The PEN Ten with Luis Alberto Urrea
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, Online Editor Brianna Goodman interviews Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The House of Broken Angels (Little, Brown and Company), which was published this week.
How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as “the writer’s identity”?
For readers, there may be such a thing as a “writer’s identity.” People often equate me with the Mexican border, but that is only partially right. Because my name is Luis, do I always have to write about the Mexican border? That is not an identity. It is a box I refuse to be hammered into. As a writer, I am drawn to the liminal space—the human borders which divide us all. Yes, I am most attracted to a literature of witness. But it is not “the writer’s identity,” it is the identity as Writer. It is my form of prayer, it is my form of praise, it is my form of battle.
I consider being a writer a way of life, a way of being in this world. I have absorbed being a writer on a cellular level. It affects how I see, how I think, how I walk, how I dream.
In an era of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” how does your writing navigate truth? And what is the relationship between truth and fiction?
I am always telling true stories—even in my fiction. Especially in my fiction. I carry with me a profound awareness of my community, my ancestors, and the people I write about. Although I am not a journalist, I do a lot of work in the nonfiction realm. And when I am not writing fiction or nonfiction, I retreat into poetry. To me, these are all avenues feeding into that bright, shining path of truth. Truth as best as I can tell it. I am imperfect and I miss or misinterpret things, but I don’t lie. This is perhaps the most important thing if one is driven to witness: Find the verity of a story, even if it is something you do not like.
Writers are often influenced by the words of others, building up from the foundations others have laid. Where is the line between inspiration and appropriation?
Appropriation seems to be a healthy adolescent urge. Every guitar player starts out copying a Jimmy Page riff or, if they are hubristic, a Jimi Hendrix riff. What young writer did not try to steal the thunder of a hero? I started out with no idea how one would create these magical objects called books and, as I learned my craft, I spent a good amount of time stealing. This may be a feature of being raised utterly bilingually, each side of the language border made me look at the other side as a mysterious challenge to be mastered. So when I stole, I stole from English and Spanish both.
There is a moment, however, when you have to let those purloined influences grow into what will become your own voice. I recognize flourishes of Thomas McGuane, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Rudolfo Anaya in my fiction. Mary Oliver, Jane Hirshfield, A. R. Ammons, even Neruda throw color on certain words or stanzas in my poetry. How could Annie Dillard or Ed Abbey not appear in the nonfiction? I think we as writers are not exactly what the Western culture might tell us: We’re not lone individuals riding into the sunset. I think we are all collective. We are choruses. That is what we call “inspiration” as we go writing into the sunset. Often, when an image or a phrase that has invaded my text from someone else’s choir is unnoticed, it is a very private homage and honestly, just one word inspired by one of them makes me feel less lonely.
“Resistance” is a long-employed term that has come to mean anything from resisting tyranny, to resisting societal norms, to resisting negative urges and bad habits, and so much more. It there anything you are resisting right now? Is your writing involved in that act of resistance?
Absolutely. You know what it’s like to have a name that, for unfathomable reasons, is politically charged? Sometimes it feels as though no matter what I say, no matter what I do, it will be received with an imagined accent, with an imagined agenda, with suspicion, if not outright resistance. But I will always side with the put-upon, the poor, those rounded up in trucks and buses and shipped to cement block holding cells. I am hopelessly in love with the underdog. What Mariano Azuela called “Los De Abajo.”
When I was younger, I wrestled with class rage. The situation in Washington, D.C., does not alleviate that rage. Just making a reader see “the other” is an act of resistance. Advocacy is an act of resistance. Inclusion is an act of resistance. I deliberately choose to approach what I do as a subversive act. I deliberately write funny tragedies because I believe laughter is the virus that infects us with humanity. How much more powerful is it to then hit them with tears? I intentionally seduce readers into loving (if I can do that) characters that those in power scapegoat and seem to detest. And the greatest moments for me are when people who have survived elements in my books come not to get an autograph, but to tell me they survived and they know I see them.
The House of Broken Angels began its life as a much different book. It was more personal, possibly humbler. And then the Trump campaign happened. And the phenomenon of “bad hombres,” Mexican rapists, “build the wall” happened. This was a national poison that echoed, for me, down the many years of my life. It set off ghosts of Tucson’s Mexican-American studies ban, when we “writers of color” had our books taken out of classrooms. And I knew suddenly what I had not realized before, that a novel inspired by my own brother’s death was a cry against all of this ugly disrespect that tarnished not only all of us, but the memory of my own sibling, the lives of my ancestors.
What do you consider to be the biggest threat to free expression today? Have there been times when your right to free expression has been challenged?
Of course my right to free expression has been challenged. George Orwell tried to warn us. Today, the right to free expression is being challenged for all of us. All of our voices are facing co-option, censorship, and silence. Writers are particularly dangerous. That is why dictatorships send us to the soccer stadiums to be killed. I think real writing is a kind of personal revolution. I am not saying a violent revolution, I am saying that writing strikes the heart and mind so profoundly, in such a way that it can overturn prejudice or hidebound beliefs. Even if what you read only makes you aware of the unfathomable grace of a quiet day, it is a revolution. If it is not in some sense revolutionary, writing is merely propaganda. There are apple carts out there that need a bit of jostling. We are the miscreants who can do that. To fail in this duty is the greatest threat to free expression in this, or any, era.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
Throughout my entire writing career, it has been my compulsion to be as daring as I possibly can, over and over again. But perhaps the most daring thing I ever wrote came at that border between being a boy and being a man. After my father died violently in Mexico, the only way I knew how to process the trauma was through writing. Previous attempts to write that chronicle simply failed. And there came a moment when I suddenly knew I had to own it all and write it in a new way, a way I could not have possibly written before he was killed. It ended my boyhood and opened something much more complex and true. The further boldness of it all, to me, was that I offered that story to Ursula K. Le Guin and she saw what it was and saw what I could be and she published it in an anthology—my first sale.
Have you ever written something you wish you could take back? What was your course of action?
Are there words I would take back? Yes, of course. Are there stories I would retell? Of course. I could spend the rest of my life trying to make sure that my family members, for example, would always feel great about the things I say. But that is simply not possible. Once a book is done, once a story is told, unless a later revised edition appears, it is done. I must live with all those things that make me cringe and yes, every one of my books is flawed, in my opinion.
The one thing I deeply regret because it simply did not work and seemed to give support to stupidity was the use of the word “illegals” in The Devil’s Highway. I thought I was making a kind of meta-message meme by pointing out how ridiculous all pejorative words for undocumented people are. They are all dehumanizing. I tried to make the case in the book through mocking those phrases. But now I see that when I used “illegals” it seemed to give license to a term I despise rather than heap scorn upon it. I keep the text as it is in later editions of this book because it wounds me, even if people don’t notice it. It reminds me to pick my strategies more carefully because this is war, not a parlor game.
Post, stalk, or shun: What is your relationship to social media as a writer?
I have mixed feelings about social media. At first, I was not interested. But my wife convinced me ages ago, around 1997, to try it and I was one of the early authors with a blog/website. I really grew to love the communication/feedback/contact with readers. We turned the blog into a sort of full-service spot with regular features on immigration, writing labs, guest posters, etc. Then these other social media creatures appeared. I wasn’t interested but my publisher strongly recommended I get involved. My then high school-aged kids did not want us on Facebook (“Parents don’t belong there!”), so we went to Twitter. In the beginning, Twitter had a very lively literary community. All the writers and bookstore owners and bloggers had a really cool community going. That was the best time for me. And then the inevitable Facebook happened and it became the “drug of choice” because it was a bit easier and instantly gratifying. My poor blog just slipped through my fingers.
And now, I would love to avoid all of it. I am not the first to complain that social media is a time suck. And in the best moments, it is a wonderful way for one’s readers to get in touch and say hello for some semblance of interaction with a favorite writer. (I’ve used it that way myself.) And honestly, how else will all of your ancient friends from your far-off high school days find you? But it becomes a trap and it becomes difficult to keep up the necessary boundaries a writer needs. I found attending to this “imaginary public” was actually eating up my writing time. So I am pulling back a bit. I’ve had my website redesigned and rebuilt and am shifting my attentions back to my own blog when I feel the need to talk to people. I’m hoping it will be a bit easier to control the pace and my space.
You once told NPR that if you went out and paid attention to the world, “the world would notice and respond. . . . It’s a kind of library where you lend attention and receive a story.” As today’s citizens become increasingly overstimulated, with so much vying for our attention, how do you decide what to pay attention to? How do you find yourself cutting through the noise?
I am not a paragon of discipline. But I can tell you: Let us not complain about how hard it is to pay attention. Discipline, friend. Inattention is easy, just like misery. To live fully, with an attentive heart, to pay attention—like joy—takes some discipline. Make the choice. This is your life. Your eyes. Your talent. Your mind. Nobody else dictates what you do with them.
The reason that quote says lend attention is because of Spanish, which brilliantly does not PAY attention, but LENDS attention: presta atención. The gist of the idea, whether you can accept it or not, is that once you show the world that you are worthy of being taught, it will respond and give you new material. This idea of the gifts from the earth is not mine; it came from my teachers in the medicine world when I was researching for The Hummingbird’s Daughter. They taught me how important it was, even sometimes against my will, to pay attention to the world around me. I choose to believe it. Most of us seem to write like we’re in the Super Bowl battling our way to yardage and a first down. Perhaps there is a better way.
And it is hard because you are right: There is so much out there to overstimulate us. For me to get through the noise, sometimes it’s as simple as Led Zeppelin or a book of poetry in the bathroom. When the river in our town floods, my daughter and I always go to gawk. I’m always happiest taking the drive instead of flying (especially with Led Zeppelin on the stereo!). And tacos. Don’t ever discount the value of tacos to center your world.
Finally, can you tell us about a piece of writing that has influenced you that readers might not know about?
This is the worst question for me because I could honestly cite hundreds of these. My thoughts on writing are very much influenced by Asian masters. I was deeply moved by an ancient Chinese text called The Wen Fu of Lu Chi. That would be Writing Fu, as in the Kung Fu of Writing. How could you not love that?