In Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut novel, Juventud, lost love and family secrets are set against the backdrop of sociopolitical upheaval. The story follows Mercedes Martinez from the dangerous activist meetings of her youth to her search for connection in a world haunted by the conflicts of her past.
I recently spoke with Blakeslee about the drug war in Colombia, her fascination with family photographs and how people are shaped by the negative spaces in their lives.
Hunter Choate: The novel functions both as a coming-of-age-story and an exploration of political turmoil. What attracted you to that pairing? Do you see parallels between the emotional traumas of youth and the social upheaval explored in the book?
Vanessa Blakeslee: In many respects, I see this novel as an homage to the 19th century literary fiction that I read voraciously as a teenager — tragic romances with twisted plots and brooding heroes, from Wuthering Heights to nearly everything by Thomas Hardy, as well as classic murder mysteries such as Rebecca. Hemingway was also an early influence, especially The Sun Also Rises and his short stories set in Spain. I, too, am a born traveler, and I admired how he could write from inside another culture, and do it well. When the premise for Juventud took root in my imagination and I knew the story largely took place in Colombia, I had two main concerns: 1) how to set high dramatic stakes (life or death) and 2) how to keep my own interest in the material for the months or years it takes to write a novel. Many Americans have a cursory, if erroneous, understanding of the conflict in Colombia, gleaned from sound bites they’ve picked up about the drug war, cartels, perhaps the FARC, but little else. The more I researched the history of the guerilla movement and the formation of the cartels, and the key incidents on the timeline, the more riveted I became in telling a story that more truly captures the sociopolitical landscape of Colombia — one that shines a light on the atrocities of the paramilitaries as much as the guerillas, and includes the millions of displaced alongside the wealthy. The depictions we’re so used to seeing from the movies play up the “sexy danger” of Latin America: armored cars, bodyguards, lavish estates, gorgeous women. Those exist in Juventud, too, but in a way that I hope is much more balanced, lyrical, and revelatory.
So I had my young lovers and I had my war. Are the two inextricably linked? I think so, if you look at how in the novel, the Millennial generation mirrors the backstory of Diego and Paula, Mercedes’ parents. It is the trauma of the poverty surrounding a young Diego — and yes, poverty is a trauma — that feeds his insatiable desire to better himself and his family by whatever means necessary. And certainly the FARC’s killing of Uncle Charlie’s family members in his youth (his character is based on the real terrorist, Carlos Castaño Gil) ignites him to raise his “peasant army” in retaliation. These men’s actions directly contribute to the social upheaval in the book, and conversely, so do the idealistic actions of the young, devoutly Catholic brothers, Emilio and Manuel, who lead the social justice group, La Maria Juventud. Hence the inevitable clash. After leaving Colombia, Paula dedicates her life to helping victims in a similar zone of decades-long conflict, Israel and Palestine; Mercedes is driven to facilitate change but via a different career field, that of State Department policy and journalism. It’s fascinating how the female characters assert themselves in such different ways than their male counterparts — the men’s response is to band together and “rally the troops” so to speak. While the women’s response to righting wrongs is more of a spiritual journey: to each do her own small part, whether her path is psychotherapy, dance, foreign policy, or writing.
HC: References to photographs appear at key points in the novel, including the opening. What is it that elevates a photo to the sacred? How would the novel be different without these visual links to the past?
VB: I’m glad you pointed out the photographs, for several reasons. I hadn’t before thought of them as sacred, but for a household where few photos exist, in the case of Diego and Mercedes Martinez, those images would carry a greater weight, indeed. Without the photos, especially the one at the beginning, I suppose Mercedes could carry Manuel’s CD with her yet, and play his songs. But except for lyrics, how a song sounds is difficult to capture in literature. I found the task cumbersome enough to describe the guitarists and dancers performing without the language sounding stilted or clichéd. And I don’t know if it would be plausible that she’d still be carrying around Manuel’s CD after all those years from laptop to laptop, uploading his old songs to iTunes. I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost track of more CDs than I can count!
But I digress. Invite me over and you’ll catch me spying on whatever pictures are hanging from your refrigerator door, because I’m utterly fascinated by how people choose to display pictures. My first boyfriend’s parents had a lovely home right out of Martha Stewart Living but with zero photos anywhere, and I remember finding this disturbing, coming from a house which practically had shrines in every corner. And certainly I’ve visited plenty of homes where the family portraits fall somewhere in between starkly nonexistent and obnoxious. So from early in the drafts I was drawn to this contrast, and what that might mean. I suspect a home bursting with photos is likely hiding just as much pain as a home featuring none.
The photo of Manuel and Mercedes came to me early on, and I think it’s crucial in that it captures not just the two of them, but evokes a particularly poignant and enthralling time: youth. In reality, they’re only together for five months; she only has this one picture of him. He was, in many respects, “just a boyfriend.” But we also know that’s not true. Later, the idea for the other photo came up — the hidden one that captures a memory Mercedes doesn’t recall, of her family, together. This drives her more than she knows, and contrasts not so much with the pictures of Ana’s family but when she visits her aunt and cousin, sees their photos on the wall, another family who is half-Colombian, half-American — but happily together. Happy, yes, but of course for them time ran out, her American uncle now dead. The photos thus form their own image pattern, imbuing the narrative with thematic resonance and meaning. I don’t know if the themes of love and family would have carried through without the photos, certainly not the same way. If Mercedes was fixated on the CD, for example, revisiting it in the present day, I think that would have raised questions about a young person’s potential cut short, rather than lost love, and the potential family that never has a chance to be.
Later on I worried that the photos might be an easy gimmick, too often used not just in novels but movies and TV. But not only is the image a basic building block of literary fiction, but photographs so flood our world today that to exclude them in a postmodern novel would be against verisimilitude. Also, this is a reminiscent novel told from a first-person narrator, and such novels are about (or ought to be about) memory. Confident that the photos carried their weight on multiple levels, I left them in.
HC: Mercedes is already a teenager when she meets her mother for the first time. Was there something unique to the mother-daughter dynamic you hoped to explore with this construct? Would the story have worked had Mercedes fled Colombia in search of a father figure instead?
VB: The mother-daughter dynamic was a thread that remained, for a long time, elusive. In early drafts she barely questioned Paula’s absence, and up until the ARC stage, I continued to mine the maternal thread further. It’s fascinating and important since by the end the parental poles, if you will, have flipped — in the beginning she’s estranged from her mother and Diego is the parent she looks to for guidance and wisdom, and vice versa in Part Two. Since much of writing fiction comes from the subconscious, I’ll be the first to suggest my inhibitions in confronting the mother’s role has a tremendous amount to do with the emotional distance I’ve struggled with at times in my relationship with my own mother. I guess what that thread ultimately reveals is my rekindling of an authentic connection with my mother in adulthood, and all the concerns and affirmations that come along with it.
As for Mercedes fleeing in search of a father-figure, I think that would be an entirely different book. It is fun to imagine the premise turned upside-down: supposing Paula had taken Mercedes with her to the U.S., and she’s never visited Colombia nor had contact with Diego. But she learns about him as a teenager, and, fully knowing his criminal past, decides to go back. The journey would be no less harrowing, and I suppose the dramatic question there might be: how important is it to have a connection with one’s father, if that father is not such a good man, and in fact may be toxic to you? Or maybe that’s the question taking shape at the conclusion of this novel. In that premise I could see her circling back around, the prodigal daughter, returning to the mother she has doubted, if not scorned. But of course such a premise will remain in the graveyard of the unborn — unless someone else wants to write it!
HC: Family secrets and lost histories leave indelible imprints on Mercedes. To what extent do you think the peripheral unknown shapes people? How does the influence of what is noticeably absent differ from the influence of direct experience?
VB: I think we are hugely shaped by the peripheral unknown, frighteningly so — meaning that if we could gain a more omniscient perspective and see just how greatly such influences shape our belief systems, and thus our choices and destinies, our minds would be blown. In some cases, the influences are more environmental and tangible, although still elusive. The section of the novel that immediately comes to mind is when Mercedes is riding with her aunt and cousin across Costa Rica, taking in the dense, rugged rainforest of the Braulio Carrillo National Park, her aunt warning her of its dangers. “How foolish we were, knowing so little, even nothing, about our back yards,” Mercedes muses. “We clustered in cities and imprisoned ourselves behind fences, cut off from nature.” The wilderness in the book isn’t a place where the individual might reclaim or reinvent oneself, as in the American West, but brims with hostility and danger. It is where the guerillas hide out and the rural poor farm coca, a marginal existence and rightfully so, because surviving there is so difficult, the terrain can only accommodate the peripheral. In that sense, Mercedes, along with the greater population, must live in the valleys and on haciendas, “cut off from nature” — because the nature of the jungle is that to the ordinary, modern person who isn’t equipped with indigenous survival skills, it will kill you. So that territorial unknown shapes her life and the lives of those in the book in fascinating ways.
In terms of man-made influences, in that same section they pass malls and shopping centers which her cousin, Jacki, points out as Colombian money-laundering fronts. Mercedes poses a rhetorical question, one that is crucial to the theme of the novel: “How much of the drug trade built the everyday, worldwide? This was just one movie theatre, one mall.” She doesn’t answer it because she can’t; the implications are too staggering, so it is left for the reader to contemplate.
Likewise, we can see how the culture surrounding Mercedes and that of her peers, unbeknownst to them, shapes their attitudes and subsequently their choices. Even though Mercedes hasn’t been raised a practicing Catholic, in Part One she readily accepts — in some cases, staunchly believes — “the way things are”: that she will likely marry after high school and work a few years as a flight attendant, then give that up when she has children. Not marrying and having children isn’t a question for her. It’s only when circumstances force her out of Colombia, out of her belief system and physical perimeters, that she’s exposed to different thinking and radically changes into the global Millennial for whom a career is as important, if not more so, than a romantic relationship. It’s only because they’ve left Cali that Gracia and Mercedes can have the conversation they do at the close of the book, which shows their greater perspectives.
By the novel’s end, what is ultimately revealed is how we are shaped just as much by the “negative space” in our lives as our experiences and how we remember them, to borrow from the epigraph by García Márquez. Her future with Manuel, cut off, and estranged relationship with Diego and Colombia drive her motivation in Part Two. Of her stint as a Fulbright scholar in Ecuador, Mercedes says, “I’d sensed the Colombian border pressing upon me like an invisible storm from the north, something I both hungered for and resisted.” No matter how her relationship with Paula may evolve in adulthood, Mercedes will never know what it would have been like to have her mother present in her childhood; about her paternal grandparents and relatives, she can only speculate. Her only concept of “father” will be a conflicted man whose ways of showing his love for his daughter are well-meaning, even noble, yet entangled with his issues of mistrust, power, and control. She’ll never fully know his crimes, nor his soul. Without those holes in her life, she wouldn’t be driven toward her career pursuits, exposing and rectifying the wrongs done in Latin America — even if some of those accusations turn out not to be true. Nor would she be driven to ultimately write about her life, after her return.
HC: The tragic end of first love between Mercedes and Manuel reverberates throughout the novel. Could the story deliver the same emotional resonance had a similar tragedy instead befallen a second or third great love affair?
VB: I never considered giving Mercedes an earlier love — that was eliminated by the restriction of her age. But it is interesting to surmise how the story would be different if she had been a few years older, say, in her early twenties, and Manuel was not her first boyfriend. I can see her getting more involved in the activist group simply because she’d have more agency, and then the tragedy might be no less but would certainly take a different shape — her personal ideals would be more invested. But I quite like the one-two punch that comes with Manuel being that impressionable first love, the boyfriend who is a bit older and suave, whose impact lies in the way he opens up her world. A subsequent lover might not play quite the same role, and if they were both in their twenties, they might be more equal partners; her rebound relationships might then have more significance. Plus I wanted her youthful naiveté to factor into her realization down the road — that had Manuel remained in her life, she most likely would have made smaller choices: perhaps not gone to university, nor traveled much beyond the region, never really gotten to know herself.
In writing fiction, I often have a certain note I’m striving for at the end and I knew from early on that I wanted this note to be mixed, if not ironic. Great literature says both “yes” and “no” in its conclusions, and so even with slightly different ingredients and plot the emotional resonance would change. Maybe not be less impactful, but certainly impactful in a different way.
HC: Much of the novel is set in Colombia. I know you’ve lived in Latin America and set shorter works in the region. Is there something particularly alluring about Central and South America from a storytelling perspective? To what extent does personal experience, either direct or indirect, influence your choice of setting?
VB: Travel abroad has always stoked the creative coals for me, as it has for countless writers. My theory is this: writing literary prose is rooted in the sensory, in being present. When I’m traveling in an unfamiliar locale, all my senses are piqued because everything’s new, and I feel fully myself, in the moment. So it’s like a wake-up call that shoots down into the subconscious, where the fiction brews. Certainly when I’ve traveled in Latin America but also elsewhere in the developing world — Indonesia, Thailand, the Caribbean — I’m cognizant of a greater sense of stakes. The divide between the haves and have-nots is more stark, the plight of women, the tension in the air that outside the First World, life is more precarious if not reckless. In Costa Rica, pedestrians would cross the major highway that cuts through San Jose all the time, sometimes with young children in tow. Pure insanity. Occasionally — actually, more than occasionally, maybe every couple of weeks — you’d pass the police and a tarp-covered body in one of the lanes. Young families piling onto motorbikes is common in the developing world: dad, mom, and two toddlers in arms. That’s all the transportation they’ve got; it’s survival. In the United States we’re plagued by an opposite extreme of over-protectiveness; parents are being arrested here for allowing their eleven-year-olds to play in the park by themselves, or take the bus. As a fiction writer I’m always on the hunt. If I catch high stakes on the breeze, I don’t even have to follow it — the story follows me.
Colombia became more alluring as I researched, and became fascinated and appalled by the history of U.S. involvement there. Readers of Juventud may seek out the texts I used, should they want to gain a more in-depth knowledge of the horrors, of which the book barely scratches the surface. The experience of not only immersing myself in these academic sources, but primary ones — YouTube videos of peace marches in 1999, news articles of that year, interviews with Carlos Castaño Gil from before his death in 2004 — however indirect, helped to position me even more fully in the time and place, and bring it alive. When I stumbled across the ELN’s kidnapping of the church congregation, coupled with the deep-seated influence of Catholicism in the culture, I knew the book had to delve into religious themes, and when I saw that adding the Jewish element could enable the story to touch on more global concerns, I rose to the task. The chapter set in Israel took a solid week to research, and all of the book a tremendous amount of fact-checking. I’ve never been a journalist, but I’m realizing that I’ve got more than a flair for it.
On a lighter note, I’m not a fan of wintry climates, so the astute reader of my books may notice the preponderance of rustling palms and sandaled feet. This is not an accident. I don’t even want to imagine trudging through ice and snow, thank you very much, so you’ll rarely see it in my fiction. Besides, millions of people have to suffer long winters, six or eight months, and what are they doing, hopefully, with all that time indoors, besides not getting enough exercise nor Vitamin D? Reading fiction! Why on earth do I want to add to their plight by delivering them some frigid escape in the vein of Ethan Frome? I’m a Floridian; that’s just cruel. Dark and gritty, I’ll do anytime. After all, they say literary fiction fosters compassion, and a writer has to keep that in mind.
Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut short story collection, Train Shots, is the winner of the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction and long-listed for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Vanessa’s writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, The Paris Review Daily, The Globe and Mail, Kenyon Review Online, and Bustle among many others. Winner of the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize, she has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, the Ragdale Foundation, and in 2013 received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. Born and raised in northeastern Pennsylvania, she is a longtime resident of Maitland, Florida.
Hunter Choate’s writing appears or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Caketrain and Redivider, among others. He works a marketing gig on the thirteenth floor of an office building in Orlando, Florida.