"The most important advice to young writers is to read for a purpose. If you are not reading at least a book a week, you will never be a writer. So first it’s about developing mindful habits to help you develop your literary aesthetic, and reading widely is one of the most important first habits."
Lone Star Literary Life: Mr. Troncoso, your next book, A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son (Cinco Puntos Press), a collection of short fiction, will be published in October. Please tell us about your newest book. What do we need to know?
Sergio Troncoso: A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son is a collection of linked stories focusing on immigration, Mexican American diaspora, perspectivism, and time. I wanted to explore Mexican Americans away from the border, how they searched for a new home away from home, and what failures and successes they had, and what they took with them. Characters appear as protagonists in one story, and then appear as minor characters, or characters from a different point of view, in another story. The reader I hope will be challenged to consider these shifting perspectives and what it reveals about his or her prejudices when reading a character through a certain lens.
LSLL: You grew up in El Paso, attended Harvard and Yale, and won a Fulbright scholarship. The immigrant stories in your new collection move from Ysleta to New England and New York City, exploring the physical and spiritual dislocations from language, family, culture, history, and Mexico itself. While autobiographical and personal, how is your experience universal for immigrants everywhere? What does it mean to be safe?
ST: Well, you are never safe, even if you fool yourself into thinking you are safe for this or that moment. The issue is to deal with this uncertainty, to understand “certainty” as just momentary, and to still be able to survive, function, and even create art in this life of fluctuations and uncertainty.
I think I certainly borrow from my life, from my terrible failures to wild successes to lucky happenstances, to write my stories. I think the key to taking particular histories and making them universal is the writer’s self-awareness: this questioning attitude that tests and even attacks the writer’s own assumptions, prejudices, even what the writer thinks he knows, but may not. My experience is universal in this way: whoever leaves “home” and finds the need to either return home or find a new one, these individuals will connect with my stories; whoever feels at the same time emboldened but also disheartened by their lives in an immigrant community, these readers will find a home in my stories.
LSLL: A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son is being published by Cinco Puntos Press, also from El Paso. Is this a purposeful decision on your part or serendipity? What does it mean to you for this storied, hometown press to publish your newest work?
ST: I have been an admirer of Cinco Puntos and a fan of Bobby and Lee Byrd for as long as I can remember. What I love about Cinco Puntos is their literary sensibility, their literary aesthetic. So I wanted to publish with them, and A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son was the perfect work for our collaboration. They understand El Paso, they understand those who have left El Paso and come back and still love the border, and they understand those, like me, who bring El Paso with them wherever they are. I was glad that I played a part in Bobby’s and Lee’s induction into the Texas Institute of Letters. They deserve it and more.
LSLL: What has Texas meant to you, and how does being from Texas, specifically the Ysleta neighborhood of El Paso where a public library was recently named after you, shape your work?
ST: I do love Texas. It’s my home state, and even when I travel to places in Texas I do not know well, I always find what I might call a “Texas sensibility,” which I would characterize as friendly, straight-talking, appreciative of those who work hard, and independent. I think the people of El Paso share that spirit of independence and hard work as an immigrant city. So I think that’s how Texas has shaped me.
The part of El Paso I grew up in—Ysleta—was rural, with cotton fields behind my house and horse farms and dairies. When we started in Ysleta, we had an outhouse in the backyard and kerosene lamps and stoves after my father and mother crossed the border from Juárez and became American citizens in the 1950s. The family values I learned in Ysleta: work until you are exhausted and get up and do it again the next day; help yourself by being disciplined and honest and good for your word, and then turn around and help others; be proud of your Mexican heritage, but don’t be afraid to change it, to make it better, to morph it into a new “Mexican American” heritage from the border. These are quintessentially the American values of immigrants who have come to the United States from different cultures and different nations.
LSLL: Speaking of the library, this branch administers the Sergio Troncoso Reading Prizes. Please tell us about these prizes, your role in creating them, and your goals for this project.
ST: In 2014 when the El Paso City Council voted unanimously to name the library branch not far from my house as the Sergio Troncoso Branch Library, I was deeply honored and grateful. I kept thinking how I could keep contributing to my community after this great honor. So I established and funded the Troncoso Reading Prizes. I talked to the branch manager at the time, and I drew up the eligibility requirements and prizes with the help of the library staff.
Any grade-school or high-school student who lives within the geographical area covered by the Troncoso Library—in public, private, or parochial school—is eligible. We give six prizes: first, second, and third for ninth through twelfth grades, and first, second, and third for fifth through eighth grades. All prizes are gift cards from Barnes and Noble, so winners can buy more books. First place receives a $125 gift card, second place a $100 gift card, and third place a $75 gift card. The prizes are given to students who read the most books from September 15 to November 15 of each year. This is the sixth year of the Troncoso Reading Prizes.
I have a simple goal for these prizes: I want to encourage children from Ysleta to read. I want to show them how reading changes your life, how it improves your mind, how it gives you confidence in school, and how it helps to develop your voice as a citizen and as a writer. Reading did all of these things for me. The El Paso Public Library was the place where I would feed my mind and explore the world through books. I have never forgotten that. When the prizes are announced every year by the staff of the Troncoso Library, I fly to El Paso to give the winners the prizes, certificates of achievement, and signed copies of my books. These sessions have also turned into community events where parents ask me about higher education and advice for getting their children to college. I want to keep giving back to the Ysleta community, because it has meant so much to me.
LSLL: You were elected to the vice presidency of the Texas Institute of Letters in 2018. Please tell us about your work with TIL: successes, areas where further work is needed, and what you are most proud of during your tenure.
ST: I love the literary community of the Texas Institute of Letters, and that’s why I have been enthusiastically involved with it for years. I started by helping to revamp the website. We introduced photos and videos, created an archives page with video links to our past, introduced an online payment system. If you love Texas literature and want to recognize distinctive literary achievement, donate to the nonprofit TIL: www.TexasInstituteOfLetters.org.
As vice president I am responsible for managing the process of inducting new members, which includes current members recommending writers for induction and creating dossiers with letters of recommendation and reading samples. Each year, the council reads and votes on these recommendations and dossiers, and those that pass the council vote are then submitted to the general membership for a final vote. It’s tough to get inducted into the TIL, as it should be, and those who make it are invariably the excellent writers of today.
One of my goals shared by all the officers is to have new members represent all of Texas, so I have been grateful that we’ve successfully increased the numbers of first-class writers who are Mexican American and African American. We have also made an effort to recognize great writers for our lifetime achievement award, with such recent winners as Naomi Shihab Nye, Sandra Cisneros, Pat Mora, and Sarah Bird. It is a credit to the TIL that it has evolved from within to be more inclusive while maintaining its focus on literary excellence. I love working with all of them, even when we debate issues at meetings: we still maintain a spirit of collegiality, honesty, and volunteerism that creates a community I cherish. The bottle of Jack Daniels in the middle of the table also helps.
I am most proud that we have honored our literary legacy in Texas, while at the same time we have moved forward to include and honor great writers from communities often overlooked in the past. I am reminded of my abuelita’s dicho, Quien adelante no ve, atrás de queda. One who does not look forward is left behind.
LSLL: You’ve taught at the Yale Writers’ Workshop for many years. What is your most important advice to young writers?
ST: The most important advice to young writers is to read for a purpose. If you are not reading at least a book a week, you will never be a writer. So first it’s about developing mindful habits to help you develop your literary aesthetic, and reading widely is one of the most important first habits. You need to understand the literary area you want to write in, and the way you do it is to find out what others have done in that area. So the work you should be reading should be to give you ideas on how you might structure your book, or even to understand what you don’t want to do. You read to take apart the narrative form of a book, you read to understand complex characterization, you read to understand and manipulate the layers of plot, you read to study the rhythms and structures of sentences, and you read to appreciate how one paragraph builds on another and so on.
Another important suggestion I would give to young writers is this: the sooner you can sublimate your ego to become a true editor of your work, the sooner you will become a good writer. You develop your skills as an editor first by editing others. That’s one of the things I teach in my workshop, which includes many exercises and other editing work one month before the workshop even starts! (I tend to be a tough teacher, but I am extremely loyal to students who do all the work.) Once you can programmatically edit other writers’ work, then you can turn those skills to your own work. So it’s a matter of having editing skills, but also having the maturity to go after your weak spots in early drafts, discard them, and rewrite them into something that’s better. This is hard, painful work that never ends for a writer.
LSLL: You are editing a new anthology of Mexican American literature that will be published by Texas A&M University Press in 2021. Please tell us about this forthcoming work. As an editor, what do you look for in choosing works for such an anthology?
ST: The tentative title of the anthology is Nepantla Familias: A Mexican-American Anthology of Literature on Families in between Worlds. I want to focus on what family values from Mexican American heritage have helped the writer (or the protagonist or narrator) become who she is, and what family values did she discard or adapt or change to become who she wanted to be. This is the “in between moment” that is the focus of the anthology: on the one hand, extolling the Mexican American family and its importance for identity, but also the picking-and-choosing of a new identity that changes that Mexican American family or identity. So this thematic anthology is not just a celebration of the family, but it is also a criticism/adaptation/invention of family and Mexican American identity. “Nepantla” is an Aztec Nahuatl word meaning “in between” or “in the middle of it.” I am looking for the best new writing by Mexican American writers on this theme.
LSLL: Can you tell us what’s next for you?
ST: I have a new novel under contract with Cinco Puntos Press, tentatively entitled Nobody’s Pilgrims. So I’m working on the edits to that work, and possibly it will be ready by 2021. The novel is a thriller about a young man escaping the border and finding his place in America, as an unwanted immigrant in trouble.
I am always working; I like to work. So there are a few other projects I have been asked to do by publishers or editors, but at the moment these projects are ideas that I need to flesh out before I can discuss them. Ask me again at the end of the year!
LSLL: What books are on your nightstand?
ST: The Essential J. Frank Dobie, edited by Steve Davis, Ohio by Stephen Markley, There There by Tommy Orange, and Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams.
Sergio Troncoso is the author of The Last Tortilla and Other Stories, Crossing Borders: Personal Essays, and the novels The Nature of Truth, From This Wicked Patch of Dust, and the forthcoming A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son. He co-edited Our Lost Border: Essays on Life. Among the numerous awards he has won are the Premio Aztlan Literary Prize, Southwest Book Award, Bronze Award for Essays from ForeWord Reviews, International Latino Book Award, and Bronze Award for Multicultural Fiction from ForeWord Reviews.
For many years, Troncoso has taught at the Yale Writers’ Workshop. He is a member of the board of councilors and vice president of the Texas Institute of Letters. He was inducted into the Hispanic Scholarship Fund’s Alumni Hall of Fame and the Texas Institute of Letters. He also received the Literary Legacy Award from the El Paso Community College.
The son of Mexican immigrants, Troncoso was born and grew up on the east side of El Paso, Texas in rural Ysleta. Troncoso graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College and received two graduate degrees in international relations and philosophy at Yale University. He won a Fulbright scholarship to Mexico, where he studied economics, politics, and literature. The El Paso City Council voted unanimously to rename the Ysleta branch public library as the Sergio Troncoso Branch Library. Later the author established the annual Troncoso Reading Prizes for students in Ysleta. You can visit him online here: http://sergiotroncoso.com/.