Senator Alarón presents MHP with Senate Resolution to commemorate the Lifetime Commitment to Literacy Award from the Friends of the San Fernando Library
Mary Helen Ponce was born in Pacoima, CA. She attended Pacoima Elementary, San Fernando High School, earned BA and MA degrees from California State University Northridge. She has studied history at UCLA on a Danforth Fellowship, was awarded a UCSB Dissertation Fellowship, and obtained her PhD from University of New Mexico.
Publications include Taking Control, 1987; The Wedding, 1980 & 2008; Hoyt Street: An Autobiography, 1993.
Ponce’s work has been translated into French, German, Spanish and Romanian. She has presented her work at UNAM, El Colegio de Mexico, and published in “Fem”, Mexico’s leading feminist magazine. She taught literature and creative writing at UCLA and UNM. She contributes to “Hispanic Magazine”, “Los Angeles Times”, and “Saludos Hispanos.”
She has raised three sons and a daughter and lives in Sunland, CA. She is currently working on a historical novel about 19th century Mexican-Spanish women.
I see Mary Helen at least once a month at the meetings of the Sunland/Tujunga Reading Group, also known as “One Book At A Time.” We often meet at Mi Casita in Sunland, eat, drink magaritas and get rowdy and discuss like our hair’s on fire. They love us there even though they usually have to kick us out.
So for this interview, I attempted to get professional and sent Mary Helen my questions by email. I believe she took time from her intense writing schedule to jot down some answers, which was more than gracious of her. I have put her thoughts into sentences and now she will undoubtedly send me an email with edits. That’s OK. We are also in a writing group together, so I can get her back.
KTW: You originally wrote and published The Wedding in 1989 and then revised it for the publication in 2008. Is there a story behind this? What changes did you make to the book after almost 20 years?
MHP: Arte Publico (the current publisher) asked to republish the book. I rewrote it because the first edition had many typos and the editing was sloppy. This was difficult because the original manuscript was on old floppy discs which I had to transfer to CD, so I also typed from the book. Ughhh. I cut repetitive words, but overall the story remained the same.
KTW: I was touched by the plight of Blanca, who seemed to have really no future happiness after the wedding, and this appeared typical for women in the barrio. Is this still the case or have Mexican/American women improved their chances of finding a good man and creating a stable family?
MHP: You misinterpret Blanca. She was happy (blind, but happy) as her life would now change, her mother could brag about the wedding and weddings were such fun! Her future was not unlike that of other women, say in Appalachia or the Deep South during the early/late 1940s.
I would argue that Mexican/American women today are a far cry from those of previous generations. Many graduate from highschool. If any one group is living Blanca’s experience, it is newly arrived immigrants from Central America and Mexico. The influence and dictates of the Catholic Church still predominates.
When I wrote Op-Eds for the “Los Angeles Times”, I wrote, “Go forth and multiply, Latina,” as a rebuttal to the pastor’s sermons at my church. I can zap.
KTW: I think your book would touch both Chicana women as well as women in general. When you wrote The Wedding, who did you expect your audience would be? What feedback did you get?
MHP: I got some positive reviews, but one USCB professor, who used it in her teaching, called in a Pachuco novel, as did her students. I saw it more as a love story. Once male critic didn’t like it and men in general thought I was too tough on them. Think I hit a raw nerve?
As to the new edition, there were lots of positive responses. A neighbor (male, 26) loves it. Students at Instituto Tecnologico de Monterrey, Mexico, invited me to lecture and read from it. They found it fascinating and relevant. Weddings are still FUN!
KTW: Tell us a good story about your adventures in getting published.
MPH: I published very early in my writing career. I was first published at CSUN (California State University Northridge) in “El Popo”, the student newspaper in about 1980. I submitted three items and all were published.
My biggest thrill was to publish in Mexico (about 10-15 works), Spain (Catalonia), France, Germany, and Romania. The Germans like my work. I learned a lot about Catalonia. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is popular there as they seek autonomy.
KTW: What are you working on now?
MHP: Ay! You would ask. In 1984, while a Danforth Fellow at UCLA in history, I was assigned to research early Mexican/Spanish women in New Spain, as Mexico was called before 1848. The group I studied about was part of the first overland expedition to Alta California, as it was then known. I was intrigued by women who, although pregnant, would contemplate an 800 mile trek to Monterrey to establish a pueblo near the fledgling mission there. I conceived the novel then and wrote the first chapter.
I write in my head, so it has been festering for ages. Once could say it has had a long gestation. I began seriously putting it together about three years ago, then took three or four months to rewrite The Wedding, and in between wrote other stuff. The novel has been in my head for eons.
One problem is I like long, developed chapters (like The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova), so my first chapters were long. Then I saw other authors were into minimalism; even Tolstoy wrote uneven chapters and here I was trying for parallelism. So I cut up chapters, made a mess, recapitulated, and am finally finished with Part One. Now I am tired.
KTW: Is there anything else you would like to say to the readers here?
MHP: I like literary works. Hoyt Street, I’ve been told is very literary, but not The Wedding. Much of what is out there today is trite and not developed. I don’t use a lot of metaphors and similes, as they interrupt narrative flow. Lyricism is one thing but some authors overuse metaphor. Still, it takes time and craft to infuse a story with so much baggage. I prefer to try for lyricism (which is harder), than metaphors, etc.
I once read what I think was the epitome of similes: “Her voice on the phone was like crushed violets.” WOW!
KTW: Thank you so much, Mary Helen. I eagerly await your next novel and wish you luck in getting it finished.