Luz is the 2020 Winner of Sarton Award for Contemporary Fiction
The award-winning novel Luz is the result of Debra Thomas’ desire to help the world’s people connect, better understand one another, and come together.
“I believe deeply that we are all connected, that we are one common heart with similar needs, loves, and desires.…It’s heartbreaking to see the clear division in our country,” says Debra.
Luz is the story about the harsh experiences of a young girl who crossed the Southern California border illegally. The idea for the story came from Debra’s experiences as an immigrant rights activist. Debra’s first attempt at writing about immigration issues was a book called Blue Flags, about a woman who moves to Southern California and learns about migrant deaths in the desert near the border. But then she set aside the first draft and took a writing class in which she wrote in the voice of a young Mexican girl in search of her father.
“It was just an assignment, so I didn’t worry that maybe I shouldn’t or couldn’t. As a result, Alma’s story poured out of me. I couldn’t stop writing. I knew it came from somewhere genuine and true. I trusted that feeling and just kept going,” the author recalls.
Debra was born and raised in Binghamton, a lush green area of upstate New York where it rains and snows a lot. “As a result, I was a voracious reader and endless daydreamer.” Her mom, however, who had multiple health problems, encouraged her daughter to become a nurse, and so Debra did. But her real passion, she says, was always literature and writing. After she married and moved to Los Angeles, she took writing classes at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program while she also worked as a nurse.
“I won a short story contest, which gave me the validation to keep writing, although it was frustrating trying to find time to write with two little ones—a son and daughter three years apart.” When her children were older, Debra earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in literature and writing—with honors. One of her early jobs then, along with being a high school teacher, was teaching English as a second language to adults. “This changed my life.…my connection to my students from Mexico and Central America was very intimate and personal, and the increasing deaths in the desert in the late 1990s led me to becoming an immigrant rights advocate and, ultimately, led to Luz.
Research for her books, Debra says, led her to connect with Father Estrada, a defender of the rights of immigrants and refugees, Enrique Morones, founder of Border Angels, an organization that focuses on immigrant rights and preventing deaths along the border, and John Hunter, a scientist and humanitarian who believed in putting people before politics. “With them, I took part in Water Stations Project in the Imperial Valley’s desert east of San Diego, where we placed jugs of water in simple cardboard boxes marked by a blue flag. Afterwards, we had a ceremony at Terrace Park Cemetery in Holtville, about 125 miles east of San Diego, where unidentified migrants’ remains were buried in a dirt lot in the back. I had the honor that day of reading a passage about blue flags from my unpublished manuscript, Blue Flags.”
From the beginning germ of an idea, through drafts and revisions, to the publication of Luz, was a journey of over fifteen years for Debra. Among those to whom she credits for mentoring her along the way were two women: author Gayle Brandeis, winner of Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, whose writing class assignment led her to discover the voice for Luz, and Elizabeth McKenzie, whom she met at a writer’s conference and who encouraged her to revise and expand her original work and keep trying.
“It’s a great time to be a writer because readers are seeking all types of voices, and there are many creative ways of getting your work into a reader’s hands,” Debra says. But she adds that writing also requires persistence, diligence, and passion. “You have to keep at it and not give up. You need to be disciplined and sit yourself down and write, and you have to add that spark that brings your words to life. That spark comes from an intense interest in the topic you’re writing about and a fierce love for your characters, which is similar to a parent’s love for a child. You may get frustrated or angry with them at times, but they are the center of your world for a long time until you finally send them on their way. And even then, they are always in your heart.”
Debra also became involved with Amnesty International and toured the Terminal Island Immigration Detention Center in San Pedro, which was closed in 2007 after being deemed unsafe. At BorderLinks of Tucson, she talked with people on both sides of the border, including U.S. Border Patrol agents and a family in Los Encinos Colonia, a squatters’ community in Mexico. “The matriarch of the family generously fed us lunch and spoke of how we were all one America—North, Central, South—all one,” Debra says.
Debra says she is currently working on a second novel, Pangaea, which is about a fragmented family that has been pulled apart by life’s jolts and shifts, but when brought together by an unexpected crisis, they’re given a chance to reconnect. Like Luz, the book will be published by She Writes Press and is expected to be out sometime in 2023.
When not writing, Debra spends time with her two horses and painting mandala stones (rocks) and placing them in random places. She calls herself a rock fairy, noting that the activity is both fun and meditative.
Read Debra’s essay on winning the Sarton here.