|Last month’s release of her second novel, “Bitter Grounds” (Hyperion), continues her 17-year journey from creative writing courses in night school to a place among rising Latina novelists. Along the way, she has rediscovered her roots and exorcised some demons that had haunted her for decades. Not bad for someone who started her career at a time when most people are starting to think about retirement.
Author Isabel Allende says:”Bitter Grounds” is” the kind of book that fills your dreams for weeks.” Poet and novelist Demetria Martinez has called it “a major contribution to the literature of America”. It recalls the author’s childhood as the daughter of a foreign diplomat in El Salvador, one of Latin America’s most politically and economically polarized countries. The story traces the parallel lives of two families through three generations. One of the families is privileged, like Benitez’s; the other is poor, like the family of servants Benitez’s father employed. “I knew something was wrong (when I was growing up), but I didn’t know what”, Benitez recalled recently.” you’re so young you didn’t know. But you had to be unconscious or a dummy not to know that these disparities were too huge”.
The historically accurate tale begins in 1932 on the eve of “La Matanza”, a bloody weeklong military rampage that resulted in the massacre of 30,000 mostly unarmed peasants. It ends with the outbreak of kidnapping and political violence on the eve of full-fledged civil war in the late 1970’s, the last time Benitez visited the country. For much of the book, the two families share the same house. Yet their experience remain so unequal that, in retrospect, El Salvador’s march to a revolution seems not only unavoidable but just. Still, Benitez insists that the book is not political. If it leads the reader to certain conclusions…well, she says, those conclusions are the reader’s alone.
“This is not a book that takes sides,” Benitez asserted over lunch at a Salvadoran restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. As she spoke, Salvadoran-born waitresses and busboys scurried about beneath tourist posters showing their homeland’s inviting beaches and enchanting volcanoes. Many of these people are here because of the revolution: During the 12 years between the outbreak of civil war and the signing of the peace accords in 1992, nearly half a million Salvadorans fled to Los Angeles to escape the fighting, which at its height claimed 800 victims a day.
Part of the reason that I wrote the book was to explain it to myself Que paso en El Salvador? Why did this tragedy occur in El Salvador? She learned that there is not answer. Her book points to the ultimate futility of seeking peace through violence. In one of its most gripping passages, a botched guerilla kidnapping (based loosely on the real-life kidnapping of Benitez’s Salvadoran brother in-law) results in several deaths all for no apparent gain. “Nothing good happens” Benitez said, “That is the conundrum of El Salvador. That is the tragedy of El Salvador” That Benitez is writing about anything at all-much less as a monumental a subject as the tragedy of El Salvador-is partly testament to her tenacity and partly to the result of an almost off-handed decision. In 1979, seeking a break from her day job of translating management training manuals, she signed up for an extension school course in creative writing.” I wasn’t thinking of writing novels,” she recalls” Never. It was recreation”.
Every Tuesday night, she met with nine other recreation-seekers in a spartan room at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Minnetonka, Minn., or at the Hopkins Middle School in nearby Edina, to listen as children’s author Marion Dane Bauer lectured on the process of writing. Inspired Benitez began turning out short stories and slice-of-life vignettes. Bauer encouraged her to keep at it, so Benitez quit her job.
Economizing, her family got by on her husband’s salary while she dedicated herself fully to her new hobby. About three years later she had produced a book-length murder mystery. The manuscript earned her an invitation to the prestigious Breadloaf Writers conference in Vermont, but the reception it got there it was as harsh as the Minnesota winter. Crushed by the criticism, Benitez slunk back to Edina, hid the manuscript under her bed and turned her attention to short stories, a format she found more welcoming. Soon, her fiction and essays were appearing in such journals as “The Chariton Review’ and “A view from the Loft” and were winning a number of honors and grants, including a Loft-McKnight Award of Distinction.
Still, after every awards ceremony, she would climb into bed aware that literally on the floor beneath her was the manuscript of her only novel, a work that even she had to come to regard as “terrible”. It was almost as though its failure was mocking her. Then she had an idea. She had written her novel under her maiden name, Sandy Ables. Maybe a new name adds panache. She changed the Sandy to Sandra and adopts her Puerto Rican mother’s surname. The effect was starling.” I found out who I was. Everything changed when I started Latino fiction”. She had long identified with her father, an outgoing native of Missouri. She had even set her failed mystery in Missouri, where she had attended high school and college. Her mother’s background was more enigmatic.
Sandra Benitez had spent much of her early life denying who she was. Born to a respectable Puerto Rican family of lawyers and educators, she left the island at the age of 8 after a tropical storm wiped out her father’s coffee farm. The family eventually resettled in New York but because of racism there they rarely talk about their background. Simply by changing her signature from Sandy Ables to Sandra Benitez, the author found that a whole new world-her mother’s hidden world- seemed to open up to her.” I started writing about the kind of thing that was deep inside me” Her first published novel -the brief but intricately woven ” A Place Where The Sea Remembers”-tells of love, anger, hope and tragedy with such passions that it won comparisons to the work of Laura Esquivel and Sandra Cisneros.
Benitez currently is under contract for two more books in the next three years. But she thinks the most important book she will ever write sits gathering dust under her bed in Edina, Minn.” “I just keep it there to remind me that not everything is successful,” she says,” The most important thing to do is write”
Los Angeles Times, Oct. 28 ’97. By Kevin Baxter