A Conversation With Natalia Sylvester on Writing, Life, and Family After Death

Photos by  Leandra Blei

Photos by Leandra Blei

By Christina Miranda

Natalia Sylvester’s second novel tells the story of an unexpected family reunion. Following Isabel and Martin’s wedding, Omar, Martin’s father, appears unexpectedly as a spirit visible only to Isabel. Omar is still unwelcome due to abandoning his family, and Martin admits to being unaware of his father’s passing. Every year after, on their wedding anniversary, Omar visits Isabel in order to redeem himself in offering her his story, and revealing parts of her new family and husband. Everyone Knows You Go Home offers a story embedded in the harsh, emotional reality of new lives in a new country, how it takes a brutal toll on one family’s future, and the uphill journey towards redemption in life and death.

Recently, Sylvester took the time to speak to me about her recent novel, her writing method, and books that keep her focused and writing. 

Christina Miranda: What books are you reading right now?

Natalia Sylvester: There are two books I recently finished, one that is called A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi. It’s about a 16-year-old girl in high school, post 9/11, and how she navigates Islamophobia itself and other qualities, and she’s falling in love and just trying to be a regular teenager pursuing her regular interests like breakdancing, and just trying to figure that whole world out. I loved it, and thought it was so beautifully written and immediately immersive, because it’s probably one of her more autobiographical novels. You can really feel how it’s very much personal for her.

I finished this other novel but it’s not out yet until April, it’s Melissa Rivero’s debut novel, The Affairs of the Falcóns. I’m excited to read it early and I think it’s a very important book. It’s hard to read at times, but it’s a story of a Peruvian family living in New York having just immigrated, and just trying to make decisions, especially the mother. The thing that I loved about her book was how real it felt, and also how she doesn’t seem to judge her characters for the decisions they have to make, because they don’t have a choice. She also doesn’t gloss over anything. It’s not putting pain out on display, it’s very much just here’s the story, and I thought it was a very necessary perspective. I’m excited it’s going to be out in the world.

CM: What upcoming books are you excited about this year?

NS: I’m really excited about Lilliam Rivera’s Dealing in Dreams. It’s a YA novel, and she had me at where it’s set: in the future with Latina girl gangs, and also I just loved her first book so much. She’s a great writer. I read her first book in three days, which for me is pretty quick, because I’m a slow reader. [Other books] I’m really excited about: ire'ne lara silva's Cuicacalli’s House of Song, Angie Thomas's On the Come-Up, Devi Laskar's The Atlas of Reds and Blues, and Pitchaya Sudbanthad's Bangkok Wakes to Rain.

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CM: What type of writing or books do you turn to when you’ve hit a writer’s block?

NS: It’s funny how you’ve phrased it like that, because I’ve often talked about how I can’t not read while I’m writing. I know some writers will not read for a while, but for me, if I’m not reading while I’m writing, it’s like I’m not nurturing myself. The words are the nurturing. I remember when I was writing my first novel, Chasing the Sun, there was a moment in which I was going through revisions and feeling really stuck, and I happened upon a copy of The Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar. It was just a punch to the gut reading it. There was something about the way he writes about absence that felt inspiring to me. Even though they were very different things, that inspiration is what helped me get through the writer’s block.

This is going to sound kind of silly, but I remember when I was writing Everyone Knows You Go Home, I had just started reading the Harry Potter books for the first time, and looking back I realized that the idea of how his decisions and the story that happens generations in the past can affect those in the future, and was trying to explore that in my own writing.

Another book that has haunted me is Perla by Carolina De Robertis in the way it blurs what is and isn’t real, and the idea of, “Are you perceiving things that are actually happening?” which was beautifully haunting.

CM: How did Harry Potter affect you as an adult?

NS: I think what was appealing to me was the point of view of the craft and the way you can follow a thread of so many characters in such a huge way in both at a micro and macro level. I remember when I finished it was was just like, oh my god what am I going to do now? It was the biggest book hangover I’ve ever had.

CM: So you’re originally from Peru, and then you moved to the border. What was life like living in a border town after moving from Peru?

NS: Well I moved when I was four, so I don’t really have much memory at all when I lived there. I do have memories when I went to visit with my family, but that was years later after we were actually able to leave the country because of the way of our paperwork and immigration status turned out. So when we first moved to the United States, we actually moved to Miami, and then to Central Florida, then to the valley. What was interesting to me was that it was, like Miami, a huge immigrant community. Then to Central Florida where I was one of two people in my whole grade who spoke Spanish. There was another classmate who was pretty good at it and we kind of just gravitated towards each other. And then when I moved to Mission it was very different because, again, you have a large Latino and immigrant population, and mostly different from me [being from Peru]. In terms of Miami, it’s people from all over the world. And in Mission, there’s more of a Mexican population, and people who had been there for generations. So there’s just very different dynamics.

What I felt that was fascinating on the border was, all of a sudden, all these things that I felt were very secretive all my life were certainly very physical, tangible, and literal, all being expressed through this actual border that was a few miles away. It made me meditate on the ways that physical borders and invisible borders that we explore as immigrants can stay with us. We know what is an emotional border, and maybe your family will talk about their history and every single thing they had to go through for you to come here. Or everything they have to give up, but what happens when it’s too painful? What happens when that barrier exists? We know that they did everything for you to have a better future, but you don’t really know the full picture of the past.

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CM: What interested you in beginning your book on Día de los Muertos?

NS: It’s funny because my husband and I were married on Day of the Dead. With Isabel and Martin it wasn’t necessarily an intentional thing. It’s just that sometimes when you plan a wedding, those are the dates that they give you. I guess the spark of the idea really came from was the question of if you’re married on the Day of the Dead and the spirits of your family come to visit you, what would that mean, not only on your wedding day, but every anniversary that would follow? That’s what drew me to that at first. Then what ended up happening, I was surprised by the fact that nobody wanted to talk to Omar except for Isabel and that he’d been estranged from his family. And I think when a story can surprise you, it’s worth pursuing, and of course asking, why is this happening? It became a story of navigating the unknown and in-between spaces that our family stories get caught in.

It felt true to me in that sense that so much of this story between life and death, and crossing borders, and spiritual borders. It has to deal with memory and the things we choose to hold on to, the things we refuse to forget. That’s the constant struggle of a lot of immigrants. You’re tasked with being told to let go of where you came from in order to somehow fit in, but nothing is ever enough no matter what you do really feel truly accepted.

For me the idea of Día de los Muertos and my characters’ journey just felt intertwined from the very beginning, especially when we consider the actual history of the holiday itself. It’s so rooted in indigenous culture and had to survive. It had to adapt to colonization. It used to be celebrated in August for weeks to a month, and now it’s celebrated, because of its position in Catholicism, it adapted to take place in November, similar to All Saints’ Day. I think of the ways that colonization tried to erase this and so much of the cultures that are already there.

CM: How would you describe the border to someone who has never seen or been anywhere near it?

NS: I would tell them to avoid thinking of it as a caricature. There’s no such thing of this idea that there’s an actual line that you can cross where things are black and white. The beauty of it is how fluid it is in how the community that exists in between and across it. I think that gets lost in a lot of ways because people don’t realize that borders are not the natural existence of humanity. All you have to do is look at the actual, natural life that exists there.

Right now in the Valley, they’re starting [border wall] construction on the National Butterfly Center. This is the most natural thing that exists and this idea of migration. You have some of the largest populations of birds along the border — so many different species, and every day through the year, people go to the valley from all over the country just to witness the migration of the birds. It seems so contradictory, this idea that you can acknowledge and appreciate the migration of birds and not see how natural it is to humans as well.


Natalia Sylvester’s Everyone Knows You Go Home is available now from Amazon Publishing.