My first question for Vanessa Diffenbaugh is "Which flower says "I'm sorry?"--our interview had to be rescheduled twice. Diffenbaugh's already much-buzzed debut novel, The Language of Flowers (Ballantine), concerns exactly that--the "language of flowers" that was particularly popular in the Victorian era.
Diffenbaugh is a Stanford-educated novelist and charity founder (the Camellia Network, which provides support for young people leaving the foster care system) who is married with two small children.
Wait, make that four children: Diffenbaugh and her husband, PK, are also parents to 18-year-old Tre'von and 21-year-old Donovan, both of whom are foster children. Since The Language of Flowers is about a young woman named Victoria who has lived her entire life in the foster-care system, Diffenbaugh is clearly writing about something she knows. But how and when did she decide to become a foster parent?
"Both my husband and I were raised by parents who were products of the counterculture, and really believed in social justice and equality. I remember being at rallies with my father that he helped organize for Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition, and PK's family actually founded an orphanage in India where they spent several months out of each year. We both are completely focused on service," she explained.
Diffenbaugh knew she wanted to be a foster parent early on, around age 21. "I'd been working in restaurants after graduating from Stanford. It was the time of the total dotcom boom, and I knew I wanted more meaning in my life than just money. We knew we should get a house and settle down and all those things, but.... We did make some mistakes along the way."
The first was taking two girls who were sisters, ages three and 13. "I thought we were ready, and I'd asked for one school-aged child," Diffenbaugh said. "We figured that with both of us working full-time jobs, we could provide a good environment. But we weren't prepared for the fact that once you're approved as a foster parent, they call you every day--and you're in it because you want to help someone, so you agree to situations that aren't ideal because the kids are in such need."
After a couple of weeks, they had to return the girls. "It was incredibly hard," Diffenbaugh admitted. "But I just couldn't handle it. And then, a little while later, came a girl who was very much like my character Victoria. She was 15 and really troubled, and my husband really wanted to adopt her. He was fully committed to that adoption, but I was pregnant with our first biological child, and I couldn't make that commitment. The fallout was awful, a terrible emotional dance between her and me."
Diffenbaugh continued: "Part of what I was trying to do with this book was to show the depth of character that exists even in the most difficult, troubled, unreachable child. They can be violent and angry and all of these terrible things, but I believe every child has the capacity to love and be loved. The journey to that capacity is possible when we allow ourselves to be open to other beings."
Reaching children before they grow up is crucial, too, because, as Diffenbaugh points out, 60% of our nation's homeless people spent time in the foster-care system. "A lot of people ask why I write fiction rather than nonfiction, and it's because I want to reach as many people as possible," she added. "I don't know a lot of readers who would walk into a bookstore and pick up a nonfiction book about a traumatized kid, but through fiction, you can tell and read that story in the first person and learn from it, without things becoming too heavy handed."
That's no small feat, since there is parts of The Language of Flowers are very sad, especially after Victoria has a baby. "It's something I hope to speak about more when I'm on tour," Diffenbaugh said. "I could only write two to three sentences at a time in those places, because it's so wrenching to put yourself in the head of someone who is about to abuse or neglect her baby. She wants so desperately to love and care for her child, but she just doesn't know how."
How did the "language of flowers" work into the story? "At that age, knowing something that no one else knows is a very powerful feeling. I needed a way for Victoria to communicate, and this was perfect, in that it had a feeling of secrecy, but also connected her to the one foster parent in her life, Elizabeth, who really reached her."
But Diffenbaugh isn't planning to write about flowers--or foster care--again. "I want to write fiction that allows me to explore a social issue I care about, and in my next book, I'm already on that path," she said. "I want to be the best writer I can be, but I also want to reach people, to have a message that is deep and powerful communicated in language that is simple and straightforward."
It's time to end our call, and so I thank Diffenbaugh and apologize one more time. "I just remembered the perfect flower for an apology," she answered. "Purple hyacinth means 'please forgive me.' "
We've already been speaking the same language. --Bethanne Patrick