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An Interview with Author Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa

January 25, 2010

Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa’s debut novel, Daughters of the Stone, will take you on the vivid journeys of powerful and strong women in Puerto Rico and New York.  The novel details five generations of Afro-Puerto Rican women by exploring slavery, bonds of mothers and daughters, religion, the importance of not forgetting your past, and much more.

Regina: One reoccurring theme in Daughters of the Stone is the importance of oral traditions.  In the novel, the stories that were passed from mother to daughter are what make and keep them strong.  When they lose or shun their history, they lose their way.  Can you expand on the notion that continuing a legacy acts as one’s foundation?
Dahlma: I think that the oral tradition has always been the driving force of rural cultures, whether the Appalachian cultures of the U.S. or sub-Saharan cultures of Africa or mountain cultures in the Middle East or the Russian steppes.  The human voice has carried the message and the strength that has helped us survive for millennia before the printed word and it’s just as vital and valid.  It is especially important for oppressed people whose voices have been silenced in so many other ways.

In Daughters Of The Stone each woman is charged with the issue of building the future on the foundation of the past.  To try to build a house with no foundation is to court disaster.  Our young people are always looking for the new and different, sure that they are experiencing everything for the first time.  When they realize that everything has come before and that their elders have had to deal with the same issues, then they start looking to the past for answers.  It’s not that you relive the past, but that you learn from the lessons of those who have come before so you can move forward.

“…she watched Mati part her hair down the middle with a wide-toothed comb.  Her mother twisted each half until it looked like thick rope and then wound it around and around until it became a tight bun.”  (132)

What is your response to the people who ask you, “why use the term ‘Afro-Puerto Rican’ when describing the people in this novel instead of just ‘Puerto Rican'”?
I think that the worst thing you can do to a people is deny their existence.  And the worst kind of racism is the one internalized by people who are convinced of their own lack of worth.  Within Puerto Rican culture there are many influences.  Some people have readily accepted the European influence but have given short shrift to the Indian and especially the African roots in the culture.  The African influence is a huge part of the national identity whether embraced or not.  I choose to embrace it because for so long it has been denied or disguised.

“Marci got up early to press Elena’s hair.  It was shiny with bergamont….” (223)

As children of the African Diaspora, we share undeniable physical traits be it complexion, facial features or hair.  There are many descriptions and references to hair in this novel.  How much of it was deliberate?
All of it is absolutely deliberate.  You can’t write about the African Diaspora and not deal with the issues of physical markers.  Often these markers are used to demean but in this novel they are used to strengthen.  For instance, there are many descriptions of women grooming themselves.  The braiding and twisting of the hair is an important and recurring element.  For these characters, the care of hair has an almost spiritual connection–not as ritual but rather a part of the fabric of everyday living.  It is a way of grandmothers showing love and teaching lessons (as when Tia braids Mati’s hair after the piglet incident) or  a woman’s preparation for facing the world (as in when Mati prepares to go herb gathering) or as a path to intimacy (as when Cheo watches Mati sleeping).  A radical change in hair is a powerful symbol (as when Cheo returns to Mati after many years).

“He examined me carefully: my newly trimmed Afro, huge hoop earrings, and embroidered Mexican blouse.” (267)

In Carisa’s section of the novel, I found this excerpt to be a succinct summary of the “glossing over” of slavery, race and racism:
“I sat in this class on Puerto Rican history and culture for an entire semester.  The words “esclavos” and “esclavitud” were rarely mentioned and then only in passing–like an unfortunate disease. . . .  The times I brought up the questions of race, I was assured repeatedly that all Puerto Ricans were treated equally and racism simply didn’t exist in Puerto Rico.” (292)
This sort of exclusion and dilution has been common to formal education, but what about the community itself?  In the Afro-Puerto Rican community how much of slavery, African ancestors and racism was/is talked about?
I have lived in NYC almost my entire life so I am no authority on the reality of Puerto Rican culture as lived day to day on the island.  But from my working class, newyorican experience, African culture is lived rather than discussed.  The spirituality of African religions is everywhere whether people discuss them or not. And this not limited to people of African descent.  The food, the music, the dance are all influenced by Africa and are embraced by the society in general. There is a growing artistic and historical movement that embraces the Diaspora and demands a voice on the national stage whether in the U.S. or on the island. However, I think that on the official level, African contributions and influences have been downplayed or ignored.  I think that while the masses of Puerto Rican people encorporate their  African roots into their daily lives, the wealthy and privileged members of the society, who have always dictated the norms, shun anything that has to do with Africa or blackness.

“The first tapestry she ever made was one of the Lady Oshun. . . . Mati worked her loose hair using three strands of thread and making tiny knots to simulate the thick texture of the locks.” (120)

I don’t feel that we’ve seen the last of the women of Daughters of the Stone.  Do you have any plans to continue their stories?
You’re right about that.  It’s not so much that I plan to continue as much as it is that those characters are not done with telling their tales.  It is they who drive the story.  But without a publisher there is no book.  So we’ll see if there is industry interest in another book.

This novel covers important themes and features an underrepresented group.  Daughters of the Stone is a wonderful story that should be read.  Once you turn the first page, you’ll be drawn in to the magic.  For more information about Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa, visit her website.

Dahlma was born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City. She is a product of the Puerto Rican communities on the island and in the South Bronx. She attended the NYC public school system and got her academic degrees from SUNY-Buffalo and Queens College. As a child she was sent to live with her grandparents in Puerto Rico where she was introduced to the culture of rural Puerto Rico, including the storytelling that came naturally to the women, especially the older women, in her family. Much of her work is based on her experiences during this time. Dahlma taught creative writing, language and literature in the New York City School system before becoming a young adult librarian. She has also taught creative writing to teenagers, adults and senior citizens throughout NYC while honing her own skills as a fiction writer and memoirist. Since her retirement, she has dedicated herself to her writing. Dahlma lives in the Bronx with her husband, Jonathan Lessuck.

**See the previous post for the Spanish translation of this interview.**

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Erika permalink
    January 29, 2010 10:40 pm

    This is a great interview. I’ll definitely check out this book.

    • Regina permalink*
      January 31, 2010 9:53 am

      Thanks. It’s a good read.

  2. Rey Davila permalink
    February 2, 2010 10:47 am

    It is extremely refreshing to read about someone not only mentioning the African influence in Puerto Ricans, but highlighting it. For many years the only influences mentioned were the European and the Indian cultures and how they impacted Peurto Rico.

    I tell folks all the time that our people go from being blonde and blue eyed to thick black hair, dark, beautiful brown skin and brown eyes and every shade in between.

    I have one question — are there any writings out there that cover the scenario of Puerto Rican Americans that do not speak Spanish but are very proud of being PR and get teased and disrespected by Spanish speaking Puerto Rican Americans for not speaking Spanish fluently? The famous “fake Puerto Rican” syndrome…..


    • Regina permalink*
      February 2, 2010 10:53 am

      Thanks for your comment Rey. I haven’t read about that “syndrome” as you called it, but I have heard similar comments before. I will have to look out for it.

      Thank you.

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