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Literary treasure at NIU

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Posted: Thursday, October 20, 2005 12:00 am

English professor Ibis Gomez-Vega has come to know the experience of literature by teaching the subject as well as writing her own.

Her novel, "Send My Roots Rain," was published in 1991, although she completed the manuscript years earlier. Over time, Gomez-Vega came to reflect on the themes of the novel and how they related to struggles in her life.

Originating from Cuba, Gomez-Vega’s desire to write first came from teaching herself English.

"It started with vignettes, which I used to write to teach myself English," Gomez-Vega said. "I picked up English from television and record albums, but I read a book called ‘Cane’ by Jean Toomer that I became interested in writing in English."

Gomez-Vega said "Cane" demonstrated language that didn’t need to be rigidly structured or governed by obsessive rules in grammar or syntax. After being inspired by Toomer’s work, Gomez-Vega also began studying the works of Emily Dickinson.

As her series of short stories began to develop into the narrative of the novel, she set several goals in writing the book.

"One, I wanted to establish an unreliable narrator," Gomez-Vega said. "And two, I wanted to create a border town for people who don’t belong anywhere."

The plot of "Send My Roots Rain" deals with a painter sent to paint a church in a border town, only to find the church has burned down. Afterwards, the painter finds herself connected through the lives of the various people in the town. However, the main character, a native Spanish speaker, is unable to understand the various citizens of the town.

"I wanted to deal with a narrator who wasn’t quite sure of anything," Gomez-Vega said. "Much of the novel is about total displacement."

The novel, which deals with strong themes of lesbianism, was picked up by a small-press publishing house.

"I was only paid $400 and that was it," Gomez-Vega said. "I wouldn’t recommend anyone try to make a living at [working as a writer]."

Despite good reviews from both Lambda, an LGBT magazine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Librarian’s Association, Gomez-Vega doubts the book would have had much success in a mainstream audience if published today.

"It’s a gay novel written by a Latino," Gomez-Vega said. "All our genres and classes are subdivided further into boxes. There is the perception that race dialogue is just black and white. Because of that, it would get very little success."

Still, the novel continues to get a good response from various NIU English professors.

"Her novel is very impressive for a first work," said English professor James Giles. "It’s a good and innovative novel. It’s also very funny."

Others agree with Giles.

"The prose is engaging and interesting. It’s all very well done," said Diana Swanson, associate professor of women studies. "It’s a very enjoyable book."

"Send My Roots Rain" has certainly made an impact on campus, for both students and faculty.

"The book keeps getting stolen from the library," Gomez-Vega said. "It’s very puzzling, but also, very flattering."

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