Jamie Figueroa, MOTHER ISLAND

Jamie Figueroa, MOTHER ISLAND

Critically acclaimed author (and repeat podcast guest!) Jamie Figueroa joins Zibby to discuss MOTHER ISLAND, a poignant, lushly written memoir about a Puerto Rican woman’s relationship with home, lineage, and selfhood. Jamie reflects on her career as a massage therapist and its profound influence on her storytelling. She also shares what it was like to connect with her Puerto Rican community, examine her mother’s life and their relationship, and put a very complex family history on paper.


Zibby: Welcome, Jamie. Thank you so much for coming back on Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books to discuss Mother Island, A Daughter Claims Puerto Rico. This book was so beautiful. Oh my gosh, congratulations. 

Jamie: Thank you so very much.

I appreciate all the work that you do in the world. Um, it's so inspiring and I really appreciate you having me back. 

Zibby: Oh my gosh, seriously, I mean, the way you write really about everything, but even like there was a passage you wrote about the hot stones that you were using for your massages and how they were like just melting into your client's backs and the heat and like, I am in the room with you.

I'm feeling all of it. I'm feeling like it all like drain out. It's amazing the way you put us in a scene and make us think sort of spiritually about it. Touch and love and all of it. It's really powerful. 

Jamie: Oh, thank you so much. You know, the thing about touch is that it's such an integral key to belonging, right?

That foundational aspect between mother and child, and also has so much to do with our own human essence and the need to thrive. Right. And so really tiny ones and the elderly and that need to feel a sense of belonging with, with human connection. So that was really important to include that, even though for a long time, I didn't talk about being a massage therapist.

Zibby: I loved that part. I really, like, not just one part. I mean, it goes throughout. Well, wait a minute, why don't you back up and tell listeners what your memoir is about and how it came to be, and maybe touch on the note at the beginning about what happened last time you wrote about your family, which I was like, huh, I did not even realize that, but okay.

Jamie: Yeah, you know, this book really came about through the conversations I had after publishing the novel and a few years ago, right during the pandemic and being in so many rooms and intimately speaking with other writers, mainly women, mainly black and indigenous and people of color, wanting to talk about the novel.

And I found myself talking about myself and my mother. That's so, that's interesting. There's characters here and they're not the same people, but yeah, what are the stories they keep going back to, right, as a way to connect. And so I realized, if I didn't spend time telling this story, that it would drive every single story that I told.

Right. And so I really had to spend time in a very thoughtful and thorough way, even though there was so much baggage, like you mentioned at the beginning of the book, I talk about how the last time I wanted to speak about my family and do it in a way that I thought was really honoring and honest. There was mass rejection from my mother's family.

And I understand that now for sure. And it took a long time to heal from that. I thought I'm only going to write fiction. And then I realized. That I had work to do and giving myself permission to telling a story, and I started thinking about silence, and I started thinking about how we silence ourselves, how we silence each other, the lineages of silence, and who really gives us permission to tell our stories.

And so all of that was part of moving forward with this. And, you know, it's a story that very much started with my mother's story in the early years of therapy. I would go to therapy, they would say, tell me about yourself. And I would tell my mother's story. And then they would look at me like, huh, where are you?

And so I get their method. And also, I think what I was trying to say was that as an Afro Indigenous person from the Caribbean, what I'm bringing into the room with me are all the generations which have impact on my life on a day to day basis. I didn't know to say that at the time. I know to say that now.

And also going through my mother's story, the portal of my mother into a larger expression of mothering from a culture and an island of Puerto Rico and feeling that understanding and sense of connection and And then ultimately going through that portal into the largest expression of what it is to be constantly mothered by forces that surround us all the time and to be in connection with that, um, what I call divine force of constant nurturing, protection, you know, life affirming and life giving force and all its complexities and all its complexities.

Zibby: Wow. Well, when you tell your mother's story, and you do so really beautifully, not only her many relationships and how it affected your childhood, all the moving and the packing and, oh my gosh, the one scene you have in the middle of the night where you're all, you know, and you're like, she wouldn't have been able to leave otherwise, and you were in the car in the dark.

These moments that you depict are so vivid and, um, You know, they're like hard grasping moments, but how can you tell your own story without talking about how displaced you continually were over time? And then you trace it back also to your mother's being left up, given up for adoption and her search for mothering and not knowing how to be a mother.

And then at the end, you being a mother, I mean, it's like this perfect, like thing. How do you, I mean, I know, how do you make sense of it? It's your entire book. But. Having a mom who had all that stuff, obviously you want to talk about it in therapy, but how do you deal with that in a day to day setting, and how do you conceptualize it, and all of that?

Jamie: Yeah, that's a really great question, and it, it, they sort of, get some traction with it because it is such a big question. People say to me often hearing about this story, as you get older, you come to have a greater sense of compassion and understanding for your parents. And I think, yeah, that's true, but it's not necessarily the way in which they're meaning it.

Like, all is okay under the umbrella of they were doing the best that they could. What I have found is I've come to understand the many facets of my mother. I have come to understand all the contexts, her own histories, her family's history, how the, the social and political context Just comes to bear on a human being and their choices and their ability to be present for their families, provide for their families, imagine the future in a way that feels healthy and good and supportive.

That's a different way that I'm answering that question that I'm being asked, right? About having this greater sense of compassion for my mother. And also what I've come to understand, Zibby, is my mother. is a force of life that I will never fully know. I'm her youngest daughter. I had that contextual relationship with her.

I tried to turn it around as many possible ways and shine light and all the different ways I possibly could and implicate myself as well. And also I will never fully understand her. She will never fully understand me. We are whole worlds that are in and out of orbiting each other. And I feel like that is the most honest and most loving and most compassionate way I can be with her.

Zibby: Wow. Well, thank you to all the therapists who enabled you to come up with that answer. That was awesome. 

Jamie: That's going to be a running list at the end of the interview. 

Zibby: Oh my gosh. Can I read this section? It's towards the end, but I just thought it was so beautiful. Is that okay? 

Jamie: Please do. 

Zibby: Twice more in my life, I have felt what I could not see.

Both times, it was in a bedroom when I was fighting sleep, longing to be tucked in. At the end of the bed was a weight, like someone sitting, my feet pinned by the blankets, and then another weight on my ankle or lower leg. Reassuring, comforting, protecting, a maternal presence comforted me. I was not alone.

I will always need a mother, no matter what age I am, and she will not be there. I've been in mourning about this all my life. And while I resist claiming where my mother and I are the same, as if to resist her, is to define myself, as if making choices opposite to hers make me unto my own, here is where we are no different.

She has also spent her entire life in mourning for her mother. I will always need a mother and she will not be there. I will construct her out of the natural world, from trees and flowers, roots and remedies, from warm waters and heavy blankets, soothing mugs of hot drinks, and dreams that speak to me for days.

I will assemble her from another form of chosen family, grannies and mamas, aunties and sister friends, who will meet and hold all of me. I will put one hand over my heart and one hand over my belly, and I will breathe into the fullness of my body, breathe against time, space, and time. Oh, so gorgeous. 

Jamie: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Oh my gosh. I mean, how does that feel, like, to hear all that? First of all, you write, it's like poetry and prayer, like all mixed up, right? It sounds, it's so spiritual, the way you write. I don't mean it in a hokey way. I hope you know. Like, it feels so reverent in a way, the way that you construct your sentences, even.

So just tell me, how does that feel? How do you feel about that? 

Jamie: That feels beautiful to hear you read it, and it also feels very much like the place that I am called to return, you know? It's bittersweet. It's really bittersweet to have gotten to the place of being able to acknowledge that feels triumphant, feels like generational repair and also the mourning and the longing and coming to that place of understanding through lack.

Zibby: Right. 

Jamie: That's a particular path that leaves marks. So being in that space is, is challenging and also to be in the present moment, which we're all called to do. Of course, we could talk about that for a long time, but, um, What is, what is here in the present moment is so much connection and support and community and love.

And I'll tell you something, Zibby, going around the country and doing readings and having other Barikwa people in the audience, you know, at first I thought, to be quite honest, I was really scared of, you know, being in front of Puerto Rican people that I didn't know, would they regard me as my family has regarded me?

I'm sure they don't need me to tell a Puerto Rican story. There are many. I wasn't sure how it would be received. And so I was quite nervous. And what I have found And this makes me emotional. What I have found is, on the whole, people who are ultimately saying to me with their stories and with the way in which they look at me and regard me, is that they see me and they hear me and they honor and respect my story and that we stand together in this place of repair and we stand in it with dignity and with love and with honesty and with integrity.

And that's something that my mother could not give me, but that the larger community of Boricua people that I've been in connection with are reflecting back to me and giving to me. And to have that gift in a lifetime is really tremendous. 

Zibby: Wow. That's amazing. Wow. I'm so happy for, I'm really happy for you.

I mean, you never know what writing a book is going to do. 

Jamie: You don't. It's so true. 

Zibby: You put it out there and think of the people that you're helping feel a sense of home and a sense of belonging and, you know, it's never so cut and dried for anyone and hearing each other's stories. That's, that's all we can do.

That's amazing. That's amazing. So, Jamie, writing this book, were you crying at passages? Was it like a creative analytic part of your brain? Like how did it come about and you go back in time a lot and you speak in different voices really from time to time and third person and first person, like you're, it's a pastiche, right?

How did you do that? 

Jamie: Well, I spent a lot of time writing in my notebook about this material, probably nearly 20 years. And so these stories and these relationships over and over and over again, in some ways much more raw, in some ways much more superficial, all the ways, right, of writing about this, and that's also something that I want to highlight is, you know, It's the way in which we are in relationship with our own writing.

Mm hmm. Yes, we want to share it. Yes, we want to take it to the marketplace. But ultimately our own writing practice and the way it helps us to just stand in ourselves and in our lives was very much in the background. And then. It was time to think about the next book and I have a novel that I was ready to go, and we were going to push that forward and sell that.

And it needed a little bit more refinement, it needed some more pages. And so I talked to my agent, we decided on a few months. In that time, instead, I wrote the first three, at that time, essays for this book. And it just felt like this was the next thing and so honoring that. So. We sold the book. The book was not written entirely.

The first third was written and the rest was outlined and you know how it goes. And so then I had ultimately a year with my editor consumption daily on at Pantheon to finish this book. That was the tricky part. You know, on the one hand, it's like, Oh, we sold a book and I still have it. Yikes! Because the time was ticking, we had deadlines, and also, she was along for my process, and that felt like You know, the kind of thing where, like, can I close the door and lock it and then come out later?

But when this is all much more formed, and that wasn't the way it was, I'd be sending her things that were very gooey, on top of, oh, I have these pieces that I've been working on for years, and they feel familiar, and I know how to edit them, and I know how to put them together in this kind of collage scape.

And then there were the parts that I had to write into that I didn't even know if I was ready to write that far into. And it was conversations with her where she was saying, you know, I understand what you're saying and I need more from you. And so when you have a limited amount of time, when you're writing against a deadline, and when you have an editor that you very much respect saying to you, I need you to dig deeper.

Right. That was all incredibly challenging. But what happened in that, I would even call it a partnership, was that some of her questions, also because she's of the Caribbean diaspora, she was able to ask me that I don't think I would have ever gotten to on my own. For example, in Mi Familia and the stories in between, she had asked me, when you look in the mirror, What do you see?

And that detonated a little bomb. And I had to end the call and then call the therapist and the curanderas and have the time in meditation and really think about why was that so triggering? What is with this word to see? And how have I looked to others to tell me how to see myself and how do I undo that?

And so, that's some of the working at moments. It was very hot and it was very up close and it was very fresh. And at other moments it was, this is material that I've been with for a long time. And so it's varied in that way. But you know how it is with memory. And memory is not static. It's not fixed. And so when we enter into that space with memory, it's a real dance.

And how do we adequately show the way in which it moves? It doesn't feel like a linear experience to me. And also culturally, that's not how we know time to behave. We have monochromatic time, we have polychromatic time and the way in which they engage. Of course, we're looking at our watches and we're looking at our planners and also there's a much greater, I want to call it a beast of time in this moment, right, that we are in relationship with.

And so how do you construct a book that shows that surrendering to a greater sense of time and the disorientation of it also historically when there's been so much trauma, how do you show the impact of that in the structure and with the time all questions that I was really. Wanting to put the reader through the experience of, you know, 

Zibby: Well, the end result is incredibly powerful.

Did you think about this subtitle? Then the title and the cover like the packaging of it is so it's such a crazy art that we have to package up our ourselves in stories and a flat piece of like tiny paper. What input did you have if any and what did you think of the final and all of that? 

Jamie: Yeah, it was not that title when I started.

Thank goodness also for my editor who ultimately had a working title. And then at a certain point, she said to me, this is from a passage in the book and I think it would work well. And so I thought that it would also work well. Titles are really hard. Do you find titles are really hard? Are they hard?

It's like the hardest thing. You can say all these words and put all this together. And then how do you, how do you land on that? And then A Daughter Claims Puerto Rico, we went back and forth about that for quite some time. I was afraid with having that subtitle that it would alienate readers who aren't connected to the Caribbean.

I really wanted to focus on the relationship between mother and daughter and how universal that is, even though my story is very specific. So I wasn't sure about that, but we landed on something. And for the longest time we were like, is it reclaims or claims? And then the image was really incredible.

Initially there were some slight differences that we, we ended up changing, but yeah, it's really nice to get a cover and a title that feels satisfying. 

Zibby: Yeah, very cool. 

What was the original title? Can you say? I'm just curious. 

Jamie: Yeah. Well, it's a little embarrassing now, actually. 

Zibby: Why?

Jamie: Uncontrollable circumstances. Which is from that note that my mother would always write when I was late to school or had to leave early or didn't show up for days on end, she would write a note for me that would simply say, due to uncontrollable circumstances, and I thought about it. Oh, well, that would sort of summarize everything, but ultimately, you know, Mother Island works in all those ways that you want a title to work.

Zibby: Yeah.

Jamie: It's the one thing, but then it says so many other things and it's magnetizing and it's open ended. 

Zibby: Yep. Okay. Well, I would not be embarrassed. I think Due to Uncontrollable Circumstances is a very cool title as well, if you included the due to, but anyway, I love Mother Island. 

Jamie: No, you're right. That would make you better.

Zibby: Oh my gosh. So what are you working on now, if anything? 

Jamie: Well, I'm returning to that novel, of course, because it has sat for a couple of years. I want to do some changes. And also, the thing that I was talking about earlier, where writing the story has freed me to tell a larger story and try on other stories, has also happened.

And so I want to make some changes. But ultimately, three adult sisters are waiting for their elderly mother's wedding. And it goes into their current love lives. The way in which they are expressing and ultimately at the end they come together to learn something about what it is to truly love and be loved and be in love.

Zibby: Wow, that sounds great. Should we brainstorm the title? 

Jamie: Yes, we should. I can call you later and we can workshop it. No, it's not going to work. Because, of course, I don't have a title right now. 

Zibby: Okay, well, what advice would you give to aspiring authors, especially people who are trying hard to write their stories, trying hard to delve into some pain in the past, all of that, family histories, legacies, bigger stories of entire cultures. I mean, it's hard. Like it's, you're taking on a lot. So what, how do you do it? What's the advice? 

Jamie: A few pieces of advice, knowing that you're not going to get it right. So give that up right at the start. Know that you are not ultimately trying to represent anyone other than your own story and that you don't have to, by the time you complete the book, be able to tie everything up into a nice neat bow.

For this book, I just was thinking. By the time this book comes out, I'm going to be a different person. So how can I be okay with what I say now? And what I ultimately decided was this is the beginning of a very important conversation that I hope to have for the rest of my long life. And I want to open it up to others and include them.

And the main drive for the writing was to connect to the reader. So those were important things, and like, I think a lot of other people talk about, the need to, I'm not going to use the word self care, because then I feel like people immediately go to that place where they skip over it, because, maybe they're not doing the best job or they're tired of it, hearing about it, right?

But thinking about the ways in which we provide care for ourselves during a very taxing process. And that can be however it looks for you, but it needs to be regular. And then the support systems that hold us. Because, yes, we sit at the desk alone, and we sit in the room alone, and we do our best and, there's a whole network.

There's a whole constellation that is helping to support me and did support me in the writing of this. So those are all of the things that I would share. 

Zibby: Amazing. And on a totally frivolous note, you have the most amazing hair. Do you? What do you do? Do you use any certain products or anything? Like literally we're doing this podcast early in the morning.

My hair is still wet and Jamie looks like a supermodel. So what do you do to your hair to make it look so cool? 

Jamie: Um, well, I will plug one product, which is called a curl can dream. Very hard to find good products I have found in my life, but you know, it's. like 10 minutes before we started, my hair was wet exactly like yours.

And then I found a really great diffuser. It's just like five, eight, maybe 10 minutes with the diffuser when it's mostly between wet and dry. And then it just kind of does its own thing. 

Zibby: That's so fun. Yeah. A girl can dream. I'll try it. Maybe it'll add some life. Okay. Sorry to take it there. But anyway.

Okay. Mother Island. Congratulations, Jamie. This is such a beautiful book. So good and you should, I mean, this sounds so hooky. You should be proud of this book. But you really should. It's really good. Really, really good. And really important. 

Jamie: It means a lot. It means a lot, Zibby. I really appreciate it. Thank you so very much.

Zibby: All right. Have a great day, Janie. 

Jamie: Bye. You too. 

Zibby: See you. Bye. 

Jamie: See you. Bye.

Jamie Figueroa, MOTHER ISLAND

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