Tell me a bit about yourself and your background. What made you want to write this story that mostly takes place in El Salvador?
My father was from El Salvador and my mother is American, so that part of the story was pretty easy to write, although the characters are not my parents. I was born in the US, but we did live in El Salvador when I was a little girl and I have many fond memories of the people and the food. Plus, many of my cousins on my father’s side still live in El Salvador. I grew up in Ohio and majored in Microbiology in college, then moved to Spain where I completed my doctorate degree. After that, I worked as an educator and also lived in Germany. Eventually I moved back to the US and taught here as well, before retiring to write novels. A CRICKET OF A GIRL is my 6th novel.
Having lived in El Salvador as a little girl, I always carried that part around inside me and I found that when people looked at me and saw my dark skin, they didn’t understand the depth of culture and love that I also carried around for my father’s country. Also, (spoiler alert) we did flee the country right before the military stormed the university with tanks, in the middle of the day, and shot students and professors. My father would surely have been killed that day if we had still been there, and I really wanted to write about that and how someone could embrace the lovely country that El Salvador is while still dealing with the pain and injury that was caused by the war. Finally, I wanted to illustrate (my opinion) that the civil war really started years before its official start date, due to the changes that were made by the rich.
For those who haven’t read your book yet, what is A CRICKET OF A GIRL about?
One of my reviewers, Lauren Sapala, a writer and blogger in San Francisco, described her experience with the novel really well, so let me give it to you in her words. “A CRICKET OF A GIRL is the story of two women: one born and raised in El Salvador, and one from the Midwestern United States who relocates to El Salvador in the late 1960s. These two women form an unlikely but beautiful friendship against the backdrop of the political turmoil, violence, and relentless fear that was [and continues to be] the climate of El Salvador. Considering the fears we are dealing with about the future of our society today, I think this should be required reading for anyone who wants to further their education on race, gender, class, and politics. It is guaranteed to make you think twice about what people are capable of, both for good or ill.”
Another reviewer, a young man from Mexico named Arturo Almazan said, “[The novel] tackles difficult topics such as social class inequality, gender roles, cultural identity, and modern slavery.”
I think those two opinions of the novel summarize it well.
I think one thing you captured well in this book is that many Salvadorans are great story-tellers. The character Sesi, who’s a niñera in your book, tells the little girl she cares for the story of The Monkey Princess. I had never heard this folktale before, but you say your Salvadoran niñera used to tell this story to you?
Yes, as true as I could, I tried to capture the real Sesi’s voice. I’ve given her a different name, of course, and her real life is somewhat different than in the novel. For one thing, her life was even harder and she didn’t have a “Figo” but was assaulted. Still, she remained positive and optimistic and did, in the end, learn to bake and make a better life for herself and her daughter. But back to your question, yes, she would walk me to school and tell me stories, and this one of The Monkey Princess is the one I remember best.
One thing I’m always drawn to in the books I read is food, and your book mentions plenty of Salvadoran cuisine. At one point in the story, Sesi learns to make “green rice” (or “arroz verde”)… Any chance you have a recipe you want to share?
Sure! I have it all written down on my blog site.
On your most recent trip to El Salvador, what was the most interesting thing you experienced?
I was struck by how much and how little the country had changed. I could not recognize my house or my school because of the tall walls and gates that had been erected around all of the buildings, to protect from crime. That was sad. But the airport was basically unchanged, and the chattering of the wild green parakeets which fly in thick flocks over the sky were familiar. The view of the majestic volcanoes was breathtaking. And of course, I loved the food!
What’s next for you?
I’m in a busy promotional phase now. My fourth novel, THE LAPTEV VIRUS, (hard sci-fi medical thriller and winner of the Indie Excellence Award) just got made into an audio version by Tantor Media and I’m asking everyone to ask their local libraries to acquire it (shameless plug: you can request it at your library by giving them the ISBN 978-1515969044.)
I’m also promoting my 5th novel, THE COBRA EFFECT, which is another medical thriller, but this time about the plastic pollution in the ocean.
If you’d rather read more contemporary fiction, check out any of my first three novels, BUENO, SINCO and BRUJAS which are a love story set in Spain. They are a series, but I recap enough that you can start with the second or third one if it catches your fancy. (And by the way, SINCO was a finalist for the 2016 International Latino Book Awards.)
Your books are very different genres — is there anything that connects them?
Writing is my way of engaging in social activism, which I think is critical for us at this juncture in time. A CRICKET OF A GIRL is particularly timely because of the immigration issue and the need for all of us to understand and empathize with people from other cultures. I think that the more book clubs and groups of people read and discuss books like this one, the more tolerant we can all become.
My first three novels, BUENO, SINCO and BRUJAS are also about being immersed in a different culture (Spain) where not only are the customs, language and food different, but also the way of thinking about the world. Again, it goes back to helping us to understand and empathize with the foreign.
My fourth novel, THE LAPTEV VIRUS, is about climate change and the dangers of things emerging from the melting Arctic, but it’s also about corporate greed and mistakes that good people can make. THE COBRA EFFECT is about the huge problem of plastic pollution in the ocean, but it also touches on corporate greed and GMOs. And again, part of the narrative is set in other countries (India and China).
I recently heard author and professor George Saunders speaking and he said (I’m paraphrasing) that right now, more than ever, all of us artists (no matter how we make art) need to work on our craft to help our country [and our world] deal with the turmoil in our society and move toward a better future, with more understanding and tolerance. I love that thought!
Find out more about author Christy Esmahan on her website, ChristyEsmahan.com.