Melissa Rivero on Family, God and Praying for Quiet
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story. Today I’m going to start with a quote from Night by Elie Wiesel:
“For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
I recently talked about God, family, and bearing witness with today’s guest .
Melissa Rivero: I’m Melissa Rivero and I’m a writer.
WS: Melissa Rivero is a novelist and lawyer. Her book, The Affairs of the Falcóns, follows an undocumented Peruvian woman making her way in America. Melissa graduated from New York University and Brooklyn Law School. In 2015, she was an Emerging Writers Fellow at the Center for Fiction.
MR: I grew up in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in the 80s at a time when Greenpoint was not, you know, the fun place to be that it kind of is now. There weren’t any Michelin star restaurants in my neighborhood when I was growing up. My parents and I had come from Peru. We were undocumented and they worked a lot. I had my two younger brothers. My parents often juggled two or three jobs at a time. And so the older I got, the more time I spent home with my brothers while they worked.
WS: What kinds of jobs were your parents juggling?
MR: My mother worked in a factory for awhile during the week. And then on weekends she would work at a catering hall in Astoria. My dad was a cab driver for a little bit, but he mostly worked as a janitor.
WS: Melissa had to grow up quickly to help her family find their foothold in America.
MR: It’s funny, I don’t really think about myself as a child. I don’t know if I, maybe it is a little sad, but I don’t know if I ever really had a childhood. I was always interpreting things from my parents, being their voice in many ways because they didn’t speak the language, reading things for them. So I was very serious as a child and very studious. My parents were immigrants and they were very much like, we came here for you, kind of, have to make the best of yourself here. And they had very high expectations of me. So if I ever brought home a 100 percent on a test, it was like—well, why didn’t you get the bonus points?—kinda thing. I was very diligent and I don’t know if I knew how to have fun. I think that’s something that I’m still learning even now as an adult.
WS: Her parents sought refuge in their religion.
MR: I went to a Catholic school. My parents were uncomfortable with the public school in my neighborhood at the time and I think they were afraid that, you know, immigration might come and take me kind of thing. So they felt more comfortable with me being in a Catholic school. My mother wasn’t super religious, but my father was. He wanted to make sure that I grew up as Catholic as possible. I wouldn’t go to bed at night without a prayer, so we would always say the Our Father and the Hail Mary in Spanish. Those were the two prayers that my father insisted that I say, and he would, you know, stand next to me and like I was on the top bunk of the bunk bed and we would recite the prayers, and then he would ask me, well, what else do you want to pray for? And I would pray for my mom and my dad and my brothers and my grandparents who I couldn’t remember who were still in Peru.
WS: Would you pray for anything specific for yourself?
MR: No, not as a kid. When I became a teenager and when I was a young adult, I would pray. I would pray for things that I wanted. But I remember I would also pray for the quiet, just some quiet time.
WS: So what did quiet mean to you when you later prayed for quiet? What did that look like in your mind?
MR: It looked like the time right between bedtime and sleep when the house was about to fall asleep, basically. I liked that period of silence and darkness where I could listen to what I thought was a voice inside me that I couldn’t, that I needed to amplify, that it felt like a whisper and it couldn’t quite…I needed it to boom.
WS: She wanted her inner voice to match the loud, spirited sounds of her upbringing.
MR: We didn’t have any family here, but we had family in the sense that like the Peruvian community was small, but it was intimate and we all knew each other. Probably around the time I was 12 or 13, my mother and my dad had parties every weekend at our apartment. Every weekend it was salsa, merengue, papa a la huancaina, ceviche, arroz verde…it was just, she just cooked and cooked and cooked and she would cook sometimes starting Thursday night for the parties that were happening on Saturday. It was a lot of fun.
WS: You liked the party?
WS: Did you dance?
MR: Yes, but I think what I liked the most was watching my parents dance.
WS: Were you a reader?
MR: Yes. The first book I remember reading that I loved was Ms. Nelson is Missing. It’s a book about a teacher who is trying to get her students under control in the classroom and they misbehave and so they get a substitute teacher, Ms. Viola Swamp, who sort of is very strict and makes them do their homework, gives them tons of things to do in the classroom. And then they go in search of Ms. Nelson—they don’t know what happened to her—so they hire this detective to go look for her and then at the end it turns out…she comes back and Ms. Viola Swamp and Ms. Nelson are one and the same. I mostly saw myself as a writer though. My parents just had so many stories. I think a part of it was them trying to keep and preserve some of the things that they left behind in Peru. We didn’t have anyone, they didn’t have any family here. And we didn’t go back for probably eight or nine years until after we got our green cards.What I liked most was watching my parents dance.
WS: What kind of stories did they tell you?
MR: My father would tell me stories about his dad, who was a shoemaker, or a cobbler in Peru, and how he was also sort of like the town curandero, or witch doctor. So people would come to him with ailments and he would say prayers or he would prepare concoctions for them, salves and whatnot. He was just telling me stories about a skull that my grandfather had that he had inherited from an uncle or something. That’s what he used to sort of bring up: the ghosts or the magic that he needed to do his work. My mother would tell me about her brother, who was electrocuted, and how he saw himself on the other side and was told he had to come back. I ended up, you know, writing some of those stories down, like imagining them. And I remember winning a couple of awards when I was a kid for writing some of these stories.
WS: Were you thinking about and aware of your family’s immigration status?
MR: The same way I knew that I was hungry, I knew I was undocumented. I remember one time my mom came home because there had been a raid at her factory and she was told not to go there to avoid it. Once someone came to our apartment looking for someone else in the building, but it was immigration. So I knew that there was always a possibility that I could be separated from my parents or my brothers.
WS: But it would be a different kind of tragedy that would blindside Melissa, and plant a seed of doubt into her mind.
MR: When I was 15, one of my classmates died in a ski accident, and then Night landed on the curriculum…
WS: Night is an autobiographical book by Elie Wiesel about surviving the Holocaust.
MR: …and I read it and there was a passage in there. I remember there’s a scene where we’re watching a young boy die and someone who’s witnessing asks, where is God? And I think that that was the first time that I saw that question in writing and it made me think, well, where is God?
WS: Soon, that question would become even more pressing. Melissa’s family faces a devastating diagnosis. The way that Elie Wiesel questions the existence of God in Night helped Melissa Rivero as she grappled with the religion in which she was raised.
MR: Night in particular spoke to me because up until then I had known God and Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary to be sort of the go-to when you’re suffering or when there’s trouble. Like those are the, those are the folks that you pray to for help. So I didn’t question the existence of God and didn’t question that God and the saints would always be there for me to lean on in case anything ever happens in my life. I didn’t really begin to question it honestly. I mean, I started to question it, but it didn’t come to the forefront until my father got sick, which was about 12 years later.
WS: And you were how old at the time? And he was how old?
MR: I was 27 and he was 59. He had been diagnosed with stage four gallbladder cancer. And seeing him go through that illness was probably the most difficult thing that I’ve had to experience. And he prayed and prayed and I kept trying to tell him and telling my mom like, no amount of praying is going to take away this illness. And even knowing that, I still tried to. I still tried to pray to Saint Jude, to Saint Therese, to my homie Jesus, like, please, make my dad’s cancer go away. And then eventually those prayers turned into, please don’t let him suffer anymore.
WS: Did he talk with you during that period about his faith and about how it was helping him with his illness?
MR: Yeah, he really believed that he would go to sleep and wake up to his parents. That’s really what he believed. When we emigrated, my father didn’t know when he was his parents again and he ended up not seeing his father. His father died before we had the papers to go back and his mother got sick and he was able at least to go back for her funeral. So I remember my father crying about losing his dad, obviously. And I didn’t really, I didn’t know the impact of it until I saw him dying. He really firmly believes that. At least he could see his mom and dad again. And that gave him hope. That then made things, I think, somewhat more bearable. I remember he held the doctor’s hands and he just said, thank you. I want to go home. And that was actually joyous; he was coming home.And he prayed and prayed and I kept trying to tell him and my mom, no amount of praying is going to take away this illness.
WS: Her father’s illness forced Melissa to reevaluate her life’s work.
MR: I was a corporate associate in one of these white shoe law firms and the hours were grueling. My father was sick, so there were times where I would go to the hospital at like 10 or 11[pm], stay the night with him, get up, go to the gym across the street from my office, shower, and then go back to work. But after my dad passed away, I couldn’t do that job anymore and I had to do some of that really hard work of trying to figure out, well, who am I? What do I want from my life? How do I turn that whisper into something more?
WS: Her family rooted for her as she learned to embrace uncertainty.
MR: My family had sort of an intervention. My brothers, my mom, my husband, my sister, my sister in law, they were in a room and they were like, you need to leave the law firm. My mother had called it a gilded cage. She’s like, you just can’t be in there.
WS: Were you able to find that quiet time that you had prayed for as a child?
MR: I did. I took essentially a leave from my job and then went back to doing some of the things that I loved. I took a writing class. I wrote a lot. I took dance classes, you know, I just got back into my body.
WS: What kind of dance?
MR: Belly dance, which was a lot of fun and challenged me in ways that I didn’t realize that I needed to be challenged.
WS: What books did you read during that period?
MR: I read Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban, which I remember identifying with that one character Celia so much, you know, because she was also a girl from Brooklyn whose parents were from a different country kind of trying to figure out who she was. I read Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa because I felt like I needed Peru in many ways.
WS: She began to engage more deeply with her memories of Peru and her parents’ complex relationship with the country.
MR: I remember once, I think it was my trip when I was nine years old, I was with my aunt and there was an explosion across the street from her university. And it was late in the evening. She and I were there and she grabbed me and we just rolled underneath the table when a cochabamba, or like a van, had exploded a couple of blocks away. So after that my mom started talking about, we have to be careful about Sendero, and all of that.
WS: Sendero or Sendero Luminoso translates to the Shining Path and is the name of Peru’s revolutionary communist party, and is widely condemned as a terrorist organization.
MR: And whenever we would go to Peru, it was like, just don’t speak English. Our sneakers were always like the oldest sneakers, the oldest pair that you have. We bought clothes from Lima. So we would never wear things that we bought here in the States. But she wouldn’t talk about some of the things that I knew were happening, like one of my aunts joined Sendero. She wouldn’t talk about her. When we were in Pucallpa, I think it was in 1992 maybe, there had been bullet holes. Oh no, it was 1989. There were bullet holes in my grandmother’s walls, but we wouldn’t talk about those bullet holes.
WS: Melissa began to fill in the holes of her mother’s story with her own imagination until she’d created entire characters, like Anna.
MR: It started with, Oh, I wonder what it would’ve felt like to have been her. I wonder what it would have been like to be in her shoes. And so I started, it started with the scene and then I just loved the character. I loved Anna and I was like, I wonder what the rest of her story looks like? And then I wrote another scene and I just kept writing scenes and discovering her world and her characters.
WS: Lessons she took from Night stay with her as a writer, a mother and engaged citizen.
MR: It lives in my mind as like this marker of like from this point on you have permission to question. And I want it to remain that. I sometimes wonder, if I reread it would change that relationship with it? But I want it to remain that for me. I remember that scene so vividly, like reading that scene about the boy, and the questioning of, where is God? I feel like it’s a question that I need in order to grow as a human being.
WS: So what I’m going to do now is ask you a short series of questions, a lightning round.
MR: Oh, yes.
WS: Great. What’s your favorite library in the world?
MR: Oh, the Greenpoint Public Library in my neighborhood. It’s getting a face lift. So I’m really excited about what it’s gonna look like in the next few months.
WS: If you could be any character in a book, who would you be?
MR: Hmm. Who would I be? Honestly, I would be Pigeon from Mo Willems children’s book series.
WS: Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus?
MR: Yes. Pigeon Needs a Bath.
WS: Why Pigeon?
MR: He makes my children laugh.
WS: What would you be if you weren’t a writer? And I’m, I’m guessing corporate lawyer is not going to be the answer.
MR: No [laughs]. You know, if money were not a factor, I would be a dancer.
WS: And finally, if you could meet any author dead or alive, who would it be?
MR: Any author? There’s so many. Probably Edith Wharton.
WS: Why Edith Wharton?
MR: I just, I love her books, but I also thought she was, as a woman, just someone who was a real badass.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Kristy Westgard. Thanks to Melissa Rivero. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on LitHub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.