I came to understand that there are instances when telling the truth can get you killed.

KM: Amada was prompted to search for the truth about her family's past and to look for lost family members by the contents of her grandmother's coffer, her grandfather's civil war diary and his lover's photo, as well as the conspiracy of silence of the seniors. What was the trigger in your case?

LM: My grandfather’s documents, which I found in my grandmother’s cellar after she died. My father and uncle had a gathering in her house after the burial. It was 1979, and I was a precocious, nosy kid who wanted to know it all. Being so young, I got bored with the grownups’ air of mourning. When the adults put the children in the library because we were being rowdy, I took this opportunity to explore the house, something I had never been allowed to do whilst my grandmother lived. Because the cellar had always been forbidden, it was there that I directed my steps. I found my grandfather’s books, documents, letters, photos, old cameras, and some pieces of decaying clothing in a crusty crate.

The place was damp, with fungus clinging to the walls and complete darkness beyond the circle of light produced by the bare light bulb overhead. Imagining my grandmother’s ghost was lurking in the shadows to scold me, I took the notebook because it had several sepia-toned photos tucked between its pages. After my success thieving the precious document, I then made the mistake of showing it to my father, who took it away from me.

KM: What your childhood was like? Who played the most important role in shaping your personality and your world view, so distinctive for the narrative of "Inventing Gods"? Did you have strong role models comparable to Carmina and Hilda?

LM: I have always had a very difficult relationship with my mother because she was controlling and over-protective when all I wanted was to be free. Because of her fears, we were not allowed out of the house to visit with friends but went from school straight to home. Books became my best friends back then. Each one of them was a new universe that had to be explored. Through my reading, I was transported to different worlds, new experiences, different perspectives. My father encouraged me to read and began giving me books and later questioned me about the subject matter. He encouraged me to develop critical thinking, to state my arguments in a logical manner and develop my own philosophy. Under his guidance, I read Jules Verne, Tolstoy, Plato, Voltaire, before my teens.

KM: In the afterword you wrote: "I place particular importance on bringing marginalized voices into the mainstream. These, alas, are usually the voices of women". Is it because you want to honor women like your grandmothers? Do you feel any kind of solidarity with other women, always standing in the background and conceding to men?

LM: Circumstances forced my maternal grandmother to be strong when she lost several of her brothers in unorthodox circumstances. A young widow, she took lovers afterwards but never remarried. We must understand this was 1940s Mexico, in the land of macho, and yet she defied convention to live her life as she pleased. She had her own business and worked like an animal, as did my paternal grandmother. She, too, refused to remarry when my grandfather died in 1951, but I don’t think she took lovers. Her passion was making money, and she amassed a fortune. Both of them fed and clothed and educated their children on their own whilst at the same time running successful businesses. They encouraged me to study and have my own pursuits instead. of just rushing into marriage and motherhood because this is what’s expected of women in most societies. I suppose I want to pull marginalized voices out of the dark because I know what it is not to be heard. I put pen to paper when I was a child because nobody listened to me. I was a kid, and a female one to boot, for sure I didn’t have anything important to say? Because of this way of thinking, women’s voices are consistently lost.

KM: Strong Carmina, enterprising Hilda, independent Leonor, valiant Lea – by putting women first you make it clear that it was also women who shaped history, although their role is often being played down or even completely disregarded. You prove that the fates of women are inseparably entwined with historical events, their point of view and their interpretation differing significantly from the official one. Why is that?

LM: It’s no secret that women’s participation in history was obliterated for centuries, very likely because the patriarchal revolution of the Bronze Age coincided with written history, therefore it appears that a history without female contribution is the way things have always been. Creation myths were retold so that they spoke of life springing from a masculine source, with patriarchal institutions, laws, values, and social customs reflecting the myth of male superiority over women, and our schools conspiring to perpetuate the myth. Or as Joseph Goebbels put it, “Repeat a lie often enough, and the lie becomes the truth.”

Women didn’t take this lying down. For many generations, they fought tooth and claw to be able to crawl from under the patriarchal boot. They had to become strong if they wanted to survive, crafty if they wanted to thrive. Because there is nothing humans crave more than the forbidden fruit, and knowledge had been forbidden to them, what women craved the most was an education, thus they plotted and lied and deceived in order to smuggle books to be able to teach themselves and their daughters to read, to write, to think again. Of course, I’m generalizing. Not every woman made an effort to learn, nor did every man try to keep women in the dark. There were some men who defied convention to instruct their daughters or their wives or lovers (one that comes to mind is Madame dû Châtelet, who was tutored by her father first, and then by Voltaire). But with the passing of time, women forgot the struggle and have lost the notion of what is truly meaningful to instead fight for an equality that is impossible to achieve. We live in a world where values have been distorted. Once upon a time, women pursued wisdom. Today, idiocy is glorified. Again it is ignorance that thrives in our society. Directed by the media who tells her that first and foremost she has to be desirable, today’s woman degrades herself in the name of sex-appeal — she would rather have big breasts, not big ideas.

Instead of fighting to debunk the cultural archetypes set in place to keep her subjugated, women of today are fighting for the right to dress like tarts. They waste their time going on Slut Walks because they have been misled to believe that self-objectification is empowering, to accept the devaluation of love, the vulgarization of sex, the systematic degradation of their gender. This is a trap not Carmina, not Hilda, not Lea, and most certainly not Leonor or Amada, would ever permit themselves to fall into. It could be why their characters are so appealing.

KM: Historical background in "Inventing Gods" spreads wide. Interpretation of key historical events is different from the official version written in books; especially Mexican – American relations during the revolution (Tampico incident) and the world's reaction to German invasion in Poland. Comparisons between Mexico and Poland in the first half of XX century are inevitable. Does this image of history also stem from the need to give voice to the defeated, in accordance to your words that "history can be rewritten by whomever won the war"? Does it come from your need to "disturb the past"?

LM: It’s not so much a need to disturb the past as a need to set the record straight. In any reasonable court of law, the accused have the right to tell their side of the story instead of being automatically saddled with guilt. This is not the case with those who had the misfortune of losing the war. When Mexico’s dictator was deposed thanks to the meddling of the North Americans (I explain the machinations behind this in the first book of the trilogy), his entire family automatically joined the ranks of the defeated and was persecuted because nothing gives more glee to man than to kick the vanquished. Several decades later, I was born into this family, therefore it’s possible to say that I was born defeated, as did my grandmother and my mother. Add to this tragedy of defeat the drama brought into a woman’s life by the loss of a child, a broken heart or a failed marriage, and she could crumble in despair. But not Carolina, who chose to be strong in spite of the life into which she had been born. When her brothers were murdered, she stared death in the face, defiant, then stepped away to make the most out of the rag of a life she had been handed. Her head was held high, her step did not falter. She refused to live her life in fear, much less shy away from it. This is, perhaps, one of the most valuable lessons I learned from her.

KM: "Inventing Gods" is written in a dynamic, passionate manner, what makes it a real page-turner. Does it mirror your personality? I imagine that someone traveling across the globe to find their family must be full of energy, determination and enthusiasm...

LM: It’s funny, but people advised me to have my head checked when I announced my intention to come to Poland. It was to be a temporary move, 6 to 12 months, and still people felt horrified because I wanted to leave the land of plenty for a life of material privation in a country barely shaking itself awake from the Communist nightmare. Seeing myself in hindsight, I can’t understand how I managed it, only that there seemed to be a force stronger than myself that pulled me to Poland. I won’t lie and say it was a bed of roses. It was more like a bed of thorns the first couple of years, but I survived. And then I sat down to write Inventing Gods.

What can I say about my personality? I am stubborn and a fighter like my grandfather, a survivor like my grandmother. It is true that very often I am perhaps too bold. Some of my friends have told me I am impulsive and brutally honest. It was perhaps this impulsiveness that convinced me my move to Poland would be easy. The first two or three years were very challenging; circumstances forced me to draw out from reserves of strength I didn’t know I possessed. Perhaps deep down I knew that it was all or nothing with "Inventing Gods". It could be why my writing is so passionate. I don’t know what would have been of me had circumstances not unfolded the way they did.

KM: What was the most difficult part of collecting material for your book? It surely took many years and must have presented some obstacles, like missing relatives for instance.

LM: Looking back on it, Poland was the best thing to happen to my writing. It was a difficult moral choice to have to make, and I paid every day for it with my solitude, so I suppose this was the hardest part of going half-around the globe to conduct interviews in order to learn people’s histories first-hand. I have a tendency to deal with pain by running away from it. My grandmother died in February 2006. She, who had been a constant and reassuring presence in my life. At the same time, my father, who was my best friend, was slowly decaying mentally. All throughout 2005, I sat down with him to collect his memories, before they were devoured by that insatiable monster called Alzheimer. When I found the notebook he took away from me after his mother died, the illusion of finding the woman my grandfather wrote about half a century earlier began to take shape in my mind.

Carolina and my father were the pillars onto which my life was anchored. By 2005, these pillars were slowly crumbling. I don’t know how to explain the path of reasoning I followed back then, but perhaps seeing the rapid decay of the two beloved friends compelled me to find a way to reconcile the past. I had to come to Poland.

KM: Apart from your grandparents, you dedicate your novel to David Anasosa, one of the book's protagonists. In „Inventing Gods” he held together the plot, his life cementing all the characters' pasts. Was he as important for you in real life as for Amada in the novel?

LM: Yes. He was a friend and a mentor who encouraged my desire to unravel the elusive thread called truth. A big collector, he had letters signed by Porfirio Díaz and books and magazines from the turn of the 20th century, which he gave to me. He had deep admiration for Porfirio’s legacy and remembered Carolina from his childhood. He took delight telling me many unknown anecdotes about Porfirio and the revolution that deposed him, knowing that I would write them. It is funny, but a lot of people have gravitated to Tijuana. The majority didn’t stay, but those who remained to establish businesses formed a very special bond. This is how he met my paternal grandparents. As the one man who knew three of the main characters, he became the natural choice to carry the plot from beginning to end, but I still needed something to weave their lives together. It’s how the idea for the love triangle that tied his life to my grandmothers’ took shape.

KM: Has complex history of your family influenced your life in any way, other than inspiring you to write a novel?

LM: A former boyfriend who knew my background tried to convince me to run for politics in the United States, which struck me as deeply hilarious. Indeed, it’s quite funny once you think about it, one of the descendants of the dictator the Americans helped depose because he was on the way of their interests, running to gain political influence in their country. Talk about poetic justice! At the time of this foray, I was working as a high school teacher. In the US, teachers have the opportunity to spring into politics through the Board of Education. Just to humor this man in spite of my reservations, I put my name on the roster and lo and behold, I was appointed to the Board, most probably because I was young and idealistic and truly believed that some kind of change could be achieved.

Soon afterwards, I found myself included with the committee that went to see Governor Davis sign a Bill for the Board of Education (California). I will not go into details because it’s rather boring, but will jump straight into what boiled down to afterwards, which is quite interesting because when Governor Davis was made to resign, and Arnold Schwartzenegger took over as governator, one of the first things he did was quash the Board of Education’s Bill. After that, he obliterated our budget, closed libraries and Women’s Shelters, managed to pass a motion to force school teachers into early retirement, crippled Workers’ Compensation and Welfare, then went on to bankrupt the state. I became so disgusted by his terminator tactics, that I resigned from the dirty business of trying to contaminate the minds of American children with that terrible thing called knowledge.

KM: Pages of "Inventing Gods" gleam with enthusiasm about history. Is it something you absorbed in childhood from family stories?

LM: Most definitely. I grew up listening to many of these stories in my grandmother’s beauty salon or reading them in my father’s books. To write Inventing Gods, however, I needed much more than anecdotes overheard in my childhood or the history that had already been written. This is why it was necessary for me not just to visit Poland, but to thoroughly immerse myself in its history and culture, to give a stab at learning the language, taste the food, breathe the air, befriend the people. I visited people’s houses and broke bread with them; they told me their stories and shared their mementos with me. This taught me more than visiting the museums or Sztutowo or Majdanek or Pawiak ever did.

KM: Which country is closest to you: USA, Mexico or Poland? After living in each, how do you compare one to another? Where do you feel best – when it comes to customs, mentality, history, women's situation?

LM: Mexico will always have a very special place in my heart, because my heart is Mexican; it’s the place where my roots are anchored even though circumstances forced my family to pick up and leave. In the United States we lived sheltered lives in complete anonymity, but I’ve always felt culturally empty there. I have never felt I belong in the US even though I was born here. Polish family values reflect those of Mexico. I wouldn’t have been able to survive eight years in Poland if I hadn’t been embraced by the people who opened their homes and their hearts to me. At Beit (which is Hebrew for home), I found a home away from home. In a historical and cultural context, Poland is by far richer than the United States.

KM: Coming to Poland, you certainly had some image of this country. Was it proven right?

LM: We mustn’t forget I came here from a country where its president (George W. Bush at the time) believed that Poland was in Africa. No. I did not believe that myself — I had listened to Chopin, knew who Marie Curie was, and Karol Wojtila had visited Mexico. Everybody there knew he was Polish and that Poland is in Europe and had been saddled with Communism, which is perhaps what intimidated me the most, having spent the last decade of my life in the Capitalist country par excellence. When I stepped out of the plane, I was pleasantly surprised by Warsaw’s energy, and a bit disappointed when I saw the first McDonald’s because deep down I would have wanted for Poland to have remained uncontaminated by Western values — not that I think McD is too valuable, but I hope you get my drift.

KM: Now you live and work in Poland. What has changed in your life after coming here? And the book, has it changed anything? Where do you see yourself in the future?

LM: I learned to be self-sufficient in Poland; to rely solely on myself. I grew up emotionally. I stopped being afraid. I discovered that under the feminine facade is a strong, independent woman with a pair of cojones to be reckoned with, a good head over her shoulders, and two strong arms to work. I became less materialistic and more focused on my growth. Having my book published vindicated my efforts and increased my self-esteem. I always believed it could be achieved without having to resort to publication through a Vanity Press because my writing has never been about vanity. I couldn’t have respected myself if I had chosen that

In the future I see myself back in Europe, where I would love to establish my permanent home. For the time being, I am back in America. I commute between California and Mexico, where I am establishing my own business and already founded a magazine together with my associate to link it with our Virtual Bookstore. We hope to be able to launch this bookstore in time for the Tijuana Book Fair (May-June), to be able to present it there. In the meantime, I continue to write, both for the magazine and a radio program, and am working on my fourth historical novel and a thriller.

If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here


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