Bridging the distance
PCC’s first-ever writer in residence, alum Reyna Grande, traces her writing career back to Pasadena in the memoir ‘The Distance Between Us’
By Sara Cardine 10/25/2012
Reyna Grande was 9 years old when she left behind life as she knew it in the rural Mexican town of Iguala to travel nearly 2,000 miles north to “El Otro Lado” (The Other Side, aka the United States) for the promise of something indefinable and yet somehow vitally important.
She left with her father — who’d departed for the states eight years earlier and had only recently returned to collect his children — and siblings Mago and Carlos, with whom she’d eked out a hardscrabble and largely parentless existence. The harrowing journey was only the first step in Grande’s years-long struggle to find a new home and her own voice.
“When I came to the US, it was very hard, because I left a lot of people I loved behind. I traded all of them for my father,” she recalls. “So when I came here, I was struggling with that.”
Last Tuesday, the noted Latina author recounted that and other highlights of her personal story, as chronicled in her new memoir “The Distance Between Us,” for Pasadena City College students in Professor Christopher McCabe’s English 1A composition class. That talk was one of several planned campus appearances for the local author, who’s published two novels and currently lives in Whittier. Grande also made appearances at creative writing classes, led a community workshop on creative writing for beginners and held a public reading and signing of her book last Wednesday.
Her visit was made possible by PCC’s new Writer in Residence program, which aims to put students and faculty in touch with professional authors for the purpose of information and inspiration. Sponsored by a $2,000 grant from the nonprofit Pasadena Festival of Women Authors and matching funds from PCC, the inaugural visit is expected to be the first of many.
But Grande’s visit was also a personal homecoming — she first came to PCC in the mid-1990s, where she met a teacher who changed the course of her life and encouraged her to pursue a career in writing. It was at PCC, under the mentorship of ESL and English Professor Dr. Diana Savas, that Grande awakened to her natural storytelling abilities.
“Right here, in this little place, I was about to go on my adventure to UC Santa Cruz, and I was pursuing my dream of being a writer,” Grande, 37, recalls during an interview. “And now I’m back at the same place I started — it’s just so fulfilling. It feels so much nicer to come back knowing this is how I ended up.”
From there to here
The future was not always such a bright prospect for Grande, raised in the Southern Mexican state of Guerrero. Her father, Natalio, fled the country when she was just 2 with a dream of earning enough money to return and build a family home; a few years later, he summoned her mother, Juana, to come and help him. The three children were left with their grandmother and lived like orphans, with only memories of their mother and a framed photo of their father, to whom Grande refers in her memoir as “The Man Behind the Glass,” to sustain them.
Grande and her siblings prayed to their parents, sending out fervent wishes for reunion and rescue. But whenever one parent or the other resurfaced, she remarks in “The Distance Between Us,” their affection seemed somehow diffused by what had occurred in El Otro Lado. When the children receive a parcel of clothes from America, and discover they are in old sizes that no longer fit them, they understand how much has come between them and their parents.
“If they don’t even know something as basic as the size of our shoes and clothes, what else don’t they know about us? And what don’t we know about them?” Grande writes. “As the oldest, it was clearer to Mago, more than to Carlos and me, that the distance between us and our parents was destroying our relationship more than any of us could have imagined. And the consequences would be great.”
In McCabe’s composition class, Grande opens up to students about the writing process, particularly when it comes to writing one’s life. Memoirs, she tells them, are quite different from fictional works.
“It’s like stripping yourself naked for the whole world to see you when you’re writing a memoir. You’re expressing your heart and soul,” she adds. “But at the same time, to me, writing has to be as honest as it can be. Otherwise, why even bother?”
That vital interaction between students and professional writers is exactly the aim of the Writer in Residence program, according to Amy Ulmer, dean of PCC’s English department.
“Some of our students come here and have never read a complete book, so for them to meet an author is huge for them,” she says. “Their lives can be touched forever by something like this.”
When the department was looking for an author to bring to campus, Grande, a featured author at the 2010 Pasadena Festival of Women Authors, seemed like a perfect fit. In 2008, she’d delivered the commencement address to graduating PCC students, and the release of her memoir in August was a happy coincidence. It was also a treat for such a distinguished writer to credit a PCC faculty member for inspiring her to follow her dreams, Ulmer says.
In “The Distance Between Us,” readers are introduced to Savas, from whom Grande took a composition class as a freshman and has now known half her life.
If futures are ever decided by a single moment, then for Grande perhaps it was the first time Savas called her into her office about an academic essay assignment that her career as a writer was born.
She’d written an introduction to an academic essay that was autobiographical, Savas recalls, and while it was not appropriate to the essay genre, it was beautifully expressed. The teacher called the student to her office and told her as much.
“I had the sense this was a powerful storyteller,” Savas says. “I’m an academic writer — I cannot write creatively. This was a girl who could write in a way I could not, and I was moved by her story.”
Later, when Grande’s family life became chaotic and threatened to pull her away from her studies, Savas invited the young girl to live with her. The teacher says that one act of kindness was the beginning of what would be a lifelong friendship. Today, whenever Grande has news to share, Savas is one of the first people she calls.
“I think you need somebody you can call during the good times and the bad,” she tells McCabe’s students. “All these exciting things that happened to me, she’s always there.”
Now that Grande’s visit to PCC has concluded, the English department is hoping to expand next year’s Writer in Residence program. Katie Poole, who chairs the Pasadena Festival of Women Authors and was at Grande’s public reading Wednesday, says she was pleased to see PCC’s new program fulfill the group’s aim to celebrate the literary accomplishments of diverse female authors while highlighting writers with local connections.
“It fit with our mission so well,” Poole says. “And they did so much with what we gave them — we love that part of it.”