When the path for getting your next book out in the world is a hamster wheel of rejection—one long, squeaky NO spinning like a broken record—go forth into the sunshine should there be any in your rainy Pacific Northwest city and revel among a genial band of other writers and readers as you all celebrate someone else’s book.
In a week of rainy days, the sky cleared mid-day last Saturday for a late afternoon garden book party in Rita Wirkala’s backyard. The occasion was to celebrate her Spanish translation of Joyce Yarrow’s 2020 release of Zahara and the Lost Books of Light, about a twenty-first-century American woman who travels to Spain to petition for citizenship as a descendent of Jews expelled during the Inquisition and becomes involved in an effort to preserve a secret library of medieval Hebrew and Arabic books saved from the book burnings promulgated by the Catholic monarchy. In short, a book of intrigue and suspense entwined in history, politics, and religious philosophy. Now in Spanish!
When I arrived, not knowing if I would find familiar faces, two of the other guests approached me to tell me they had read my book. I didn’t ask which book. It didn’t matter. It only mattered that they had read one. Such unprompted and entirely welcome comments remind me that the work I already have out in the world has found its way into the hands of appreciative readers. The hamster-wheel squeak of rejection was temporarily reduced to a peep.
Most of the guests were native Spanish speakers and the lilt in conversations around me in the language that I have been trying to acquire in earnest for the past several years further lightened my mood. There was time to chat with a few people before the presentation began, but I was too timid to practice my Spanish. Timid is my middle name. Tímida.
At the start of the program, Rita called out the name (no middle names) of each guest with a few words of introduction. The roll call was a lovely and expedient way to find out who was present at the event̅—among them the economics professor from Mexico on a research Fulbright who is also a writer and the state biologist who on the side reports on immigrant issues for NPR, both of whom I enjoyed conversations with later.
Speaking of introductions, here are a few words about Rita. Born in Argentina, Rita’s first career was as a musician and singer. During the military dictatorship, she left her homeland for Brazil where she lived and worked for thirteen years, becoming fluent in Portuguese before moving to the United States where she learned English and eventually earned a Ph.D. in Spanish Literature. She taught Spanish for twenty years at the University of Washington. During that time she began writing fiction and founded All Bilingual Press as a “bridge between cultures.” That’s a short, straightforward account but enough for anyone to glean that Rita is a tri-lingual dynamo— a smart, efficient, ball-of-energy constantly teaching and learning and creating books as well as community.
Prompted by questions from Rita, Joyce talked about the impetus for her book and the research she conducted, including travel to Spain. Joyce read a passage from her book and Rita read the Spanish version. It was a riveting reading and discussion not only for the story behind the book but for the friendship and collaboration between two writers. No wonder the skies cleared for this event.
Later, Rita and I sat together at one of the little garden tables, and she asked me how things were going. Ever the party pooper, I told her about my so-far fruitless search for an agent, how after three small-press books I wanted an agent for the opportunity to be picked up by a large publisher and the potential for a wider distribution of my work and thus a wider readership. So, yes, I whined, but I did it politely. Maybe even timidly.
Rita was sympathetic but also looked me in the eye. She talked of how she came to writing late and now at 74 years old, what matters to her is her community. Her books are for them. “If I sell my books only to them, I’m happy.”
I’m not far behind Rita in years. I turn 69 next month. But I’m still a little behind her in arriving at this sentiment. It truly does make sense to me. But I’m not there yet. The truth is I want to outlast that hamster wheel of rejection.
I want more readers. And I want more readers for Rita. I’ve read some of Rita’s stories in translation and love them. I’m a fan of hers. And I’m forever a fan of backyard salons. And of celebrating good books with great people.