"The Latino literature I’d read didn’t really reflect my experience growing up on the border, partly because many of those texts showed Mexican Americans as a minority and underclass."
Lone Star Literary Life: Mr. Cásares, your new novel, Where We Come From, was published in May. Set in Brownsville, it tells a coming-of-age story of two boys, one from each side of the border, both trying to escape very different fates and finding commonalities along the way. Please tell us about your book.
Oscar Cásares: The commonalities between Orly, coming from Houston, and Daniel, coming from Veracruz, happened in a fairly organic way as I was writing about them. I knew Orly had lost his mother and was now being raised by his dad, who wasn’t doing such a great job. With Daniel, I knew that his father was living in the U.S. and that there was a more complicated reason why his father hadn’t brought the entire family or at least Daniel, which is where the trouble in the parents’ marriage came up. I thought it was important for there to be this way that the boys weren’t so different, but also for the boys to not be fully aware of their similarities, for it to be the reader who makes the connection.
LSLL: Where We Come From is certainly timely, but I read that the idea for the novel began well before the current crisis at the border. What was your inspiration for this story? Did you experience similar circumstances when you were growing up in Brownsville?
OC: I actually started with a different form of immigration in mind. I was interested in the immigration that occurs after a family has arrived in the country and assimilated, that is, learned the culture and language, struggled to put their kids through school, then university, and what happens once they leave home. Do they ever make it back home to those humble beginnings? Orly’s entire family is from the border, but he knows little to nothing about the region. In a way, his returning to his father’s hometown made him a cultural immigrant, in the same manner that his father was when he left that place so many years earlier. When I started, all I knew was that Orly would be traveling back to the border and that when he arrived he would find something that would change his entire way of looking at the world, and it was then that the other more traditional form of immigration made its way into the story.
As far as my own life, I did grow up seeing undocumented immigrants all around me, though I’m talking about the '70s and '80s. Later, when I moved to Austin for college, I did feel like a cultural immigrant as I learned how to navigate the new world I found myself in. But conversely, I also saw many of my nephews and nieces from Houston come to the border, this place their entire families were from, and yet it took them quite a while to acclimate themselves.
LSLL: I reviewed Where We Come From for this site and I was struck by the vignettes of immigrants which you included between chapters. Each of these people had touched the lives, however peripherally, of the main characters in the novel. How did you hit on this device and why did you decide to include it?
OC: I remember seeing Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también and loving the way he used an omniscient narrator to give the audience specific details about the interior lives of his main characters. All along I had wanted to figure out a way of playing on the cliché of “people living in the shadows,” when, in fact, immigrants are only in the shadows to the government (at least until recently) and everyone else knows exactly where they are. So the idea was about showing how these immigrants are moving in and around the main characters' lives and doing so with their own dreams, yearnings, and regrets, and the main characters are utterly oblivious to their lives beyond the services they provide.
LSLL: Your other published novel, Amigoland, and your collection of short stories, Brownsville, also take the borderlands as their setting and, inescapably, their subject. How does Texas affect your work? How would your work be different if you lived in, say, Iowa? And how does the border affect your work? How would your work be different if you’d grown up in Dallas or Lubbock?
OC: I initially had a tough time understanding the world I wanted to write about. The Latino literature I’d read didn’t really reflect my experience growing up on the border, partly because many of those texts showed Mexican Americans as a minority and underclass. My writing changed dramatically when I realized that in Brownsville, Mexican Americans are over ninety percent of the population, which actually makes us the mainstream. So I took to creating a narrative world where my characters weren’t a minority but, in fact, were the mainstream. There were still issues of class and nationality, but race wasn’t nearly as much of a factor in their stories. This idea simply wouldn’t be possible in Dallas or Lubbock where because of the reality of the demographics, my characters would’ve remained on the periphery of their communities.
LSLL: I usually ask authors if they’d always known they wanted to write, and the answer is usually, "Of course." However, I watched an interview in which you said that during the first thirty-two years of your life, there were no clues, zero, that you would become a writer, that you didn’t like books as a child. How did this transformation occur? What did you tell your own children about reading and books?
OC: I became a writer only because I was lucky enough to grow up with storytellers in my family. When I left Brownsville, I found myself telling my new friends some of these same stories and others that had happened to me. This usually happened in a bar or some other place I might have an audience, but when people asked if I ever thought of writing these stories, I’d laugh and say I wasn’t a writer, only a storyteller. The truth was, I didn’t feel entitled to even consider writing because I didn’t have anything that remotely resembled a literary background, in the traditional sense of what that means. It took years before I came to appreciate the time listening to my uncles as another form of a literary background. Fortunately, my kids became readers long before they heard the stories of their dad not being one when he was their age. Now we literally have books all over the house, to the point that they simply don’t know another way.
LSLL: Please tell us about which writers have inspired you the most, especially other writers who’ve taken the borderlands as their setting and subject.
OC: Because of that oral tradition, I think I was initially interested in writers who had very distinct voices that I felt I could hear. Of the early ones, I think Raymond Carver and Joan Didion were influential. As for the borderlands, the ones that I connected with were Tomás Rivera’s Y no se lo tragó la tierra, Rolando Hinojosa’s Klail City Death Trip series, Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: the New Mestiza, and Américo Paredes’ George Washington Gomez.
LSLL: Please tell us about your writing process. I conducted an interview with a Houston short-story writer, Bryan Washington, earlier this year, and he told me his stories spring from dialogue. Do you begin from place, character, plot? Or something altogether different? What are the differences between processes in writing your novels or short stories?
OC: Dialogue plays some role in my process, too, but I’d describe more as the narrative voice in general. It sometimes takes me months before I can hear a tone that strikes me as genuine and that I feel is communicating more than simply the words on the page. Ideally, there’s an attitude and certain disposition that comes across from the opening line of the piece. It might be a defensiveness or maybe a yearning for something denied or a bitterness that I can hear along the edges. It may not even be all that detectable to my reader, but I can hear it and if it’s coming in clearly enough, it gives me a strong sense of where this might be headed.
I think that a short story, even if you don’t know where exactly it’s going to end, gives you a sense of how compressed or expansive it could be. It’s taken me longer to have the same sense of compression or expansiveness when it comes to a novel, which simply requires a lot more trial and error before you know what it is exactly.
LSLL: You have been teaching creative writing at the University of Texas in Austin since 2004. What do you try to impart to your students about the potential of literature? Do you have a single piece of advice that you believe to be most important?
OC: There are two main pieces of advice on the first day: 1) your boyfriend, girlfriend, roommate, and mom might want to read your story, but the truth is, nobody else does, not really, or at least not for very long, and so you need to make them want to enter your narrative world and stay for a while; and 2) remember that your reader is in front of you, always, as she would be if you were telling her the story in her living room, and you shouldn’t take this for granted, meaning, yes, you may be writing something autobiographical and personal but ultimately the goal is communicate this experience to another person, to make that connection, and that connection is only possible if you’re staying connected and not straying off toward something that may be interesting to you but isn’t relevant to that reader’s experience with your narrative.
LSLL: Can you tell us what you’re working on now and what’s next for you?
OC: I’m still in the earliest stages, but I want to explore how trauma can form a narrative for a group of people. In the case of Mexican Americans, who make up approximately sixty percent of the Hispanic population in the U.S., by far the largest and fastest growing segment, the trauma is less easily identifiable. As a group, Mexican Americans have been historically marginalized, and in the past segregated and even lynched in South Texas, but there doesn’t exist a single event that as a group people can all point to and say, This is when things changed. There is no before, there is no after. There is no slavery, no Holocaust, no internment camps, no collective narrative. Or so it seems. Because for many Mexican Americans there remains this lingering connection to their family’s arrival in this country, no matter how far back, stirred partly by the constant ebb and flow of immigrants at our southern border who do share a collective memory with those who came before them.
LSLL: What books are on your nightstand?
OC: Summer is the time of year when I try to get caught up on all the reading that I haven’t had time for, because most of the year I’ve been reading student work or prospective student work. I’m currently reading Retablos by Octavio Solis. It’s a memoir, in the form of vignettes, from his time growing up in El Paso. I’ve also been re-reading What Work Is, by Philip Levine, as his poetry relates in some tangential way to an essay I’m finishing up. The other books on my nightstand include Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado, and Cherry, by Nico Walker. People have been recommending both books to me for last year and so I’m eager to start reading.
Oscar Cásares comes from Brownsville, located at the southern end of the Rio Grande River, just across the bridge from Matamoros, Mexico. Originally from San Luis Potosí, his ancestors settled in this border region back in the 1850s.
Cásares writes novels, stories, and essays about the border. His first book is a story collection called Brownsville, which was named a Notable Book of 2004 by the American Library Association. Amigoland, his first novel, was selected for the 2009 Austin Mayor’s Book Club, a citywide reading initiative by Austin Public Library. Cásares has earned fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Texas Institute of Letters (Dobie Paisano), and the Copernicus Society of America. Since 2004, he’s taught creative writing courses at the University of Texas at Austin. His new novel, Where We Come From, was published May 21, 2019.
Cásares lives in Austin with his family. You can visit him online here: https://www.oscarcasares.com/.