Cover Image: Suburban Souls

An Interview with Maria Espinosa

“I’m proud to say, I’ve just turned 82,” says author Maria Espinosa.

“I’d love to take a painting class or a sculpture class. But, no, no, I just feel, ‘Maria, you haven’t finished your work yet. You have X number of novels, stories you’ve got to complete, and you’ve got to do your damnedest to get them out in the world. And that’s what you were born on earth to do. When I was much younger, I wanted to be a dancer and actress, a singer, anything but a writer.” Asked if it takes a kind of courage to write, Espinosa replied, m“Oh, very much so. Even more so as you get older, to go against the prevailing currents and to write what you need to write, whether it’s popular or not.”

Happily for us, Espinosa has continued to write, and her fifth and most recent novel, Suburban Souls, was just published by Tailwinds Press. It tells the story of Jewish German Holocaust survivors in 1970s San Francisco. 

All her books have Jewish themes. Unexpectedly so, she says, as her parents were deliberately non-observant. Espinosa’s previous novels include Longing, which won the prestigious American Book Award. Born Paula Cronbach, she met the Chilean writer Mario Antonio Espinosa Wellmann in Paris and entered a turbulent marriage. She lived in the San Francisco Bay area most of her adult life, but moved to Albuquerque nine years ago when her daughter Carmen, a dancer and social worker, also moved there. 

Suburban Souls explores the psychological terrors of modern domesticity, but each character is drawn with such empathy that the reader is able to see them in a forgiving light. Saul and Gerda tear their marriage apart, leaving a mark on their teenage daughter, Hannah, who loves them both. As the reader is drawn into this tumultuous world, we find our own struggles illuminated, forgiven, and explained in the particular terrors brought about by the isolation and sterility of a modern suburban lifestyle.

Espinosa thinks of her books as psychological. In discussing Suburban Souls, Espinosa said that while she had thought she was writing about people she had known in the Bay Area, she came to realize the story was really about her mother’s life in the suburbs:

ESPINOSA: [My mother] felt quite trapped in her role as a suburban housewife. And the suburb is a character itself in the novel because the suburb was a place that sprang up, right after World War II, a place of housing for children, families, fathers who came home from the war; a place where newcomers who had no roots there came. So people like my mother, like Gerda, were in this town where they had no history or family, had no grandparents, no cousins, no sisters or brothers. Nobody around to offset fear, isolation, and the tremendous burdens it puts on the family. There was no one to relieve that pressure.

DS: And Gerda’s husband, Saul?

ESPINOSA: He’s kind of stuck. So many men that are really burdened by their role being the provider of a family, and by their careers, from the ‘50s on. It was their role to be the provider of the family, to provide the finances, to keep the family going, their ego and their sense of self depended so much on what their role was in the outer world, and it was so easy to ignore the woman home with the kids. ‘She has it easy.’

DS: There’s a lot of sensuality, sex, the fleshiness of them. And then, Gerda comes to that extreme, wanting to kill her children. As I read, I felt myself inside each character.

ESPINOSA: Then the book works! Yes, if you did, because some people might be repelled by Gerda. You have to have a stern backbone to say, ‘Okay, I’m going to look into this disturbed character.’

DS: With Gerda, it was easy to fall into her logic. It was perfectly valid up to a point, and then it just got away from her.

ESPINOSA: A lot of her disturbance came from her family. Her parents died when she was very young, she was raised by an uncle and aunt who were quite invasive and abusive on an emotional level. So she had no firm sense of who she was, no firm sense of identity, or self-esteem, really, only the sense that she was looking for something from Saul, her husband, that he could not give her. He was all enclosed in his own suffering, how he struggled so hard to make a go of it. So, ‘why couldn’t she do the same?’

DS: Does Saul find his way?

ESPINOSA: I think he’s a very valiant soul. He stands by Gerda at the very end. You know he’s going to be there for his children. You know he’s going to stand in and do what he can. Whether he finds another woman, who knows.

DS: So, it’s about fulfillment through relationship?

ESPINOSA: A lot of it is, a lot of it is also the outer world. I mean, the Holocaust was a huge movement where one culture was trying to annihilate a whole other culture. So, when you grow up feeling that a whole group wants to kill you just because of who you are, because you’re Jewish, or whoever you are, it does something to your psyche. And I think in my own life, even though I am not a Holocaust survivor, I am in a historical sense, because I feel it is embedded in my cells and my chromosomes, all the memories of past persecution, the pogroms, all the times I have to flee for my life, in other lives and other bodies, in my ancestors’ lives. So, there it stays with you.

DS: That leaves a person with a void?

ESPINOSA: I think more a sense of danger. You don’t feel at one with the mainstream culture, ever. At any moment to have to flee. Passports, always in order—my mother’s side of the family was that way.

DS: Are you saying that the effect of the Holocaust was to make a person (even in America) feel unwanted, that they had no business being here?

ESPINOSA: Yes, in a subliminal sense, an unconscious if not a conscious sense, very much.

DS: And that could erode one’s own—

ESPINOSA: —confidence.

DS: And then, carried from generation to generation. Then there’s Hannah, Gerda’s daughter.

ESPINOSA: Hannah runs away to get away from her mother, away from the chaos at home.  Gerda, meanwhile, is going crazy with her daughter’s absence. She begs her to come back.

DS: Should Hannah feel guilty about what is happening to Gerda?

ESPINOSA: I don’t know. She probably will feel guilty about it. Yes. But, she also felt that she had to leave Gerda, in order to survive, herself.

Maria Espinosa (born Paula Cronbach) is a novelist, poet, and translator as well as a teacher. Her publications include five novels: her fifth and most recent novel, Suburban Souls, Longing, which received the American Book Award, Dying Unfinished, which received a Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence from PEN Oakland, Incognito: Journey of a Secret Jew, and Dark Plums. She has lived in the San Francisco Bay area most of her adult life and moved to Albuquerque nine years ago.

Diane Joy Schmidt is an award-winning screenwriter, journalist, essayist and photojournalist. Her literary photo-essays appeared this last month in Another Chicago Magazine (A Red-tailed Hawk”), andlast yearin Sweet and Geometry. A five-time Rockower Award winner, she writes for the New Mexico Jewish Link and the Gallup Independent and her work has also appeared regularly in the Chicago Tribune, Hadassah Magazine, TheIntermountain Jewish News and The Navajo Times. In 2020, she received an M.F.A. in Screenwriting and New Media from Antioch University Santa Barbara and her new screenplay Mitzi Gets It has just received Writer-Recommend from the Austin Film Festival.