Gabriela Jauregui There seems to be something new in what you are doing that marks a shift in the way people perceive so-called American literature by young writers: There are more and more authors who, like you, are foreign-born yet write in English (and who may even publish simultaneous translations in the language of their country of origin). I am thinking about how this points to an antidote to U.S. domination over the rest of Latin America and how this puts us all in close dialogue. It is a kind of “Latino” thing, but it also puts into question what people here have defined or constructed as Latino literature. I would like you both to talk about the implications this has for young writers like yourselves.
Daniel Alarcón I don’t want to sound a somber note to begin with, but the interesting thing about the position that Alex and I are in, or, say, writers like Yiyun Li and Jhumpa Lahiri, or Francisco Goldman—and we could go on and on—is that we benefit from a certain laziness on the part of both American publishers and American readers. As the cultural landscape here in the U.S. becomes more complex, the mainstream looks for interpreters. Americans want to hear stories from “exotic places” but they want them packaged and palatable, easily digestible. I understand this sentiment. The publishers prefer it is this way, for economic reasons. And so of course, it’s easier to find Yiyun Li on a bookshelf than Wang Shuo. Both are fantastic writers, but her work is more attuned to the tastes of Western readers than Shuo’s bizarre and brilliant novel Please Don’t Call Me Human. She has already done the heavy lifting for us. And so novels aren’t translated, entire cultures are. The problem is that we may be losing something very powerful—entirely different ways of imagining what the contours of a story can be.
I understand that my entire career is based on that kind of American provincialism, but it’s a shame that there are a lot of great writers who’ll never get translated. Many of them are doing what I am trying to do, some of them are surely doing it better, but very few folks here in the States will ever know.
Alex Espinoza I find myself constantly butting heads with the term “Latino literature”: the distinction, the separation accompanying that sub-category. The expectation that is put on a writer writing about a specific non-Anglo cultural experience can be limiting. In terms of Latino versus American lit, Latino lit (any writer living in the U.S. writing in English about Latin America) is American lit, and there is no reason we should be considering it as a separate category. What I see happening with writers like me, Daniel, and others is that we are challenging the definition of “American lit.”
Distinctions are very uncomfortable things, especially for writers whose aim should always be to write across those distinctions, write across the borders, if you will, that separate one from the other. Because, after all, writing and literature should not be concerned about presenting its subject matter in a different or exotic way but rather a realistic and honest one.
GJ From the other side of the mirror: when you go back to Mexico and Peru, do you feel 100 percent Mexican or Peruvian, or do you feel like you’re an outsider here, and an outsider there? Do you think that the condition of the writer is to be an outsider?
DA Yeah, that’s true: I think of myself as 100 percent American and 100 percent Peruvian. So I guess I’m 200 percent, total. I don’t see that as any contradiction at all.
If you go to Peru today, almost everyone you meet has a family member or a friend living abroad, usually in the United States. A lot of this discussion of nationalism in Peru is somewhat outdated, because what does nationalism mean if, let’s say, 75 percent of people under the age of 25 would emigrate if they had a chance? They measure this statistic every year, by the way, and the number is always startlingly high.
As borders become more fluid, language becomes more fluid. Alex was mentioning that this is a good time to be a Latino writer: it is an interesting moment because cultures and languages are colliding; spaces between people are shrinking. Inevitably really interesting things are going to happen from these collisions.
AE As writers, we’re always on the fringe, don’t you think?
DA We’re always going to be observers, which is related to but not synonymous with being outsiders.
AE When I was in junior high and high school, I was a really poor athlete because I was born partially disabled, so in PE classes my coaches would always give me a clipboard and a whistle. I would never get picked for teams—I was always on the sidelines, calling the fouls and keeping score. That’s sort of the way I look at my writing and also at my position as a Mexican and as an American: I’m always on the sidelines, observing and keeping track of things but never fully participating, but I’m okay with living in that space and in that world.
DA I want to point out that we always talk a lot about globalization and what that means, but globalization has been happening in America since 1492. A lot of the great literature of Latin America, or the Americas in general, has always been written along those borderlines. Whether you’re talking about Juan Rulfo or José María Arguedas, or you’re talking about the Comentarios Reales del Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, the very process of mestizaje in itself creates a tension that will manifest itself in art, given the right opportunities. What’s happening now is simply a continuation of that.
The great Peruvian poet César Moro wrote in French. That doesn’t make him not-Peruvian. César Vallejo lived most of his life in Paris, and died there, and he’s still as Peruvian as they come. There are many great Peruvian poets who write in Quechua, but people don’t know them because Quechua is not a “literary” language at the moment. And in the end, many of those poets would not identify as Peruvian to begin with. No matter how you look at them nationalities and national literatures, in the end, they break down.
GJ This brings me to imagined communities and how we build them. Borders are blurry; we create our own “affinities” to other people. Both of your novels create these kinds of imagined communities—you, Daniel, create it through radio, and you, Alex, create it through a botánica. These spaces bring people together. Does writing always enact these kinds of imagined communities? Do you think that texts are creating new cohesions (ever since before the conquest)?
DA It goes even farther than that, since cavemen were painting on the walls. Community is not created without narrative. Think about when someone marries into your family: when they know the family stories, and they have memories of your old tía — maybe not because they met her, but because they’ve heard stories about her — when they’ve filled in the gaps in the timelines of everyone in the family, that’s when they’re truly your blood.
Storytelling is, at its essence, how human beings create tribe. It comes from this entirely human need. If we share the same story, if we know the same characters, the same histories, the same myths, then we’re the same. It all goes back to the need to create connection between humans, so that we can separate ourselves: “us” from “them.” Ideally, what the universalization of literature does is create a bigger “us” and a smaller “them.”
AE I think it’s all imagined. Ever since I was a kid, my parents told stories, and I loved hearing them and creating in my mind what I imagined them to be. I wanted to create a fictional community because I wanted to do with it whatever I wanted to do. At the time I was thinking about it, I didn’t know what I wanted it to represent, until I really got it down and then I realized, “Oh, okay, this is why I breathed life into this place, I resurrected this place that doesn’t exist, that was wiped away by a flood.” The very act of re-creating is a big responsibility, and it’s one that, as a writer, I wasn’t fully prepared to take on, being an “informant” to some extent, and not really feeling that I had the right to do that. That in and of itself helped shape my perception of what it was I was doing and why I was doing it. Because the job of a writer is to bear witness to these communities and these places that aren’t being explored or represented and don’t have a voice. It’s our job to lend a voice to people in those places. What better way to do that than in the imagination?
DA To jump off that, when we talk about imagined places or unreal settings as if they weren’t specific places, I think we’re not being fair to literature, to its power. Think about Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Juan Carlos Onetti’s Santa María in Uruguay; think of Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo, or Toni Morrison’s Lorraine, Ohio. These places are as real to me and to other readers as any place you can visit. The reason writers go back and create a cosmology and a setting and a universe is that it gives you the freedom to create truth. When you’re not bound to the specifics of a real place then you can really get to the heart of it—you’re not constrained by history, by geography, by anything.
GJ Your places aren’t imaginary, they’re imagined, and there’s a difference. These choices you’ve made create this almost fable-like, or parable-like, universal space. You’re both choosing to write about places and people who are on the margins, in between: these spaces and people are between the city and the country. Both of your novels have this understated tension between urban and rural that is linked to the history of immigration and your two personal distinct examples of migration, urban (Daniel) and rural (Alex). These spaces speak to something much deeper than just a specific reality.
DA When I was living in Ghana, you would ask a Ghanian living in Accra where they were from, and they would always name their parent’s village. They would never say “Accra.” The concept in play for me there was, “Where is the ‘real’ country?” People in the city would say, “Oh, the real country is out there,” in the campo. And if you went to the rural villages they’d be, like, “Oh, it’s in the city.” No one knew where the hell the heart of the country was! I wanted to get at that idea in the novel because it struck me as so fascinating that everyone was willing to say the heart of the country is over there but no one was willing to say, it’s here, where they were standing.
AE My fascination with creating this fictional place was because I did want it to embody a lot of the things that I see happening in my section of Southern California that few people ever really focus on (with the exception of somebody like Susan Straight). The Inland Empire is a very weird place: it’s an hour east of L.A., it’s this kind of no-man’s land, it’s undefinable to some extent. Everybody in L.A. does see it as, “That’s where you have cows.”
I grew up in a suburb of L.A., and my experience there was very different, because we were sort of “protected” by the city. Whatever it did, we were defined by that—but the further out you move, the less attachment there is to the city. So I moved into this really weird section of Southern California, where these things collide and come together and where there’s this sense of nomadism—there’s really no way to define it: it is what it is.
Even in the short time that I’ve lived there, so much of it has changed. This rural place is becoming more suburban, but it’s a weird kind of suburban, not the suburban that you would find in Los Angeles. I wanted a place that embodied that, and in my fictional community I was able to do that, to show orange groves being chopped down and housing developments springing out of nowhere, completely changing the face and the pace of the place. It’s a very difficult, sometimes painful, thing to witness. My characters struggle with this notion of change, this impending sense of doom.
DA I’m reading Sula. It’s a beautiful book, but I have a problem with its unhinged nostalgia. I wonder sometimes if that emotional strain runs through a lot of American letters in general, and specifically American letters from communities of color—for the ways things were, whether we are idealizing a rural or a recent past. You have books idealizing the black community prior to Civil Rights because while it wasn’t integrated within the white community, it was a whole. There are always the unintended consequences of progress as a trope within our writing. Is there any danger to that?
AE I think there is. There’s danger in that nostalgia, there’s the danger of getting trapped in looking at things a certain way, never breaking out of that mold, out of that prescription.
I do see what you mean with Sula. I’m fascinated more than anything not by the way things were but with the way things are becoming, with how things are changing so quickly. That’s what I focus on, with that movement forward and what it’s doing to people, what it’s doing to communities.
DA To culture.
AE To culture, and how those barriers and borders are getting erased and becoming more fluid and inter-cross-pollinating in very strange and exciting new ways.
GJ A person I was thinking about as an antidote to this is Samuel R. Delany. Have you ever read him? He’s an amazing African-American writer of science fiction (well, he might call it subjunctive fiction), and, really, there’s no nostalgia there.
When most people think of imaginary places in literature, they think Macondo. Therefore, with your imaginary places (Agua Mansa in Still Water Saints and an unnamed Latin American country in Lost City Radio), it would be easy to automatically link both of you as Latino writers to Magical Realism, but instead I wanted to locate you in this kind of Speculative or Subjunctive Fiction vein, where it’s about becoming, where it’s not about looking back to this quaint past in which community was tight and things were very certain. In your novels, this hazy state of becoming disturbs certainty, and allows for something else to come in, for more freedom.
DA Magical Realism is only one strain of one tradition within a multiplicity of traditions in Latin American letters. It happens to be the one that is saturating the market. There’s nothing magical-realist about Mario Vargas Llosa—
GJ Or Borges.
DA And can there be a grittier, more realistic book than El llano en llamas? Even when Rulfo is playing with the living and the dead in Pedro Páramo, that’s still not Magical Realism. He constructs a universe with its own rules and he follows those rules assiduously and to devastating effect. The rubric of Magical Realism has overwhelmed everything. There’s been a rebellion of young writers against that in Latin America and the United States—writers who refuse to have palm trees or flying birds or butterflies on their covers. There should be a law, you know, you can’t do it.
AE The fastest way to get me to do something is to tell me, “You can’t do it.” When I was writing this novel, I situated it in a botánica, a place that at its heart sells “magical things.” Right? Nothing “magical” happens in my book. A lot of people read the first sentence and think it’s going to be that, but my purpose is to show what that expectation does to a writer and what it does to a community. You have to get close to it in order to skew that.
My purpose is more the mundane aspect of it, not statues crying tears of blood, an owl coming in and floating through a room and whispering somebody’s name. I had fun getting in there and fucking with it, and seeing what people make of it. Thankfully, it seems to have worked out.
GJ Art is about choice—including what we choose to leave out. So, aside from magic and nostalgia, what do you leave out?
DA In the actual writing of it, there are scenes that don’t get written because they don’t belong there, and there are scenes that are written and then get deleted because they explain too much. I think that the scenes that are hard to write are the scenes that you have to write—the scenes where as soon as you sit down at the computer, you feel like you have to go take a nap, or wash the dishes, or go out and check the mail, you know? There are scenes where it takes all your strength to focus, and if you actually write them, those are the scenes that make a book or don’t. In terms of leaving things out, I always want to leave out the things that explain too much—the parts that don’t respect the reader’s ability to connect the dots.
AE I have to write what the characters aren’t in order to figure out what they are. So many passages that had to do with them never made it into the book. That’s because those were the things that they weren’t, and I had to write those first. The things I choose to leave out a lot of times have to do with my feeling that a character starts to get too close to my own sensibility—
DA Ah, interesting.
AE —he starts to sound too much like me, starts to perceive things like I do. I choose to leave those things out. I have the most fun writing characters who are completely different from me, who have nothing to do with who I am or with any frame of reference that I know. Those are always the best characters for me to write because they allow me to fill them up with this imagination, with this identity that just pours out of somewhere I can’t pin down. Every time you read a book or watch a movie you find that one character you can identify with, right? For me, that person is never somebody that looks, talks, acts, or sounds like me.
DA That’s actually one of the cool things about being a writer: coming across people who on the surface aren’t interesting and then forcing yourself to find out what’s interesting about them. Sometimes you do this in fiction, and sometimes when you’re stuck on an airplane and the guy next to you wants to talk. In either case the really exciting thing is precisely that peeling away of the layers that people have, getting beyond the way they present themselves to the world and finding out who they really are.
GJ This is exactly what you’ve both done. I mean, your main characters are both women.
DA When I started out, the main narrator was a young man, and I became bored with him, not with what he was saying but with the way he was saying it. Then I transferred ideas from my male narrator, who was my age, to Norma, to her consciousness. Once I did that, everything fell into place. But the only way I could start the story to begin with, because it was so daunting, was to make the narrator someone like me.
GJ Nietzsche said that “art is gratitude.” What are you grateful for, who are you grateful to?
AE I am grateful to my family, their hard labor, my roots. There’s a lot to be said about coming from a family that understands the value of putting in hours of hard labor. I find that work ethic, seeing my father rise early, walking several miles to the factory to punch in on time, coming home exhausted, yet oddly satisfied, translates to my approach to my work and has helped inform the responsibility I see my writing fulfilling. I’m grateful for the time that I have at my disposal, that allows me many hours to write and absorb as much as I can, uninterrupted. And this didn’t come without much sacrifice. The burden of the sacrifice fell on my father, who did so much to get his family here, who worked and raised 11 children so that I, his youngest, could go to school, pursue writing, then publish a novel. It’s my offering, I guess. My book, that is. My contribution to that legacy of hard work, the immigrant’s dream that is still being played out here again and again.
DA I don’t want to be prolific; I just want to write good books. What I’m most grateful for is participating in a conversation that began thousands of years ago that includes Dickens and Chekhov and Morrison and pushing that conversation along. That’s the most exciting part: writing the book you want to read, participating in that conversation, being positioned within a global dialogue. Writing a bad novel is not a moral failure, but writing a safe book, surely is.
GJ I’m really interested in what artists consider failure to be. Is failure a book that doesn’t sell? Is it a book that doesn’t work, that doesn’t touch on and then push through certain issues (formal, political)? Earlier Daniel quoted Beckett, who mused, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” And I quoted Gertrude Stein, who stated, “Failure does not need an excuse. It is an end in itself.” I wonder if failure is the writer’s success? Can writers fail successfully? How can writers fail better?
AE Failure to me isn’t a book that doesn’t sell. Though it might be to my publisher, and certainly to some writers who are writing for a commercial audience. If I’m going to fail, I’m going to fail on my own terms. Others may have definitions of what failure for me is: not selling X number of books, or receiving bad reviews from certain journals or papers. Part of my job as an artist, as a writer, is to disregard that. I write without a net. If I fall, I hit the ground. I’m more Icarus than Daedalus, and believe me, I’ve taken my share of falls. I like to stretch and challenge myself, always. If I stop doing that—that’s failure to me.
A book that has at its basis an agenda that overshadows character and plot and art—that’s a failure to me. I’ve encountered books and writers who are determined to write fiction about this or that issue or subject. It gets too wrapped up in preaching, it closes itself off to the rest of the world, doesn’t allow the world to actively participate in the global conversation that Daniel touched on earlier. But that’s not to say a book can’t be political. Absolutely not!
As for failing better, I think we can fail better by failing bigger.
DA Borges has that great line that I’ll paraphrase: like all writers, he judged his peers on what they had written, while he expected to be judged on what he might one day write. It’s all possibility. Every text, every idea, once transcribed—once the words exist on the page—is a failure, whereas the unwritten books are beautiful opportunities we haven’t yet squandered. The conventional, simple definitions of failure—bad reviews, poor sales, et cetera—thinking about this stuff is a good way to go crazy. Since no one really knows what sells, or why—since every great novel we could think of has been poorly reviewed somewhere—why would we waste time thinking about these things?
The only way to inoculate yourself against failure is to embrace it as an essential part of being an artist, and use it as motivation. If every book will only be an approximation of that idea that first inspired you to write, then why not chase the big ideas?
GJ I know you’ve been traveling with your novels for months now, and even though, I dare say, they are near perfect, what do you think is your favorite, biggest, best failed moment in them?
DA Damn, Gaby, asking the tough questions! It’s much easier to speak of failure in the abstract. Being specific about the defects of one’s own work . . . It is, like all novels, an imperfect creation. It wasn’t manufactured in a lab; it was written over the course of years, on good days and bad days, on days when I felt inspired and days when it was all I could do to drag myself to the computer and sit for a few hours. Sometimes those bad days peek out. When I do readings I’m always rewriting certain lines in my head—I can’t help it.
But I have a lot of affection for my first novel, because I remember the process of writing it, remember the joy that accompanied each discovery, the low points—of which there were many—and the way events in my own life seeped into this story, informing my understanding of this or that character. I wanted the book to broaden as it progressed, to begin with something very specific—a boy arrives at the station, a meeting is called—and spread out to tell the story of an entire nation. I wanted this to be mirrored in the expanding points of view, a narrative exploding outward and upward, and I wanted the end to somehow bring all that together. This was the idea anyway. I don’t know if I pulled it off, and in any case, I’m not the right person to ask about that. I wrote the last 20 pages fast. I made certain decisions about tense and point of view, and with these out of the way, it was just being there, in the sound booth with Norma, and letting what had to happen happen. I remember that I wrote the last line — With this accomplished, they all felt better — and quite suddenly realized I had finished the novel. That there was nothing left to say. I had expected to work on the book for another month or more, and then, just like that, I was done. It was a complete shock to me. It took me a week just to process that I’d finished a draft.
AE I’ll never feel like any of my books will be completely “done.” That they’ve baked in the oven at 350 degrees for 45 minutes, then, bing! this thing comes out, it’s cooled, frosted, then it’s sliced up and passed around and enjoyed. That’s the most aggravating thing, but also one of the most gratifying—learning when and how to let go. I could have spent more weeks and months and years shaping and molding what I felt I wanted this book to be. But why? I do think books, by their nature, will always come out flawed. Some flaws are more apparent than others. I always find, though, that the flaws are what make a book great, those “missteps” and “defects” and “quirks.” It tells me that a person wrote this thing, a person struggling to find the right words, fighting against isolation and rejection and despair. A person like me, I guess. And that, despite its flaws, it is loved and appreciated.
I guess my biggest failed moment in this book is that I’m constantly feeling like I didn’t quite say what I needed to. That I missed something somehow. That in all my days of writing and scrutinizing the minutiae, something big slipped through the cracks. That I was just clearing my throat and only getting ready to really belt out something meaningful.
GJ One of the most beautiful and subtle things both of your novels do, in different yet similar ways, is deal with history as tectonics. A layered geography that is constantly shifting under our feet; history as that which is layered, erased, remapped and renamed.
Alex, in your novel we get a deep geo-history of your own more-real-than-the real place, all the way to prehistoric times. The town of Agua Mansa is drifting north; it has survived floods, fires, earthquakes. This history is engraved, etched in the soil. This is clearest in the passage where you describe the lot next to Perla’s house: There the bloody past of California, all the way back to the Spanish conquest, Mexican statehood and gold-rush are brought together with the present in a shattering simultaneity as an old tire becomes a headstone, a couch a marker. In a very real sense, history haunts the characters through the landscape, through the language itself. No need for magical realism—it’s pure realism. Do you think this sense of simultaneity—of History with a capital H intersecting with private histories; of everything in the past being in direct relation to us here and now; of our implication in the landscape and its history—is what fiction does to history?
AE History is story, an attempt to make sense of seemingly unrelated, fragmented moments—moments that have excluded those things represented in my fiction—to tell an incomplete, bogus, sedentary story. The job of my fiction is to fill in those blanks, to counter the lies, to capture the constant shifts and reconfigurations that go undetected in this misunderstood and ignored area of Southern California. History, out in the Inland Empire, in the territory my characters inhabit, is being written, erased, and re-written every day, in wild ways. We walk on the bones of the past out here and oftentimes go out of our way to destroy something old in order to build something new on top of it. An orange grove is demolished to make way for a housing development named “Grove Estates.” The administration building at a community college erected in the early 1920s is torn down and a modern earthquake-safe one called the “New” administration building sprouts up in its place. . . . All we are left of that orange grove, that old building, that row of houses, and that neighborhood near the freeway that was leveled when two lanes were added to the 91, is a trace, a vague memory; a memory that we are being told to mistrust and ignore. Instead, we are told to rely on the cheesy scripted reenactments staged on the History Channel or a grossly written textbook to tell us what was and what shall be. Fiction, for me, illuminates these small-scale and private dramas only to challenge the bigger histories, to steer those big histories in a different direction. In the end, History with a capital H is an arrangement of facts in a particular way to tell a particular story. But when history lies, as is often the case, then our fiction must tell the truth.
By using the calendar of saints, the liturgical calendar, the progression of secular holidays, the seasons, et cetera, I was trying to create a sense of time, the effect of time, for a history that has never really existed. Likewise, by grafting streets and fields and shopping centers and houses onto the existing map of California —the Santa Ana River and San Bernardino Mountains, the freeways and railroads, Los Angeles and the Inland Empire—I was trying to create a space that wasn’t charged or colored by other people’s memories. That’s the reason I wanted a fictional city, something both specific and timeless.
GJ Daniel, one of the ways this happens in your more-real-than-the-real country is that all the old names in maps are erased and replaced by numbers, with an astoundingly rational logic. You describe this perfect logic for numbering towns that are near rivers, towns that are smaller and larger, et cetera. Numbers, the powers that be seem to say, tell us more than names. And yet, they tell us nothing about human history and culture, a history that the state has painstakingly erased. The clearest moment of this loss and this palimpsest where the layers of the old survive under the fresh coat of “new and progressive” comes when Norma and Victor help Manau’s mother piece together a puzzle with an image of the old town plaza, which looks nothing like the new one. With her pinkie the mother points to the invisible house where she lived as a child, somewhere on the little streets that lead behind the cathedral. This sense of rootedness in place, this sense of history never disappearing entirely (like the people who have been “disappeared” yet survive), is omnipresent in your novel. Could you say more about your sense of history and what it does in fiction?
DA Historical memory is not universally valued, of course. There are many traumas that individuals, societies, nations, would prefer to forget. One of the things I wanted this novel to deal with, to describe, was a country that had embraced collective amnesia, and made forgetting a kind of state religion. Orwellian. It’s a perfectly understandable response—in the case of Peru, there were tens of thousands of dead, hundreds of thousands of refugees, a shattered political system, a nation stricken to its core. Why would you want to recall the details of this tragic spiral? On the other hand, telling stories is a human need, as necessary as breathing. And I found when I was researching this book that people felt compelled to let me know what they had lived through. At the national level, there was a fierce debate underway—should there be a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to write the official history of the war?—while at the street level, where I was doing my work, this question had already been answered. People wanted me to know their war stories, they needed to share them, not just to unburden themselves, but because the very telling of stories was a step toward beginning to understand their meaning.
I still believe there are certain things that only fiction can accomplish: knowledge, truth. When it is particularized, no longer abstract, when the victims have names and complex pasts and obscure motives, when the perpetrators do as well—then it becomes more human. It becomes something we can process, whereas I’ve always felt the grand sweep of history strains our ability to empathize. In any case, history, as such, is as creative, as imaginative as anything Calvino or Borges ever wrote. There are the facts of what happened; but just as important, there are the stories we tell about what happened.