We had the privilege of speaking to a veteran of historical fiction whose pioneering novels have put Afro-Latinx history on the literary map. Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa is most known for her PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize Finalist novel titled Daughters of the Stone. Llanos-Figueroa is unique writer who is passionate about the history of her people and how their voices have been left out of the dominant narrative. In this interview, she tells us more about her inspirations, the power of historical fiction, its demands on the writing process, and her forthcoming novel.

Your 2009 novel, Daughters of the Stone, is a multigenerational, archive-based work of historical fiction that seeks to repair the ruptures of colonial history in the New World, specifically Puerto Rico. One could say it is a pioneering work and a literary ancestor to more recent, hugely popular works like Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. Why do you think literature, and in particular historical fiction, has resonated with so many black writers doing similar work and why do you think it is an effective genre?

I love the African proverb, “You’ll never know what happened on the hunt until you speak to the lion.” I think many readers realize that for the most part, the story we have gotten has been from the perspective of the conquerors. That is why is it so important for us to tell our own stories. What we have been taught has been distorted, one-sided, self-serving and incomplete, at best. I think readers are thirsty for another narrative, one that feels more authentic and truthful.

What inspires you and who influenced you?

I’m inspired by the stories of the elders and the ancestors. I sat in doorways and shadows listening to my grandmother and her friends talk about “the old days” and I soaked it up. I couldn’t have known back then that those stories were the foundation for my writing career. I still seek the narratives of the oldest folks I can find to feed my need to know what came before.

In the author’s note, you mention having done a lot of research and archival digging in preparation for this novel which some have called near-autobiographical. What did that process look like and how did you balance research with your authorial imagination?

I began with the stories of the elders and then went to more traditional research methods. Oral histories were a great source of day-to-day information. I interviewed archivists, scholars, architects, archaeologists and historians. I have always had a strong tie to Puerto Rico as I spent my school vacations with relatives there. I also lived there for two years as a child which fed my imagination. On later trips, the focus was more on the patrimony of the island. I visited restored plantations and hacienda ruins. I searched the records in New York City and Washington, DC as well. And always, always tempered the historical record with the personal narratives. The picture presented by archives kept by the owners of those plantations different radically from the oral histories. I learned to read between the lines. I learned to read what was omitted as well as what was on the page.

One thing that struck me about the novel is how it plays with plot consistency and the narrative conventions we have been conditioned to find gratifying. While the nature of Fela’s debt to Mother Oshun seems unclear, the ways in which Mati’s powers operate are also hard to grasp. Some might attribute these aspects to archival gaps, and others to the genre of magical realism or simply the rejection of Western epistemologies. How would you characterise your approach to narrative and generic conventions?

My narratives are strokes of the paintbrush as opposed to a high-definition photograph. I trust my readers to make the connections that fit best into their vision for the story. I am a fiction writer; therefore, I have a lot of latitude. I can bend time, moving a historical event, like a hurricane, from one decade to another, in the service of my narrative. Some interpret my work as being grounded in the Latin American school of magical realism. That’s fine. Practitioners of traditional African religions recognize themselves in the symbology of my work. That’s fine too. I overlay magic and mysticism, onto the realistic portrayal of 19th-century plantation society to spark the modern imagination. I trust my readers to make the connections.

Your novel has done unprecedented work for Afro-Latinx literature. A lot has been written about how rampant and rooted anti-blackness can be in many Latinx communities. While Latinx people are vastly underrepresented in the publishing industry, Afro-Latinx people are doubly so. How does this unfortunate aspect of Latinidad feature in your work?

Thank you. People are people. Unfortunately, there is as much denial within our Latino communities as there is in the larger American society. I can only write my truth as I see it and invite the reader to come along. I don’t expect everyone to agree. I have been writing for a long time and luckily, many readers recognize themselves in the world that I have created. This is a critical time in our history when the Black Lives Matter and social justice movements, demands for inclusion, the #publishingpaidme, and other initiatives, largely driven by young people, have merged to force a broadening of the national dialogue to include more diverse voices being reflected across the board. That is a very good thing.

We are excited to hear that you are writing a novel titled A Woman of Endurance, forthcoming by Amistad in 2022. We’d love to hear more about that project and cannot wait to read more of your beautiful writing.

I wanted to focus on the experience of enslavement unique to the women captives. In this novel, the main character is Pola, a captive sold as a breeder. Her children are sold away as soon as they are born. I wanted to explore how a woman survives this repeated rape and repeated theft of her womb. It is a book about loss, and motherhood truncated and community and, above all, the different faces of love. The English version is scheduled to be released in February 2022 and the Spanish version in March 2022.

You’ve rightly said before that “a lot of our history is sad, uncomfortable. If we’re going to reach a state of something better, we’re going to have to get through that discomfort.” Many have criticised the publishing industry’s preference for trauma stories that foreground black people’s suffering. Why do you think it is so important to engage with our history, no matter how discomforting?

I feel very strongly that only by learning from the past can we find the strength to deal with the present and lay a strong foundation for the future. The problematic part of many stories is not that we have had centuries of suffering and trauma. The problem is that the storytellers, usually not us, have told only half of the tale. Yes. We have been enslaved, abused and violated, but the really important part of that story is that despite all the obstacles that have been put in our way, we have, not just survived, not just endured, but thrived. It is a tale of strength and resistance and finding a way when there was no way. The problem with many of the stories of slavery is that it is the story of the hunt from the hunter’s point of view. We need the lion to tell it as well. We need to keep telling this story, and many others, because they explain who and how and why we are here today.

Follow Dahlma on Twitter, Goodreads, Instagram, and on her website.

Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa was born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City. She is a product of the Puerto Rican communities on the island and in the South Bronx. She attended the New York City public school system and received her academic degrees from SUNY at Buffalo and Queens College(CUNY). As a child she was sent to live with her grandparents in Puerto Rico where she was introduced to the culture of rural Puerto Rico, including the storytelling that came naturally to the women in her family, especially the older women. Much of her work is based on her experiences during this time. 

The 2009 hardcover edition of Daughters of the Stone was listed as a 2010 Finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies and literary journals. Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa’s second novel, A Woman of Endurance will be released in English in February 2022 and in Spanish in February 2023.

Buy Daughters of the Stone

This multigenerational tome begins the moment Fela arrives at her second sugar plantation in colonial Puerto Rico. When she lets her owner act out of his desire, Fela becomes the first in a long line of women who are bound together by their love for one another. All these stories culminate in that of Carisa, a writer disillusioned with New York and her white-washed university course who voyages back to Puerto Rico and later West Africa in order to learn the truth about her people.

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