Jennifer Givhan, a Mexican American and Indigenous author-turned-poet, offers powerful, diverse representation in all of her work. Her latest novel River Woman, River Demon is a psychological thriller following Eva Santos Moon, a Chicana artist and practicing bruja whose husband is accused of murdering their friend. When she remembers a similarly carried-out murder from her childhood, she finds herself a suspect and no longer knows who to trust – least of all herself.
Sofía Aguilar and Jennifer Givhan hopped on Zoom to discuss River Woman, River Demon, magical realism, and her beginnings as a writer.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: When did your love of storytelling begin?
JENNIFER GIVHAN: I grew up in the Imperial Valley, which is a small border town on the Mexico border of Southern California. It was a remote place in terms of being a bit disconnected from the mainstream. I was raised in a place that felt like its own world. It had its own mythos and stories. My mom is Catholic and she would often tell stories about miracles, faith, curses, and demons. My parents would read to me all the storybooks where there was a lot of rhyme and lyricism and whimsy and magic. I was steeped in story and that had a major influence on me.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: You often incorporate magical realism and surrealism into your work. What calls you about that genre?
JENNIFER GIVHAN: I write about healing. Healing myself and my family, healing the bloodlines going back to my mom, my grandma, my great-grandma. Healing the injustices that were done specifically to women, but also Latinx and Indigenous people. Then going forward and healing the future with my daughter and allowing that work to happen.
With magical realism and surrealism, you’re in the dreamscape, the subconscious, the psyche. It’s what I call the underbelly, this beautiful space where women and marginalized people are safe. These spaces that seem at first to be dark, sometimes even monstrous, but that’s the layer of protection that guards what society has done to us. Once we get past that, the scar tissue and the wound inside, it can be so beautiful and protective and safe.
In magical realism, I’m allowed to play with all of that and it’s real. It embodies my creative writing process and my poetics. At the core of everything is my personal experience and a personal, deeply held belief and desire. When I write with magical realism, I’m able to allow those things to just be and exist.
We’re still stereotyped, ostracized. I want to show that we’re human. I want our stories to be ours in whatever iteration that we need to tell them.Jennifer Givhan
SOFÍA AGUILAR: How does your identity inform your writing?
JENNIFER GIVHAN: So much of my writing is a reclamation going back through that ancestral history and reclaiming the language that colonization and white supremacy have stripped from us. For me, culture is a way of connecting to my ancestors and celebrating my childhood, my mom’s childhood, my grandparents’ childhood, giving that gift to my daughter as well as my son, and highlighting all the different aspects of the culture because I don’t write in a stereotypical way.
The publishing world doesn’t publish enough Latinx and Indigenous writing but then a lot of the time, they’re looking for a very specific story that fits with the white mainstream culture’s idea of what it’s like to be Latinx and Indigenous. We’re still stereotyped, ostracized. I want to show that we’re human. I want our stories to be ours in whatever iteration that we need to tell them.
The more of us that tell our stories, the more complete of a picture we’ll see. The publishing industry and the media have a responsibility to open spaces for Latinx people to tell our stories. I will keep writing my stories as long as I possibly can, and I hope that other Latinx and Indigenous people will feel encouraged to do so as well.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: How did you get inspired to write River Woman, River Demon?
JENNIFER GIVHAN: I was so engrossed by this idea of someone whose reality was slippery, purposefully, or because they’d gone through some kind of trauma and were then struggling with mental health concerns. I felt like I was able to get at some of the mental health issues that I was going through. I also love murder mysteries. And as usual, I was blurring reality, imagination, the magical world with the mundane, the sacred with what might be sacrilegious. I wanted to hold all these oppositions up and be like, “No, they’re all true.” It was such a release and there was a strange joy in writing about things that are kind of dark because I was able to break taboos and say what I think so many of us actually do think to a certain extent. There was a relief in that – it felt like medicine.
I wanted to show how the spirituality, the folk magic, the sense of connection to the spiritual world literally does protect marginalized people, whether you believe it or not.Jennifer Givhan
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What do you love about the main character Eva?
JENNIFER GIVHAN: It was a lot of fun to be in her perspective because she’s an unreliable narrator, not because she wants to be, but because she’s really grappling around in this space. She misunderstands and misinterprets so many things and so there was a lot of room as a writer to play with that. I know what’s really going on, but she doesn’t necessarily. It was fun to place those red herrings and double meanings. And I enjoyed learning along with Eva as well.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What do you hope people take away from the book?
JENNIFER GIVHAN: I hope that they see Eva as a complete person, a human with flaws, and still be able to empathize with her and root for her. She’s a mom who’s not always doing the things that society expects moms to do, especially Latina moms, and I feel like that’s important. Again, we are not a monolith. We are all people, and we have our own take on how to survive and get through this life. I wanted to show how the spirituality, the folk magic, the sense of connection to the spiritual world literally does protect marginalized people, whether you believe it or not. But I want it to open up this space for possibility, even if you don’t come away practicing it yourself.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What has been an important lesson you’ve learned over the course of your career?
JENNIFER GIVHAN: You knock on that door to the publishing world and if they don’t answer, go around, find a fire escape, climb up that fire escape, knock in the window, get inside and then fling the doors open. That’s how I’ve seen it, because I’ve gotten countless rejections, thousands of rejections over the years for my poems, stories, essays, books.
I always set my goals and my expectations and my hopes very high but I have to remember that every step forward is still a step forward for myself and everyone else whose stories that I want to be out there and told. So yes, I have these lofty goals and I do need to keep pursuing publishing and applying for these grants and awards and never, never, never give up.