In Dominican Spanish la ñapa refers to "the little extra" added on at the end. Just when you thought you'd gotten all that you would get, along comes your ñapa, like a baker's dozen, with one more kiss, one more pastelito, one more mango at the mercado.
Yes, besides the music of the language -- the primary one that should be in our heads as writers, there is often other music in our heads as we work on a novel. It might be a piece of music or certain songs that capture for the feeling of the novel or the turmoil or triumph of a certain character. Sometimes, these songs end up surfacing somewhere in the novel, but as often as not, they just put me in a certain frame of mind or mood, like the note a choirmaster blows on his pipe to get the choir on the same note.
In the case of Return To Sender, my latest novel, the recurring song in my head was a beautiful, old one I used to hear as a child, "La Golondrina." It was composed in the 1880s and tells the story of a swallow (golondrina) about to leave on a flight from which it might never return. Although it's been around for over a hundred years, the song has become especially relevant to many migrant Mexicans who leave their native villages to risk their lives crossing over to el Norte, just like the swallow in the song. Some never make it back. In fact, the song is often played at the funerals of migrant Mexicans who die far from their homes and families.
"La Golondrina" surfaces several times in Return To Sender. In fact, one of its verses forms the epigraph to the book. In a scene early on in the novel eleven-year-old Mari, her two sisters, and the farmer's son, Tyler, and his grandmother are all outside looking at stars through Tyler's telescope. Tyler is obsessed with astronomy, and after his grandfather's death this past summer, Tyler is convinced that Gramps is trying to communicate with him via these points of light. As the star-watching group stand outside, taking turns looking through the telescope, they hear, wafting up from the trailer, the sound of Mari's father or uncle man's singing "La Golondrina."
"Shhhh! Listen!" Mari whispers. From the trailer, comes the sound of someone playing the guitar and singing, the saddest tune Tyler has ever heard. It makes him feel homesick even though he is already home.
"It's 'La Golondrina,'" Mari explains. "That song I told you about," she reminds Tyler. "You sing it when you are far away from your homeland and the people you love." And then, she begins to sing and her sisters join in. Tyler doesn't understand all the Spanish words, something about a swallow who is wandering far from home. But for once, not knowing the words doesn't matter. Just listening to the lonesome tune captures Tyler's feelings when he is missing Gramps.
So this is what the three Marías feel so far from home! And to think that Tyler has made them feel even more lonesome with his unfriendliness and spying. He wishes he had words that would let them know he is sorry, that they do belong here. Thankfully, his grandmother speaks up. "I know it's not your homeland, but you're here with people who love you."
This is far too sappy for Tyler to ever have been able to say himself. Like his Gramps, he finds it easier to talk through the stars. And what a night for stellar conversation! Up above, a star shoots across the sky, then another, and another. "Look!" Tyler shouts, pointing up. A meteor shower. Mari sees it right away, but her two little sisters have to be aimed in the right direction.
"I see it! I see it!" little Luby screams with delight.
"Me, too!" Ofie adds.
They stand for a while in the clear, cold night, watching the absent ones rain down their welcome light.
If you want to hear this song being sung, I found two hits on YouTube worth listening to. Notice the different mood created by a male voice (Placido Domingo) in contrast to a female voice (Nana Mouskouri ). If you want to hear the actual voice I was hearing in my head and in my study as I worked, nothing beats Caetano Veloso singing "La Golondrina" on his CD, Fina Estampa, full of lovely old songs from throughout Latin America.
Finally, if you'd like to see the images and hear the stories of the farmers and Mexican workers whom I worked with, visit goldencageproject.org. Chris Urban and Caleb Kenna, two young Vermonters, put together this exhibit for the Vermont Folklife Center. And now, long after the exhibit is down at VFC, it's up and available to all of you on the world-wide web.
Two other songs came into my head later in the writing of Return To Sender. One, "Jaula de Oro," by Los Tigres del Norte, actually gave its name to the Golden Cage Project. In fact it was Chris, who introduced me to the song:
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