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Friday, October 25, 2013

Luis Alberto Urrea and Me: A Recap with Pictures!

Well last night went great.  We had a nice crowd and I think people enjoyed it. As you can see I have a few pictures spread throughout this post, but for more pictures go to the Fox Valley Reads Facebook page.

As a reminder, here are the questions I was planning to ask Luis. I got to most of them.

Now here are some thoughts from me on what he said:

  • Luis loves libraries and he loves visiting book groups.  He encouraged everyone to contact him about either visiting your book group in person or over Skype.  He estimates he has participated in at least 70 book clubs already and a man invited him to their Books and Guns book club in November.  He had his wife [who was in the audience] checking his schedule to see if he was available.  
  • We began with Luis describing his early life as a poor kid living in Tijuana with an East Coast mother and a Mexican father.  Besides his funny and poignant impersonations of his parents, he talked about his first stabs at writing, his mother "publishing" his first book [he was the best selling author of his kitchen], and how he never thought a kid from his world could be a published author.
  • His mom reading him Mark Twain is what really opened his eyes to literature and made him want to be a writer.
  • Ursula Le Guin was his first big supporter and she was one of the first people to buy one of his pieces.
  • We talked at length about the real people he based most of the characters off of.
    • Aunt Irma is a real person.  It was his aunt.  She was the Mexican bowling champ.  And if you have read the book, the fight about Yul Brenner really happened.
    • The Mexican Biker who falls for Vampy...he's a real guy from Aurora!
    • Atomico is based on his cousin.
    • Nayeli is a real girl.  In fact, you can listen to more from Luis and Nayeli on this episode of This American Life from 2003.  Luis is in the process of entertaining offers to turn Into the Beautiful North into a movie. He has always promised Nayeli a cut of the money he would get from a movie version.  He really hopes that happens.
    • Mary Jo the librarian, who tragically passed while working at the library before the book was written, was a real librarian in Kankakee.  Her family is grateful that she now will spend eternity on library shelves.  Luis talked about a beautiful memorial to her that he participated in.
  • That reminds me.  I did ask the question, "Why Kankakaee?" Luis shared his experiences in that city.  Most of what he said was also recounted in the New York Times by him here.  Luis has kept up his affiliation with the community and really feels it is a model city for working with the immigrant community.
  • Much as I said in my review of Into the Beautiful North, Luis talked a lot about how he wanted to take a break from the heavy tomes he had been writing, and instead write a book that "made him laugh everyday as he was working on it," but still bore witness [his biggest drive as a writer] and was thought provoking.  He is honored that the book has had such "legs."  As he said most books are lucky to last 6 weeks.  The Devil's Highway is going on its 10th Anniversary and will have a new edition to honor that out next year, with new text. He said that every time something tragic or newsworthy happens on the border, the book's sales increase.  And now with Into the Beautiful North being an official NEA Big Read approved book, it's is selling well now, a few years after its publication.
  • We talked about the ending and how the entire story is really about Nayeli's hero's quest to become a samurai warrior in her own right.  Luis said that he saw the book's ending not as abrupt, but as the end of Nayeli's journey to become the hero.  The audience [and I] agreed with him.  It is a powerful, epic hero's quest story even without knowing if she was successful in beating out the banditos. In fact, it is more about the quest because of the ending.   
  • We did end the discussion of the book with my question about the unique set up of the book and it's subversive way of tackling the immigration issue.  I commented on how I thought the book would make anyone, from the right or the left, question how they feel about this complex issue.  He shared stories of visiting the border and the "wall," which by the way, is only 600 miles on an over 2,000 mile border, and you can simply walk around it at its end. He talked about the border jumpers and board patrol agents who both love his books.  He also expressed hope that there can be a resolution to this problem.  He thought we were moving in the right direction but then 9/11 put us in reverse.  He also mentioned that we have to solve the drug problems first.  Arms are going into Mexico and drugs are coming out all illegally and it is making everything worse. There is no easy answer, but he is confident there is an answer. He hopes to help to be part of the solution.
  • He ended the night by talking about much of what he is currently working on.  He also told a poignant story about researching his mother's past as a Red Cross Doughnut Dolly on the front lines of WWII and finding pictures of her in a book.  He is working on a historical fiction novel to honor these brave but forgotten women.  He said it will freak out reviewers and fans because there will not be "a single Mexican in the book," but rather he is bearing witness to his American roots.
Overall, he was just a wonderful storyteller who cares passionately about using his work to speak for those who have been forgotten or do not have a platform to speak for themselves.  He is a honorable, good man, but he is also charming and funny.  A rare breed.  If you ever get a chance to see Luis in person, go.

Thank you to Fox Valley Reads for putting on a great program and for allowing me to be a part of it.
Some of the wonderful staff who made the
event possible [with Luis].

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