Published On: Mon, Jul 11th, 2016

“Dancing with the Tiger” to hit bookstores tomorrow!

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The origins of my novel, Dancing with the Tiger, which Penguin Random House publishes tomorrow Tuesday July 12, dates back twenty years to San Miguel de Allende, where I lived for a year in the mid-90s.

At the time, I had no idea that one day I would write a novel. I did know that I was happy in San Miguel. Every day when I strolled past the pink Parroquia, I gave thanks that I lived in such a beautiful place.

In her seminal essay “Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion describes the thrill being young in New York City. “I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.”

This is how I felt in San Miguel when I arrived, alone, at age 31, and moved into a studio apartment on Recreo Street. A reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune, I had won a journalism grant to study Spanish and write for nine months. For a young woman originally from New England, Mexico was an endless pageant of sensory delights, and the residents of San Miguel—Mexican and American—fascinated me.

Anything could happen and often did. I wrote a story about the 1994 election of Ernesto Zedillo, how calm the city was, disproving dire predictions of violence and chaos. I went to John Fulton’s last bullfight and interviewed him. Fulton was the first American to qualify as a matador in Spain, a practically impossible feat. At 61, he was stocky, arrogant, and proud.

I won a bad Hemingway contest and got a free meal at El Pegaso. I spent hundreds of dollars sending and receiving faxes from La Conexión, because faxes were the most reliable connection to life back home. The Internet did not exist. Cell phones were rare. Landlines cost the moon. I watched my boyfriend run with the bulls. I competed in a road race and finished second-to-last. My Spanish tutor shook his head in sympathy, “Some people were not built to run.”

Most days, I traveled with teenagers from Centro para los Adolescentes de San Miguel de Allende (CASA) out into the countryside to watch them teach sex education. While chickens pecked about, teenagers drew female anatomy on giant sketch pads and led discussions on reproductive rights. Education was essential in these communities. When asked how many children they planned to have, women replied with resignation, “as many as God sends.” The year I was there, Nadine Goodman built a maternity hospital, a stunning facility where midwives delivered babies in a serene, private setting.

I wanted to write a magazine piece about CASA, but could never pull it together, a failure that haunted me for years, especially after I read the front-page Wall Street Journal story published in February 2000, the piece I should have written. Indeed, when I left San Miguel, I felt I had unfinished business in Mexico.

A decade later, I finally returned for a sabbatical in Oaxaca—this time with my husband and two children. It was a hard year. The annual teachers’ strike escalated into a violent conflict with the corrupt governor who sent in troops. The zocolo was all but closed down with protests and tear gas. Buses were burned. Roads blocked. An American filmmaker was shot dead. Closer to home, my husband contracted hepatitis and spent two months in bed, his eyes yellow with jaundice. Our plumbing was constantly broken. Our housekeeper robbed us. When we staggered home, I thought I was done with Mexico for good.

But I wasn’t done. I was ready to write. The novel I dreamed of would include everything I had seen and felt about Mexico, a tense story with dashes of beauty and magical realism, a journey of self-discovery combined with violence, sex, and color.

“There is more color on one Mexican street than in all of New England,” the book’s heroine Anna thinks at one point. “I belong in this place where I do not belong.”

dancing with the tiger

Many of the novel’s images date back to Oaxaca, though there are bits of San Miguel woven in as well. My friend once told me a terrible story about a man she knew who had been buried in the bathtub after a drug deal went south. I used this story. I weaved in my memory about overly friendly artist who invited me to look at his newspaper clippings. The book is dedicated to my two best friends from San Miguel, Sara Martinez and Laila Sandoval, and I named my fictional Mexican painter after the first person I met, Salvador, a young Mexican painter.

Other images came from our year in Oaxaca. The swimming pool that turns green from neglect. The loyal housekeeper who is asked to bring her own toilet paper to work. The crone muttering by the chain fence. The cabins in the mountains with glass roofs. The small-town mayor making windy speeches before Carnival dances begin, urging everyone to buy iguana tacos. The rancher who climbed on a bus with a dead chicken in a cage.

As every writer knows, you can’t fit it all in. When I read over old notes, I am amazed by how many details never found a place in the story. How can any book capture Mexico in its brilliance and complexity, its humor and sensuality, its despair and its faith? One must read many books for that. I hope that my novel forms part of the rich literature about the country I consider my second home.

Here’s one true story that would never work in fiction. No one would believe it.

I met the man I would marry on a street corner in San Miguel. We chatted for 15 minutes. He invited me to a party. I didn’t go—and didn’t see him again until three years later when he walked into my class at Columbia University’s writing program. Neither of us remembered meeting the other. He asked me out. I didn’t go.  Two years later, I ran into him on Broadway. We played tennis. The third time is the charm. – 30 –

by Lili Wright

liliw@depauw.edu

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