1. Books

What's Vanessa Diffenbaugh reading?


Vanessa Diffenbaugh

After studying English and studio art at Stanford University, Diffenbaugh, 37, worked with youth in low-income communities in East Palo Alto, Calif., teaching art and technology. It was there that the story of Letty Espinosa, the main character in her new novel, We Never Asked for Wings, hatched. The novel's themes include poverty, family and finding one's place in the world. It also gives the reader a glimpse of a single mother struggling with the issue of illegal immigration, an issue that came naturally to the story, according to Diffenbaugh. "In California, you can't just drop a character in a low-income community and pretend everyone is documented,'' she said. An advocate for children in foster care, Diffenbaugh is the co-founder of Camellia Network, an organization that is now part of Youth Villages, based in Tennessee. It was created to connect youth aging out of foster care with critical resources and support opportunities. She and her husband, PK Diffenbaugh, have four sons and live in Monterey, Calif. Her first novel, The Language of Flowers, was a New York Times bestseller and translated into more than 40 languages.

What is on your nightstand?

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. It's his story about our justice system. He takes on a subject that seems too heavy to even think about. There is so much racism in our justice system — still. It is so disturbing that nobody wants to look at it. He tells this story that is able to infuse just enough hope that we keep reading and keep engaging.

How is he able to keep us from giving up on the situation?

He has said, "Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done," and in the book, even though he is telling us stories about prisoners who have done horrific things, he has a way of helping us root for them even though they've committed crimes. And actually, I think that's what I try do in my fiction. In both of my books, both have mothers who abandon children. Most people don't have tolerance or empathy for that. It is hard to think about women who abandon children, but I think if you try to put it in the context of the world (they) live in, you see they are up against terrible odds, and they desperately need support to be the mothers they want to be.

While you were at Stanford, were there particular novelists that inspired you?

Jeanette Winterson. She's an English writer. She is famous for Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and The Passion. I think she has a real strength to her writing as a woman. She also has written some very thin novels, and I'm impressed with people who can tell a good story in just 100 pages.

Contact Piper Castillo at Follow @Florida_PBJC.