The Bookshelf

Jamie Figueroa’s “Mother Island” interrogates our relationship with memory in a colonized world

Creativity and imagination is a sovereign space, a space to heal, a space to connect, a space to honor what is mine to say in this life, and include those whose voices were never included,” Santa Fe-based author Jamie Figueroa tells SFR.

Figueroa’s debut memoir, Mother Island: A Daughter Claims Puerto Rico (Pantheon, Mar. 19), delves into a genre-bending exploration of her identity as a Boricua (Afro-Taíno) woman raised in the Midwest by a Puerto Rican mother who had been abandoned by her family.

Growing up, Figueroa struggled to understand her own identity and cultural lineage in the face of pressures to assimilate to mainstream white culture. Writing was—and remains, she says—her way to reconstruct identity and lineage after generations’ worth of silence and oppression. Bringing the concept of ceremony into her work has become a means to open a conversation with her ancestors and future generations.

Figueroa’s approach to memoir as memory is unconventional. Throughout Mother Island, she introduces scene-memories with the important qualifier that she is sometimes an unreliable narrator. While writing a memoir necessitates confronting one’s own memories and examining their accuracy, the process wasn’t straightforward for Figueroa. In the book, for example, she examines how trauma can affect one’s ability to remember, resulting in gaps and frayed memories; writing Mother Island made her grapple with such inaccuracies. Figueroa worked from notebooks she’d kept across 15 years. She also tried to cross-reference a timeline of events with her sister. Neither could remember the experiences clearly.

“Some people might say, ‘Well, then you can’t write a memoir,’” Figueroa says. “But my feeling was, I’m not going to let it stop me from telling my story—it’s an important story to tell.”

Instead of relying only on clear-cut memories, Figueroa arrived at a blended storytelling method that weaves memory with poetry, myth with traditional stories. She also lets her readers know when her memories are thin. This approach speaks to a theme that extends beyond the book’s narrative.

“For those of us who’ve been historically dismembered through colonization,” Figueroa explains, “remembering is part of putting our pieces back together to make a whole.”

And that’s not just on an individual level.

“It’s a larger call to fill yourself out in relation to place, to your cultural ways, to your traditional language, traditional knowledge and the stories of your family if that’s accessible,” she says.

When it’s not, Figueroa posits, you can get creative. In Mother Island, she references myth and folklore to fill out her lived experiences. When her memory falters, she constellates her own experience with an archetypal journey.

“Those of us who have multi-racial, multi-heritage identities, there’s never one box that we fit in,” Figueroa says.

Though the prose in Mother Island veers into what some might call magical realism, Figueroa rejects the term, which she says she sees as a way to minimize or discredit “cultures that are much more multidimensional in how they consider time and reality.”

“Realism is different to each person, and to each racial and ethnic group,” she continues, pointing to the reality that exists for Indigenous communities coping with missing and murdered peoples. “If that’s not your reality, and you’re reading or looking at a piece of art about that, you might be tempted to call it something that minimizes its power just because it’s not your experience.”

Figueroa prefers the term “liminal fiction,” noting: “It’s a true space that exists in between. From dreaming to waking, from one right passage to another, when we’re in the throes of a birth, or of a passing—things bend and warp in ways that go beyond our day to day language.”

On a personal level, Figueroa wrote Mother Island in part to exorcize family stories that had been haunting her fiction. But on a communal level, she says, it’s time to tell more of the stories that re-assemble identities so people can determine how to exist in relation to themselves and each other.

“Historically, what has not been honestly dealt with has festered for so long that it’s coming to every surface,” she says, adding that all of humanity’s current challenges—global pandemic, genocide, climate crisis—are “a call for us to turn towards ourselves in our own context and to consider how we belong and what our own stories are, no matter who you are on the planet; tracing yourself back to groups of people with cultures intact, who had language, stories, poetry and songs that expressed the essence of who they were and what they believed and how they moved in the world.”

This, she says, is invaluable knowledge to better orient ourselves toward imagining the future.

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