An interview with Demetria Martínez, author of Mother Tongue (One World/Ballantine Books, $21).
By Margaret Regan
FOUR YEARS AGO, a miracle transformed the life of Demetria Martínez. The young journalist and poet, not yet a novelist, was still hurting from a bruising trial on charges that she'd smuggled aliens into the United States. Working as a reporter in Albuquerque, the 20-something Martínez had accompanied some Sanctuary workers and political refugees across the border from Mexico. The U.S. attorney indicted her on the evidence of a poem she had written about the experience. She was acquitted, easily, on First Amendment grounds.
But the wake of the tumultuous trial made her into a "political symbol...I fell into silence," Martínez said in a recent interview at a Tucson lunch spot. "I had to appear strong and together. Only afterwards could I feel."
Then, in Chicago, "a miracle happened." She was in an audience listening to the acclaimed Chicana author Sandra Cisneros read from her works. "Suddenly I heard a voice. It said:
'His nation chewed him up and spat him out like a piñon shell, and when he emerged from an airplane one late afternoon, I knew I would one day make love with him.'
"I heard that line as clearly as I hear your voice right now."
Martínez knew the line "wanted to be part of a novel," but she resisted its demands, deciding instead to go to bed in her hotel room and forget all about it. The next morning, though, she awoke in a state of "bliss, ecstasy and epiphany," threw herself across the bed and began writing her novel Mother Tongue on a piece of hotel stationery. The words she'd heard the night before became its first sentence. The rest of the story tumbled out over the next nine months.
"I knew the story was already finished and needed to be taken down. My process was listening."
Mother Tongue is a slim, poetic volume detailing the melancholy love affair between a naive, young New Mexican woman and a political refugee from El Salvador's grisly civil war. Shortly after Martínez finished "taking down" its story, the book was published by Bilingual Press, a small Tempe publisher that had already brought out some of Martínez' poetry. Then the novel won the 1994 Western States Book Award for fiction. Continuing its miraculous journey, the book became the subject of a bidding war among three major New York publishers.
The winner, Ballantine Books, published a new hardcover edition this fall under its One World imprint, and it's publishing editions in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. The author just got back to her adopted city of Tucson after a three-month book tour. Remaining fiercely loyal to small presses ("they play a role out of all proportion to their size"), Martínez split the Ballantine proceeds with Bilingual and took away enough money for herself that she likens it to a "three-year grant." She has a new book of poetry, Breathing Between the Lines, coming out from University of Arizona Press in February, and she's at work on Mexican Rubies, a new novel set in Santa Fe, a book that, alas, "wasn't delivered at my door in a basket, like the other one was."
But for all that Mother Tongue seems to have made her reputation as a writer, Martínez cherishes it for having restored her voice after the trial. She had continued working as a journalist, in Kansas City for the National Catholic Reporter, but she found herself unable to write her more personal work. She says that ever since she was 14 years old, a shy Albuquerque teenager pouring her unhappiness into a journal, writing for her has been a kind of spiritual practice, "linked to the nourishing of an inner life." That sensibility was sorely tested at the trial, which insisted on a black-and-white version of the facts.
"On the witness stand, life is on the material plane. And I thought I was on a mythic journey...Long before I saw writing as a career, it was a means of transcendence."
The daughter of a prominent Hispanic family that's been in New Mexico for centuries (her father was the first Chicano member of the Albuquerque school board), Martínez remains politically committed despite the dislocations of the trial. She moved to Tucson in part so she could continue to cover border issues in the monthly column she still writes for the National Catholic Reporter, a paper "geared toward social justice." She also belongs to Derechos Humanos, a Tucson-based group that deals with "police accountability, border patrol abuses and educating people about their rights...It's important for people with some kind of public voice to be present."
Mother Tongue, a chilling dissection of the psychological wounds left by government-sponsored torture, is a book suffused with a political consciousness. It contains an author's note explaining 75,000 El Salvadorans died in their nation's vicious 12-year war, an enterprise that got $6 billion in military aid from the United States. When Martínez meets college students today at her readings, she finds that the book "speaks to a whole new generation who weren't old enough for the Sanctuary Movement."
Still, she thinks of the novel as primarily a love story.
"I see it as a story of community, a love story. I love a good love story! I'm afraid it's the only thing I'll ever be able to write. What interests me is the psychology--or pathology--of women, what women will do in the name of love. It's a story that fascinates me.
"But as a journalist, I know that love, life, does not happen in an historical vacuum. Wars cross boundaries...We carry history within us."
Demetria Martínez will read from Mother Tongue at 2 p.m., Saturday, December 14, at Borders Books & Music, 4235 N. Oracle Road. For more information call 292-1331.
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