Luis Alberto Urrea’s New Work of Fiction: Into the Beautiful North
Monday, June 8, 2009
Luis Alberto Urrea, one of today's most critically acclaimed writers, talks with us about his new novel Into the Beautiful North, which is set in a Mexican village and in the Tijuana/San Diego border region.
DOUG MYRLAND (Guest Host): I'm Doug Myrland, sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days in San Diego. Luis Alberto Urrea is one of today's most critically acclaimed writers. He's published 11 books and was a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for non-fiction. Today we'll talk about his new novel, "Into the Beautiful North," which is set, at least partially, in a Mexican village and in the Tijuana/San Diego border region. And we'll begin with a reading from "Into the Beautiful North."
LUIS ALBERTO URREA (Author): Aunt Irma was running for mayor of the village of Tres Camarones but she had taken a morning to go hunting for crabs with the girls of the village. Crabbing was like going to heaven, a whole day immersed in the clear lagoon with barrels of ice full of soda and beer, thatched roofed huts in the sand swinging with hammocks, big pots boiling crabs to be eaten on stiff fried tortillas. The river water was deep green and sluggish as it moved by carrying pollen and leaves. The banks here were dark mud flecked with a scatter of white shells. Green, fat frogs, the eternally grinning type, destined to be shellacked into bizarre poses while wearing mariachi hats and holding toy trumpets and guitars and then sold in tourist traps all over Mexico, those kinds of frogs jostled lazily in the dappled shadows. In an hour they had come to the bend in the river where the boats could be beached and tied to bushes and the party disembarked and grunted over the slope, breaking suddenly, amazingly, from jungle dark to a dazzling white cove that had at its center a wide, oblong lagoon of brightest turquoise. Beyond the far end of the lagoon, thundering surf on the beach could be seen, dark ocean water exploding in spray and foam. 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. Irma said to her niece, "Your husband should have come here before he left. He would've stayed home in Mexico lindo." And her niece replied, "You cannot eat beauty."
MYRLAND: That's a wonderful passage from the book but for someone who hasn't read the book, it might lead them to believe that it's primarily about place where my impression of your book is, while place is very important, it's primarily about the characters.
URREA: Yeah, I think it's about places, you know, it's about places and the integrity of these characters, these people who, you know, have a world that they love that's coming apart around them and they try to take some action to save the place they love.
MYRLAND: Now your book takes places in several places, and I think you managed to find some beauty even in places that typically people don't think of as being beautiful.
URREA: Well, you know, the beauty is in us, I think, as, you know, as human beings. And, yeah, there's a whole passage, you know, in the Tijuana garbage dump and so forth but people who've known me for a long time, you know, here in San Diego – I mean, I got started writing for the Reader, you know, and the first things I ever wrote for the Reader were about the Tijuana dump. And I think it's a weirdly beautiful place in all of its horror and pain. But, you know, the people in my novel are lucky enough to come from this rural Mexican sort of almost magic realist world to the United States and they find out how magical this country is. So, in some ways, I guess, it's a Kerouac book. You know, it's kind of like my "On The Road."
MYRLAND: Well, and it – not to – It's always difficult to summarize a plot because you don't want to trivialize it.
MYRLAND: But in a couple of sentences, would you say it's fair to say it's about a young woman who wants to improve her village, primarily wants to protect it and get some more men in it and who goes out on a quest to bring people back to the village that they left or bring new people in.
URREA: Right, right. My – This is going to sound pretentious but my movie agent refers to it as "Cinema Paradiso" meets "The Magnificent Seven" for girls.
URREA: But, yeah, I mean, it's, you know, it's about these towns in Mexico that found themselves without men, and that's an actual, you know, news item that there are town and areas without men all over Mexico. And I was just expostulating, you know, wondering what would happen if this village, you know, they had to have a mayor and Aunt Irma runs for mayor but, in the meantime, narco bad guys discover the town and start trying to take it over. And these folks in this book see a showing in the tropical movie theater of "The Magnificent Seven" and think, wow, we can do that. We can go get them and bring some back, some guys. And they naively come to the United States thinking that Americans will be thrilled because they're taking men away instead of depositing men, you know.
MYRLAND: So one of the things that I think was just particularly enjoyable about your book was a very difficult thing, I think, for an author to do, and that is to set a tone where the reader can be amused and can be drawn into a plot with appealing characters and yet there's an undertone of reality and an undertone of difficulty that these folks face that isn't really avoided in order to make it also amusing. How do you walk that line between it being an entertaining read and it also having real resonance and substance?
URREA: Right. Yeah, I – One of the critics, early on in this tour, told me that he felt I'd invented a new genre, which is slapstick immigration, which kind of surprised me. But, you know, I don't know. I think that's where we live, isn't it? I mean, you know, we just – Unfortunately, one of the reasons my wife and I are so tired is we just had a death in the family in the middle of the book tour, so we were also attending to funeral stuff. And, you know, funerals can be quite funny as well as horribly tragic because that's our human soul expressing itself. And I think, you know, the borderline between tragedy and comedy is rich and fascinating. And I think what unites us as people is often the lighter moments, the moments of shared laughter. So, you know, I – partially, when I was working on the book, I wanted to make myself laugh, you know, but I didn't want to abandon my usual issues or my interests in what I call the literature of witness, you know, trying to give voice to voiceless people, whoever they might be, but also acknowledging their humanity and their sense of humor, their wildness, you know.
MYRLAND: I want to talk for a few minutes about your background, in particular your connection to San Diego and Tijuana and…
MYRLAND: …this region. You grew up here.
URREA: Yes, I did.
MYRLAND: And can you talk about that in relationship to this latest book?
URREA: Sure. Yeah, I mean, I was born in Tijuana, you know, and I came over here about four and a half, five years old. I was – My mom was American, my dad Mexican. Registered as a U.S. citizen born abroad, which was smart on their part.
URREA: You know, an act of prophecy almost.
URREA: And then, you know, raised in Logan Heights, you know, National Avenue, in the House, a shout out to my homies. And then about, I guess, fifth grade moved to Clairemont. You know, went to Marston and then went to Clairemont High. And I was the first member I know of in my immediate family to go to college, went to UCSD. So it was pretty – pretty San Diego-centric for a long time. I didn't get out of San Diego until I was 26. You know, I just – poor, not much hope to go anywhere, do anything though my dad did take me to the Grand Canyon, you know, and into Mexico. And this town that was the basis for this novel was the place we would go in Mexico. And it was like years later when I found "One Hundred Years of Solitude," I thought it's like that. I mean, we would go from San Diego to this place that was so completely alien to me, yet familiar because it was family members and Spanish, which I'd grown up speaking. But just – You couldn't get much different, you know, from Clairemont High or Marston Junior High to this little crazy tropical town in Mexico. And pinging and ponging back and forth, I think, gave me whatever odd perspective I had. You know, I decided pretty early on that I really loved to write so I was kind of one of the poet boys of my high school. And…
MYRLAND: I was interviewing somebody on the radio a long time ago and they said almost everybody who works in a creative field decided to do it when they were six years old.
URREA: That's interesting. I think at six I probably decided I wanted to be Steve McQueen and then, you know, at about twelve I thought maybe I'd try to be Jim Morrison. Barring those two, which didn't work out, I think by about, you know, by about high school I was very firmly involved in writing and also, you know, graphic arts. But the other part of it was, after college I started working with Spectrum Industries in Clairemont, in Tijuana as their translator, which is how I got to know the garbage dump.
MYRLAND: Now you mentioned that your father took you back to the town.
MYRLAND: And your father was an influence on, I think, in this book, right?
MYRLAND: Can you talk about that a little bit?
URREA: Well, it's just, you know, I – being a poor boy, you know, we didn't have a lot of amenities and, for example, I didn't know that I couldn't see. I had really bad eyesight. In the pre-interview, we were laughing because I was telling her, you know, I was one of those guys that thought baseball was a game where you threw a ball, it was hit by a bat, and then vanished.
URREA: It disappeared. And I'd stand there, you know, because there'd be no more ball because I couldn't see it. And so my dad would take me to this town, and it was my uncle who realized that I was nearsighted, and so they got me glasses down there and it was the first place I actually clearly saw that town. So, you know, just in that my dad profoundly, you know, penetrated my mind with the presence of this place. But, also, the stories about the town, it's a place that really worships characters, big, larger-than-life characters, and you notice there are a lot of those in this book.
URREA: But, you know, they're not – I tried not to make them cartoons. I tried to really honor them as just big characters because that's what I grew up around, legends about these crazy people. You know, this town had the practical joke king of Mexico who would pull pranks, horrible pranks, on people all the time, and they still remember him. You know, at that time, fifty years after he had fled the town to avoid a lynch mob.
MYRLAND: I thought it was interesting that you made sure to include the politics of the town.
MYRLAND: And I think those of us who live in a larger place like San Diego sort of assume that there's a lot of local politics going on but we don't realize that even in a very small village, there's still that same sort of ebb and flow of people in public positions taking on responsibility. And one of the first things that happens in your book is an election.
MYRLAND: And I thought it was interesting how you were completely sensitive to those kinds of activities even in a very small, obscure place.
URREA: It's important. It's important. And, you know, that's an offshoot of the real news stories that these areas in Mexico that have no men, they're areas that didn't traditionally, obviously, have a strong feminist element. But in the vacuum left behind by the absent males, the women are stepping up and taking leadership roles because they have to. And I've found that a really interesting change in Mexico, so I wanted to represent all that. But also, you know, the book is designed to begin in a small village in Mexico and ends in Kankakee, Illinois, a small town in the United States, and that was a pretty conscious thing because getting to know Kankakee and their mayor and their attempts to bring their town back from the brink, I just thought it was a really interesting sense of unity instead of all the division you always imagine between places. And in Kankakee, the election's very, very important and I realize that in a really tiny Mexican town with no amenities whatsoever, it would still be very important.
MYRLAND: We're speaking with Luis Alberto Urrea. He's the author of "Into the Beautiful North." And your protagonist in this book is a young woman, well, I want to say nineteen?
URREA: Yeah. Nineteen.
MYRLAND: Is that about right? And her name is Nayeli.
MYRLAND: Was it difficult for you to get inside a character like that since you're neither nineteen nor female?
URREA: Yeah, but I'm the dad of one so… You know, I – you just try to observe and you try to honor the character. She – They come to you or you start to create them, I'm – I'm not sure which. And you try to – you try not to betray them. You know, whatever sense you have of them as real people or as believable souls out there in the ether, you try to honor that. And, you know, our daughter had a little gaggle of pals that they were always together from, I'd say, probably late grade school through middle school and now through high school, and there was a little group, they used to call themselves the Sensational Seven. And I would observe them, you know, and I was so interested in their kind of insulting and coddling each other at the same time and the way the girls interacted. And there was this one moment, believe it or not, that helped give birth to the whole novel when they were gathered in our house and they were jabbering away and one of them laughed and snorted and someone said, you snorted. And she said, I so did not snort. And that went in…
MYRLAND: And that's in your book.
URREA: It went into the book. And, you know, I did a reading back home—now I live in Illinois—we were in Napierville, and they were there and I told them that story and it was hilarious to look out in the audience because they were all turning to each other and pointing. And, you know, they actually identified the girl who had snorted and I thought these girls are brutal, you know. This is like five years later and they still know exactly who snorted that night. But that was part of it. And Nayeli's physical presence is inspired by a real girl named Nayeli that I met, you know, back in my missionary-slash-Reader days that I've known all her life and it was a little honor to her.
MYRLAND: Well, you did a very clever thing in teaching those of us who are unfamiliar with Spanish names how to pronounce the girl's names. And the device you use is that a character who later shows up in the book but at the moment that you hear from him has already left the village…
MYRLAND: …has actually made index cards about – with pronunciation because he was a missionary, and hearing you talk about your translation work, maybe there's a little of you in Matt or…
URREA: Missionary Matt. He's actually based on some of my bros back with the Pastor Vaughn days. You know, I tried to – You never know which book is your last book so I try to tip my hat to people I love or remember. But, yeah, Missionary Matt, he is trying to figure out how to navigate Mexico so he's made four-by-six cards with a translation of – a phonetic, you know, listing of how to say it and then a translation of what it might mean. And one of the frustrations for me was that when we were first getting the book together, my editor and I said, oh, we'll make a website, Missionary Matt's website, and have the actual cards so people can have a glossary—in his handwriting—and then we just forgot. And now the book's out and there's no glossary and I thought, oh, I was going to do… So I don't know what to do about that but it was just – it seemed like a fun way to – because you have names like Yolosochi (sp), you know, how are people going to know how to say that.
URREA: So it just helped him through.
MYRLAND: Now I'm, unfortunately, monolingual. I've lived in the southwest most all of my life so I'm familiar with some words but…
MYRLAND: …when I was reading your book, I wondered how you strike that balance between giving the flavor of the Mexican culture and the flavor of the Spanish language and, obviously, you're sort of jumping back and forth using…
MYRLAND: …using some Spanish terms but it's basically a book in English.
MYRLAND: How do you strike that balance as an author?
URREA: It's tough. I'll tell you, my first book was called "Across the Wire" and I was absolutely assiduous, I think, in translating everything I could because my publisher insisted. They were in New York; they didn't know any Spanish. So I did that and the reviewers basically said this guy sounds like an idiot. He's translating every word. We know the words. So then I went to the other extreme and then people were mad because they felt like I was, whatever, cutting out the Anglo reader. I don't know. And so in "Hummingbird's Daughter," which was pretty epic and took twenty years to write, I started trying to figure out this way to maybe, within the text, give you not necessarily the translation but make the words fit the English matrix a little bit and have the text itself answer it. Though there's one place in "Beautiful North" where, clearly, one of the characters, the legendary Tacho, freaks out and just goes off on a tirade and it's a huge block of italicized Spanish and it's – I figured readers who don't speak Spanish, of course, won't know what he says but it's a visual joke in a way.
URREA: It's like in – when somebody in a film who speaks a foreign language goes off. You know you can't understand it but you understand the humor of them yelling at somebody. And, you know, that – But other places, I tried to keep it as clear as possible.
MYRLAND: Well, let's take a few minutes to talk about Tacho because he's a big part of the book and he's – I'll let you describe Tacho.
URREA: Tacho, Tacho, my hero. He – Tacho is a gay man, out gay man in this town, one of the only males left in the town, who's loyal to these girls. They've been friends for a long time and he's sort of protector to them. And he's inspired by a real man named Tacho. The similarity ends pretty quickly but Tacho was in the real town that inspired this and he was the sole gay man in this town. And he had realized, I think, at an early age that to survive and flourish in this town, which was pretty macho and pretty rural, that he would be wise to just put it in everyone's face. Yes, I'm gay, and what about it? And he put himself out so much, I think, that he became a kind of a legendary character in this town, like I mentioned, that…
MYRLAND: Well, in your book, you mention that people perceive him as being macho because he's…
URREA: So macho…
MYRLAND: …because he's so brave about being out.
URREA: Exactly. He faced them all down so he became a macho legend. Which the true Tacho, in some sense, is kind of that way. And the wonderful thing is that the translation in Spanish came out at the same time as the English and so family members of mine who know him quite well sent him the book in Spanish and they said he's insufferable now. You know, he's the hero of American novels, you know. But I just admired him. I thought, you know, if anything, perhaps the message in the book is about your own integrity as a person, that you don't apologize for being, you don't apologize for being alive, and he was somebody I really admired for that.
MYRLAND: Now you speak in a very positive way about people seeing some of themselves in your books but, inevitably, as a writer, you're going to draw from your own life and…
MYRLAND: …maybe people – some people don't see it quite so positively. Have you experienced that, too?
URREA: No, I think people have been pretty good. You know, I've – What's amazing to me is things that I completely invent, that have no basis in real life and people come to me and say, hey, that was me, wasn't it? You know. And you say, oh yeah, sure.
MYRLAND: Now you have created this world and created these characters and you did it some time ago. Now you're back on the circuit talking about them.
MYRLAND: Are you anxious to kind of leave them behind or are you tempted to revisit them and do more fiction with some of these same people?
URREA: You know, it's so funny. I had the weirdest experience and I think it's a blessing, you know, it's a revelation kind of thing. But as I was writing this book, it suddenly hit me that for the first time in all these years writing, I could write a novel about every single character in the book, which really excited me. You know, it felt like they were all really whole and real to me. And one of the first reviewers of the book sent me an e-mail with outlines for the next two novels. And I thought, wow, really? Could this be a series? It hadn't really occurred to me. And he – I started telling people, this is going to be my "Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency" (sic) or something, you know, where – because he said there has to be a war in that town to take on the narcos. And then Tacho, maybe a wedding or something. You know, and I thought, holy cow, I'm going to be busy.
MYRLAND: You're going to be writing trilogies.
MYRLAND: Well, in the minute or so that we have left, I want to be a little self-serving…
MYRLAND: …because KPBS is mentioned in the novel.
URREA: KPBS, totally.
MYRLAND: And you said that you – watching KPBS television, you saw "The Seventh Samurai."
URREA: Totally. You know, I – In fact, your producers came out and were hanging with me in the green room. I said, you know, where else was a Tijuana boy, you know, barrio boy, Shelltown boy, going to pick up that kind of culture. It was like Channel 15, you know.
MYRLAND: Did we have a good print?
URREA: Yeah, it was, "Yojimbo" and then "The Seventh Samurai." And so the character – there's a character in this book called the Tomeko, who's a garbage dump dude and he's got a scavenged TV set and he watches Kurosawa films on KPBS and realizes that he, in fact, is a samurai.
MYRLAND: Well, we really appreciate that shout out.
URREA: Yeah, you're welcome.
MYRLAND: And Luis Alberto Urrea will sign copies of his book, "Into the Beautiful North," tonight at the Bookworks in Del Mar and joining him is KPBS border reporter Amy Isackson, who'll talk about what it's like covering the U.S. and the Mexican border. And for more information on the signing, you can go to books-works.com, that's bush – books-works.com. And, Luis Alberto Urrea, thank you very much for joining us.
URREA: Thank you.
MYRLAND: And you've been listening to These Days in San Diego.