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The power of the written word

A&S alumna Natalia Sylvester reflects on the power of prose and truth. (Photo credit: Eric Sylvester)
By Deserae E. del Campo

A&S alumna Natalia Sylvester reflects on the power of prose and truth. (Photo credit: Eric Sylvester)

The power of the written word

By Deserae E. del Campo


“I used to think that being bilingual is what made me a writer, but more and more I see it’s deeper than that. It’s the constant act of interpreting. The journeying back and forth. The discovery that language, and the stories it carries, is not a straight path.”

Natalia Sylvester, B.A.’06, shared these words in her opinion piece “The Beauty of Being Bilingual,” which was published this past September in the New York Times. The piece, a reflection on language and diversity, draws on her experiences as an interpreter and mediator in those spaces where Spanish-speakers and English-speakers sometimes meet—and connections are sometimes lost.   

“The idea to write this piece came from a place of personal experience,” says Sylvester. “It’s about translation and realizing the power that language has to separate and create division, but also unite.” 

Born in Lima, Peru, Sylvester came to the U.S. at age four. She grew up in Florida and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas; her family finally settled in Miami when she was in seventh grade.

Writing came early to Sylvester. She expressed herself in poetry and fiction and decided to try a career in journalism at the University of Miami. But that all changed when she came across a brochure about the College’s Creative Writing major. 

“Suddenly it all made sense,” says Sylvester. “I saw a sliver of a path before me and knew I needed to follow it.” Sylvester graduated with a B.A. in English/Creative Writing and a minor in journalism in 2006. Her work as a freelance writer in Texas has appeared in the New York Times, Bustle, Catapult, Electric Literature, and Latina magazine.

“My experience at UM shaped the way that I write fiction,” Sylvester said. “I am always very curious, about not only the stories that I’m reading or writing but the stories that haven’t been told yet or are hidden by other voices.”

Sylvester vividly remembers the courses that most influenced her: poetry classes with UM lecturer Mia Leonin and fiction-writing courses with Professor M. Evelina Galang.

“There was a time that I was writing what I thought others expected me to write,” said Sylvester. “Professor Galang helped me question and examine myself and helped me find the stories that I wanted to be writing, to find the truths expressed in my work.”

Sylvester’s novels traverse the places with which she is familiar. Her first novel, Chasing the Sun, published in 2014, is set in Lima, Peru, and was named the Best Debut Book of 2014 by Latinidad. Her second novel, Everyone Knows You Go Home, takes place in a Texas border town and Mexico. It won an International Latino Book Award, the 2018 Jesse H. Jones Award for Best Work of Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters, and a place among the Best Books of 2018 in Real Simple magazine. Her latest novel, Running, is a young adult story set in Miami about a Cuban American teen whose father is running for president. Its release is set for May 2020.

“The beauty of writing is that you are always on this path of learning more and more about yourself and the world around you,” said Sylvester. “When an idea feels rooted in me and true —when there is rich and fertile soil to write— that is when I know I’ve found a story I need to tell.”