In the months following the 9/11 attacks, Victoria Garza moved from New York, where she was a graduate student at NYU, to Los Angeles and began writing.
“I was writing as a way to get out of the grief of that catastrophe,” she recalls during a recent phone call.
As she wrote, though, Garza began to reflect upon another tragedy, a personal one that occurred many years earlier and is recounted in her debut memoir, “The Field,” which is out now.
In 1978, when Garza was 10 years old and living in Ohio, her younger sister and one of her younger cousins were killed in a car accident. Throughout “The Field,” Garza bends time, merging recollections from the late 1970s and her life in New York with other events in the author’s personal history. Interspersed within this narrative are recollections, called memorias, about the accident from Garza’s family members.
“It was my more journalism, documentary filmmaker side of me that wanted to hear what that particular day meant for these individual characters in my family,” says Garza of her decision to include the voices of other family members who were impacted by the death of the two young girls. She adds that the choice, an unusual one for a memoir, allowed her to incorporate her own “Studs Terkel-style of documentary writing” into the text, while also helping her better understand something that happened when Garza herself was just a child.
In “The Field” Garza includes the memories of her parents, grandmother, aunts and cousins. Their perspectives help emphasize a larger point. Garza says, “Death doesn’t only happen to one person, but it expands outward and touches the entire family.”
Moreover, Garza’s incorporation of multiple recollections illustrates how individual memory is. No one remembers that day in precisely the same way. “My cousin Peggy, who was actually in the accident, has very little recollection,” Garza notes. “She was only 15 years old and she was in shock for most of that experience, so I wanted to capture that as well.”
A theme connecting Garza’s personal story and those shared by her family is spirituality. “For me, my spiritual path has been a meandering kind of experience. I started delving into lots of different eastern philosophical modes of understanding about spirituality and about religion and about my own upbringing,” says Garza. “What I appreciate about my own upbringing in this big Catholic, Mexican-American family is that it gave me a vocabulary to start with. It gave me a foundation to think about these things.”
Garza grew up in a family that practiced its faith. “It was very personal for my mother,” she says. “Living with her, it wasn’t just about going to church on Sunday. She was very dedicated and a very service-oriented individual, so I grew up with that in general.”
As the years went by, Garza began to investigate other religious paths. She learned about Buddhism and studied at Los Angeles’ Kriya Yoga-centric Self-Realization Fellowship. Garza says that, while writing the book, she learned more about the “perennial truths” that connect various religious paths and how people’s relationship to spirituality changes in the midst of tragedy.
“I don’t consider myself a religious person because I don’t practice any one particular religious form of thought, but I have cultivated across many practices, my own personal spiritual practice, which is pretty important to me and really has never flown in the face of any of my own understanding about reality or science or anything like that. They’ve always been very complementary,” says Garza. “I tried to pull that into the book by bringing in what I think other learned people have to say on the subject and also the way in which science and spirit meld together.”
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Knotting together these threads is the insight of other writers that Garza has gleaned over the years. One who appears in the book multiple times is Pablo Neruda. “His writing seemed to be something that, while a very fine art, was also extremely accessible to me,” she says, noting that she had a particular affinity to his poetry collections that were published in English and Spanish. “I could go back and forth and I could stay attached to the language of my parents and grandparents, because Spanish was still spoken a lot,” she says. “Also, English is my first language, so that was a way for me to connect.”
It’s Garza’s own love of reading that helps shape this very personal story. “I’m an avid reader, so it was a way to thread in what other people thought about death and about loss and grief,” she says.
In fact, Garza was so engrossed with the reading that it took a while to realize that she had written her own book. She says, “I was enjoying the process of it so much, it wasn’t until about five years ago, I would say, that some of my author friends who looked at the manuscript and said, ‘You know this is a book, right?’”