To be a first-generation American is to carry stories within your heart, tales from places you hardly know or wish you did. You grow up with a head filled with stories as you awkwardly navigate through a world that no one else in your family understands.
My first language was Spanish, so I know the difficulties of learning a new language, not understanding wordplay, struggling with the inadequacy of a new language to convey feelings that seem best spoken in one’s native tongue. We made dramatic moves when I was a child, and I remember the desire to fit in, to understand the culture in which you suddenly find yourself, and the loneliness that grips you until you find a friend.
As the first-generation American child of Argentine parents, I grew up around people who: felt torn between two countries, hated one and adored the other, or just cut themselves off from the mother country. Much of the conversations I heard surface in my first novel. Even characters are cobbled-together variations of people I’ve known, from the expatriate whose watch is set to the time in Buenos Aires to fanatics of the tango.
Because I was neither born nor lived in Argentina, I do not write about Argentina itself. Instead, I write about the people who left and remember it, whether through a hazy screen or in rich detail.
Thanks to several visits to Mendoza and Buenos Aires as a child, I have richly detailed memories of the foods, the music, and the passionate love of fútbol. I carry these as relics of my family’s history. Plus, my diaries are filled with descriptions, snippets of conversation, and photographs of the past.
I write about what I know. But then, a writer needs to stretch beyond the comfortable, beyond what is known, to the outer regions and far-off places that have only been whispered about in her life.
“When we write only what we know, we limit ourselves to territory we’ve already covered. When we write what we don’t know, we launch ourselves into terra incognita. That’s where the good stuff is. As much as we draw on our experiences, writers know that we also expand our understanding every time that we sit at our desk and write something.” (Steven Pressfield, Writing Wednesday post)
Before I wrote my first novel, I knew next to nothing about the tango. My education was limited to my uncle’s extensive record collection, which he played for me when we visited Buenos Aires. At home, my father could not play the tango for too long without pissing off my mother, who loathed the despairing lyrics.
That’s all I knew. And yet, I wanted to write about the tango.
So, I dove in. I read everything I could about it, listened to hours and hours of the music, looked at videos of the variations of the tango, etc. I watched films about it, spent a small fortune on tango music, and, best of all, attended a tango show in our city. If I wasn’t so shy, I would have taken lessons.
And then the novel began its hesitant first steps, which grew into a more passionate, confident dance. Had it not been for writing, I would have never learned as much as I did about the tango, its history, and performers.
And that’s why writers do more than just live twice. They live three times: in the day-to-day, in the reflecting of the day, and in the imagining of the new and strange.