For five years, Augustana Spanish professor Pilar Cabrera Fonte dedicated most of her free time to creating her first novel. Now, all of the 5 a.m. wake-up calls, hours of interviews and trips to Mexico have been formally recognized with her receival of a literary award.
Cabrera Fonte’s currently unpublished work, “Camelia 12,” won the Juan Rulfo Fine Arts Award for First Novel in late October.
Mexico’s National Institute of Fine Arts and Literature sponsors this annual award to recognize authors who have not published a novel before. These authors must be legal residents of Mexico or have Mexican citizenship.
Out of 162 authors, Cabrera Fonte was the only U.S. resident to apply for the award and she took the number one spot. A jury of three writers decided the winning literary work: Raquel Castro, Cecilia Magaña and Luis Fernando Lugo, who won the award in 2021.
“Winning this award was a complete validation for me,” Cabrera Fonte said. “It doesn’t matter when the novel is published or where. Just having won that award, in a way, means a recognition of a lot of work.”
Cabrera Fonte received the news of her literary achievement at her son’s state championship soccer game in a message informing her of her win.
“It’s been the most exciting soccer game I’ve ever watched because my attention was very divided,” Cabrera Fonte said.
Cabrera Fonte said she started calling publishing friends in Mexico in disbelief to see if the message was a joke.
“It was a very chaotic scene because we were rooting for our kid to win the state championship and trying to figure out if her award was real,” Daniel Gerling, her husband and an English professor said.
Gerling said he has trouble finding words to describe the pride he feels for both his wife’s novel and her award.
“I’ve always known that she was a writer at heart, and I think that’s something that is so rare,” Gerling said. “Even people who are writers at heart, most of them that I know don’t have the discipline and organizational capabilities to be able to turn that into a work of art, into a novel.”
Although the novel has not yet been published, the Juan Rulfo award means it is likely to be published in the next year or two.
“Camelia 12” centers around a woman flying to Cuba in 1994. During the flight, the woman contemplates all of her travels.
“That same day, there are several characters that cross paths and have different experiences that, in some cases, have to do with discovering love and eroticism,” Cabrera Fonte said. “For others, it has to do with coming to terms with the experience of coming and going and the sort of moment of remembering other journeys between Mexico and Cuba.”
Although the novel is fiction, it centers around a highly autobiographical character. Cabrera Fonte said that her grandmother epitomized strength and humor and that the novel embraces these characteristics in its main female character.
“The novel is not at all tragic or sad or anything like that, even though it is in part a novel about disappointment, but I think it is also a testimony to that strength and irreverence that she always had,” Cabrera Fonte said. “It was sort of a gift to her just to complete that project.”
The title, “Camelia 12,” refers to where the novel’s two main characters first meet. Cabrera Fonte said this title also reflects a sense of love, encounter and meaning.
“When I started to look more closely at the streets in that neighborhood in Google Maps, I saw that there’s indeed a street that’s named Camelia, which is the name of a flower,” Cabrera Fonte said.
For Cabrera Fonte, the novel embraces the lives and qualities of the strong women who raised her.
“I knew that I wanted to write something that reflected the experience that my family had had between the two countries and part of the struggle that it had been for my grandmother to have to follow my mom back to Cuba,” Cabrera Fonte said.
Cabrera Fonte’s father is from Mexico, and her mother is from Cuba. For the first 10 years of Cabrera Fonte’s life, she and her family lived in Mexico City, but she said her mother always held an intense desire to return to Cuba. In 1985, her mother finally returned home with an 11-year-old Cabrera Fonte in tow.
Cabrera Fonte said she hopes the novel provides readers with a sense of persistent connections.
“[It’s] that sense of enduring ties of friendship and family and love in spite of all the challenges and social catastrophes that may occur around us,” Cabrera Fonte said.
While Cabrera Fonte said writing the novel was a great privilege, she was not expecting the impact its completion would have on her mental health.
“I really dealt with some serious depression afterwards, and I don’t want to blame that depression on the process of writing,” Cabrera Fonte said. “I think that writing a novel is a completely worthwhile endeavor.”
Gerling said that while he has not written a novel, he sympathizes with the struggles his wife has faced.
“[Writing a novel] is something that you pour your heart into for years and years and years in hopes that it might reach a broader audience,” Gerling said. “I haven’t done that. I can’t totally relate to it, but I know that the change was dramatic for her.”
In the award ceremony, Cabrera Fonte mentioned her journey with mental health.
“I mentioned having suffered depression and anxiety throughout my life in the ceremony because I think it’s so important to be aware of how much suffering in terms of mental illness there is and that sometimes we’re not aware of,” Cabrera Fonte said.
Regardless of the novel’s after-effects, Cabrera Fonte said she is glad she had the chance to write it.
“[A friend] told me, ‘You know, whether prize or publication or not, that is a gift to your family, to your friends. That’s a sort of testimony of who you are and have been.’ And I think that she’s very right,” Cabrera Fonte said.