Many years ago, during what would have been my senior year in college if I hadn’t left college and moved to New York, I got to attend a writers’ conference in Sarasota, Florida–it was organized by Rust Hills, fiction editor of Esquire, and included, among others, William Gaddis and William Gass. In New York I had a job removing thorns from rose stems and wiring pine cones to Christmas wreaths in a florist’s shop (I belong to the grand tribe of retired de-thorners) and so I was especially grateful for a scholarship to the conference, arranged by the creative- writing teacher I’d had in college, from whom I’d learned, “A fiction writer has to be like a truck driver, he has to get into that cab and drive.” This excellent piece of advice, with which I still often futilely cajole myself, is one of two lasting lessons I took away from writing classes; the second, from that Sarasota conference, was spoken by William Gass. Another student had asked him how being a philosophy professor influenced his fiction writing, and William Gass answered that there was no conscious influence at all. “I know I’m smart,” I remember him saying, so he knew his writing would also be “smart,” but he was busy paying attention to his sentences. (He was probably a little more specific, but I wouldn’t dare put words in the maestro’s mouth.) He didn’t think about philosophy or about himself as a philosophy professor when he wrote; he worked on his sentences.
I don’t think about my allegiances to any particular tribes when I am working on a novel, I just pay attention to my sentences, while also trying to divine the eventual shape of the thing–yo persigo una forma–and I know that when the book is done it will be as fully expressive of myself as I need it to be . . .
I was going to begin this little essay by saying that I am not a person of tribal feelings, that I don’t even like the word “tribal”–it sounds trendy to me–but then why did I so deeply yearn for Mexico to beat the U.S.A. in World Cup soccer? Fashionably anti- gringo? Not at all! Guatemala is the country of my “Latino” heritage, yet if Guatemala had been playing Mexico, I still would have been for Mexico. How disloyal! It’s just that I’d never cared much for futbol until Mexico’s thrilling if short- lived World Cup adventure of ’98–I was living in Mexico at the time, and still do part of each year–and my loyalty is to the team that initiated me into the worldwide tribe of futbol fans. I follow “el Tri.” Mexico, situated between my two natural national tribes, Guate and the U.S.A.–I’m in love with the muchacha next door.
And there I was at the long Brooklyn bar, with a group of Mexicans on my right, and a group of white American guys on my left–quite alone, a loner. The woman on my right had a beautiful bare calf, crooked and glowing down there in the lower-barstool region like the moon the cow jumped over, and my attention was pulled in that direction from the disaster on the television screen. I was not in any way being a demonstrative fan. By 3:30 a.m. it was clear that all was lost, and I was just trying to stay awake. The bartender served me a consolation vodka, courtesy of the white American guys on my left, a drink I definitely did not need. The Mexican contingent, sunk into gloom, quietly slipped out of the bar. I left just after, and walked home in a mood of sadness and even despair, mulling the inevitable fates of poor nations (Mexico had lost the game before they even took the field) and feeling like an overwrought, drunken sad sack at the end of an Isaac Babel story.
This whole issue of “tribes” can seem dangerous to me, if I let it. Jewish tribe. Latin American mestizo- Catholic tribe. Well, it’s pretty hard to be an observant Jew and an observant Catholic at the same time. There is of course no contradiction between being a New Yorker and ethnically anything else. If belonging to any “tribe” also implies meeting some standard of purity, to hell with it anyway. I do not worry about these things in my walking- around life, and in my writing one, I pay attention to my sentences, and so on . . .
But, pues si, the Latin American novel has been especially important to me over the years. A novel as familiar as One Hundred Years of Solitude will always have revealing, challenging, even dark things to say to a reader with some intimate relationship to that culture–to “us,” whatever I mean by that–no matter what that book’s eventual fate elsewhere. Yet García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Onetti, and others also belong to the “tribe” of Faulkner, and are perhaps truer heirs of his than any subsequent generations of writers in the U.S. Just as the literary heirs to some of the greatest Latin American writers’ experimental verve have not been, in this country, for the most part, Latino writers (a tribe of many tribes and also traditions of their own). We all know that literature transcends frontiers. There is no contemporary writer I love more than Murakami.
Then what about Guatemala–what’s my “tribal” affiliation there, why do I keep coming back to that small, often terrifying and heartbreaking little country that has also been, in an inescapable way, over the last sixty years, the United States’ most sustained and tragically wacky experiment in nation building and social engineering? Though Guatemala may seem small, it’s actually enormous, larger than the U.S., and is not only the center of “the universe,” but a portal (and look, I can move back and forth, between this “tribe” and that one, the one yankees famously don’t want to know about) to the rest of the world, the small poor country that is also all the small poor countries. And isn’t that what every fully imagined novel is? A small remote country that–for at least as long as it might hold your attention during the reading of a book–is also the center of the world.