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Muertos Daubed with Honey: An Interview with Lyn Di Iorio

Ivelisse Rodriguez

Lyn Di Iorio is a fiction writer, scholar, and author of "Outside the Bones." She is a
professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and City College of New York, teaching
literature and creative writing courses. Ivelissa Rodriguez is the editor of an interview
series of contemporary Puerto Rican writers; below is her latest interview with Di Iorio,
focusing on the various works the author has penned throughout the years. 

Ivelisse Rodriguez: "Outside the Bones," your novel, is touted as the first English
language novel to focus on Palo Monte, an Afro-Caribbean religion that venerates
nature and muertos. Why do you think Santería has made its way into so many English
language works by Latinxs, and not Palo Monte?

Lyn Di Iorio: Ivelisse, thanks for this great question focused on the presence of
Afro-Caribbean religions in "Outside the Bones." While Palo Monte and Santería are very
similar in their veneration of spirits connected to nature, Palo Monte is rooted in the
practice of runaway slaves who worshipped their gods and spirits out in el monte, the
hills and woods where they sought freedom. So when you visit with practitioners of
Palo Monte, even in a NYC apartment, they set up their cauldrons with many soils
and palos—tree branches—to represent the woods in which their ancestors originally
worshipped their gods and spirits. Palo is a bit more focused on the spirits of the dead
and what work they can do for the practitioners. The focus on the muertos can seem
both more rustic and dark than Santería, which is organized around the worship of
major gods/orishas, who have archetypal qualities. Palo has those too, though it’s
often said that Palo—in order to achieve results for the petitioner—will go where
Santería does not, beyond boundaries, even the boundary established by death.

IR: From your novel, Palo Monte seems very powerful—you can call on your
ancestors and nature to aid you. Fina, your protagonist, like many others in fiction and
real life, use Afro-Caribbean religions like Palo Monte and Santería to obtain love.
With all that power at one’s disposal, why do you think so many people turn to these
religions for love?

LDI: I think that sometimes the practices people pick up from Afro-Caribbean
religions can enable a kind of meditative activity. If you light a candle over a picture of
a loved one daubed with honey, for example, your anxious energy gets channeled
positively, and you can, at least momentarily, stop obsessing about whether you have
or don’t have that person’s love. It allows you to do something that focuses all that
pent-up energy. If you learn to do a ritual, which in another context someone might
call a “love spell,” instead of, say, calling someone too many times, you learn how to
refocus your energy and free up your mind a little bit. I think any ritual or practice
that allows you to organize anxious energies and direct them more creatively is
incredibly helpful.

IR: Your story “Her Name Is Guanábana” uses fruits as characters. In this story,
Guanábana is half-tropical fruit and half fruit from Brooklyn, denoting that she is
half-Puerto Rican and (presumably) half-American. Guanábana lives in Puerto Rico
with her grandmother but is rejected by Mango, who is full-tropical fruit. What
intrigues me is that even though Guany is in her homeland, participates in her culture,
and speaks Spanish, thereby displaying the acceptable markers of a national identity,
she is still rejected by Mango for being half-tropical fruit. Can you discuss more this
complexity of being ethnically rejected while having so many identifiers of one’s
national identity, especially while being in one’s homeland?

LDI: In Puerto Rico, as in many places, colonized or not, there have been lots of
nationalistic notions as to who constitutes a real Puerto Rican. My mother is Puerto
Rican, my father is a half-Italian, half-Hungarian Jew from New York. I grew up
completely bilingual on the island and very connected to my mother’s island family.
But there was this idea in my mom’s family and outside of it that I was half-Gringa. I
think these notions of purity and authenticity, based on who your parents are, and the
Hispanic-soundingness of your last name, are limiting and very outdated, and I
struggled with them while growing up. It was often hurtful to feel not authentic
enough no matter how good my Spanish was or how well I understood the culture. In
this story, I dealt with these issues with humor. The idea that mangoes are the most
desired and acceptable Caribbean and Latinx fruit and that guanabanas are thought of
as odd and freakish struck me as funny. I tried to give the fruit characters traits, poke
fun at some stereotypes, and create a conflict between the popular fruit and the less
popular one with a funny, yet hopeful, twist.

IR: In your story “The Girl with Translucent Skin” an abused girl is mistaken for a
ghost because she is so emaciated, and her skin is translucent. The girl was actually a
victim of extreme violence and terror at the hands of Ubén, the narrator’s cousin. The
women in his family, including his mother, have also endured his violence and not
fought back. However, these same women risk themselves to save the translucent girl,
especially Mila who also appears to have been abused by Ubén. Can you discuss more
how the translucent girl serves as an impetus for the other women in the story to fight
back and save themselves when they never attempted to before?

LDI: The arrival of the girl with translucent skin, who at first seems very ghostly to
the girl cousins, is like a wake-up call. Mila herself has been abused by Ubén. They
find her [the translucent girl] in Ubén’s strange room during a time of upside-
downness in the family because there’s just been a hurricane. Mila’s mother, who
usually coddles her son Ubén, has just locked him up in the pantry. So the villain is
kept out of the way until the ending. The girl cousins get her out and spend time with
her. She is the Other who represents them, what happened and could happen to
them. She is the Other to them but also in them, abused and victimized. She is ghostly
in that her subjectivity has been attacked so heavily and for such a long time. In saving
this ghostly girl, the other girls save themselves. The little bit of magical realism in the
story gets dispelled by reality at the end.

IR: What are you working on next, and what do you hope to contribute to Puerto
Rican literature?

LDI: I am working on a novel of dark suspense shortlisted for the Faulkner-Wisdom
novel-in-progress award. I am also working on short stories. I recently finished a story
called “By the River Cibuco,” about a young Puerto Rican girl’s dark coming of age as
Hurricane Maria makes landfall. In the stories I am currently writing, many of which
are set on the island, I hope to paint the complexity, humor and hope of all Puerto
Ricans, especially those facing the most challenging times for the island since 1932,
when Hurricane San Ciprián leveled the island. Back then, the island was in the throes
of recent colonization and the Great Depression, and then it lost all its agricultural