How my identities shape my books

September 22, 2023 | General

green background, with a photo of leonor in a yellow frame. The words "identity and books" are visible in red.

As a native Chilean, September has always been a special month for me: we celebrate El Dieciocho, our Independence holiday, and welcome Spring. Since moving to North America, though, September has never felt the same. Being an immigrant means you’re never home again. But this has also helped me discover other identities in me, all of which have shaped my books.

In this post, I wanted to sit with my nostalgia and explore how things have changed. There are multiple ways in which I’ve incorporated these themes into my stories. Let me show you a bit of this journey!

El Dieciocho: Chile’s Independence Day

One of my earliest memories is of my family travelling to spend El Dieciocho, the independence holidays, with my grandparents in the countryside. This is also when Winter gives way to Spring, and the temperatures are absolutely perfect: sunny, with a cool breeze, and a balmy 23ºC inviting us to spend time outside again. In a way, it’s like Chileans thaw in September.

Once upon a time, Chile used to celebrate its independence from Spain on February 12th and September 18th. The former date is the actual date Chile declared its independence, while the latter is when the first national government took shape. Legend says that Chileans partied hard for both dates, and the government later decided to pack it all into one celebration. In part, that may be why the country celebrates so hard in September—we’re making up for the February party that was taken from us!

In any case, the date helped name the celebration: dieciocho means eighteen. If you go to Chile and ask, “what are you doing for the eighteenth?”, everyone will understand what you mean. The 19th is a national holiday as well, and the days before and after these two days are very low productivity times. Everyone is thinking and preparing for partying! Depending on the day of the week it falls on, this could mean a whole week of celebration.

The way we celebrate is unique to the season. El Dieciocho is so important, it’s probably the second most celebrated holiday of the year. Chile’s “patriotic partying” has a defined brand. Everything is decorated in blue, red, and white; cueca plays everywhere; and everyone gets together for barbecue with family and friends. Wine and chicha are everywhere. Or terremotos, if you’re brave! This goes on for the whole month, but specially over the days surrounding the 18th.

How my identities shape my books: A collage of five photos, including traditional Chilean barbecue, a map of Chile with the Chilean flag, a marraqueta bread on a table with two glasses of red wine, a couple dancing in the street, and several chorizos and choripanes on a grill.

The expat experience

I moved to Canada more than ten years ago. At first, I’d feel sad every September. Where were the flags, decoration, and music? The Chilean food I can get here doesn’t taste exactly like back home. Now, with some time gone by, I still look back and miss it, but I’ve accepted it. I know that, if I ever get a chance to visit Chile again, I will do my best to go in September. I will also keep looking for food alternatives in Canada, as I haven’t given up hope yet.

Over the years, I found different ways to celebrate this part of my identity as an expat. My writing has become the perfect sandbox to revisit my favourite memories. It’s special to me that my first Chilean hero debuted in September. Gabe in Yours, For Now, as well as his family and one of his best friends, are Chilean. Like I shared in my Guide Into Yours, For Now post, the book includes multiple nods to the Chilean food I miss.

Being an author gives me the freedom to choose just how far to take it so, in my next book, Yours, Forever, the Sotomayors will invite Max to the lake house for a proper Dieciocho gathering. I can’t wait to share that!

My new identities and my writing

While everyone’s self-perception can shift over time, a change as significant as migration is bound to intensify the process. My relationship to Chile has changed, as well as my identity as Latina. Now the month of September means something else to me, thanks to Latine Heritage Month (September 15th to October 15th in the USA, and the whole of October in Canada). This matters because, ever since moving here, my understanding of what it means to be Latine has grown much more complex.

After moving to Canada, I learned to expect being racialized. People tend to assume my country’s culture and weather is the same as Mexico. Or that I grew up listening to salsa and reguetón. I’ve also experienced multiple levels of microaggressions. On the other hand, I’m aware that I miss a culture that has moved on; Chile isn’t the same country I lived in through my 20s. All of this helps shape my new understanding. If I hadn’t left Chile, I would have never truly identified with being a racialized Latina woman.

This self exploration has lead to other identity shifts as well. I will never know what this journey would have been like if I had stayed in Chile, but coming to terms with my queerness has been something I’ve dedicated time to while in Canada. Coincidentally, Bisexuality Awareness Week is celebrated in September as well, from the 16th to the 23rd. And, just like with Gabe and his nationality, the fact that my first bisexual heroine made her debut this month is special to me.

Lina’s story has a lot of my story. I used her book as a sandbox to bring in my identities and feelings. Her queerness is just part of her life and identity; Yours, For Now isn’t a story about her being bisexual. She happens to be bisexual, like I do. She can be attracted to all genders, though she fell in love with a man… like it happened for me. She’s not out to her family for the same reasons I’m not.

Vulnerability and books

I don’t often put so much of me in my characters, but Yours, For Now is a clear exception. When I wrote this story, I worried about how it would be received. Tío Miguel is based on an uncle of mine; I cried writing Edgardo’s letter because I wish I heard some of those words myself. I used to be someone who toughened up to survive in that environment. The earthquake analogy Gabe shares with Lina? I use it in my day job all the time!

I think that’s why this book felt so vulnerable—because it has so much of me. I’ve always written parts of my identity, like fatness and latinidad, as I know them. But making the Sotomayors Chilean, and Lina carry some of my old wounds and many of my identities felt different.

Something tells me that, while September used to be about Chile’s Independence and coming together for me, now it’s going to be all about identity. Both of those meanings are about closeness, and that’s the kind of warmth I wish readers will find in the stories I share.