The Story Behind Vocabulary of Light


In 1980, my husband and I were ten years out of graduate school and living in Boston. We each had careers that were going well—so well, in fact, that my husband advanced quickly into the upper levels of academic administration. Unfortunately, he reached a level where his job satisfaction plummeted, and although it was premature, there was no question in either of our minds that he was having a mid-life crisis.

When he looked around to see what other positions might interest him, what most intrigued him was a listing for a deanship at the University of Puerto Rico. He applied, and we were both invited for the interview. Our initial impressions of Puerto Rico were much like Maggie’s in this novel, and by the second day, we’d decided it wasn’t the right place for us. But then we met the chancellor for the medical sciences campus, Norman Maldonado. Norman, a physician with vision, intelligence, and charisma, offered us both challenging positions that came with a promise of his support. A promise he never reneged on.

And so, in April 1981, we moved with our young son to San Juan, where we lived for four years. Outside of the decision to marry each other, my husband and I consider it to be the best decision we ever made. While in Puerto Rico, I held positions in the Colleges of Medicine and Allied Health and also, briefly, at the Forensic Institute. My husband was dean of the College of Pharmacy. We left Puerto Rico reluctantly when a change in the political situation made that a necessity. But we came away from those years with feelings of accomplishment and a host of friends.

Sadly, the Puerto Rico I write about in The Vocabulary of Light is no longer the present reality. The pharmaceutical companies that helped fuel an economic boom in the ’70s and ’80s have moved on, removing good jobs, and Puerto Rico is currently struggling with high unemployment and billions of dollars in debt. The island’s future does not, at this time, look very bright.

Still, I can’t help but believe in the Puerto Rican people, in their resilience and the happy spirits that made our time in Puerto Rico so special.

A final note: although I drew from personal experiences in writing Maggie and Mike’s story, the events surrounding and including her rescue of Judy and her interactions with Maria Teresa are entirely fictional.