Irena Montoya and Tatiana Jones come from two entirely different worlds. Irena is a poor, illegal immigrant who sneaks across the Mexican border and walks 46 days to Los Angeles where she hopes to find a new life for herself and her unborn daughter. Tatiana is a wealthy architect who has everything a woman could want – beauty, brains, money and an adoring husband – but she can’t have children. After a year of struggling to raise her daughter as a single mother in the pits of L.A., Irena realizes the best thing she can do for her child, Alma, is to give her up. She leaves Alma at the steps of The Survivors Sojourn, a safe haven for abused women and children founded and built by Tatiana. The minute Tatiana meets Alma, she knows all her dreams will come true and she raises Alma as her own daughter. Seven years later, the tragedy of Alma’s death brings Irena and Tatiana together. Through pain and suffering, these two women find love in a way neither one expected because sometimes hope can come from great despair.
Susanna Lo Interview about abuse, rape, and love from Stay Thirsty Media October 2011:
ALMA OF MY HEART is Susanna Lo’s first novel. With the sentimentality of Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, ALMA OF MY HEART is a love story that celebrates the spirit of strong women who find hope and love amidst a background of pain and despair.
THIRSTY was fortunate to catch-up with Susanna for this interview at her home in Los Angeles while she was making the final preparations to shoot her next feature film, MANSON GIRLS.
THIRSTY: In your novel, ALMA OF MY HEART, rape plays a pivotal role in the life of Irena Montoya, one of the two leading characters. Why did you choose such a violent and violative act against a young woman to be the starting point of your story?
Susanna Lo: Based on my research, 1.3 women are raped each minute in the United States. By the time I finish this interview, several more women will be raped. I find this fact extremely disturbing. It sounds like a statistic from a violent, war-torn, underdeveloped, uncivilized country, where men are deranged and behave like beasts; yet, we’re talking about the United States of America. So if the number of rapes in the U.S. is approaching 700,000 per year, what are the numbers in more violent and dangerous countries than the U.S.? Countries like South Africa, Zimbabwe, Dominica, and believe it or not, Canada and Australia, both of whom hold a higher rape percentage per capita than the U.S. It’s time the world addressed this as a very serious issue that must be dealt with by every political leader globally. I chose this as the beginning of my story for the simple fact that I believe many women will relate to Irena Montoya and what happened to her at a very young age, a time when everyone should be filled with laughter and happiness, not agony and despair.
THIRSTY: In order to escape the poverty and hopelessness of her life in Mexico, Irena pays dearly to illegally cross the border into the United States. Motivated by her powerful desire to find a better way of life, Irena exemplifies an inner strength not uncommon in women of her circumstance who bear the burdens and tensions of being illegal immigrants. Did you craft Irena to be a beacon for an entire class of women?
Susanna Lo: I live in Los Angeles and I frequently jump on public transportation or walk to many of my destinations. On a daily basis, I witness the poverty, destitution and injustice heaped upon women who illegally cross the border from Mexico into the U.S., hoping for a better life. I believe their life in the U.S. is better than in Mexico, but it is far from decent or humane.
I created the character of Irena after I saw a young woman on a bus one evening. I watched as a woman in an expensive car from Beverly Hills dropped off her maid at the bus stop because there are no bus routes that pass by the wealthy homes of Beverly Hills. I sat on the bus next to this young, Latina maid and I noticed that her employer continued to drive in the same direction that the bus was going. I couldn’t understand why her employer wouldn’t have driven her the rest of the distance. The Latina woman and I got off at the same stop in the Los Feliz neighborhood, where I went to have drinks with some friends. Two hours later, I noticed that the same woman was at the bus stop again, but now she was with her five children, all under the age of ten, and carrying a multitude of groceries. It was eight o’clock in the evening. She clearly hadn’t had dinner yet and still had a long night ahead of her taking care of her five children, after a long day of caring for someone else’s household. I was so impressed by this woman and her strength that Irena Montoya was created in my mind at that exact moment.
THIRSTY: Violence against women and the abuse of women is a theme you concentrate on in your novel. In fact, a shelter for abused women and children provides a crossroad for the two leading characters, Irena and Tatiana. Why did you choose this shelter to play such a critical role?
Susanna Lo: As long as there are violent crimes committed against women and children, I believe the world is responsible for finding shelter, protection and an end to this violence. The Survivors’ Sojourn, from my novel, is a representation of this dream for a better world, free of violent crimes against women and children. When I first created the character of Tatiana, I had a hard time finding sympathy for her as I related her to that wealthy, Beverly Hills woman who didn’t drive her maid all the way home. Then I realized that it was not my job to judge my characters. What if that wealthy woman had received devastating news earlier in the day and simply wasn’t thinking clearly? What if she was a very busy woman who ran a woman’s shelter and she had just received an emergency phone call from the shelter. Then the character of Tatiana emerged in my mind as someone who seemed to have it all on the surface, but was struck with a devastating tragedy of her own. Instead of wallowing in the tragedy, she created the Survivors’ Sojourn to make the world a better place for women who were survivors of violence.
THIRSTY: Alma is born in America as the out-of-wedlock child of Irena, an illegal immigrant who became pregnant after she was raped. Eventually Irena gives Alma up, in part because of her own poverty, hoping her child will have a better chance at life. Child welfare is an important issue at this time in America, especially in light of the challenging circumstances brought about by the Great Recession. It is Alma, however, who eventually brings the two leading women in the book together. What point are you making about the child welfare system both administratively and emotionally?
Susanna Lo: I read that in 2009, just before I wrote this novel, that 1770 children died due to abuse and neglect. As far as I’m concerned, that is 1770 too many. I don’t know if the child welfare system has full blame in these deaths, but I’m sure that many of these children simply slipped through the cracks of the system. And what I mean by the system is not just social services. I’m also talking about teachers, counselors, community leaders and clergy who ignore signs of abuse and neglect in children that cross through their lives. It is not just the responsibility of a parent to care for a child with compassion and dignity. It is the responsibility of a whole society to treat children with kindness and caring as that child is a part of that society. My character of Irena in Alma of My Heart recognizes that she simply isn’t equipped to give the best to her daughter, so she makes the ultimate sacrifice a mother can make and gives her daughter up for adoption so Alma can have a better life with Tatiana.
THIRSTY: Irena and Tatiana eventually fall in love in your book. What made you focus the story on two very strong, competent women who find true happiness in the love of a woman rather than a man? Is this story one that you believe is playing out in the LGBT community throughout America today?
Susanna Lo: I’m simply a sucker for a good love story. I’m a big fan of Pablo Neruda poems, classic French films like A Man and a Woman andThe Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and love in general. It never really occurred to me that my characters were finding love with someone of the same sex or that their love was unconventional in any way. They were just two beautiful human beings who survived a terrible tragedy, then surpassed that tragedy through their love for each other. I don’t know if this story is any more relevant in the LGBT community than it is in any other community. It just felt natural that these two women deserved each other’s love.
THIRSTY: ALMA OF MY HEART is your first novel, written while you were in the middle of casting your upcoming feature film, MANSON GIRLS. Is there a common theme in ALMA and MANSON GIRLS that relates to abused and battered women?
Susanna Lo: Of course. As a writer, I generally prefer to write my leading parts for women. As a socially conscious writer, I enjoy tackling contemporary issues while hopefully entertaining my audience, not lecturing to them. Obviously the common theme between Alma of My Heart and Manson Girls is abuse towards women. But that’s where the comparison ends. In Manson Girls, the abuse of these young girls, who eventually end up a part of Charles Manson’s cult, leads to a violent and tragic ending for the girls and their murder victims. In Alma of My Heart, it leads to happiness and love, as the two leading characters believe in themselves and find strength and love within themselves first, allowing them to find happiness in each other.
THIRSTY: In your award-winning film, Black and White: A Love Story, love was clearly a key theme. In ALMA, written fourteen years later, love appears as the most powerful, overriding force that overcomes all obstacles. What do you want readers of ALMA to take away from your book?
Susanna Lo: I’m glad we’re ending with a lighter question! As a filmmaker, I have always planned a love trilogy that started with Black & White: A Love Story. Alma of My Heart is the second installment in this love trilogy, so of course, I’m planning on turning this novel into a film. I would be happy to hear that my audience, for my novels and my films, finds love to be a much-preferred topic over violence. When I’m talking to people about reading Alma or watching Black & White, I always add the phrase, “It’s a fantastic love story and we could all use more love in our lives!”