There’s More than Corn in Indiana
"This room was what my mother spent so much energy cleaning and keeping together, and what my father spent so much energy tearing apart. And it was wondrous, like a place I was meant to be. A place, I felt, that I had come back to after a long journey of being away. My home."
—Victor Martinez, Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida
There is a violent storm—both a literal storm and the storm of snatching a woman’s purse—that Manny experiences near the end of Victor Martinez’s Parrot in the Oven. The weather of that storm emotionally charges and changes Manny, the protagonist-narrator, so his return home is new, wondrous, and fated. It is a beautiful moment for Manny as well as readers of Latino literature; we experience the internal and external borders of home, family, identity, and place that are so important in our lives, and we arrive at the possibility of grappling with the ways these borders demarcate a journey shaped by change and continuity. I especially admire this moment because Martinez is revising The Wizard of Oz through this storm, and as such he suggests the “American dream” is still being lived, created and dreamed, particularly as many of us realize we can never go home: that is, like Manny, like Dorothy, we try our best to go back home, but that home is never the same because we return with new memories that make that home different, wondrous, a place of complexity where we can now stand with balance, grace, even love.
These thoughts—actually, an emotional weather—have been with me as I returned from a reading tour of Indiana this past week, visiting the University of Notre Dame's Institute for Latino Studies (ILS), of which Letras Latinas is a part; the English Department at Indiana State University; and Purdue University for an event sponsored by the Latino Cultural Center, the Department of English, and the Creative Writing program.
Indiana was only briefly my home, but my novel, The Region of Lost Names (University of Arizona Press, 2008), arises from the lives of character’s who are deeply rooted in the agricultural borderland of southwestern lower Michigan and northwestern Indiana, an area called “Michiana,” in a place where Niles, Michigan and South Bend, Indiana begin to meet.
These readings were a homecoming, of sorts. For many years I had worked in the area in the fields, in grocery stores, drilling water wells, and for too long working in a factory. As I’ve written before: Initially I grew up on the east coast in a bilingual community, and when my family moved to the Midwest my sense of language, identity, and place became more defined and, strangely, more fleeting. I often feel—even with multiple graduate degrees in writing—that I'm still learning how to tap into the potency of words. Coming back to the area was strange and inspiring; it was a place I often wanted to escape, yet my writing always returns to the region, and here I was from a working class background given an opportunity to read at prestigious institutions of learning.
South Bend, Indiana
I want to thank Francisco Aragón for inviting me to contribute to Letras Latinas Blog, and I must also thank him for taking such an enthusiastic interest in The Region of Lost Names, and for making my visit to Notre Dame memorable. On Tuesday, March 3, 2009, I first took part in an interview with Francisco, which will become a part of Institute for Latino Studies’ Latino Arts and Culture Oral History Project; and then I took part in a “cafecito”(a brief reading followed by discussion) with the staff of the ILS. This latter event was a great joy; many on the staff had graciously read my novel before the cafecito, and so the discussion was lively, informed, and an experience that helped me to reflect on what I had written and where my writing might go in the future. I was particularly moved by how the conversation circled around issues of rootedeness, rootlessness, and place, sparked by hearing names like “South Bend,” “Notre Dame,” “Niles” and Puertorriqueños being evoked in literature. In addition, there was a good conversation on how issues like place or representation are intergenerational for Latinos, how they are the grounds for agreement and disagreement, continuity and change, revision and possibility.
The interview with Francisco was filmed, and it is the first where I’ve sat in front of a camera, which was a little disconcerting, although not too much given Francisco’s thought-provoking questions. I cannot recall my exact answers to his questions, of course. Nevertheless, I thought it might be fitting for this blog to provide a few of Francisco’s questions along with briefer answers I can provide in writing today:
Francisco: One of the things that struck me, and which I found so refreshing about The Region of Lost Names, is that one of the themes you take up is Latino migration and immigration to the state of Michigan—and yet, although mention is made of Mexican immigration, the novel seems to focus, first, on migration from Puerto Rico, and second, migration from Cuba. Could you talk a bit about this? What led you to focus on these two particular cultural backgrounds?
Fred: As a fiction writer I’m very interested in submerged populations—peoples who don’t seem to have a voice, who, on the surface from the perspective of the majority, don’t seem to live full, sentient lives. The story that has such a powerful place in my memory and imagination, I suppose, is the story of my father—and men like him—who, after migrating from Puerto Rico to the east coast, came to Michigan to work at a Green Giant cannery. These were men who gave their bodies, their sweat, their names and their spirit to the land, and when I remember certain elements of their lives I imagine what a shipwreck that life must have been. At the same time, these men married or were intimate with local non-Latina women in the community, and so they lived lives full of desires, dreams, and loves I can never fully understand. I was born of these relations, and in my extended family there were these ties of intimacy that make that memory and history unavoidable and thus all the more real. I can remember as a child driving in a car out to Green Giant (I assume to pick-up my mother’s sister from work), and in the glass lobby being enchanted by the tall jolly Green Giant reaching to the ceiling, his body clothed in vines and leaves. As an adult, long after the cannery had closed, I would drive past and be filled with a loss in the face of those ruins. There were stories there—still lingering in the strong stench of manure from growing mushrooms that never went away—I wanted to listen to and write.
The migration of Cubans was a part of my milieu; to be a novelist, the kind of novelist I learned to admire, is to compose fiction that arises from my meditation in relation to my social world. The Cubans in my novel arise from life itself—the vast exodus I witnessed of peoples taking to old boats, crafted flotillas of plastic bags, pieces of wood, intertubes, whatever it took to make it to another shore. They were people who seemed to give up so much of their life, who went through a literal hunger that never left, since in some cases they gave up family and language, they seemed to exile their memories forever. I included this migration, this cultural background in the novel because I needed a counterpoint to the Puerto Rican migration; Ernest, one of the novel’s protagonists, needed to come to terms with the fact that in many ways he had lost nothing. His life was much more fortunate than he imagined, and so I wanted to place him within the Cuban community in order to show how it may be through community that Ernest discovers the authority of his self. Not alone, not as some American autonomous individual—but, so important, I believe, in community, even if it was a community founded on loss.
I think too that my writing arises from loss and mourning—and I can’t explain exactly why, how it is that a poetics of anyoransa is such a part of my writing life, even though it’s simple to see how much easier my life is compared to my father’s, or say the generation before me. Writing has always been shaped for me by travel, a journey, a sense of migration: A journey away from exile and diaspora to discover a home in the lives of others—Cubans, Spaniards, Puertorriqueños, East Indians—who are struggling, searching, and striving to create home.
Francisco: Related to this: I wonder if you could comment about what writers and what other works of literature you took on as a model when you set out to write this novel. For example, a work that immediately came to my mind when thinking about migrant workers was Tomas Rivera's Y No Se Lo Trago Tierra /And the Earth Did Not Devour Him. Did you have this or other novels in mind?
Fred: Yes, I had novels in mind. I have to admit, however, that I came from a house without books. I remember a schoolbook about Puerto Rico, a bible, a lone encyclopedia of the civil war bought from the grocery store (I believe number 7; and the rest of the set never purchased). I remember reading Huck Finn, The Red Bad Courage, and Catcher in Rye. But there were no Latino books. And during my undergraduate years I didn’t have any Latino professors, or know of any books. Every professor who knew my name or experience recommended Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory and Sandra Cisneros’ The House of Mango Street. Rodriquez did not speak to me until graduate school, and then he spoke to me with great force as a writer, and although The House on Mango Street did provide a spark of poetry and meaning, I found in Cisneros’ Women Hollering Creek a powerful richness of language, image, and story that fueled my imagination. I found Jimmy Santiago Baca’s work by accident, it seems, and I would sometimes almost weep with the power it offered, how strong and raw and finely crafted—like carvings in wood—his words on the page were, are to me. His book of essays, Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet of the Barrio, became like a kind of bible, and it seemed in Indiana I was the only one carrying him around, and when I had chance to share Baca with others, I felt like “I was a paperboy delivering the news” (an image he galvanized into my sense of writing). Baca has this profound vein of music that shows us America can become so much more. Differently, but in addition, I came upon Alberto Ríos and Gary Soto.
The watershed moment was reading Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony. This is a book that showed me so much about storytelling and art; that novel, in my memory and imagination, is the great work of American art after World War II. Each time I read it I’m transported and transformed by art. My response to it was very personal, however. My father was quite a silent man, and given the kinds of work he did, here on the mainland, I don’t think language, expression, was something. . . . Well, something was at work there either in his choice not to speak or in his feeling not to speak. I never knew much about Spain or Puerto Rico (I only experienced them by speaking Spanish and traveling to the island with him), and so my last name was a great mystery to me. It was the name no one in Michigan knew how to pronounce, and so I was “Arrow,” “Royal,” “Royo.” Silko writes “arroyo” some 200 times in Ceremony, I think, and rightly so because the arroyo is such an integral part of the southwest landscape, the geography. The arroyo has literal significance within the novel’s reality, within its fictional dream, and at the same time it has metaphorical power configured within the issues of sickness/health, war/peace, drought/water, silence/expression, death/life that Silko mediates and meditates upon. It gave my name new resonance, my identity new memory and imagination, and I found a place for understanding how metaphor—storytelling, art—is essential for our lives.
Somebody finally knew my names, and I needed to respond.
I must have had Ceremony in mind as a novel, then, because Silko helped me to see the power of a mestizo experience, how the mestizo experience is valid, how it is, in fact, the wealth of North and South America. Silko also helped me to understand the importance of generations, and how certain things are written in our blood and yet we will struggle with continuity and change. The books I studied closely, however, are Jean Rhys’s The Wide Sargasso Sea and Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion. I came to a point where given my talent, given my heightened awareness of language, I wanted to become, to the best of my abilities, a writer of poetic, dense, elegant English prose. I adopted Rhys and Ondaatje as my mother and father in this regard. They both brought to me the vernacular of the islands—a living voice honed to such a degree it would make the Queen think twice about the words she used. I learned a great amount from them about the rhythm, pacing, and experience a novel has the possibility to form. If someone were to see curious relations between their writing and the moment-to-moment experience of my own—well, I’d welcome that. At one point I even traveled to Toronto retracing elements of In the Skin of the Lion; the book meant a lot to me, and I had to honor certain nuances of the poetics that helped me to write. In the Skin of a Lion is a great immigrant novel of Canada, and it is a novel shaped by the working class sensibility I bring to my own. So the novel crossed that northern border to affirm my own. This may not mean much to anyone else, but I found it exceptional that as my novel was going to the press, which I wrote the main draft of near Point Reyes, California, Ondaatje’s novel Divisadero came out, and so he must have been in northern California close in time. Themes too—the divisions and borders he writes of are also there in The Region of Lost Names. We are clearly separate and simpatico in time, across borders.
Francisco: I'd like to talk a bit about one of the secondary characters, one who isn't developed much, but which intrigued me because of what the novel seems to suggest about the circumstances of his death. The novel seems to suggest, on more than one occasion, that Lorime was the victim of a gay bashing. And yet, as readers, we never really get to know much about him. His character seems less developed in contrast, say, to the character of Juan, who also dies. Could you talk a bit about what your intentions were with Lorime as a character and why he is in this novel?
Fred: Lorime was the victim of a hate crime. I never consciously studied or even considered masculinity in relation to my aesthetic. Yet it is clearly there. I grew up in culture where nicknames—words, in general—were used as a form of critical competition, and often as a way to project one’s masculinity while emasculating another’s. My memory of this is often found in the dark skinned relative who’s called “negro,” or “negrito.” The mean-spiritedness, the racism, and the verbal “gay-bashing” are suppressed, hidden away. But it was there for me. Across the street from my childhood house was a two-storey house I euphemistically now call “The Puerto Rican House.” Those shipwrecked men I spoke of earlier, they were there, seemingly always standing and sitting on the porch, watching my every move, as they told stories, shared memories, drank. The smell of that house—the sweat, the dust, the poverty—has always stayed. The fighting, the violence, the time a man in a rage stabbed another. They were a submerged population that I saw as feeling beaten down—physically, emotionally—into a state of worthlessness. These are areas of emotion and tension that must influence my writing, and so the character of Lorime provided a way to make all that alive.
You are correct, Francisco: Lorime is not developed. He was one of the niños de las ruinas who did not survive. And so even if Magdalene or Ernest do not bring Lorime to mind, he is there walking with them, shaping everything they are trying to live and dream. The hate crime that took Lorime’s life, which I’m trying to provoke readers to understand, arises from the small-minded competiveness a provisional town like Niles fosters, and that hate could’ve just as easily taken Magdalene or Ernest’s life; or, god forbid, later on Isabel’s. I hope readers will think and feel that. It is never made clear that Lorime is, in fact, gay—he, like others, is meant to be a submerged population we don’t get to know. That’s why I want to write about submerged populations, peoples; so they won’t die but must go on living in our imagination, and thus they go on in our living reality. Magdalene and Ernest know, and confess, nevertheless, that they are as guilty as those who beat Lorime. Why? Because they called him names. They used words—even in states of endearment—symbolically, and once you let a word out into the world, it has a chance to be a germ that creates harm, or it has chance to become a seed that gives birth to a flower. Those elements of language shape the characters that inspire me to write.
Francisco: Another thing that caught my attention about the novel is that there seem to be a few recurring images. Of course, there is the recurring image of water such as the image of Lake Michigan, as well as the Caribbean when the novel shifts to Puerto Rico. But I want to ask you about the image of a man lying on the ground, often drunk. We see this image on at least two occasions, and in both instances it seems to have something of a traumatic effect on the children in this novel. Could you talk about this image?
Fred: That image is real. It is a very significant image in my life. As a writer I’m driven by mystery and daemonic obsessions. There are certain words and images—blood, an orchid, a birch tree, an ochre-throated hummingbird, a mango thudding in the red dust—I obsessively return to. It is a mystery as to why they return to me, and it is also a mystery as to why I feel great power in crafting them into a meaningful form. When I was a child my father took me to Puerto Rico. Maybe the first or second night there, he and I went to a festival. He had been drinking, and as we walked through the festival we were separated. The barrio was a close community, and so others new of my visit. This older couple saw me, asked about my father, and when I told them I was lost they took me back home in their car. As we were approaching the dirt road that went up to my abuela’s, there she was waiting, pacing back and forth, as if she sensed something had happened. I spent a great deal of time with her after that night, almost as if my father had disappeared. One night my abuela too me to a parranda on the other side of the mountain, and so we walked over and arrived at this brightly lit house. We ate some food, made our way to the back of the house where the party seemed to be. Underneath tree (I have to ask now, was it a mango tree?) lay a man face down, and he had no shirt or shoes. His skin seemed to glow in the lamplight. My abuela started to call my father’s name, over and over I heard her call his name, and then she bent over and shook him. She thought it was my father, her son, drunk and sleeping under that tree. But when he jumped up it was some man I didn’t know.
That image has stayed with me forever—in world that does everything to deny the existence of that rural life in Puerto Rico, the wonder of my childhood imagination in that time. I continue to dream that other reality, continue to relive that memory. And the strange thing is that without any literary training, with only a fundamental sense of and practice of English prose, I started writing one day, and as I wrote that image of that man I knew it would have evocative power for others. Perhaps I can’t say this but I felt somehow that it could become myth, literature.
Francisco: I also couldn't help but notice Ernest's relationship to books and literature and how education, acquiring education—for both main characters—takes on special significance in this novel. At this point, I'm wondering if you could say something about this theme and how it may apply to your own trajectory as a writer who also teaches in a University setting. In short, how did you come to writing?
Fred: Well, maybe my previous ruminations suggest that the great love of my life has been language—stories, poetry—and learning. Everything in my life before my education created my character as a writer, although my fate as writer would’ve never been realized had I not went to school. I went to college at 22 or 23, somewhat older than others, and worked fulltime at a factory during the nights. First I was a remedial student, and after failing the basic English class the first time, I think I received an A the second time. I had a fabulous teacher who encouraged the paragraphs and passages I wrote in my notebook; her teaching wasn’t about correct grammar but about nurturing and applauding what I wrote, the particular forms of meaning making I brought to my reading, and she offered me new things to read. I was a creative reader before I thought of myself a writer. Contemporary poetry—deep image writing, writing from memory and place, lyrical and narrative—sang with urgency. I wrote a lot of poetry at first. But I knew I wanted to be a novelist. The fragmentation and totality of the novel became a supreme ideal for me. Once I learned enough to appreciate John Berger and Mario Vargas Llosa, I knew—deep down in my bones—I wanted to be a novelist. And that put me in a strange place given that all my peers wanted to write a collection of stories. But that was okay: I experienced a new shipwreck in breaking away from my past life of work, my immediate family, and there on that island of books I found ways to fuel my passion for language. I continue to teach because I receive great satisfaction from doing so, and my teaching is helping me to make my dreams as writer come true (and I hope I help students to deserve their dreams as writers, too).
After the interview and the cafecito, Francisco had me to a wonderful lunch with MFA graduate students and professor Marisel Moreno-Anderson. The lunch was especially pleasing because I got to sign books for new friends, folks who had keen interest in the writing process, the work of a novel, and possibilities for publishing. We had a great, long conversation filled with laughter. Professor Moren0-Anderson, a scholar of US Latino/a literature, with a special focus on the Spanish-English Caribbean of Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican Republican writers and writing (and who is Puerto Rican) shared many kind words about The Region of Lost Names. I was grateful to meet such a careful and critical reader, and her words inspire me continue writing about the peoples, places, and themes that speak to me. One particular graduate student, Mike Valente, invited me for coffee at the Notre Dame Bookstore, and so we had coffee and further conversation about writing for the rest of the afternoon.
I was very impressed by the graduate students I met, the conversation insightful, and their passion for and dedication to writing apparent. The MFA Creative Writing Program is fortunate to have students like these, and it is clear the CW Program at Notre Dame is a special place.
That evening Francisco took me out to dinner. With fine food and wine we continued the conversation—moving on to future possibilities for our writing, while recalling memories and moments (say Moe’s Books, the Bay Area, or standing in Toledo, Spain and looking out on the golden brown hills, the greenish brown river twisting down below) important for where our desires for writing started. It was great that my non-Latino brother-in-law, who lives in South Bend, was able to attend, and that he and Francisco had much to share with each other. A perfect image for the connections writing can create.
End of Part 1