Monday, September 26, 2011

Interview with Héctor Tobar regarding his new novel, “The Barbarian Nurseries”

As a weekly columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Héctor Tobar has eloquently and convincingly challenged his readers’ assumptions about the diverse people who imbue this vast metropolis with a complex, thriving and, at times, petulant spirit. As a native Angeleno and the son of Guatemalan immigrants, Tobar’s columns often highlight the multifaceted Latino experience by painting exquisite portraits of individuals who want nothing more than to earn a living, get an education or raise a family. And yes, some of his subjects are undocumented immigrants. Such subjects inevitably produce flurries of angry and sometimes ugly e-mails from certain quarters of his readership. Tobar has been doing this long enough not to be surprised by such a response. Undaunted and apparently energized, he continues to bring these Southern California stories to us, something for which we must be grateful in this age of vitriolic blogs, venal politicians and ravenous 24-hour news cycles.

Tobar now brings us a thrilling and vital novel, The Barbarian Nurseries (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27.00 hardcover), where he asks us to consider what would happen if an undocumented housekeeper is wrongly (and very publicly) accused of kidnapping the young sons of an apparently affluent Orange County couple?

The novel has already garnered great advance praise. Dagoberto Gilb says that Tobar's protagonist, Araceli Ramirez, “has flesh, brains, dreams, ambition, history, culture, voice: a rich, generous life. A story that was demanded, we can celebrate that it is now here." And Susan Straight calls the novel “astonishing, like a many-layered mural on a long wall in Los Angeles, a tapestry of people and neighborhoods and stories.”

The Barbarian Nurseries will be available online tomorrow, and in bookstores throughout the country on October 4. Tobar graciously agreed to sit down with La Bloga to discuss his new novel:

DANIEL OLIVAS: In your weekly columns for the Los Angeles Times, you often touch on the issue of immigration. Why did you decide to approach the topic in fiction form?

HÉCTOR TOBAR: I’ve been writing books, or trying to, for almost twenty years. Way back in the 1990s, I quit my newspaper job (temporarily) to get an MFA in Fiction. I wrote The Barbarian Nurseries, a story with an immigrant woman at its center, not because I wanted to write about immigration, but because I wanted to write about the California and the United States of my time. Today, in the country and state I live in, immigration is a defining issue. I’m the son of immigrants, and have lived in California off and on since I was born. I can remember a time of great openness toward newcomers (the 1960s and 70s) and have since seen the evolution of a powerful resentment toward immigrants. That arc of California history is what I’ve lived. It’s shaped who I am and how I see the world. I’m a writer and that life experience is the most important thing I have to write about.

DO: Your protagonist, Araceli Ramirez, a live-in housekeeper for Scott Torres and Maureen Thompson, is judgmental, prickly and does not like children. Why did you take the risk of putting someone like her in the middle of the immigration debate?

HT: Araceli is, in many ways, my alter ego. She’s an intellectual trapped in the body of a servant. I am the son of guatemaltecos: to a lot of people in California and elsewhere in the U.S., Guatemalan is synonymous with domestic, with laborer. I come from a humble family filled with people who love ideas and words, which is actually pretty common for Latino families, I think. So I imagined a character who would subvert all the stereotypes about Latino immigrants—especially the myth about their passivity and “fatalism.” Araceli is like a lot of Latino people I know or have met: curious, ambitious, but kind of stuck. My book is a novel that attempts to reflect this state of being. It’s intended to be a work of art that reflects that tension between what people are, their idiosyncrasies and contradictions, and the labels we place on them.

DO: Orange County and the City of Los Angeles are almost characters in your novel. As someone who grew up in Southern California as the son of immigrants, what was foremost in your mind in depicting the region?

HT: I think that I’m most concerned with showing the textures of the California landscape, and of the complexities of the social relationships here: the kinds of things that I don’t generally see in works of art (books, film) about Southern California. Among other things, I don’t think most people know how old Los Angeles really is, how old it feels in its middle, and how much history is layered there. Similarly, I don’t think most people realize how many layers of Latino identity exist here: how “being Latino” can mean so many different things. It’s sort of annoying the way we’re pigeon-holed as this tragic, colorful people. So I made a very conscious attempt to play against expectations of what a “Latino novel” should look like: among other things, I decided that I had every right to inhabit the eyes and voices of non-Latino characters. You’re supposed to “write what you know.” What I “know” is L.A. and California: a place that’s filled with all kinds of different people. I’m really proud that in my book you’ll find people with roots in all sorts of places, Latino and half-Latino, black and white, East Asian and Midwestern.

DO: Scott’s struggle with his identity as the son of a Mexican father and white mother is an important thread in your narrative. Why did you decide to make one of Araceli’s employers half Mexican?

HT: Honestly, that sort of happened by accident. I had decided that I was going to tell the story from multiple points of view. And when I first sat down to create Scott, I imagined him doing what I did when I was a kid: cutting the grass at his home in South Whittier. Now, the South Whittier I lived in, during the 1970s, was a pretty racially integrated place. So, from there, it was an easy thing to imagine him as “half white” or “half Mexican,” a status he shares with a big share of the Southern California population, I think. After I decided to give him that identity, other interesting things happened. His Mexican-born father entered the book, for instance, and that gave me the opportunity to make a lot of ironic observations about cultural identity in the city.

DO: The immigration debate never seems to wane; indeed, each election cycle it gets inflamed. What do you think your novel will add to the discussion?

HT: More than anything, I think the immigration debate moves forward by denying the essential, complicated humanity of the people who come here. We make immigrants out to be either objects of pity or objects of scorn. In fact, there’s a great, complex, many-shaded story in almost every immigrant family. If you take an intimate, honest look at those stories, you’ll find universal truths about the human condition. With The Barbarian Nurseries I’ve tried to write a book that gives a hint of those larger truths. It’s a book that says this story is part of the thread of the U.S. experience, which is why I’ve cited three great U.S. writers in the book’s epigraphs: Don DeLillo, Richard Wright and Mark Twain. There’s a certain madness to U.S. history when it comes to matters of class and race: a perpetual disorder, a violence, an anger, and yes, also a hopefulness. The modern-day immigrant story is another unpredictable chapter in the American story: to approach that story as a work of art is to embrace the human craziness of it, which is what I’ve tried to do in my novel. That’s why there’s a “lynch mob” in my book, and a Fourth of July extravaganza that fizzles out, and jails, and undocumented scholars, and “orphan boys” and Chicana social workers and police officers, and even a Mexican-American blogger with a definant, ¿Y Qué? attitude.

DO: Mil gracias for sharing your thoughts about your new novel with La Bloga.


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Xochitl-Julisa said...

Great interview. Immigration and southern California are topics that are always on my mind. I can't wait to see Hector read at Skylight this Tuesday.