Join us as we interview, Luis Alberto Urrea, author of THE HUMMINGBIRD'S DAUGHTER, INTO THE BEAUTIFUL NORTH, and his latest book, QUEEN OF AMERICA. We'll talk about his writing, his characters, his interesting relatives, prog-rock, and a million other things that make Urrea a truly engaging writer.
Author Luis Alberto Urrea's writing career has focused on life along the U.S.-Mexican border and the lives of people who cross it. Changes in state and U.S. immigration policy all influence those lives — and thus Alberto Urrea's work — in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. [16.52]
His latest novel, Into the Beautiful North, is a funny, moving, and gorgeously written tale of a young woman's journey to America, which Booklist calls "an outstanding reading treat." Bookpage claims "It only takes a few pages of Luis Alberto Urrea's thoroughly enjoyable Into the Beautiful North to start you wondering whether this book will break or warm your heart....So which is it?...A little of both, of course." If you haven't yet read this lyrical, generous, and important American writer, his new work is a great place to start. We loved the novel so much that we chose it for Volume 12 of our Indiespensable program. [interview transcript]
Josephine Reed of the National Endowment for the Arts interviewed Luis Alberto Urrea on January 11, 2011, and January 12, 2013. Excerpts from those conversations follow.
Josephine Reed: Where did you get the idea for Into the Beautiful North?
Luis Alberto Urrea: I have family in Sinaloa where my uncle had a tropical movie theater. It had a corrugated tin roof. It had bats. When things would get really loud in the movie, the bats would dive-bomb the watchers. I started imagining what would happen to Sinaloa if there were no men of a certain age left. I realized that probably my aunt, who was Mexico’s female bowling champion and a terrifying character, would have taken over the town. Then what would happen if narcos came to this town?
Part of what I was trying to do, believe it or not, was write a love poem about America. This nation is unbelievably blessed and gorgeous and magnificent—and we forget. There’s a scene early on [in the book] when, in San Diego, they see giant lawns for the first time. They have never seen green grass as far as you can see, and it’s beautiful, lush, watered, and they think, "Wow, this is Valhalla." That happened to me in my fifth-grade transition from the border to a working-class suburb. What a shock. I never forgot it.
JR: Can you tell us about some of the characters in the novel and the mission they are on?
LU: Atómico is Toshiro Mifune in The Seven Samurai: this unwanted, uncouth, unwashed warrior who’s wandering around looking for a mission. Yet on a deeper level, he’s an oddly moral character, and blessedly eccentric. Nayeli was inspired by a young woman at the Tijuana dump whom I’ve known since [her] birth. She touches me so much because she can’t help but smile. People ascribe all kinds of motives to her because of her smile...I wrote the book as a little
homage to her.
[I wanted to write a story in which] every person is on a journey, even the settled people, even the people in the U.S. Everybody is in transition, which is how I feel the world is right now. So the border patrol agent is about to retire, and he can’t find his place. The young missionary boy has lost his faith, and his mom is gone, and he doesn’t know what to do with himself. It’s not just immigrants who are moving around. We’re moving around, too.
JR: The tone and temperament of the book is quite unusual—you take a serious subject and often look at it with humor.
LU: At the time that I wrote Into the Beautiful North, I had done so much hard work on hard books. Honestly, my writing rule was, "I want to laugh every day." Laughter is a virus that infects everyone with humanity. I thought if I made the story really entertaining, if I made it an adventure, then it would make the general American reader not only want to read it, but make them maybe root for people they either don’t think about or actually look at with some disdain.
JR: Borders figure prominently in your work. In terms of culture, you realize that borders are more than porous.
LU: The border is, in a lot of ways, nonexistent. In these little villages, these girls are on the Internet all day long. They’re dancing to goth music from Norway on YouTube. They don’t have any way to get hold of the world, but they see it. In the Tijuana garbage dump…there’s a little shack with tortillas and tamales and stuff, and he’s got one or two laptops, and the kids who pick garbage can go on this guy’s Internet. On the other hand, there are borders everywhere. The border is a metaphor for what separates us from each other. Every audience I speak to is torn apart by fences. They just can’t see them. My job is to throw love notes over the fence and see who finds them.
"…I always hopelessly, passionately, root for the underdog."
—Luis Alberto Urrea from a One Book, One San Diego interview