Writers & Books: You were born in Tijuana but moved to the U.S. with your family when you were a very young boy. Can you give us a little background on your early childhood in Mexico? How did the move alter your world view?
Luis Alberto Urrea: Although I came to the U.S. before I was 5, I spent my entire childhood floating back and forth across the border. I never realized there was something “wrong” with being from Tijuana until later when people voiced negative opinions about it. For a little boy, the dirt-street barrio in the hills of Tijuana was a kind of wonderland. After all, it’s where my family was, it’s where our dogs were, it’s where fresh tortillas were made down the block, it’s where the family pomegranate tree grew. How rich and symbolic is that?
W&B: And family is where “home” is, of course. Did you identify with being both Mexican and American? Do you now? How does this create a tension or a harmony in your life and writing?
Urrea: I didn’t think about it at all. I thought everybody was two people at once. In my writing, it feels harmonious. Out in the world sometimes, it can inspire tension. But my job is taking the harmony with me wherever I go.
W&B: That phrase reminds me that you are also a poet….
How did all of this begin? What were your reading habits as a child and a teen? Who were the first fiction authors you read?
Urrea: I was always a voracious reader. I was reading before I was reading, if you count my mother’s tireless recitations of Dickens, Twain and Kipling. I was a science fiction and fantasy buff early on and rode that all the way out into literary fiction and poetry. If you start with Twain, you can go to Ray Bradbury. From Ray Bradbury to Richard Brautigan and Kurt Vonnegut. From there to the world.
W&B: When did you start writing and in what form did you first work?
Urrea: I started putting pen to paper in junior high school. It is a pet theory of mine that if you are doomed to be a writer you are always writing, even when you don’t know it. But let’s say 9th grade. I wanted to write Leonard Cohen, John Lennon, Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan words. I didn’t know what that was, exactly, I just knew I wanted to do it. What pushed me over the edge was seeing that all of these singers also wrote books of poems and prose. Once I tried it for myself, I was hooked. It was more a magic ritual than a career move.
W&B: Magic and ritual do play significant roles in your novels. How important was storytelling when you were growing up? Have you appropriated any of your family stories for your books (fiction or nonfiction)?
Urrea: Guilty as charged. Story was everything. This is not just a Mexican thing—your readers will recognize what I’m saying automatically. If you come from a place where you don’t have much, you don’t have stored riches, what you do have is yourself, your stories and your family’s stories. Storytelling was all around me all the time until I wanted them to just be quiet and go away. I’m so thankful they did not. Into the Beautiful North is soaked in family stories and voices like the worm floating in the bottom of a mezcal bottle.
W&B: Could the contemporary narrative of Into the Beautiful North be considered a departure from your previous books, which fall into the categories of nonfiction and historical fiction? I am thinking particularly of your two volumes in the latter category, The Hummingbird’s Daughter and its sequel, Queen of America.
Urrea: Not at all. . . . Every miracle or wonder in [the two volumes of historical fiction] comes from hard research, 26 years in fact. If you look at Into the Beautiful North objectively, you will see two things about it: It is a book of secular miracles, and it is a fictional exploration of themes discussed in many of my previous nonfiction volumes about the border.
W&B: I appreciate the secular miracles and can see the thematic connection to your many nonfiction border stories. What about the many readers and reviewers who place your historical fiction in the category of magic realism? In any way do you consider yourself as partly working in the tradition of such Central and South American authors as Isabelle Allende and Gabriel García Márquez? What (other) genres or authors do you find influential?
Urrea: Those books would have to be listed as the reverse of magical realism. What would that be called? Real magicism, perhaps? I think if you read Linda Hogan or Louise Erdrich or Simon Ortiz, you will recognize these books as being profoundly indigenous. They’re not about magic, they’re about Yaqui medicine. That might give you a clue about who influenced this work. Oddly enough, I was never thinking about Latin American authors. Well, maybe Juan Rulfo! I was busy stealing from Malcolm Lowry and trying to encode 25,000 haiku into the text. So blame Issa, Basho and Buson!
W&B: Comedic and satirical and poetic, this novel is nevertheless predicated on serious universal themes around issues of justice, class and poverty, racism, identity and difference. You have referred to this novel as “subversive.” Can you say more about how it might serve that purpose? What are some of the benefits and drawbacks in adopting a satirical approach to such a serious topic?
Urrea: People are funny. Humor is a virus. It infects everyone with humanity. I didn’t intend this book to be satirical at all. But the endless parade of somber, droning outraged prose about the border does not reflect the reality of life. If you hang out with the border patrol, they will make you laugh. If you hang out with garbage pickers at the Tijuana Municipal garbage dump, they will make you laugh. If you go to the villages I portray in southern Sinaloa, you will find out that they seem to eat and breathe laughter. So, if I infect you with shared humanity, if you sit at a table with an “illegal” and understand what drove her and share a deep laugh about our human condition, you will find it much harder to hate, revile or demean her. That being said, considering the atmosphere in this country, the subversion is in the following: Making people root for other people that they might tend to look down on. Not only the undocumented, but how about an openly gay man who is looking for love and is heroic on the journey? How about a scary, half-crazy, garbage-picking Mexican samurai? I can’t tell you how many wonderful ladies in how many book clubs have told me “I just LOVE that Atomiko!” Talk about laughs—I always think “Boy, if he walked in here right now, you wouldn’t love him so much. He would scare you to death!” Subversion, by the way, isn’t just a liberal plot of mine. I think it’s subversive (and possibly healing) to represent the human beings in the U.S. Border Patrol as well.
W&B: While the story of Into the Beautiful North revolves around a physical border, between the U.S. and Mexico, it feels as if readers are also being invited to cross a psychological border—the massive gap between Mexican and U.S. culture. In writing this novel, what were your hopes in trying to communicate this gap?
Urrea: My hopes were to spin a juicy yarn. The Mexican border is nothing but a metaphor for the borders that divide all of us as human beings. I see borders running through every audience I address. So my books are just ways to toss a love note over the fence.
W&B: As referenced earlier, you have written several nonfiction texts about border and immigrant issues. Do you write primarily to help readers consider the implications of these complex issues or perhaps to explore them in more depth yourself?
Urrea: All of the above.
W&B: Tell us about the difference you find in the process of writing fiction and that of writing nonfiction, especially as all of your books seem to hover at borders.
Urrea: I think I split the difference with poetry. This may seem a little mystical but the story tells you what it needs to be, if you pay attention. I often teach Kerouac and I tell my students these days On The Road might be called creative nonfiction. I think sometimes fiction is more “real” than nonfiction.
W&B: As an avid fiction reader, I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment. The initial conflict of Into the Beautiful North is the lack of men in the small, charming village of Tres Camarones. Can you talk about the very real ramifications of Mexican men leaving villages in Mexico for El Norte? Is it one means to stop “circling their own history” (as you write in the novel that all small-town Mexicans do), for example?
Urrea: The inspiration for the novel came from the actual experience of Mexican towns devoid of men. I was really interested in the sudden accidental access to power and leadership offered to women by this vacuum. I firmly believe it’s time for some woman power in Mexico, so this was a way for me to explore some of that. It was also a way to celebrate two cultures. The book is half about the United States, so you might as well ask yourself what motivates all the Americans to stop circling around their own histories. Everybody in the book, including those sitting still, is on a journey.
W&B: How do you tie your disparate narrative lines together, and at what point? For example, how did Kankakee, Illinois, become a destination for Nayeli?
Urrea: When you’re a writer, you’re like a cat playing with a yarn ball. You bat ideas around, drink some coffee, kick the ball with your back feet a couple of times, take a nap and voila: story! Kankakee came about because Kankakee entered our lives. Here’s the border between fiction and nonfiction. I went there for a reading, fell in love with the librarian and the mayor and the weird little taco stands and the weird little town, specifically with the town’s heroic struggle to find a way through this immigrant-rich paradigm. Like I said, the book is half about the United States. If you’re going to start in a typical tropical Mexican town, it might make sense to end in a typical Midwestern American town. Both of them are full of grace. Both of them are full of magic.
W&B: Your descriptions of both sides of the border are also extremely sensual, in the meaning of using the senses, and are especially visual. Here is just one example from early in the book: “Everything seemed woven of purest sunlight. The coconut palms bobbed with their bright green harvests. Beyond the coconuts, hibiscus trees stood twenty feet tall, burning with crimson blossoms. Little thatched huts sagged at jaunty angles.” There are also stunning descriptions of a garbage dump that are sympathetic without being reductive or romanticized. Is this descriptive process the same in your fiction and nonfiction writing?
Urrea: I think so. You can’t escape the way you see the world.
W&B: Chava, Vampi and Atomiko have all chosen pop culture figures on which to model themselves. Tacho, on the other hand, plays along the edges of gay stereotypes, picking and choosing, like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who hates watermelon but likes yams. At times he seriously objects, at others gently—or outrageously—mocks the stereotypes that not only don’t fit, but that even offend him. He’s a great, complex character.
Urrea: I would have to say thank you, first. Tacho was inspired by a man in a small Mexican village whose survival strategy made him my hero. His name was Tacho.
W&B: Nayeli is a very compelling main character. Was it difficult writing from the perspective of a teenage girl? Where did you find the basis for our headstrong heroine?
Urrea: I happen to be the dad of two girls. Along with those girls there was also an army of bubble-gum smelling girls. That being said, after the Teresita novels, it was semi-expected of me to write about women. The key seems to be to write about human beings. If I stopped to pat myself on the back for writing realistic females, I fail. I’m interested in realistic human beings. Those human beings chose to be male or female about as much as I chose to be Mexican American.
W&B: Your fiction work includes—one could say focuses on—strong female characters, from Teresita in The Hummingbird’s Daughter and Queen of America to Nayeli. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
Urrea: See above. My first novel was about big stinky men in a gas station and I have a new book of short stories coming that is pretty male in perspective.
W&B: I enjoyed reading and learning about the men in In Search of Snow! Like them, Aunt Irma, Atomiko, Missionary Matt, Nayeli, Vampi, etc. are all fleshed-out characters. Although the novel is partially about place, about finding one’s place, the story’s personalities seem to be directing the plot, the story pivoting on their transformations. Do these characters reflect people you know personally, or who you’ve encountered in Mexico? I have read that several of the characters were inspired by people in your family.
Urrea: Is there a plot? (kidding) Aunt Irma is definitely, without a doubt, based on my own Aunt Irma. I have stated publically that she was the scariest human being I ever met. She was, for a time, Mexico’s reigning women’s bowling champion. I think you can’t help but pull in elements of those around you when you are creating characters. There are people you want to celebrate. Maybe sometimes you’re getting a little revenge.
W&B: One element I especially like is how each character is attracted to specific details in others, from Vampi and El Brujo sharing a dark side to Chava reminiscing about Irma’s white ankle socks.
Urrea: I think it’s about sacred objects. Not religious objects but there are things that are profound and they’re not the same between different groups of people. But those memories and attractions are precious.
W&B: I like that idea of personal details becoming talismans. On a different scale, you spent time with missionaries in Tijuana garbage dumps, working and living with people whose stories go mostly untold. Was the character Atomiko part of your desire to tell such hidden stories? Many readers (including the wonderful ladies in book clubs you mentioned earlier) have told me that they would like to believe that there is an Atomiko out there somewhere….
Urrea: Atomiko is Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai [the film directed by Akira Kurosawa in 1954, which inspired John Sturges’ 1960 classic western The Magnificent Seven]. I hope he’s out there, too! I have met and known a lot of secretly noble bad men. It’s always good to have a gunslinger/samurai on your side.
W&B: There is that clear parallel in terms of characters—and both and Atomiko and Kikuchiyo ultimately endear themselves to audiences. On a related note, your writing touches on the importance of defying stereotypes about sexuality and gender, with the characters of Tacho and Nayeli, especially, bending the definitions of masculinity and femininity. Are these important issues for you personally?
Urrea: As a writer, you want to surprise your readers. If this is an epic fairy tale—a Joseph Campbell hero’s journey—then many character attributes are in play. The hero happens to be Nayeli. So we encounter a young girl who becomes a warrior. I think that’s kinda cool. I like powerful women. I like bad men. I like Border Patrol agents. I like garbage pickers. I like missionaries. And I like gay people. What are you gonna do?
W&B: As you have referenced, you also present a sympathetic view of U.S. Border Patrol agents, which might be surprising to some when discussing border issues from a Mexican vantage point. Was it important to you to represent both sides of the border story?
Urrea: Yes. I think a lot of people have read [Urrea’s nonfiction book] The Devil’s Highway. So it’s probably not that much of a shock to them. Not as much as it was a shock to me to discover that humanity.
W&B: In addition, your characters, although perhaps a bit eccentric at times, are never stereotypical. How did you decide to explore the personalities of a roadside warrior, a young gay man, a “vampire,” etc. and how did you get into the lives of such disparate people?
Urrea: I’m like an old wrestler. I can’t jump off the top ropes anymore, but I have learned to take a fall. I just let those characters speak to me. This was the first time I felt like I could write a novel about every single person in one of my books. I guess if you stay in the game long enough, you get better. I hope so.
W&B: You exhibit this quality—or skill—of empathy, of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, of getting into someone’s head so well that you know them better than they know themselves, of being able to create or recreate them for others as whole, believable characters. Were you born that way? How did you develop that grace? Is it something that can be taught?
Urrea: If you get kicked enough, you learn.
W&B: Many of your other books are nonfiction and therefore require research and it is well known that you spent more than twenty years researching and writing The Hummingbird’s Daughter, followed by Queen of America. How much research did you do before (or during) the writing of Into the Beautiful North? I am most interested in how you learned about the details of border crossings. What was your most interesting discovery? The tunnel reminds me of the tunnel used by the brother and sister in the moving 1983 film El Norte—but in that case the tunnel turned out to be deadly.
Urrea: The point of the book was not the tunnel. Again, we are dealing with myth. A subterranean journey into deepest night and a resurrection … that was the point of that passage. As far as the research, my whole life was the research. Boyhoods among iguanas and mangoes in Sinaloa, or eating pancakes in Naperville, Illinois, beholding the busboy whose tattoos inspired El Brujo. Kim Stafford calls this process “eloquent listening.”
W&B: Stafford is a wonderful poet and empathetic soul who I was privileged to meet a few years ago. Speaking of poets, Alí Chumacero died at age 92, less than two years after the publication of this novel. Why is he Chava’s favorite poet? Which poem of his do you think Chava likes best or knows by heart? Did Chumacero ever know he had been mentioned in your novel?
Urrea: I don’t think he would have cared. I discovered Alí Chumacero in the town that became Tres Camarones. He has a poem about a ballerina that I know would be Chava’s favorite verse.
W&B: Back in Tres Camarones, the idea for the group’s trip is sparked by seeing The Magnificent Seven at the local cinema. Are you a fan of these films? At what point did the films, and cinema in general, become such a significant part of the narrative?
Urrea: I am a fan of those films, I am a fan of films. Moreover, I am a fan of the Cine Pedro Infante in Sinaloa. I fell in love with those tropical Mexican movie houses.
W&B: Aside from running parallel to Kurosawa’s and Sturges’ narratives, the book utilizes many tropes of the adventure tale. The danger for the characters in this novel comes from their need to stay under the radar as “illegals” in the U.S.
Urrea: A critic told me it was “only a road book.” I thought “only a road book!” But that’s exactly what it is and what it was meant to be. So yeah, adventure.
W&B: Unlike many quest stories, however, the novel does not fulfill the standard notion of a happy ending: Nayeli decides not to confront her father, and you do not share with readers the inevitable face off of the returning heroes and the banditos. Was there a reason for this?
Urrea: I would say that Nayeli confronts her father in a very samurai fashion. You are forgetting Kurasawa and the haiku masters: What better gesture for a warrior than to leave her father’s own damning object? A reader can figure out the look on his face when he finds the object on his truck. My failing, judging from responses, was not delivering the actual battle of Tres Camarones. But it seemed more delicious to me to enjoy the smile when you realize there’s about to be some serious butt-kicking. Finally, if I had wrapped up the border conundrum in a neat package and a happy ending, I would be lying. Writing Rule No. 1: Don’t Lie.
W&B: In relation to telling the truth, or at least documenting real experience, in terms of your writing style, of note are the sections of the book—reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita—where you reel off the names of towns along the road. Does being bilingual and an immigrant—reminiscent of Nabokov—make you especially sensitive to both the beauty and the slightly ludicrous nature of American place names? It also signifies how the U.S. is a place of magic for Nayeli and her crew….
W&B: Your writing, while primarily English, hinges on the Spanish language, using colloquial Spanish and Spanglish, in other words, code-switching. How do you strike the balance between the two languages as an author?
Urrea: I think most authors wish they played electric guitar. So think of it as an extended Jimi Hendrix solo. You just feel when to bring in new riffs.
W&B: Your metaphors and phrasings are fresh and frequently surprising (even as evidenced in this conversation). All writers delight in words, of course, but does being bilingual give you an edge on collecting and creating lively language?
Urrea: I hope so! Words taste like butter rum Lifesavers to me.
W&B: Words as smooth, silky, sweet…. That reminds me that in other interviews you have mentioned the importance of the “gift of story” or the “power of the story.” Can you expand on this idea and how it is reflected in this novel?
Urrea: On a very personal level, story has brought every measurably good thing into my life. I believe we don’t live in countries—we don’t even live in places. I believe we live in stories. My teacher Ursula LeGuin pointed out that our tribe has lost the position of tribal storyteller. Our job is to go into the universe and feel what it’s like to be alive and then come back and remind the rest of the tribe.
W&B: What was your response to learning that Into the Beautiful North as well as all of your other books had been banned in Arizona schools? Do you see this as government-sanctioned censorship?
Urrea: It’s not about censorship. It’s about powerful bullies tormenting immigrant kids. I am infuriated when I see bastards kicking children.
W&B: That certainly seems to relate to some of the themes of Into the Beautiful North such as the banditos threatening Tres Camarones. You personally nurture the younger generation in part by teaching creative writing at University of Illinois at Chicago. What are your strategies for teaching writing? To what extent do you believe good writing can be taught? How does teaching feed your writing and vice versa?
Urrea: I am not interested in their writing careers, nor their fame, nor their GPA. What we are about is earning a black belt in writing. That’s it. It’s a Way, it is a spiritual practice and a mental and physical discipline. Bruce Lee would have been an awesome workshop leader. Good writing? If you look at some reviews, I myself don’t practice good writing, so how can I teach it? What I try to teach is good seeing, good listening, openness to the miracle that is this gift. Teaching often wears me out and steals some thunder from my writing. However, my students fill me back up.
W&B: The infamous adage “write what you know” is often repeated in writing workshops. Being both a non-fiction and fiction writer and having experienced much of the border issues that you confront in your writing, do you feel this is a realistic guideline for aspiring authors?
Urrea: Nonfiction allows me to write what I don’t know. Of course, I have to learn it to write it. Writing what you know is in some ways a trap. It can be a sticky roach motel where your feet get caught. Stephen Crane had never been to war, but look at what he wrote. Sometimes, you have to write what you don’t know. That being said, I think the real message is you had better know believable and realistic things about humanity itself. Don’t write clichés. Don’t write stereotypes. Don’t think up elaborate plots and have your character wake up and realize OMG it was only a dream! What you know, or should know, is that life is more complex and amazing than the surface would show you. Know life. That’s what you’re writing about.
W&B: What can we look forward to reading from you in the near future? (And I know you have an agent—has this very cinematic novel been optioned for film?)
Urrea: I have been dancing with Hollywood types for over a decade. When am I not under option or facing an option? You can’t think about that stuff. It’s just a distraction. In the near future, there are endless streams of work. I write a regular column in Orion magazine, I am polishing a collection of short fiction and finishing up two collections of poetry. I am plotting out an astounding nonfiction project and a couple of novels. Sometimes, I crank it out like a tortilla chip factory. I like to be productive.