María Alejandra Barrios Vélez’s Debut Novel Explores Grief & Colombian Womanhood

"The Waves Take You Home" by María Alejandra Barrios Vélez explores loss, family bonds, and finding your place in the world

María Alejandra Barrios Vélez The Waves Take you Home

Photos courtesy of María Alejandra Barrios Vélez; Lake Union Publishing

Warning: spoilers ahead!

María Alejandra Barrios Vélez is a Colombian writer born in Barranquilla and currently based in Brooklyn whose work centers on themes of family, women, grief, and immigration from a Colombian point of view. This month she published her debut adult novel The Waves Take You Home, centered on Violeta Sanoguera, a 28-year-old woman who has always followed her family’s wishes—staying out of her grandmother’s kitchen, breaking up with the man she loved, leaving Colombia behind to live in New York City, and working as a freelance illustrator. But when her grandmother suddenly dies, Violeta finds herself headed back to Colombia where she finds out that she’s the heir to her grandmother’s failing family restaurant and her mother’s worst enemy. On top of everything else, her grandmother returns in the form of a ghost sending Violeta signs and messages about her choices and an old love who returns to her life. Accompanied by rich, lush descriptions of settings and food, this is a powerful exploration of grief, spirits, family, relationships between women, legacy, and the most transformative decisions we will make in our lives.

“I wrote the novel in 2020 during a very difficult personal time and moment of transition for me. My grandma was very sick, she was about to pass away, and I couldn’t go to say goodbye. I was devastated and I needed to put that grief somewhere,” Vélez tells HipLatina. “So it’s not autobiographical but the element of Violeta’s abuela passing prompted the main question I had about the novel, which was about the relationship that we have with our ancestors and the people who are very important to us and how we engage with them once they pass away. That’s where the novel first started for me.”

But even more so, she credits her younger self as originally embarking on this writing journey. Starting when she was a teen, she loved writing short stories and would often upload them to social platform and Facebook predecessor MySpace. While it was mostly for herself, it opened her up to the idea of feedback for the first time, reading comments from people who complimented the originality and beauty of her work. To her, that was “exhilarating,” a feeling that continued to stick with her and motivated her to keep writing.

Over time, she moved to posting her stories on X (formerly known as Twitter), especially flash fiction, which is a similar genre except it’s much shorter, ranging anywhere from 100 to 1,500 words. Even with all this experience under her belt, the idea of a novel was beyond intimidating to her because the longest short story she had ever written was 6,000 words and novels typically range from 80,000 to 100,000 words. She wondered if she had the stamina to complete such a project, let alone the time.

Finally in 2020, with all of the personal challenges she was dealing with and amid the Covid-19 pandemic, she decided to take a novel writing class led by fellow Colombian author Ingrid Rojas Contreras and Catapult Books, a publishing press based in New York. The course met once a week and required attendees to submit pages from their novels a few times a year as a way to receive feedback and stay accountable for the project.

“It was so helpful learning in community,” Vélez explains. “It was also great because I would be like, ‘Oh, I can’t do this’ and everyone else would be like, ‘Oh my god, this is so hard.’ It helped to see that it wasn’t just me and that this is part of writing a first book.”

Even so, it was still a significant learning curve to go from writing stories of a few thousand words to something much longer and more hefty. As she explains, short stories ask you to be concise, to limit your choices and words as a storyteller. But with the novel, she found herself juggling so many different elements that she felt were important to the story like food, heritage, death, romance, generational trauma, abuse, female relationships within a family, and Violet’s difficulty choosing between her love for the Caribbean and New York City, that at times, she felt overwhelmed. Especially as a writer whose English is her second language, she faced a lot of self-doubt and insecurity.

“I was struggling with that for a long time while writing the novel, especially revising it,” she says. “But then something happened, which was that I decided to prioritize what I wanted to put in the book. Some readers have said that a lot is going on in the book but I have made peace with that. It was important for me to showcase all those elements and that’s what I ended up doing.”

Through the work she did in the program, she was able to write the first draft of the book in nine months from January to September of 2020. However, the community showed up for her in other ways through the books she was reading by other Latinx authors. For the elements of ghosts, family drama, and matriarchy, she turned to the classic The House of the Spirits (1982) by Isabel Allende. For how to talk about food, which plays a huge role in the novel through Violeta’s grandmother’s restaurant that she tries to save, she relied heavily on another classic Like Water for Chocolate (1989) by Laura Esquivel.

“I love how it treats food not only as something that is delicious and vibrant and part of the landscape but also as something that creates drama and is central to the family,” she says. “I also wanted to use food as something that grounded the characters and settings.”

Aura by Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez’s entire bibliography were also huge influences and guidebooks for her. Notably, almost all of these books play in some way with magical realism, which can be felt deeply and, if anything, is also one of the most compelling parts of The Waves Take You Home. From the moment Violeta lands in Colombia and her grandmother returns as a ghost in her house, Violeta never questions the sudden appearance of the spirit. Instead, she only ever wonders what her grandmother is trying to tell her through her messages and signals, what she expects of her, how she can grieve if her grandmother’s spirit is not yet satisfied, and how she can move forward. That, she explains, was also influenced by her own upbringing and relationship with her grandmother.

“My grandma would tell me a lot of ghost stories. In Colombia, they’re so common that everyone talks about ghosts like second nature. So I was always curious about inserting that in a story, not making it something creepy but natural to have it become a meaningful part of her journey. Because even if you’re not visited by a ghost, the death of someone makes you understand them on a different level, especially their life and the choices they made. Ghosts or no ghosts, that was something I wanted in the book for sure.”

Now on the other side of it, Vélez has been able to process how much the novel writing process changed her and in some ways, even healed her. Throughout the novel, Violeta takes charge of digging into the dynamics of the family and community she left behind and how they’ve all been impacted by the death of her grandmother. And for the first time, she also learns about the traumas that her grandmother went through in life, including an abusive relationship and a tense relationship with a daughter that never truly healed even in death. As someone who was once in a similar boat as Violeta, Vélez was able to use the novel as a way to work through her own real-life experiences.

“It helped me reflect on my own relationships with my grandma and my family and how it was all affecting me. Because at first, I was very focused on the idea that Violeta didn’t get to say goodbye. But through writing the book, I realized that it wasn’t about saying goodbye at all. It was about how our ancestors impact us and stay with us, so that was really healing for me.”

One of the most difficult parts for Vélez to come to terms with, however, was the emotional center and heart of Violeta’s story, which is her decision to live in either New York with her boyfriend or Colombia with her family, who she grows incredibly close to over the course of the novel. Interestingly, from the beginning, Veléz always knew that Violeta was going to stay in Colombia. What she didn’t know was how she would make that choice. Because in many ways, this is a book about the choices we make in our lives that define us, choices that might be great for others but not ourselves, choices that take away and give us something else in return.

It was something that Vélez could relate a lot to. She herself is based in New York and has been able to create a life for herself in the U.S. But as much as she loves where she lives, it hasn’t been without its sacrifices, like not being around her family and speaking English more than Spanish. She also deeply resonated with Violeta’s creative life as a freelance illustrator, which relies on a lot of hustle, inconsistent pay, and unsustainable working hours.

But because there is this constant back-and-forth that Violeta goes through, Vélez found that many people in her community, including classmates in her novel writing class, her agent, and her editor, found Violeta indecisive. On one hand, it’s understandable to have that kind of uncertainty because it’s the kind of decision that can literally change your life. On the other hand, sometimes she would make a choice that would upset the reader. This was especially true if she consulted other people in her life like her mother and grandmother’s spirit, to the point that it was like she’s giving up the decision-making to someone else, instead of deciding for herself. This, too, Vélez explains, was inspired by her personal life.

“I grew up around women in a very matriarchal system with my mom, grandma, great grandma, and aunts. It’s a beautiful way to grow up but it’s also a particular way in the sense that everyone’s always giving you advice and warnings. Everyone always told me what they thought was best,” she says, which is exactly what dictates many of the decisions Violeta makes, at least at the beginning of the novel at the hands of her grandmother and mother. “Their voice is always in your head. You’re like, ‘I don’t even know what’s my decision and what’s theirs’ or ‘What do I think?” It becomes very muddled in your head sometimes. It comes from a place of love but it can be irritating when you’re a grown-up. For me, I’ve come to accept that the women in my life will know better than me but we also have to come to a point where we do have to make our own decisions outside of what other people believe.”

By the end, Violeta makes the monumental decision to remain in Colombia, which she considers home above anywhere else. Either way, she would have been sacrificing something—her family, friends, job, community—but she made a decision on her own terms and own timeline without anybody else telling her what to do, which for Vélez, was the biggest takeaway from the novel. It plays a large part in the book’s title as well, which honors the important role that the ocean plays in the Caribbean and how they ultimately always call you home.

That significance carries over into the cover art illustrated by Filipina artist Raxenne Maniquiz, which features Violeta surrounded by flowers and seashells endemic to the Caribbean. The bold and colorful artwork symbolizes Violeta’s love for her home and celebrates her roots. For Vélez, it was very intentional to have the cover celebrate Latina beauty and culture in a way she never experienced growing up:

“It was so important for me to have a brown Colombian woman on the cover with brown skin and curly hair. When I grew up, that wasn’t something that I saw. I watched telenovelas where the women were white with silky straight hair, and that’s what was considered beautiful. So to see Violeta on the cover was one of the most incredible moments of my writing career so far. There’s also the vibrancy of the Caribbean through all the colors, which gives it a very joyful element. That was something that I wanted the book to have because even though it’s centered around grief, I don’t think it’s a sad book. Making a life decision and building a life that’s yours can also be a very joyful thing, even in the bittersweetness of it.”

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