Jennifer Givhan: The Symbols of Loss and Hope - Writer's Digest

Jennifer Givhan: The Symbols of Loss and Hope

Award-winning novelist Jennifer Givhan shares how NaNoWriMo helped her write, the experience of exploring personal topics in fiction, and why writers should never give up hope.
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Jennifer Givhan, a Mexican-American writer and activist from the Southwestern desert, is the author of four full-length poetry collections, most recently Rosa’s Einstein (Camino Del Sol Poetry Series), two chapbooks, and the novels Trinity Sight and Jubilee (Blackstone Publishing). Her work has appeared in The Best of the Net, Best New Poets, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, POETRY Magazine, The Rumpus, The New Republic, AGNI, TriQuarterly, The Nation, Crazyhorse, Witness, Southern Humanities Review, and Kenyon Review. She has received, among other honors, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices fellowship, and New Ohio Review’s Poetry Prize, chosen by Tyehimba Jess. Givhan holds a Master’s degree in English from California State University Fullerton and an MFA from Warren Wilson College, and she can be found discussing feminist motherhood at jennifergivhan.com as well as Facebook & Twitter @JennGivhan and Ig @thebrujapoeta.

Jenn_givhan_and_Jubilee

In this post, Givhan shares how NaNoWriMo helped her write, the experience of exploring personal topics in fiction, why writers should never give up hope, and more!

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Name: Jennifer Givhan
Literary agent: Laura Blake Peterson at Curtis Brown Literary Agency
Title: Jubilee
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing
Release date: October 6, 2020
Genre: Literary fiction, women's fiction, psychological drama, own voices, Latinx fiction, border fiction

Elevator pitch for the book: After surviving a trauma she cannot bring herself to name, twenty-year-old Bianca Vogelsang comes home carrying an eerily lifelike doll in her arms—a doll she calls Jubilee.

JUBILEE cover

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What prompted you to write this book?

Jubilee is inspired by my girlhood as a Chicana growing up on the Mexicali border of Southern California, experiencing the cultural stigmas in the Mexican-American community toward teenage sexuality, childbearing, abortions, miscarriages, and violent relationships with machismo boys and men. As a survivor of assault and an abusive relationship, I needed to write a book that grappled with the complexities of trauma and how cultural, religious, and familial norms affect healing.

Another major inspiration came from Reborns; Jubilee was born while I researched maternal trauma and encountered Reborn dolls used as therapy for women who’d experienced child loss. These dolls are custom-made, and the artists who create them often advertise that they can recreate a replica of a child from a photograph. Women who collect or adopt these dolls sometimes carry them around as if they are “real” babies, strolling them around the park in prams, strapping them in car seats, and so on. In my research, I found that partners often participate, for their wives’ sakes. As a mother who has experienced infertility and pregnancy loss, the whole Reborn concept was incredibly interesting to me, and I wondered what would happen psychologically if a woman really couldn’t tell the difference between a Reborn and her “real” child. In other words, what if this Reborn was real…?

I’d also recently read Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, whose minor character Dorotea La Cuarraca is a mother without a child, though she mothers regardless: “I always believed I could feel him in my arms, my sweet baby, with his little mouth and eyes and hands… I could feel his eyelids, the beatings of his heart, on my fingertips. Why wouldn’t I think this was true? I carried him with me everywhere, wrapped in my rebozo, and then one day I lost him… In heaven they told me they’d made a mistake. That they’d given me a mother’s heart but the womb of a whore.” With my novel, I reconsider what it means to be a mother and a survivor and push back against an outdated machismo Latino definition of motherhood. I’ve also rarely encountered complex treatments of mental health issues in Latinx literature and sought to give a rich cultural background to both cause and treatment of my Chicana protagonist’s mental health crisis.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication?

Over a decade, during which time I adopted my son, birthed my daughter, earned an MFA in poetry, drafted and sold another novel, and never, ever, ever gave up on Jubilee. I was exceedingly proud of the first draft of this novel, the first sustained piece of fiction I ever wrote, because I complete an entire draft in less than a month for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). The story has been in my mind for years. The original idea came for it when I was writing my first poetry manuscript in my Master’s program at CSUF. At the time, I knew I wanted to write a novel eventually but was intimidated. I had about twenty false starts, where I’d write an opening, usually a paragraph or two, but never move on from there. 

(Your NaNoWriMo Survival Guide: Before, During, & After)

Then, in 2011, the idea burrowed into my heart in a particular iteration that wouldn’t let go. On a long drive home to New Mexico from California for my aunt’s funeral, I was talking the idea through with my partner, both kids sound asleep in the backseat, the endless desert stretching before us. Then, I heard about NaNoWriMo each November, a challenge to write an entire novel (at least 50k words) in a single month. Always up for a good challenge, I thought, I can do this! I was still breastfeeding my daughter and teaching classes as an adjunct at The University of New Mexico, but I had a story inside me I had to birth, so why not birth it in November! On October 31st, I still wasn’t sure I could—I’d only successfully written poetry, and even then, I still hadn’t published any of my poetry collections—but I’d made a commitment to myself that I would see it through, come what may. November 1, I took off sprinting. I’d often type while my daughter was asleep on my lap, the laptop keys clacking away her lullabies, and by month’s end, I had written 75k words—a complete first draft of the novel. Much of it came from the ideas laid out in my poetry manuscripts, so there was a joyful uncoiling and spooling in the confluence of switching genres, so to speak, though Jubilee remains very much in touch with its poetic, lyrical heart. I always knew I wanted to write a novel, but I never knew for sure that I could do it. And then I did it. There was such a sense of accomplishment in that.

It took nine years nearly to the month to see publication. And though it’s been a long, arduous road, I’ve kept the faith, and I’m so dang proud of my mama writer self.

Givhan

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title? 

As I said, I’ve had to be seriously tenacious. Jubilee has had four agents and countless rejections, often difficult to decipher, for one major publisher said she loved the book and called me “a bright star on the contemporary literary horizon” though it ultimately wasn’t “right for their list.” I’ve discussed elsewhere the difficulties for Latinx writers to find their champions in the traditional publishing world where publishers and editors often narrowly define the Latinx experience, and I sense that is true of Jubilee. So the path to publication has also meant fighting systematic barriers in the publishing world as well.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

I revised Jubilee significantly at least five or six times over the years, and even after it was accepted for publication, before I submitted it to my editor, I went back through and revised, re-reading passes from publishers in the past, because I wanted to make sure that what I sent out into the world was saying what I truly intended and that readers weren’t getting hung up on what might’ve been snags in the writing, personal blind spots that I’d left where I was inhabiting the story so closely that I could no longer see what wasn’t connecting for readers. Then I took several deep breaths and reminded myself that it wasn’t my job to please everyone or even attempt to, but to tell my story in the way that only I could, and I tried to forget all the criticism I’d just read. And somewhere between those two places, in that space of writing to be understood and writing to sing a most personal tune, I found many places to revise—and one, in particular, surprised me. I told my mom—who’s been my first and closest reader since I began writing when I was a little girl, and who has been Jubilee's staunchest supporter all these years—that the ending didn’t feel right and explained why and what I thought the ending should be. And she answered that she thought the so-called new ending had been the ending all along. I realized then that what I’d meant to say, what I’d seen in the very, very beginning but didn’t trust or couldn’t admit or wasn’t ready to accept, had been what the process was all about—that story I was writing toward all this time. If it had been published any of the other times I’d had my heart set on, the story wouldn’t have been ready. Finally now, twenty years after living it, almost ten years after setting it to paper—Jubilee is ready to go home.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

Hope. I’ve thought and thought about this question, but I think hope it what it all comes back to—even after the worst thing we’ve ever been through, there is hope. Whether in this life or the one we create in our hearts and minds—in our imaginations. I want readers to walk away from the story with a sense of who and what Jubilee is in their own lives and why she is such an important and potent symbol for the power of hope—what keeps us going, what keeps us loving, what keeps us alive.

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

If there’s a story burning inside you that you have to tell, then you’ll have to find a way, sometimes forge a path where it seemed like there was none, to tell it and get it to your readers. Your readers are out there. You just have to believe and work like hell and never, ever give up. Especially not on yourself. You have to be your story’s greatest champion.