Writing What They Said About Luisa and Thinking About American Fiction - Dundurn
Jun 27, 2024

Writing What They Said About Luisa and Thinking About American Fiction

The movie American Fiction has been called a cultural touchstone. It raises a number of questions: should authors write only about their own experiences? Should they pursue their own interests, or should they cater to literary trends and aim to please the reader? These questions are particularly relevant to me as an author of historical fiction. I confronted them when I came across the story of Luisa de Abrego – a freed slave accused of bigamy – and decided to make her the subject of my novel What They Said about Luisa.

Clearly, I am not drawing on my own experience here. I am not a “brown” woman, as Luisa called herself when she stood before a tribunal of the Mexican Inquisition in 1567. Unlike Luisa, I have not been exposed to the vicissitudes of a trek through inhospitable regions in an unknown country. I have not experienced life in the 16th century, but I am a historian and familiar with the social and cultural norms of that age. I have read the trial records, in which Luisa successfully defends herself, is acquitted, and then disappears from history. Yes, I made up the rest of her life, and I claim the right to “make it up” for all novelists. That said, I do not presume to speak in Luisa’s voice.

In my book her adventures are described by witnesses to her life, who follow the social conventions and express the prejudices of their time. I should add that some of those prejudices are not history and are unfortunately current in our own time. So, to answer the questions raised in American Fiction, I do believe that an author should write about what she knows. And I do want to please my readers and hope they will share my interest in the fate of this fascinating historical figure – an emancipated slave from Seville who crosses the ocean, marries a white man, and emigrates with him to the mining town of Zacatecas, the “Wild West” of Mexico. Luisa’s story may inspire you to reflect on her life and admire her ability to overcome adversity, or you may just go along for a ride and relive her adventures.

Erika Rummel has taught at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Toronto. She has published numerous books on Renaissance history and is the author of nine novels. A recipient of international awards and fellowships, she divides her time between Toronto and Los Angeles. Learn more here.