Living inside my character’s skin… all the way from Paris

Kamil Porembiński,

Moving to Paris for the year might not seem like the most logical way to connect with the characters in my new novel, which (like the first 2) is set in Texas–although this time in 1930s East Texas. But I’ve actually been learning a lot about what my character might feel and how she might feel it. Let me explain.

This is not the first time I’ve lived abroad, but it is the first time that I’ve done so as a mom. And I feel the challenges of getting oriented in a new place and a foreign language much more acutely when my mommy “in-charge-ness” is impaired.

My character isn’t a mom, but she is in charge of her twin siblings. And she’s an outsider–one of a handful of Mexican Americans who lived in East Texas at the time. In my novel, she moves from San Antonio (where there’s been a Hispanic presence longer than an Anglo one) to near Kilgore because her father has gotten work there. And because of the schools. The booming oil fields at the time meant big tax revenues, so this area had some of the best-equipped public schools in the nation. In the absence of a large Hispanic population, East Texas only had schools segregated into “black” and “white.” By contrast, places like San Antonio often had “Mexican” schools characterized by similar inequalities as those found in black schools throughout the South. So living in East Texas–while it certainly meant daily discrimination in many areas of life–could also open up opportunities since the kids would get enrolled in the white school.

But I’m drifting from the point of this post: what I’m learning about Naomi by being here. Often the scariest thing about being in an unfamiliar place is that it’s familiar to everyone around you. If you’re going through a complicated, frustrating process (like college registration in the days before Internet) with a bunch of other people, it’s still annoying, but it’s not scary or alienating. But when you’re surrounded by folks who can’t imagine why you don’t know how to manage the Metro (not just the stops, but also the tricky little tickets which can only be bought with coins or a special European credit card, getting baby through the turnstiles, and the OBVIOUS fact that coins desensitize the strips), it can feel pretty lonely and scary. Can you tell I spent an afternoon just trying to figure out how to buy a fare?

Character connection: what “ordinary” aspects of life in East Texas would feel foreign to Naomi? What would she be homesick for? I need to get my bewildered self to my writer’s notebook fast before I get all sorted out here and mine these mounds of fatigue and confusion for writing material…


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