Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Ellen Urbani Hiltebrand (page 4)
 Talking with
Ellen Urbani Hiltebrand
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With all the talk (and writing) recently about memoirs — specifically whether the author is obligated more to hard fact or to his/her interpretation of events — how do you respond when asked if your book is entirely true, or whether it is a work of creative non-fiction?

I suppose it is easier for me than for other memoirists, in that it is obvious I am not eight separate people, and therefore parts of the book are by necessity fictionalized. In my own stories, there’s some temporal distortion, with the order of events rearranged to accommodate the narrative flow. Also, in an effort to minimize the introduction of superfluous characters, I took the liberty of erasing many cohorts. As for the other women, there are obviously some re-imagined parts, as I was forced to fill in details I wasn’t privy to in order to flesh out their stories. But I maintained a commitment to basing even those added details on truths I came to know from the lives of actual people; nothing is made up. The result is that some of the characters are hybrids — based primarily on one person, but including incidents culled from others’ lives. As for the riveting nature of their stories, I chose each of the featured women based not only on my association with them and their impact on me, but also for the way in which each of their stories could challenge and provoke readers. I needed seven; choosing six was simple, but I agonized over the seventh. I decided at length to include another American to balance out my point of view, and then I considered a Peace Corps office worker, an embassy employee . . . I don’t know why it took me so long to realize it should be another Volunteer. Once I set upon that idea, it was clear what story she would tell, and that character, therefore, is the greatest amalgam. Given the trauma her story addresses, I felt I had no right to base it entirely on any one person; the hard facts of that story are all altered.

The lives of the Guatemalans you write about are short, hard, and unchanging. One woman is described as “thirtyish and looking forward to a life done living.” In stark contrast, here you are, at 37, setting off on a whole new career with the publication of your first book. To what do you ascribe such dramatic differences in the opportunities afforded you?

The idea of reinventing oneself — of taking up a new career or relocating to a new town — is something that never crossed the mind of any of the Guatemalans I knew. (With the one glaring exception, I must note, of their dreams of perhaps someday emigrating to the United States.) Yet for Americans of my generation, reinvention is not just something we consider; it is something we expect to do, perhaps frequently. This difference in our expectations, then, is an element I think is particularly crucial. Let’s use, as an example, a female teenager. A typical fifteen-year-old Guatemalan girl expects to soon be married, having children, harvesting squash. She expects to do this very same thing for the rest of her life. A typical fifteen-year-old American girl expects to have an enormous cell phone bill. She anticipates the possibility of college, but has no idea where, and couldn’t begin to tell you what she’ll be doing in ten years. Some might call that spoiled, others lucky or blessed; still others would call it cursed. Not to exclude the impact of economics, social structures, or political institutions, one could argue that, within reason, we actualize what is expected of us.

Men and missionaries take a pretty hard hit in your book. How do you respond to the charge that you’ve just put a literary spin on male- and religion-bashing?

I like most men, and have loved my share. As for missionaries, though I don’t favor the practice of evangelism, I do, with limited reservations, respect the munificence of their intentions. I don’t know how anyone could fault me, however, for chafing at the ilk of men and missionaries I encountered with frequency in Guatemala. So I will make no apologies for what I have written. It is my truth.

Fair enough! Thank you, Ellen, and good luck with this book and all the books to come.

Thank you, John. And thank you for sending me to The Permanent Press. They have been wonderful.

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