I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.

On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.


February 1, 2017: Derek Palacio

Ulises Encarnación did not believe in fate.

And into the hands of a storyteller I fell. In a matter of seconds the characters in Derek Palacio’s debut novel, The Mortifications, dance above a fire while I sit in rapt attention–the twins Ulises and Isabel, their mother Soledad, and Willems and Uxbal. Throw in Cuba and tobacco farming and a bit of the the unlikely in the state of Connecticut.

In their new house in Hartford, Ulises thinks,

Each room in the heavy house was its own lonely cell—the doors were made of hardwood and were as dark as volcano mud—and Ulises got into the habit of closing all the doors all the time, ostensibly to trap what little heat he found steaming from the cast-iron accordions, which were in every room, placed always under a low, milky window.

Isabel, at the age of seventeen, wonders at “the detachment she felt from her own skin.”

bookAnd Soledad, speaking to Ulises, says,

[Y]our father needed us to be miserable or, at least, to pretend to be miserable so that others would join his stupid cause. No one starts a rebellion when you can make salsa and brew your own beer and sit outside all night with one candle and tell stories. Revolution derives from discontent, my love.

In the following passage, Ulises articulates the difference between, on the one hand, his father and his mother’s new beau, and, on the other, his sister and mother:

And in that wistful look of his mother, Ulises finally understood the connection between the Dutchman and his rebel father; both men were inclined toward reason and fancy, and the tension of opposing forces, the power of separate wants, perhaps more powerful even than his mother or sister’s unidirectional wanting, was the origin of each man’s exceptional gusto.

This duality, the tension of opposing forces, can be seen and felt throughout the book–in the twins, in the two men in Soledad’s life, in the two countries, in the characters themselves. Below Willems describes to Ulises how he feels about Soledad, suggesting it’s the same way Ulises feels about his sister:

She’s two people; one you know and possess, and the other, which is the greater part, pulls her away from you.

Jason Sheehan for NPR describes The Mortifications as “hot sun and cool rain.”

Some books are storms. Others are weather. Derek Palacio’s debut novel, The Mortifications, is very much the latter. It is hot sun and cool rain, morning fog and the hum of a fan in the window. It ranges and roams, this book. When it settles onto a moment, it does so with the weight of ten butterflies.

In an interview at Fiction Writers Review, Derek talks about what of himself can be found in Ulises and Isabel.

Most obviously I gave my characters, especially Ulises and Isabel, my anxieties… Ulises’ experience is the one I imagine for myself. I have notions of Cuba handed down to me from my father, but little else to go on… It is the feeling of being drawn in by a place, but not recognizing it, or not feeling as though you could ever really be comfortable there, ever reconcile that history of distance and remove (which I think is a perpetual issue for people of diaspora). What I see of myself in Isabel is perhaps a bit more abstract. One of her major concerns is whether or not our faith in people and places can evolve in the face of change, whether or not those beliefs can find new meaning under new circumstances. This is also an element to my relationship with Cuba, one that I will finally explore in real life when I visit the island. I will be confronted by the reality of the country, and I will have to weigh that against the idea of the island I have built from my research and my father’s memories. I will have to build a new relationship with Cuba, both as a Cuban-American and as a writer …

Dinaw Mengestu, for The New York Times, writes that these larger-than-life characters are

bound to something greater than themselves through tragedy, and it’s in the depiction of that glorious tragedy, and all the love and devotion that come with it, that Palacio’s novel becomes more than just epic. It becomes extraordinary.


Come back on FEBRUARY 1st* to read how DEREK PALACIO spends his days.

*In the meantime, you can read how Derek’s wife spends her days–yes, as of this February, we’ll have our first husband/wife writers in the series.