Generational Trauma and Learning to Love in Anna-Marie McLemore’s Wild Beauty

 

“Every woman in this house had inherited it, the same way they had inherited the loss and the broken hearts written into their blood” —Anna-Marie McLemore, Wild Beauty

By Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez

Estrella Nomeolvides refers to her and/or her family as being poison ten times throughout the novel. The Nomeolvides women grow flowers by digging their hands into the earth and allowing the magic inside them to pour out making gardens of the land around them. Generations of Nomeolvides women live in La Pradera, a land that, although owned by the white and affluent Briar family, has its own powers and resentments. The Nomeolvides women ended up at La Pradera after being chased out of other places having been accused of witchcraft and of making men disappear. Now, they can die if they refuse to grow flowers in the land because then the flowers will just grow inside them and they can die if they try to leave La Pradera.

Estrella and her cousins are heirs to the generational trauma born out of a history of displacement and dispossession. For most of the novel, the trauma is associated with the men the land has literally taken from them. They understand this trauma, they might challenge it and refuse it, but, for the most part, they accept it as their burden to bear. The Nomeolvides women are convinced that La Pradera will take whomever they romantically love thus they fear loving someone too hard.

The story is propelled by the cousins’ desire to protect their shared love, Bay Briar. Once they all find out that each one of them is in love with Bay they fear what their collective love might do to her. The cousins bury something special to each of them in the earth in exchange for Bay’s life. It seems to work, but the mysterious appearance of a young man they name Fel forces them to unearth their past and the secrets buried in the land.

Wild Beauty is a novel about the stories, lessons, and warnings that are passed on from one generation of women to the next. The older Nomeolvides women share stories of the other women in their family who have left and have died, who have tried to deny their gifts only to find themselves surrounded by unruly flowers, and of women who have learned not to love as deeply. The sharing of these stories, lessons, and warnings, both in the novel and in real life, is a political act. When women exchange knowledge in this way, it is, among other reasons, for survival’s sake because it is likely that there are larger systemic oppressions that threaten their daily lives—as is the case for the Nomeolvides women. As a result, trauma can also be passed down from one generation of women to the next.

Estrella calls this trauma a poison that runs in the blood of the women in her family. However, when she speaks of the poison as it impacts all of the women, she talks about it in a very transactional way. She says, “Sorrow was a family heirloom, written into their blood like ink on a will” (262). In this quote, and in the epigraph opening this essay, sorrow, loss, and broken hearts connote significant value and exchange. Heirlooms are special and are worth enough to be passed down. Heirlooms are taken care of and cherished so that they may be passed down. Inheriting an heirloom suggests that one has taken over the responsibility of taking care of said heirloom. Wills are a very typical way to exchange the ownership of an heirloom from one party to another. This reading suggests that, at least at some level, Estrella understands that this poison was inflicted on her family and that it wasn’t necessarily a choice.

The idea of the writing in the blood like ink on a will continues to develop in the novel as the cousins fight to take La Pradera from the Briar family and as it’s revealed that the Briar family built an estate over a collapsed quarry where many men died: “They were the immigrants, the underaged, the ones left off the role sheets. And they had been caught [in the quarry], in the ages they had been when they died, freed neither by being found and given burials, nor by their families hearing what had become of them, nor by the truth ever being told” (288). Estrella sees that the contracts, the wills, and the legalese that protected the Briars are fraught. Therefore, if the ink on a will can be challenged, then so can the poison written in the blood. In other words, Estrella realizes that La Pradera took their men not because they are cursed but because their gardens helped to further hide the truth of what had happened on that land. So, at the end, the women are not poison.

This truth, however, does not free Estrella because while she might have settled her family’s inheritance of sorrow, loss, and broken hearts, she is still convinced that she is poison. The narrator says of Estrella: “Her heart was poison. It was a close tangle of thorns. Even when it held love, that love came sharp, and she didn’t know how to offer it to anyone except with the edges out” (285). This particular moment in the novel is as important as it is beautiful because it touches on the realities of what it means to unearth our traumas. In other words, giving names to the trauma, pinpointing their origin, revealing truths about the traumas does not equal closure, peace, or complete healing. Instead, it is often the case that learning truths about our trauma means there’s a lot more self, familial, and community healing left to do. The description of Estrella’s love brought these questions to mind: What do we do when our identity has intertwined with the trauma? What do we do when the truths about the trauma are too much? How do we learn to love when the trauma is ongoing?

Wild Beauty offers two answers to these questions. First, the narrator says of Estrella, “If she apologized for her own heart then she would make it tame, and small. But like this, it was wild, and limitless” (282). At this moment in the novel, the description of Estrella’s heart is about her love for her family, her desire to follow her heart, her heart’s inclination to love men and women, and of her fear of loving too deeply. She won’t apologize for who she is, trauma and all, and she can see that her heart isn’t poison but is instead “wild and limitless.” Her heart is capable of simultaneously holding love and hurt. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Feeling that our heart is full of hurt doesn’t mean that there isn’t any room for love. And, feeling all the love imaginable doesn’t mean we are immune to getting hurt again. The second answer Wild Beauty provides comes toward the end of the novel when the narrator says, “They had to rip out their fate by the roots” (311). Generational trauma doesn’t need to define us or determine our future. It is something that needs to be acknowledged so that we may rip it out and create more possibilities for ourselves.

McLemore creates a wonderful and beautiful world in Wild Beauty. The Nomeolvides women are sincere, and flawed, and complicated. Their desire to love wholeheartedly but being unable to, for whatever reason, will resonate with many readers. The villains are too familiar. The underlying story of exploiting the land for profit, often times at the sake of disenfranchised bodies, is extremely important. The connection that McLemore makes between generational trauma and the land is also significant. At the end, Wild Beauty encourages us to not be afraid to love.

CLICK HERE for an interview with author Anna-Marie McLemore about Wild Beauty.

 

FullSizeRender (1)

Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez teaches composition, literature, and creative writing as an Assistant Professor at LaGuardia Community College in NYC. Her research focuses on Latinx children’s and young adult literature. Follow her on twitter @mariposachula8

 

An Interview with Author Anna-Marie McLemore about Wild Beauty

 

By Cecilia Cackley

Anna-Marie McLemore‘s lush, sensory YA fiction has been a finalist for the William C. Morris Award and won a Stonewall Honor from the American Library Association. Her new book Wild Beauty (releases tomorrow!) takes place in a magical, predatory garden tended by the women of the Nomeolvides family, so it seemed fitting to have our interview about the book take place in a garden. I met up with McLemore at the National Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. to look at the various themed rooms (tropical, desert, poisonous plants etc.) and discuss the plants, characters, and world of Wild Beauty. Here is our conversation, edited for clarity.

Anna-Marie McLemore

Q: Can you talk a little about your inspiration for the character Fel and his story?

Anna-Marie McLemore: Without giving too much away, I’ll say this: I started with his history, where he comes from, his family. And the fact that we sometimes don’t hear the stories of what happens when the farms fail, when the harvest dies, what you do when you’re trying to take care of your loved ones. So that’s one side of it. Another is that there’s a brutal history of child immigrants doing dangerous jobs, jobs that are already dangerous if you’re a grown man, and either the people doing the hiring don’t care or they look the other way. But amid that kind of brutality, there’s also family; I wanted to write characters who were looking out for each other even in a place that doesn’t really want them.

Q: It’s a feature of stories categorized as magical realism that the characters accept magic as simply part of regular life. In what way do the characters in Wild Beauty, both from the family that lives in La Pradera and the surrounding town accept magic as part of their world?

AMM: The way the Nomeolvides women tend these gardens, the ways that they and their loves are cursed, that’s accepted as part of the lore of this town. But this book is also about what you get made into by rumor; there’s so much talk about these women, everybody else trying to decide what the truth of them is. In response to all that, the Nomeolvides women become their own community. They make their own space. And I think that’s threatening to many watching them from the outside. But it’s how the women push back against the way people see them as a sideshow attraction, how visitors expect them to perform, to entertain.

Q: And we see that a lot in the real world.

AMM: We do.

Anna-Marie and Cecilia at a poisonous plants exhibit at the National Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C.

Q: That people who are from marginalized populations—that happens to them more, that if you are not the majority you’re accepted but only in as much as you provide entertainment or only in as much as you can be exploited.

AMM: Exactly, you have a role that you’re expected to play.

Q: How did you choose the flower names for each of the girls?

AMM:  I chose the flowers based on how I pictured these women. Maybe it would have been easier to go for the flower names first and then build the character but I started the other way around. I imagined each girl and then thought, “What is her flower? What is she growing?”

Q: Does the family ever repeat flower names?

AMM: They probably can have the same flower as a relative, but I think, unfortunately, things go so badly for so many of these women that they’re reluctant to repeat names. In this family, repeating a name is, in a sense, to pass on that woman’s legacy.

Q: La Pradera, the magical garden setting is so vivid and distinct. If it had a soundtrack, what sort of music would be on it?

AMM: Because the women living on La Pradera are so different, the gardens’ soundtrack would cover a range—some Lila Downs, Iron & Wine, Poe, Madi Diaz, Wailin Jennys, and some contemporary classical like Einaudi.

Q: If you had a flower name like the characters in this book, which would you choose?

AMM: I love the name Rosa, but in a family of women who grow flowers, I’m not sure I’d want the pressure of being the one who grows roses! I also love lilacs, so I might choose Lila. Then again, after our trip through the dangerous plants exhibit, maybe something like Belladona…

Q: What kind of flower books did you use in your research? Are there books that you would recommend (fiction or non-fiction) to readers who also love flowers?

AMM: Though La Pradera is very much fictional, I based the botany of the estate on a botanical garden in western Canada, so my go-to books were twin volumes called Annuals of British Columbia and Perennials of British Columbia. Both were invaluable references. To readers who love flowers, I recommend checking out a book about the botany of where you live. If you live in a place that has drought, you can learn which plants survive, which are drought-resistant. If you live somewhere with heavy rain, you learn which plants anchor into hillsides so they’re not washed away. Having that kind of interaction with your own landscape, learning the incredible things that are happening under the ground, there’s magic in that.

Q: I know you’ve talked about how you love to visit botanical gardens, which inspired La Pradera. Which gardens would you recommend people try and visit?

AMM: Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia was a huge inspiration, both in its scope and its beautiful detail. Huntington Library in Los Angeles, in addition to being a museum of books and paintings, has spectacular gardens based on different landscapes. For something closer to home, I recommend local parks, which often have gardens ranging from small and meticulous to wide and sprawling. And the grounds around capitol buildings. The capitol in California, for instance, I think has one of every tree that grows in the state.

I also really like this one [National Botanic Garden in DC] because it’s part garden and part museum; the plants are carefully labeled and there’s so much information posted. And I loved getting to meet up with you here! Thanks for taking me through the orchids and desert gardens and all the gorgeous plants here!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anna-Marie McLemore was born in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and grew up in a Mexican-American family. She attended University of Southern California on a Trustee Scholarship. A Lambda Literary Fellow, she has had work featured by the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, CRATE Literary Magazine’s cratelitCamera Obscura’s Bridge the Gap Series, and The Portland Review. She is the author of The Weight of Featherswhich was a Morris Award finalist, When the Moon was Oursa 2017 Stonewall Honor book, and Wild Beauty, which has earned starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and School Library Journal.

 

Cecilia Cackley is a performing artist and children’s bookseller based in Washington, DC, where she creates puppet theater for adults and teaches playwriting and creative drama to children. Her bilingual children’s plays have been produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and her interests in bilingual education, literacy, and immigrant advocacy all tend to find their way into her theatrical work. You can find more of her work at www.witsendpuppets.com.