When I learned that a book entitled A Decent Woman was released earlier this year, I couldn’t wait to pick it up. After all, it is the year 2015. To let the streets tell it, decent women have all disappeared like the dinosaurs.
Turns out that a few still exist though. In fact, Eleanor Parker Sapia, the author of this spectacular novel, is more than a decent woman. She’s a brilliant writer, a gifted storyteller, a sharp historian, and on top of all that, is extraordinarily kind. I was so impressed by Eleanor and her story that I asked permission to pick her brain on the whole notion of decent women, both inside and outside the parameters of her book, and share it with you. And being the decent woman that she is (smile), she lovingly and graciously obliged.
As told to me by Eleanor, “A Decent Woman is historical fiction, set in turn of the century Puerto Rico, but as many lovely reviewers have said about the book, the issues women faced in 1900 aren’t so different from the issues we face today. We are single and married, working mothers, and stay-at-home moms, and some of us are faced with indecent situations in order to feed our families. We are society women, educated women, and women living on the fringes of society, but in my mind, we are a sisterhood. The word we use in Puerto Rico to refer to dear women friends is, comadre, which literally means, the woman who helped birth my children; my friend for life.”
Check out this excerpt from Eleanor’s book, my questions, and her thought-provoking answers.
From Eleanor Parker Sapia’s A Decent Woman:
Ana recognized the many bridges she’d burned in life by focusing on work, her clients, and their families, instead of marriage, children, and preparing for old age. She’d waited too long to accept friendship and now, Serafina was far away. Ana was alone, and soon she would be homeless. The poorer barrios of Bélgica and San Antón might prove difficult places to find paying clients, but perhaps it was time to go. She set her sights on San Antón, knowing there was nothing left for her in La Playa.
Two weeks later, Ana discovered the priest’s information was correct—a repeat of the 1890 campaign of mass cleansing of prostitution resurfaced in Ponce. Most of the workingwomen in Ponce were of African descent and thought to be loose and wayward by the upper classes. She’d read the articles about young, upper class women in the new feminist movement beginning to feel a kinship with their black and mulatto sisters. The feminists insisted that with time and care, the workingwomen could be transformed into proper ladies and responsible citizens with a few rights. To Ana, it was a ploy by women of society to rid Ponce of female competition for available and married men, specifically their husbands. Ana believed that behind closed doors, the young, married feminists worried about keeping their own husbands away from other women.
Ana understood that feeding hungry children, and lack of good-paying jobs and decent housing, forced many women to resort to prostitution; however, it seemed all black workingwomen were lumped together in the indecency whether they were guilty or not, including Ana.
End of excerpt.
KJD: Eleanor, thank you for allowing me to meet with you. I loved the book and I’m really feeling the themes that are so cleverly woven throughout it. So what does the term “decent woman” mean to you? What types of things will decent women do? Or perhaps a better question is, is there anything that decent women will not do?
EPS: Thanks so much for your kind words and for inviting me to visit with your readers, Kristen. I am honored to be here.
My debut historical novel was originally called The House on Luna Street, the street where my mother and her siblings were raised in my hometown of Ponce, Puerto Rico. The title, A Decent Woman, didn’t occur to me until after I finished the first manuscript of the book. As I began to edit and finesse the story, it became clear my protagonist, Ana Belén, a poor, illiterate black Cuban woman born into slavery, who becomes a midwife in her twenties, was a decent woman. She tried her best to live a ‘decent’ life in a turbulent time in Puerto Rico’s history, when many women found themselves getting caught up in ‘indecent’ lifestyles, thoughts, and situations to feed and protect their families if they were married, and for basic and utter survival if they were single women with no male protection. It was also a time when male doctors were entering the birthing room for the first time, threatening Ana’s livelihood. Her name had to remain impeccable because her good name was all she had.
To me, a decent woman has high integrity and self-esteem, courage, grit, compassion, and empathy for others no matter what her station in life. She listens to her inner voice and heart when her opinions and views might not be the popular choice among her friends, family, and society, but the right thing to do. A decent woman is an advocate for children, women of all walks of life, and she stands up for injustices against others. She is a mentor to women, young and old, and she shares and celebrates the accomplishments of the sisterhood. She is humble, but always knows and remembers who she is and where she came from.
In my view, what a decent woman doesn’t do is judge other women. It’s not necessary to discredit, bad mouth, or step on other women to get ahead in life, at work and personally. A secure woman doesn’t lose a thing by uplifting other women. In fact, it’s been my experience that uplifting all women leads to new experiences and rich blessings. I’m blessed to know many decent women who in my mind embody the term, decent woman. These women are family, friends, role models, and were early mentors. One of my closest friends and confidantes is younger than me by ten years. She is wise beyond her years and I respect her counsel and opinions.
KJD: I totally agree with that definition. And I love that you promote and celebrate extraordinary women! Before penning this novel, had you considered yourself to be a decent woman? Did writing it help you to see yourself or other women differently?
EPS: I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, the United States, and in Europe, which led to a rich life, full of travel, and wonderful opportunities to meet interesting people from all walks of life, and travel also meant I saw poverty around me. As a child, I always sided with the underdog, whether it was a classmate, a friend who was bullied, or a character in a book or film. In my teens, I was as interested in attending the formal dances at the country club where my grandparents were members as visiting family and friends near the coast. Even as a young child, the disparity between the classes made an impression on me. My mother told me I was an opinionated child who didn’t like to hear, “that’s impossible”—whatever it was we were discussing. Helping others has always been a possibility to me.
As an adult, I was a painter; counselor; an alternative health practitioner; a pilgrimage coordinator in Lourdes, France; and a Spanish language family support worker and a refugee case manager in the United States and Belgium, all of which inspire my writing to this day. Today I’m a full time novelist. I enjoy introducing readers to women who do extraordinary things while living ordinary lives. I am drawn to writing about people who live on the fringes of society, which I suppose makes sense after a career in social services and because of my travels.
So to answer your question, I believe I was a decent woman before I penned A Decent Woman, and I raised my children to be decent, compassionate, empathic, and aware of the world at large. One discovery I made while writing my book was that my life, with its’ challenges, joys, and what I struggled with wasn’t that different from women of the past. Life was certainly harder for women at turn of the century without modern conveniences, opportunities, rights, but many women around the world today are living exactly like our foremothers—and worse—with few or no rights, limited modern conveniences, and unreachable opportunities for themselves and their children. That wasn’t a discovery—it was a painful reminder.
KJD: Yes indeed. And you know, some of the poor race relations in America would have many of us to think that there are major differences that exist between the struggles of women of different ethnicities. Once of the things that I love about your book is that it clearly demonstrates that we all oftentimes struggle with the same universal issues. How did you make this discovery before writing it?
EPS: My maternal grandmother, Eloina was born into poverty in the coastal town of La Playa de Ponce, Puerto Rico, the setting of A Decent Woman, and lost her mother at nine years of age. It became impossible for her father, a merchant marine, to care for her and her five siblings, and they were sent to an orphanage for a few years. Later, they were sent to live with an aunt who my grandmother described as a hard, unfeeling woman. My grandmother says she survived thanks to her wicked sense of humor, her beauty (which is true, smile), a close-knit relationship with her brothers and sister, and thanks to a high sense of self. She married my grandfather, who at the time was a clerk at the Banco de Ponce, and she left the life of poverty behind, but she never forgot her humble roots. Despite my grandfather rising in the ranks at the bank and retiring as Vice President, they lived a simple life, and went on to buy two coffee farms on the island, where they employed many laborers for decades.
A few years ago, I visited the area where my grandfather’s farm thrived and was later sold in the mountains of Yayuya, by a forced government sale. During my visit, I was thrilled to find that many of the tenant farmers and their families still live in the area, and had nice things to say about my grandparents. The land area, several hundred acres, is called Zona Sapia, Zone Sapia after my grandparents.
So I understood and experienced universal struggles from a young age thanks to my maternal and paternal grandparents’ stories of lean years and struggles, who were all amazing storytellers, and by my experiences of lean years and struggle as a divorced, single mother after a twenty-five year marriage of privilege and certain luxury. After our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, my husband replaced me with another woman and my life literally changed in twenty-four hours. That’s another story. I will add that without those lean years of struggle and heartache as a single, working mother of two young adults in college, I could have never fully understood and written Ana’s journey. Those years were blessings and a gift to me as a woman, mother, and as a writer. With both sides of the coin, so to speak, I was able to write Serafina and Ana’s stories.
KJD: I get it, and their story makes me smile. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but in your mind, can you tell us how your main characters, Ana and Serafina, change or evolve throughout the course of the story? And what events trigger these changes?
EPS: Without giving away the story or offering any spoilers, when the story begins, forty-year old Ana delivers sixteen-year old Serafina’s first child. Unmarried and alone, Ana is distrustful of men and authority, a loner, but she is also a loyal friend to her midwifery clients and their children. She must work to support herself. Her journey is about keeping a dark secret from her past hidden while searching for love, respectability, and a family to call her own.
Sixteen-year old Serafina pursues a friendship with Ana, which will reopen their hearts and also break them for a few years. Although Serafina is married and has the protection of two men, her life is paved with heartache and loss. The changes she goes through in the book are part of growing up and maturing into a confident wife, mother, and woman. Later in life, she will come face to face with her humble beginnings, a reminder of those who loved her most.
What forever bonds these two women is an ill-conceived plan to avoid a scandal and preserve Serafina’s honor after a crime against Serafina.
KJD: In a movie version of this story, who would play what parts?
EPS: Oh, I love this question, Kristen! I was a painter for twenty-five years, mostly portraits in those days, before discovering my passion for writing stories. As I wrote A Decent Woman, I visualized the adult Ana played by one of my favorite actresses, the fabulous Viola Davis. Ana Belén is strong, gentle, intelligent, and has the quiet strength and gritty courage I’ve seen in many of Viola’s characters in films and in television. I adore Viola’s grin, which reminds me of Ana, who in my mind’s eye has a great grin.
For the flashbacks of young Ana as a child born into slavery on a sugar plantation in Cuba, I’d pick the young actress and Oscar winner, Quvenzhané Wallis and Lupita Nyong’o would be perfect to play Ana in her twenties when she first arrives in Puerto Rico.
I visualize the young actress, Selena Gomez as Serafina at sixteen, and the incredible Mexican actress and director, Salma Hayek as the adult Serafina. Now I need a screenplay, don’t I?
KJD: Yes you do! I’d say that it’s time to get started on one. I’d pay for a ticket, Coke and popcorn in order to see it. But for now, I’ll just thank you for writing such a brilliant novel.
EPS: Thanks very much for the wonderful opportunity to stop by and chat with you, Kristen!
KJD: It has been my absolute pleasure. Miracles and blessings to you, Eleanor.
Eleanor Parker Sapia loves to interact with her readers, and may be reached on her website at www.eleanorparkersapia.com, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/eleanorparkersapia, or on Twitter at @eleanorparkerwv. Check out her book here: