“It’s another great function of stories and of literature to remind us of our humanness, of our sense of compassion, and that deep essential quality that we must find our way back to, and that is to being relational beings.” Author Jamie Figueroa talks with Zibby about how her latest novel’s opening scene came to her “like a remembered dream.” She discusses loss, magical realism, and the importance of cultivating a relationship with your writing.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jamie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Jamie Figueroa: Absolutely. Thank you for your interest in the novel and for having me. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: No problem. You have a such a great cover, Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer.

Jamie: Isn’t it gorgeous?

Zibby: It’s gorgeous. I love it. Were you so excited when you saw it?

Jamie: I was so excited to see that. It’s a little bit nervous energy when you’re waiting for the cover. We all know that a book is not judged by its cover. Also, everyone wants to have a beautiful cover that reflects what’s inside. I couldn’t have been happier.

Zibby: Exciting. I’m so excited to talk to you. I got to watch you on the media lunch that who put on? Catapult or something. Didn’t I watch you on some…with Megan?

Jamie: On Catapult, exactly.

Zibby: I was like, ooh, that’s so fun. I definitely want to talk to her. Your book was beautifully written, fantastic. Also, the way you wrote about the mother-child relationship was just so beautiful, especially the grief. Anyway, you start first. Let me go back a little bit. Jamie, could you please tell listeners what your book is about?

Jamie: Zibby, it’s always a wonderful question when it feels really complicated and multilayered. At the core, this is the weekend where generational trauma is interrupted for this family. In order to fully get there and to have readers take in this experience of longing and of grief, for me, was to do it in ways that disrupted reality, so aspects and elements of magical realism, to kind of sneak past our own defenses and the ways we protect against fully feeling. It’s a book about a tremendous love that both a brother and a sister have for each other and for their mother who’s recently passed. It’s also about changing the focus. Who’s privileged in the story? What narratives are privileged? What narratives get included? Also, really thinking about the importance of what we’re not used to hearing in the overculture in mainstream society. I didn’t want the reader to be passive, a spectator. I have this narrator that’s constantly poking at the reader and also wanting to support the reader’s experience of this really intense weekend. That’s the beginning.

Zibby: That was a good one. That was a good answer. I could’ve just let that keep going. That could’ve been our whole discussion. This book starts with such a bang. It just really is hard to tear yourself away because of the language you use and the intimacy and everything. I was hoping I could just read a passage. Would you mind if I did that?

Jamie: I would love to hear you.

Zibby: You wrote, “The day after Rosalinda’s death, Rafa and Rufina had both lain on the cold tile floor of the living room, neither of them able to will themselves to stand, put a match to kindling, and tend a fire that would thaw them. Instead, they remained numb. Grief waited as the edges, sniffing the boundaries of their bodies waiting to be let in. The house had no choice but to watch.” Then later you say, “With each week, then each month, Rafa had lost more weight, paled further, spoke less. Each new day had demanded he endure. He lit one of Rosalinda’s cigarette butts stained with her fuchsia lipstick and let the smoke full his nose. Laced with the sent of her headache-inducing perfume, he could not get enough of his mother, the woman who was no more.” So beautiful. So beautiful.

Jamie: Thank you so much. It’s an honor and a pleasure to listen to you read it.

Zibby: Please, but thanks. Where did this come from, from you? This sense of loss, what did you tap into to write this? Why this narrative? Why this book? Why this passage?

Jamie: I have to tell you that about a year before this opening scene rose to my consciousness almost like a remembered dream — that’s how it appeared. It appeared as me remembering this scene on the plaza, these two behaving in this way, fully flushed demanding my attention and me thinking to myself, what in the world is going on here? Also, right from the start, the angel in its mess of being was right there also. It was really a matter of me leaning in. That beginning paragraph or a few paragraphs came almost completely whole. The presence of these characters and the language went together. About a year or so before this remembering of this dream or this opening scene, I spent some time in Portugal for the first time, in Lisbon. I spent some time around this notion of saudade, this longing and melancholy. It was a really incredible trip that also introduced me to some writers like José Luís Peixoto and Fernando Pessoa, got a little bit more familiar with his poetry and this kind of bittersweet haunting of that which we love and have lost.

I had been marinating in that, spending time in Lisbon for several weeks and then a year later having this image flush forward. You know how it is. The deeper that you write into the particular even though these are characters who are, I like to think, beyond me, there’s an element of emotional autobiography, and I’m not the first writer to say that, where the actual emotional teeth can grip because of my own experience. Of course, that’s there. The deep love and loss of a sibling doesn’t look like that, necessarily, but having this sense of fracture in that relationship. Even though sometimes we don’t actually lose someone physically in our family, in our life. Sometimes we lose them because of — they become another thing. They go through incredible change. They endure mental illness. They endure just their own transformational journey. Sometimes that puts them closer to us. Sometimes that puts them further away from us. That also was very much at play at the bones of this story.

Zibby: That’s so true. The way we experience loss, grief is just one type of loss. The grief you can feel is not just because of death. There are so many people particularly mental illness — I’ve experienced that too. Even dementia, losing elderly people as they slowly fade away. They’re there, but they’re not there. Even a breakup, there’s so many ways to lose people, animals, or things that you love. It’s almost endless. It’s amazing we can ever get up in the morning, honestly, when you think about it.

Jamie: It’s true. Actually, that’s what’s happening to Rafa. How does he get up? What you’re saying is absolutely true, Zibby. It’s this, I don’t recognize you anymore. You are here physically, but yet you’re not here. How do we even talk about that, that phenomenon that happens and that we’re deeply affected by? In a sense, that’s the baby and the mother still hanging around. What happens when the person that’s right in front of you is a ghost of sorts, but not? They haven’t passed on. How do we reconcile that kind of relating?

Zibby: I know. It’s so neat that you chose to approach it this way. There’s so many books out there of people who have gone through this type of experience in memoir form or a memoir about their spouse to Alzheimer’s. There are different depictions of this slipping away. To do it with this magical realist bent is so neat. It’s just really a neat way to put something that people experience in a new way. That’s what literature is all about, getting people to look at things in a new way. We all open our eyes and have the same day, essentially. The world is there, but getting us to shift how we see it — sorry, I’m being ridiculous. This is totally — .

Jamie: No, this is absolutely perfect. It reminds me of story. I don’t know if you’re familiar with a short story by Aimee Bender called Marzipan. It’s about a family. The father in that story wakes up one morning and he has a hole in his middle, a literal hole in his middle. He’s lost his mother recently. The daughters are trying to figure out what’s going on with their father that he has this hole in his middle that they can see through. He lifts his shirt up, and there’s the hole. The whole story is them understanding this hole and who he is now and his sense of loss and this bit of marzipan in the freezer that they take out. Reading that story, it’s such a great reminder, again, of what literature can do. That is sneak past all of the protective layers and the boundaries of us saying, I don’t want to read a story about grief. I’ve already read enough stories about whatever, heartbreak, loss. How do we present it in a way that is mesmerizing, magnetizing, and gets beyond, again, those really strong defenses of honestly not wanting to feel? Also, during this time, what we need to do more and more even though it hurts like hell is to feel as much as we possibly can because that is going to drive all of the changes that we need to drive. It’s not going to be from numbing ourselves out, pretending things don’t exist, getting more distance, getting more dislocated from ourselves and from each other. It’s another great function of stories and of literature to remind us of our humanness, of our sense of compassion, and that deep essential quality that we must find our way back to, and that is to being relational beings.

Zibby: I want to stand up and clap. Yes, I totally agree with that. I totally agree. That’s really what it’s all about, human connection, loss, love, being there, observing, all of it. That’s it. Without all of that feeling and connection, what is left? I don’t know. Right?

Jamie: It’s true. Also, I have to say, to push a little bit further like the novel does, we have to open up even beyond that. We’re in a time of climate emergency. How do we realize that everything around us is in relationship with us even if we have neglected for a decade or a whole life to acknowledge that fact?

Zibby: These days, it’s hard to ignore that. I think if COVID has done anything positive, which it hasn’t, it’s at least made it incontrovertible what’s going on in the world and how the effects of everybody staying home have so benefitted the physical world. You can’t not pay attention to that anymore. I think especially in this time of loss and grief, everyone globally has lost something, which is their last life. We’ve all lost what it was. Even though it was different for everybody, we have to let go of the fact that we thought that that was life and life would go on like that. It won’t. That fundamental belief has been robbed. How do you make sense of that? It’s almost like everybody’s going through this. You’re right, not everybody wants to acknowledge it. Not everybody wants to be like, I should read a self-help book on this because I’m mourning the future that I thought I was going to have. If you get a story about it, you might be like, oh, okay.

Jamie: Right. If we look at fables and folk tales and myths and we listen to folks like Martin Shaw who talks about, we’re going through sort of a planetary initiation — what does that mean? What does that look like? Also, folks like Michael Meade who also deals with myth and what’s behind and what’s underneath, and really listening to what they have to say from their perspective about the symbolism and the metaphor of what’s going on and what happens when a world comes to an end. In a sense, our world has come to an end. We’ve been lodged on this precipice in this great fear about the world coming to an end without recognizing our deeper knowing, which is that it begins again. When it begins again, how do we participate in the remaking of that world and that reality? What are the questions that we ask ourselves? How are our values put forth? What poems do we draw from? What stories do we take along to help us to remember that which will, again, keep us at our best and fullest expression of our humanness?

Zibby: I know that you are an author. Tell me about the rest of your life and ambition and whatever. I feel like if you are not already a teacher, you need to be, or some sort of leader or inspirational something, podcast, anything. What are you doing now? What are your plans? What else here?

Jamie: I teach. I’m an assistant professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts here in Santa Fe, New Mexico. That’s one of the only tribal arts colleges in the nation. It’s tremendous. It’s tremendous because this is a place where we are constantly decolonizing the idea of education, looking at how education has been used as a tool, looking at all the ways in which learning happens, and then staying in relationship with our students and encouraging them to really fortify those aspects in their own lives, where they come from, their own tribal communities, and also for the students who are not indigenous. When I sit with my students, I look at them and I see them as they are, sovereign beings who will not, under my watch and care, be harmed by education, but be transformed hopefully into the greatest expression that they can be through this learning and through them learning to value their own voices which have been silenced for so long. I’m getting goosebumps because —

Zibby: — I love it. Keep going.

Jamie: I found myself, after a fifteen-year break from college and many attempts at many different institutions, at the Institute of American Indian Arts. The first thing that I noticed taking a tour of the campus was, who are all these brown women in charge? In early two thousand-something, that was really new, especially for me coming from the rural Central Ohio, the Midwest. Then every time I went class, no matter what class it was, I was constantly being asked to bring forward who I am, where I come from, my ancestors, my extended family, their stories, their perspectives. Any time before I was in the classroom in a place of higher education, I was asked to compartmentalize myself. I went through a kind of wilting. When your roots aren’t strong, I feel, my experience has been your voice can’t be strong. You’re pulling from your family. You’re pulling from where you come from. You’re pulling from those stories in addition to your own reality right now. How do we, again, come from a place of wholeness and connectedness and really being in a relationship with — I was fortunate to have professors who met me for coffee and went over my stories line by line because they were invested in me, many different opportunities to go to conferences and then to come back and decompress around, I was the only person of color again in that workshop room. My story being workshopped got sidelined instead of talked about on the basis of craft like everyone else’s story. It got sidelined by cultural content or using non-English words. I had a place where I could go to, to process this through and talk about this and continue to become really strong. It’s a place unlike any other place. It has given me so much. I am immensely grateful to the students that I went to school with, the alums, the mentors, the professors, the visiting writers, and the students that I’m working with now. I’ve kind of ventured out into the world. I did some teaching in the MFA and interdisciplinary arts program at Goddard and spent some time at other places, wonderful places, but there’s no place like IAIA for me.

Zibby: Wow. You should make that into an ad for that school. You can take this video. I’ll send you the file. Do what you will with it. What are your roots? Can you share what your background is? Not to take away from the conversation, but just as an extra layer.

Jamie: Absolutely. I’m speaking to you as someone who’s not culturally confident. I’m just going to be very up front about that. I identify as a Boricua, as an Afrotina woman, as a woman of color, as a mixed-race person. What I do when I say that is I privilege the aspects of identity that have been attempted to be erased. In the family, it was like, “Say you’re from Puerto Rico. Say you’re of Spanish descent,” which is a very small part of the story. My work as an adult has been to really include those family members, those ancestries that were hidden, shamed, ignored. Going from the island to the US mainland, this masking happens or can happen where it’s like the hand of assimilation is so heavy and it is so destructive that — my mother’s life was spent assimilating. She would tell me, in these small Ohio towns that we lived in, to not draw any more attention to myself because I already stood out. This is survival speaking through my mother’s experience. This is assimilation. This is colonization happening in the mid-nineties. I internalized that. I censored myself. I read literature and thought, I need to mimic the voices that actually don’t resemble me in order to be heard and in order to be successful. My experience as an adult writing further and further into myself and into my world and into my wholeness has been to include those aspects as best I can, and constantly learning. When I think about childhood memories, it’s rural Ohio. It’s walking county roads between cornfields and feed corn, soybeans. It’s pig farms. It’s watching the Amish buggies on the road. It’s all of that. Also, that experience gave me very much an outsider perspective. I was always watching. Like many other writers, I’m sure, that you’ve talked to, cultivating that ability to watch and to really ponder and sift through our creativity and our imagination and put it on the page can be a real asset even though it was painful.

Zibby: Absolutely, wow. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Jamie: I do. I was thinking about this. There’s so much advice. I was thinking about, what’s the most important thing that maybe I haven’t heard? I feel like our whole time today talking has been about being in a relationship with. I think sometimes what can happen for writers is that we can look at the craft, we can look at writing as, I’m working towards a product. I’m writing, so therefore — I’m working on a story. I’m working on a novel. I’m working on something that’s going to have many stages of revision. It’s going to go to the marketplace. That’s all fine and good, of course. I think what is much more nourishing and sustaining is to cultivate a relationship with your writing and to realize that your writing also has a relationship with you. Are you coming at your creativity with an extractive mind, with all the capitalism and consumerism and “what are you going to do for me” imagination? We’re talking about wild, unseen forces that move with us and through us. This is really powerful and exciting. How do we honor and dignify and be in relationship with those aspects and how they engage with us? So you don’t write the novel that you wanted to write this year or next year or five years from now. You are still writing. You’re still in relationship with that aspect of yourself. Furthermore, you are in relationship with the components and the elements of your life that support your writing and creativity, which might mean everything from being able to take longs walks where you talk to yourself, getting good sleep, having people in your life that affirm your best expression and cheer that on. All of these things that can seem like they aren’t directly related to our writing and to our creativity make us healthy and strong and I believe that ultimately make us better writers, and writers for long haul, not for the next five years, but for the next three, four, five decades.

Zibby: Amazing. I can’t wait to see what you produce in the next three, four, five decades. Do you have another book you’re already working on? I forgot to ask earlier.

Jamie: I have some stories that I’ve been working with. I have an idea rumbling in the back of my head that has something to do with a collective voice. The we narrative, the you plural I think can be a really powerful tool. Women’s voices, how women change when they are growing life. Again, how do we have a story where — it’s like, I don’t want to read a book about pregnancy and pregnant women. How could I possibly play with these notions of transformation and of what women go through to bear life and bring life forth. That’s kind of rumbling around back there. I’m not sure how it’s going to move forward, but I’m definitely giving it the attention of my inner ear.

Zibby: Love it. Jamie, thank you. Thank you for this conversation. I feel like it was a little heavy. It was great, the meaning of life type of conversation where you really think through things. You’re so . I hope I could bring it into relief or whatever. I don’t know. Anyway, thank you. That was a long way to say thank you, Jamie, for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and for sharing your thoughts and feelings and your unique way of seeing the world which I think is super valuable and helpful.

Jamie: Thank you, Zibby. I loved having time with you this morning. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: You too. It was really fun. Have a great day.

Jamie: You too. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Bye.



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