Event Recap: A House Divided in ‘The Barbarian Nurseries’

Héctor Tobar and California Book Club host John Freeman were joined by special guest Reyna Grande to discuss Tobar’s sweeping, epic novel.

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California Book Club host John Freeman introduced what would become a moving conversation about Héctor Tobar’s The Barbarian Nurseries by talking about the “restorative complexity that emerges in great storytelling and in great works of poetry and art.” After commenting that Tobar has been observing and telling other people’s stories in fiction for over 20 years now, and many more years as a journalist, Freeman praised the “immense compassion and sympathy” that are Tobar’s “trademarks.”

When Tobar joined him, Freeman said that it felt as though the novelist was “shooting for the fences in scale.” The book begins in an almost Shakespearean way with its reference to “a house divided.” In the opening section, we move through eight points of view, including that of Araceli, an undocumented domestic worker who is “the heart” of the novel. Freeman asked, “Did you think, ‘I am going to write the California epic, but I’m going to set it in the suburbs’?”

Tobar confessed that he had had those “grandiose dreams.” He said, “I wanted to write a really big California novel and set it in a very intimate space, the intimate space of a home.” He remarked that he had never read or been taught Shakespeare’s oeuvre, and when he was writing The Barbarian Nurseries, he was reading those plays for the first time. He compared this experience to “having your first kiss when you are 30, just discovering something that is so rich and so life-affirming.”

With the novel, Tobar hoped to tell the story of Los Angeles as set against the anti-immigrant movement. He started writing it out of anger at the time that the first protests related to Proposition 187 were taking place. Prop. 187 was a 1994 ballot initiative to deny services to undocumented immigrants in California, including access to hospital services and public schools.

Tobar explained, “I wanted to tell a story of the hugeness of the city that I had seen as a reporter.… As a reporter for the L.A. Times, for the metro section, I got to see all different kinds of life of the city. I’d go to Beverly Hills for political fundraisers. I’d go to the criminal courts and jails. I’d be present at drive-by shootings. I’d go to South Central Los Angeles, some of the poorest neighborhoods. I covered homelessness.… The panorama and scope of the city are what I was trying to capture in The Barbarian Nurseries.”

Freeman brought on special guest Reyna Grande. He recommended her new book, A Ballad of Love and Glory, which will be out in March. When Grande joined Freeman and Tobar, she began by speaking about what an honor it was to have written the foreword for the 10th-anniversary edition of Tobar’s novel. She said that things have not changed significantly in the discussion around immigration since he wrote the book. She asked Tobar to talk about his hope that the novel would lead to a little bit of change, that it might lead readers to reflect about the country we want to be, and concluded with sadness, saying, “And yet, here we are, and we’re still a divided nation.”

Tobar responded that it would be hard for him to write the novel today, because he had had a lighthearted spirit when he wrote it. “Araceli is indocumentada, but she rolls with it in a way. She’s very angry but at the same time sort of carefree.” He’d “imagined back then that very quickly my novel would become dated, that it would be like a relic from the American past, and that the Aracelis of the world would get their status, get their green cards, and go on to become United States citizens.” He didn’t know that the debates would drag on for 10 years and grieved that they now look as though they might drag on for 10 more.

Grande remarked that she is fascinated by Tobar’s ability to write both fiction and journalism, given the differences between the types of writing. She asked him about the ways in which being a journalist has both helped and hurt him as a fiction writer.

Tobar answered, “Journalism really helped me a lot as a fiction writer because it took me outside of my world and it put me in all these situations where I had to observe other people. And it taught me a basic lesson, which is the lesson of ‘the surprise of the real.’ So when you’re a reporter and you go out to a homeless camp, or you go out to a home in Beverly Hills, something’s going to surprise you, and that’s what you pass on to the reader, that sense of surprise.”

He remarked that the challenge of daily newspaper reporting is that it is “very anti-metaphor” and “anti-symbolism.” His editors would make fun of him or resist his language. But, he said, becoming a novelist did help his journalism: “Because I learned to write about ambiguity and situations that were not clear-cut…. Now I interview people like a novelist. I want to know the whole person, not just the person who is a survivor, not just the person who has some sort of fact to tell me. I want to know the whole person.”

Next month, the California Book Club’s selection is the finely calibrated short story collection Likes. Author Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, host John Freeman, and a special guest will be in conversation on January 20 at 5 p.m. Please mark it on your calendars and plan to join us!•

Anita Felicelli, Alta Journal’s California Book Club editor, is the author of the novel Chimerica and Love Songs for a Lost Continent, a short story collection.
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