Surviving Santiago

Happy book birthday to Surviving Santiago by Lyn Miller-Lachmann!

Cover-Val

I am so psyched to read this book, I can’t even tell you.  It sounds AMAZING.

After publishing her critically-acclaimed YA novel Gringolandia, author Lyn Miller-Lachmann gave the book to her husband’s aunt. Gringolandia is about a Pinochet-era Chilean teen exile in the U.S. coping with his father, a torture survivor, coming to live with his family. Aunt Ruth was a young child when her own family fled a fascist regime (Nazi Germany), and her older sister remembered their old life better and never hesitated to remind her of their difference. She greatly sympathized with Tina, the little sister in Gringolandia, whose childhood was also marred by dark memories and a difficult transition. So Lyn Miller-Lachmann wrote Surviving Santiago, a stand-alone story from Tina’s point-of-view, and dedicated it to Aunt Ruth. 

Surviving Santiago is lush with descriptions of Santiago, Chile, and the surrounding area. Did all the description come from your memories of being there in 1989? Are there any landmarks you made up or changed?

Most of my descriptions come from my memories of being in Santiago and the surrounding area and from the many rolls of photos that I took when I was there. I also saw a number of Chilean films set in the city during that time and in the decade afterward (some examples are Gringuito and this very weird indie film called Malta con huevo) and did a lot of research on the internet. Many of the landmarks are real places, such as the Cerro San Cristóbal and Cerro Santa Lucía in the middle of the city, the Plaza de Armas, and the Alto Las Condes mall, which opened shortly before Tina arrived in Chile. But even though I know their names, I was vague about the specific neighborhoods where my principal characters live. As Tía Ileana pointed out, there’s been a huge amount of new development in Santiago since the return of democracy, so everything has changed, probably several times in the past 25 years.

Some of my descriptions of nature were inspired by the work of Nico Willson E., a wonderful architect and photographer (and gay rights activist) who I follow on Instagram. You can check out his feed at @nicowillsone.

I’m a ninth grade student in the United States wondering why I should read historical fiction about Chile in 1989. Convince me.

Good historical fiction has the same kind of world building and storytelling as good speculative fiction. One of the appeals of science fiction, dystopian fiction, and fantasy is their ability to transport the reader into a different world, with different landscapes and rules. The Chile of Gringolandia and Surviving Santiago is a kind of dystopia, as dystopian fiction is built on real-life tyrannies of the past. The reader travels with Tina from a place of safety and security to what has become to her a foreign land, and as a newcomer she is as unaware of its dangers as those taking care of her are unaware of her capacity to get into trouble. (And by the way, it’s never a good idea to try to score illegal drugs in a foreign country.)

I’m a longtime fan of two reality TV series that are at the opposite ends of the international travel experience. One of them is House Hunters International, in which people moving abroad look for nice places to live within their budgets. The other is Locked Up Abroad, in which people traveling abroad end up in prison for drug or other offenses, or kidnapped by guerrilla or paramilitary groups or criminal gangs seeking ransom. Both of these series inform Surviving Santiago, which presents both the fun side and the dark side of traveling to and living in other countries.

 

Tina and Frankie say they love each other pretty quickly, and Tina continues to see Frankie even after she’s given some clues that he may not be who he says he is. Why does Tina stay with Frankie?

Having been uprooted from her friends and everything familiar, Tina is vulnerable and more likely to latch on to the first person her age who gives her attention and makes her feel useful—as Frankie does when he asks her to teach him English. As their relationship develops and Tina sees how much she has in common with Frankie and how she may be able to help him realize his dream of studying in the United States, she denies the warning signs that he may not be who he says he is. This is not unusual, as many young women stay with controlling, abusive, and unfaithful boyfriends despite even more obvious warning signs. In fact, Tina feels pressure to say she loves Frankie—pressure she puts on herself—when she sees him with another girl, as she thinks, “Maybe I should have said the words. Maybe it would have made the difference.”

Tina’s papá’s struggle with alcoholism feels heartbreakingly real. Tell us how he got to that point.

The alcoholic parent has become a trope of young adult literature. Either the parent has checked out, which is a way of getting rid of parents without actually killing them off, or the parent is abusive and that abuse is the novel’s “problem.” I wanted to portray Tina’s papá as a complex person who has his own desires and reasons for acting the way he does. Yes, he’s a deeply flawed person but also one capable of heroic acts and, like Tina, able to change and grow.

Tina’s fond memories of her father are of him before he was arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and crippled, events which led to his developing post-traumatic stress disorder and self-medicating with alcohol. By the time she sees him again in Chile, he’s struggling to keep it together during the day at work while drinking himself to sleep at night. Following the restoration of democracy, he has reached a crisis point because, in many ways, his life’s work is done and all he’s left with is his pain. When I was in Chile, I saw that among my friends who had spent more than a decade fighting the dictatorship, and once the elections were over and they were seen as having “won,” it was hard to find a new role.

Papá is casting about for a new role, in his case reconnecting with his family. But his experience of imprisonment and torture, his years underground, and his dependence on alcohol make it difficult for him to fit into this role as a father and brother. He’s at the point of giving up, and those around him know it. What keeps him from giving up is being in the middle of another battle—in his friend Ernesto’s words, “doing something really dangerous” that almost costs him his (and Tina’s) life.

How did writing this story differ from writing Gringolandia?

I saw the family dynamic from the perspective of a character with a very different personality and history. I had a lot of fun writing this novel because Tina has much more of a sense of humor than her brother, Daniel, and she’s not afraid to tell it like it is. Daniel was a character who hated confrontation and would do almost anything to avoid it. Tina seeks out confrontation—in this way, she’s a lot like her father—and given that conflict is at the center of great fiction, a character who invites confrontation is usually a lot more fun to write than one who avoids it. To quote the late, great Paul Wellstone, “sometimes you gotta start a fight to win a fight.”

That brings me to another difference—how Tina sees Chile as opposed to how her brother sees it. Daniel is a “cultural chameleon” who seeks to fit in and blend it, and while he has adapted quickly to life in the United States, he feels the pull of his native land as soon as he returns with his father. Although Tina, five years younger, had a harder time adjusting initially to the United States, her roots are now stronger and deeper, and when she returns to Chile she’s a “stranger in a strange land.” After eight years, it’s a foreign country to her, and in so many ways she cannot adapt. However, her failure to adapt and change—her inability to be a “cultural chameleon”—ends up pulling Frankie toward her world.

One other reason Surviving Santiago was easier for me to write is that I’m a lot like Tina. I have been diagnosed with Asperger’s, a mild form of autism, and I don’t adapt easily to change. For me, every culture is a foreign culture, so Tina’s struggles in Chile were very real and personal.

As a Chilean lesbian in 1989, Tía Ileana’s situation is particularly difficult. What was your inspiration for writing her character?

When I published with Curbstone Press, I got to know the work of the lesbian Latina author Carla Trujillo, whose debut novel, What Night Brings, portrays a Mexican-American girl coming to terms with her sexual orientation at the same time that she and her younger sister plot the banishment of their abusive father. This novel made me think of the challenges faced by lesbians in the patriarchal cultures of Latin America, where the Catholic Church has played a major role in policing sexuality as well.

In Chile, the Catholic Church is especially strong and has broad support because of the Church’s support for human rights and its solidarity work with the victims of the dictatorship. This was even truer in 1989, when the Church had played a key role in ending the dictatorship. The Church’s conservative social positions on gay rights, birth control, and abortion thus held more sway, even with people like Marcelo who weren’t especially religious. Besides working closely with the Church, Marcelo is also influenced by the culture of machismo. Not only does this affect his relationship with his older sister, it also prevents him from seeking the help he needs to heal from his years of imprisonment and torture.

What would you like readers to take away from the story?

I would like to get readers excited about traveling to other countries and getting to know their people, histories, and cultures. On a school visit for Gringolandia, one student said that his older sister had traveled frequently to Chile for work, and “it’s not like that anymore.” I said that Chile isn’t like the country depicted in Gringolandia (and Surviving Santiago, which was a work in progress at the time) because of the efforts of people like my characters, who struggled and sacrificed much to restore freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights. In the United States, we take our freedom and democracy for granted, but it can be easily lost, and once it’s lost, it’s very difficult to get back.

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