Monday, March 21, 2011

Writing Another Gender AND Another Culture — John Desjarlais

John Desjarlais is my guest today at Suspense Novelist. I found his desk photo very intriguing. He did, however, acknowledge that it isn't always this clean.

Enjoy his column.

A former producer with Wisconsin Public Radio, John Desjarlais teaches journalism and English at Kishwaukee College in northern Illinois. His first novel, The Throne of Tara (Crossway 1990, re-released 2000), was a Christianity Today Readers Choice Award nominee, and his medieval thriller, Relics (Thomas Nelson 1993, re-released 2009) was a Doubleday Book Club Selection. Bleeder and Viper (Sophia Institute Press, 2009 and 2011 respectively) are the first two entries in a contemporary mystery series. A member of The Academy of American Poets and Mystery Writers of America, he is listed in Who's Who in Entertainment and Who's Who Among America's Teachers.

Viper is coming March 25

When insurance agent Selena De La Cruz walked onto the stage of my first mystery Bleeder in those cherry high heels, with that feisty attitude and driving that fast car, I knew she had a story of her own. For the moment, however, I only needed her to handle the insurance problems of my protagonist, Reed Stubblefield. And I wanted a positive portrayal of an educated Latin character, since the story had a background involving the flood of illegal Mexican immigrants in rural areas. That’s all I wanted from this minor character. But Selena insisted on having a larger role than I’d anticipated.

The sequel, Viper, began with the idea that a Catholic church’s “Book of the Deceased,” the ledger of the parish’s dearly departed put on display on All Souls’ Day, would have names of people still alive – but getting killed in the order in which they were listed. I learned early that Mexicans celebrate a holiday nearly concurrent with this, called “The Day of the Dead,” a fiesta with flower garlands, sweet breads and home altars to honor deceased relatives, candy skulls for the kids, and family picnics in cemeteries. It was obvious that Selena’s name would be on that list (the last name, I decided), and that she would be the protagonist.

This frightened me half to death. How could I, an Anglo guy in his 50s, presume to present a 30-something second-generation Mexican-American woman?

It wasn’t that I hadn’t written from a woman’s point-of-view before. I had done so a few times in earlier novels, but in shorter scenes. This called for a sustained, novel-length treatment of a major character that was credible and compelling. I wanted to be sure I got all the cultural material right and I was respectful with it. So much could go wrong.

So for nearly two years I became a second-generation Mexican-American woman.

Well, not literally. Vicariously, I guess you’d say. I immersed myself in many books written by Latinas about coming to terms with Old-World expectations placed upon women while trying to fit into New-World American society (there are quite a few books out there on this subject, reflecting the growth of this population). I took careful notes, as with any other research I had to do for VIPER -- DEA undercover operations, police interrogation techniques, snake handling, Aztec religion and so on. I subscribed to Latina magazine for fashion, beauty, relationship and lifestyle issues. I paid attention to any news related to this community, especially immigration issues. I browsed Latinas’ blogs and web sites to see what everyone talked about, especially with regard to living with a bi-cultural identity. Just like the Dad says in the movie Selena, “We've gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans both at the same time. It's exhausting!"

I interviewed Latinas and I noticed things that were common to them all that I could easily adapt and make my own – well, Selena’s own. I built a very thorough backstory – life story – for her based on all this research. I had pages of notes and stacks of cards that I browsed through obsessively to remind myself of small details that were of possible use as ‘bits’ in the story or for possible flashback scenes, as in this childhood memory:

In high school Selena brought home an Anglo boy, Jerry, to meet the family. She feared Papá would interrogate him like a cop drilling a suspect and the family, one by one, would corner him with stories of Mexico even if they couldn’t speak English and Mamí would serve tripe soup with chiles colorados to test his mettle – but she brought home the Anglo boy anyway. A crowd of Mamí, Papá, her three brothers, all her cousins, uncles and aunts, including Comadre María with all the curious, chattering neighbors greeted him. Jerry shook hands with Papá and her three brothers and smiled at everyone else – not knowing he was expected to meet everyone personally with a handshake and a warm verbal greeting. She should have told him. Later, Mamí called him muy frío, very cold, mal educado, ill mannered. Is this how we raised you – to find a gringo for a boyfriend who is so bent on dishonoring us, who has no respeto for our familia?

He doesn’t know our ways, Selena cried. He is Americano.

And what are you? Mamí asked.

And Selena realized fully for the first time she was in two worlds at once.

Or this memory from her Chicago neighborhood:

When Selena wheeled the Charger onto 18th Street in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, the throaty rumble of the big engine turned the heads of young men in tilted White Sox caps. In the air, Norteño bands playing plaintive corridos on button accordions competed with the thump-thump of quebradita, a blend of North Mexican banda and Aztec punk rockers singing in Spanglish. Selena felt her Spanish blood beating.

She crossed herself and kissed her thumb and forefinger held together when she passed Saint Adalbert’s Elementary in the shadow of the church’s skyline-dominating steeple. In the sixth grade, Sister Mary Beatrice -- who every kid called Sister Mary BattleAxe -- caught Selena speaking Spanish in the back row. She was asking Gloria García for an eraser. Sister pulled Selena by the ear into the corner.

“You’re in America now,” the Polish nun had reprimanded, her milky finger in Selena’s mocha face. “We speak English here. If you want to be an American, speak American. If you want to speak Spanish, then go back to Mexico.”

Selena asked if there was a difference between speaking English and speaking American.

Sister Beatrice kept her after school for talking back.

Ay, you don’t talk back,” her mother chided her when she got home. Mamí’s high Zapotec cheekbones colored like the red hot lava of Mount Popocatépetl and the obsidian-black bun on top of her head, Selena could have sworn, was spinning.

Muchachitas bien criadas, girls brought up well, don’t mouth off,” her mother said, wringing the dishtowel. “Do you want to called habladora? A big mouth that talks too much? Is that what you want?”

Mamí, all I did was ask a question.”

En boca cerrada no entran moscas,” her mother said, tapping her lips with a finger. Flies cannot enter a closed mouth. “You must be quiet, and keep your eyes low in respeto, like La Virgen de Guadalupe.”

Or this (edited) scene where Selena is at a DEA/FBI Christmas office dinner-party, mistaken for a server and then "dissed" by one of the servers:

Selena sat at a round table with other women from the Money Laundering Unit, checking her silver Seiko wrist watch way too often. Andy Pratt from Accounting sat next to her, trying to pick her up. His deodorant had given up hours ago. There were damp circles under his arms.

He bit into a tortilla chip and grinned, chipotle mashed between his caps. “Hey, Selena, have you tried this dip? It’s spicy, like you.”

Selena sipped from her glass of ice water and thought about splashing him in the face with it. “Sorry, I haven’t,” she said.

A cinnamon-skinned waitress dropped a plate of chopped iceburg lettuce and tomatoes in front of her.

“Salads?” Andy spat. “That’s girly food. Where’s the meat?”

“Excuse me,” Selena said, bunching her napkin and throwing it on the table.

“Hey, aren’tcha hungry?”

She didn’t answer. She grasped her clutch purse and weaved around tables toward the cash bar. On the way, a seated silver-haired woman in ruffles grabbed her arm.

“Pardon me, miss,” she said, wiggling a mug, “but when you get the time, could you bring me more coffee?”

Selena pulled away without a word.

“Maybe she doesn’t speak English…” a voice behind her trailed.

She stood in a short line at the bar, arms crossed, tapping her black patent leather Sergio Rossis. She made a face. Could you bring me more coffee? she mouthed. The nerve.

“What was that, miss?” asked the Latino barkeep.

“A screwdriver, por favor, y va fácil en el hielo porque duele los dientes.”

“Ho-kay, not much ice,” he said. The pinched lips and the glint in his eye said you’re not really one of us. He reached down for a glass and muttered pocha.

“What was that?” she fired back.

“Six dollar, please.”

Míreme, look at me in the eye. That’s not what you said.” It was an insult, as bad as agringada, so Americanized no longer truly Mexicana, a sell-out.

“Six dollar,” he repeated.

A Latina translator who helped me with the Spanish and reviewed the work-in-progress said at one point, “I am SO into Selena!” That was such a relief to hear.

John Desjarlais

Viper (Sophia Institute Press, ISBN 978-1-933184-80-7, 256 pp., $14.95) isn’t out yet, but it will be available through and can be ordered through bookstores sometime later this Spring. Bleeder and Relics and The Throne of Tara are at Amazon, too. Bleeder is also available in the UK.

CR: Absinthe of Malice by Pat Browning.

It's all better with friends.


  1. Well, dang. If you're on Facebook, a couple of people have commented on writing in the viewpoint of another gender. Check out my profile page where an actual link to this blog was posted. *sigh*

  2. I saw the comments at Facebook. The first fellow's comment about my being a 'confident' writer (for having a female protagonist) made me chuckle; I was not confident at all in the process and I sweat bullets! That made it all the more important to have Latina readers giving the ms a look-over along the way - to make sure I had the 'woman' stuff and the 'Latin' stuff right.