Jamie Figueroa‘s debut book, Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer, is a story filled with trauma and about breaking cycles. It’s about a family in a small Southwestern town where nothing seemed to go right for generations. While reading the trauma and difficult decisions these siblings make can be hard to digest, it’s one of the most beautifully written and important books to come out in 2021.
The author spent years writing it, allowing the book to be her compass through life as she slept on couches and found odd jobs that allowed her time and space to write this book. From rushing to get to college to taking years off in between to finish then finding a home at the Institute of American Indian Arts as an adult, Jamie Figueroa’s life has always needed time and space to figure things out.
I spoke with the author about her life, her debut, and what writers inspire her.
When did you start connecting with and seeing yourself in literature?
I grew up in rural Ohio in communities where I was one of the only children of color at school. My mom was a barber and would open up shops in these small towns to cut hair. She raised me and my two older sisters. It was brutal and a tremendous amount of isolation. There was also a tremendous amount of disassociation.
My mother was born in Puerto Rico and lived there as a young girl until she moved to New York where she went through a thorough assimilation. She didn’t speak Spanish around us while we were growing up. While we were in those small towns, she was of the mindset of to blend. To blend was to survive.
There was no real point of reference to be culturally nourished and fed. I was always being asked, “What are you? What are you? What are you?” That does something to a young person’s psychology: to be othered in that kind of way where you aren’t even respectfully asked. You are made into an object and made distanced and made suspect.
As a young person, I could not speak to all of that. What I did was go to the library. I found refuge in books. It didn’t matter at that time that the books were written primarily by white men. It didn’t matter then. Then when I got into high school, I had an amazing librarian named Mr. Henry who gave me a reading list for the summer. I discovered Sandra Cisneros. Through here I found Rita Dove. Then Lucille Clifton. Maya Angelou. Toni Morrison.
My world just began to have this full bloom of this spectrum of all colors. To read women of color in the place I had taken refuge for so long was just a deep soul quenching moment that I didn’t even know needed to be fed until I found it. It was a thorough immersion through the stories, voices, and books of those women.
How did being othered like that as a child influence your writing?
When you were pushed to the margins in the community you grew up in and around, you’re given a very particular vantage point to observe. Because there is this subtext that you are not safe, you become hyper vigilant. You are activating all of your senses, constantly. That can really be fatiguing and traumatizing, but it can make for the perfect environment for an artist to potentially reference that experience of watching and taking in those details. I would say that’s what it did for me. It was painful as hell when I was going through it. Which is not to say I didn’t have friends or kind people in my community. But it was the kind relating from a place where I had ignored a large part of myself because I didn’t have the education or experience of being around family to fill myself in. There was a fragmented self experiencing these things. I ended up graduating high school early just to get to college where I can be with people from other places who had other experiences than me.
When was the first time you felt truly yourself?
I would say that didn’t happen until I was around 30 and had moved to Santa Fe. All of these separate pieces of my life started coming together. I had friends and community that reflected me. I had the experience of going to Puerto Rico and studying there for a month where my mother was born and raised. I just felt a fuller sense of self. It took the right people to make that happen. People who had mixed ethnic heritage, indigenous folks, people who could just be at ease within themselves. It allowed me to search out and gather in what was rightfully mine.
Going back to finish my undergraduate at the Institute of Indian American Arts and settling deeper into Santa Fe really allowed me to begin to have the experience of myself. It was an awakening of sorts, or a process of reclaiming.
When I graduated from IAIA with my B.F.A. in Creative Writing in 2012, I went to Puerto Rico with my mother who hadn’t been back since she left. That was really fully layered. Something as simple as writing public transportation in San Juan with my mother and no one looking at use with those eyes of “what are you” and being among people who knew we belonged was a sensation I had never had in my entire life until then.
Your mother didn’t really want to connect with Puerto Rico when you were younger. What was that like seeing her back there after all those years?
It was powerful. It was really powerful. She just fluctuated between immense sense of pride and belonging to suspicion of being a tourist herself. She was bouncing around between all of these expressions. I hadn’t hear speak Spanish is so long and hearing her have her Spanish reflected back to her. It wasn’t the “wrong” kind of Spanish. It was the Spanish they spoke there.
Then watching her going into the ocean and walking around the streets. It was moments of belonging.
You left your undergrad then finally finished in 2012 before going onto your Masters. Were you writing that entire time or did life take you elsewhere?
I wanted to go to college so bad and then I got there and I just felt aimless at times. I was interested in one thing then another and transferred from one school to another for a bit. I ended up studying visual art and it was brutal. Art, creativity, and imagination at an arts school was the wrong thing I could have done.
I stepped away from that and looked at my mother who had a trade and was able to make a living most of her life. I was very interested in healing and the body in holistic forms of medicine. I studied massage therapy and worked doing that in rehab and spa setting for a number of years. In between giving massages, I was writing. I went to writing conferences and found mentors who would give me line edits.
I didn’t trust higher education with art and creativity with the experience I had. I had to figure out how I was going to do what I wanted to do. It didn’t come together for a number of years. For 13+ years, I was doing it that way of finding my own path.
Through a series of events, I was able to check out the Institute of Indian American Arts and realized it was such a different place. I knew I could trust that place with what I had been nurturing.
What was it about IAIA that made you trust them to foster your creativity?
I looked around and saw familiar faces. I saw a lot of brown women in charge. Of course there are folks there who are not Native and are sensitive and supportive and aware. Once I got into the classroom, they were interrogating colonization, living history, and education of the weapon. We were looking at learning through a kaleidoscopic lens. Ancestor stories were held with the same kind of value as the literary canon.
What we got to decide was that we were a sovereign being. We get to decide how to tell our stories and how to use our voices.
It was also not a competitive environment. It was collaborate environment. I’m the type of person who thrives in that place.
When did you start writing Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer?
That happened at the end of my MFA. My thesis was a collection of story stories that I had been hard at work and very serious about. I had great mentors who were terrific humans that invested in me and my peers. It was Ramona Ausubel who said to me to begin my next project before I graduate from my MFA because I won’t know what life brings my way and I needed to tether myself to my next project. I took that to heart and I had about 20-30 pages and the language was vivid and hot right from the beginning. The opening scene was immediate and visceral. I didn’t know if it was a long story or a novel.
I spent from 2015 when I graduated until 2019 using the novel as my compass. Whenever my life got messy, I knew I had a novel that I had to finish that would right my course. That novel very much took care of me as I poured everything I had into it. I was housesitting, sleeping on couches, pet sitting. Anything I could do to keep my work as minimal as possible so I could give as much quality attention to my novel as I could.
Did you know the story of this family or did that grow with you as you navigated life?
It was revealed to me the deeper I got into it. For a long time the ending was [redacted for spoilers]. And I wasn’t sure if people would want to read that story. I kept having to imagine that scene at the end and I kept asking and praying to the force of the book that it could be different.
For a long time, that ending hung there, and I kept writing and writing and the ending became the way it is now.
Writing a book filled with trauma and about trauma, what does that do to your mindset as you are writing it and even when you step away from it?
There were definitely long days where I’d get up from the desk where I felt battered. I had hung in there for hours on end through every detail and it was rough. I turned in an initial draft of the novel to my agent and he said it was very dreamlike and opaque and I needed to flesh out and flesh forward the details so the readers could locate themselves while reading.
I had to live through every single moment so the reader could have that experience. Then there were emotional beats that were missing at the most intense, dramatically draining moments of the book. I went through and tracked the emotional arc of the book by putting each chapter on the wall with a short note and graphing the emotions and figure out what was missing.
I was avoiding those moments because they were painful and I had to go deeper in and pull my own emotionally charged content forward into those moments. That was really hard. It was really hard. Also, there is a kind of medicine in going through that and you have to have a certain amount of fortitude to withstand that on the page by yourself.
Your book has opened up so much to my understanding of different stories that need to be told. You teach at IAIA where so many great writers have connections to the school. I’m thinking of Tommy Orange and Brandon Hobson. I know there has to be more. If people love your book, where should they look for stories like yours? Whether they’re debuts or IAIA writers or whatever kind of writer.
A book that has been getting quite a bit of attention is the collection of poems called When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through. It’s an indigenous anthology of poetry. Everyone should have that on their shelf.
Toni Jensen’s book Carry is a must read and Kelli Jo Ford’s Crooked Hallelujah. There’s also Jennifer Foerster and Cassandra Lopez who are both poets. Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place informed and gave me permission to write the kind of narrator I needed for this book. Aurora Levins Morales is a Puerto Rican writer who wrote a book called Medicine Stories. She’s a tremendous writer who needs to be covered more.
You mentioned Brandon Hobson and Tommy Orange and I feel IAIA is supporting and fostering writers. I think keeping an eye on their website to see who is graduating and coming out with works would be a great place to watch.
Other writers I wanted to share are Ernestine Hayes, Natalie Diaz, Alejandro Zambia, Ada Limon, Justin Torres, Jose Luis Peixoto, Ramona Ausubel, Marie-Helene Bertino, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and Remsa Menakem.