Interview: Luis Alberto Urrea

By Linda M. Robertson

Luis Alberto Urrea is the son of a Mexican father and an American mother. The critically acclaimed and best-selling author of 13 books, Urrea has won numerous awards for his poetry, fiction, and essays. The Devil’s Highway, his 2004 non-fiction account of a group of Mexican immigrants lost in the Arizona desert, won the Lannan Literary Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter tells the story of Teresa Urrea, sometimes known as the Saint of Cabora and the Mexican Joan of Arc.

After serving as a relief worker in Tijuana and a film extra and columnist-editor-cartoonist for several publications, Urrea moved to Boston, where he taught expository writing and fiction workshops at Harvard. He has also taught at Massachusetts Bay Community College and the University of Colorado. The interviewer first met Urrea at the Fishtrap writing conference in 2006, and some of her questions refer to statements he made there.

The Fourth River: You have said that “Writers build bridges, not borders.” Can you talk about the bridges you have built with your writing, and where they have taken you?

Luis Alberto Urrea: I hope I have built bridges. Perhaps a clearer metaphor is one I have been using lately: Writers like me stand outside the wall and throw love notes over the top, hoping somebody will find them.

It makes me feel a little pretentious to start listing all the ways in which I’ve saved the world. But if you’re asking about pure mediums of communication, I always say that from the first book on, I have tried to give voice to the voiceless and to make connections between people who had never thought much about each other. For example, the denizens of the Tijuana garbage dump and sophisticated readers in the United States, border patrol and Chicanos, curanderas and Jesuits.

These bridges that I have built have been built not only on words, but on faith and deeds. Because of them, I have been to the most dangerous places imaginable and to the most beautiful. They’ve carried me deep into the heart of sacredness, out on the lecture circuit, into the Mexican jungle, to London…I can’t yet tally all the places the bridges carry me, but I can tell you this: The work itself seems to inspire people of every imaginable stripe to share their story and their hope with me. The pathways are infinite.

FR: You told the writers in our workshop,“Literature is one of the healing arts—heal the world with it.” Did you discover this truth when you [conducted research about your great-aunt] Teresita? Does writing heal you? How?

LAU: I am not a huge proponent of writing as therapy for the author, though I can tell you that writing transformed me and the world around me and made it better. So much better.

However, I did indeed learn about literature as a healing art from female shamans in Mexico. Healer women. I did not know that literature was considered part of the medicine ritual. Perhaps a lesser part—they told me they felt I was simply too lazy to actually go study hands-on healing.

In a workshop such as the one you were in, you can feel it. If the community clicks, if the words are true and well received, you can feel the healing in the room. The secret is it heals the teacher, as well as the students.

FR: Lori Jakiela, a professor at Chatham, says that “writers should be looking for, and creating luminous moments.” Can you talk about finding luminous moments in your writing journey?

LAU: First of all, that quote is dead on. I love her and want to send her chocolates. This question of luminous moments is at the very heart of everything I write, see, and teach. The Arizona poet Jon Anderson put it brilliantly: “Remember the world of ghosts and small gestures.”

One way to learn about this is to study haiku poetry and to study the Japanese concept of wabi sabi. I often joke with interviewers that The Hummingbird’s Daughter is merely 25,000 haiku in a row.

You see, the world still abounds in miracles. Every bush is burning. The problem is we are blinded, not only by television, not only by career, not only by worries, not only by ignorance, but we are blinded by our own vision. We see what we think we see. But we don’t always see what is. Annie Dillard once pointed out that a tree is not only a tree, but a perfectly tree shaped hole in the sky that the tree fills. I love that!

I probably told your workshop the following: Every day is your birthday. The universe is sending you presents all day long. You teach yourself to pay attention so that you can unwrap those presents. Once you do, every day is a party.

My most joyous writing time is driving or hiking with a notebook at hand, prose sketching like a crazy person. You have to risk being silly, risk being naïve. Let it come. At Breadloaf one summer, I was hiking around in the hills. I had been thinking a lot about dragonflies (something I tend to do). You see, some teachers pointed out that dragonflies were the guardians of the spirit world, the afterlife. As I walked, a huge red dragonfly flew up to my face and hovered at eye level as though it was staring into my eyes. We stared at each other for a moment and it flew away. That wasn’t the luminous moment. The luminous moment came when I foolishly shouted, “Hey come back!” and it flew straight back to my face and hovered in front of my eyes again. What are you going to make of that? I know it put a huge smile on my face.

FR: A writing prompt that you gave me at Fishtrap was a quote by Ricardo Garibay: “To be a writer is really nothing more than to employ a few dozen favorite words. To find them, you have to invest three fourths of your life.” What are some of your favorite words?

LAU: Parangaricutirimicuaro.

I have so many favorite words, I can barely stand it. How about aspen, interstate, yes, pipistrelle. How about the Yaqui name for hummingbird: semalulukut.

FR: The limited, first-edition chapbook Sonoran Desert Sutras, Notes on writing The Hummingbird’s Daughter in Tucson is quite different from your other books. Can you tell me how this book came into being? What was the process of writing these three-line poems: Notebooks? Memories? Listening to Nine Inch Nails?

LAU: All of the above. I’ve already mentioned haiku. The process of working on that book in Arizona was cataclysmic for me. I won’t go into the ghastly details, but I will tell you that book made me suffer. Things were so harsh that I couldn’t focus to read anymore. About all I could muster were haiku. Seventeen syllables? I could read that. So haiku became a way to record some experiences and thoughts, and the haiku vision became a way to enter the shamanic journey necessary to write that novel. It all went hand in hand.

FR: You’ve written in many forms: essay, memoir, non-fiction, short story, fiction, poetry. Why is poetry one of your favorite forms? What poets have influenced your work? Are there any poets you’d like to recommend, or books that have inspired you recently?

LAU: I could fill this entire interview with lists of poets. Hundreds of poets. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. If we just focused on Asian poets (Japanese, Chinese, Korean), I could rattle off a handful of poets who would change your life. Yosano Akiko, Basho, Buson, Han Shan, Issa, Ko Un. Check [them] out. And don’t forget Li Po.

Something sacred happens in poetry. For me anyway. Note that I didn’t say “religious.” Poetry (song) is the basis of all literature. If you ain’t singing, I don’t want to read you. One can trace pathways from Greece to China to Rome to Aztec Mexico to Leonard Cohen to Jim Morrison and into the sunlight of Mary Oliver. It’s a river. It’s the big river. Once I dipped my toe into it, I was swept downstream.

A.R. Ammons. Sherman Alexie. Charles Bukowski. Martin Espada. Carolyn Forché. Jane Hirschfield. Ted Kooser. Lorca. Neruda. Sharon Olds. Mary Oliver. Diane Wakoski. Charles Wright. Robert Wrigley. Don’t forget Ginsberg and his grandfather Whitman. I could go on and on…

FR: When did you realize that you are a storyteller? What has this role meant in your life? Can storytelling change the way people perceive themselves, and the world?

LAU: I was always a storyteller. My family and those closest to us were also storytellers. In fact, scratch any Mexican and you’ll find a storyteller under his or her skin. When you’ve got nothing, guess what your treasure is—story. Even if it’s the story of how profoundly screwed you are.

Storytelling is writing. So yeah, [it] completely dictates my professional life. Because when I am teaching, in a way, I am writing (maybe in the air, maybe on your hearts), I am storytelling. My new career has been relentless, endless rounds of touring and public speaking—storytelling.

This is the only way to affect change. You don’t live in a place, you live in a story. Everything around you is neutral, it’s nature. What happens to you is the story and your response to it.

FR: Your writing is deeply personal. In your collection of short fiction, Six Kinds of Sky, you included “Amazing Grace: Story and Writer, An Afterward.” This piece offers the reader glimpses into your past, into your thoughts about your writing, and into some of your joys and sorrows. Can you talk about writing and publishing such honest, intimate work? Have your editors encouraged you or tried to dissuade you from including some of the difficult truths you share with your readers?

LAU: No, I’ve never had an editor try to control my message. The way I write makes me me and not Stephen King or Danielle Steel. I don’t intend to reveal some deep well of personal material, in fact, I often try to do just the opposite. But whatever happens on my page with those funny little squiggles we call letters seems to speak to people, sometimes in ways far deeper than I had anticipated.

Linda M. Robertson is poet who lives in Washington state’s Methow Valley. She is currently an MFA candidate in Chatham University’s Creative Writing Program.