I’m a firm believer that keeping my mind stimulated can only help foster my creative juices when it comes to my writing life. And one thing I love to do is learn foreign languages. I studied French in high school and Japanese in college, and later lived in Japan and became conversant in the language. I’ve tried tackling Brazilian Portuguese, at least phonetically, in order to sing bossa-nova. Now I’m learning Spanish through an online course. I don’t know what took me so long! Spanish is everywhere in the U.S.—especially in California where I live. It’s so easy to expose yourself to Spanish in restaurants, on the radio and, of course, television (whether broadcast, cable, satellite or Internet!). There’s really no excuse not to try it out and have some fun.
My latest favorite way of studying Spanish is by watching telenovelas (television novels). These are often compared to American soaps and, according to an article from the PBS NewsHour, they did, in part, come about because of the U.S. soap opera. In the 1930s American soap companies began developing dramatic radio programs aimed at housewives and also created shows for the Cuban market. In the 1950s when it was no longer feasible for the U.S. companies to sponsor shows in Cuba, groups of Cuban producers, actors and writers found work throughout Latin America producing telenovelas, which combined some of the American-style soap storytelling with Latin American culture and traditional literature.
Telenovelas offer one big difference from American soaps: they have a definite story arc and, instead of continuing for years and years, might only last one year, or two, or even less. And they are generally shown in prime time and attract family viewers instead of mainly women. Even the most dramatic telenovelas will usually have some comedy relief and although they can be just as preposterous as some American soaps, we do often see deeper character development, unpredictable events, unexpected premises, gorgeous settings and even realistic social commentary. As a writer, I appreciate and can be inspired by this for my own writing.
My current favorite telenovela is from Mexico, Por Ella Soy Eva (For Her, I’m Eva), which stars top actress Lucero in a romantic comedy-drama that takes its inspiration from the American film Tootsie and makes clever statements about the changing gender roles in Mexico along with the seemingly outdated but ever-present culture of machismo. My previous favorite was Soy tu Dueña (I’m Your Owner, or the English title: Woman of Steel), which also starred Lucero, this time as a big-time rancher, suffering many trials and tribulations (of course!) as well as romances with hot men. Muy caliente!
One thing you don’t find too often on telenovelas, though, are English subtitles, but English-language blog recaps like Caray, Caray can come to the rescue in a big way. I admit that at the moment I can only understand about 35 percent when I watch, and what I do is turn on the closed captioning. This gives me what the actors are saying in Spanish, which greatly helps my practice. If there are words I don’t know, I jot them down to look them up later.
Have you ever watched a telenovela? Have a favorite soap? Studied soaps in a foreign country to learn the language? (I did that with “home dramas” in Japan and my character Midori Saito in Midori by Moonlight watched them in the U.S.). Or have soaps helped inspire your writing?
Wendy Nelson Tokunaga is the author of the novels, "Midori by Moonlight"and "Love in Translation" (both published by St. Martin's Press), and the e-book novels, "Falling Uphill" and "His Wife and Daughters," and e-book short story, “The Girl in the Tapestry.” She's also the author of the nonfiction e-book, "Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, JapaneseHusband." Her short story "Love Right on the Yesterday" appears in the anthology "Tomo," published by Stone Bridge Press, and her essay "Burning Up" is included in "Madonna and Me: Women Writerson the Queen of Pop." Wendy holds an MFA in Creative Writing from University of San Francisco and teaches for Stanford University's Online Writer's Studio Novel Certificate Program. She also does private manuscript consulting for novels and memoirs. Follow her on Twitter at @Wendy_Tokunaga, friend her on Facebook and visit her website at: www.WendyTokunaga.com