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Conversation: Esmeralda Santiago, Author of ‘Conquistadora’

Set in the 1800s, Esmeralda Santiago’s epic novel, “Conquistadora,” tells two coming-of-age stories: one of its heroine, Ana Cubillas, the daughter of Spanish aristocrats who becomes head of a plantation in the new world, and the other of Puerto Rico itself.

Santiago, who came to the United States from Puerto Rico when she was 13, is the author of the memoirs “When I Was Puerto Rican,” “Almost a Woman” and “The Turkish Lover” and the novel “America’s Dream.”

I spoke to her last week about her latest work:

[A transcript is after the jump.]

JEFFREY BROWN: Set in the 1800s, the new epic novel, “Conquistadora,” tells two coming of age stories: one of its heroine, Ana Cubillas, the daughter of Spanish aristocrats who becomes head of a plantation in the new world, and the other of Puerto Rico itself. Its author, Esmeralda Santiago, came to the United States from Puerto Rico when she was 13. She’s author of the memoirs “When I Was Puerto Rican,” “Almost a Woman” and “The Turkish Lover” and the novel “America’s Dream,” and she joins me now. Welcome.

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is an ambitious big story. Did you set out with the idea of telling so much scope?

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: Well, I started out by trying to understand my ancestors because I come —

JEFFREY BROWN: Your own ancestors?

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: My own ancestors. I come from poor, landless peasants who left no records. And so I began to read the story of Puerto Rico, and the more I read the story the more I realized I would never find my own ancestors, but I could make my imaginary ancestors. And so the book emerges as a result of my trying to create them, to create the people that might have been.

JEFFREY BROWN: So did you know much of the history before that?

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: Not as much. I left when I was 13, so whatever I learned in Puerto Rico in the schools that’s all I remembered about the history. But the older I became, the more curious I was, and so would buy books about the history, which I would bring to the United States whenever I went there. And so I owned a lot of it and I didn’t read all of it until I became completely obsessed with the idea of finding my roots.

JEFFREY BROWN: So personal and national identities is here. How much research went into it?

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: Well, a lot of the books I owned, but then thankfully the technology arrived just when I needed it. I did a lot of research online. I went to Spain to the archives in Spain and in Puerto Rico, and many, many libraries have a wonderful — the Westchester Library System — and whenever I couldn’t find anyone, I would call my local librarian and say, how do I find this and they always knew how to help.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, tell me about the heroine, Ana. There was an interview I read where you said, I worried I was creating a character who would have been impossible in that time and that place, and yet there she is.

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: And there she is. Well, I do believe that women like that existed. I just don’t think we have any records about them. One, they really didn’t write; they were too busy doing what they needed to do, and secondly, the literature in the 19th century in Puerto Rico — 99 percent was written by men, and women were just kind of sitting around embroidering most of the time in their books. So I knew I knew that women like this existed; we just hadn’t heard about them. And so I had to create someone who was like was a 19th century woman but also who was modern.

JEFFREY BROWN: A 19th century woman who runs a plantation, and therefore has to deal with one of the overarching themes historically and in your novels: slavery.

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: Yes. And she when she comes to Puerto Rico, she knew she had heard, of course, that there was slavery, but it wasn’t until she was there living among the slaves that she really understood what it meant. She had a lot of conflicts about it, but she managed to get over it because she kept thinking to herself, I have to do this, I have to work, I have to continue my work here and these are my tools. And that’s how she envisioned the slaves, were as the tools that she needed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what about for you, thinking you felt the need to explore this history obviously, particularly slavery.

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: Yes, well, obviously I come from African decedents at some point. My dad is very dark, my mom is very fair. So I know that somewhere along the lines, on my father’s side at least, there would have been Africans. And so I wanted to know who they were and how they lived and what happened to them. It was difficult. I have to admit that when I was reading the history and then when writing about it, I went through the entire gamut of emotions, from shame, embarrassment, to rage, anger, to also just admiration that they survived under the circumstances, that they actually lived.

JEFFREY BROWN: We are, of course, not going to walk through the whole story here, but I’m curious, when you go back and you look at the history and then you create this, does it have reverberations for today? What did you learn about yourself and about our society and about Puerto Rico today?

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: Well, you know, it’s really interesting that I started this with a question, how did we become Puerto Ricans? And, of course, the first question is, who are the people? And the people were very, very mixed, not just from Spain, people saying, you know, we all came from Spain. No. There were people from Ireland, from Germany, from Italy. We are just a real mixture, with the native population and with the Africans. And so that was really exciting to read just how mixed we are and how many different cultures came to our little island and made Puerto Rico what it is. I also didn’t know the history, so it was very poignant for me because I realized, you know, at my age I know more about American history than I did about this history of my island. And that was where embarrassment and shame mixed, but also joy in the possibilities of learning about my ancestors and knowing just a little bit more about me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Speaking of you, there is another part of this personal story, which I didn’t know about until recently, but I gather when you were finishing this, you had a stroke?

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you lost your ability to read and write?

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: Read and write, yes, for about a year. And I had to teach myself how to read and write all over again. I had to relearn it. And I did. If I had not come to the United States at 13, if I had not had to learn the language I would have not have realized that it was very much the same experience when I first came here. I knew the alphabet. I would look at a book, and the words made no sense, because it was a language I couldn’t understand.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ok, so you were relearning now the way you learned at 13?

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: I was relearning, yeah. It was comprehension. My stroke completely affected compression, and so even though I knew that the things were written and they made sense, they didn’t make sense to me. And so I began by reading children’s books all over again, as I did when I first came, and trying to connect the words to the objects. And little by little, I relearned it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now you are ok?

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: I’m ok. I was able to finish the book.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you are here with us. And one last thing, did I read correctly that this is the first of a trilogy? Is there more planned here?

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: There is more planned, because the history was so fascinating and these characters continue to emerge into my imagination and to talk to me. And so I would love to write another book that includes some of these characters, not all of them, and that continues the history of Puerto Rico and how we became who we are.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The book is “Conquistadora.” Esmeralda Santiago, nice to talk to you.

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: Very nice to see you. Thank you.