Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes’ “The Sleeping World” so thoroughly evokes the sights and mood of Spain it seems it could only be written by a native.
But Fuentes didn’t grow up in Madrid. She grew up in Madison.
Fuentes moved to Madison from Dodgeville when she was 2 years old and lived here until she went to college. Her powerful first novel comes out next Tuesday, and she returns to town at 7 p.m. Monday at Barnes & Noble, 7433 Mineral Point Road, to read from the book and sign copies.
“Sleeping World” is set in 1977 Spain, when the country is starting to recover from and reckon with the brutal military dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. While her rebellious friends push the limits of their newfound freedom, for college student Mosca, the mood is anything but jubilant. She’s searching for her younger brother Alexis, taken by the police two years earlier, but who she fervently believes is still alive.
Fuentes didn’t start seriously writing fiction until college, but was heavily involved in theater while living in Madison, which influenced the way she approaches writing.
“’The Sleeping World’ and this new novel I’m working on, they’re both told in the first person,” she said. “For me, voice is really important. It starts with a character and a voice, and that definitely comes from thinking about theater. When I’m writing, I always act things out and think things out in a visual way.”
As a Cuban-American, Fuentes said she was always drawn to Spain, where her father’s ancestors were from, and went to study abroad there during college.
“I fell in love with the city that I was in, Salamanca,” she said. “It’s this very strange city that has one of the oldest universities in the world. It’s this strange city where the young people are super progressive — punks and anarchists and vegans — and the older generation is very conservative. You can feel this weird tension in the city. I was interested in that, and started researching why there were these tensions.”
That research took her back to the 1970s. Instead of looking at the official record, Fuentes was more interested in what the artists and musicians and writers of the day were doing.
“Right after that period is the Movida, which was this big movement in Madrid that (Pedro) Almodovar came out of it. I watched a lot of his early movies and read a lot of Spanish poetry. The novels from that time are interesting because they have to be apolitical enough to pass the (government) censors, but there’s a lot of fascinating things happening in them.”
Diving so deep into another time and place helped Fuentes write about what’s the secret heart of the book — the death of her brother. The world of 1977 Spain was so foreign to her that it gave her enough emotional distance to make Mosca’s journey her own.
“I think that distance allowed me to get into deeper emotions,” she said. “Her path traveling through grief and remembering was a way of mapping my own.”
Even before Mosca finds out what happened to her brother, Alexis appears throughout the book as sort of a spectral presence, contributing monologues as if he were in the room with the other characters.
“I was writing from the space of being haunted,” she said. “When you’ve lost someone there’s a sense that they are in the room. There was a sense that I was walking through the City of the Dead all the time. That seemed like the most realistic and honest way of portraying how I was feeling.”
Fuentes also saw parallels between the struggles she was writing about and the ones she saw on television, from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I was seeing all these images of young people being beaten and attacked,” she said. “Just also that sense of uncertainty. I was really feeling the sense that young people didn’t know where to turn to in order to look for leadership, and were trying to figure it out for themselves. And since then, all these amazing movements have grown.”
It’s that emotional journey that’s front and center in “Sleeping World” more than the actual history. In fact, though the shadow of Franco’s regime hangs over the novel, his name isn’t mentioned once.
“In the early drafts, Spain wasn’t mentioned at all,” she said. “Then I decided that I did want to place it in a specific time and space. But Franco’s name is never mentioned. That’s the signal to the reader that it’s not historical fiction. It’s using that landscape as a means of exploring grief and exploring history.”