In Conversation with Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa

Afro-Puerto Rican novelist Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa captured me with her second novel A Woman of Endurance, when it was published in April 2022. It led me to back to her first novel, Daughters of the Stone, first published in 2009 and all I can say is both books are important additions to contemporary literature.

These are the type of books that encourage deep discussions at book clubs; the ones that leave you feeling enlightened, educated, and enraptured. A Woman of Endurance especially, is one of those books that I wished I could re-read for the first time. It’s had a profound effect on my appreciate for the power of true female friendships.

A former creative writing teacher and librarian in the New York Public School system, Ms. Lanos-Figueroa is a natural storyteller, a skill she learned organically while listening and learning oral stories as a child in Puerto Rico. She has won numerous awards over the last twenty-five years, including her most recent, the 2021 Letras Boricuas Fellowship, a $25,000 award created by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

I am incredibly honored to have on the series Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa to discuss her two books. Below is our conversation.

Tricia: Welcome to In Conversation Ms. Llanos-Figueroa! It’s a pleasure to meet you and congratulations on your new book A Woman of Endurance.

Ms. Dahlma: Thank you for your wonderful reviews of my work and for asking me to join this series of wonderful writers.

Tricia: You’re very welcome! It struck me early in A Woman of Endurance that the storytelling was going to be compelling. How did the storytelling you grew up hearing in Puerto Rico influence the way you construct stories now for your novels?

Ms. Dahlma: I learned that the most compelling stories were those told from inside out. That is, I wanted to take the reader to the core of the characters to help them understand what it was like to live in the skin of an enslaved woman, in particular. It’s one thing to know that women were used as breeders. It’s another thing to make the reader understand what that meant on a cellular level. What did that feel like, smell like, sound like? What did it do the woman’s soul and to the other women who watched it happen and knew that their turn was coming?

Tricia: From the slave novels I’ve read I know that sexual violence against female slaves was common. Your descriptions of Pola’s experiences opened my eyes to the depraved level that violence could descend. How much of the sexual violence against Pola did you find during research and how much did you create?

Ms. Dahlma: I didn’t find any references to this in my research of enslavement in Puerto Rico. I had to put myself in Pola’s place, crawl into her mind and body to try to understand what her experience was all about. It wasn’t easy. Every writer has to put herself there, in that place, at that time, so she can take her readers there. For me, it meant that I ended up in the hospital, throwing up the pain of it for three days after writing a particularly difficult scene.

Tricia: My goodness! This leads me to ask: there are some very emotionally difficult scenes in this novel that are very heart breaking, and you are very detailed in those scenes. How did you protect yourself while writing these narratives?

Ms. Dahlma: Good question. I learned to break up the scenes so I didn’t stay with the atrocity of it for extended periods of time. I tried to separate the really graphic scenes with lighter ones. I didn’t want my book to be a catalog of atrocities. I also wanted to include joyous scenes filled with music and celebration. I think of my readers and never want to leave them in a place of misery. Our ancestors had a life of violence and brutality but they also had the joy of music and dance and art and loving and faith. Let us look at their lives in their totality. After all, many of us are here because of their ability to find joy where none was offered.

Tricia: Pola is a very minor character in Daughters of the Stone. How and when did you decide that she would be the main character in A Woman of Endurance?

Ms. Dahlma: Because Pola was such a combative character in the first book, I thought I’d make her a warrior, leader of a slave rebellion. But, like other characters, she presented herself in my meditation and guided me to her personal story. There is the story I plan on telling and then there is the story that my characters want me to tell. I have learned to listen.

Tricia: I migrated to the U.S. from Trinidad and Tobago as a teenager, so I identified with Carisa’s sense of not belonging in Daughters of the Stone. But for Carisa it’s the stories from the women in Puerto Rico and her time with María Luisa, that helps her put her life’s purpose into perspective. How have the stories you were told by your grandmothers helped you during difficult times in your life?

Ms. Dahlma: The women in our family had a very strong sense of self and passed that down to us. They knew what was expected of black folk and that had nothing to do with what we expected from ourselves or each other. One example is when my teacher called my mom in and asked her to stop speaking to me in Spanish. My mom looked at the woman and responded, “Your job is to teach her English. My job is to teach her who and what she is. If you do your job and stop trying to tell me how to do mine, we’ll have no trouble.” I think that core of strength came from the stories that they told each other rather than the prevailing story put forth by the society in general.

Tricia: You created a dynamic where Romero, the mulatto overseer, and Celestina, the Albino housekeeper, share an intense hate of Black slaves. The irony being they are Negro themselves and it’s such a telling contradiction that highlights the personal hate they must hold for that part of themselves. Can you explain why you chose to examine colorism through these characters?

Ms. Dahlma: I wanted to create a diverse and nuanced Black community. I’m not of the “we all came from kings” school of thought. My characters are as varied and multifaceted as the white characters in traditional slave narratives. Colorism is a disease, one face of the racism that pervaded our communities, what I call auto-racism. I wanted to populate this community with the whole range of human conditions. So, there are heroic figures but also cowards; protectors and collaborators; the compassionate and the cruel; the lovers and the malevolent. To be a fully human community is to have both positive and negative characters. Colorism is only one of the qualities of that complex community.

Tricia: Doña Filomena’s ‘needlewomen’ slaves reminded me of the book They Were Her Property by Stephanie Jones-Rogers, because I’m curious about the influence female slave owners had on the economic success of their plantations. What inspired you to include this economic aspect in A Woman of Endurance?

Ms. Dahlma: The world of the needlewomen is introduced in more detail in Daughters of the Stone. Las Agujas is wholly Doña Filo’s business. It brings her a handsome income and a certain level of respect from the white gentry. Their artistry is the envy of all the rich women in the area. Doña Filo is very much aware of the fact that much of her social standing comes from the skill of the Black women who work the cloth.

On a different level, Doña Filo is definitely the brains of the plantation. Her husband, Tomás is much more interested in his womanizing. They know each other well and take their given roles very seriously. When the hurricane hits, they fully inhabit the role they were given by their society. He rides out to find help and she supervises the household. But in their private lives, they respect each other’s strengths away from the public eye. I don’t want to give away the story. But on at least two occasions, the careful reader sees that regardless of what is said or done, it is Filomena who’s the boss.

Tricia: I think I fell in love with Simón and his patient diligence with Pola. But I was equally intrigued with the encounter he has with Don Tómas in his study where he discovers that Simón is a literate, educated man who speaks multiple African languages. What influenced you to make Simón an educated character?

Ms. Dahlma: I wanted to make the Black community as diverse as possible. When the Africans were captured, all the white slavers saw was a black body to be sold for work. But those people all had lives before they were enslaved, so I wanted to make them as diverse a people as possible. Simón was an educated man traveling with his wife when he was captured. So being subservient is nowhere in his character. His voice is different than any of the other characters, as is his behavior. He is a quiet observer and very measured in what he says and does. By the way, many readers have told me they have fallen in love with Simón and wondered if he has a younger brother.

Tricia: Yes! And I totally understand why! I appreciate the way you balanced the emotionally tough storylines with the inclusion of Simón’s short and insightful chapters, because for me it brought a bit of emotional stability that kept me excited about him and Pola. Was this intentional when you structured the book?

Ms. Dahlma: I did want to vary the voice and the point of view of the narrative. Simón is the most stable and strongest of the male characters. Whether or not Pola is ready to accept his strength, he is there to offer it. No matter how bad things get, he is a constant force of nature. I am always conscious of how the reader is receiving the book. So yes, I was very much aware that the violence had to be tempered with love.

Tricia: After reading both books I felt that Tía Josefa, Rufina and Pastora save Pola from herself in the same way that Doña Gume, Doña Pastora, and Doñ Teo help Carisa find herself in Daughters of the Stone. You explore the ways that positive female relationships can be so healing. Why is writing about Black female relationships important to you?

Ms. Dahlma: Motherhood and mothering are important themes in my work. My life was filled with women, grandmothers, aunts, older cousin who filled my life when I was sent to live in Puerto Rico as a child. I had a good dose of mothering and mentoring on all sides. I transferred all of that into my fiction. As enslaved Africans whose relatives could disappear at any time, many of the female characters have lost their biological mothers but there are many surrogate moms who step in to guide them. Each of the characters you mention provide some aspect of motherhood missing in the lives of Fela or Pola.

Tricia: You published both of your books after careers as a teacher and a librarian. What do you feel is the main benefit of having gathered the experiences you’ve had in life before becoming an author as opposed to if you had published books earlier in your life? 

Ms. Dahlma: I love the saying that goes like this: Every time an elder passes, we lose a library. There is no substitute for a life well lived and time to reflect on it. As an elder, I feel a responsibility to leave something behind for our children.

It has been a pure pleasure chatting with you about your work, Ms. Llanos-Figueroa. Best of luck to you with your future books!

See my review of Daughters of the Stone and A Woman of Endurance. You can follow Ms. Llanos-Figueroa on Instagram, Twitter, or find out more on her work from her website.

Photo credit: Matvey Zabbi.

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