Melissa Rivero is a lawyer and now a debut novelist. As a child, she was an undocumented immigrant from Peru, living in New York City. Her book, “The Affairs of the Falcóns,” is about Ana and Lucho, a married couple who, in the 1990s, flee a tumultuous Peru with their two children to live in New York. The novel focuses on Ana and her attempts to forge a future while navigating the hurdles faced by an undocumented resident. Despite the parallels to her own family’s experience, Rivero didn’t set out to write an autobiographical story, even though it was initially inspired by an anecdote from her mother. Below, Rivero talks about how becoming a parent changed the book, what she wants her own children to learn from the novel and more.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
I got the idea to write it about eight years ago. My mother had told me about an incident that happened to her very early on in our lives here. It stayed with me. If I gave too many details about it, I’d for sure be giving too much away. But it was something that made her become wary of people and their intentions, including family members. Eight years ago was when I first started to imagine what it might feel like to be put in the situation she was put in.
It was always meant to be fiction. I never wanted to write anything autobiographical — that particular incident was just the seed and got me started. It’s how I discovered the character of Ana, my book’s protagonist.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
When I started writing, it was fun, to see where this character led me — to discover her world and put the pieces of the puzzle together. But as I started to flesh out her story, I realized that I myself had a fear as a child of having my parents taken away from me, or of being taken away from my siblings. A lot of that fear was the impetus for me writing this. I didn’t realize that I was sort of healing old wounds.
I thought I would never fear that separation again, but then I became a mother. That enhanced my understanding of Ana and her choices. I think that’s why she’s so adamant about not having her children live with her mother-in-law in Peru. She doesn’t want anyone else raising them.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
I didn’t have an agenda when I started writing it. I really was just playing. Then I realized I have a lot of things to say about the world these characters inhabit and their struggles. Ana is not a character who is unfamiliar to me. I live in a community where being undocumented is just something that some people are. I’m also an attorney, and a woman who inhabits different worlds.
Quite frankly, and maybe this is me being cynical, but I wasn’t surprised at the 2016 election. I was disappointed. I’m very mindful that my husband is an immigrant, but he’s European, he’s white. His experience is very different from that of people who aren’t white or European. And I have two boys who are very white-presenting. I needed to make sure that my boys understood what it is to be a woman who’s undocumented and living in this country. They have privilege that many people don’t have. I wanted to capture some of the strength and grit you need to survive in this world. I wanted them to understand their responsibility in uplifting and sustaining people like Ana, people like me.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
I used to work for the Martha Graham Dance Company as a lawyer. I admire dancers a lot. There was something really visceral and strong about Martha Graham and her choreography — the way she captured motion in her body. It’s like how I try to feel for my characters. If there’s anything I have learned as a writer, it’s that unless I feel what the character is feeling in my body, it’s not worth putting on the page.
I used to belly dance, and I was part of a group. There was something about giving myself over to my artistic director’s process that helped me be a little more patient when it came to writing, and helped me to trust in any creative process a little more.
Persuade someone to read “The Affairs of the Falcóns” in 50 words or less.
If you want to read about a determined and complex human being who loves her family and would do anything for them and for her dreams, then you should read this book. And then maybe think about who you end up electing into office.
This interview has been condensed and edited.