Esmeralda Santiago Overcomes Stroke to Publish Epic Novel

The new historical novel by the Harvard-educated author has earned wide praise.

Staring in disbelief at the lines of gibberish she’d just written, Esmeralda Santiago ’76 feared the worst. Her neurologist confirmed her suspicions: the bestselling author, as reported last Sunday in the New York Times, had suffered a serious stroke, leaving her unable to read or write.

For Santiago, the road to recovery was not easy.  The stroke, which her doctors cannot explain, left her back at square one, having to relearn English—her second language—all over again. Her native Spanish is still shaky.  

“I went to the library and went to the children’s book section, and I started exactly the same process I did when I was learning English, connecting that word to that object,” she told the Times.

Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the eldest of 11 children, Santiago is the New York-based author of three memoirs, including When I Was Puerto Rican, Almost a Woman, which she adapted into a Peabody Award–winning film for PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, The Turkish Lover, América’s Dream, and a children’s book, A Doll for Navidades.

To restore her lost abilities, she concocted her own form of “rehab”, listening to classic literature on audiobooks and reading everything from pop culture magazines to the New Yorker. Just 18 months later, she’d finished her latest book, Conquistadora, an epic novel that has earned praise from critics worldwide for its narrative depth and its historical content.

Dubbed a "Puerto Rican Gone With the Wind" by Publisher’s Weekly, Santiago's novel is set mostly in nineteenth-century Puerto Rico; it tells the story of Ana, who leaves her aristocratic Spanish family in Seville to pursue an exotic life in Puerto Rico after reading the diaries of an ancestor who followed Ponce de Leon to the new world. A story of discovery, deceit, and danger unfolds as Ana, her husband, and his twin brother run a struggling sugar plantation that relies on slave labor. As the Civil War breaks out in the United States, Ana finds her fantasies of island life shattered by the realities of extreme heat, disease, and the untamed surroundings.

“Santiago’s plantation mistress isn’t a shrew who derives sadistic pleasure from flogging her slaves. Nor is she their ministering angel,” Gaiutra Bahadur wrote in the Times review.  “Ana is something much more elusive and contradictory. She delegates the flogging, but flinches when the slaves scream. [And she] is a feminist before her time.”


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