So, in writing a memoir, I was starting to piece things together that, as a child, I didn’t realize. But now, as an adult looking back, little things were starting to mean more than what they did when I was a kid. Like a door being locked before you went to bed. As a kid, I thought that was strange, but looking back on it, having that flash, I think those little things started to scare me. I don’t think I was emotionally ready to look into it.

Did your family know what the story was going to be about?

Um, yes. More or less. I told them it was about a family and their two daughters and they come to south Texas and there’s an abusive father figure. One thing leads to another and there’s a tragedy. When the book came out, they read it, and they did see some similarities. But it gets tricky because they never hit me—we never hit each other. So, I imagined what it could have been like for a different family, and turned it inside out and that was the story of los Castillos in the book. So, I had to give [them] a little bit of an explanation, like, this doesn’t mean that emotionally this is a metaphor for what it felt like growing up or anything.

Nephi Nevin

Details

Lotería
By Mario Alberto Zambrano
Harper, 288 pp., $21.99

In certain Mexican-American families, like you said, it’s hard to talk about difficult issues, especially abuse, and instead there's a tendency to concentrate on the happier times. Did yours ever ask you why you're writing about such heavy topics?

It’s funny because, even up to this point, the things that they are uncomfortable talking about, they won’t bring up. Even the questions that the book raises, they won’t mention it. They will concentrate more on, like, “Oh, my God, we’re so proud of you! You published a book, that’s so fantastic! The Lotería is so much fun and we used to play.” And I am very happy that they are proud of me, but at the same time, I question, like, “Did you even read the book?” Like, there are other things within the book that we can talk about. It doesn’t have to be really heavy. It’s OK to be serious sometimes. I guess they are uncomfortable. I mean, I left home when I was 16 and would come visit two weeks at a time, so perhaps they don’t feel close enough. So the time I do have with them, they want to keep it light and easy.

But even besides that, these issues are hard to bring up. I know some families that are able to do it, but it always takes that courageous brother or sister or aunt to put their foot down and open their mouth and say what needs to be said. It’s such a relief when it’s out in the air.

I was happy to hear you liked the book in the beginning of our phone call, because there are some people that think this story could be untrue, and they think I am using the game of Lotería and Mexican culture as a vehicle, like a literary tour of our culture. Everyone has the prerogative to their own opinion, of course, but it’s sad to know that it doesn’t ring true to other Mexican-Americans and that saddens me—but what can you do?

Despite those negative responses, you have received a tremendous amount of positive feedback. As a writer, how does it make you feel knowing there are people who love this book so much?

I was nervous about it, and I don’t know why, because I am Mexican-American and I do come from that upbringing, so why am I afraid of not getting the right pitch or the right tone if that is who I am?

When I was in grad school and I was workshopping the book, no one was Mexican-American—not that they have to be, but I didn’t know how they would react like, ‘You’re not the real thing, you’re just pretending.’ But what is interesting is that I am getting both responses from that community.

When did you realize you had a special book on your hands?

Honestly, I really didn’t think this was going to be my first book that would get published. I was just writing. After my dancing, the cards were a way to create a little scene or a vignette. It was a writing exercise, especially during the memoir stage. And then, when I left the memoir stage, I created this fictional character named Luz and she had a story. At The New School, my thesis was about the first 21 cards, and my advisor said to me, “This is really good. You should use this for your MFA program application.” So, when the [Iowa] Writers' Workshop accepted it, and they gave me a full scholarship, I was like, “What? I’m in a writers' workshop? How is that possible? She’s 11 years old! I don’t get it.”

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