Geographies of Home
Loida Maritza Perez
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What does "home" mean to a family in a strange land, a place where voices speaking an unfamiliar language have so little resonance in the heart? How do immigrants reconcile time-honored traditions, customs, and beliefs with new expectations and responsibilities? How do their children negotiate their way between two contradicting cultures?
In Geographies of Home, Loida Maritza Pérez, a writer born in the Dominican Republic and raised in the United States, explores the definitions of home through the varying perceptions and memories of a large Latino immigrant family. Papito and Aurelia emigrate from the Dominican Republic, a country ruled by the dictator Trujillo and where "the horror of nightmares appeared full-blown in life." For them, like millions of other immigrants, the United States beckons with the promise of escape from fear, poverty, and pain.
Settling with their fourteen children in a Brooklyn neighborhood indelibly marked by years of wear and neglect, they struggle to find a way to protect and nurture their family despite the profound sense of dislocation and alienation they feel and the poverty and racism that surround them. Papito, a Seventh-Day Adventist, clings to his devotion to God and the steadfast rules of his religion, unable to fathom what, other than faith, he can give his children. Aurelia, though she too is a practicing Adventist, retains a strong connection to the beliefs and rituals of her island past. Like her mother, Aurelia has the gift of second sight, the uncanny ability to see, shape, and change things. "It wasn't as though she romanticized the past or believed that things had been better," Pérez writes; "she had been poor even in the Dominican Republic, but something had flourished from within which had enabled her to greet each day rather than cringe from it in dread." Powerless in the new world, unable to return to the old, Papito and Aurelia do the best they can. But fierce parental love and religious faith cannot block out the grim realities of everyday life. Most of their grown sons have distanced themselves from the family. Their daughter Marina descends into madness after she is brutally raped. Rebecca, trapped in an abusive marriage, lives in a filthy apartment filled with the chickens her husband raises, and alternately neglects and cherishes their three children. Iliana, the youngest daughter, has broken away to attend college in upstate New York. In high school, because of her dark complexion and her Latina accent, she had not fit comfortably in either ethnic group; but nothing had prepared Iliana for the vicious racial epithets she finds scrawled on her door at her elite, predominantly white college. Disillusioned and haunted by her mother's disembodied voice recounting the family's troubles, she submits to the pull of familial ties and returns to Brooklyn.
Pérez portrays an immigrant experience that few writers have chronicled and many readers might find unimaginable. In her graphic depiction of the troubles of one family, she exposes lives untouched by the promises of the American dream. Writing from the perspective of a generation brought up in America and seeking to reconnect with and understand their roots in places they know only through the stories of their parents, she explores how cultural heritageincluding traditional rules of right and wrong and long-held assumptions about the roles of men and women in societyprofoundly affect individual perceptions and expectations. As she delves into the contradictions faced by those caught between cultures and the superstitions, joys, and pains that bind families together, Pérez shows that survival ultimately depends on creating a home for oneself"not a geographical site but . . . a frame of mind able to accommodate any place as home."
Loida Maritza Pérez was born in the Dominican Republic in 1963. She lives in New York City.
What inspired you to write Geographies of Home?
While walking through streets in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and even Manhattan, I have on occasion heard roosters crowing in neighborhoods where I knew for a fact there were no livestock markets. This started me thinking. Where were these sounds coming from? Were residents keeping hens and roosters in their homes? For what purpose?
Geographies of Home was originally conceived as a short story consisting of what is now chapter 8. Yet once I began to imagine Rebecca's life, other questions presented themselves. What had been her circumstances prior to marrying Pasión? Why had she stayed with him after the abuse began? What were her parents like? Did she have any siblings? Were their lives similar to hers? What was their ethnic, cultural, religious, social, and economic background? How did this background influence their lives and affect their perceptions? What compromises had they made in their lives and why? Once I began to explore these questions, the characters took on a life of their own and the story evolved into a novel.
In what ways are the family you describe and the problems they confront typical of the Dominican experience in this country?
There is no "typical experience" either for Dominicans living in this country or for those remaining in the Dominican Republic, just as there is none for Americans who have lived in the United States since their ancestors arrived on the Mayflower. We live our lives in a myriad different ways. Therefore, when I set out to write Geographies of Home, I had no intention of writing a definitive text of any sort. Instead, my intention was to write a narrative wherein I explore the lives of a particular family of specific means living under specific circumstances. Any attempt to do otherwise would have resulted in stereotypes. This stated, I nonetheless believe thatregardless of the possibly unique circumstances presented in GeographiesDominicans and other Latinos will encounter familiar issues. But are these issues specifically Latino? I don't think so. Ultimately, these issues pertain to the human condition: our need to belong and be accepted; the contradictions inherent in all of us; our attempts to do the best we can even in the worst of circumstances; our desire to guide our children and the risk of making mistakes along the way; our wondrous ability to sometimes understand and forgive; and our faith in a force greater than ourselves.
Initially, Geographies of Home seems to be about Iliana, yet by the end readers are fully engaged in the lives of Marina, Rebecca, and both parents. How did you decide which family members to focus on?
A family is an ever-shifting unit. Members marry, move away, remain involved to varying degrees. In Geographies of Home I focused on the members crucial to the story. Thesewith the exception of Rebecca, who, because of circumstances, often winds up at her parents' houseare those living under the same roof as Aurelia and Papito. Together, they are the force throughout the novel, appearing as early as in the prologue and as late as in the last chapter. However, my intent was to defy convention by granting an authoritative voice to each of the novel's characters, meaning that I didn't want one to be perceived as more legitimate than another. Geographies of Home is about a family, not specifically about any one of its members. Had I intended that Iliana be the protagonist, I would have written the entire novel from her perspective. Although writing in English, I also intended that the format of the novel reflect the Spanish language. English is one of the few languages, if not the only one, in which "I" is always capitalized as opposed to "you," "she," "he," or "they," meaning that "I" automatically has dominance over others. The format of the novel is meant to do away with this bias.
The Seventh-Day Adventist religion plays a significant role in the lives of the family in Geographies of Home. Why did you choose this particular religious tradition?
Because Latinos are usually portrayed as Catholic, I wanted to delve into one of the Protestant and increasingly proselytized religions such as that of Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventist, Mormonism, Pentecostalism, or whatever. Choosing the most restrictive of these religions enabled me to provide more of a contrast with alternate forms of spirituality and folk religions.
In your book, elements of magic and the surreal are mixed in with powerful descriptions of life's harsh realities. Why were these elements essential to the story you wanted to tell?
These elements were essential because in the novel, as in life itself, which is surreal, I wanted both the magic and the mundane to coexist. Because I wholeheartedly accept that the soul is capable of much more than science can measure. Because I don't subscribe to the notion that life is linear or inherently logical. But to answer the question more precisely, I pitted these elements against each other because I wanted to explore issues of perception, madness, and reality while illustrating that none of these is easily definable. Because I wanted the act of reading to be as disconcerting as life is for the charactersmeaning that I wanted readers to recognize reality as an ever-shifting thing.
Geographies of Home is much darker than many other contemporary novels about the immigrant experience. Do you think your depiction is a more realistic one?
To say that I think my depiction is a more realistic one is to concede that there is a primary way in which immigrants live their lives.
What writers or books have had the greatest impact on you?
The book that has had the greatest impact is the Bible for its inherent contradictions and fascinating tales. As for authors, a very brief list would include James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez, Edgar Allan Poe, Zora Neal Hurston, and Jorge Luis Borges.
How old were you when you left the Dominican Republic? Have you traveled there as an adult?
I was quite young when I moved to the United States. As for the second question, yes, I have traveled to the Dominican Republic as an adult and will be doing so much more often considering that I am basing my second novel there.
- Iliana returns from college convinced that she can help her family. Is she wrong to believe that the time and distance she put between herself and the family will give her a clearer, more objective view of their problems? Is she guilty of having "an attitude," as her sister Rebecca suggests? What role does Iliana's friendship with Ed play in the novel? Do her meetings with him represent something more than the need to get away from the claustrophobia she feels at home?
- Marina lashes out at her mother for leaving her as a young child in the Dominican Republic when Papito and Aurelia first emigrated. In seeking the best life for their family, did Papito and Aurelia ignore the emotional repercussions of leaving some of the children with their aunt? Discuss how the separation of families, a necessity for many immigrants, affects both the parents and the children in Geographies of Home.
- Why do you think Pérez chose to tell part of her story from Marina's point of view? How does Marina perceive herself? In what ways does her "madness" give her a freedom denied to the other characters?
- Why are Papito and Aurelia unwilling to intercede with Marina in a decisive way? Is their reaction to Marina's behavior based on a lack of understanding of mental illness, or are there cultural customs that prevent them from seeking help? How would your family deal with a similar situation?
- Aurelia's own breakdown and hospitalization make her question her competence as a mother. Do her interactions with her children in fact bear out her fear that she "could not have expected them to grow up strong and independent after they witnessed her own emotional collapse and her deference to Papito"?
- How do the characters' feelings about physical characteristicsespecially skin colorinfluence their self-images? Were you surprised that even within the family, beauty was defined by how "white" the sisters looked?
- How do doctrines of the Seventh-Day Adventist church reinforce Papito's view of the place of men and women in society and of his own obligations to his family? What positive and negative effects do the teachings of the church have on his sons and daughters? Discuss his reaction to Marina's "ecstasy" at the church service. Why was he unable to accept and sympathize with her behavior? In your opinion, do his pleas for God's forgiveness redeem his behavior?
- As a practicing Seventh-Day Adventist, Aurelia has renounced the beliefs of her mother and hidden her own gift of "second sight," yet she returns to them after Marina's suicide attempt. What purposes do these different belief systems serve in Aurelia's life? Why does she find embracing the lessons her mother taught her so comforting?
- Papito's recollections of Annabelle, the woman he loved in the Dominican Republic, and of her death in a violent storm, constitute one of the most powerful passages in the book. What insights does this passage give into the way Papito chose to live his life afterward?
- Why does Rebecca hide the truth about her husband and marriage from her family? Do you think she could have made a life for herself and her children, as Iliana suggests? Why or why not? Why does Rebecca remain with Pasión, a man who brutalizes her both physically and psychologically? In light of what you know about spousal abuse, is Pérez's portrayal of Rebecca's reactions and those of her children realistic?
- When Tico thinks about his childhood, "he could not even recall ever having seen his parents kiss, hold hands or hug. And he had no memory of being embraced or of hearing tender words." Do his re- collections seem accurate in view of what you know about Papito's and Aurelia's feelings for their children and for one another? Iliana believes that Beatriz, her beautiful older sister, and Tico, the "baby" in the family, received preferential treatment from her parents. Why do Tico and Iliana have such different memories? Is it unusual for grown siblings to harbor resentments about real or imagined parental slights?
- Pérez describes Aurelia's killing chickens, a ritual that causes Pasión's death, in the same straightforward, realistic style she uses throughout the book. What does she convey about Aurelia and about Dominican culture by treating this act of magic in everyday language and images?
- Why does Iliana refuse to discuss her horrific confrontation with Marina with her parents? Is she protecting them? Marina? Herself? Why does she ultimately forgive Marina?
- Geographies of Home focuses on the schisms among members of a Dominican family. Are the conflicts Pérez discusses unique to a particular culture and family structure? What parallels are there to your own life and your relationships with other family members? To what extent are they influenced by your own cultural heritage?
- Does Iliana's recognition of her father's doubts and fears help her face her own life more realistically? How much does understanding who we are depend on understanding the cultural heritage of our parents? Does the search for roots liberate people or does it lock them into outdated images of themselves and what they can accomplish?
- Compare the immigrant experience Pérez describes to other narratives you may have read. How does it differ from Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent, another tale about Dominican émigrés? From accounts about Asians, Irish, Jews, as well as other Latinos who have settled in America? What impact do race, language, and economic status have on a group's ability to fit in? Do government policies and public opinion about immigration influence the immigrant's experience, and if so, in what ways?