While the immediate midwives of my book were white, I must note that the head of Knopf, Sonny Mehta, is not. Whether that has had any influence on my editor, or on the many people I have worked with over the years—people who are hugely educated and open-minded and curious in any case—I don't know. But for whatever reason, I was in no way discouraged from challenging the status quo.
I’m inspired by Ebony Patterson, a Jamaican artist, who also portrays Jamaican working-class people. One of her most memorable exhibits was one paying tribute to the victims of the Tivoli Gardens massacre where hundreds of people were murdered when law enforcement raided the Kingston community in search of a drug lord. No one cared that these people were families.
I was at the gallery for the opening and a man who kind of looked down on his luck approached me and asked if he could share something with me. He led me over to one of my paintings that depicts a group of people in an irrigation canal, their faces all turned toward the setting sun. It’s called “Mistaking Every Sunset for the Rapture.” It was an image that emerged from my subconscious. I painted it, hoping I’d understand it, discover the why, and I never did. But the man pointed to the figures in the painting and said, “That’s us. That’s us.” He knew what the work meant; he didn’t need to know why I’d painted it.
I am the daughter of immigrants, and I grew up well aware of the pain that comes with leaving one’s country behind and how it can engender a sort of double-life that dwells in the imagination, wondering what life would have been like if one had stayed. There is no undoing of that trauma of loss, even when there is much to be gained by the sacrifice and arrival at the idea of “a better life.” Immigration is an act of tremendous courage, but it can also be one of devastating consequences.
In the case of El Salvador, an estimated 75,000 people were killed in a twelve-year period, so there was no way of getting away from that violence. Such experiences colored survivors’ worlds by making them somewhat numb to the brutality—poetry helps me capture that dichotomy. After all, how can we use rational terms to explain the brutality of war? How do we explain that life goes on other than by providing images of children playing in the backdrop of cadavers? The answer for me is in poetry.
I spent a month and a half this past summer down in Oxford, Mississippi photographing in different landscapes. And one of the landscapes I ended up photographing was Rowan Oak, which is the William Faulkner estate. And a woman of color, Caroline “Callie” Barr Clark, took care of Faulkner and his family for many generations and had a cabin back behind Rowan Oak. There was the big house and then her cabin. And I was permitted to have models and light and to go into her cabin and shoot and work all over the Faulkner property and bring a new narrative, literally, to that story of Faulkner, Oxford, Ole Miss and all of that.