LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Loteria is a kind of Mexican version of bingo. Instead of calling out numbers, the dealer turns over cards with pictures that match those on the board while calling out a riddle that corresponds with the picture - the spider, the rooster, the mermaid, the bottle. "Loteria" is also the name of the debut novel by Mario Alberto Zambrano. It too is a series of riddles, episodes in the life of an 11-year-old girl named Luz. She is a Mexican-American girl in the custody of the state. Each chapter corresponds with a colorful Loteria card which piqued the imagination of the author when he was little boy.
MARIO ALBERTO ZAMBRANO: And I would ask my mother, I was like, you know, are these tarot cards? Can we, you know, tell someone's fortune if we deal them in a certain way. And she would laugh at me and sort of say, no, you know, they're just a game. But I think as a kid I'd always wanted them to mean something more.
WERTHEIMER: Now, in your book we gradually learn the story of Luz. She seems to be in some kind of institution. She's been in this place for five days. She seems to have a notebook. She has a Loteria deck. So, the scene is set for what?
ZAMBRANO: I remember writing that first card. And I tried to inhabit her mind and her voice and I knew that I wanted her to be sort of mute and unable to speak about what had happened to her. And I wanted her to have a dialogue with herself and sort of with a higher presence so that she could have the freedom to evaluate who she was as a person, who her family members were as people and what her past was and what it meant and how she had gotten here. And I thought the cards were a great way to sort of direct her.
WERTHEIMER: Now, during the course of the early part of the book, Luz does tell us some facts. Her sister is in intensive care, her mother is missing, her father has been arrested. We don't get details at first but then she starts to turn over the cards and each card prompts a part of the story. Could you read from the chapter called "La Botella." It's a story that Luz writes about her father and the bottle, which is, obviously, a bottle of booze looking at the picture.
ZAMBRANO: Sure. I'd love to. (Reading) When he wasn't looking, I used to look at the label and see if there was a face in it next to papi's. There were those nights when his eyes would get bloodshot and I'd want to drink with him - not a lot, just a sip, so I could see what it was like to become him, to be someone else and to knock things over without caring. I didn't want to hit anyone or hurt anyone; I just wanted to know where it came from, to figure out why he did what he did because it wasn't coming from him. It was coming from that man in the bottle, Don Pedro. He'd get inside papi's head and in his blood and shake him until he turned into someone else.
WERTHEIMER: Her father seems to be very important to her. She writes a lot about him.
ZAMBRANO: She does. I think it's a complicated relationship that she has with her father because, of course, she's a witness and victim of his abuse, but at the same time, she sees his circumstances and she empathizes with how hard it's been for him to move to America and to try to make a better life, not only for himself but for his family.
WERTHEIMER: Let me ask you about the voice of Luz. She pretty much accepts her life and her family, and no matter what happens she loves them, despite all of the disasters. She doesn't seem to be particularly tragic. She seems to be a kind of matter-of-fact little girl. I mean, where did you find the voice of Luz?
ZAMBRANO: I mean, there's a lot of who I was as a young boy in Luz in terms of questioning God and also my questions on identity, whether I was American or whether I was Mexican. But then there was something in the terms of, like, I've never been in an abusive family and I can't really comprehend what it would really be like. But I tried to take on and empathize with her so much that I think when her voice arrived, from that moment onwards I was just sort of tuning into her voice.
WERTHEIMER: The thing that, I mean, obviously, as you proceed through the deck and she proceeds through the stories, she eventually tells us just about everything. It is a dramatic and really kind of terrifying chronicle that Luz writes here. I don't think we want to tell the whole story but I'd like a little bit more of your story, which is one of the things I wondered about was this transition from ballet dancer to novelist. How did that happen?
ZAMBRANO: I am still trying to answer that question. I started dancing when I was 11 years old and I was so passionate about it. And it went really well. But I think I went so fast through that career that I crashed, and so I quit. And I had no idea what in the world I was going to do. And I started taking classes of literature and I fell in love. 'Cause I'd always had a creative itch. You know, from the dancing, I wanted to be a choreographer, and I was a choreographer. But to be a choreographer, your instruments are people and you have to be very sensitive to them and it's a completely different dynamic. And so finally I had found something where I could, in a sense, choreograph a ballet but on the page and I could move them around. You know, the words and sentences are like phrases of dance movement. But I won't ever dance again, that's for sure. It would be way too painful and I'm happy with the idea that dancing was my youth but now I'm spending my time writing.
WERTHEIMER: Mario Alberto Zambrano is the author of "Loteria." He joined us from the studios of the Maine Public Broadcasting Network in Bangor. Thank you very much.
ZAMBRANO: Thank you for having me.