A Conversation with Reyna Grande, author of The Distance Between Us: How to Engage Your Readers

Reyna Grande, author of The Distance Between Us

Reyna Grande, author of The Distance Between Us

Reyna Grande, author of Across a Hundred Mountains, Dancing with Butterflies, and The Distance Between Us, is a sought-after speaker at middle/high schools, colleges and universities around the country. Born in Mexico, Reyna was raised by her grandparents after her parents left her behind while they worked in the US. She came to the US at the age of nine as an undocumented immigrant and went on to become the first person in her family to obtain a higher education. We spoke with Reyna about her most recent book, The Distance Between Us, and her thoughts about how to engage readers, particularly students.

BIC: What lessons can be learned from your latest book, The Distance Between Us, that make it work well for a literary events program, especially those for college students?

RG: I think The Distance Between Us works so well for students because it gives them an insight into the issue of immigration–a hot topic issue that is often covered in the media from a more political perspective. But in my book, I address immigration from a very personal standpoint, giving readers a way to view immigration from a different angle. This helps them to understand that immigration is not only a political issue, it is also a very personal issue that affects millions of families in every way imaginable.

Another thing that I feel will resonate with college students is the belief that you can succeed despite the odds. Many students, especially those that are economically or culturally disadvantaged, are facing similar struggles to those that I faced when I was their age. By telling my own story, I’ve found a way to encourage and inspire students to fight hard for their dreams and to not let anything stand in their way of reaching their full potential.

BIC: Would you share some notable experiences you’ve had at literary events that you’ve participated in?

RG: One of my favorite experiences was in Watsonville, a California town with a large population of migrant workers. My first book, Across a Hundred Mountains, was chosen for its One Book/One City program, and after one of my readings in the area, a migrant worker and her teenage daughter came up to tell me they had both read my book: the mother had read it in Spanish, the daughter in English. They told me they had been discussing it at home. It was something quite beautiful to hear that my book had sparked a discussion between an immigrant parent and her American-born child. I was happy to hear that my books give families a chance to connect through literature.

More recently, I had a deeply touching experience when I did a reading at a school in Los Angeles. After my reading, one of the students, a young woman, asked me if she could talk to me in private. After everyone had gone, she started to tell me about her own hardships. She was crying, and I tried to give her as much encouragement as I could. After she left, the school librarian who had invited me to do the presentation sat down with me as well, and then she started to cry as she also remembered her own immigration from Eastern Europe and the hardships she had endured.

What I’ve learned as a writer is that telling our story helps us heal-but most importantly-it helps others to heal as well.

BIC: Your memoir and two novels often challenge common American perspectives and/or stories about Hispanics and their place in American society, as well as giving voice to Hispanic immigrants’ experiences. Could you share some of the ways in which your stories have affected your readers’ perspectives and understanding of both themselves and others?

RG: I dedicated my latest book to the DREAMers, the young men and women who were brought to the U.S. as children and are American in every way except on paper. There are about 5 million DREAMers who are in limbo, waiting for the government to fix our broken immigration system. These are young people who have the same dream as any young person in the U.S., but they are forced to dream the American Dream in the shadows, just like I did when I was still undocumented. In the Distance Between Us, I tried to capture the experience of the 1.5 generation and what it means to live in a society that continually questions your right to remain. I wrote about my coming of age as an undocumented Latina in America and what it was like to be caught in the middle of cultural differences. I’ve found that my books not only give voice to the experiences of students with similar stories, but also help other students understand their immigrant classmates.

I’ve had particularly gratifying experiences talking with readers who are teachers. I have heard from many of these teachers how reading my books helped them to understand their students. It has given them an insight into the lives of these child immigrants who walk into their classroom still suffering from their traumas. The fact is, that 80% of the immigrant children in U.S. schools have been separated from a parent during the process of migration. It is crucial that teachers understand these students and realize that aside from just needing to receive instruction in English-these students also need to receive compassion and understanding.

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