A story about Latina literature, courage and the Land of Possibilities

The wonderful American writer talks about an author's side of book-publishing, a reality for many of her peers.  Jane Heil Usyk has written this important book, not to be missed in Nuyorican culture criticism. She has also been a writer for VOGUE and HIT PARADER in the 60's, getting ready to publish her amazing interviews with pretty much every band of the then up-coming Rock n' Roll era. She knows New York inside out, and I personally am hoping for her book of New-York-stories from the city's grand times.

Read her diary-like essay and see why many best books become gems in the drawer.


Why it took me fifteen years to produce my first book

    by Jane Heil

 I went back to school in 1997, to City College of New York, because a friend had presented me with a job: teaching college kids how to pass the entrance exam to Touro College.   I could start the job without a Master’s Degree, but I had to start working toward the degree, because most college teachers had to have at least a master’s.  Preferably a Ph.D., but I didn’t have to.  I could just go for one to three years and get the master’s.  

 I was almost sixty years old, and hadn’t been inside a classroom in about thirty years (and when I had been there, it was a rocky road; I started getting the bachelor’s in 1957 and finished in 1971; don’t ask).  

 So I started taking classes in upper Manhattan while I was teaching in Brooklyn.  I was supposed to take five courses per semester, but I managed to take only three or four, to make it less stressful.  So that took about two years.  Then I needed to hand in a thirty-five-page paper on a literary topic.  I hadn’t thought about it before this, and was therefore kind of vague about it.   I also didn’t have an advisor.  I knew the subject had to be feminist, and not about white English or American literature; there was already too much of that.  (These are my own requirements and strictures, not CCNY’s; those were my interests and concerns.)  I had taken African-American Literature and colonial literature, Caribbean literature and African literature.  I was thinking and writing about them all.

 During the day I was teaching math and English to my students in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.  They were mostly enthusiastic but undereducated teenagers: Hispanics, blacks, Haitians, Poles, Egyptians, Chinese, and others.  A motley crew.  The Hispanic kids were mainly Puerto Rican and Dominican, and I finally decided to write about the literature of Puerto Rican women, especially coming-of-age stories, which I thought were more relevant to my teenaged students than other forms of literature.

 So that was the beginning.  I only stayed in Sunset Park four years, and then I moved to Manhattan, 23rd Street and East Harlem.  But most of my students were still Hispanic, Dominican and Puerto Rican.  

 I had trouble finding an advisor at CCNY; there weren’t many professors who specialized in Latina literature.  One who did was Lyn di Iorio, who I had had as a teacher and who was Puerto Rican herself.  She became my advisor and I wrote ideas and plans for my paper for her every week and brought them in to her, but it took months until we settled on a topic.  She chose the title: “Silence, Storytelling, and Madness: Strategies of Resistance in Nuyorican and Other Latina Women’s Coming-of-Age Stories.”  Quite a mouthful, and I actually added “and Other Latina Women’s” to it when I got going, because I was taking ideas from Latinas from Texas and California and Chicago, so it wasn’t JUST Nuyorican.  Oh, plus, I found out later that not very many people have heard the word “Nuyorican” and know it means people from both New York and Puerto Rico.  So I have been having to tell a lot of people what it means.  I thought everyone would know already.  But once you get out of New York City, no one knows.  

 I spent two years writing away on my topic and reading a lot of critical books and re-reading the coming-of-age novels and stories that were my main subject.  Lyn di Iorio was very rigorous, and I had to keep adding to my reading and rewriting.  The paper got longer; it only needed to be 35 pages, but it doubled and then nearly tripled.  In the end it was about 90 pages long!  And had a bibliography that was huge and unnecessary!  (I mean, it was necessary for the paper, but not for the graduation requirements.) But it was my work, and I thought about it and read about it endlessly, and finally one day--abruptly--it was finished.  I hadn’t expected it to be finished, but Professor di Iorio stood up and hugged me and said it was finished to her satisfaction, and there was a little more conversation, and I left.  And then I graduated, class of 2000.  

 She had not said anything about publishing it, so I figured it wasn’t quite good enough to publish.  So I stashed it in my apartment while I continued to teach.  Ten years went by.  Twelve, actually.  I lost my job (the entire department was closed down), and I was at home wondering what to do.  Meanwhile, self-publishing had become easier to do and much more popular.  The computer, online self-publishing sites, and Amazon had contributed to this phenomenon. 

 I had to keep busy, yet it was unlikely a woman in her seventies was going to be hired by younger people (and everyone was younger!).  So in March of 2012 I talked to a publishing friend about all the unpublished manuscripts I had lying around my apartment, and he recommended that instead of publishing poetry or a novel or a memoir or essays, I publish my only work of literary criticism, my thesis.  I got busy proofreading various versions of it.  In all, there were about eleven or twelve proofreading sessions, and at the end of that I, a professional proofreader, found at least four more errors!  Unbelievable.  Instead of fixing them, which I was too tired to do, I left them there.  I would fix them later; I really didn’t have the energy to fix them now. 

 I had a very good production person working with me, and she designed a wonderful cover using my husband’s, an artist’s, art work.  Plus beautiful fonts and colors.  

 But it all took time, and money; the production and an indexer cost me about $1200 altogether, and it took eighteen months to finish.  I thought it would only take a few months, maybe three or six.  But it kept on going, from March, 2012, through to August, 2013.  And that was with the four errors that I just found and was too exhausted to fix.  

 Okay, now it was Fall of 2013 and I was finished (to my satisfaction) with the book and ordered fifty copies to send out for review.  I am just beginning to do that.  At least it is a different operation from proofreading, so that gives me more energy.  I hope at least some people will read and enjoy it, and reviewers will not be too harsh.  

 And that is how it took me fifteen years to produce my first book.  1999 to 2013.  Well, my friends had advised me to regard the experience of publishing a first book as a learning experience.  So maybe the next one will not take fifteen years.  I will be 88 years old if it does, and I have several others I want to publish.  So the next books, I hope, will take much less time, maybe a year or two each.  Or three or four.  When you get into your seventies and eighties, you don’t have the luxury of taking fifteen years to produce a book.  Or anything else. 

Contact:  www.janeheilusyk.com

e-mail address janemike@mac.com

Posted 3rd September by ForumofWorldCultures