Conversations

Lauro Flores, chair of the Department of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington, talks with Luis Alberto Urrea, whose book The Hummingbird’s Daughter won the 2006 Kiriyama Prize for fiction.

Luis Alberto Urrea


Lauro Flores: You have said that it took you 20 years of historical, cultural, and spiritual research to prepare The Hummingbird’s Daughter, your most recent book. Why did it take so long?

Luis Alberto Urrea: I could say it took forty years since I heard these stories in Tijuana when I was about ten years old. But the book research really began in 1985 and I cannot claim that I researched every day, every week, every month, or even every year. However, I was always looking for texts. As you know, being a professor, research often leads to more research. It starts to feel like these texts are magically reproducing. Texts about Teresita were often obscure at best. Sometimes they were almost impossible to find. It was detective work in that one hidden source would suggest a more deeply hidden source, and I would pursue it.

In 1995, I went to Arizona, partially to be closer to the Yaqui people, partially to have ready access to the Arizona Historical Society. Once I was there, a world of curanderas and medicine people opened to me, and I realized that the material that would matter most to me in this novel could not have been learned from a book or a roll of microfilm.

Finally, it took years for me to learn how to write this story. I was in uncharted territory as a writer. But also as (in the words of a curandero) "a son of the saint." How do you tell such things? How do you take your family’s history and develop the hubris to claim it, interpret it, and express it for them? How do you represent the Mayo people? How do you learn Mexican history, then make it personal? When you have been with the shamans long enough and come to believe that Teresita is very much still in existence on some plane that you cannot see, how do you relate her story with honesty, honor, and care? Was it nonfiction or fiction? The ultimate answer for me was that fiction would be truer on a deep soul level than nonfiction. Only fiction could put the readers into the dream.

LF: This novel is based on the story of Teresa Urrea, also known as the Saint of Cabora, and a great aunt of yours. Was it problematic to have one of your relatives as both the subject matter and protagonist of your book?

LAU: Absolutely. For the longest time it seemed self-indulgent and impossible. And honestly, I didn’t know if it would offend my family, not only because of the revelations but just because I had chosen to step forth and do it. You have to admit, it’s fairly presumptuous.

LF: In the course of your research on Teresa Urrea, did you find any other fascinating historical characters who may merit their own book one day?

LAU: Yes, absolutely. If you really look at The Hummingbird’s Daughter, you will see that it’s a book about Huila and Tomás, as much as it is about Teresita. Both of these extraordinary people would merit a book of their own. Don Lauro Aguirre is an amazing character and deserves a substantial historical biography. Cruz Chávez and the people of Tomochic fortunately have already received historical attention. And there are characters that I am starting to encounter in the material for the second volume who are absolutely fascinating, amusing, and alarming.

LF: The history of the Sonora Indians, their culture, and perspective of the Mexican Revolution is one of the most compelling aspects of this book. How did you go about researching it?

LAU: Read, read, read. That’s where all research must begin. I knew when I found factual or cultural errors in major textbooks that I had finally started learning something about the subject. After the books, one goes to the archives. But after the archives, one goes to the family. I drank a lot of coffee, I ate a lot of green tamales and menudo, and I sat in a lot of kitchens petting a lot of dogs, listening.

LF: Some critics see this novel as a continuation of Latin American magical realism. How do you react before this type of assessment? Have Latin American writers been a strong influence for you?

LAU: I was deeply honored by the hyperbole. Some critics said that I had somehow reinvented the genre of magic realism. And to my astonishment, many critics presented me as some sort of heir to Gabriel García Márquez.

To be compared with García Márquez is, of course, an honor that is so extreme it’s best not to speak of it. I was transformed at about the age of 18 by discovering the stunning and secret world of the following writers: Gabo (of course), Borges, Neruda, Cortázar, Vargas Llosa, Quiroga, et al. At the same time, I discovered the music of Serat, Facundo Cabral, Atahualpa Yupanqui, and others. I was in a daze. I was in shock. It was a panic. I wanted to travel through time and marry Alfonsina Storni. I wanted to eat breakfast with Gabriela Mistral. I was too terrified of Juan Rulfo to dream of meeting him. So to be likened to these Latin American masters in any way means a great deal to me.

Oddly, however, I didn’t really set out to write a magic realist novel. If anything, I was hoping to please the ghost of Malcolm Lowry. I was afraid people would catch me trying to steal flavor from Under the Volcano!

You see, the "magic" in the book is all quite true. It’s historically true in that Teresita’s miracles are all documented. It is also historically true in that the teachings of Huila and Manuelito are based on the teachings of real medicine people. Finally, it is real in that some of the strange dream work in the book is actually work the shamans did with, to, or on me. The fiction is stuff like what they ate for breakfast.

LF: What has winning the Kiriyama Book Prize meant to you?

LAU: Well, you always like to win prizes. Especially when there’s a big check attached! But seriously, the Kiriyama Book Prize meant something very profound for me. Not only was it the first time a Latino book had won it—and if anybody is on the Pacific Rim it’s us—but I felt that the Asian elements embedded in the novel had come home. If you really look carefully at what happens to Teresita, you will see a training that is similar to tai-chi or even what might happen in a Zen monastery. I started to feel a kind of matrix of sacredness and energy humming through this material and I could only ultimately believe that Teresita’s powers were related to the energies of the chi. Earlier I mentioned Malcolm Lowry, but you know, some of the wise presences overlooking this writing were the haiku masters like Issa, Buson, Basho, and Onitsura.

LF: Most, if not all of your works are set on the US-Mexico border. Of course, you were born in Tijuana and grew up on both sides of the border. How has this experience influenced your writing?

LAU: If you can tell me how to escape the border, I will do it. Growing up divided in half by a barbed wire fence has made me see a border everywhere I turn. There is a militarized border fence between male and female, between gay and straight, between right and left, between black and white, between brown and white, between brown and black. You get the idea. I don’t like fences. I do like bridges. So I’m not really a border writer. I’m a bridge builder.

LF: Would you say that the border is thematized in your books? If so, how and why?

LAU: I would say that “the border,” whatever that is, is seeking to define itself through me. It has a huge and tormented soul and it has few mediums who can let it speak honestly.

LF: For most US people Tijuana has always been the image of a humorous and grotesque joke. And, conversely, many Mexicans feel ashamed of Tijuana—“Tijuana is not Mexico,” they say.  What do you think of that city?

LAU: I love it. Loving Tijuana is like loving your heroin addict niece. She’s old before her years, she’s tired, she’s sad. Yet you still see the child in her eyes and the beauty in her smile. Tijuana, like that mythological niece, is addicted. It’s addicted to American money. It’s addicted to American excitement. It’s addicted to the hideous struggle along the fence. For all its fear, desperation, and squalor, it is also a community of friendship, hope, and an unbreakable spirit. Anyone who has spent a year or two among the garbage pickers living in the dompe, for example, will learn more about grace and the human spirit than they will ever learn in thirty years of playing golf and tennis at the country club.

LF: Like other Chicano and Chicana writers, you too employ code-switching, the simultaneous use of English and Spanish in your works. Is this a natural aspect of your style or do you find it to be a challenge?

LAU: When I was a boy, code-switching was strictly forbidden in either direction, including the word chicano. To my father, I was a Mexican, born in Mexico, and by god, I would speak perfect Spanish. To my mother, I was a North American accidentally born in Mexico and we spoke perfect English. I could code-switch by adding Mexican words to English for an easy laugh. But if I allowed English to intrude in my Spanish, it was seen as a failure of my Mexicanness, evidence of a hippie infection: I was becoming a gringo.

I did not discover Chicano literature until I had already graduated from college. García Márquez and Neruda came first. Imagine my astonishment when I discovered Alurista, Rudy Anaya, Ricardo Sanchez, and all the gang. Nationchild Plumaroja by Alurista was a firestorm of language. Here was a guy clearly brilliant, clearly highly educated, clearly dangerous as hell. He was not a pachuco, a cholo or a vato from my barrio, he was some esoteric, brilliant creature. And his language, or languages, played like jazz. And guess what? He was a Mexican born in Mexico.

Consequently, I don’t see it as a Chicano or Latino affectation. I think we are blessed to have a massive array of language. And we should use it. If it’s an issue of verisimilitude, all the better. People speak the way they speak and we should have the tools to honor it.

LF: You also write poetry, memoir, and short stories. Is there a particular genre you enjoy working in most?

LAU: The form I enjoy the most is utterly noncommercial. I would say it’s a combination of prose, sketches, and haiku or haibun. I have hidden that style in everything I’ve published, but I’ve only done one actual book in that style. But if you’re asking what brings me the most joy, that’s it. Otherwise, writing—although deeply satisfying and even fun—is not always a joyful experience.

LF: You have written fiction and nonfiction. What are the challenges each of these pose for you?

LAU: I am actually trained theoretically and critically to analyze, criticize, and create fiction. It’s what I studied in college and it’s what I taught at Harvard. Nonfiction was semi-accidental. I say that because I never thought I would be an essayist of any kind. In a very real sense, all three genres—fiction, nonfiction, and poetry—spring from the same well in me. That well is the deep and mysterious hole where story burbles up. The story that wants to be told dictates its format to me. The biggest challenge in all three genres is to tell the absolute truth. Even when I’m lying.

LF:The Devil’s Highway, a finalist last year in the nonfiction category of the Kiriyama Book Prize, is currently being made into a movie. What is your role in this project and do you have any apprehensions about this type of adaptation?

LAU: I would be crazy if I didn’t have worries about it. My role is basically that of cheerleader and occasional dinner companion for the big boys. You have to be able to detach yourself. By that I mean the book is mine and it bears my name and, with any luck at all, it will still be on the shelves after the movie is gone. The movie is not mine. It is the director’s and the screenwriter’s. However, it bears my title and it will have my name stuck somewhere in the credits. So I do my best from the sidelines to urge them to be accurate.

LF: What are you working on right now?

LAU: Right now, I am recuperating from a mind-boggling whirlwind of touring. The recent immigration madness brought The Devil’s Highway back to life at the same time I was going on my second major tour for The Hummingbird’s Daughter. So it became a double tour. Now that the fall is approaching, more madness is coming. So right now I’m strategizing more than writing. I will be on airplanes part of every month, apparently forever. So I have a lot of time to think. Ahead to the sequel to The Hummingbird’s Daughter. I have two other novels in mind. I am ready to finalize a manuscript of poetry. And there are some other film type projects as well. The slate is full.

LF: Is there a particular author, past or present, who has influenced your writing?

LAU: I mentioned many of these authors already. I worry that you wouldn’t have enough room for this list if I were to give it to you. I would say off the top of my head the following writers and poets changed my life over and over: Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, John Steinbeck, Ikkyu, Tom McGuane, Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, A.R. Ammons, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, Mary Oliver, Ursula LeGuin. Shall I go on?

LF: You teach the University of Illinois at Chicago, which must put considerable demands on your time. How do you structure your writing life?

LAU: It’s almost impossible for me to organize myself on a grid. My writing has become so organic that it is tidal or even seasonal. My writing is like a rash of butterflies appearing in August and disappearing in September. It’s like the fog in San Francisco. It’s like fluorescent wood fungus appearing in the rainy forests of Washington state. I try to stay attuned to the small voice of writing and respond when it starts whispering. It’s hard to make that fit in with the Illinois tollway and the immense glacier of cement that is downtown Chicago.

LF: How do you spend your time when you’re not writing?

LAU: I’m a dad! That’s how I spend my time. Trying to get the puppy to stop crapping in the house. Telling bedtime stories. Planting stuff in the garden. Listening to really loud rock and roll. Reading books. Watching “Deadwood.”

LF: How do you find peace of mind in your everyday life?

LAU: Like many writers, I come from a history of torment. Frank Zappa had a song called “The Torture Never Stops.” Pretty funny, but pretty accurate. Now, it’s not like that anymore. I have an excellent marriage, hard won. I have a happy family against all the odds. I even have a little money, which I never had before. There is no peace in your heart when you don’t have a stove, an oven, working plumbing, heat, or enough money to take a bus to your shit job so you can eat. This is the way I used to live.

One of the deepest gifts of The Hummingbird’s Daughter was something I always knew. And that is that every day was full of grace and small miracles. The miracles are there, even for atheists. We are so blinded that we can no longer see them. So when my daughter comes in with a “cute cicada” she has caught, we enjoy it with a bit of awe and a lot of humor. I can afford to buy myself poetry whenever I feel like it. My wife once joked that other men have porn in their bathrooms and I have haiku.

We make it a habit to go forth together into the world. I was a person trapped in poverty, despair, and hopelessness. I thought I would never get out of San Diego. Now, all of America is my neighborhood. And we all often go into that neighborhood to see what’s going on. Chances are I will wander back into the mountain West sooner than later. To me, almost every minute there is soaked in joy.

LF: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

LAU: I started out as a visual artist and an actor. What I really wanted to be was Jim Morrison. However, if I weren’t a writer, I’d be dead.

LF: What are some of the books waiting for you on your bed stand?

LAU: This is a very evil question. Let me just say that I am judging a major literary award this year and, when I signed up to do it, I thought that having 750 new books would be really neat. So don’t ask me what I’m reading right now...

LF: Do you have a favorite hero or heroine in fiction?

LAU: This question is impossible to answer. Aren’t they all your favorites? Don’t you love the Buendía family? Don’t you love Ultima? Don’t you wish you were Sal Paradise riding around in that car? I am partial to Hayduke in The Monkey Wrench Gang. I hope that doesn’t bring the FBI sniffing around... It would be easier for me to tell you what villains scare me because very little in fiction actually scares me. But the ones who really get my goat, even now, are the cenobites in Clive Barker’s Hellbound Heart.

LF: What character in a book most resembles your own personality?

LAU: How can I answer that? I don’t even know what kind of personality I have.

LF: Is there a specific talent you wish you had?

LAU: Yes, absolutely. There are two talents I wish I had. One: electric guitar. Two: lucha libre.

LF: Other than traveling the world through books, is there anywhere you would
like to travel to?

LAU: Everywhere.

LF: Is there anything you consider your most prized possession?

LAU: I have a piece by Salvador Dalí. It came to me in the midst of our poverty, though the story of its journey would take up too much of our time. But you must understand that before all of those writers were important to me, Dalí was a kind of preposterous guru to me and my mother found a way to get an original piece of his for me. And through all those years of desperation, hopelessness, even hunger, that piece of art was with me, reminding me to strive for greatness.

LF: What’s the last movie you saw? Do you have a favorite movie?

LAU: The last movie I saw was “Little Miss Sunshine.” I have so many favorite movies. I love “Local Hero.” I love, if you can call it love, “The Wild Bunch.” I could give you a list of two hundred movies right now.

LF: What’s the last book that made you laugh out loud?

LAU: I laughed out loud reading an advance copy of Bill Bryson’s new book.

LF: What’s your worst nightmare?

LAU: I already lived it. So it’s clear sailing, don’t worry about me.

LF: What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?

LAU: I don’t understand what “brave” means. Every child is heroically brave. Just watch them walk off to school alone every day. So was it brave to make it through Logan Heights as a boy? I don’t know. Was it brave to be a missionary in the Tijuana garbage dumps? I don’t know. Was it brave to get married? Not this time. It was the right thing. Perhaps what really takes bravery is to stand up naked before the world with your books.