Authors / Debut Authors / Fiction / Interviews

Arrivals and Departures: Q & A with Estela González

by Wendy Besel Hahn

The title of Estela González’s debut novel, Arribada, means “arrival,” but in so many ways the book is also about departures. The novel opens with the return of Mariana Sanchez Celis to her hometown of Ayotlan to help locate her missing uncle, Alonso, and care for her mother, Doña Clavel, who has transformed in response to the crisis: “White hair, formerly black; dark skin, formerly pale; she seemed a negative portrait of herself.” During the ride from the airport to her home, Mariana observes the ways tourism has subsumed childhood haunts in her absence.

Ayotlan is a magical realm in which nothing is as it appears on the surface: Alonso is more a brother than an uncle due to their close proximity in age; the heroes of the town endanger the local sea turtle population for the sake of development; Fernanda, who is described as “a pagan Madonna,” becomes both a lover and a priest. Throughout the course of the novel, Mariana not only discovers the fate of Alonso, but also unravels her own identity and her family’s complicity in her uncle’s fate. Nothing about this journey is linear; like the waves lapping against the sand, the story unfolds in scenes from different perspectives that tug against the beach.

Deftly interrogating a world in which there is no binary, but rather a “both, and,” González tackles environmental conservation, sexuality, familial relations,and colorism. The author inverts the trope of the enlightening muse in the form of a dark skinned Native woman. It is no wonder Estela Gonzáles’ Arribada has earned a starred review from Kirkus.

Wendy Besel Hahn: Where did the idea for the story begin? Was there a particular character who emerged first, or was the heart of the story rooted in the fictional Ayotlan, which you explain is a composite of five Mexican towns from your childhood? 

Estela González: The characters in the novel are fictional, but most are inspired by several of my family members, and experiences I or others have had. The main idea came from two experiences I had returning to my dad’s hometown, Mazatlán. It was my childhood playground, since we spent many vacations there with the extended family. Growing up, to me Mazatlán felt like paradise: the expansive beaches and ocean, the sprawling, loving family, my grandparents’ old stately home. When I returned there as an adult after an absence of more than 15 years, I was distraught to see the mansions dilapidated and the beaches degraded. That is reflected in Mariana’s experience of returning to her town.

The other experience that inspired me was witnessing a sea turtle hatch in a beach that was the opposite of pristine—it was touristic with beachside restaurants, and yet this little turtle made it out of the nest and into the ocean safely. I was overjoyed and heartened by hope.

In all, I think writing Arribada is a way of expressing my heartbreak about beautiful places loved yet neglected by their inhabitants; and at the same time, the undying hope, optimism, and courage people who advocate to save these places give me for the future.

WBH: Like Mariana, you are someone who left your home to pursue your studies in the larger world. Are there other ways in which your story overlaps Mariana’s?

EG: Mariana’s story is a combination of my own story and that of some of my aunts. She takes from me a combination of dread and hope for a better future; also the hard-headedness and sometimes clueless or even tactless idealism. From an aunt, the beauty, charm, and musical talent. From other aunts, what I call the innocence of privilege: Mariana is fair-skinned, blond, and blue-eyed, and in a society ruled by colorism that gives her enormous advantages over her darker-skinned mother and sister.

WBH: I was curious about the power dynamics related to colorism in this novel. Can you say more about that?

EG: That is something I have always been keenly aware of in my own family, where my ancestors include a British great-grandfather, Grandpa Henry, who married a Native Mexican woman, Grandma Flavita. Their children included five, as they put it, “beautiful” girls who looked like movie stars, their eyes either green, blue, or purple, along with my grandmother, “poor thing, nice girl but not pretty,” because her skin and eyes were dark. The trauma this racism caused my grandmother comes down the generations to some of my cousins, depending on the color of their skin and eyes.

WBH: Arribada explores the topics of environmental conservation, sexuality, and familial relations. Was it difficult finding comparable titles for your work?

EG: Yes, I confess I have not read books that are comparable to mine. There are many books that deal with some of the topics in Arribada, but I have not read one that combines all of them in the way I do.

WBH: With which books did you feel in conversation while writing?

EG: More than books, I am engaged in conversation with a number of authors I admire: Sandra Scofield is a model of a quiet feminism combined with a critique of classism and ableism. I deeply admire—and have tried to emulate—Scofield’s keen observation of detail and the simple elegance of her style. From Sarah Waters and Carolina de Robertis, I have tried to learn the many ways in which LGBT women go about their world, negotiating the cruelties of the closet and the risks of coming out. Pam Houston and Alison Hawthorne Deming have shown me the value of a slow, thoughtful engagement with the physical world, of listening to the animals and the water in the ocean and the rustling of the breeze through the dune grasses. And Luis Alberto Urrea has taught me voice, voice, voice: how personal, intimate, and expansive a narrative can become when you trust and cultivate your own personal voice—and that of your narrators’. 

WBH: Titles are so important to a work. Published by Editorial Verbum, the Spanish-language version of your novel is Limonaria. I’d love to hear about that decision to publish under two distinct titles.

EG: Each title highlights important themes and elements in the novel. Limonaria is the tree growing in the center of Mariana’s world, her house’s courtyard. She spent her childhood climbing and playing in the tree with her beloved uncle, sister, and friend, whereas for her mother and ancestors the tree has an ominous meaning. In family lore—and this too comes from my own family—limonarias (murraya paniculata, or orange jasmine) only grow in spinsters’ homes. So it behooves her mother and grandmother to get rid of the tree in order to steer the young women in the “right direction.” Of course, Mariana has different life plans. The title Limonaria centers the stakes for a young woman seeking her life path. 

Arribada focuses on other themes. Firstly, “arribada” means “arrival,” and the novel is an arrival in many ways, as it opens with Mariana’s return home. Arribada is also a scientific term denoting a coordinated, mass nesting event for olive ridley sea turtles. These turtles often nest individually, but in some beaches they congregate en masse once a month, guided by the full moon. Mexico used to have some seven of these sites, but habitat degradation has left only one of them: La Escobilla in Oaxaca. Five other sites exist in the world: two in Costa Rica (Ostional and Nancite) and three in India (Gahirmatha, Rushikulya, and the Andaman Islands).

WBH: Picking up a novel as a reader comes with certain expectations. I couldn’t help but admire all of the ways in which you break conventions of structure. Could you talk about how your story took on this form?

EG: Thank you for your question! This aspect of my novel has been a challenge for me—a worthy one. And it resonates with readers, who tell me they feel stimulated by a text that does not spoon-feed them, but rather expects them to actively participate in unlocking the text’s meaning.  

As a family saga, my story affects an entire set of family members and their community. So I felt it best to let each of them show how they see the world; to let them argue with one another, fight it out in their own voices. This includes the community itself, and a couple of chapters are written in the first-person plural. 

In all, the decision to combine diverse narrative structures did not arise from an experiment I might have assigned myself. Some writers do this and although I respect their process, I do not share it. In my case, I just wrote the stories spontaneously, channeling the particular characters, and as chapters developed with different point of views and voices I decided to let those characters speak for themselves. One result of this is that a character seen as an antagonist tends to elicit great empathy from readers, and I feel enormous satisfaction from that.

WBH: You incorporate poetry and mythology into your novel. Why were these essential components in the story?

EG: The poetry and mythology reflect the theme of indigenous groups who are often leaders in conservation efforts, putting their lives on the line to preserve their environment and communities over corporate profits. That is the case of the Concáac people of northwestern Mexico, stewards of sea turtles and other creatures in their desert environment, of whom Mariana’s girlfriend Fernanda is a member.

The preface is a reinterpretation of the Concáac cosmogony that credits the leatherback turtle for giving humans earth, a place to dwell, to walk without drowning. My version of the myth includes a prophetic twist, warning where we might end up if we do not change our ways. It is an invitation to understand what we risk as we decide to build larger and larger hotels and condos on the dunes and mangroves; what happens when we buy those properties, or spend our vacations at those hotels.

WBH: Writers publishing a debut after age 40 are considered an “under-represented” group—one that Bloom seeks to highlight. What has that journey to publication been like for you?

EG: What an opportunity Bloom offers! Yes, we are underrepresented, so much so that I have been excluded from applying for grants BECAUSE of my age. There are places that will not consider people older than 35 “because they are trying to lift up the young”! I complained about ageism and they told me straight up that the donors would not support anyone older.

It is not that I started writing late—I’ve been writing all my adult life (my favorite Christmas present when I was nine years old was a typewriter). My late bloomer status has more to do with publishing. I published my first story when I was about 35, followed by a long hiatus. That is related to my sexuality—for a long time I was afraid of publishing stories that would reveal that I am lesbian. I did not want to make my ailing father suffer. As soon as he died, I published my first LGBT themed story at age 48, I think, and many others have followed.

My novels (Arribada and the Spanish language version Limonaria) were ready some eight years ago but no one would publish them. So I kept tweaking and submitting until it finally stuck. I am very grateful.  And frankly, all those tweaks did make my work stronger, so maybe I am indeed a late bloomer.

Life is complicated!

Wendy Besel Hahn is the nonfiction editor for Furious Gravity: Vol. IX in Grace and Gravity Series (May 2020) and Grace In Love: Vol. X in Grace and Gravity Series (May 2023), founded by Richard Peabody and edited by Melissa Scholes Young. Her work appears in The Washington PostScary MommyRedividerSojourners, and elsewhere.

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