Jennifer De Leon finally sees her work catch fire
The life of a short story writer can be lonely and discouraging. Success, if it comes at all, arrives in modest increments: You’re published in a literary journal. You get to do a reading.
Jennifer De Leon knows the reality as well as anyone. A schoolteacher in Boston and veteran of innumerable writing classes, workshops, and rejection letters, she considers it a mark of her resilience that she’s been turned down for a Fulbright grant — twice.
But this year De Leon, 36, hit the jackpot, with two high-profile honors. The Boston Book Festival selected her short story “Home Movie” as its One City One Story read for 2015, putting her in the distinguished company of such past winners as Tom Perrotta and Richard Russo. She was also named Children’s Writer-in-Residence at the Boston Public Library, which comes with a $20,000 stipend and an office in the library at Copley Square.
When word came from the Boston Book Festival, De Leon was stunned. “I stared at my laptop for a while and was frozen there,” she said. When the Writer-in-Residence news arrived, “I wanted to scream.”
The citywide recognition is more than just a personal accomplishment for De Leon, whose parents are Guatemalan immigrants, and whose stories feature Latino and Latina characters straddling identities in this country and trying to figure out where they fit in.
She sees it as a gift, too, for readers of color. As she wrote in her application for the Writer-in-Residence position, “I want to allow readers, specifically the growing number of Latinas in the United States, to see themselves represented in literature, to believe that they, too, have stories to tell.”
This fall, some 30,000 copies of her story “Home Movie” about an unhappy Guatemalan couple living in Boston will be available to the public for free, in English and Spanish; it’s being distributed at libraries, bookstores, community organizations, and other venues. There will be a discussion about the story at the Boston Book Festival, branch libraries will schedule conversations around it, and high school teachers will use it as part of their curriculum.
“The great thing about Jenn’s story is that a lot of the themes it raises, whether memory or connection or family, are things that resonate with many readers,” said Norah Piehl, deputy director of the Boston Book Festival. “We were really drawn to the fact that it was set in a family of recent immigrants to Boston.”
The Writer-in-Residence program judges were likewise impressed by her perspective and assured voice. She submitted an excerpt from a young adult novel she’s working on, “Volar,” about a 14-year-old girl whose family moves from a Latino neighborhood in Boston to a wealthy suburb.
“Her story braves many complex themes, including adolescence, sexuality, navigating ethnicity, class, and family, and forging an identity,” said Katharine Whittemore, who writes the Globe’s “Seven Books About” column and was one of the judges. The program is sponsored by the Associates of the Boston Public Library, an independent nonprofit that conserves, digitizes, and promotes the BPL’s special collections of rare books and other historically significant items, and also underwrites some salaries of BPL staff.
De Leon had only to mine her personal story for material. She was born in Jamaica Plain; her father painted computer parts for a living and her mother cleans houses, as does Linda Ramírez, the protagonist of “Home Movie.” De Leon’s parents were schooled in Guatemala through eighth grade and “lived vicariously through us,” said De Leon, who is one of three sisters. The family moved to Framingham when she was 2 “because they wanted us to live the quintessential American dream.”
They did, in many ways, but it wasn’t without a struggle, De Leon said in an interview at Boston Public Library. She’s a warm woman with a huge smile, described as “all heart” by a colleague.
Growing up, De Leon was acutely aware of her social status. “I noticed the difference between other kids and myself,” she said. Friends were traveling during the summer, or going to camp, “and I was baby-sitting for my peers’ younger siblings on Saturday nights, thinking why aren’t I doing archery?”
She won a scholarship to Connecticut College. She thrived there, but her feelings of being an outsider — a woman of Latin American descent in a predominantly white system — intensified.
“It felt like everybody had secret notes that I didn’t have. How to do school, how to interact with professors. I’d hear friends say, “I need money,” and I’d think I need money too, but then they’d stop at an ATM,” De Leon said.
But college offered opportunities: writing classes, worldwide travel, an internship at Ms. magazine in New York one summer, and with a United Nations agency in Nigeria the next. It also inspired the anthology of essays she went on to edit, “Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education,” a 2014 collection of narratives by Latina writers reflecting on their college experiences. It’s the book she wished she had had when she was in college.
“It would have validated my feelings and my questions and my experience of being one of the first in my family to go to college and to live away from home,” she said. “I wouldn’t have turned to a sociology book. It’s like a chorus of sisters.”
After college and a stint as a congressional aide, De Leon switched gears and worked as a third-grade teacher with Teach for America in San Jose, Calif., earning her master’s degree in teaching on evenings and weekends. Later, back in Boston, she taught at Community Academy, an alternative high school, and took writing classes at Boston Center for Adult Education, Emerson College, and GrubStreet, the independent creative writing center. In 2010, she earned an MFA in fiction at University of Massachusetts Boston. Summers have been filled with writers’ workshops and conferences; this summer, she was selected as a fiction scholar at the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont.
”You throw your hat in the ring but don’t really expect to get it,” said De Leon. “This was the summer where everything just kind of happened.”
De Leon teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English at Boston Teachers Union School in Jamaica Plain, and teaches writing part time at GrubStreet. She’s almost completed a novel, “In the Country of Memory,” about the couple in her story “Home Movie.” She’s been working on it for more than six years.
De Leon is realistic about living a creative life. “It’s a luxury,” she said. “Being a writer is a privilege.”
She has been married since 2012 to Adam Stumacher (“a Jewish boy from New Hampshire”), also a writer and schoolteacher, who this year is a fellow at the Boston College Lynch Leadership Academy. They live in Milton with son, Mateo, 2.
Their first date was in the courtyard at the Boston Public Library; two years later, Stumacher proposed to De Leon there.
Today, she has an office in the same building. It’s one of the tales she loves to tell.