Big Read Author Luis Alberto Urrea: 'I Just Want To Enter My House Justified'
Luis Alberto Urrea’s 2009 Into The Beautiful North was chosen by the National Endowment for the Arts as the selection for 2015’s The Big Read. Urrea is the author of several other works, including volumes of poetry, non-fiction and memoir in addition to his eclectic works of fiction. His latest book, The Water Museum, a collection of short stories, was released earlier this year.
KMUW's Jedd Beaudoin spoke with Urrea recently about the origins of Into The Beautiful North, his commitment to social justice, and his faith, as well as the unique relationship between the citizens of the United States and Mexico.
Jedd Beaudoin: I’ve read that you started Into The Beautiful North from a place of exhaustion.
Luis Alberto Urrea: I’d been working on a really heavy research project for about 20 years to write a historical novel [The Hummingbird’s Daughter] and during that time I also wrote The Devil’s Highway, which was an unbelievably grim nonfiction project about death on the border. During the research for that I had to negotiate my way into the U.S. Border Patrol. They didn’t particularly want me there but I was able to get in there. That was a lot of dark, heavy, torturous stuff. I was really exhausted but really thrilled that both of those books took off and had great acclaim and so forth. But I just wanted to write a book that made me happy. Specifically, I wanted to laugh every day. I thought, 'If I can actually laugh out loud every day, I’m going to be great.' I didn’t know if I’d publish the book—you never know—but that’s what I wanted to do.
I think the joyous process might have allowed me to go places, narratively, I might not have gone otherwise if I was sort of beetle-browed and shoulders weighed down with import. So, as I was writing this book it started dawning on me that I could actually find a new channel for my lifelong obsession about being a writer of witness--being a writer who takes on these issues and find[s] a way to be a little more subversive. If could write a popular book, if I could write an amusing, page-turner book that you might read on your cruise ship vacation and make the subject matter the same as Devil’s Highway but slip it on people, it could be a really interesting act. A true act of witness.
I thought, 'What if I could write a book in which readers would be pulling for undocumented youth crossing the border? And pulling for a young gay man who really is looking for love somewhere? And how about I throw in a scary-looking Chicano Cholo gang-banger looking guy? What if I can write a book in which American readers root for those people and possibly even love them?’ That struck me as kind of a religious act.
Undocumented people play an important role in your work. It seems like you’re examining some of this knowing that many readers are in a country that claims to champion the underdog but, at the same, also ignores a certain kind of underdog.
I started out working with a missionary crew in the Tijuana garbage dump washing, feet and feeding the poor. Taking water to people who were dying of thirst. These were people who were 10 minutes, 15 minutes max from downtown San Diego, this beautiful emerald city. [People in] downtown San Diego had no idea that children were dying in sight of our emerald towers. There’s a place inside the Tijuana garbage dump where the garbage pickers pick trash and you can go on a little hill and look at San Diego and Coronado out in the bay, which is an incredibly fancy and exclusive place. That fiction is incredible to me.
I want to be a great author but I also can’t shake those roots. In essence, in spite of the naughty bits and the f-bombs in my books, I’m writing, I think, a theological body of work. A lot of times people take it as political and get angry with me. But what really bothers me is that some of the most angry responses to this situation [seem to come from] people of faith. I sometimes make this challenge: We can form a team and have a Bible-off. The grand prize can be a hundred bucks and new Hyundai.
We’ll form one team with Bono from U2 and Pope Francis on one side and you angry guys on the other side. What we’ll do is we’ll parse the Bible and find all the places in which you can find scripture telling you to deny the refugee, to deny the widow, to refuse to feed the orphan, to refuse to clothe the prisoner. And then we’ll let Pope Francis and Bono find the scriptures where we’re actually told to go do those things. And of course Bono wins. Bono gets the Hyundai.
If it’s a question of faith issues, it’s really heartbreaking to me that we don’t have a place for immigrants—and with almost all of us being immigrants. The line I hear a lot is—and it’s a line that moves me--is I, of course, believe in national sovereignty. I understand that people feel invaded. I do understand that. But people always tell me a variation of, “Yeah, my folks were immigrants but we came here, legally, man. We came here the right way, man.” And when I’m feeling a little bit punky, I always ask them, “So, who checked those papers? Was it Geronimo or was it Crazy Horse?"
I think one of the issues that gets to people is the word “illegal.” Illegal alien. It’s a perfect tool if you think about it to make you feel invaded by critters that are murderers and rapists—something that you’ve heard on the campaign trail. But people don’t really know what the immigration law really is, so I’ll often tell them, "Well, let’s begin here.” I’ll often tell them, “Well, you’re all very good with the computers. I’m not, but you are. So, look it up. Federal Immigration Law Title VIII Chapters 12-14. It’s just like a Bible verse. Go find it and see what it says. Once you know what the parameters of this are, let’s talk. I will honor your opinion. We’re family. We’re Americans. We can disagree. But if we can disagree with a certain modicum of respect and affection, it’s a beautiful thing.”
I get the chance to go around the country and speak to every kind of group. Every shade. Every political view. And it’s always good. It’s always wonderful. We can laugh together. We can cry together. People can express stuff. They’re no longer angry. When I started out, people would get really mad, as if I were out there cutting down fences for people. I just ask them to think about a different way. A different policy. I make my case, and other people make theirs.
Were you by any chance raised Catholic?
[Laughs.] How can you tell? When I was a little boy I wanted to be a priest. The Jesuits and the Franciscans totally fascinated me. And my father, oddly enough, Mexican and all that, was anti-clerical. Most of my family was really against the church. He was livid at the thought of me wanting to be a priest. That was not macho. That was not where it was at. Then I became one of those disaffected teens. I got to be about 12-years-old and I had it all figured out. I thought, “This is all bunk, man.” I was the 13-year-old atheist, rock ‘n’ roll dude.
I get the chance to go around the country and speak to every kind of group. Every shade. Every political view. And it's always good. It's always wonderful. We can laugh together. We can cry together.
Then, a few years later, I started seeking God again, maybe like one of the desert mystics or something. I felt that I really had a personal experience that affected me. I don’t consider myself Catholic necessarily, though it’s been really touching to me that in later years the Jesuits in particular have embraced my work. If you go to Loyola [University] they talk about my work in the corpus of Catholic fiction, which I think is kind of interesting because I spent more years with Protestants and Baptists than I did as a Catholic, mass-attending boy.
So, I’m thinking about grace. That’s what I’m thinking about. I’m always thinking about our journey. We’re all going to the same end. Let’s face it. It’s like [what] the Sam Peckinpah western [Ride The High Country] said: “I just want to enter my house justified.”
Grace, Catholicism, social action. I’m reminded of the works of British author Graham Greene. Was he someone that you read?
Absolutely. But I’m moved by so much. One of my failings is being able to identify my favorite writers or favorite books. How could I do that? It’s such a wide range. I was saved by reading. Those [elements you described] aren’t lost to me in so many people. I think Mark Twain had real elements of social justice. Ursula Le Guin, the science fiction writer, was the person who discovered me and sort of shaped me up. She was my writer boot camp in a lot of ways. She had a very heavy dose of that sort of thing, though through a Taoist lens.
It’s striking that in The Beautiful North you’re writing about a place where men are largely absent. Can you talk about the significance of that, not just for your characters but for the young people—including young women—who experience this?
After The Devil’s Highway I kind of became one of the go-to border guys for a while. That book is 11 years old and it has never gone away. I hate to say it but every time something hideous happens, it starts selling again. The border never stops giving you hideous things.
Writers, border patrol agents, politicians, activists, missionaries, all send me material. There are phases when it slacks off a little bit and phases when it happens a lot. One of the guys had sent me this piece that he had written, "The Absence of Men." Now, this was right before the insanity of the narco wars really took off. And it was in the growing sense of violence and horror against women. Certainly Juarez was horrifying with its stories of hundreds of women being killed and tortured.
But at the time there were these stories coming out of northern Mexico which gave me this sense of hope. There were a lot of old men and little boys, but a lot of the men of a certain age, the working ages, were already gone. There were many towns all over the north that were facing a leadership vacuum. You were getting these wonderful stories about towns with a first female mayor, first female chief of police, first female president of a school, first female projectionist of a movie theater. For a moment I thought, “Oh my God, there’s going to be this new feminist, woman-ist power coming in and it’s going to transform Mexico.”
When I was handed the book, one of our staff began describing the plot to me and she came to the part about The Magnificent Seven and I started laughing.
Yeah, me too.
When did that enter your head?
So, imagine that you’re sitting there in your writing room, having a cup of coffee and you’re listening to really loud music to drown out the rest of the world—I don’t write in silence. I’m thinking about the setting and how a character based on my Aunt Irma becomes mayor. And I thought, “What happens next? Bad guys come to town!” OK, well, that was one thing. But I had to know what Irma’s first act as mayor would be. It had to be something eccentric. I realized, “Oh, yeah. She would declare a film festival.”
My own aunt was obsessed with Yul Brenner. She thought Yul Brenner was a Mexican movie actor. So the scenes in the book where [Irma is] proclaiming that he’s the best Mexican movie actor in the world, I actually heard that from my aunt. So, I thought, “Yul Brenner. OK, what Yul Brenner movie festival would there be?” I thought, “The Magnificent Seven.” And then the key turned and I thought, “Oh my God! This is the plot! The Magnificent Seven! Bad guys come to the town, there’s going to be a group of young women who go to the movie, they’re teens, they’re mocking it until they realize that they could get warriors to come back and perhaps in the process could become warriors themselves.” Seriously, the whole book revealed itself to me in about one cup of coffee just sitting there listening to Nine Inch Nails.
I considered Into The Beautiful North an OK book; it would come and go. It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be--at first. And then this bizarre second life. And then third life.
And then you wrote it, it came out, and there was not a consensus that this was a great novel.
[Laughs.] No! I got one of the most wonderfully unhinged bad reviews of my life. I swear, man, it was like John Cleese was doing a Monty Python routine. The guy went insane. I remember, at one point, he was like, “Clearly the bubbles from this man’s champagne have gone to his head!”
But the general consensus was, “Well, this is no miracle like The Hummingbird’s Daughter, because that was some epic.” So, I kind of took those in stride. I considered Into The Beautiful North an OK book; it would come and go. It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be--at first. And then this bizarre second life. And then third life. It’s now going into its thirteenth edition really fast.
The Big Read.
I still can’t comprehend that. They stuck me in a club with Twain and Harper Lee and George Orwell. I thought, “What? My little book? Are you serious?” But they saw something in it that I didn’t realize: young people. They realized that 19-year-old young people would want to know what 19-year-old young people were up to. I wrote it for adults. I wrote it for you and me to sit back and say, “Ah, yes, I remember what it was like to be 19.” It never occurred to me that kids, particularly Latino kids, would flip out to have this story.
It has this complete other life now, and for a book that’s so earthy and not cosmic, it’s become some sort of strange, evangelical tour where I go every week of my life and talk to hundreds of kids. At night, at the book store, I talk to their parents. But I’m in high schools and even junior highs talking to these kids and it’s heart-rending, where I’m told, “You’re the first book I’ve ever read. You’re the first author I’ve ever seen.”
You have such a close connection with a region that has seen so much unsettling violence, and now there are television series and documentaries and films and so forth about that violence. Are you concerned that some of this might actually be glorifying the violence?
It already is. There’s death porn afoot. It’s really easy for us to have the savage in the wasteland that we can look to and say, “Oh my God. Those people will do anything.” And unfortunately there are people in the millieu that will do anything. But Juarez has calmed down quite a bit. Tijuana has calmed down quite a bit. There are people trying to deal with this stuff. I’ve been really blessed over the last year or so to go to Colombia, and Colombia was wracked with this sort of thing. They’ve made great progress. They’ve signed a peace treaty with the FARC. I don’t know if that’ll last or not, but that’s impressive. Mexico has made progress, but they’re an easy scapegoat.
A little dab of history changes peoples' perspective. Or at least makes you think.
I think Americans find Spanish-speakers in their town and don’t know what to do about it, so it’s on everyone’s minds. But if you look at our own history you’ll see that the first iterations of the border patrol were to catch Chinese people. There was a time when there wasn’t a whole lot of concern about Mexicans or Latinos. There was a lot of concern about Chinese people. The Anti-Chinese Expeditionary Forces were a mounted cavalry riding the border trying to catch Chinese people trying to sneak in from Mexico to work on the rail lines.
A little dab of history changes peoples’ perspective. Or at least makes you think.
You had a short story collection come out this year, you’ve published other works since Into The Beautiful North, but it’s a book that’s on everyone’s minds right now. Is it strange to be talking about a work that was finished and published so long ago?
Sometimes. I go to some cities and have to ask, “Which book am I talking about here?” Because some people want to talk about Devil’s Highway or one of the others. But it seems that every single place I go now, somebody comes to me and bares her or his soul in ways that are impossible for me to even comprehend except with gratitude and joy.
One of the great themes in Beautiful North is not just immigration, but marginalization. One of the heroes is a young gay man. The book got a rainbow citation from the [American] Library Association for being the best book for young gay readers. I’m telling you, to be in a little Texas town full of real tough Texans, invariably a young woman or a young man will come and sit next to me at the luncheon and ask if they can talk to me, and it’s about that gay character. That really touches me.
Or, for example, not to harp on Texas, but I was in Dallas and doing a luncheon and a woman came up to me. She couldn’t stop crying. She couldn’t speak. I stood in front of her and I said, “You crossed the desert.” She just nodded. I said, “You suffered.” She nodded. And I said, “And nobody here understands what you went through.” And she nodded. And she came in, put her head on my shoulder, and just cried. Wow, man! That’s, just, wow. So, those things feed your soul.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
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