Q&A: author Jennifer de Leon on her short story “Home Movie”

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2015/10/23/qa-author-jennifer-de-leon-on-her-short-story-home-movie/

The 2015 Boston Book Festival has selected author Jennifer de Leon’s short story “Home Movie” for this year’s ‘One City One Story’ read. The story centers on a Guatemalan wife and husband living in Boston with their three children.  The plot is drawn primarily from the personal experiences of de Leon’s own parents who were also Guatemalan immigrants. “Home Movie” portrays the life of an immigrant couple, split between sticking it out in their new country and returning to the old.


Author Jennifer De Leon

Author Jennifer De Leon

De Leon is also a teacher in the Boston Public Schools.  She was named Children’s Writer-in-Residence by the Associate of the Boston Public Library for 2015-2016. She’s currently working on her first young adult novel “Volar.”

NewBostonPost had a chance to sit down with de Leon and discuss her experiences growing up with immigrant parents and the tension between nostalgia for old traditions and moving forward.
De Leon will be at the Boston Book Festival’s ‘One City One Story’ Town Hall Discussion on October 24, from 11:15-12:15 at the Boston Common Hancock.

Interview with Jenn De Leon on Wednesday, October 7, 2015 at 11:20 a.m.

How did you come up with the idea for this short story?

De Leon: “Home Movie” was inspired by my parents’ life. They moved to Boston in the late 70s and as time passed, they started having conflicting ideas of going home and staying to continue life here.

How much does your parents’ story parallel the story of Linda and Eduardo?

De Leon: My parents are from Guatemala, like the characters Eduardo and Linda. My mom was definitely Linda and my father was Eduardo. My parents also had three children, all girls, and it [the story] was simply dramatized in fiction as it was in real life. I grew up with that tension in the house constantly. The story is actually an impetus for a novel I just finished, which goes deeper into Eduardo and Linda’s background and characters.

How long did it take for you to complete the story?

I started to write the original script for Home Movie in a writing workshop at UMass Boston back in 2007 when I was doing my MFA program. I was working on it on-and-off for a few years, then sent it out to get published back in 2010.

How did you plan the narrative?

De Leon: I really wanted there to be a tension on the timeline itself throughout the story. It takes place over the course of just a few hours…there’s that plane that’s about to leave, and someone has to make that flight. I was going to originally write the entire story from Eduardo’s point of view. But once I decided to write it from Linda’s perspective, that’s when it went in a totally different direction.

I noticed that the perspective would switch from Eduardo to Linda and it was interchanging constantly. Why was that?

De Leon: Yes, the alternative points of view was absolutely intentional. That’s what would really help illustrate the tension between the two.

How long did you expect it would take the reader to figure out where this was going, for both Eduardo and Linda?

De Leon: I wanted the tension between Eduardo and Linda to be there right away. It’s a very creepy, ugly sense of dread—like, how could you get up and leave your family like that? But I also thought, let’s have some white space though, throughout the story. Linda finding that list Eduardo wrote was what really gave it away right from the start. I was taught to use exposed drama right up front, very get-to-the-point. For long form writing, we try to always hide the surprises till the end. To me however, I was taught to reframe that model and just confront the tension head on. It seems to make sense, especially for a story as short as Home Movie. You don’t really have time to slowly linger the development.

How do you see Eduardo’s character? Do you think he’s at fault, or do you want readers to sympathize with him?

De Leon: Some readers have told me it’s so sad what Eduardo does, but is it? He’s getting what he longed for after all this time. He was miserable too. You can’t fault him for feeling this way. It is sad though too, leaving his family behind like that. I wanted some hope for Linda at least at the end of the story, to leave a note to the readers that yes, she’ll be okay. That last line about the heat from the radiator bringing in that calming sense of comfort is a hint that she’ll be alright in the end.

I read that your parents are Guatemalan immigrants. When did they first come the States? How did they like it?

De Leon: My parents came to the States in the late 70s from Guatemala. They had first moved to LA, a place called Culver City. Then my dad took a job in Boston, and my mother followed him. I was born in Jamaica Plain. Like most immigrants, the initial experience was a mixed bag for them. My mother learned English faster than my dad did. My father was more introverted, and took a little longer to get comfortable with the language. It [the move] was definitely hard for both of them because they couldn’t just get up and go home. It wasn’t that simple. My mom eventually started to forget what my grandmother’s face looked like. Other than the occasional phone call or a letter home, it was difficult for them to keep contact, or to ever return. There were plenty of times they both thought about returning home, but my grandmother insisted on them staying there, to make money and help out the family.

What is something you want readers to take away from Home Movie?
De Leon: I want readers to get a peek into the window of immigration. So much of the immigrant canon in literature only focuses on people coming to the States and flourishing, but there isn’t a whole lot about those that wish to go back. Not everyone’s going to love a new environment. So many probably long to go back, but can’t. That is a conflict that most people don’t realize.

Was cultural assimilation something that your family struggled with at first?

De Leon: As far as assimilation, for my sisters and me, we were born here in the States, so I felt reasonably comfortable at school, speaking fluent English, but the traditional cultural contrast was prevalent growing up. We grew up in a multicultural world, we had very strict parents.

How did you feel when you found out that Home Movie was chosen to be Boston Book Festival’s One City One Story read for this year?

De Leon: I was in absolute shock. I was staring at my laptop and couldn’t believe it. As a writer, you get the honorable mentions, the occasional publication and lots of rejections, but this? I was absolutely thrilled.

How many translations are there for Home Movie?

De Leon: For print, there are two—English and Spanish. I think for digital copies, there are several translations. That information should be available online. The translations serve as a vehicle for anyone to relate to as well as tell their own stories.

How do you feel about Boston’s growing immigrant population and the nation in general?

De Leon: Boston, as diverse as it is, it also tends to be quite segregated in certain neighborhoods. Most urban places are very race-specific. It can be challenging or cold. Even within Latino communities, there are sub-committees. Everyone is lumped together by those that categorize us. There are questions of differences between Puerto Rican and Guatemalan and things like that. I think it also has to do with it being hard to maintain a native language. Growing up, people asked me why I didn’t speak fluent Spanish constantly. You still have to study and learn the native language.

Immigration is a hot topic right now in the 2016 presidential race. What policies or changes would you wish to see for the city or even the country regarding immigration?

De Leon: In literary/culture sense, I think we need to spread that old-fashioned storytelling model. Literature has a huge role to enter someone else’s point of view. If all we see in media are images of ten-year-old boys trying to cross the fence to get through the border and we only have that point of view, it leaves very little room for positive imagery and ultimately, the immigrant experiences become very limited to only the negative light. For policy, Boston has a unique program/office called the New Bostonian located in the State House, started by my friend Alejandra St. Guillen, who works in the office. The program is not necessarily geared towards helping only refugees or low-income immigrant families. It’s open to whoever is new to the city. When you’re new, the program helps you integrate into the new city environment and doesn’t make you feel like an anomaly. More states and cities need to adopt that policy in the school system, real estate system and in areas of finance/economics as well. So hopefully this policy that New Boston has will help other cities catch on as well. More funding should be set for programs to target. I’m happy to say Mayor Walsh supports this.