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  • Joan Schweighardt

Spotlight on Eleanor Parker Sapia

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

It is our great pleasure to introduce author Eleanor Parker Sapia to readers who may not already know her. Eleanor is not only an exacting writer, but she is also a curious writer, one who begins her work with an objective and then lets intuition and research illuminate the path to attain it. Her paintings also tell a story.

Tell us something about your novel A Decent Woman.

A Decent Woman is about both the challenges and unbreakable bonds of a lifelong friendship between Serafina, a fifteen-year-old Puerto Rican girl and Ana, a proud Afro-Cuban midwife, born into slavery and struggling to become a certified midwife in Puerto Rico at the turn of the century. The novel is steeped in heartbreak, passion, mysticism, joy, misogyny, hurricanes, politics, crimes against women, and machismo. It has been described as a feminist novel, a social commentary of women’s lives in 1900 Puerto Rico, and an important book about a little-known corner of women’s history. I describe it as a love letter to my ancestors and to Puerto Rico, the island of my birth.

How difficult was it to research an early twentieth-century setting? How much, if any, of your research came from stories passed down through your family?

The journey to publication took ten years as I learned the basics of writing, honed my writing skills, and did extensive research on the lives of men and women in colonial Puerto Rico. I love research as much as writing, so I didn’t find it difficult. My primary sources were written and in-person interviews, governors’ reports, the New York City Archives, and countless nonfiction books on colonial Puerto Rican history, midwifery, Puerto Rican herbology, Caribbean hurricanes, misogyny, early feminism, crimes against women, racism, classism in Puerto Rican history, and Santería, an Afro-Cuban religion, similar to voodoo, that is still practiced today throughout the Caribbean and in the United States. The practitioners are devotees of the Orishas, individual Yoruba deities that represent humanity, the wind, the sea, the dead, rivers, motherhood, sensuality, mischief, womanhood, love, passion, and anger.

The character Serafina Martínez was loosely based on my Puerto Rican grandmother with several details from her childhood in Playa de Ponce and as a young married woman in Ponce. Ana Belén Opaku, the character based on my grandmother’s midwife who birthed her three children, was where the real research began. All that was remembered about Ana was she was Afro Caribbean, spoke with an accent, and drank a shot of rum and smoked a cigar after every birth. Her backstory came from my imagination and research on Cuban history, slavery in Cuba, and the ancestral traditions of the Lukumí people of Yorubaland, her ancestors from Nigeria.

Will your second book, The Laments, also be set in Puerto Rico? And will it also be a historical novel?

I prefer the genres of Caribbean and Latin American Fiction, Women’s Fiction, and Spanish Literature, which I believe are better suited for my novels.

My second novel, The Laments, set in 1927, takes place in a Roman Catholic convent in Old San Juan and a Spanish-built leprosarium, once the site of a quarantine station on the islet of Isla de Cabras, five miles off the coast of Puerto Rico.

The Laments is the story of an idealistic novice nun, whose monastic life is shattered by crimes in the convent. As a means of escape and safety, the conflicted novice volunteers to serve the patients at Lazareto Isla de Cabras. However, everything that occurs on the islet will clash with the young nun’s mission to save souls for God and will force her to take a hard look at her vows and an even harder look at truth.

You are also writing a sequel to A Decent Woman, yes? Is it difficult to write two manuscripts at the same time? Does one wind up influencing the other?

Once A Decent Woman was published in 2015, I began writing the sequel, titled Mistress of Coffee, set in the mountains of Puerto Rico in 1930. I was excited to finish the book; however, life had other plans for me. I’d written ten or eleven chapters when a friend told me about Carville, a leprosarium in Louisiana that piqued my interest. I began researching leper colonies in Hawaii, the Caribbean, and the Philippines and was stunned to learn of one on Isla de Cabras, Puerto Rico. That was the fork in the road. I started writing The Laments, and after it is published, I will finish Mistress of Coffee.

You began writing in 2005. Tell us about your life journey before then and how it led you to writing and where you met your muse.

My first novel began as a tribute to my maternal grandmother, an amazing storyteller, on her ninetieth birthday. I shared her stories about her childhood and adult life in Playa de Ponce and Ponce, Puerto Rico. My then-husband encouraged me to write an outline based on the tribute and said I had a book to write. At the time, I was not only married but also the mother of two teenagers, a volunteer counselor, and an exhibiting painter in Brussels, Belgium.

A year after completing a rough manuscript of A Decent Woman, my husband left our family home and my life was completely upended. I packed up our homes in Belgium and the south of France and moved back to the United States in 2006. The manuscript and my paint brushes, which had been carefully packed in a box, didn’t see the light of day for four years. I went back to school, worked full time, and later, bought an old house in Berkeley County, West Virginia, where I could afford to live and write full time. Many sacrifices were made, and I have no regrets over my decision to leave the Washington, DC, area, where I’d settled initially.

A Decent Woman was published in 2015, and again in 2017 when the publisher claimed bankruptcy, and again in 2019 with Winter Goose Publishing after the previous publisher moved to Australia and gave up the small press. My friends call me the Job of the writing world. If it was going to happen, it happened to me, but I persevered. I want my books in readers’ hands.

My artistic life and my writing life have many beautiful similarities, which made it a seamless transition. What I couldn’t say with a brush, I said with words. This global pandemic has me thinking more and more about painting after The Laments is published.

Thank you for your thoughtful questions, Joan, and for the opportunity to connect with Five Directions Press readers.

Puerto Rican-born Eleanor Parker Sapia is the author of the multi-award-winning, debut novel, A DECENT WOMAN, set in 1900 Puerto Rico, published by Winter Goose Publishing. Eleanor is featured in the anthology, “Latina Authors and Their Muses.” Eleanor currently lives in Berkeley County, West Virginia, where she is working on her second novel, THE LAMENTS, set in 1927 Puerto Rico. Her adult children are out in the world doing amazing things.

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