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Memoir leads author to self-enrichment

Memoirs can, at times, seem both self-serving and self-absorbed.

In the text-speak, those kinds of writing are referred to as TMI – too much information.

But writers such as Esmeralda Santiago use the art of the memoir to pass on a larger message. In such books as “Cuando era Puertorriqueña” (“When I was Puerto Rican”) and “Casi una mujer” (“Almost a Woman”), Santiago strives to be what she terms as “culturally ambidextrous.”

“The process of writing my memoirs involved solitary and painful self-examination,” Santiago wrote on her online diary (Esmeraldasantiago.com). “One of the things I noticed was how many people with the same or similar names taught me unforgettable lessons.”

Santiago, who is also a novelist, lives in New York with her husband, filmmaker Frank Cantor. She will share some of the lessons she talks about during a series of free events on Thursday on Eastern Washington University’s Cheney campus.

She’ll give a lecture based on her books at 1 p.m. at EWU’s JFK Library. That event will be followed at 3 p.m. by a screening of the film “Writing a Life,” an hourlong documentary about Santiago and her work. And, finally, Santiago will speak at 7 p.m. at Showalter Auditorium.

Santiago’s name is familiar to fans of public television. “Almost a Woman” was made into a PBS special as part of a series devoted to the “growing body of American literature (that) deals with the particular challenge of coming-of-age in a new country.”

That describes Santiago perfectly. A native of Puerto Rico, Santiago – the oldest of 11 children – was just 13 when she moved with her family to New York in 1961. She ultimately received degrees from Harvard University and Sarah Lawrence College.

When asked why she began writing a memoir, Santiago echoed the sentiments represented in Thomas Wolfe’s classic novel “You Can’t Go Home Again”: As she wrote on PBS.org, she was thrown into the past when she returned to Puerto Rico following her graduation from Harvard.

She’d been gone from her native island for a dozen years.

“I was very proud of myself – the daughter of the island of enchantment returns!” Santiago wrote. “But to my surprise, I had a very negative reception. Many Puerto Ricans questioned my ‘Puerto Rican-ness,’ because I had lived in the United States for so long.”

When she returned to the U.S., she wrote, “I began to write about these issues, really for myself so I could understand them.”

And while Santiago’s experiences are grounded in her Puerto Rican culture, the message that she tries to communicate speaks to a larger audience. That’s been proven to her through the many letters she’s received from all types of readers.

“For instance, somebody would write and say, ‘I grew up in Kentucky, but when I went to school in Connecticut it was like learning a whole new culture,’ ” Santiago wrote. “The letter has nothing to do with being Puerto Rican, or a woman, or having Spanish as a first language, or moving to New York. It really has to do with an experience that is universal: the experience of being faced with something new in which your identity is challenged.”

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