The intersection of fiction and anthropology--an interview with Laura Resau in celebration of The Indigo Notebook

Laura Resau is one of my favorite authors. I am very fond of What the Moon Saw, and love Red Glass, which I helped shortlist for the Cybils Awards two years ago. And I have just gone over to the Cybils to nominate her newest YA book, The Indigo Notebook, for this year's awards (with its October 13th release date, it just slips in under the wire). Here's why I picked it:

There is 15 year-old Zeeta, thoughtful and interesting, whose life is beautifully and believably entwined with a wide variety of fascinating secondary characters.

There's Resau's ability to write about places that are foreign and make them another normal, as opposed to an exotic other. In this case, it's the Ecuadoran Andes.

And finally, there's her writing, which is full of color and imagery, and which isn't afraid to step beyond Western ideas of reality. Like her earlier books, The Indigo Notebook has hints of magic--enough to carry it past the quotidian, though not so much as to make it fantasy.

So I am awfully pleased to celebrate the release of The Indigo Notebook by chatting with Laura about the intersection of fiction and anthropology--a field in which both of us have an academic background. Her answers are in bold.

I know you are an anthropologist by training. I'd love to know more about the intersection of your life as an anthropologist and your life as a writer.

I've always loved both anthropology and story-telling. As a kid, I was interested in biological anthropology (primates), and as a teen, I was into archaeology (Mesoamerican and historic American). Later in my undergraduate studies, I became drawn to cultural anthropology, especially the areas of indigenous rights issues, healing practices, and immigrants' and refugees' experiences. After graduating with a Bachelors in anthropology, I went to the Mixtec region of Oaxaca, Mexico to teach English for two years.

I approached this experience as both an anthropologist and writer. I was completely fascinated by my new home, and I filled many spiral notebooks with notes on conversations with my friends and their relatives, always asking tons of questions. Essentially, I did what anthropologists would call "participant-observation"— hanging out with people and helping them with everyday tasks-- making tortillas, gathering medicinal herbs, feeding chickens, harvesting squash, preparing coffee beans, etc. I approached language-learning from a linguistic anthropological perspective, and ended up speaking Spanish fluently and gaining a very basic vocabulary in the Mixtec and Mazatec languages. These experiences helped me get a scholarship to the University of Arizona, where I studied for a year, then went back to Oaxaca to do field research on healing practices, and later returned to the U.S. to finish my coursework and Masters thesis in cultural anthropology.

To be honest, during grad school, the dreamy, poetic part of me recoiled at academia's demand to turn sensual, emotional, and spiritual experiences into dry academic jargon-filled language, and to fit them into the latest hip anthropological theory. Although I got good grades and could appreciate the need for academic protocols, I didn't find joy in my coursework. My joy came from the hours I spent writing poems and stories and creative non-fiction… and ultimately, the manuscript for my first novel, What the Moon Saw. I loved infusing my writing with sounds, smells, tastes, music, soul, metaphor, imagery, dialogue-- all the things you find in good stories. After I got my Masters, I decided that instead of continuing with my PhD, I wanted to dedicate myself to creative writing… with an anthropological twist.

To what extent have you included the experiences and stories of actual people that you met doing fieldwork in your stories?

Most of my characters contain bits and pieces of real people and their stories- which hopefully makes them feel vivid and authentic. Although a certain spark or energy from someone I know might be the seed for a character, each character evolves into her or his own person. For example, in What the Moon Saw, the character of Helena began with the spark of an older woman healer who is like a grandmother to me. Helena's story (of growing up with a calling to heal in a society that was often racist and sexist toward indigenous women) contains pieces of many stories I heard from a number of older women friends of mine. Many women's stories were remarkably similar—dealing with arranged marriages as young teens or being exploited as young maids in the city—so it seemed natural to incorporate them into Helena's story.

Most of the people who inspired characters in my first two books were friends of mine before I was officially doing fieldwork—and before I was even thinking about publishing stories with their cultural setting. At that time, I was only writing for myself, and for my family and friends. It wasn't until years later that this writing evolved into published works. This most recent book, The Indigo Notebook, is my first in which I thought the people helping me with my research (mostly relatives of my friend Maria Virginia) might end up inspiring characters in a published novel.

Were there ethical issues that you wrestled with in regard to this?

I definitely have thought about the ethical issues of incorporating other people's stories into my novels. Whenever I can, I check with the people to make sure it's okay with them, and afterward, give them copies of my work and explain what it's about (since most of my indigenous friends can't read English). When I was paid for shorter essays and stories, I shared the money with friends who inspired them (wiring money to their relatives in nearby towns). With the books, I've found that there are just too many people who played some tiny part in inspiring characters and scenes, so I donate a portion of my royalties to indigenous organizations in Latin America as a form of gratitude and in hopes that it can help indigenous people have their voices heard. I also do workshops for immigrant adults and kids (a number of whom have indigenous heritage), to encourage them to tell their stories. I've found that after immigrant adults and kids read my books, they often feel inspired to write their own memoirs, stories, and essays… which thrills me!

What sort of reactions have you gotten from your friends in the field?

I'm grateful that I've gotten nothing but enthusiasm and excitement from people who have helped me with my books or inspired characters. Across the board, people have told me they're pleased I'm writing about their corner of the world— it makes them feel pride in their indigenous communities and culture, which have often been disparaged by the mainstream society of their countries. They've expressed delight that a wide audience is reading about their lives and struggles and triumphs. They've told me that they hope my books generate more of an interest in and respect for their culture, not only among Americans, but among people in their own communities as well.

I’m an archaeologist myself. Some of us are turning to story-telling to communicate our findings to the public, playing with fiction as a vehicle for describing what resulted from the fieldwork. Do you see your fiction as a vehicle to convey what you have learned as an anthropologist, or is it its own thing?

Interesting questions. My anthropological background definitely affects my writing, but not in a deliberate way, for the most part. It taught me to look at the big picture— to notice the social and economic and political circumstances that inform a situation. For example, my healer friends who inspired the curandero characters aren't part of an unchanging, timeless, mystical tradition. They are creative people who are always trying new things and novel methods, often incorporating modern ideas into what they learned from their grandparents.

For instance, some curanderos use spiritual cleansing rituals to ensure their patients will obtain visas to the U.S. Some take spiritual flights to visit their children who are working as undocumented immigrants in the U.S. The fluctuations in their coffee or corn prices might depend on greater economic forces like NAFTA. In The Indigo Notebook, the Quichua healer is dealing with alcoholism and child abuse in his community, and many of his "children" have gone on to emigrate abroad to play Andean music and sell crafts. The anthropologist in me makes sure I give a picture of these contemporary issues along with the more "mystical" elements of the culture.

That said, I don't approach my novels as vehicles to discuss the issues—for me, novels come from deep and mysterious places. In my experience, writing stories is more of an unconscious, dream-like process than a conscious or rational one. Ultimately, I feel that by writing fiction from a deep place with an anthropological perspective, I can reach tens of thousands more readers than I could reach through academic articles.

I completely agree! But do your anthropological colleagues support your fiction writing, or are they indifferent or outright dismissive?

While I was working on the manuscript for What the Moon Saw in grad school, I was very selective about which colleagues I told about my fiction writing. In my anthropology classes, we spent most of our time criticizing theories and journal articles, and the last thing I wanted was for my manuscript-in-progress-- this tender, precious little piece of my soul-- to be torn to shreds. When that book, and the next book, Red Glass, came out, I was delighted to find that my colleagues at the community college where I taught were extremely supportive and enthusiastic. (In fact, the department head writes YA fiction herself.) Since the publication of my first two books, I've been thrilled to get positive feedback from other people with anthropology backgrounds-- including people on awards committees.

Do you have to consciously fiddle with the level of ethnographic detail you include, to make it fit with fiction, or does your fieldwork/life/travel experience blend with your fiction in an organic, unforced way?

I don't deliberately inject my books with ethnographic detail. I think it comes naturally, since I'm writing what I've seen, felt, heard, smelled, tasted… and through these sensual details comes an organic sense of cultural setting. I can only think of a few spots in my books where I felt the need to give deliberate clarification of beliefs or practices. For me, the stories, characters, and relationships come first.

One of the things I love about your books is that they push the reader beyond the normative American view of what constitutes "reality." What sort of feedback, if any, have you gotten about this? Would you
ever consider leaving “reality” behind altogether to write some speculative fiction? That’s my favorite genre, and I pretty much love the books that happen when anthropologists (or daughters of anthropologists, as in Ursula Le Guin), write it.

I adore speculative fiction—it's one of my favorite genres too. (In fact, nearly all my favorite books this year have been speculative fiction and fantasy!) The first book I ever wrote (unpublished—it was my "practice book") was about dragons (this was 15 years ago, before dragons were all the rage). As a kid and teen, the stories I read and wrote explored the intersection between reality and magic. At this point, most of the "magical" elements in my books reflect the worldview of the characters; for them, these elements are part of their reality. Most readers like this magical realism, although a few readers do feel challenged to suspend their disbelief; they try to pin down whether the "magical" parts really happened.

I do have a feeling that one day soon I'll write a speculative fiction book … I've had some ideas churning around for decades, especially lately. Thanks for the gentle nudge, Charlotte!

You're very welcome, and I hope it works out! Turning a bit more specifically to the book in hand -- the ending of The Indigo Notebook hints that there are more stories to come—can you tell us more about this?

This is planned to be a three book series. The second book, The Ruby Notebook, is set in Aix-en-Provence, France (where I lived with a local family for a year). The third and final novel, The Jade Notebook, is set in a tiny town on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca.

Good news! Thanks!

Your books have such a strong sense of place, which seems based in large part on your own lived experiences. Did you do any traveling for The Indigo Notebook?

The Indigo Notebook began during a research trip I took for another book set in Ecuador (The Queen of Water-- a collaborative memoir with Maria Virginia Farinango about her indigenous girlhood in the Andes, Delacorte, Spring 2011 release date.) Before my first trip to Ecuador, I spent hundreds of hours-- over the course of a year—listening to Maria Virginia tell me her life story (and tape-recording it, transcribing, it interviewing her, etc). Through her life story, I felt I already had a vivid picture of Ecuadorian society, especially in the indigenous communities. Then I went to Ecuador to spend time in all the places that had some significance in her life story, so that I could make the descriptions in the book as sensual and vivid as possible. While I was with her extended family in Quichua communities, I grew fond of the setting, and heard stories that sparked the premise of a subplot of The Indigo Notebook. On my second trip to Ecuador a year later, I had both books in mind as I was talking with people and exploring the area.

I'm wondering if you are traveling, or planning to travel, to new parts of the world, to experience first-hand cultural immersion in future settings. Does it make you nervous to write, or to imagine writing, about a place you've never been?

Last year, I took a trip to the Oaxacan coast and Provence, France to do more focused research for the sequels, but since I'd already been to both places several times before, I already had an idea of the plots and what I was looking for.

At this point, I feel comfortable setting my novels in places where I've either lived or spent a significant amount of time. I can't imagine getting a contract to write a novel before I've spent time in the place where it's set. I think I would feel anxious about whether I would feel inspired there. Basically, I don't think I'd find joy in "forcing" a story from a place.

Ideally, I'll keep traveling to new places (southeast Asia is next on my list) and go back to places I know and love (Morocco) and live abroad again (probably somewhere in Latin America-- we're waiting until our toddler is a little older). And who knows, maybe another book will start brewing…

Thank you so much, Laura, for the fascinating discussion, and for taking the time to answer my questions in such satisfying detail! And I hope (in a not entirely unselfish way) that your writing is going well...

The Indigo Notebook officially enters the world October 13th!

(disclaimer: ARC received from Delacorte Press, the publisher)


  1. My tbr list is too long. My tbr list is too long. Oh well, what's one more book - especially when I read

    "Resau's ability to write about places that are foreign and make them another normal, as opposed to an exotic other."

    Thanks Charlotte

  2. I just finished my first Laura Resau--and loved it! Her new MG book coming in 2010, Star in the Forest, is a wonderful story about a young immigrant girl. Great stories can be told in under 150 pages!!

  3. pennydreadful-- I'm so glad to hear you enjoyed Star in the Forest. That's the first feedback I've heard about it from someone other than my publisher, friends, and family! And it's especially meaningful to me since this is my first foray into MG... Thanks for your comment!

  4. Great interview, Charlotte and Laura!

  5. Charlotte, this was a fascinating interview. Laura left a link to it from my review/interview of Indigo and Ruby. You'll really enjoy the sequel.


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