Celebrated writer Reyna Grande triumphantly returns to her alma mater with a new novel set during the Mexican-American War. She talks about its roots, her teachers along the way and how Santa Cruz changed her life.
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Since its initial publication a decade ago, Reyna Grande’s memoir “The Distance Between Us” has become a touchstone in the contemporary literature of the immigrant experience. The book tells the vivid story of Grande’s life as a young girl growing up in poverty and hardship in Mexico, abandoned by her parents for a life on “El Otro Lado” (The Other Side). After she eventually makes the harrowing border crossing herself, she experiences the disintegration of her family in the United States.
Largely because of its powerful and heartbreaking narrative of poverty, dislocation and family dysfunction, “Distance” has been adopted as a “common read” selection — targeted for wide sharing — in high schools and colleges across the country, making it one of the most successful books of its kind.
And Santa Cruz, or more specifically, the creative writing program at UC Santa Cruz, played a crucial role in the book’s creation.
On April 7, she returns to UCSC — where Grande, 46, graduated from in 1999 — to talk about her new book, “A Ballad of Love and Glory,” a novel set during the Mexican-American War of the 1840s, during which California changed hands from a Mexican territory to an American one.
Grande comes to the Cowell Ranch Hay Barn on campus in an event presented by Bookshop Santa Cruz and UCSC’s Humanities Institute and Research Center for the Americas. She will be in conversation with UCSC faculty members Micah Perks and Sylvanna Falcón.
We had the chance to chat with Grande about her experiences at UCSC, her new novel and the 19th-century war she likes to reframe as “the invasion of Mexico.”
This interview was edited for clarity.
Lookout: I’m curious to the extent that UCSC made you into the writer you are today. Did you arrive at UCSC with the idea to become a writer? Or did that come later?
Reyna Grande: No, I arrived with the idea of being a writer. Because when I was at my community college, in Los Angeles, my English teacher put that idea in my head. And she was the one who suggested I go to Santa Cruz because she said they had a nice writing program.
Lookout: Can you tell me about some experiences you had in Santa Cruz that perhaps, looking back, made sense in your development as a writer?
Grande: Well, initially, the experience was very difficult because I went through a lot of culture shock. I arrived in Santa Cruz from L.A., where I hadn’t really felt like a minority until I got to Santa Cruz. I was in a room full of white students and white teachers. And the first semester, when I took my creative writing classes, that was difficult because I often felt my writing teacher was critiquing my culture instead of my craft. And that was hard for me. And I felt that the students couldn’t relate to what I was writing about.
My teacher often accused me or my writing of being overblown and overwritten and melodramatic. And she questioned what I was writing about, even though what I was writing was based on my own experiences, living in poverty in Mexico, running across the border when I was 9, living as an undocumented child in the U.S. So that was very hard.
But in hindsight, it was also a very important lesson to learn because once I went out into the world trying to become a writer, I encountered similar responses to my work. And I learned at UCSC how to fight for my stories, and how to stand up for myself. So that was an important lesson to learn. But it was difficult.
Lookout: The story that eventually became your book “The Distance Between Us” was obviously something you were carrying with you at the time. Did you begin to tell that particular story while at UCSC?
Grande: Yes, I actually wrote a draft of it for my senior thesis. It changed a lot after that, but the very first draft of the first 100 pages, I wrote them at UCSC and they were my senior thesis. It was an autobiographical novel about my experiences being left behind in Mexico by my parents. That was the story that was haunting me.
Lookout: How did your experience change at UCSC after that first bad experience?
Grande: After my first bad experiences in the writing program, the university hired Micah Perks, and things changed for me, because Micah was very supportive of my work. She had the sensibility in order to be able to respect writers of color in her classes and be very sensitive to how she talked to us about our work. So I really liked her and I actually picked her to be my mentor for my independent project.
After I graduated from Santa Cruz, when I was finishing up my first novel, I sent her the manuscript. And she continued to help me with it. She has helped me with every single thing I’ve ever published. I always reach out to her, and she’s always willing to give me feedback on my manuscript.
Lookout: Reflecting back on your experiences at UCSC, what do you think young writers need to have at that point in their careers? Is validation the most important thing? Or is it a critique of craft? What do young writers really have to have at that age?
Grande: I would say a combination of both. I think that they need validation, but they need teachers who are able to support them and to honor their vision for their writing and also their voice. But they also need guidance in terms of how to become better writers. And that’s why it’s important.
Lookout: Going back to your experience in Santa Cruz in the 1990s, what was your experience like outside the classroom? Did you have a good time here?
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Grande: I ended up having a wonderful time in Santa Cruz. Sometimes I fantasize about what if I had stayed (after graduation). It taught me so much about life in the world and the environment in a way that I don’t think I would have learned in Los Angeles. Being in Santa Cruz, I learned to appreciate nature and that has stayed with me to this day, also being really conscious about our impact on the environment. That was the first time I ever heard the word “compost.” But also, like meeting all the vegans and all the vegetarians, and all the feminists that I met also made me into a feminist. Knowing how students were always very aware of the injustice happening in the world, and it was there at UCSC when I participated in my very first protest. It just offered me a different perspective on the world that I hadn’t had before.
Lookout: Your new book, “A Ballad of Love and Glory,” tells the story of St. Patrick’s Battalion, a group of American soldiers who fought on the side of the Mexican army against the U.S. in the Mexican-American War. You called it “equal parts war story, love story, and immigrant story.” Is this the first time you’ve delved into history?
Grande: Yes, it is. It’s my first time. I never thought I was gonna be a historical fiction writer. But I was fascinated by this time period, the Mexican-American War or the U.S. invasion of Mexico. I learned about it when I was at UCSC. I took the history of Mexico class with David Sweet. And that was the first time that I learned about this. It was shocking to me because I was 22. and in my U.S. history classes, we had never talked about the Mexican-American War.
Lookout: Do you have a sense that the general public is still a little fuzzy on the details of the Mexican-American war?
Grande: Oh, yeah. I mean, there’s like a collective amnesia of people never learning about it. So I definitely don’t blame people for not knowing too much, because we were never taught about it in school. And there’s not a whole lot of information available either in terms of the history textbooks or in pop culture or mainstream media or literature. I mean, there’s hardly any fiction set during the Mexican-American War. My novel is one of the few books that cover that, whereas there’s a plethora of literature about the Civil War or about the two World Wars. And of course, the U.S. is so good at cherry-picking the history that we grew up learning. We like to cover up the shady parts of our history and this is not something that we want to go around teaching. But you know, the United States invaded Mexico, and that Mexico was a victim of U.S. imperialism.