Debut novelist Elba Iris Pérez joins Zibby to discuss THE THINGS WE DIDN’T KNOW, a lyrical and heartfelt coming-of-age story of a young girl’s childhood between 1950s Puerto Rico and a small Massachusetts factory town. Elba shares her inspiration for this novel, touching on the importance of cross-cultural narratives and the challenges of navigating multiple identities. She also discusses her rich cast of characters and the novel’s portrayal of familial relationships, mental illness, cultural identity, and societal acceptance. Elba’s background as a theater professor and historian adds depth to the discussion as she delves into her creative process and personal connections to the story.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Elba. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Things We Didn’t Know: A Novel.

Elba Iris Pérez: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: You’re welcome. This book woke me up right away, literally, on the edge of the cliff in the car. The way you immerse the reader from the start and then paint such a picture, it’s such a world. Going to Puerto Rico. You’re so good at creating experiences and worlds. I feel like I’ve literally gone on a trip.

Elba: Wow, that’s fantastic. I’m glad. I really wanted to do that because Woronoco, where the novel is set, is such a beautiful place.

Zibby: Amazing. Tell listeners what your book is about, please.

Elba: It is about a young girl, Andrea Rodríguez, who is nine years old. It’s a cross-cultural coming-of-age debut novel. It explores the life of a girl who is living in the 1950s between Puerto Rico and this place called Woronoco, Massachusetts, which is a small factory town.

Zibby: I didn’t know if it was a real place or not. Can I admit that?

Elba: It is. It is a real place.

Zibby: The cul-de-sacs and all of it? Is it a frozen in time type of place?

Elba: It was torn down. Parts of the streets that were there are still there. The street where I grew up on, which is why I wrote the novel, was torn down. It does exist, but it was torn down.

Zibby: I have a nine-year-old and a ten-year-old. I feel like you captured that mentality and point of view so well. How did you do that?

Elba: I really struggled with it because I’m not nine years old anymore. You have to get back to it. That place was just so vivid in my mind. It still is. It always will be. I just think the place brought me back to it in a very profound way that enabled me to get back in touch with that childhood.

Zibby: I love that. There’s a domestic dispute factor where the family — I think I can say this. It was pretty early on. The family leaves, and the father stays. The mom is quite depressed. She does not want to be out of her native country. She’s not happy. She is really trying hard to escape. You create that dynamic between them that is fraught with tension and fear. As you’re reading, you’re like, what’s going to happen? Is he going to come back? Where is this going to go? Tell me a little bit about creating that type of borderline physical aggression. You’re just waiting. Tell me about that.

Elba: I think I have to be honest and tell you that I was a theater professor for twenty-five, thirty years. My background is theater. I just visualized it and then tried to pause the writing in a way where the action stopped, and I describe it. It’s pauses, so it enables the reader to experience it. You know that nothing is happening for a second there, so you can just take it in and visualize it. That’s what I tried to do.

Zibby: What is your main hope that people will take away from your book?

Elba: I was, like I said, a theater professor. Then I did a doctorate in history of Puerto Rico. I just became aware of so many things regarding my own history. When I was a doctoral student, I brought up Woronoco in a class. The professor looked at me like, what is she talking about? The whole classroom turned around and looked at me. I realized that they had no idea what I was talking about, where Woronoco was, any of that, and so a long conversation ensued. I realized that when people think about Puerto Ricans, they mainly place them in Puerto Rico, obviously, and in New York. There are so many other communities. They’re so different from New York. I grew up in these mountains in Massachusetts completely isolated. When you compare me with Puerto Ricans in New York, we’re totally different, in some ways, obviously. It’s the city and the country. What I wanted people to see is that we are a part of the history of this country. There is another history of this country. Puerto Ricans have been here, working and living here. We’re not a part of traditional history here, of traditional literature. I think it’s my turn. My generation, it’s time for us to talk about who we are and tell those stories. Simon & Schuster gave me that opportunity. That’s what, mainly, I want people to know. We’re here. We’ve been here for a long time. That’s the basic reason why I wrote it.

Zibby: What was your experience like publishing, working with Simon & Schuster, selling the book, all of that?

Elba: I don’t want to lead people to think that it’s easy. Many times when people ask that question and I say, “Oh, it was wonderful,” it is a wonderful experience, but you have to work. You have to be open to criticism. You have to want to improve your writing and your book and your story and the plot and whatever it is that they feel needs to be worked on. Yes, it’s an amazing experience.

Zibby: I love that. What about the actual writing? To go through all of that academic rigor after a full career, that is impressive. Why did you go back? How did this book intersect with all of that? How did you find time to do everything?

Elba: That’s a very interesting question. It all happened because — I was living in Puerto Rico. I was a professor there. I had been there most of my life. I grew up in Woronoco, but at the age of twelve, I returned to Puerto Rico. I was there most of my life. We were there. My husband got this job in the United States. I couldn’t tell him to say no to that. We came to the United States. I thought, why don’t I write the history of Woronoco since I just finished a PhD in history? I don’t know why, but every time I thought of doing the research, I thought, but I don’t want to write about the real people. Doing recent history has its cons. I thought, what is my aunt going to think if I say this? All these people are alive. I just don’t know how it happened. I think there’s something magical about doing art where you just need to do it. You have to do it. You have this impulse to do it. I started writing and creating these characters that never existed. That was such a liberating feeling for me after what you’ve said, after going through all this academic work. All of a sudden, the archive was in my head. I didn’t have to go sit anywhere and jot down data. It was a liberating experience to be able to create without anyone telling me how to do it. I could just write whatever I wanted. I found a way of writing, creating characters that could have lived in Woronoco, but they didn’t. They’re all made up.

Zibby: It is oddly liberating to just make up whatever you want, and it’s okay. How is this okay? Oh, my gosh. One of the characters, the aunt in the book who was in Puerto Rico and becomes a caretaker for the kids and everything, she, Cecilia — right? Cecilia?

Elba: Right.

Zibby: She is nonbinary. How would you describe how you decided to characterize her? She was called a tomboy back when the mom and her were in school together and now as a grown person has developed — they thought she was a man when she picked them up from the airport. You have a beautiful scene where she talks about being accepted for who she is and how important that is. They can’t even drive out of the airport without her knowing that her sister still accepts her for who she is. Tell me a little bit about that plotline.

Elba: When I was doing my doctorate, professors always talked about bringing people out of the margins. History is about kings and queens and politicians. For decades now, we’ve been fascinated by ordinary, common people. We want to know who they were. There’s so little written about women and children and elderly. When I wrote this originally, the person who took care of them in Puerto Rico, of the children, was their grandmother. I was sitting there one day remembering one of my professors. I thought, you know, I’m not doing what he said. Here, I’m bringing in a grandmother. There are so many grandmothers in Latino literature. I totally created Cecilia. I said, I need not another stereotype. All Latinos have these abuelitas cooking in the kitchen. I did not have that. All Latino women are, the makeup and the black, curly hair and the sex appeal thing going on. I said, no, there are other people around. Who are they? I just came up with this person who is Machi. She’s more masculine. This is the fifties, so people couldn’t come out. Machi is like, this is who I am. I don’t like girl clothes. This is who I am. It was just this idea of bringing in a character that is real, that exists in our society and is also in the margins of literature. You just don’t see them as often until recently.

Zibby: I love that. When you think about your book coming out, what are you worried about, if anything?

Elba: I’m not worried about anything.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Oh, my gosh.

Elba: No, because I feel that I have done an incredible job in terms of my personal satisfaction. I’m not saying it’s good or bad. It’s just, I know that I have given one hundred percent and that this is a story that needs to be told. If anybody doesn’t like it, that’s fine. Not everybody likes everything. I don’t like everything. To be here with you and to have all the people on Goodreads and all kinds of places saying things about it and holding it up in pictures on the internet, that is amazing. I’ve already made it, if you want to put it — it doesn’t matter what anybody has to say about it now.

Zibby: I love that. That is so the right attitude. That is what everybody needs to hear and remember.

Elba: I hope they like it, obviously.

Zibby: I know, but your attitude towards it — ultimately, it’s out of your control once it’s in the world. All you can do is make sure that you did what you wanted to do and what you set out to do and have total peace with that. I think it’s wonderful.

Elba: Thank you. What else can you do? You hope people will like it. I hope that they learn from it, basically, what it’s like to be a child growing up between two cultures, having to navigate two cultures, two different places, coming and going. Then there’s one really important thing here to me. It’s that you have your family here, and they are very Hispanic, traditional. Then you’re going to school and coming home every day, so you are changing. Your family is having problems with that. They don’t want you to be like Americans. I’m trying to show the difficulties that children who are brought up between two cultures with parents who just came here — Puerto Rico is part of the United States, so it’s not really an immigrant story, but culturally, it is.

Zibby: Andrea and Pablo have such a close relationship. I feel like that was really well done. Do you have a sibling that you’re very close to? What did you base that on?

Elba: I do.

Zibby: You do?

Elba: I do, very close in age.

Zibby: A brother? Sister?

Elba: He’s a brother, yes.

Zibby: Amazing. Has he read the book?

Elba: He hasn’t, no. He’s mentally ill. He is the reason why Pablo has the experiences he has. I wanted to bring that, which is a very personal thing. I think we need to talk about mental illness. I thought, why not? I spoke to him about it. He said, “Oh, I can’t wait. I hope the guy has a really good ending with a wife and kids.” He was all excited, almost that he could see himself in another life. It was a beautiful experience talking to him about it.

Zibby: That’s really special. Wow, that’s great.

Elba: Pablo is the character that is closest to a real character. Pretty much everyone else is completely made up.

Zibby: Do you feel that Puerto Rican society is less accepting of mental illness than other places? What is the reception of it there? Has it changed over time?

Elba: No, we’re not less accepting of it. I think if anything, we accept it more than in the United States. I don’t know what the exact way of putting this is. In the United States, there seems to be more of a separation of generations with ages and illnesses. I just don’t know how to put it. We just kind of are more —

Zibby: — Integrated?

Elba: Integrated, maybe. Just more accepting of each other the way we are.

Zibby: That’s great.

Elba: Less of a stereotype about what life should be like. Family is a big deal. Maybe that is the route to go with this. Old, young, mentally ill, with whatever illnesses, we’re family, period. It’s not as intense here. I’m not saying that Americans don’t have any family, but just that it’s more noticeable in Hispanic culture, how we bind together.

Zibby: Interesting. Did you take inspiration from other Puerto Rican authors or authors in general? Are there legends?

Elba: I didn’t.

Zibby: No?

Elba: No, because I was a theater professor. Then I was doing a doctorate in history. I didn’t read much literature. I don’t know how I wrote this. I was not reading novels. I guess I naturally was gifted or something because I didn’t read novels. After I started it, I did. That’s the one thing I have to say to writers. Read in your genre. Now I read all these novels because I’m not in the academia anymore. I can just read anything I want. I’m fascinated.

Zibby: Why did you go back for a PhD in history to begin with?

Elba: I wanted to stay in Puerto Rico when I decided to do a PhD. There is no PhD in theater in Puerto Rico. I didn’t want to leave because I have two kids. I didn’t want to uproot them to come to the United States to do a doctorate. I worked out with the history department, who does have a doctorate, that I could do all of my research in theater.

Zibby: Got it. Makes sense now. Got it.

Elba: It’s in history of Puerto Rico, but my thesis is from the viewpoint of playwrights. What do playwrights say about Puerto Rican nationality, identity, things like that? It’s still theater.

Zibby: Interesting. I love it. Elba, congratulations on this novel that somehow just flew out of you into the world. You’re like a vehicle, like a medium. Other voices are coming out. It’s pretty awesome. Congratulations. I’m really wishing you all the best as the book launches and all of that. Just enjoy the ride.

Elba: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Thanks for coming on.



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