Monday, December 05, 2011

Essays from an outsider

Book review by Daniel A. Olivas

Crossing Borders: Personal Essays (Arte Público Press, $16.95 paperback) by Sergio Troncoso is an engrossing and revealing peek behind the curtain of one writer's creative process, development and struggles.

The reader is treated to crisp and evocative prose that wades into the murky waters of ethnic, religious and familial identities.

In these essays, Troncoso draws upon a rich and complex personal history. The son of Mexican immigrants, he is an El Paso native who now lives in New York City with his wife (who is Jewish) and two sons. Troncoso graduated from Harvard College and studied international relations and philosophy at Yale. He has to his writing credit a short-story collection and two novels, all of which have been well received by critics.

Troncoso's title essay sets course for the following 15 pieces when he observes that he has "crossed many geographical, linguistic, cultural and even religious borders to the point where I often ask myself where do I belong, who am I really and who am I becoming." He notes that crossing to "the other side" can be perilous, in part, because you "leave your 'home' and possibly risk alienating those who stayed behind." The flip side is that "you might not be accepted by your new family and friends."

In the essay "Literature and Migration," Troncoso describes his realization of "otherness" when he left El Paso to attend Harvard: "We spoke Spanish at home and on the streets, and English in school. I believed this bilingual border existence was not uncommon until I arrived at college. I was surprised to learn I suddenly had an accent and that not everyone was fluent in both Spanish and English."

Troncoso decided to use this "mantle of the outsider" in his fiction to express the "good I saw in the Mexican-American community of El Paso to places like Harvard and Yale, Boston and New York."

In other pieces, Troncoso digs deep into personal turmoil and tragedy, a crossing of the border, if you will, from a healthy family to a world of doctors and surgery and pain.

In three heartbreaking interconnected essays, "Letter to my Young Sons (Parts One, Two and Three)," he begins: "Two weeks ago, Aaron and Isaac, I learned your mother Laura has breast cancer." We are plunged into the world of surgical options, chemotherapy and physical therapy. Troncoso skillfully and in exquisite detail allows us the privilege of entering into his world as the disease affects not only his wife but also all who love her.

The fact that Troncoso's beloved wife is Jewish imbues many of these essays with a sense of wonder and appreciation of a religion and culture vastly different from the Mexican Catholicism of his youth. In "Fresh Challah," we learn of his newfound love for the traditional Jewish bread, which he can find in his favorite New York bakeries: "The loaves of Challah glistened under the bright white light, and seemed soft and steamy from the other side of the cash register." Troncoso brilliantly uses challah as a springboard for an exploration of his El Paso roots as embodied by his late grandmother, Doña Dolores Rivero.

Other essays focus squarely on the mechanics of being a working author: figuring out what to write about ("A Day Without Ideas"), making time to write while being a stay-at-home parent ("The Father Is in the Details"), or wrestling with writer's block and procrastination ("Trapped"). The picture is not always pretty, but such honesty is refreshing.

Troncoso has already made his mark in the literary world. But if Crossing Borders is any guide, he will continue to spin stories and explain the writer's life for many years to come.

[This book review first appeared in the El Paso Times.]

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