When I was twelve I wrote in my diary, “Most of all, I want to be a writer.” Today, decades later, that dream comes true. The Secret Side of Empty, my debut novel, hits book shelves.
All publishing stories feel like a fairy tale. I remember so intimately what it felt like to go to pitch conferences and writing groups and feel the frustration of wanting to be published but not achieving it. But, besides the standard, “publishing is hell” roadblocks, for me getting here feels so laughably improbable that the fact that this day has arrived is nothing short of amazing.
When I was eight years old, I crossed the Mexican border into the U.S. with my mom. We were what the news calls “illegal.” I grew up under the specter of that, the thumping heart at every knock on the door, my parents’ hushed conversations in the next room, the secrets I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone. When I became a teenager, I began to understand the impact of the decisions that had been made for me before I was old enough to chime in. With no social security number, it meant I couldn’t get an after-school job, or a driver’s license or (had I even known what it meant), in-state tuition or financial aid for college. As high school wore on, I learned that my options were dwindling.
My story has something of a Hollywood ending. I got an amnesty that made me “legal” right when I turned eighteen and graduated high school. It meant college, a job, virtually anything I wanted. But most of all, for me it meant forgetting. I wanted nothing more than to put my shame behind me.
So I went to college. I concentrated on scrubbing off the poverty of my childhood, buying a house, being suburban. My heart yearned to write, but I could never make it work. Well, I wrote all the time, but I also yearned to publish. So many voices said there was no chance of it. There was the college professor that laughed and told me that no one makes a living writing. The literary journals that all said no. The little local magazine that published my pieces but then went out of business. The more time passed, the more that “the writing life” seemed like a quaint, dusty fantasy from my childhood.
Then, after 9/11, I heard how ugly the rhetoric started to get around immigration and, especially, immigrants. I remember the spot on the Palisades Parkway when the thought first struck me: “When pundits say that ‘these people’ are going to ruin our country, they are talking about me.” I had kept my secret from everyone. I had escaped it, transcended it, left it behind. My best friend didn’t even know about my (former) undocumented status, never mind my neighbors and acquaintances. But after that moment, little by little, I started to let it out. I wrote a piece for Newsweek about my experience. I started helping out at a local non-profit providing lunches for (mostly undocumented) day laborers. I began to share my story.
And, then, I tried my hand at publishing again and… it worked! M.T.’s story is uniquely hers, but I poured all the hurts and all the triumphs of my own adolescence on the page. The culmination of that loving and longing goes on bookshelves today. I have grown tremendously in the process of transforming from the girl in the shack in Tijuana to the woman whose book is getting acclaim and has been chosen as a Junior Library Guild selection. Most of all, I’ve learned that the things we keep secret, that we think make us broken, are some of the most beautiful and special things about us.
THE SECRET SIDE OF EMPTY (Running Press/Perseus, March, 2014)