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The Mass Media

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Jennifer De Leon, UMass Boston Alumna, Celebrated As Boston’s One City One Story Writer

Jennifer+De+Leon+with+UMass+Boston+staff

Jennifer De Leon with UMass Boston staff

The University of Massachusetts Boston, despite receiving regular critiques for being void of student life, has a way of enriching the lives of students – especially those with penchants for independent creativity –  in a way that may not be possible on many other campuses.
We boast a spectacularly diverse student body, not only as far as ethnicity goes, but even in age, lifestyles, and aspirations.
Jennifer De Leon, a rising star in the fiction writing world, is no exception in bringing unique perspectives and tales that, in many ways, many immigrants and children of immigrants can relate to. The Guatemalan writer, whose short story “Home Movie” has achieved the status of Boston’s One City One Story selection in honor of the Boston Book Festival, draws from her immigrant daughter’s background. She utilizes talents in writing she cultivated here on the UMass Boston campus as a previous Master’s of Fine Arts student in fiction writing.
On Wednesday, October 21st, De Leon returned home to UMass Boston to read her short story and give some background on her own growth as the daughter of immigrants and a writer trying to navigate both the creative and non-creative aspects of life. 
As the selected story for the One City One Story shared title, De Leon’s short story can be found dispersed all throughout the city in over 30,000 small booklets. Being selected for the honor means the chosen short story is proclaimed to be the one story every Bostonian must read.
Cheryl Nixon, chair of the UMass Boston English department, explained both jokingly and with a hint of truth that, “A true sign of success is going into Dunkin’ Donuts and being able to pick up free copies of Jenn’s short story.”
Nixon went on to remind the audience of the true purpose of reading and discussing stories, not only on a city-wide scale, but on a smaller, campus-community scale as well.
“The idea behind our event today is simple: We want to bring people together through the experience of reading one story. We hope to create a little bit of literary community,” Nixon said. “I think that idea of coming together to have an experience around the joy of creativity is a fantastic goal that we all should feel honored to be a part of. ”
After introductions by Nixon and Askold Melnczuk, a creative writing professor at UMass Boston who previously had De Leon as a student, she graciously took over the podium. De Leon began by giving a little bit of a talk about her experiences as a writer, then gave a reading of her story, which was also taught in many English classes on campus this month.
De Leon’s credentials are not to be reckoned with, either. Tucked under her belt are many experiences, including a Master’s of Arts in teaching; a Teach for America position in San Jose, CA; her work published in various publications; the 2015-2016 Boston Public Library’s Children’s Writer-in-Residence; and editor of Wise Latinas, a collection of essays depicting life as a Latina in higher education. De Leon also wrote the introduction to the text.
Despite being such an honored and widely recognized writer, De Leon is refreshingly honest, genuine, and even humorous. She is able to effortlessly enrapture the many students and staff attending the reading.
For instance, while briefly summarizing her study habits as a graduate student at UMass Boston, De Leon referenced a feeling many children of immigrants can relate to: “So much of my life I had spent in school. I guess I was the quintessential immigrant’s daughter in that I always did my homework and I was always scared of getting that B+, that my mom would circle it and point to it and say, ‘What happened there?'”
At the same time, however, De Leon got at the root of what it means to truly balance cultural identity with diasporic lives within the United States. She sensed a need, both as a writer and as a person, to truly engage with her family history.
“I started [at UMass Boston] in the fall of 2007 and after that first semester, when I wrote this story, I pushed pause. I felt that I needed to travel to Guatemala, which is where my parents were born,” she said.
“It was really critical for me to feel like I filled that well. I needed to fill that well in order to draw from it… I arrived here and realized ‘wow, this is a chance to really give in to my stories and to really pull those threads. But first I need to go back to the source,'” De Leon said. “‘Alone.’ Because I only traveled to Guatemala with my family, and that basically meant that my parents were like two bodyguards and we just went to relatives’ living rooms on the ‘couch tour.'” Many audience members nodded empathetically, perhaps reflecting on their own experiences when returning to their family’s homeland.
As it turns out, De Leon decided to temporarily leave her studies and travel to Guatemala. Her father, convinced she would not survive the solitary journey, travelled ahead of her by a week and picked her up from the airport himself.
“My dad and I talked more in that week than we ever did in my entire life. He told me stories about uncles who fought with the guerrillas in Guatemala, some who were murdered. He told me about growing up on a farm and about little kids assembling bombs. He told me stories that I have never heard him tell before, and since then, he’s never told them again,” she said. “There was something really powerful about that. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and then I came back home with journals and stacks of paper. I assembled them bit by bit and I was able to really kind of dig in.”
Coming back to UMass Boston from her journey, De Leon found herself with more material to work with. What she learned here, she told the audience, was exactly how to craft the stories she had found in order to give them life as well as longevity. She found at UMass Boston a kind of validation she struggled to find elsewhere, not only in her stories as a person of color, but in what she had to say. Period. Finally, she emphasized, she found a place where she was encouraged to “keep going” with her out-of-the-ordinary chosen career path as a creative writer.
“So much of writing has to do with the confidence of telling those stories,” De Leon said.
She also emphasized understanding the importance of revision, of having to go back to a piece over and over and seeing it not as a failure, but as a process. She tried to make it clear that the process of writing is not neat and orderly, as the finish product seems to imply; it is messy, often coming in flashes, and that that is completely okay – even healthy.
De Leon revealed that much of the storyline of “Home Movie” is based off of her own life experiences. The husband in the short story, Eduardo, decides to leave his wife and children in Boston to return to Guatemala. The story highlights the struggle of figuring out what is home and what isn’t, and what is right and what is wrong.
When De Leon was 14, her father left her family after proclaiming he was tired of America and setting off on a drive – yes, drive – back to Guatemala. Although he returned two days later, her family never fully dealt with the situation by discussing it.
“Since then, I’ve always wondered: ‘What was going through his mind that he would just leave his family, his job, his house? What was it that made him turn around?’ I guess he had gone as far as Washington DC and stopped to see a friend, but he came back,” De Leon said. “And part of me is happy and grateful he came back – my life would have been quite different. But I was also really intrigued as a writer – what would happen if he didn’t come back? What would happen if his wife confronted him? I had so many of those questions. So that’s when I started writing this story.”
Although she has received some interesting feedback about her story – an NPR interviewer was convinced her story was only a sad one – De Leon expressed a hope that her writing would encourage readers to think differently about some of the issues her story delves into.
Above all, however, De Leon believes in the value of telling one’s story and the value it has in communicating with others.
“Stories have always been a part of my life, and have always sustained me in dark times,” De Leon said. “They have also always helped me celebrate good times. This is one of those times.”