- InterventionsAn Interview with Luis Alberto Urrea
To write the "Great American Novel" is grand mythmaking. There is no such thing. Or is there? Maybe we've been looking to the wrong places—and to the singular (novel) and not the plural (works). Maybe we need to turn our eyes to Luis Alberto Urrea and his magisterial literary corpus. In the seventeen books and counting that border-cross bountifully across all genres, styles, and techniques, Luis sings the Latinx body electric—and this across the hemispheric Américas.
Through and through, Luis is a product of the borderlands, that alchemical space where race, ethnicity, language, culture, gender, you name it, intermix to make something vitally new. Born in Tijuana to a fallen Manhattan cosmopolite, Anglo mom and a working class papá from Sinaloa, Mexico, Luis spent his childhood mostly across the border in and around San Diego. Encouraged by his mom to read and write as much as possible, he grew up, as he states elsewhere, "word drunk." Every Saturday he'd take the two buses necessary to get to the San Diego public library where he discovered already at an early age authors such as Raymond Bradbury, Ambose Bierce, Mark Twain, and Herman Melville. He devoured all literature. Nothing was off limits. During a memorable twenty-seven-hour trip deep into Mexico with his papá (he was worried the young Luis living in San Diego would assimilate to US culture), he was introduced to Mario Puzo's The Godfather (1969)—a book that had a lasting impact and whose inspiration would thread its way into his recent, House of Broken Angels (2018). In college (University of California San Diego for undergrad and University of Colorado at Boulder for grad studies), his appetite and tastes would grow, feeding his imagination with the enrapturing words and worlds built in Spanish by Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Rulfo, and Julio Cortázar.
Already a seasoned essay writer for several publications, he also spent more and more time in Tijuana, working with children as a relief worker. His first award-winning book of nonfiction, Across the Wire: Live and Hard Times on the Mexican Border (1993) lassoed a Christopher Award and was named a New York Times Notable Book. As he continued to write nonfiction and venture into fiction and poetry, the accolades and notoriety would continue to pour in. In 1994 he was a Pulitzer finalist for his nonfiction book, The Devil's Highway. And, in 1999 he won an American Book Award for his memoir, Nobody's Son: Notes from an American Life.
We see in the sum total of his work that Luis is as comfortable with gritty, hard-edged realism as he is with the meditative and mystical. He's as fluent in the shaping of grand Godfather -sized family epics as he is with a lyrical, laser sharp realist, or self-reflexive voice. His stories richly detail the particulars of places such as Tijuana, Veracruz, and Yuma as well as augustly sweep across the US's expansive grand ecological spaces.
On a personal note, the serendipitous discovery of Luis's In Search of Snow (1994) radically altered my life. His protagonist, Mike McGurk, was the first time I'd encountered someone mixed Irish/Latinx like myself. It was the first time I'd encountered a character who felt lost in-between all variety of cultural and ethnoracial spaces. It was the first time that I could find affirmation in this in-between-ness. And, it was my first professional writing assignment that launched a freelance career, while a grad student, as a reviewer for The East Bay Express, among others. Luis's fiction has touched the lives of legions of us. Luis has opened doors for many of us to create and publish our own Latinx stories.
In 2000, Luis was inducted into the Latino Literature Hall of Fame and has received a plenitude of accolades since, including recently the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award (2017) and the Tucson Festival of Books Founders Award (2019). Today, Luis lives and writes in Napier, Illinois, and teaches at the University...