Interview: Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s books include Rogue, Gringolandia and Surviving Santiago, the recently released sequel to Gringolandia. Here, Tina returns to Chile, to her homeland and to her father for her summer vacation. Chile is in turmoil lynunder the rule of Pinochet and her father spends more time fighting for justice than getting to know his daughter. While Lyn is also a champion for social justice, she has managed to balance motherhood, writing, translating, editing, Lego-ing and even blogging. Her most recent post, “On Flags and Diverse Books: How We Can Make Attention” calls attention not only to the price paid to get the flag removed from the state house in South Carolina, but it also looks at Jet Blues attempt to improve literacy in urban areas by providing free books that lack characters of color or Native Americans. She urges readers to visit Zetta Elliott’s blog and sign the letter.

So, how did Lyn happen to decide to write about Tina, Chile and Pinochet? I’ll let her tell you that!

Why should people in the United States know about Chile?

Chile has a long history of peaceful democratic rule dating back to the early nineteenth century, and a long history of interaction with the United States. For instance, Chilean miners arrived in California during the Gold Rush and brought more advanced mining techniques. But in 1970 when the Chileans elected socialist Salvador Allende as president, the U.S. government declared that it would not tolerate a leftist government in Latin America and worked with opposition leaders and the military to overthrow Allende. The U.S.-sponsored military coup ushered in a 17-year dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet, whose name has become synonymous with repression, torture, and murder.

We take our freedoms in the United States for granted, so much so that many people don’t even bother to vote. Under the Pinochet dictatorship, the Chilean people weren’t allowed to vote. They had no control over a government that ruled every aspect of their lives, and many people suffered and died in the process of getting their rights back.

41UCGaCJegL._UY250_Chile today is a vibrant, interesting, and increasingly tolerant country, very different from the place I depict in Surviving Santiago and Gringolandia. For the most part, Chileans don’t want to be defined by their tragic past, but there’s an important story in the sacrifice that so many people made to change their country into the thriving democracy it is today.

From your author’s notes, you actually lived in Chile. While you were there, how did you become familiar with the culture, with the day-to-day lives of the people who live there?

Before going to Chile to research the (never-published) book that would eventually lead to both Gringolandia and Surviving Santiago, I lived one summer in a house of Chilean exiles who had taken up new lives in Nicaragua. I also worked with an organization of exiles and refugees in Madison, Wisconsin called the Pablo Neruda Cultural Center and through them met several musicians who were still in the country, working underground to restore democracy. I stayed in the home of one of those musicians, Nelson Schwenke, in the month that I was in Chile and got to know his extended family. He and his wife took my husband and me everywhere they went, including the beach house belonging to her family. We corresponded over a period of five years, and he sent me materials from the “NO” campaign in the 1988 plebiscite that ended Pinochet’s rule and the 1989 electoral campaign won by the democratic opposition known as the Concertación.

FC9780762456338My knowledge of Spanish helped a lot in researching this novel and learning about the daily lives of the people. Most of the research materials, including newspaper articles, human rights reports, and first-person accounts, are not available in English. Without knowing the local language, I would have a hard time researching a historical novel taking place in another country, particularly a novel that portrays the lives of ordinary people.

Surviving Santiago is set in 1989. I remember 1989! You got the Lego in! Were you also a fan of St. Elsewhere? What are some of your other personal interests that you embedded into the story?

Yes, I watched St. Elsewhere religiously, both new shows and reruns. I also wanted to give Boomer a hug. (And I felt so cheated by the final episode!) I couldn’t do a lot with Lego because one could only find the basic sets in Chile, but I brought one of the first Pirate sets as a gift for my friend Nelson’s two boys when I arrived. I had a lot of fun putting the Eldorado Fortress together with the older boy, but his younger brother kept breaking it.

I wasn’t a fan of heavy metal at the time, but I was surprised to see how popular Metallica and other U.S. bands were. In a way, it wasn’t surprising because the Chilean groups playing local or indigenous music were banned or severely censored because of their overt or veiled protest against the dictatorship. And the government wanted to import culture from the United States out of admiration for U.S. capitalism and gratitude for continued U.S. support. Ten years later, my son became a fan of Metallica, and that’s when I realized how much I liked their music. Before then, I saw them as the regime-sanctioned replacement for the folk music that I appreciated so much and helped to bring to Madison as part of the Pablo Neruda Center.

In my review for Surviving Santiago, I mentioned a little about the inability to give up on people or places. Tina was unable to give up on Frankie. She trusted him. How difficult is it to convey trust to a reader?

One of the things I’ve learned over the years as a writer is how to convey difficult emotional states and processes through metaphor. At the beginning of the novel, we see Tina bonding with her new stepfather over restoring old houses. When you work on a decrepit house, you run into problem after problem, many of them unexpected, and it’s so tempting to walk away or tear it down and build something new. In fact, both Tina’s aunt and Frankie talk about how they would tear down and build anew. To restore an old house, you have to trust in the value of the house and in your ability to be up to the job.

Tina doesn’t give up on houses, and she doesn’t give up on people either, much as she would sometimes like to. Before believing in Frankie, she believes in her father and holds out hope that behind this wounded, cold man is the loving father she remembers from before his arrest. She also wants to believe that Frankie genuinely loves her and looks for every shred of evidence that he does—that he is fundamentally a good person caught up in a bad situation. And that she can save him from that situation.

Do you think her trust in Frankie in any way reflected her belief that Chile could be a better, more just place to live? What made her hold on to him? Tina was so self-centered (so typical of her age), she seemed to have little interest in the country or for what her father was fighting.

After eight years in the United States, Tina has finally come to see her new country as home and absorbed many of its values—a sometimes naïve idealism, greater openness vis a vis her aunt’s sexual orientation, her refusal to accept the traditional gender roles that still dominate in Chile. That’s really her frame of reference now, so that when she arrives in Chile, she’s a stranger in the land of her birth. She dreams of bringing Frankie to the United States to give him the advantages that she has come to appreciate in her new life. This is also what Frankie wants—to escape his situation and start over again in what he has idealized as the land of opportunity. Yet Tina’s immersion in the culture and values of the United States is part of what causes her to miss warning signs about Frankie—along with her loneliness, her physical attraction to him, and all the things they appear to have in common.

Like many of my own friends’ children, Tina will never return to Chile permanently. She has successfully navigated immigration, and the United States is her new home. Her acceptance of her stepfather exemplifies this. But while she retains her identity as an assimilated immigrant, she comes to love her father as he is and admire his dedication and courage. In his idealism and willingness to put his life on the line for what he believes, he has inspired Tina to do the same. She may go back home to Wisconsin, but she is still her father’s child.  

Tina’s relationships with her father and with her aunt do give her—and the reader—hope that Chile can be a better, more just place. Here, Tía Ileana plays a key role as Tina’s mentor. She shows the possibilities that come from reaching out to people who do not understand, having the courage to enter into dialogue rather than violent confrontation. While the United States sponsored the military coup, the Chilean people themselves restored their own democracy through peaceful means. Tina has played no role in this—it’s naïve of her to come from the United States and tell people how to live their lives—but she learns a lot about hope, persistence, acceptance, and reconciliation from her time in Chile.

Was it difficult to find the Chilean Spanish?

I knew a lot of the Chilean words and expressions from my interactions with Chileans both in the United States and in Chile. I also had a reference book of Chilean slang to check the expressions against and to check the spelling. I interact with people from the country online, mostly on music sites or Instagram, which serves as a refresher and a way of learning new slang (that I then can’t use for a book set more than 25 years ago). Because of their relative isolation between the mountains, the desert, and the sea, the people of Chile have developed some unique expressions that can also lead to misunderstandings when interacting with Spanish-speakers from other countries.

Thanks, Lyn for taking the time to provide such a thoughtful interview!