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Q&A with María Alejandra Barrios Vélez, Author of The Waves Take You Home

Q&A with María Alejandra Barrios Vélez, Author of The Waves Take You Home

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María Alejandra Barrios Vélez is the author of The Waves Take You Home.

María Alejandra Barrios Vélez is a writer born in Barranquilla, Colombia. She has an MA in creative writing from the University of Manchester and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and scruffy dog, Gus.

She was the 2020 SmokeLong Flash Fiction Fellow, and her stories have been published in Shenandoah LiteraryVol. 1 BrooklynEl MalpensanteFractured LitSmokeLong QuarterlyThe Offing, and more. Her work has been supported by organizations such as Vermont Studio Center, Kweli, Caldera Arts, and the New Orleans Writers’ Residency.

The Waves Take You Home is María’s debut, inspired by the resilience and strength of the women in her family and the Caribbean city she spent most of her life in.

Let’s get to know María as she talks favorite novels, writing inspiration, creating a sense of place and more!

What are some of your favorite novels?

    Some of my favorite novels are The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, Like Water for Chocolat by Laura Esquivel, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith….I could keep going, but those are the ones that have influenced me the most! 

    When did you know you wanted to become an author?

    I’ve always had a deep love for storytelling, but it wasn’t until I was in my teens that I fell in love with writing. After a fantastic summer reading, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and El Tunel by Ernesto Sabato, I started experimenting with writing short stories.

    I started writing pieces influenced by magical realism, mostly about love, when I was fifteen. I lived in Colombia then, so I wrote in Spanish and posted the pieces to MySpace. There, friends and strangers discovered the pieces and left a lot of good feedback. I realized writing was a way of making friends and, most importantly, of connecting with people I wouldn’t reach otherwise. I was hooked on that feeling of connection and it eventually led to writing and publishing short stories and publishing The Waves Take You Home.

    What inspired you to write The Waves Take You Home?

    In 2020, my Abuela’s health declined as she started to lose her battle with cancer. Due to the pandemic, I couldn’t visit Colombia and say goodbye. My worst fear had happened, and I was left with immense grief. My Abuela and her stories were central to my life and shaped my vision of the world. For me, she represented home, and although I had left Colombia, it remained in my heart.

    The idea for a novel started to take shape during that year as I reflected on how my relationship with Abuela and her memory would live on. After she died, I was left with the idea of her as a ghost. Not in the classic sense, but she remained someone with whom I constantly spoke. I would wonder what she would do or how she would react to a situation, and sometimes, I could sense her by my side. I wanted this book to embody the idea that you always carry your ancestors with you, and even if you can’t see them, they’re still rooting for you.

    I also knew in my bones I wanted this book to be inspired by the stories of the women in my family, and I wanted it to be centered around my interests and what I knew. So, I started writing about a family of women, food, cooking, Barranquilla, and New York. This is what I knew. I also wanted to write about what scared me, the feeling that my two lives were growing farther away from each other and the repercussions of this pull. An immense amount of sacrifice is involved in choosing one life instead of the other.

    How did you approach creating a sense of place when writing your novel?

    Creating a sense of place was crucial in The Waves Take You Home.  I relied heavily on sensory details. Since TWTYH takes place mainly in the Caribbean and in a restaurant, I played a lot with the smell. How it smelled in the kitchen, and what my characters were preparing. Ingredients like cilantro, olive oil, bread, sugar, etc… I also wanted the weather to play a part: the oppressive heat, the wind, and the rain. The sound of the waves. It was important for readers to feel immersed in Barranquilla so they could have something to imagine as they were reading. 

    What was your favorite part or chapter to write?

    One of my favorite parts to write was what is now the start of chapter five. In this scene, Violeta sees Caminito (the family restaurant) for the first time in many years and takes in the decay and all the memories from how it used to be. It is my favorite because it was the first scene I wrote in this book, so it will always hold a special place in my heart. 

    What are you reading, and what’s on your TBR (to be read) list?

    I just finished See You in August by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and loved it. I’m listening to What Happened to Ruthie Ramirez by Claire Jiménez and reading The Devil Takes You Home by Gabino Iglesias. So many books are on my TBR! The Great Divide by Christina Henriquez, The Cemetery of Untold Stories by Julia Avares, Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, and so many more!