Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa

Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa is an American writer who was born in Puerto Rico and later moved to New York City.

Quotes

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A Woman of Endurance (2022)

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  • I couldn't write my stories without the constant presence of my ancestors who await me in my dreams and my meditations, whispering their stories and reminding me of what I have forgotten. This book is dedicated to them because their stories have lived for too long under the waters of the Caribbean, unrecognized and in imposed silence.
    Let there be light to illuminate as-yet-to-be-told truths.
    • Dedication
  • This new woman is a mystery. To be black and a slave is to live wounded. To be black and a slave and be born in this place is to know nothing but darkness. To be a bozal, black, and a slave, who remembers the time before, is to carry a double wound, living in the darkness while constantly remembering the light. This warrior woman is wounded, lost, and still struggling against the dark. The light, not yet gone, flickers in her eyes. Interesting... (p28)
  • "Your body is only a vessel. Your essence is inviolate. It is only when you give up your soul that you are lost."
  • “We all carry our nightmares in unspoken places. The details are different, but the outcome is the same. They want to steal our humanity, to ease the weight into their own souls. Don’t you let them. Don’t give them one piece of you they can’t take. Don’t you become the empty vessel they want to believe you are.”
  • “Remember the time before the hurting, for that’s where the healing lives. Find the joy of the before and know you can find it again. You have a big heart and there are many paths to healing.”
  • “When are you going to see that the only way we can carry our burdens is to share them?”
  • Pola closed her eyes. She thought about all that had already been taken from her; her lovely fingers, her teeth, her body, her untouched womanhood, her laughter. But they hadn't taken everything. She clung to her faith, her soul, and her secret-the seed she knew was growing deep within her.
  • The babble that rose around them as they stood on the pier was deafening. It sounded like no speech Pola had ever heard, the words, jagged, grating sounds that attacked the ear.
  • (How did Daughters of the Stone come to being?) It evolved over a long period of time for many reasons. One important reason was the absence of authentic stories about Afro-Puerto Ricans in American literature. I wanted to tell our stories, our way. When I started, I thought I was going to write memoir. Very soon it became evident that I would need the freedom of fiction to include the many stories that had not been told. It wasn't about me. It was about a whole group of people who had been erased from our national dialogue.
  • I don't map out my novels. I go where my characters take me. In Daughters of the Stone, I wanted to explore how the past acts as a foundation for supporting the present and building towards the future. I also wanted to explore art, and especially storytelling, as healing and guiding mechanisms in our society.
  • Being a daughter of very strong Afro-Puerto Rican rural women, I could never understand the stereotype of the submissive, defeated woman who had no options and no power. I was surrounded by monumentally powerful and talented women who never got a chance to showcase their potential outside their homes and their communities. I got a good taste of it as a child in my South Bronx community. When I was sent to Puerto Rico during my formative years, ties to the past were solidified and I had a better understanding of where I came from and what gifts had been bequeathed to me. Those women who came before me didn't have the option of sharing their stories in public, but thanks to their sacrifices, I could, and I do share the stories with a much broader audience. Writing gave me a vehicle for bringing readers into the world I grew up in.
  • In a world where families are suddenly and inexplicably separated, where life and death can come at any time, the community holds continuity and safety.
  • The enslaved community has no material wealth, not even having ownership of their own bodies. They can lose their children, their homes, their very lives. They often lose their physical abilities which is the measure of their only value in their masters' eyes. But their spiritual beliefs and inherent gifts sustain them. They cling to that which cannot be taken away and that gives them the strength to overcome all that they have lost. Spirituality and memory are the bedrock of their existence. Storytelling is the conduit for passing on those qualities that will allow them to endure.
  • When physical reality becomes unbearable, then an alternative is needed. My characters don't escape from objective reality, they simply exist in a more complex worldview than is the norm in the world they are forced to inhabit. Their perception of the world goes beyond that of the Western imaginary. Whether you call it magic or mysticism or religion or spirituality, it is that which binds the characters and allows for their survival in spite of the violence of their lives.
  • My writing begins with dreaming, journaling and meditation.
  • (What advice do you have to give to budding writers?) Read, read, read. Read everything and pay attention. What works for you? What doesn't? Decide which writers you love and learn from what they put on paper. Equally important, find those you don't love and learn what not to do.
  • I love the African proverb “you’ll never know what happened on the hunt until you speak to the lion.” I think many readers realize that, for the most part, the story we have gotten has been from the perspective of the conquerors. That is why is it so important for us to tell our own stories. What we have been taught has been distorted, one-sided, self-serving, and incomplete, at best. I think readers are thirsty for another narrative, one that feels more authentic and truthful.
  • I trust my readers to make the connections that interest them. I am a fiction writer and therefore, I have a lot of latitude. I can bend time, moving historical events like natural disasters from one decade to another, in the service of my narrative. Some interpret my work as being grounded in the Latin American school of magical realism. That’s fine. Practitioners of traditional African religions recognize themselves in the symbology of my work. That’s fine too.
  • We need to keep telling this story, and many others, because they explain who and how and why we are here today. The problematic part of these stories is not that we have had centuries of suffering and trauma. The problem is that the storytellers, usually not us, have told only half of the tale. Yes, we have been enslaved, abused, and violated. But, more importantly, we have, not just survived, not just endured, but thrived. We found a way where there was no way.
  • In my experience, Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets was the first novel that addressed the existence of the Afro-Boricua in the U.S., and it was an incredible achievement at that time. But even with all its merits, that novel represented one version of our reality. The totality of the Afro-Puerto Rican life experience and community, like any other cultural group, went much further and was a much more complicated construct than could be addressed in one novel. I found that, in general, the black characters created by the media were treated as addendum rather than central figures. Theirs was a world of supplementary existence rather than one of primary agency or universal humanity. The media images of Latinos were olive-skinned, stereotypical, and absent of any of the dignity and humanity of the world I saw around me. I wanted to break that stereotype and start from the beginning, in Africa, because I wanted to write about the entire journey of my people from West Africa to colonial Puerto Rico to urban America.
  • My intent was, and continues to be, giving face and voice to a community that has been, at worst, silenced or, at best, ignored. Recent episodes in our history make that erasure crystal clear.
  • My characters’ strength, whether in private or public spaces, comes from community and from the overriding faith and inner fortitude that comes from African religion and traditions. This belief system informs their daily lives and is the core of the endurance that has helped them survive through the brutality of enslavement. For instance, the presence and guidance of the ancestors is integral to their faith. This system of belief supersedes their daily reality of violence and limited agency. They share their belief with their black communities, and in this way, the private belief system becomes public. But beyond that, white characters begin to gravitate towards that system when their own fails them.

Interview (2015)

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In Latina Authors and Their Muses edited by Mayra Calvani

  • (Writing motto:) "You'll never know what happened in the hunt until the lion's story."
  • I came from an Afro-Puerto Rican middle class family that was hard-working and very proud of its heritage and personal accomplishments. So the images of Puerto Rican gangsters, loose women and heroin addicts that were paraded in the media had nothing to do with my reality. Some of our people did lead those lives, but they weren't the majority in my community. The negative images that were ascribed to us all incensed the adults in my life who were too busy providing for their families to raise a potent political voice. As I grew older, I realized that the stereotypes were not just offensive but dangerous as well. Regardless of my experience, those images persisted, shaping the cultural perceptions of my community. I still meet people who can't believe I'm Puerto Rican because I speak English so well or, as I was told lately, insist that I couldn't possibly be Puerto Rican because Puerto Ricans are white. Those stereotypes and racist caricatures are out there still. It's my job to keep creating new and authentic images for our community.
  • Coming from a traditional Puerto Rican family, I wasn't allowed to express my displeasure at or disagreement with my parents' point of view in any meaningful way. Since I couldn't 'talk back', I started writing.
  • Eventually, I came to understand how liberating fiction would be. I would be free to let my imagination soar. I could include the stories of my family and add to the many stories I was given by friends and students who shared their lives with me as well. Fiction gave me the freedom to adjust, invent, build bridges, raise my figurative voice and superimpose a structure on the images I had been collecting all along. It gave me permission to omit the extraneous and sharpen the essential. I could inhabit my characters' thoughts, explore their innermost feelings and tell their stories from various perspectives. I could experiment with language, both English and Spanish, using the rich vernacular of my youth, in both the Bronx and rural Puerto Rico, creating a bilingual, bicultural, biracial world. I had a whole set of tools at my disposal that would allow me to tell many stories my way. In fact, I could write metaphorical narrative of the Afro-Puerto Rican journey from 19th century Africa to colonial Puerto Rico to contemporary urban America, something I knew had never been done in American letters. In a sense, I could become the storyteller for all of them, a modern day griot of Afro-Puerto Rican tradition. For years, I had been a receptor, collecting stories and holding them in trust. Now I knew why. Seeing my work within the framework of narrative fiction, was like pushing aside a curtain and seeing the world for the first time. Writing this novel became my primary goal.
  • If fiction gave me the freedom to create on a grand scale, meditation gave me a compass to navigate my story.
  • If you can put your ego aside, rejection can help you grow a very thick skin, which you will need to defend your creative universe. Chances are that no publisher is holding his breath waiting for your work to make him immensely rich. There are too many variants in the publishing world and most of us don't have the juice to command instant literary stardom. If you do, that's fabulous. Congratulations. But for the rest of us, we'll need to be strong and believe in our vision enough to withstand the naysayers.
  • Like most of us, emerging writers will only succeed through hard work and the humility to accept that they don't have all the answers. My advice is this: read, read, read. The artists who came before you worked really hard, paid their dues and solved problems as they went along. Some of them died never having received the honors they so merited. You have the benefit of their work. Study them. How did they create believable and compelling characters? How can you tell a story when your narrator is unreliable? How can the setting enhance the lives of the characters you have created? How do you choose which details to include and which to omit? How can you find fresh and evocative language? These are all important questions when writing your story. Don't try to reinvent the wheel when there is so much help out there if you only learn from those who took this journey before you. Instead, study them carefully, decide what you like and don't about every novel you read. And keep writing and keep reading. In the process you will find your own voice and, perhaps, become the next new literary genius.
  • If you aren't willing to fight for your work, no one else will either. If you feel you have an important story to tell, you have to be willing to go to the wall for it. That said, no one is perfect or infallible. All writers, no matter how successful, have much to learn. The day we believe we have nothing more to learn is the day we start stagnating. It's important to find people who understand your universe and support your vision. It's important to keep honing your craft, keep growing with the changing times. It is as important to listen as it is to raise your voice.
  • I really believe there are no coincidences. I have learned to trust intuition and watch for the paths that open in my journey.

Daughters of the Stone (2009)

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  • These are the stories. My stories, their stories—just as they were told to my mother and her mother and hers. They were given to me for safekeeping, and now I give them to you. (first lines, Prologue)
  • Like a primeval wave, these stories have carried me, and deposited me on the morning of today. They are the stories of how I came to be who I am, where I am. (p14)
  • “...We all have stories. Sometimes the pain lies so heavily inside us that it can only be whispered. Sometimes it can't be spoken out loud at all. So you think you're different? There are many silences. You've got one kind but each of us has her own. Listen and you will hear them all around you...You're not alone in your pain, never have been. We're all part of each other's pain and can be a part of each other's healing too. But when you clutch on to the first, you'll miss out on the second.” (p19)
  • "Nightmares are for people who refuse to listen to their hearts. People who have lost their way, who are hollow. Fear slips into those hollow places. It is the very emptiness that draws the fear." (p164)
  • “What you’ll be left with in the end will sustain you much more than any illusion you may have brought with you. Because here in addition to all the problems of poverty, political intrigue, corruption, jealousy, and sociological and historical denial, you’ll also find familia, respeto, dignidad, amor, trabajo, cariño. And yes, you will find racism, alive and well, just like you left it up north.” (p297)
  • Don’t forget that the artist still has to be a woman. Nourish them both. (p317)
  • I want you to soar. I want you to go out and find your path and create your own story. (p321)

Quotes about Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa

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  • Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa’s novels are as necessary to Puerto Rican literature as rice and beans are to the Puerto Rican diet. A Woman of Endurance should be taught as both history and literature of las Americas; it cements Llanos-Figueroa as an urgent and critical voice for our times. Her rigorous and compassionate attention to the human experience of the horrific legacy of enslaved Black people in Puerto Rico is a triumph for literature, Puerto Rican and otherwise, and a testament to the enduring spirit of human beings.
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