In her debut intersectionality novel Profound and Perfect Things, Dr. Maribel Garcia hits directly at the heart of deep human questions. Do family ties support us or bind us? At our core, do we all simply want to love and be loved? Are there any perfect choices? These are some of the questions that Isa struggles with as she goes from being a thoughtful, unique child gradually discovering her sexual orientation, to unexpectedly pregnant, to ultimately living a life based on the lie that she is her daughter’s aunt instead of her mother. It doesn’t help that the border town culture of Rico Chico she grows up in has little place for those who are different.
Garcia speaks to the human experience with a poignant and passionate voice. She does not play judge and jury in her story. Rather, she is the orchestra to life’s ballet. She strikes powerful notes with just the right tone, making you feel this story in your bones. It will make you both laugh and weep because it is quintessentially human. Because, although it is fiction, it is true. We are so pleased to talk with our very own Dr. Maribel Garcia!
Definition of intersectionality: the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups. When it comes to thinking about how inequalities persist, categories like gender, race, and class are best understood as overlapping and mutually constitutive rather than isolated and distinct.
How long has it taken for Profound and Perfect Things to go from concept to launch date?
It has been almost ten years, I had to go back to my notes and check.
What is the single most important thing you have learned about what it takes to go from being a layperson with a good story to becoming an author?
Patience, dedication…almost a single-minded focus. I started out really cocky, thinking, if I can get a Ph.D., I can write a book. I went to my favorite bookstore, pulled Walter Mosley’s copy of off the shelves and thought, I got this.
I did not…have this. It is one thing to say that you will sit down and write something every day and another to actually do it. At the time, I was still giving the occasional How to Write Your Doctoral Dissertation workshop to graduate students and found myself having to take my own advice:
write for 20 minutes a day. Everyday.
So, I did. I told myself, write 1000 words a day, minimum. I started a journal and even gave it a title (Diary of a First Time Novelist). I was finding it very difficult to work on my “novel” for five minutes, but was easily making my 1000 word minimum just writing about the most mundane in my journal—including whole pages about why today wasn’t a good day for writing. It took me a minute to realize that I could write every day. I just needed structure. So, for the next two years, I studied everything that I could about the craft. This involved working on a meticulous outline. I worked on the outline alone, for two years. After I was happy with the outline, I started fleshing out the story. So, in total, maybe 7 years to get the first draft.
You paint Rio Chico as a community where family ties can either bind or offer needed support. Is this duality an accurate reflection of the role of family in the Mexican/American culture as you’ve experienced it?
I am so glad that you added, as you have experienced it because obviously, it is different for everybody. Everyone experiences one single event differently, so you can only imagine how people experience something as massive and complex as family within the larger context of culture.
One of the many dual natures of culture in this novel can be seen in how culture is complicated for Isa because of her sexuality. Latinx culture continues to embrace conservative values, most of them inherited from the Catholic tradition. That said, homophobia is an issue (not just in the Latinx community, but everywhere else).
In many ways, family ties are strong and many of us get our primary source/sense of support from immediate family members—Isa’s character included. The premise of this character’s tension between this duality is the nature of her sexuality and how narrow-minded both immediate and extended family can be when it comes to that particular issue.
So, for Isa, the question is: What happens when you cannot reveal your true self to your family? What happens if a large part of who you are (sexual identity) is rejected by the culture that you most identify with? In this particular instance, homophobia, in an otherwise accepting culture, is problematic.
Personally, I grew up with cisgender (i.e. my gender identity and expression matches the biological sex that I was assigned when I was born) and heterosexual privileges. Identifying as a woman, who liked the opposite sex, has always made life relatively easy for me (in that department). However, unlike many of the people in my orbit, I was always conscious of this privilege and horrified by my culture’s blatant homophobia. In the novel, Isa’s character’s lived with the huge uncertainty of not knowing how her family would react if she did come out to them. In the story, her family members do not understand sexuality beyond traditional male/female couples. They had made this very obvious to her. All Isa’s character knows is, if it’s difficult to deal with homophobic strangers, you can only imagine what it is like to deal with relatives who reject homosexuality.
Why did you choose to place an LGBT theme in this particular setting?
This is going to sound like such a cliche, but Isa’s character just came to me. She evolved very organically. One minute I was struggling to write 1000 words a day, then years had passed and my words had become living, breathing things. Authors create characters based on people we know (ourselves included) or people we have met or have heard about, most often our characters are a combination of several people. I never deliberately set out to include a lesbian character, although looking back, what prompted the creation of this character was probably, in many ways, subconsciously deliberate and it had a lot to with my own personal stance on homophobia: I just wasn’t having it.
My biggest fear is that I will be accused of appropriating the voice of someone whose experience I am incapable of capturing. If I have offended anyone by creating Isa, I sincerely apologize. I can only say, at the end of the day, that ultimately, LGBTQ people are in my novel for the simple reason that LGBTQ people are part of the Latinx community. As a former anthropologist, whose theoretical work dealt with intersectionality studies, my work on the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality was only read by a small, insular group of people. My dream is that my fiction reaches the people who do not read academic journals and that ultimately intersectionality fiction can lead to conversations that normally might not be had. Actually, it’s already happening and it has been wonderful. And while I am getting questions like, “why did you have to include a lesbian character?” what has been rewarding is hearing from the people who appreciate that sexuality is being discussed and not seen as a taboo subject.
Isa isn’t just different because of her gender preference. She stands out because of her height, her dark coloring, and her intellectual interests. She’s easy for me to relate to because she doesn’t fit into society’s norm. Which of us truly is one hundred percent normal, anyway? Even Cristina, her seemingly perfect sister, struggles with her identity. Do you think the real problem is not accepting other’s differences but acknowledging that we all are different in the first place?
Wonderful question and when you put it that way, yes, ultimately we are all different and if we were able to acknowledge that we all are different in the first place, we would not have to spend time or energy trying to “accept” each other. This is the beauty of fiction. Telling stories allows us to flesh out transformative story arcs that show how actions that may seem normal/familiar (like the need to blend in with society) are ridiculous.
The point is to realize that no one was born to blend, rather we were all born to stand out and that is what it is all about.
Your premise that Cristina would raise her sister’s baby as her own without anyone else knowing is a tricky one to execute in a novel or in reality. Take us through your process in creating a workable solution.
Tricky indeed. In fact, in order to make it happen, I had to think about every counter-argument and constantly be on the lookout for inconsistencies in my plot. On the surface, the premise can come off as utterly ridiculous or implausible, yet, inter-family adoption, (when children are adopted by a relative) happens every day. Ask around or think of your own family tree. Chances are that you will find that someone is related to their family via family ties or through a prior kinship connection. When it comes to the foster system, placement with relatives or kin is often the first option considered by professionals when children cannot safely remain in their parents’ home or cannot be reunited with them. There is that and then there is the saying:
Real life is sometimes stranger than fiction.
Now that I am an adult and I start thinking of the many incredibly fascinating secrets in my family (some involving adoption) made me realize the lengths that real people will go to become parents. In my own Latinx community, I have seen couples adopt in a variety of unconventional ways. I remember meeting a family in Mexico, an older couple with a little girl. The sweetest family. Then, real casually, my mom comments, “yeah, that little girl was the seventh child born to parents after six boys, their sister didn’t have any kids, so they had her raise her. She had no children of her own. In another case, a couple adopted the twin boys of a local prostitute who was unable to raise them as her own. All of these scenarios happened and those children now have children of their own, life goes on. Improbable or not.
The plot twists of your novel might seem unbelievable. Yet they are. Believable. How did you strike the balance between surprise and believability?
One of the most challenging parts of writing fiction is crafting believable stories, especially if your story is based on an incredibly far-out premise. The trick is to create your characters as realistic as possible. In the case of the two sisters in my novel, I had to make sure that my readers could understand what their emotions and circumstances were. It takes time, research and focus on the smallest of details. If you want your readers to buy the what or the why, you need to be ready with some very specific and compelling details about the character’s motivation/action. And when I really doubted my ability to swing a premise, when I wondered if the plot twists were too far-fetched I always took solace in the almost inconceivable nature of real stories just within my own family history, you could not make them up. I would think of that Tom Clancy saying:
The difference between reality and fiction? Fiction has to make sense.
So, I figured, if history can be so much richer than fiction…meh, why not?
In your novel, you speak warmly of the different social events that are central to the Mexican/American experience. Can you share a little more?
Oh! Yeah, what can I say? There is a big part of me that lives for these events. I also think that I romanticize them, at least that is what my sisters tell me. When I go home, now with two adolescents in tow, I can’t wait to take them to the first social function that is happening – whether it’s someone’s wedding, quinceañera or baptism. This year we are celebrating my younger daughter’s quinceañera and it becomes, not just a big excuse to party, but an occasion for a family reunion. I live on the East Coast, so these events have become my only cultural tie to my family in South Texas and Northern Mexico. Celebrating these milestones within our larger cultural context with my extended relatives is what I have left—and something that I cherish and value. Furthermore, so many of us live apart that weddings, births and sadly, the occasional funeral, is sometimes the only reason we get home at all.
Life gets so hectic and complicated that getting back home and participating in the rituals that made us a community in the first place can be very difficult. In the case of a quinceañera, what is so beautiful about this event is that we all travel to South Texas to participate in a large ritual that further enhances our family’s sense of connection. It’s an important occasion where those of us who have not seen each other in months or even years, make an effort to come together and reconnect, share what’s gone on in our lives, support each other in our struggles, and celebrate our successes.
When did you first dream of becoming an author?
To dream is to think about something that you want very much. I guess that I didn’t start doing this until I had tried a more “traditional” career. I trained as a cultural anthropologist and eventually settled into a tenure track career job as a Women’s Studies professor. Life, however, had other plans for me. When they did change and the opportunity to pick a new path presented itself, I went for the craziest one possible. I thought, what is it that I like to do the most? I love to write. As soon as I figured that out, it was go time. The caveat? Writing is not a job. It does not pay. I had to find a job that I loved and one that would allow me to have just enough energy at the end of the day for the craft. I was lucky enough to find that.
What role have books and writing played in your life?
In my life, books play a very important role. Books challenge us, guide us spiritually, teach us lessons and just bring joy. When I started school, I was the shy little immigrant kid who didn’t speak the language. My first language was Spanish, so I kind of learned how to speak English at the same time that I was learning to read and write it. It was love at first sight.
I remember lying flat on my back in the back seat of our car (seat belts were not a thing) reading those large billboards on the sides of the highway. I can tell you exactly where I was when I figured out what one word in particular was. I had passed the sign so many times, trying to sound it out in my mind SUS-a-SES, SUK-a-KES, trying every sound combination possible…
then one day it happened: SUC-a-SESS, SUCK-a-SES, SUCK-SESS, SUCCESS! I had finally cracked the phonetic code.
I knew I had because it sounded like a word (I didn’t know what it was, ironically) but I knew it was a word. I had heard J.R. Ewing say it on Dallas and this was the most amazing feeling ever. It is a moment that I remember fondly and carry with me always. My parents did not speak the language, so it wasn’t like I could just lean over and casually ask. Learning how to read was not just thrilling, but a highlight of my childhood. I read everything that I could get my hands on and I’m still doing that.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maribel Garcia is a Mexican-born, naturalized American citizen who is known for addressing bicultural themes that deal with the immigration experience of Mexicans crossing over to the United States. Her stories concentrate on the ways that race, class, gender, and sexuality intersect with family relationships, loss, forgiveness, and self-discovery. Her writing has been featured in academic publications and on the book review site Book Club Babble, which she cofounded and where she serves as managing editor.
The inspiration for Profound and Perfect Things comes from her own experiences as both a native of the South Texas Latino/a community and from her anthropological fieldwork studying Mexican American women living on the US/Mexico border. Garcia completed her PhD and MA degrees in the anthropology department at the University of Texas, Austin, and taught in the women’s studies department at California State San Marcos University for five years before settling down to write seriously.
She current lives in Bryn Mawr, PA with her husband and two teenage daughters while also working as an elementary school teacher, writing novels, and running Book Club Babble — where she reviews works and interviews authors whose work focuses on issues of diversity — race, class, gender, sexuality orientation and disability.