Friday, April 13, 2012
Luis Alberto Urrea
Luis Alberto Urrea was 4 when his family fled Tijuana for San Diego, and that long-ago border crossing has come to inform the writer's devotion to illuminating the struggles endured by countless Mexicans who have made, or have attempted to make, a similar journey. Author of 14 books, including the critically acclaimed "The Hummingbird's Daughter" and "The Devil's Highway," he has won many awards and recognitions for his novels and poems. He currently resides in Naperville, Illinois with his family and is a professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
The Author's View of "Border Writing"
Urrea has said in multiple interviews that he does not consider himself to be a border writer:
"I find in my experience that I kind of dislike a lot “border experts” and “border writers” because they come from outside the experience and bring in a lack of sympathy and empathy for the milieu."
He considers most border writers to be "day at the zoo" writers, in that they go stay at the border in a nice hotel for a while and then consider themselves experts. He believes he has more “wisdom of the culture and life of the border," than those who stay for a bit and then leave thinking they've learned everything there is.
A Conversation with Luis Alberto Urrea
What inspired you to write Into the Beautiful North?
Three things moved me to write the book: First, I was sick of immigration/ border writing. It started to feel like it was all the same, making all the same points, by all the same writers. Second was my fascination with small- town life in both Mexico and the United States and the huge cultural changes going on in both places that I never see documented. And, finally, although it is a painful book in many ways, I wanted to write something that made me laugh out loud every day.
You were born in Tijuana but moved to California when you were four. How has your background influenced your writing and the different ways in which you’ve written about the U.S.- Mexican border?
Paradoxically, it makes me both an insider and an outsider. Many writers who write about the border are tourists. People from the border often resent these carpetbaggers who show up for a week or a month and then share their wisdom with the world. At the same time, it’s useful for a writer to be a half step removed from the general current because we are observers. I feel that it gives me a fresh perspective on my country — both of them.
How did the experience of writing this fictional adventure differ from that of writing your nonfiction book The Devil’s Highway? Knowing what you know about the grim realities that illegal immigrants face, was it difficult to novelize — and even satirize — such truisms?
My experience of this situation predates The Devil’s Highway by a lifetime. Not only is my own history intimately involved with these issues, but I spent a substantial number of years doing relief work on the border and my first books were about places like the Tijuana garbage dump. What you need to remember about people is that they are complex and complete. The garbage pickers, the “illegal aliens,” the border patrol agents, the missionaries are all funny people. The point is not that you are poor; the point is how you are poor. Everybody has a story.
Speaking of which, why did you decide to inject so much humor into the book?
Because I write funny books. I didn’t inject humor into the book — that sounds like you’re basting a turkey. The humor always, for me, rises from the story, the characters, and the milieu. It’s just the way my soul works. I have often said in interviews that I write the funniest tragedies in town.
Is the idyllic — if off the beaten track — town of Tres Camarones based on an actual place?
Yes, it is. It’s based on my father’s hometown, a place as mythic to me as some of the villages in Latin American novels are to those authors. It existed all through my childhood as a myth and a tall tale, thus it bonded with my DNA.
John Sturges’ film The Magnificent Seven was one of the main catalysts for the epic journey of Nayeli, Yolo, and Vampi. Has a book or a movie ever influenced you in a similarly profound way?
Absolutely. I’m a magpie picking up shiny objects to take back to the nest all day long. I write with the ghosts of 12 authors, 13 movie directors, 14 musicians, and Steve McQueen in the room.
The Magnificent Seven was essentially a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai, transporting the original’s story from feudal Japan to the American frontier. In turn, you reset the story in contemporary North America. How specific is location to your books — that is, could someone “remake” them in a different setting and era?
I think my books are pretty site- specific. Like much of the literature of the American West, it is imperative to my writing that place (landscape) be a main character in the story. Certainly in something like The Hummingbird’s Daughter, the land itself is a mystical participant. I feel that in The Devil’s Highway and Into the Beautiful North as well.
Aunt Irma and Atomiko are two of the most memorable characters in the novel: both are larger than life and possess stubborn ideologies that portray them as being tougher than they really are. What inspired you to include these personalities, and are they based upon anyone you know?
Atomiko is largely the product of my own sick mind. But if you go to the source, Seven Samurai, you know automatically who Atomiko is. He is Toshiro Mifune, the unwashed, unloved rogue Ronin warrior. But the personality traits are based on many scruffy, indomitable border rats, not least of which is my cousin Hugo, the family’s notorious pistolero. Aunt Irma? Well, I have a terrifying Aunt Irma who is the retired women’s bowling champ of Mexico . . . you figure it out!
Why Kankakee, Illinois?
I wrote a column for the New York Times about Kankakee, and the reception Nayeli and Tacho get in Kankakee should at least imply why Kankakee. It’s a town that moved me and it’s a population that inspired me and I always hopelessly, passionately, root for the underdog.