Susan Straight: A World of Daughters

“I’m here, girl,” says Susan Straight, author of eight novels (including Between Heaven and Here, released by McSweeney’s in September), finalist for the National Book Award, and professor of creative writing at University of California Riverside. “But I’m on the freeway. If I see a cop, I’m going to have to drop this thing in my lap.”

“Susan,” I say. “I can call you back! I don’t want you to get arrested.”

Just the day before, I had reread her essay “Travels with My Ex” in the October 2010 issue of the Believer (later anthologized in Best American Essays 2001), in which she recounts watching a police officer pull over her three daughters and their friend: to her, the Scholar (oldest daughter, Gaila; an Oberlin graduate); the Baller (middle daughter, Delphine, with a basketball scholarship to USC); and the Baby (youngest daughter, Rosette); and the boy she calls Our Laurie (Delphine’s boyfriend, so named, because like Louisa May Alcott’s Laurie, he is at home in a house full of women and even cooks for himself). But to the officer the children were, in the words of her ex-husband (Dwayne, the “six-four Black Guy,” also in the car), just another “car full of black kids in the OC.”  It was up to Straight — five foot four, 105 pounds, blonde and blue-eyed — to smile sweetly at the officer, defuse the situation, and protect her family. (“The little women hate when I do this,” she writes. “They hate that I have to do it and that I am good at it.”)

“No, no, I’m not going to get arrested,” she says. “Just don’t be appalled that I am picking up my kid from school. She’s seventeen and doesn’t have a driver’s license. If I see a cop, I’ll throw the phone at her. How are we still doing this Lorelai Gilmore thing, anyway? I mean, really.”

Straight and I have known each other since the late nineties, when both of us wrote about single motherhood for’s “Mothers Who Think” site, where I was an editor. Straight’s essays were deeply personal and beautifully rendered stories about families in a tight-knit, multiethnic community — learning to do her daughters’ hair; the stories of her family’s mothers and grandmothers; the death of her brother in a car accident shortly after he was questioned by the police about a crime possibly committed by his best friend; her divorce from her husband, whom she began dating in eighth grade. “He’s still here everyday,” she says of Dwayne. “Every single day. He’s quite hilarious and he’s very useful and everything works out in that way. Oh, wait. Kid-bus confluence here.”

“Mom,” says Rosette, now in the car. “There is a cop behind you.”

“Jeeze Louise,” says Straight. “Here, talk to Rosette.”

Straight’s essays about motherhood and family are often as funny and self-deprecating as she is, and implicitly refuse the glossy perfectionism that can be so tiresome in some writing about parenthood. Straight’s novels all revolve around the fictional town of Rio Seco, which closely resembles Riverside, the Southern California city where she was born and, with the exception of college in Los Angeles and graduate school in Amherst, Massachusetts, has lived all her life. Her fiction elevates and expands the stories of her family, her neighbors, and her community in an art that is both distinctively her own and archetypal in its sweep of American myths and migration. The language alone tells stories: bits of Creole, French, Spanish, Native American, African, and American slang all mix together in dialogue with each other. To arrive back in Rio Seco, she writes across centuries and continents.

It took her three novels and fifteen years to tell the story of a beautiful woman found dead in a shopping cart. This trilogy began with A Million Nightingales, published in 2006, which goes back to antebellum Louisiana to tell the story of Moinette, the daughter of a “cadeau-fille,” a slave girl, who, because of her beauty, is offered as a “gift” for a night or a week with important male visitors. Take One Candle Light a Room, published in 2010, jumps to Moinette’s descendants, now living in twenty-first-century Rio Seco. Fantine, who left Rio Seco to attend college and became a travel writer, returns at thirty-nine to track down Victor, the son of her childhood best friend, Glorette, who was murdered five years before. Between Heaven and Here begins with the murder itself: Glorette, the most beautiful woman in Rio Seco, found dead in a shopping cart in an alley.

“There was another policeman, then a helicopter, so Rosette has been holding the phone the whole time,” says Straight. “But I’m home now. I’m on my front porch.” This is the place where, over the years, she has heard many of the stories that percolated into her trilogy about “beauty and race and migration and death,” portions of which, she says, were written in her minivan.  

In the conversation transcribed below, she talked with us about all those subjects, and what it’s like to go through life with one eye on your family, and the other on the fates of your fictional creations. —Amy Benfer

The Barnes & Noble Review: I just reread all three books in this trilogy, in order, so they are all fresh in my mind.

Susan Straight: Oh, I’m so happy. I didn’t even want to call it a trilogy until this last book, because I thought, Who am I? I’m not Cormac McCarthy. I’m just a mom who lives in Riverside, so I don’t get to have a trilogy. Somebody else can have a trilogy, someone smarter. For fifteen years, I’ve just been trying to find out what happened to Glorette and what Victor would do.

BNR: But the first book published in the series was A Million Nightingales, which begins nearly 200 years earlier, in slave times. So you had to go all the way back to slavery to figure out what happened to Glorette and what Victor would do?

SS: I was trying to figure out why Fantine and Glorette had such terrible relationships with their mothers; why their mothers were so crazy. And then I wrote the part about the serial rapist in Louisiana and why they all had to flee. And then I was like, “Wait. How did this all happen?” And so I put that story down and began to write A Million Nightingales.

BNR: The last two novels occur in reverse chronological order: Take One Candle Light a Room begins five years after Glorette’s murder. But Heaven and Here, the last novel in the trilogy, begins with Glorette found murdered in ally and stuffed into a shopping cart.

SS: There was a girl really found in a shopping cart. She was seventeen. They found out she had been pregnant. She had been killed and left in this shopping cart on this corner I drive by every day. There was this one little tiny article written about this girl. I’ll never forget, her mother said, “No one’s going to care about who killed her, no one’s ever going to try to find out, because she’s just a pregnant black girl.” I thought that was just so sad.

So I spent pretty much the last fifteen years just writing about these three characters. One was this girl, one was Victor [Glorette’s son], and one was Gustave [her father].

Because I’ve lived in the same place my whole life, these kind of things do happen. Mr. Gainer, the dad of one of my best friends, told me a story, probably more than fifteen years ago. Mr. Gainer was a roofer from Florida, and he had to flee Florida because he was making moonshine. Mr. Gainer had really turquoise eyes, and because he was from Florida, he had really sunburnt skin and he was part Indian and part black.

Mr. Gainer would sit on my porch — which is where I am sitting now — and tell these scary stories. My daughters would run into the back of the house and cower in the back bedroom because they were so afraid of him. One day he was sitting out there and he told me a story that when he was really young, he killed this pig. They lived in the turpentine forest in Florida and his dad used to have tap the pine trees to get the turpentine out. He was riding in this cart with these big wooden barrels and there was an accident and his dad was killed while his mom was pregnant with him. When Mr. Gainer was about seven, he was hungry and he took a hammer and he walked three miles and he killed this pig. Then he dragged it back to the front yard and he went in and told his mom, “I’m hungry. Cook me some meat.”

For fifteen years, I had these two images: This young woman who was killed and left in a shopping cart, and this little boy who had killed a pig. You can see how they came out fictionally.

BNR: Did you ever find the article on the real girl in the shopping cart?

SS: This summer, I was looking for the article again, and I couldn’t find it anywhere. Mr. Gainer had been in the hospital for a while. He passed away at three o’clock in the morning, and at six o’clock in the morning, I heard this thump, thump on my front porch. The UPS guy had dropped off the books. That night I went over to Mr. Gainer’s house and brought cake, then I went around the corner to my father-in-law’s house to tell them about the funeral. My brothers-in-law were standing in the yard. Then I said, offhandedly, “Do you remember that girl who was killed in the shopping cart?”

And my brother-in-law looks at me and he says, “Sis. Don’t you remember? I’m the one who found her.”

And I’m like, “Oh my gosh.” Of course he was right. Most of my memory of the story comes from him, not from the article. He had walked past the body and he had thought it was just a pile of discarded clothing. He was on his way out at dawn to go see some girl, right? And then when he came back, he saw a crowd gathered around the cart. And they had found her body.

I realized that everything we do is oral storytelling still. That’s my whole life. Everyone tells me these stories and I think about them for years and years and years and they come into a novel in a completely different way. There’s a real story, but everything gets colored into fiction. I was so sad about that girl, and I made her into Glorette. I didn’t want her body to be undignified and sitting there on the corner with everyone driving by not knowing what it was, and so I put her in the alley and had Sidney rescue her.

BNR: The line you remember from the girl’s mother in the newspaper article comes back in your story. Glorette is not pregnant and not seventeen, but she is a prostitute, and the family still has this idea that no one will care that she has been killed, so much that they don’t even tell the police, and they take her home. They realize that it’s illegal to bury her at home, but they have a sense that no one else will care or take care of her anyway.

SS: There was this term that the police used to use. If it was a prostitute, or someone who came to be homeless who died, they would say, “NHI — no human involved.” So her family really would think that. Why wouldn’t they? What will they do with her body anyway? They will just cut her up. Then they will say, “Well, she was a prostitute. So what?” It would have been totally illegal for them to do what they did. But I really believe that is what they would do.

There are all these secrets. In our family, people know, well, this thing happened to so-and-so, but then somebody else went and took care of it. Nobody ever did call the cops. Those were the other things I was thinking about, especially with Enrique. I became obsessed with the idea that he had killed four people and he really didn’t have to think about that until Glorette died.

BNR: And he killed those four people in the course of protecting his family when the law would not. The shaded term is “vigilante justice.” But is seems like that the men in your novels who kill have good reason to believe that no one else will enforce justice if they do not; there is a moral code and a sense of duty.

SS: I’m going to speak obliquely, but I do know people who have done things like that. People who I see every day. Even though they feel it was justified, it still weighs on them. With TV and movies — like “Breaking Bad,” which I have never seen — there’s this notion that death is excusable and entertaining. If you talk to someone who is that person, the Enforcer, it’s a terrible burden to have. Even some of the older men I know who have killed someone during a war. They’ll talk to me about it. I met somebody who said, “I had to strangle someone during the Korean War, and I will never forget that. It was the worst thing ever.”

I was fascinated with this idea when I started to write about Enrique that he would start to worry about who he was and that he would start to think, “Why do I have to be the person who does this?” It’s a terrible burden to be his wife, too. It’s not like some big heroic thing, like it is for Alfonso and the other guys.

Actually, you’re going to crack up. I was writing this chapter, “Nightbirds,” Enrique’s part, that summer in a house full of people. Gaila brought someone home, and Delphine. I don’t even know how many twenty-year-olds I had in my house at that time. I couldn’t write. It was just full of people. So I had to go into my car. I’m used to going into my car to write, but it was summertime. I drove to this orange grove in my old neighborhood and I would sit there and it was hot, July and August.

BNR: I like that you just introduce it as, “Well, of course I just write in the car…”

SS: I do. I wrote eighty percent of that book in the car. I wrote A Million Nightingales in my car. I remember vividly that scene in A” — the character, Moinette, the great-great-grandmother of the characters in this book — I was writing this scene where Cephaline, the really smart white woman, is dying, she’s being slowly poisoned because they want her to be beautiful. [Cephaline, in hopes that she will find a husband, is forced by her family to use treatments for her hair and acne that turn out to be toxic —Ed.].  I’d been working on it for eight days, written by hand in a legal pad, because my computer had crashed. I went and taught my class and I had forty-five minutes between when class got out and when I had to go pick up Rosette. And I thought, If I go home, something’s going to happen. Someone will be there, or a neighbor will show up. So I got in my van and wrote, by hand. I have the window open, because it’s hot. And this guy puts his hand on my arm. And I jump like ten feet and he leers in at me and says, “Hey. Are you working?”

He thought I was a prostitute. I was parked at this local park where that happens now and then. And I looked at him and said, “Yeah, I’m working. I’m working on a novel.” And he looked at me like, “What the heck are you talking about? A novel?” He looked at me like he had never heard the word before. And I look at him like, “Are you serious? I’m wearing jeans and a T-shirt. I’m in a minivan.” He was still holding on to my arm, so I just started the car and drove off very fast, hoping he would fall, because I was so mad at him.

And then I thought, I still have like twenty minutes left! I was so angry, because I was so involved in this scene. So I parked in front of an orthodontist’s office where I used to go when I was young. No one said anything to me, because then I was just a mom. I wrote the rest of the scene, in the legal pad. I looked up and it was time to get Rosette. I was out of breath, I was so scared for Cephaline and for Moinette. I went to go pick up Rosette and I was just in this complete daze, that Cephaline had died. And she just looked at me like, “OK.”

BNR: So you are going through your daily life with your eyes glazed with fictional characters…

SS: I think that’s what I have to do. I can’t be that person who says, “I’ll wake up and greet the sun and write my twenty pages,” because that’s never going to happen. I will always write in the car. Which is fine. I like it. It is pretty hot. I’m not going to lie. It’s hot in those orange groves.

BNR: Cephaline, the white girl, dies from her family trying to make her beautiful. Glorette is beautiful. And so is her great-great-grandmother, the slave Moinette. But their beauty doesn’t seem to help them much. As slaves, Moinette and her mother are literally forced into prostitution because of their beauty. More than 200 years later, the beauty hierarchies and jealousies surrounding hair and skin tone directly affect Glorette’s fate as a mixed-race woman. These stories seem linked by the dangers of being a beautiful woman.

SS: That is exactly what I was trying to do. That all came from another weird seed. When I was eighteen, I used to ride the bus in L.A. up Figueroa. It was a dangerous neighborhood. But I was this anonymous-looking blonde girl. I still am. Everyone is like, “Oh, aren’t you so-and-so’s mom?” Or, “Don’t you work at Wal-Mart?” That’s fine.

The most beautiful woman in the world used to ride the bus with me. She is Glorette. She had skin that was the color of one of those antique picture frames. Her eyes were like purple-gold. She had this long, straight hair, and she always wore it in a bun. This was maybe 1979. And she wore those high-waisted double-knit pants we all wore then, with a jacket. She always had envelopes in her hand, so I knew she had an office job, as did I. Men would follow her on the bus, you know, just push their number into her hands, drop it into her purse. “Oh, baby, If you just give me one chance, I’ll be good to you. I’ve never seen anyone who looks like you.”

It seemed like a terrible thing. She looked as if she could never just walk down the street without that happening. She said something to the bus driver one day. This song came on, and she said, “That used to be my favorite song. The only man I ever loved sang me that song.” I have never seen anyone sound so sad. I have now, but I hadn’t then.

I don’t think men wanted to love her so much as they wanted to possess her. And then that got mixed up with this story of my mother-in-law’s mother, Grandma Daisy, who, I later found out, was very beautiful. She married a guy, and he would say things to her like, “You’re so fine. Someone is going to want to steal you away. So I’m going to have to kill you before that happens.” She had a baby, and she had to flee, in the middle of the night.

All of these notions of beauty mixed in my mind, and it always seemed that the man wanted to possess the woman, not love the woman. That was where I began with Glorette, and then I went backward to her mother and to those other girls in that small town in Louisiana and how they all got chased away, which was also based on a true story, about how someone close to me came to California, because someone was going to kidnap his daughter. I was writing about these notions: When is beauty a poison? When is it only a danger? When does it make men look only at a woman as an object or as a desire, but not as someone they could actually love as an equal? It took me three books to say, “If you are Helen of Troy beautiful, if you are that kind of beautiful, then who are you and who are you allowed to become?”

And now I have three beautiful daughters and men do stuff like try to throw their numbers into the open window of Delphine’s car while she’s driving down the freeway. Men follow her on the freeway, and get off the freeway so they can talk to her. That does not happen to me. But it’s really strange for her dad and me to watch that happen to them. That’s the feeling that Gustave and Enrique had.

BNR: In some instances, for example, a beautiful woman like Glorette might become a trophy wife, rather than a prostitute. Do you think that’s a difference in class, or just circumstance or coincidence?

SS: I think it’s a combination of class and circumstance. My girls and I are always watching those housewife shows, and we’re always talking about what would it be like to be an NBA wife. And we’re like, “That looks terrible.” It looks like you are only judged on your beauty, and if you don’t keep that up, you become worthless. What happens, for example, if you become one of those wives that men still seem unhappy with, and still fool around on you?

I think it’s circumstance, somewhat, because Glorette was so young when she had Victor. There’s scene in the book where Victor is with his grandfather. It’s the last chapter in the book, and it’s the first thing I wrote fifteen years ago. And Gustave says to Glorette, “Why don’t you go down to City Hall and get a secretary job?” And she says, “No one would leave me alone, anyway.” What choice did Glorette have? If she went off to be a secretary, then the boss would treat her badly, or some other person.

BNR: Glorette is even beyond being a seventeen-year-old pregnant black girl. She is literally a crack whore — the term people use to describe the kind of women who count the absolute least. And yet, you can see how much she matters to so many people.

SS: A crack “ho.” She’s a the catchphrase for what you think of when someone is making fun of somebody. There was a review that came out in the Daily Beast, a really nice review, and Rosette read it. Rosette was always thinking about what Glorette looked like. She assembled this collage with all these beautiful women, and almost all of them were Dominican or Puerto Rican. She wants to be a casting director, so that’s what she’s obsessed with.

And Rosette said, “In this review, they call her a ‘junkie hooker.’ ” In all these years of thinking about her, I’ve never heard anyone use those two words. No one around here would ever say the word “junkie.” No one would ever say the word, “hooker.” I thought, You know, you’re right. We would think of her as, “She’s one of those sad women who have to walk up Blank Street” — the street that we know where those women go. And Rosette said, “It’s so weird that someone else who look at her as a junkie hooker when you just think of her as a sad woman who walks up Blank Street.” And I said, “Yeah.”

BNR: And she’s so important to so many people. I like that while Take One Candle is narrated from a first-person perspective, that of thirty-nine-year-old Fantine, who has left the old neighborhood to go to college and become a travel writer, Heaven and Here is narrated by the entire community, all of whom have so much to say about Glorette and her death.

SS: I think it’s because I live in such a tight-knit community, too. I just drove past the hospital where I was born. When I was younger, and I wanted to be a famous writer, that was the worst thing possible. I left and I went to college and I went to graduate school, but I was already married when I was in graduate school, and I married someone I had known all my life. My daughters will say, “I can look out the window and see the hospital where you and dad were born, and where we were born. You never went anywhere.” And that is, geographically, true.
There was a time where I was really sad about that. I wanted to be in New York, I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be anywhere but where I was. But then I realized the thing to do was to write about my particular place. The thing about my community is that everyone does know everyone else, and everyone is sort of legendary. But yes, Glorette is the most beautiful person in this world, and everyone is so sad when she is gone. How could they not be?

There are all these little secrets: All of these things are part of my daily life, too, because there are all of these ways that we live life completely off the grid. It’s exactly the opposite of the way we live life right now, with YouTube, and Facebook. When I go out and hang out with someone like Mr. Gainer, we’re sitting on the porch talking about something that happened in 1930. The only way that story gets transmitted to me is through Mr. Gainer. Then I have to tell it to my girls. Then Dwayne and I sit around and talk and our girls hear about Grandma Daisy and how she had to flee. None of those stories exist in any other venue outside of oral history. That’s true of a lot of black history, and a lot of women’s history. In a community like mine, they all just circle around in my head. To make them into fiction is such a strange job, but I feel much better about it.

But it thrilled me to no end that you see these links between the three books, because I never think I’m the kind of person who is allowed to say, “Here is my trilogy about beauty and race and migration and death.”

BNR: But that’s what it is! It goes back 200 years. For God’s sake, you even have little details — the coffee, the hair — that follow all of them through generations, to the point that even the characters don’t know where they come from.

SS: I think of my ex-husband’s grandmother, Grandma Daisy. She was this huge figure in Riverside’s East Side community. She had four girls with four different men. She had to flee all of them every single time. She ended up in California. Her daughter, my mother-in-law, never knew where she was born — it could’ve be Texas, Louisiana, or Arkansas. We had to get her a birth certificate when she was fifty. As a single woman, Daisy bought a two-story Victorian house. She ran a boardinghouse and she had all these people she was in charge of raising. She’s not world-famous; she’s just this extraordinary woman. But the connections go all the way back to slavery.

What happened to her mother, and to her mother, because they were beautiful? And then to have Daisy be beautiful, and my mother-in-law to be beautiful, and to have my daughters be the descendant of that person. That means a lot to me. Daisy died before my daughters were born. My mother-in-law died while I was pregnant with Rosette. And here’s my daughter, this beautiful black woman, who never got to know her grandmother or her great grandmother. I never got to meet my two grandmothers. They died before I was born. My thing is: What do we inherit from those grandmothers, having never even met them?

BNR: Your website traces the immigrants on both sides of your family and how each came to Riverside. What is striking about Riverside, or Rio Seco, is how multiethnic it is, and your family is no exception.

SS: My mom is from Switzerland and my stepdad is from Canada. My real dad is from Colorado, Brokeback Mountain, sheep ranch Colorado. In my neighborhood, everyone was military. My stepdad got here after the military. Everyone in my neighborhood, no matter what color, settled in Riverside because the Air Force base was nearby. All the people I grew up with were all born at  Community Hospital. But all our parents were all born somewhere else.

Just two weeks ago, we had our big Labor Day party and I was talking to Mrs. Zelie Aubert. Mrs. Aubert is eighty-eight and from a little tiny town in Louisiana, very much like Moinette’s town. Her kids were all born in Korea and Germany and then all of these older black men retired to Riverside, because they didn’t want to go back to Georgia or Mississippi or Louisiana, where life was terrible. They came out of World War II. Why would they want to go back to Jim Crow and being attacked?

They all ended up settling in Riverside. They liked Riverside because it was rural and you could get some land. All of these neighborhoods I grew up in, everyone was really interesting because we were all first-generation Californians. Our parents were all immigrants. Whether they were from Mississippi — which, as my elderly cousin points out, “was a Third World country at that time.” He says, “We came here from a Third World country called Mississippi! We were never going back!” Or whether they were, like my mom, from Switzerland. My best friend was half Filipino and half white. The guys on the basketball team were half Japanese and half black, half German and half black, half Japanese and half Filipino.

And we all grew up together. We all married each other. My next-door neighbor, Rosie, married a white guy, Ambrose, they live around the corner. My next-door neighbor, she’s half white and half Native American and her husband is from El Salvador.

BNR: Somehow reading Heaven and Here after already knowing what will happen to Victor gives it this luminous quality of nostalgia; as a reader, you are revisiting a drama whose outcome you already know. How much of Heaven and Here was written before you went back to write the backstories that became the first two books?

SS: I wrote that scene where Victor is sitting with his grandpa and his mom has been found dead and he doesn’t know what he is going to do. I already knew Victor was going to end up trying to park cars in this vacant lot, because right around the corner from me there’s this vacant lot and there’s Riverside City College and this guy used to park cars there. Not anyone that looked like Victor, but I thought, That’s what Victor’s going to do. But then I thought, Wait. What happened to his mom? Why is his mom dead?  Then I had to write something for the Cocaine Chronicles for Akashic and I wrote the story “Poinciana,” and then there was that shopping cart, then suddenly I realized that was Victor’s mom.

The only story that was finished was “Poinciana” and then I just stopped and went, What the heck? What is going on with Glorette and Fantine and their moms? Why are their moms so angry? Why are the moms so paranoid? Why don’t they want their girls to go anywhere? Why can’t they just talk to each other?

I remembered all these older women in the neighborhood, even my own mom. She can’t show too much affection, because if you are too nice, something bad will happen to you. My neighbor across the street is from the Philippines. She was first married to a Chicano serviceman and then she was with a black serviceman and now she’s with a white serviceman, and she has kids from each time. She will seriously come over and tell me stories about how she was kidnapped by ghosts and taken to the forest for two weeks and what happened when she came out. She’ll make chicken adobo and I’ll bring over tomatoes and eggs, because I have chickens, and we’ll sit on the porch and trade food and she’ll tell me these stories. So if you love your child too much, and say, “Oh my child is amazing and beautiful,” the gods are going to come down and hurt that child or give it an evil spirit. So you name that child Ugly Head, Big Ears, Stupid Face, and you’re not very nice to that kid in the beginning so the gods won’t know.

I thought about why these moms were so hard on their daughters. And then that whole thing came up with Moinette and I realized that this had been since slavery that people had been afraid for their daughters. By the time I came back to “Heaven and Here” it was like coming full circle but starting all over. I wrote Alfonso’s story, and then I knew what had happened to Chess. I had written Marie-Therese’s story, where Chess is killed, for McSweeney’s in 2006? 2007?  I knew Chess had been killed because he had seen something in the alley, but I didn’t know how.

BNR: That last chapter in Heaven and Here is very haunting. If you have read Take One Candle, you know that Victor has a lot more struggle ahead of him, but it ends on this note of hopefulness and beauty.

SS: The big revelation for me came in that very last chapter. I had started with Victor and ended with Victor. And I was driving around, and I didn’t know how Victor felt about Glorette. Did he still love her? Why did everyone expect him to hate her? And then I came to this revelation: Of course he loved his mother. What he loved were those little magical moments when she said to him, “If you sit down here and you look at the other side of the palm tree, it looks like fireworks.”

And you know, it’s so weird, but that’s me. That’s the kind of mom I am. I went out one night to take the trash out and it was a full moon and I was just standing there looking up and it was behind the palm tree. There are about five big palm trees on the parking strip in front of our house. I looked up and it looked like electricity was leaping over these palm fronds. After all these years, I’d take the girls out at certain times and say, “Look! Look! Palm tree sparkler!” And they’d be like, “Oh my God, Mom, you are so weird.”

But maybe that’s what they’ll love about me in the end. Maybe they’ll remember these odd moments, like when we would eat ice cream outside on the grass because it was so hot, and we’d fall asleep out there on a blanket, because we didn’t have air conditioning and I’d carry them inside at two in the morning. And I just realized, of course, those are the moments Victor remembers about his mother. Along with the terrible things.

This is what keeps me going. I have work, I have school, I have all these kids, I have my neighbors, I have eighty nieces and nephews. My nephew lived with me last year. He’s a little like Victor, but not really. He’s a crazy skateboarder. He looks just like Bob Marley. But at night I can’t wait to get back to what I am working on, because I want to know what’s going to happen next in the story. It’s my great pleasure. I work and I teach and I have all these  kids, but this is my great pleasure: the mystery of what is going to happen to all of these characters.