How ordinary lives intersect with extraordinary terror is a central theme of Natalia Sylvester’s “Chasing the Sun.” Born in Lima, Peru, Sylvester, 30, tells the story of a couple whose family life is upended by a seemingly random kidnapping. Set against the backdrop of political turmoil in 1992 Peru, the suspenseful book depicts what happens to an imperfect marriage when it faces a life-or-death test.
We spoke to Sylvester about her debut novel and her writing:
How much of this story was inspired by your own family events?
NS: My grandfather was kidnapped in Lima when I was three years old. Although I was too young to remember it, he was held ransom for about 60 days. My father was the person who ended up having to negotiate with the kidnappers, arrange a price, bargain for my grandfather’s life. I only found out about the kidnapping when I was 12, when I noticed that my grandfather had a full-time bodyguard… It (the kidnapping) was never a secret in my family, but it was something that was not talked about. Maybe that was our coping mechanism. As I got older, I started to wonder how such an event affected my family, and I decided to explore those questions in my writing. The characters in the novel are not based on my family, but some of the questions I had were the spark of inspiration for the novel.
What compelled you to write this story?
NS: I had a lot of questions about my grandfather’s kidnapping that I was afraid to ask my family. I actually wrote the first draft of this book without mentioning it to anyone. Then the more I got into it, the story wasn’t coming together. As it turned out, my grandfather was willing to talk about those events, he brought them up on his own…. I spent all these years thinking he didn’t want to talk about it, and I was wrong. I spoke with my dad about the kidnapping, and I got to know a different side of him, too.
What is the significance of your title, “Chasing The Sun?”
I chose it because I felt like a lot of my characters are searching, chasing something beyond their reach. That resonated with me. Also, the sun is an important part of Peruvian heritage. In Inca culture, the sun (Inti) was worshipped as a god, it was the name of our first currency unit, Inti. Even today, the (Peruvian) currency is still known as Nuevo Sol (new sun). The sun is very ingrained in our culture, so it made sense to have it in the title.
What do you hope that people take away from your novel?
NS: I kind of hope that it leaves them feeling… a bit ambiguous, because life is ambiguous. Sometimes in fiction, we expect clear-cut stories with a happy ending, everything tied up. I hope people realize that we can find our own happiness in life, strength in our struggles. In my book, the relationships are tested by the kidnapping, but it is not the only thing going on… I guess I would like readers to examine and take a closer look at situations in our own lives, and be okay with that ambiguity, and to find our own truths within that.
Do you have any advice for aspiring Latino authors?
NS: I think you have to keep writing, keep going, despite any doubts you may have or fear of failure. Especially for Latinos, it is important that we stay uncompromising about the kinds of stories we want to tell. We may be Peruvian-American or Colombian-American, but we are still part of the American narrative. And the audience is there, even if it might not seem like it. Don’t just go to the diversity panel at writing conferences, be part of the larger conversations too. We (Latino writers) deserve just as much representation as anybody else.