The place will we come from? How will we slot in? Williams professor’s new novel asks common questions | Arts And Tradition
Soledad Fox Maura’s first novel took 12 years to write.
“It is exactly what it is,” said the Williams College professor, adding that she was neither proud nor ashamed of her writing process for “Madrid Again” (Arcade Publishing, November 2020). It’s been 12 busy years for Maura taking the time to write her lean 192-page novel between classes in Spanish and comparative literature at Williams and abroad. She wrote three biographies – including her 2018 publication of “Exile, Writer”, Soldat, Spy: Jorge Semprún “- and countless scholarly articles on Spanish culture and history and the Spanish Civil War.
But in this novel, Maura happily jokes, you won’t find any footnotes.
“Yes, it took me a long time, but it also gave me a lot of freedom,” she said during a telephone interview. “Most of my books are academic and full of footnotes. But that gave me the creative freedom to make the kind of book I wanted. It really was a luxury.”
In “Madrid Again” Maura tells the story of a mother-daughter relationship that also examines the complexities of intercultural relationships, identity and the question of where we come from. Narrator Lola tells the story of how her mother Odilia came to America in the 1960s and left Madrid and her family to follow a professor who is as mysteriously disappearing from Odilia’s life as he appeared. Odilia stays and makes a new life for her daughter and herself in New England. But Lola is raised between two worlds – Spain and America – while mother and daughter travel back and forth creating an identity in between.
“It’s a very universal human curiosity and a desire to learn more about where we come from and how we fit in,” said Maura, pointing to the popularity of genealogical research and DNA databases. “The main character in the novel … she’s at a point in life where she’s doing this and trying to find out who she is. Those are hard questions to answer. Your quest is really the book’s journey. I don’t want to Spoilers tell what they find, but the process is really fascinating to them. “
The leap from biographies to this novel was a natural one for Maura, indicating that she is used to “looking at the parts of a person’s life that may not be the most famous” and finding the story within. “Madrid again,” she said, is a tale of calm courage in which the two women in the story may not qualify as heroines in the traditional sense. But their stories as immigrants, a single mother raising a child alone and still finding a way to honor where they’re from, show “bravery and resilience”.
Maura, always the professor, hopes that readers will not only enjoy the book for its story but also instill an appreciation and interest in Spanish history. She also hopes her novel will add a new perspective for “children of the third culture” or children who spend their formative years in places other than their parents’ home.
“I hope the book provides a fresh, additional voice to the growing number of voices telling the stories of what it’s like to grow up between places,” she said.
Maura took the time to review her lesson plan and virtual book tour to answer a few questions about her favorite books. (The answers have been edited slightly for the sake of clarity.)
Q: What is your favorite biography or memory?
ONE: “Martha Gellhorn: A Life” by Caroline Moorehead. This is a beautiful and intimate book. The author’s family was very close to Martha Gellhorn and she had access to key materials. Gellhorn had a fascinating, action-packed life as one of the oldest war reporters in history. If she just rings the bell as “one of Hemingway’s women”, please read this book!
Q: What is your favorite American expat novel?
ONE: “The American” by Henry James. It’s hard to say it’s my favorite because there are so many, but let’s say it’s a very good start.
Q: Who is your favorite female character in literature?
ONE: Emma, in Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”. She may seem moody and selfish, but she is passionate and loves to read. It cannot fathom the gap between fiction and real life, and that is one of the great themes of literature.
Q: What are your favorite travel novels?
ONE: “Things I Don’t Want To Know” by Deborah Levy. This tells the story of a woman at the end of her rope who goes on a solo trip to Mallorca, Spain. “Leaving Atocha Station” by Ben Lerner. A young poet and Fulbright Fellow is getting a lot more than he expected in his year in Madrid.
Q: What’s the best novel you’ve read recently that you couldn’t put down?
ONE: I read “My Dark Vanessa” by Kate Elizabeth Russell and “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh. I found these two exciting and a bit scary and then read “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath again. I can’t believe we read this book as teenagers in school! It’s fascinating, moving and powerful.
Q: What books are currently on your bedside table?
ONE: I teach and read a book by a Catalan-Moroccan writer, Najat El Hachmi, called “La Hija Extranjera” (“The Strange Daughter”). It was written in Catalan and I’m reading a Spanish translation. It is a bold book about the imprisonment between cultural identities and generations and a portrait of a poignant and difficult mother-daughter relationship. Not yet in English, but her novel “The Last Patriarch” is available.
Q: Which book would you like to give away as a gift this Christmas season?
ONE: I would give Federico García Lorca’s “Gypsy Ballads” in the beautiful light green bilingual edition, translated by his niece Gloria García Lorca and Jane Duran. And of course I wish I could give a few hundred copies of my novel “Madrid Again” as a Christmas present to all my family, friends and students. It has a beautiful cover of a dark starry night. and a mother and a child go hand in hand.