Totally Grounded: A Conversation with Daniel José Older on “The Book of Lost Saints”

April 8, 2020   •   By Marcos Damián León

DANIEL JOSÉ OLDER has lived a myriad of lives: a bike messenger, a teacher, a paramedic, and a writer. Each of his books plays with the idea of life, as his narrators commune, literally, with the dead. Because of this, one might expect Older to be a morose, quiet presence, akin to a spirit himself. Instead, he has an energy that compels everyone around him to live with just a little bit more happiness.


I first met Older at the Voices of Our Nations Workshop. He was the instructor of the Young Adult Workshop and could be heard teaching from across buildings. At the goodbye party, he barely left the dance floor.     


It’s his relationship with the dead that inspires him to live with such energy. He’s not the type of person who pretends that death doesn’t scare him, but one who understands and respects it. Between listening to him lecture on writing, and watching him dance, it feels as if he’s channeling the spirits around him; he gives life to wisdom and joy in equal measure, with a touch of seriousness that understands how quickly it can end.


Specters of immigrant families are the center of Older’s The Book of Lost Saints. The story begins with the narrator, Marisol, as a young girl, retrieving a package from the local butcher in pre-revolution Cuba. The butcher warns her to be careful of the soldiers that fill the streets, but before she can turn home, Marisol awakens with only “fractured puzzle pieces” of her memories. She knows only that she died in the Cuban Revolution and is now a ghost attached to her nephew Ramón in 2000s New Jersey. She must find out what killed her.    


I had the opportunity to interview Older about The Book of Lost Saints, and specifically his thoughts on death, spirits, and how we can tell the stories of the spirits around us.


¤


MARCOS DAMIÁN LEÓN: I want to ask first about the process of writing The Book of Lost Saints. It’s what you wrote when you were working on your MFA, and I believe you’d already written and published books. How did being in a program affect your writing process?


DANIEL JOSÉ OLDER: I’d written a bunch of stuff, but it was only starting to come out. I think Salsa Nocturna came out during that time, which was from a small press, and then I got the acceptance for Shadowshaper while I was in the MFA. Yeah, so I really decided to consciously take those two years to dedicate to this book. In part because I’d been writing for a couple years at that point and I had a couple of finished novels under my belt that were very genre focused. I wanted to try something really experimental in terms of playing with form and rhythm. I just wanted to be playful since I felt comfortable with the medium of the novel and with the idea of a fast-paced plot. I wanted to try different tools and knew I had this incubator period where I wasn’t going to send anything directly to a publisher or be worried about a deadline. That really appealed to me in terms of just trying something totally outside of my regular comfort zone, so I was very intentional about that. With my other books I’d taken a couple months to really knock them out, at least the first draft, but for this I really stretched out and took that two-year process. 


You mention Shadowshaper, and you’re most well known for your young adult books. You once told me that YA is a story where a person searches for themselves and who they are. The Book of Lost Saints has those threads really significantly for Ramón, so how did you decide that this wasn’t a YA book?


Yeah, I think for me specifically, YA is really about a young person beginning to find out who they’re going to be as an adult. With this book, I knew I was dealing with adult characters. Ramón’s very much entrenched in his 20s and Marisol kind of spans her whole life. We see her as a young person, and those moments are really crucial for her development because so many horrible things happened there, but it’s really about her surviving. There are so many different ages involved with this book and they span an entire life.    


You’ve described the book as being about life, but it’s narrated by a ghost searching for the way that she died through her living nephew. That relationship with the spirits of the dead is a common theme of your work. Where does this interest in living people’s relationship to the dead come from?


It’s rooted in two places: one is having been a paramedic for 10 years and just having a very intimate daily basis kind of relationship with death. ’Cause even on days where we didn’t have someone in cardiac arrest, that’s just always a possibility. From the second you clock in to the moment that you clock out, you at any given moment may be face to face with death. If there was someone dying then you’re responsible for that person not dying as much as you can be, so that’s just a different experience of death to live with for 10 years. Even being surrounded by people who have that very casual relationship with death, who have been around it in all kinds of different ways, that sort of transforms your understanding of death. Which isn’t to say that you’re cool with dying or that you don’t fear it or anything else, it’s just a different relationship. It’s a more intimate understanding.


Secondly, I’m a Santero and we have a very close relationship with the dead and with our ancestors. Spirit work is totally grounded first and foremost with our muertos. In my house, there’s an altar and we give them food when we cook and we smoke cigars with them. That’s just so much a part of how I understand the dead: they’re not trying to kill us. In fact, they really got us here, and I wanted to honor that and then work with the idea of haunting. In my own life, the times that I felt the most haunted aren’t from the dead; it’s from people who are still alive. Whether that’s true politically or romantically or emotionally, there are different ways that hauntings really happen. I think that’s fascinating because we always put it on the dead, but the book’s really about Marisol being haunted by her past. Marisol as a spirit has to deal with her own haunting, and in doing that, she haunts her nephew. After, hopefully, I ask the question: is it such a bad thing to be haunted? I think it turns out that if you run away from it, it is because it makes you constantly run, but if you turn and look it in the face that’s how you deal with it and kind of get to live the rest of your life.


In reading this book, I thought: This is about being haunted by familial trauma and discovering what it is you and your family have survived.


Yes, exactly, and coupled with that is the idea of silence and how dangerous it is to try to deal with trauma by the mechanism of silence. It never works. It’s the first line of defense that people try. We think it’ll go away if we don’t talk about it, but that’s the opposite of the truth. So many families carry historical or personal trauma, and don’t want to talk about it. They want to keep those skeletons in the closet, and that makes it worse over and over. I strongly believe in looking at things and really talking about them. 


In that vein, you’ve said that “stories are how we heal when we are broken”; what did writing this book heal for you?


A lot of it is common questions for children of immigrants or diaspora or exile: What happened to our parents? What happened to the generation before us? What is our origin story? So often our origin story is someone else’s story, and we don’t actually get ownership over it. All we get to do is hear about it. People in my family lived through unbelievable tragedies that I will never fully understand, but those tragedies are very much a part of who I am because they formed the people who raised me. It’s something that requires understanding and healing. There’s something to be dealt with in an intergenerational sense, and that’s the main thing.


Recent literary scandal has in part led to a conversation about who can write what stories. You’ve jumped in here and there, but specifically, with a book like this, I want to ask your thoughts on children of immigrants writing some version of their actual immigrant parents’ experiences. How do we tell those stories with love?


It’s definitely something I think a lot about. As novelists and fiction writers, there’s always a level to which we’re writing the other and to which we’re writing the self. The more we own that and are honest about that, and the inherent power dynamics in that, the better job we do. So what that means is: How can we be clever and strategic about including this exact conversation of who has the right to tell this story, and how is it being told as part of the text of the story itself? If you look at Book of Lost Saints, it’s all about the story and who’s telling it and how. Ramón receives it secondhand from Marisol and then scribbles it in a notebook, so it’s being transformed even as it’s being saved. For Marisol, she can only access the story through him, which is sometimes true intergenerationally in getting stories out into the world; it won’t happen if the younger generation doesn’t somehow fish it out. Sometimes those stories die with our elders because no one took the time to record them. Maybe they should, I don’t know, but I do know that storytelling is a powerful part of how we survive.


Sometimes those questions are part of the work, and I love books that feel like they’re wrestling with their own existence.


You’re, I’d say almost, famously anti-italicizing non-English in text, and in this book you take it a step further, Marisol has a few moments where she explains how she can’t translate some Spanish phrase or idea. What do moments like these represent for you as the writer?


This goes back to the last question. Stories themselves are a translation of reality. We’re always failing at that. Not in a bad way though because those failures become new mythology or novels. Language is always failing to grasp the thing it’s trying to explain, and when we lean into that it just becomes more fun. That becomes very evident for translation from language to language. My mom, when I ask her about Spanish words, will get a big etymology dictionary. We’ll trace the word all the way back and get really excited about cool words, and I think that love of language is very central to being a writer and storyteller. Marisol, as a character, is a storyteller, even if her story isn’t written, and she loves language.


¤


Marcos Damián León is a teacher and writer from the Salinas Valley. He is working on a young adult novel about machismo. His work has appeared in The Acentos Review, under the gum tree, and The Monterey County Weekly. He can be found on Twitter @damleon24.