It’s a story of betrayal, gang violence, forgiveness and fleeing to America. Susan Mills, 61, will present her first novel, “On the Wings of a Hummingbird,” at Cranston Central Library at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 6 and William Hall Library at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 21.
The book follows 15-year-old Petra whose life has been upended by local gang violence in her small Guatemalan village. Her childhood friend, Emilio, had a hand in their friend Justina’s murder, and his father is the local gang leader’s right-hand man. Betrayed by Emilio and abandoned by her mother who fled to the U.S., Petra now fears for her own life. She flees to America, but the pressures follow her there. As she attempts to reconcile with her mother over the abandonment, Petra is alarmed that her mother disregards the danger when Emilio shows up near their home.
Mills, who grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, during the 60s and 70s, came from a family that was steeped in social change. Her mom was a civil rights activist, and later on her brother became a civil rights attorney while her sister became a human rights and prisoner defense lawyer.
Coming to Rhode Island to attend Brown University, Mills graduated in 1983 with an independent major from the American Civilization Department that focused on racism, classism, sexism, social inequality and social change. She became a lesbian feminist and worked for sanctuary for Central American refugees before attending Northeastern University Law School. After that, she spent 20 years as a Spanish-speaking immigration attorney and ran her own immigration law firm which dealt with asylum cases for thousands of immigrants from Central America with a focus on unaccompanied minors.
Mills had a knack for writing since age eight; she wrote her first 40 page novel at that age and another one in middle school. Exploring her creative ambitions after retirement, Mills said over the years, she heard many sad and heart-wrenching stories which were channeled into her novel. She added that her main character, Petra, was inspired by one particular Guatemalan client with short hair and who played soccer (just like Petra), but Mills also pulled characteristics from other clients.
“On the Wings of A Hummingbird” explores forgiveness and redemption, how to heal oneself and find a future of integrity with friends and community who have participated in atrocities. Mills said the novel ponders the big questions in life: Who am I? What is my purpose? Petra must figure all this out while trying to survive difficult experiences and the story truly depicts how complicated people are. Mills said the book has no big answers about immigrants but simply the idea that immigrants deserve to be treated with the same humanity as everyone else.
When writing the book, Mills said her favorite character was Petra. After finishing the story, Emilio has slid into number one. Emilio, who had a difficult childhood and was pushed into the gangs at age 10, flirts with Petra in an unstable way. While Petra hates what he’s become, she struggles because she believes that somewhere in him must be the friend she loved. Mills enjoys Emilio’s character because everyone has a history and likes seeing individuals as human even when they do terrible things.
One of the most challenging aspects of the writing process for Mills was making dialogue sound real, and not using it to convey information that should be communicated in other ways. She said it took her a year to write the book’s initial draft, followed by six to eight months of working with a private editor before finding her way to Apprentice House Press which is located out of Maryland’s Loyola University.
Some of Mills’ research entailed looking up Mayan mythology. She obtained a copy of Popol Vuh – which holds the origin story of Mayan creation – and selected different myths that added another layer to her book.
Mills also included an author’s note in the beginning of the book to address today’s controversy of cultural appropriation and how she is a white woman writing in the voice of a 15-year-old Guatemalan girl. Due to working among Central Americans and being immersed in their language, culture, history, politics and literature, she felt comfortable with writing “On the Wings of a Hummingbird” while being sympathetic to today’s controversies. She added that fiction writers do often take on the voice of people they are not familiar with.
At the upcoming library events, Mills will read from “On the Wings of a Hummingbird” and open discussion on issues the book raises; she said audience members tend to ask about the book’s themes of forgiveness and healing. At the end of the event, Mills will have books available for purchase and to sign.
Mills has been a Providence resident for 40 years and now spends most of her time residing in Vermont. She is already working on a draft for another novel, which she says is a suspenseful story on a group of asylum seekers.
“On the Wings of a Hummingbird” is 364 pages long and costs $19.99. Individuals can pick up a copy at Providence’s Books on the Square, Amazon, Barnes and Noble or bookshop.org – which supports independent bookstores. Additionally, a portion of “On the Wings of a Hummingbird” will go to Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), a U.S. based organization devoted to the protection of unaccompanied and separated children.
Anyone interested in hearing more about “On the Wings of a Hummingbird” can find Mills at one of three Rhode Island events this September. She will be at Cranston Central Library on Sept. 6 at 6:30 p.m. On Sept. 21, she will be at William Hall Library at 6:30 p.m. for a joint discussion with Dr. Michael Fine, author of “Abundance and RI Stories.” On Sept. 29 at 6 p.m. she will be at Sprout CoWorking (166 Valley St., Providence) for a larger, joint author event with Diane Josefowicz and Karen Lee Boren. Mills will be speaking, together with Diane Josefowicz (Ready, Set, Go) and Barbara Morrison (Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother) at Books on the Square in Providence, Oct. 18 at 6:30 p.m.
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