Monday, November 07, 2011

Interview with Sergio Troncoso regarding his new novel, “From This Wicked Patch of Dust”

Sergio Troncoso, the son of Mexican immigrants, grew up in El Paso, Texas and now lives in New York City. He graduated from Harvard College and studied international relations and philosophy at Yale University. Troncoso won a Fulbright scholarship to Mexico and was inducted into the Hispanic Scholarship Fund’s Alumni Hall of Fame. He writes the blog about writing, politics, and finance.

Troncoso’s first book, The Last Tortilla and Other Stories (University of Arizona Press, 1999) won the Premio Aztlan and the Southwest Book Award. Troncoso's second book, a novel entitled The Nature of Truth (Northwestern University Press, 2003), tells the story about a Yale research student who discovers that his boss, a renowned professor, hides a Nazi past.

This year has seen the publication of two more books, one of essays, the other a novel. Troncoso describes his book of essays, Crossing Borders (Arte Público Press), as a “collection that bridges the chasm between the poverty of the border and the highest echelons of success in America, with sacrifice, commitment, and honesty.”

Troncoso’s new novel, From This Wicked Patch of Dust (University of Arizona Press), has at its center the Martinez family that struggles to survive on the U.S.-Mexico border. Troncoso uses this one family to explore issues of assimilation, immigration, religion, politics and war. It is a story written with great skill and compassion, a story too often ignored or, worse yet, stereotyped by contemporary writers. One would not be surprised to see it included on high school and college reading lists across the country in the very near future. Of this new novel, award-winning and best-selling author, Luis Alberto Urrea, says: “Sergio Troncoso writes with inevitable grace and mounting power. Family, in all its baffling wonder, comes alive on these pages.”

Despite a grueling book tour schedule, Troncoso kindly took time to answer a few questions about his new novel.

DANIEL OLIVAS: How long did you work on From This Wicked Patch of Dust? Did your conception of it evolve as you wrote it?

SERGIO TRONCOSO: I would guess I worked on the novel for about four or five years. I am always working on several projects simultaneously. Typically a larger project as an overall focus, and smaller projects, like individual essays and short stories, scattered in and around my schedule for the larger project. So it is difficult to say exactly what amount of time it took me to write the novel. But I also rewrote it, mostly eliminating chapters, condensing it, and sharpening the language. Rewrote it again. And again.

DO: Why did you decide to center your novel on one family from El Paso? Did you have a favorite character?

ST: Well, it is A novel, as Lyn Miller-Lachmann correctly appreciates, in which the group, this Mexican-American family, is the protagonist. It is not a novel with an individual protagonist, but something quite different. I wanted to understand the dynamics of group formation, how a family becomes a family, and how it also disintegrates over time. I think this is an inherent tragedy in all our lives, that the family we began with will inevitably disassemble and reconstitute itself (in another form, in another family) if we are lucky. Some of the values, good and bad, are transmitted, some are abandoned, and some are changed to mean something very different from their origin in your “childhood family.” This cycle repeats itself, and this cycle is the center of our meaning in the world, at least the way I see it.

I also wanted to focus on the Mexican-American family experience, on “becoming American,” whatever that may mean. Why? Because I think any country struggles to remain a country as its inhabitants arrive from different cultures, races, economic levels, urban-rural experiences, and with different individual capacities. As Chicanos become part of this country, not only does this country change them, but they also change the country. These can be religious changes, changes of culture, family practices. So in a way, the novel is an allegory to what is happening in our country, when individuals adopt different religions, different cultures, different politics. Are we still a group? In what way do the bonds of this group remain vital, but tenuous, and in what way do these bonds evaporate? How can we keep “our family” together?

I also wanted to focus on the variety in the Latino experience, a variety that too often is overlooked. There are Latinos who are Muslim; Latinos who are Jewish, or at least have close ties to Jewish culture and religion; there are Latinos who want to retain a culture focused on Catholicism and paternalistic authority. There are Latinos who are primarily individualists, because of their abilities or political outlooks, still “culturally Chicano” but not really wanting or seeking ties to any group. This great variety is often overlooked, and I wanted to write about that type of multifaceted family.

DO: From This Wicked Patch of Dust spans almost forty years. Accordingly, many historical touchstones are explored including the British Invasion, the Challenger space shuttle, the Vietnam War, 9/11, to name a few. How do you think these events shaped your characters and their destiny? Did you need to do research to refresh your memory of such events?

ST: I was constantly doing research on what had happened during particular years, as this family, and its members, become American, grow up, and adopt different attitudes, religions, and so on. Time is very important is this novel. It is written in “time fragments” because I believe that is how families experience their history and how time itself simply dissolves and reconstitutes the original “childhood family,” so to speak.

The British invasion of the Beatles is about youth and exuberance and hope, and it matters deeply to the young girl Julia in a way that it won't ever matter to her Mexicano parents Pilar and Cuauhtemoc. Music is often that first separator of generations. I have two teenage boys, 14 and 17, and they live and die for their bands, and I scratch my head and say, "What? That's what you like?" But I was the same way with my parents.

The Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy was a time when we as a country became wounded unexpectedly and deeply, when our hope in science and progress and Reagan's optimism was pierced. Was this another marker when we began to question whether “being American” was synonymous with “progress and hope”? Have we entered another, more nebulous era, when perhaps we are moving backwards as much as we are moving forwards?

Finally, 9/11, when our groundwork belief that we are an invulnerable country, an island against a dark and misunderstood world of danger and fanaticism, exploded along with the Twin Towers. I was in New City when it happened, and it has changed how I look at the world, and how I know we are tied to the world, for better and for worse. Each event sears you closer as a family, as a culture, while it also separates and creates new divisions. 9/11 was the beginning of Latino and immigrant xenophobia, but who would have guessed that 19 radicals, mostly from Saudi Arabia, and professing to be Muslim, would inaugurate that kind of xenophobia years later? The meaning of major events takes time to develop, and involves unpredictable turns. If we had been in the middle of a growing economy, would that xenophobia have been so pronounced?

So, yes, these events that occur in the chapters are meaningful to what is happening to the sense of unity or disunity that is also occurring in the Martinez family.

DO: Ismael seems to be closest to you in terms of his education (attending Harvard), marrying a Jewish woman, moving to New York, becoming a writer. Why did you decide to make Ismael merely one of several lives explored in your novel?

ST: Ismael is part of his family, and not necessarily its best representative. He has abilities and curiosities that propel him beyond his initial experiences on the border, for better and for worse. Yes, I do identify more closely with Ismael, and it is a favorite character about whom I receive many emails and comments from readers. But I wanted to write about the entire Martinez family experience, in part because I value that variety and different “modes of being” in that family. Francisco's (or Panchito's) experience, staying at home in El Paso and being true to his parents, is as important as Ismael's; the former may not be as exciting or as full of official accomplishments, but I think it is valuable.

On the other hand, Ismael is separated because of his brain, because of who he is, because he sees the world differently, whether he wants to or not. His family does not “cause” him to be the way he is; he is mostly like that already. Yet he still belongs to the Martinez group experience, and yet he still finds meaning in that experience by writing about it. So his curious brain and ambition, so to speak, separate him from the group, but these very characteristics also bring him back to the group in a new way, through literature.

DO: What do you hope readers “take away” from your novel?

ST: I hope readers take away from my novel that the mysteries of the family, how it comes together and how it falls apart and how it is recreated, are deep mysteries that play out in surprising ways. Characters push and pull in different directions. Yet whatever family experience you had, whether it was decent and heartfelt, or awful and abusive, or simply neglectful, you will have the chance to make it new again, you will also be fighting the worst baggage you inherited, you will also have baggage because of the kind of individual you are. The most surprising “families” exist, some who are Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish all at the same time (and other cultural and religious and political varieties), and why they stay as any kind of 'family' at all is because collectively, or individually, or both, they have found meaning in being together while they are alive.

DO: Mil gracias for spending time with La Bloga.


VARIEDADES: A Performance Salon hosted by Rubén Martínez

"The Desert"

WHEN: November 12, 5:00 p.m.
WHERE: The Echo, 1822 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90026

The fourth installment of VARIEDADES, the regular “performance salon” hosted by author and performer Rubén Martínez (picture above) at the famous Echo club in Echo Park, will focus on an expansive theme: the Desert, in all its immensity, beauty, and fearsomeness. An eclectic bill of artists will render the “land of little rain” as desert scribe Mary Austin once called it, with music, spoken word, comedy, performance art and even a “performance lecture” by a leading theologian. The result will be a dramatic and poignant portrait of a place where Mexican migrants cross a searing land, monks seek spiritual purity, soldiers wage battle and students stage revolution...the many deserts within the desert.

The show features legendary alternative folk figure Victoria Williams (founder of Sweet Relief), internationally recognized performance artist Elia Arce, comedian/playwright/activist Richard Montoya of Culture Clash, and author and Loyola Marymount University theologian Douglas Burton-Christie. The show pays special tribute to the powerful art scene that’s taken root in in recent years in Joshua Tree—a Mojave desert destination long popular with Angelenos.

Angelenos are certainly obsessed with the desert. Sometimes we even say that we live in it. (We don’t—you have to cross over the mountains to get to it.) It is certainly our escape-landscape, a screen upon which to project all kinds of desires and fears, and a real, physical place to inhabit.

As long as people have been traveling to the desert, artists have been representing it. The desert is a recurring character in both the Old and New Testaments. It is the setting for the American passion play of the Western. These days it is often the mise-en-scène for narco noir and neo-nativist politics—Arizona’s SB 1070, an electrified “border wall.”

VARIEDADES (volume 4) will approach this vast, contradictory space the same way we’ve approached our previous themes (migration, the drug war, anarchy): with artists of different genres and generations bringing passion and humor, pathos and spectacle to illuminate our theme.

VARIEDADES is inspired by the Mexican vaudeville shows in 1920s Los Angeles in which Martínez’s grandparents were regular performers.

For more information, visit the Echo’s website or call 213-413-8200.

The series is made possible by a generous grant from the Material World Foundation, Liz Garo and The Echo.


Letras Latinas, the literary program of the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies (ILS), is partnering with the Poetry Society of America (PSA) to present “Latino/a Poetry Now,” a national tour that will showcase fifteen poets in a span of two-and-a-half years. The joint initiative will open November 8 (Tuesday) at Harvard University and conclude at Notre Dame, October 29–30, 2013.

“The aim is to provide a sampling of the thematically and aesthetically diverse work being produced by a newer generation of Latino and Latina poets,” says Francisco Aragón, director of Letras Latinas.

This is the latest in a series of collaborations between Letras Latinas and the Poetry Society of America. “We are extremely happy to have a hand in facilitating programs that underscore what a rich mosaic American poetry is,” says Alice Quinn, PSA’s executive director and former long-time poetry editor at The New Yorker.

The November 8 inaugural event at Harvard will feature Rosa Alcalá, whose poems and translations have appeared widely; Eduardo C. Corral, recent winner of the Yale Younger Poets Award; and Aracelis Girmay, recent winner of the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award.

For more information, visit here.

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