By Amaris Castillo
In 2020, as the coronavirus increasingly claimed peoples’ lives, Yaffa S. Santos sought the quiet escape of a new project. The award-winning author of Taste of Sage began working in earnest on her second novel.
A Touch of Moonlight, out today, follows Larimar Cintrón, a brand manager for Beacon Café, a New York-based corporate bakery chain who, quite literally, moonlights as a ciguapa (but only on full moons). Pulled from Dominican folklore, a ciguapa is said to have long, straight hair and backwards-facing feet. Santos, who grew up hearing about the mythical creature from her Dominican mother, felt compelled to conduct her own research. The author read articles, watched videos, and asked relatives about their experiences with the ciguapa.
In Santos’ new novel, Larimar has learned to manage in and out of her different identities (though not without its bumps), all while helping to look after her family. Then she meets Ray, a bakery owner who she finds herself warming up to. Still, she struggles to keep her ciguapaness from him. Soon, her role as brand manager tasked with overseeing the newest store in New Jersey places Larimar in a difficult position: the new location is right by Ray’s bakery, Borrachitos. She must decide what’s worth more – continuing to flourish in her job or help save Ray’s business.
A Touch of Moonlight is an endearing novel with a delightful magical touch as Santos delivers a fascinating spin on the Dominican ciguapa. Before her book’s release, Santos spoke with the Dominican Writers Association about her inspiration behind A Touch of Moonlight, her love of food, and more.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Congrats on A Touch of Moonlight! This is your second novel. How do you feel with it being out in the world so soon?
I feel good. It's been a process to get here, as you can imagine. I started writing this book in the middle of the pandemic, so to see it here and see that we're in a different place than we were when I was writing it is comforting.
I felt like writing during the pandemic provided sort of an escapism from real life. Is that how it was for you?
Yes. 100 percent. When I was writing, it was in the fall of 2020. We’re in Florida, and this was when people were getting more concerned because in the lockdown – at least in the Orlando area – people were not wearing masks. They didn't care. They're like, "No one's going to make me wear a mask." And then around this time – September, October – is when more people were getting sick over here. Every day you're hearing a different person died.
So it [writing] was my escape. I was like, "OK, I heard all the news. I'm going to go into my writing space and shut the door, and just be away from all this for a bit." Because it gets very heavy.
It sounds like writing this book helped provide you with some levity and joy, which is great. As Dominicans, we grow up hearing about the ciguapa. In your author’s note, you talk about first hearing about the mythical creature from your mom. From there, you grew more interested in researching. What was it about the ciguapa that piqued your interest?
At first, it was the fact that I wanted to know everything about how my mom grew up. She has long hair, so she would say, “People would always call me a ciguapa and they would also call me Anacaona.” So I was like, "OK, I want to find out about ciguapas and about Anacaona."
Also, folklore. There’s so many people that are larger-than-life in Santo Domingo. You talk to people and you hear these stories. I was interested in that, or even just learning about Afro-Dominican religion from my family. Talking to people and having there be such a fine line between what is “reality” and we might think on more of a left brain side, "Oh, that's not reality." That, to me, is fascinating.
Your protagonist, Larimar Cintrón, is a ciguapa during full moon nights. This characterization is definitely unlike most Dominican protagonists I’ve read. As an author, what was the experience like infusing folklore into your novel?
Going back for a second to the stories of people who are involved with folklore, people who have generational magic: One thing that was impressed on me was the fact that, in this country, those things are not as strong. We’re not as aware of it. Back in Santo Domingo, for example, my tía one time showed me a goat. And she's like, “You see that goat? It’s not a goat. It's Fulano. In his family, everybody can change into an animal.” And you're just like, “Whoa, OK.” It's not a question of whether it's true or not. It's just like, “OK, that’s information.”
These are things that feel easier to be connected to over there, and as we come to this country and develop a different life here, that magic is getting weaker. That’s kind of where I got the idea of Larimar turning into a ciguapa only on the full moon. Because it's her family, it's her heritage, but it doesn’t express the same way because she was born in New Jersey.
Do you ever feel like a ciguapa in real life?
[Laughs] Yeah, sometimes! I didn't actually start out with the idea of having the novel be a commentary on intersectional identity, but as I was writing about Larimar’s life, I feel like that's where the inspiration came from. Just the experience of going into different spaces and feeling people's reaction of, ‘You don't belong here.’ Or feeling accepted, but feeling like, ‘If these people knew X about me, then they wouldn't accept me here,’ and moving through those spaces.
Growing up, my siblings and I went to a school where we were the only people who were not white. My first experiences in school were people straight-up saying, “You don't belong here. Why are you here?” Or “You're Black. Why are you here then?” I grew up having an idea of I'm here but I'm not of here. I'm here, but I don't belong here. But then I’d go to Santo Domingo and would have people be like, “Oh, rubia!” And you're like, “Who are you talking to?” And people calling you “gringa.” And you’re like, ‘Is that me?’
Or they say, “Tu no ere’ de aqui!”
Yeah! Or “Que es lo que piensa los americanos sobre tal cosa?” I’m like, “I don’t know!”
You become a representative for America.
Exactly… You’re a representative for the other place, but in that place, you’re not of that place.
Am I correct in that the ciguapa is perhaps a symbol for being Dominican-American?
Yeah. I would say so. I didn't start out with that idea but then over time, as I was adding the emotional part of the story, that’s what it came to mean to me.
When Larimar meets Ray, the owner of a bakery called Borrachitos, she struggles to hide her ciguapaness from him – like slowing down when they dance because her circle spins are faster than normal. Tell us about the creative licenses you took with what makes up a ciguapa?
I started out with research, and most of it was pretty consistent: the ciguapa has backward-facing feet and long straight hair. But believe it or not, the more you talk to people about it, the more they will tell you that that's not true. They’ve heard of another version. I had people telling me the ciguapa doesn't have back-facing feet. It’s their knees that turn backwards and from there to the bottom, it's backwards.
I found some things that were interesting, like the fact that they would sneak into the kitchens to eat raw meat and butter. That’s kind of where Larimar’s addiction to butter came from.
I love that. So it was a mix of research and I imagine you designed your own features for Larimar?
Yes, exactly. I’m just thinking, she has enhanced powers. She's moving through the world. What is going to be different? And just having the idea that it’s a novel. It’s fiction. We're talking about a fictional character. That’s another thing, when somebody comes to you and is like, “No, they don't do this.” For example, when I was younger, I read Twilight and people were like, “Vampires don't sparkle.” How do you know? You’ve seen one?
It’s that kind of thing where it's like, "OK, I’m gonna decide that she goes really fast when she's in the ciguapa form," but that’s creative license.
As an author of Dominican descent, you hold your own in our literary community. You love to infuse food into your stories. Where did you get your love of food from?
I got married when I was 19 years old. My husband is Dominican. We met over there. So having come from this country and knowing about Dominican men, when we first were dating I told him “I just want you to know, I don't cook. I don't do this.”
Of course when we got married, he was like, “Oh, no problem.” But then afterwards, you actually have to eat…. we need to find out how to cook now. I started sticking to family members and watching what they did. The first person who I would watch was his tía, and my tía also. It was mostly family. My mom is not a big cook. She cooked the necessary, but she didn't love cooking. So I learned mostly from other family members.
Do you love it, though?
I feel like I get that from your work. I want to talk about your threading of recipes in between some chapters of A Touch of Moonlight. Some of them sound so good, like the champagne cupcakes and mantecadito cookies. Tell us why.
When I read a book that has recipes that I think sound good, I'm thinking, “I wish there was a recipe so I could try to make this.” Like Water for Chocolate was the first book that I read that showed me that you could add recipes in a novel.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
I would hope that readers will think about what it's like to move through different communities. Listen to your elders, also, and take the time to talk to them. That was probably one of the most important research steps for me when I was learning about the ciguapa, and when I got the most interesting information. I would ask people straight up, “Have you ever seen a ciguapa? Not expecting anything, and having people be like, “Yes, I’ve seen one.” They totally surprised me by that.
Our elders grew up in a different time than we did, and they have a different way of seeing things. I think taking the time to listen to them and think about their worldview, and also what it means for them to have gone through what they did to get us to where we are now, I think that's the respect that they deserve.
About the Author:
Yaffa S. Santos was born and raised in New Jersey. She is the author of A TASTE OF SAGE (2020), which was named an Indie Next List Pick and Amazon Editor’s Pick and was translated into Russian. Yaffa is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied writing and visual art. She enjoys books, coffee, and the beach. She lives in Central Florida with her family.
Amaris Castillo is a journalist, writer, and the creator of Bodega Stories, a series featuring real stories from the corner store. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, the Lowell Sun, the Bradenton Herald, Remezcla, Latina Magazine, Parents Latina Magazine, and elsewhere. Her creative writing has appeared in La Galería Magazine, Spanglish Voces, PALABRITAS, Dominican Moms be Like..., and is forthcoming in Quislaona: A Dominican Fantasy Anthology. Her short story, "El Don," was a finalist for the 2022 Elizabeth Nunez Caribbean-American Writers’ Prize by the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival.