This reading group guide for The Sleeping World includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Topics & Questions for Discussion
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1. Discuss your theories about the significance of the title, The Sleeping World.
Why do you think the author chose it?
2. Mosca and her friends love punk music such as Patti Smith and the Ramones. Why do you think they are drawn to punk?
3. Reflecting on her abuela’s experiences after the war and the teachings of those who have come before her, Mosca declares: “Our tongue the tongues of murderers. The general didn’t come from nowhere.” Do you agree with Mosca that Franco’s regime of oppression was inevitable and that it was fostered by Spain’s history of genocide and imperialism toward other nations?
4. Each of the main characters has a defining nickname: Mosca (Fly), La Canaria (the Canary), Grito (Scream). Discuss the author’s choice in giving nontraditional, distinctive names, and the symbolism behind them.
5. Why do you think Mosca is so intent on hiding her true reason for wanting to go to Paris? How do you think Marco and La Canaria would have reacted had she been open with them?
6. Mosca’s abuela remembers the devastation of the war. She recalls that “their means of breaking you [were] very specific.” How does that time of upheaval compare to Mosca’s generation’s?
7. How does Fuentes’s retelling of student activism and unrest in Spain in 1977 compare to the political unrest of among young people today? How much is universal in these upheavals throughout history?
8. Mosca asserts that it is “better to stay numb than to know the details of your frostbite.” Do you agree with this sentiment?
9. What do you think La Canaria wants and how does that change throughout her journey with the others?
10. The final pages of the novel contain several passages that repeat the imagery of being “beneath the water,” with several references to purification, the tide, waves, sinking, drowning, and baptism. Why did the author make this choice? Consider other places where water is significant in the narrative.Enhance Your Book Club
1. Do some research with your group about Spain in 1977. How does Fuentes bring the time and place to life? How much did you know about this time period before reading the book, and what did you learn while reading that surprised you?
2. Create a playlist based on the songs mentioned throughout the novel and listen to it during your discussion. How does the music affect you when you think about the political atmosphere of Mosca’s time?A Conversation with Gabrielle Lucille FuentesWhat inspired you to write about this time and place?
I wanted to study abroad in Cuba, where my father was born, but at the time it wasn’t possible. Any other Latin American country felt like a betrayal and I’ve always been a Europhile (for mixed and dubious reasons) so I chose Spain. The rest wasn’t really a choice. The first chapter came years later and almost whole cloth—complete with setting and time period. When I slow down my own intuition, I think Spain during the transition was the perfect mix of close and far. The time was separate enough from me to imagine a new narrative into it and yet it spoke of both current political realities and my own emotional landscape. My younger brother had just passed away from a drug overdose. Mosca’s journey was, of course, my own: through numbness and fear, into the deep recesses of longing. I wrote into my grief as the only way I could experience or imagine it. I wrote to keep both him and myself alive.The Sleeping World is filled with strong, distinctive young characters. Why did you choose Mosca’s point of view to tell this story in particular? The Sleeping World
is Mosca’s story. It wouldn’t be possible from any other perspective. She is the character most connected to me emotionally and a way for me to move into grief. I can’t imagine the novel from any other [perspective] than a female perspective. The only other character who could narrate would be La Canaria. That would be an entirely different book. A very interesting one.How much research went into your process, and was it difficult to divide time between analytical research and more creative inspiration?
Luckily much of the research had happened years before the writing started so there was time for the information and facts used to structure the narrative to sink in and become less conscious. I studied at the University of Salamanca in 2007—and what became research for The Sleeping World
was at the time just me living and going to school: staying up late, drinking wine in parks, camping in sheep pastures, and not doing much actual studying for the first time in my life. I read different pre- and postwar Spanish authors [and] Spanish history, and met people who had lived through the transition. Many of the young Spaniards I hung out with then were similar aesthetically and politically to Mosca’s friends. They had a punk sense of fashion, organized freegan potlucks, were frustrated by the older conservative citizens, drank cheap beer, etc. They had a wildness and desperation to them that I was attracted to—perhaps I’m romanticizing, but that’s how it felt. I drew on my actual experience for much of the texture of the novel.
So much of writing a novel is problem solving, and so much of problem solving is movement into instinct. Especially with a character like Mosca, who is so guarded and thoughtful—she’s very careful with her words—I have to balance letting her speak alongside my own sense of the narrative, the symbolism, the politics. The more official research came after the first draft but was also a creative act—I was following hunches, snatches of sentences, moods, and trusting I would find that the things I’d written had in fact happened, or something that bore an emotional resemblance to them had.What is the first thing you like to tell students in your creative writing classes?
It changes from semester to semester. I like to teach contemporary work—or what I’m currently excited by. There’s a freedom with creative writing courses in that the texts can be modeled after one’s own (shifting) artistic practice. Something that I’ve used in the past to start the course and want to repeat is Sister Corita Kent’s Rules, which are part art object/part list. The Rules are easily available online and often misattributed to John Cage—who was the more famous male in the equation. They are a simple list that she posted outside of her art classes: how to be an artist/student/teacher. The Rules focus on work, on messing up, on a sort of uncreative push that feels very catholic (little c
) to me. They make creative work more possible without removing its mystery.How much resonance do you see between the upheaval Mosca and her friends faced compared to the political unrest in the world today?
Writing about Spain in the 1970s was definitely a way for me to write slant about several different histories as well as my own present. In a way, Mosca’s generation is similar to my own. There’s a deep sense of betrayal and mistrust—that those who were supposed to be leading us were in fact destroying any hopes of a livable future. I wrote the first draft of The Sleeping World
alongside the Arab Spring and Occupy movements and as I kept writing, the abuse of power by our political and police forces (whether by kidnapping Mexican students or murdering black citizens across the U.S.) became ever more visible. I think of this as an American book, as it is informed by the injustices and struggles happening in the U.S. and Latin America. This all sounds generalizing, which is why I write fiction. With fiction, with a novel, I can speak specifically and deeply about a certain place and time, and, like a case study, as Chris Kraus writes, my writing can be used as a paradigm for the reader. What the reader applies the case study to is her own choice.The last few pages of the book are ambiguous, almost surreal, filled with poetry and symbolism. Were you influenced by the magical realism of Latin American writers? What other writers have inspired you?
For me, those final pages are absolutely real. All through the book, Mosca has been running from the reality of her past, refusing to recognize the truth of her haunting. Then she finally stops and yes, everything falls apart, including the language, but it was absolutely necessary. A sort of sense had to break down to express her emotional reality and for her to continue in the world of the living. I’m definitely influenced by Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges but for me, magical realism
is a mistranslation that never quite fit those writers and doesn’t fit me. I believe in mystery on many levels: I make these events real in my writing; I need them to accurately express lived experience and emotions; and, most important, I know they were real long before me and will continue to be long after me.
Toni Morrison—in both her critical writing and her novels—has shaped me more than perhaps any other single writer. She is the greatest, but of course needs none of my praise. In terms of other influences, for The Sleeping World
I drew on many books, especially: Kazim Ali’s Bright Felon
, Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban
, Laird Hunt’s Ray of the Star
, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins
, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad
, Selah Saterstrom’s The Meat and Spirit Plan
, and of course, Federico García Lorca’s plays and poems and Carmen Laforet’s Nada.
Music and film were extremely important: Pedro Almodovar’s films, especially his early ones; Albert Camus’s Black Orpheus
; the Clash; the Ramones; Patti Smith; and I doubt this particular book would exist without many repeated revolutions of the National’s High Violet
.As a debut novelist, what advice would you give to other aspiring writers?
Read extensively and strangely. Read books from before you were born by people different from you. I love Tove Jansson, Tarjei Vesaas, Halldór Laxness, Sei Shōnagon. Find people whose writing/thinking/spirit you respect and see if you can trick them into reading your work. Find people who write and make art and figure out how they do it. And spend just so much time writing. Writing isn’t conceptual; it’s only possible in its own practice. Only in the actual writing will you find out what you believe and what kind of writer you are, which is, of course, the only writer you can possibly be.