One of the resources I used for writing it was Enrique Deschamp’s La Republica Dominicana. Directorio y Guia General.
Published in 1907, it’s a compendium of information about…well, everything Dominican. Deschamps’ Directorio includes detailed a detailed history of the island from Taino times, texts describing the Dominican constitution, its exports and main industries, social customs and its towns.
Photographs of prominent Dominican men and women abound in its pages, some of whom you may recognize from my tweets.
In his Directorio, Deschamps collects poems, essays and stories, as well as sheet music. The Directorio also serves as a guide for businesses all around the island. If you needed to find anything or anyone in 1907, this was where you first looked.
And if you’re a historian or historical novelist interested in the Dominican Republic in the Edwardian era, Enrique’s totally got your back.
I do have to add that Enrique was a member of a wealthy elite of Santiago de los Caballeros and it shows in the way (sometimes disparaging, sometimes condescending) he writes about the popular classes.
I spent most of January haunting the hospital after one of my best friends was admitted into the ICU on January 2nd. For the next 27 days, I read the frothiest romances and the most delightfully magical MG novels I could find. And then, when my friend passed away on January 29th, just as we were tentatively making plans for her recovery, I began trying to outrun grief.
I was lucky enough to be able to travel around Spain, France and the U.S. As I did, I began to push myself to do more and see more and live more. I dated more (and was completely infuriated by infuriating boys but also met someone who turned out to be very lovely), I tried to be more social (I clubbing in Nice on my birthday! And didn’t spontaneously combust!) and tried to do all the bookish things I’d never done before: a book launch in NYC! The Brooklyn Book Festival! (Where I spoke to absolutely no one but attended lots of fantastic panels and silently fangirled over a lot of awesome writers, so yay.) I even went to the Baltimore Book Festival, lured by the promise of three days full of smart romance writers saying lots of smart things. (They did not disappoint.) There, I tried to be a little more vocal in my fangirling and ended up being an absolute nerd (Remind me to tell you about the time I told Alisha Rai her hair was pretty and then wandered away, absolutely overcome).
I kept myself busy, and even when I found the time to write, the words wouldn’t always come. So I revised The Infamous Miss Rodriguez, which I’d mostly finished the year before. I fiddled (and still am) with A Time For Desire, the next Arroyo Blanco novel. I started the next Ciudad Real novel, a snippet of which I’ll share below.
I made plans for 2017 and watched as most of them, as well as the world, it seemed like, fell apart.
But I also I visited cities I’d never been in before, and wandered around some old favorites. I read so many amazing books. I watched (not creepily, I promise!) as my books were read and enjoyed. And I met so many lovely people, both online and off, both in the U.S. and here at home (I made a romance-loving friend and we’ve been talking about possibly attending RT next year).
I didn’t get a chance to speak to my friend after she was admitted into the ICU, though I did sneak in once to see her. I didn’t get to say goodbye or make any promises. But for years, we’d been joking that we needed to be less responsible and “good” and a little more wild and daring. I tried my best to do that this year, and even though I had to do it alone, I’d like to think that Gaby approves.
And I’d like to think that 2017 will bring with it more opportunities to continue living as fully as possible, come what may.
And here is a tiny snippet from The Respectable Miss Tolentino, the next book in the Ciudad Real series:
Miss Tolentino’s gaze flickered over him. “Blast, shit and damnation,” she said distinctly. “I don’t see what’s so wicked about a few words.”
She might not, but he could—those few words, coming from her lips, delivered in that crisp voice of hers, made a flame of desire burst instantly to life inside Eduardo. It occurred to him that she adopted that particular tone when she was rattled. Was it the profanity that made her consonants come out clear as the ringing of church bells, or was she as affected by his proximity as he was by hers? Now, there was a delightful thought. He turned it over in his mind for a moment, then stored the thought away carefully until he might examine it more closely.
“You’re right, Miss Tolentino. What is it that suffragettes say? Deeds, not words? I believe it’s time we turn our efforts towards the execution of some very sinful deeds.”
I was fourteen or fifteen when I first read Julia Alvarez’s How Tia Lola Came To Visit Stay. Though I didn’t have the words to explain it to myself even then, I was left feeling vaguely uneasy and offended by her portrayal of the titular character. Rereading it almost fifteen years later, I find I feel the same way. Here’s why.
Following his parent’s divorce, Miguel has just moved from New York City to Vermont with his mother and his sister Juanita when his mother announces that her aunt, Lola, is coming for a visit from the Dominican Republic, where both Miguel’s parents are from.
Tia Lola is a Mary Poppins-like character who teaches the kids to get along and make friends in their new Vermont town by using a Latina charm so disappointingly stereotypical that she brings over a piñata in her suitcase and makes huevos rancheros for the town grump, both of which are Mexican and not common in the Dominican Republic. (This is especially disappointing because Julia Alvarez has Dominican ancestry and should probably know better than to conflate all Latin American traditions and gastronomy.)
She arrives at the airport in a “colorful summer dress”. In the middle of a Vermont winter. Because she’s all island-y, you see, and island-y people don’t know about winter coats.
Where Mary Poppins is “practically perfect in every way” Tia Lola is silly enough to rush to window to see if cats and dogs really are pouring down from the sky when Miguel says something to that effect, reinforcing the stereotype that someone who doesn’t speak English well or is confused by certain idioms, must be ignorant.
After months of living in the U.S. and avoiding learning English, Tia Lola decides that she will stay and consents to have the children teach her the language:
Learning English seems to involve repeating phrases and words, parrot-like, without regard for what they actually mean, as if the island-y Tia Lola cannot comprehend that each word has a specific meaning.
But then, that fits with the characterization of Tia Lola, who at times seems more childlike than Miguel or Juanita– she wanders away immediately upon arriving in New York for her first visit to the city, and paints their rented house a bright purple without consulting Miguel’s mother or the house’s owner. You know, like any regular adult would do.
This portrayal of Tia Lola is consistent with the depiction of island Dominicans in other Alvarez novels where, when in contrast to Dominicans raised in the U.S., island Dominicans are portrayed as backwards, ignorant, or child-like.
(Also–there are no volcanoes in the Dominican Republic. Small detail, but an easily-Googled one and yet another one in the long list of things people get unnecessarily and pointlessly wrong. And if this wasn’t a mistake but a conscious decision meant to exoticize the island, well, then that’s problematic as well.)
And speaking of aguinaldos, this arrangement by Trulla Express is classic in Dominican and Puerto Rican Christmases and the perfect music to play in the background while you read about Lourdes and Marisol’s Christmas romance.
I hope you will enjoy the story. And if you’re in the mood for a slightly longer read, please check out my Arroyo Blanco holiday novella, A Season for Wishes.
In 1981, November 25th was designated as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The date was chosen to commemorate the death of three dominican women who fought against the bloody dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo: the Mirabal sisters.
Minerva, Patria and Maria Teresa Mirabal were three of four sisters in a well-off family living in Salcedo. Minerva, the third daughter, petitioned the dictator to be allowed to study law in Santo Domingo, as was customary during the Regime. After refusing several times, he finally allowed her to enroll, only to withhold her professional license after graduation, preventing her from exercising her profession. While in university, Minerva got acquainted with anti-Trujillo activists and the man who would become her future husband.
Together, and later with the help of her sisters Patria and Maria Teresa, Minerva and her husband joined the resistance against the Regime. The sisters and their husbands were incarcerated in 1960; the sisters were freed after several months but their husbands remained in prison. Though they were moved to prison in a different town, the sisters drove to visit them every week–until November 25th, 1960, when, as they returned home from their visit, they were stopped by the dictator’s henchmen and beaten to death. Their bodies were placed back in their Jeep in order to make their assassination look like an accident.
Word of the assassination spread, however, and their death was the final push dominicans needed to depose of the tyrant, who was killed in march of 1961. The Mirabal sisters’ memory lives on in the Dominican Republic as well as the countless activists who have since then joined in the fight against violence towards women.
One of the things I like the most about setting my stories in a fictional island is the freedom it allows me to worldbuild. I can make some things up, but I can also draw inspiration from the rich Cuban, Dominican and Puerto Rican traditions I’ve grown up with.
In the Dominican Republic, for instance, (and in many other countries in Latin America) supermarkets are flooded around Christmas time with an abundance of Spanish sweets like mazapan, turrón and polvorones.
They, along with assorted nuts (in their shells!), grapes and apples, are a staple at many families’ holiday dinners throughout November and December. I wanted these sweets to be part of Arroyo Blanco’s Christmas traditions, so I included a scene set in a confectioner’s shop in my holiday novella, A Season for Wishes:
Mr. Zapata welcomed them with obvious delight. He’d come to Arroyo Blanco almost thirty years before to visit a distant cousin and had found it so agreeable he’d never returned to his native Spain. He had just come into the front room from the back, holding a tray full of carefully arranged polvorones.
“You’re just in time to try my new recipe,” he said, extending the tray so they could reach it over the counter.
Marcos and Alba each picked one, and their eyes met as they bit into the crumbly shortbread.
Marcos was sure they were remembering the same thing— at the start of the Christmas season, when the aguinaldos began, Marcos’s mother would make a large batch of polvorones and keep them in an enormous glass jar near the entry for carolers. The year they were both eight, they’d taken advantage of a moment in which both his mother and the housemaid were busy with Pablo—who had slammed his fingers in a drawer and was wailing loud enough to wake the dead— to steal the jar and hide under the back porch, where they’d held a contest to see who could eat the most polvorones. Marcos had managed sixteen before his stomach started to ache, but Alba had eaten an impressive twenty eight…and had been promptly sick into the bushes.
The experience hadn’t made either of them adverse to the sweet. Marcos finished his and assured Mr. Zapata that it was the crumbliest, sugariest polvoron he’d ever had, and Alba put in an order for two dozen.
Mr. Zapata beamed and gestured to the display of marzipan figurines. “And have you seen our mazapan?”
They were fashioned into different shapes, some topped with almonds and some without.
“I’ve a few young friends who would like those,” Marcos said, thinking about his cousin’s boys, who would be at his family’s Christmas celebration. “I’ll take twenty, and some penny candy as well.”
Alba requested an assortment and rounded out the order with with several bricks of turrón. As Mr. Zapata started wrapping everything up, Marcos turned to her and found her looking a little wistful as she gazed at the display, no doubt filled with thoughts of her father.
Marcos nodded at the tray of polvorones and said, “I’m half tempted. Aren’t you?”
“Not a bit,” she answered, and he was pleased to see some of the sadness melting away from her expression. “Though I am rather curious to see if you can best my record.”
“I might be persuaded to try,” Marcos said, smiling down at her. She returned the smile, and he noticed the smear of sugar on the corner of her lips. His hand rose without his thinking about it and he brushed the sugar away, wondering if she would taste as sweet as the polvorones. His first impulse was to find out. But Mr. Zapata had finished putting together their orders and was tying the bundles together with twine.
Reluctantly, Marcos stepped away from Alba and took their packages from Mr. Zapata.
So what are all these sweets? Let’s start with turrón!
Turrones are brick-shaped confections made out of honey, sugar and egg whites and come in different varieties. Pictured above are two types: hard and soft. The white one with nuts is hard and crunchy, and the more classic variety; the one in the bottom is more of a hard paste. The nuts used in turrón are usually almonds, but they can be made with peanuts or even sesame seeds.
Mazapan is another confection made with almonds (almond meal, actually):
Originally from Toledo, this traditional Christmas sweet is fashioned into different shapes.
Polvorones are common during Christmas time but where I live, big glass jars of them are also set out during weddings and baptisms.
Polvorones are little balls of crumbly shortbread mixed with walnuts and covered with powdered sugar. They’re my absolute favorite and while I’ve never eaten as many as Marcos and Alma in a single sitting, I will confess to finishing off half the package I bought for this post!
I’ve spent most of this last, um, year (And when I say year I mean eighteen months or so. A fast writer I am not.) working on the second Arroyo Blanco novel, A Time for Desire. In it, Roberto Sandoval and Rosa Castillo, who you might remember as one of the suffragettes from A Summer for Scandal, have to face one of the American-owned sugar companies that were so ubiquitous in the Dominican Republic in the beginning of the 20th century.
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been struggling to free up some space in my bursting e-mail inbox. (Who’d have guessed you can’t save nine years worth of emails in the inbox of a free email provider without eventually running out of GB’s?) Maybe it’s the historian in me, but I’m ridiculously sentimental about saving emails, even unimportant ones. Going through them years later is as much fun as going through old photos or old social media posts.
Anyway, as I made the oh-so-difficult life-and-death decisions of which emails to delete, I found one my mother sent me a few years ago with pictures of Old Havana at the beginning of the 20th century. Since Ciudad Real was inspired by a visit to Cuba a couple of years ago, I thought they would give readers an idea of what I imagine Ciudad Real would look like if it were, you know, real.
These photographs were part of a Power Point presentation. The only credit I can give is this, which appears in the last slide:
Thank you, Chomy, whoever you are, and to your cousin Mariano for sharing these lovely photographs!
My baby cousin—who’s almost eighteen but whatever, she’s still my baby—wrote a romance! It’s a sweet contemporary YA and I’m so delighted and proud I could burst. She emailed me her manuscript a couple of days ago and as I began to read it, I saw that she’s going through the very same thing I went through when I was her age.
At few years ago, I watched Chimamanda Adichie’s wonderful TED talk on The Dangers of A Single Story. At the beginning of the talk, she explains how in her first attempts at writing fiction, she found herself emulating the American and British novels she’d read all her life, despite her never having lived in any of those places. I was speechless as I realized I’d spent most of my life doing the same thing.
Though we grew up in different parts of the world—she in Nigeria and I in the Spanish Caribbean– our experiences with the consumption of foreign media were remarkably similar. I devoured all the American and British books that lined the shelves of my bilingual school library and along the way, became intimately familiar not only with the English language, but also with American and British culture. I knew all about prom and lemonade stands and Thanksgiving.
By the time I started university, I’d started to diversify my stories. I began to write a contemporary YA fantasy with a mixed race protagonist and her glamorous, demon-slaying Haitian mother. The story was fun (okay, it was super dark) and I loved the characters. But something still felt wrong. My characters were called Alma, Freddie and Kate. And they were demon-slaying in what might not have been a recognizable British or American city, but was definitely inspired by New York and London.
It felt…weird. It felt inauthentic, even though I’d traveled through North America and Europe and most of the media I’d consumed was set in those continents and I knew I hadn’t gotten any of the details wrong. I wrote about 10,000 words before I grew frustrated and turned to another project, another YA fantasy in a vaguely historical setting that, I thought, would eliminate the struggle of choosing between mobile and cell phone. I started worldbuilding, creating these fantastic settings…that were still based on various European cities.
Even in my twenties, it hadn’t occurred to me that I could set the kind of stories I wanted to tell in a place similar to where I lived.
I was 26 when I started to write historical romance, fiddling around with different setting possibilities. I can’t remember now what sparked the idea of setting the romances in an island in the Spanish Caribbean. I was writing romances for fun, as an experiment. I already loved romance as a reader and as I began what would turn out to be A Summer for Scandal, I fell in love with the genre as a writer. And it was partly because writing about Arroyo Blanco, a fictional town based on the ones I’d known all my life, I felt free of the vague uneasiness that had followed me from story to story.
I know someday I’ll get back to Alma, Freddie and Kate. They might still demon-slay in New York or in London. But if they do, it will be a conscious choice and not because I still feel that the kind of stories I want to write and read about can only happen in certain places and to certain people.
And when I meet with my baby cousin to workshop her novel, I’ll be sure to tell her that people like us—who look like us and who live where we do—can have all kinds of adventures, in love and otherwise.
I’m happy to announce that I’ll be contributing the occasional post to one of my favorite blogs, Edwardian Promenade. My first post is on U.S. interventionism in Latin America and the Caribbean– you can find it here.
More and, uh, lighter posts will follow, so stay tuned!