California Book Club: Héctor Tobar Transcript

Read a lightly-edited transcript of author Héctor Tobar's conversation with California Book Club host John Freeman and guest Reyna Grande.

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David L. Ulin: Good evening, everyone. How are you? I'm David L. Ulin. I'm the books editor of Alta Journal, and welcome to this month's installment of Alta's California Book Club. Tonight, we will be discussing Héctor Tobar's novel, The Barbarian Nurseries, but before that, just a few opening program notes. For those of you who are new to the event, don't know the California Book Club or Alta, Alta is a quarterly journal on California arts and culture and history and life, West Coast culture and literature and life, with an active web presence, including weekly book reviews and other cultural and literary coverage. One of our functions here is the California Book Club, which was started a little over a year ago, where every month, we gather and talk about a significant California book with the author. It's a rare opportunity to go deep on what we might call the new California Canon. So we're delighted you're all here to join us tonight.

I want to first thank our partners, Book Passage, Books Inc., Books Shop, DIESEL; A Bookstore, The Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, the Los Angeles Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, Narrative Magazine, Vromans Bookstore, and Zyzzyva. And I want to also remind you that we have a sale for California Book Club members. For just $50, you'll get a year of Alta Journal, you'll get the CBC book tote bag, which is this handsome fella right here, which I know I'm an aficionado of tote bags, this is a really good one. Zippers and Velcro, as I've said before, and lots of space for all of your books, and you'll also receive one of the upcoming California Book Club titles.

Take advantage of the California Book Club sale and receive four issues of Alta Journal and a CBC tote bag for just $50.

Watch tomorrow's thank you email for a link to this deal. Also, I want to remind everyone to visit the California Book Club Clubhouse after the event tonight to keep the conversation going. This is a space for California Book Club members to dig even deeper into The Barbarian Nurseries, share questions to discuss tonight's event, and also to discuss upcoming California Book Club books. You'll find links to sign up for the clubhouse in the comment section and in tomorrow's email. So now, I'd like to turn this over to my colleague, John Freeman, who's the host of California Book Club who will be interviewing tonight's guest, Héctor Tobar. John, welcome to tonight's book club show.

John Freeman: Thank you, David. Hello, everyone. Happy almost holidays or happy holidays, if they've started for you. What a year? What a long year? It's been such a journey for us to have you along on this quest to remap the literary landscape of California with these amazing 12 points of light that we've chosen in the last year, and I think in the grips of all kinds of rather sometimes frustrating dialogues happening in the public space, this one hopefully is a comforting one in the sense that I believe that there's a restorative complexity that emerges in great storytelling and in great works of poetry and art that we can step into our fullest selves when we're with these books and talking to the authors.

So not only is this a literary errand to celebrate the best of the new writing coming from and about California, it's one of the spirit. I hope it's one of civic space. And given the kind of state that California is, it also means that we're talking about the dream. We have to kind of re-verify the supposed dream being dreamed and re-dream the supposedly verified about California and these books have really made that possible and I don't think a writer on this list though exemplifies the ability of storytelling and observing and telling people's stories quite so well as Héctor Tobar. Many of you, and if you're dialing in from Los Angeles, might know him as a former LA Weekly reporter, LA Times journalist who won his Pulitzer covering the early uprising in 1992. Also, overseas bureau chief in Mexico City. He also reported from Argentina, but he's been observing and telling stories. He's been bringing the of lives Latinx people into books for over 20 years now.

I first came across his work when I read this extraordinary book, Translation Nation, which is a Latinx journey, LA to Tocqueville around the United States, stopping in communities where Latinx people are living from Nebraska to Idaho, down through the deep South. Héctor talks to them and tells their stories with the immense compassion and sympathy that are his trademarks. Never guiding, always just simply listening, and that's been a hallmark of Héctor's work over the years, his ability to tell stories on the behalf of others. To be the storyteller, it's something that he talked about when he went to Guatemala for the first time in his 20s and realized that suddenly, he writes about this in Alta, he was the storyteller and in his first novel, The Tattooed Soldier, he tells the story of a man haunted by the violence that he left behind in Guatemala, and its dictatorship, which claimed the lives of his family. Suddenly he comes across the man who took those lives, in Los Angeles. It's an extraordinary book. If you've loved this one, I recommend going back to it.

When the 33 Chilian miners who were trapped, and ultimately saved and rescued, and decided to work together to have their story told, they turned to Hector to tell that story, for reasons that will be obvious tonight. I think there's something at work in a similar way with Barbarian Nurseries. This extraordinary book we're here to talk about; this sort of California, epic, a kind of rewriting of the suburban novel.

A story of a house divided, Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson, a couple. Scott, being the son of a first-generation Mexican immigrant to Los Angeles, is drifting away from his roots. He's overly stretched financially. Maureen is feeling, somehow, like she hasn't really done enough to make the household that they're living in, up in the hills in Orange County, in a gated community. They've had to lay off two thirds of the people that work at their house, all of them undocumented, leaving Araceli the heart of this novel, who Hector, in the most amazing 19th-century way, comes in and brings to life.

I think that's a great place to start, because I haven't come across a character quite like her, with her depth, in the 10 years since this book came out. It's such a pleasure to be with him tonight, to celebrate her, and also later to be talking with his good friend, Reyna Grande, as well. Hector.

Héctor Tobar: Hello. Hello, hi. Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. And thank you for that wonderful introduction, John, and thank you to everyone at Alta, and to David and Reyna for here. I love all of you and your work at Alta magazine, and thank you so much for making me part of this monthly party that you have. I'm just so gratified to be here.

Freeman: Well, your book came up, immediately, once we started meeting. I should say that these books are all chosen by a panel of California fans of California literature, including Oscar Villalon, and Danzy Senna, Marissa Lopez, Paul Yamazaki, Lynell George, and David, of course. We had a hard time choosing, because we were fans of all of your books, including your latest, The Last Great Road Bum. But there's something special about this book. It feels like it captures not just a time and a mythic division of labor within a household, but it feels like you really are shooting for the fences in scale. It begins almost Shakespearean. There's references to the house divided. In the first opening segment, you very delicately and deftly move through about eight points of view, but we gradually land on Araceli as the heart. Did you think I am going to write the California epic, but I'm going to set it in the suburbs? What was your goal?

Tobar: Yeah, I have to confess to those grandiose dreams. Absolutely. I wanted to write a really big California novel and set it in a very intimate space, the intimate space of a home. It's funny you mentioned Shakespeare, because I had a very poor, Southern California public education, so I had never really read or been taught Shakespeare's oeuvre the way that my kids, for example, are learning it today in our times. But back in the 1970s and 80s in Southern California schools, I had not really read Shakespeare. So when I was writing The Barbarian Nurseries, I was reading most of Shakespeare's oeuvre for the first time, and that's why there's so much Shakespeare thrown in there. It's like having your first kiss when you're 30 or something. Just discovering something that's so rich and so life affirming.

So, yeah, I wanted to tell the story of Los Angeles, and also this was a novel set against the anti-immigrant movement. I remember starting to write it at about the time that the first protests were taking place against Proposition 187, which you'll remember was this initiative, that eventually passed, to deny services to undocumented immigrants in the state of California; including hospital services, including public schools. So I was just very angry, especially when I sat to write down my first draft.

Then I wanted to tell the story of the hugeness of this city, that I had seen as a reporter. I'm a kid from a few different LA neighborhoods, including South Whittier. Like Scott Torres, I was raised in South Whittier. I'm also from East Hollywood and Montebello. I had become a reporter, and as a reporter for the LA Times with the Metro section, I got to see all different kinds of life in the city. I'd go to Beverly Hills for political fundraisers. I'd go to the criminal courts and the jails. I'd be present at drive-by shootings. I'd go to South Central Los Angeles, some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city; I covered homelessness. So that sense of the panorama and scope of the city is what I was trying to capture in The Barbarian Nurseries.

Freeman: And all of those elements are present in this book, and actually in the house itself. There's two things at work here, which is all of elements that you're describing about Los Angeles work laterally across the book as it moves across the city, but also within the house, given who comes to service the house and its needs, and who's working within the house. Aside from homelessness, these factors are all there. I find that your ability to do both at the same time, really, really impressive. I wonder if you can talk a bit about that, because typically with a novel there's scope and then there's domestic.

Tobar: Right.

Freeman: You are kind of doing both, and I wonder what you're saying in that juxtaposition?

Tobar: Well, I was trying to teach myself to do both. I feel the scope, the panorama of the city, was something that came natural to me. What didn't come natural was writing about family. So at about the same time I was reading Shakespeare, I was reading Chekhov, and I was reading Alice Monro. I was reading Cheever, John Cheever. I was reading all of the masters of domestic spaces in fiction, to teach myself how to do that. I was greatly aided by the fact that, as I was writing this book, my wife and I were raising our children; our first, second and third children. So the book has three children because my family has three children. My children are all sort of grown up now, but two sons and a daughter; that was my household.

And not only that, I was really aided by the fact that I have family, who've worked as domestics. I have a late aunt, my mother briefly worked cleaning houses. I know what it's like to be the small outsider in the larger, white, upper middle class space. But also, for a time I lived in Latin America; you mentioned I was a foreign correspondent, and my wife and I lived in a house with servants, with multiple servants. We even had a driver. I didn't give Scott and Maureen a driver, but when we lived in Buenos Aires, we had a driver; somebody we could call up and he would take us anywhere we wanted to go.

So I lived both that other side; that side of comfort and being pampered. When Araceli sees the boys' bedroom and sees all the wonders in it, that's me; me seeing my children's bedroom when we lived in Buenos Aires or Mexico City. All the things in it, and thinking of it as the room of a thousand wonders, [foreign language]. So I really tried very, very hard to create this sense of domesticity, and to work at creating the textures of it. The everyday feel of the cycles of work in a household in which there's hired help.

Freeman: And it begins with mowing the lawn. I wonder if you can give us a little taste from the opening pages?

Tobar: Oh, sure. Yes. This is the opening to the novel, and it came to me about that time that these demonstrations were taking place against Proposition 187. Way back in the early 90s is when I first wrote the first pages of what, later, would become The Barbarian Nurseries many years later. So I imagined if they kicked all the Mexicans out, what would it be like for someone, an upper middle class person, to cut his own grass? So I will read this.

Scott Torres was upset because the lawn mower wouldn't start, because no matter how hard he pulled at the cord, it didn't begin to roar. His exertions produced only a brief flutter of the engine, like the cough of a sick child, and then an extended silence filled by the buzzing of two dragonflies doing figure eights over the uncut St. Augustine grass. The lawn was precocious, ambitious, eight inches tall, and for the moment it could entertain jungle dreams of one day shading the house from the sun. The blades would rise as long as he pulled at the cord and the lawn mower coughed. He gripped the cord's plastic handle, paused and leaned forward to gather breath and momentum, and tried again. The lawn mower roared for an instant, spit a clump of grass from its jutting black mouth, and stopped. Scott stepped back from the machine and gave it the angry everyman stare of fatherliness frustrated, of a handyman being unhandy.

Araceli, his Mexican maid, watched him from the kitchen window, her hands covered with a white bubble-skin of dishwater. She wondered if she should tell el señor Scott the secret that made the lawn mower roar. When you turned a knob on the side of the engine, it made starting the machine as easy as pulling a loose thread from a sweater. She had seen Pepe play with this knob several times. But no, she decided to let el señor Scott figure it out himself. Scott Torres had let Pepe and his chunky gardener's muscles go: she would allow this struggle with the machine to be her boss's punishment.

El señor Scott opened the little cap on the mower where the gas goes in, just to check. Yes, it has gas. Araceli had seen Pepe fill it up that last time he was here, on that Thursday two weeks ago when she almost wanted to cry because she knew she would never see him again.

Pepe never had any problems getting the lawn mower started. When he reached down to pull the cord it caused his bicep to escape his sleeve, revealing a mass of taut copper skin that hinted at other patches of skin and muscle beneath the old cotton shirts he wore. Araceli thought there was art in the stains on Pepe's shirts; they were an abstract expressionist whirlwind of greens, clayish ocher, and blacks made by grass, soil, and sweat. A handful of times she had rather boldly brought her lonely fingertips to these canvases. When Pepe arrived on Thursdays, Araceli would open the curtains in the living room and spray and wipe the squeaky clean windows just so she could watch him sweat over the lawn and imagine herself nestled in the protective cinnamon cradle of his skin: and then she would laugh at herself for doing so. I am still a girl with silly daydreams. Pepe's disorderly masculinity broke the spell of working and living in the house and when she saw him in the frame of the kitchen window she could imagine living in the world outside, in a home with dishes of her own to wash, a desk of her own to polish and fret over, in a room that wasn't borrowed from someone else.

Araceli enjoyed her solitude, her apartness from the world, and she liked to think of working for the Torres-Thompson family as a kind of self-imposed exile from her previous, directionless life in Mexico City. But every now and then she wanted to share the pleasures of this solitude with someone and step outside her silent California existence, into one of her alternate daydream lives: she might be a midlevel Mexican government functionary, one of those tough, big women with a mean sense of humor and a leonine, rust-tinted coiffure, ruling a little fiefdom in a Mexico City neighborhood; or she might be a successful artist or maybe an art critic. Pepe figured in many of her fantasies as the quiet and patient father of their children, who had chic Aztec names such as Cuitlahuac and Xbchitl. In these extended daydreams Pepe was a landscape architect, a sculptor, and Araceli herself was ten kilos thinner, about the weight she had been before coming to the United States, because her years in California had not been kind to her waistline.

All of her Pepe reveries were over now. They were preposterous but they were hers, and their sudden absence felt like a kind of theft. Instead of Pepe she had el señor Scott to look at, wrestling with the lawn mower and the cord that made it start. At last, Scott discovered the little knob. He began to make adjustments and he pulled at it again. His arms were thin and oatmeal-colored; he was what they called here "half Mexican," and after twenty minutes in the June sun his forearms, forehead, and cheeks were the glowing crimson of McIntosh apples. Once, twice, and a third time el señor Scott pulled at the cord, turning the knob a little more each time, until the engine began to kick, sputter, and roar. Soon the air was green with flying grass, and Araceli watched the corner of her boss's lips rise in quiet satisfaction. Then the engine stopped, the sound muffled in an instant, because the blade choked on too much lawn.

So that's the opening to my novel The Barbarian Nurseries. Thank you.

Freeman: I'm so, so I happy to hear you read that section because we get to hear, from the very beginning, the extraordinary richness of Araceli's point of view. She grew up in Mexico City, as you sort of hint there, and she studied to be an artist like you did going to UC Santa Cruz, in Irvine,. But you've written and talked about previously that your own father had artistic sentiments. And I wonder what happens, or why you put these into her body and her mind, and what that does to the book right now, and also when you were writing it.

Tobar: Well, yeah, she is my alter ego. Araceli is me. She is an intellectual trapped in the body of a servant, and that's the way I felt growing up. I think that's the way I felt until The Barbarian Nurseries came out and was translated into French. Then I went to Paris, and when I had the Parisian literary journalistic establishment asking questions about this novel, I realized maybe I really am an artist. Because I grew up in a family where being an artist, being a writer, wasn't a career path. I never remotely imagined I would become a writer, even though it was clear from an early age I wrote well. So, yeah, Araceli is that creation. It's my desire; she is expressing my desire to be taken seriously as a writer, as an artist.

This whole book is an effort. It is many, many years of effort, of me trying to become a respected literary writer in my own head; trying to teach myself how a domestic, how a citywide novel should be written. So very much, every page was a battle to elevate the prose. That opening I read, I can't remember how many drafts of that I wrote. I must have written 10, 15, 20 drafts, tinkering it with over and over again; tinkering with it. So there is a lot of hunger there. There's hunger to be taken seriously, hunger to reach as high as I can reach with the descriptions. Giving myself all sorts of good challenges. I remember when I started writing the novel, I thought I'm going to have like a hundred Latino characters in this, I'm going to need a hundred synonyms for brown. I want to just say "brown skin." So I went through cinnamon, mocha, copper; I went through them all and I eventually started to use phrases, make up phrases for brown. So yeah, a lot of me is in Araceli.

Freeman: Yeah, there's a lot of compound nouns and adjectives. When I was reading, I thought of Jorge Amado who the Portuguese language in Brazil once had an exhibit of his work. They had on one wall, every description of brown skin he had used.

Tobar: Wow.

Freeman: And it covered the wall. It was utterly beautiful. I'm glad you brought up French, because when I was rereading it this time, I couldn't help but think of the 19th-century French novelists who were working at a time when the novel brought the news, to some degree. Zola in particular, writing about coal mining strikes, and the life of the city, in a way, was brought to in fiction, in novels. I wonder what you think about that as a novelist.

Tobar: Yeah.

Freeman: Because while you're also working on the level of high art, you're also, in a very old-fashioned but wonderfully contemporary way, bringing the news. Of course, if you are bringing the news in reaction to, I grew up in California in the 90s too, so I remember the hideousness of the Prop 187 debates. If you're reacting to idiocy, then you have to suddenly do very basic things like prove someone like Araceli is a human.

Tobar: Right.

Freeman: I wonder how you balance that desire to bring the news, reach high art, and not react to something that causes you to prove a very basic truth, which is that Mexican people are human too.

Tobar: Right. Well you mentioned the French novelists, and you mentioned this idea of the novel bringing the news, and you have to remember that's my origin as a writer. I was a newspaper reporter. As a newspaper reporter, I would remember going around the city, and I would be going to parts of the city that no one else went to unless they lived there. So that idea of being a witness and being a correspondent, even within a city itself is, to me, very, very much the way I grew up as a writer. And I sort of still feel that way.

Part of the joy of reading a work of fiction or a work of nonfiction, is this idea that the writer has born witness to something. So yeah, that definitely informed a big part of what I was doing. All the scenes in the novel of the city. The train ride past the homeless camps; South Central Los Angeles, the garment district; all those places that Araceli visits. The jail. I went to the LA city, excuse me, LA county jail, more than once as a reporter, and the sort of maze that I describe is the maze that's in the jail. The courthouse; I've seen undocumented people go get deported from the jail. All those things are things that I witnessed. Now the other part of it though, yes. I think that one of the more difficult parts of writing this kind of novel is that you can very easily become very, very polemical and very argumentative. In fact, the first draft I wrote of this novel was read by my first agent, the late great Virginia Barber, and she told me, "Hector, this is too polemical," and it was. I had written it before I had family. So part of my task in rewriting what would eventually become The Barbarian Nurseries, was to make it more real.

Would eventually become the barbarian nurseries, was to make it more real to make it more about a family. To render that family in multi dimensions. And so yeah, that is really... I always felt that tension because it's just a big danger that this kind of social novel can become very didactic.

Freeman: If you've read the novel, you know after that wonderful opening there's a amazing, almost rolling dolly shot of a birthday party that takes place at the Torres-Thompson house.

Tobar: Right.

Freeman: Stretches almost as long as the deer hunter opening wedding scene. With all the great detail, and you see it from Araceli's perspective, Maureen's perspective, Scott's perspective, the guest perspective. And then there's a rupture within the family, and Scott goes off and does something he has to later apologize for. And Maureen leaves. And Araceli is left with the children.

And what she has to figure out to do is very little. She has a photograph of Scott's grandfather who may or may not be alive, but lived on 39th Street. She has the two kids, the two boys with her, Maureen is left with an infant. And so she takes these kids on across town journey, across LA. And the person who will know the most about this journey other than you is Reyna Grande who's here with us.

She grew up and spent time in... She didn't grow up, but she spent time in South Whittier. She spent time in South Central. She knows many of the spots that you're writing about. And also given what she's written about in her amazing memoir, the distance between us, which we talked about earlier this year when she was a guest. She knows the journey that Araceli has undergone because her family did it and she did it. She also by the way has a new novel coming out called a ballot of love and glory, which is truly gorgeous. Reyna, could you come on and talk to Hector for a bit.

Tobar: Yay. Reyna Grande, hooray.

Grande: Hi.

Tobar: There you are, there's your voice.

Grande: Yeah. I was trying... Oh, there you go.

Tobar: There're going to turn on for you-

Grande: Yeah, the video is start to turn on. Hello, Hector.

Good to see you. This is so exciting to get to hear you talk more about your novel. And I just want to say what an honor it was to write the foreword for this 10th anniversary edition.

I couldn't believe when I got your or email asking me if I would do it. I was like, "Wow, me?"

So thank you so much for that. I really enjoyed being able to... I enjoyed it the first time I read it all those years ago when it came out, and then I really enjoyed reading it again. And just being able to sit with it a lot longer and think about what I was going to say about the book. And I had questions while I was reading it that I really wanted to ask you, and now I'm so glad I get to do that.

So some questions I had, basic... There's of course that question about immigration, about how things have not changed a whole lot since you wrote the book and it, it it's, it's so heartbreaking, you know, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that, you know, that, that, that, that, that those conflicting feelings, right?

Because when you wrote the book, you hope that, that your book would, would lead to at least a little bit of change or inspire us to, to self reflect about what kind of country wanted to be and try to make some changes. And yet here we are, and we're still a divided nation.

Tobar: Yeah, it would be really hard for me to write the barbarian nurseries today because I really had a very lighthearted spirit in that novel. Araceli [foreign language], but she rolls with it in a way, she's very angry but at the same time carefree in her own way.

And I had imagined back then that very quickly my novel would become dated, that it would be like a relic from the American past. And that Araceli would... The Araceli's of the world would get their status, get their green cards and go on to become US citizens. Unknowing that this was going to drag on for another 10 years longer. And it looks like it might drag on for another even 10 years more, where the people who were young adults when I wrote my novel, undocumented young adults, are now approaching middle age.

And so that's very, very hurtful, but it just feels also more relevant than ever. Because the novel really isn't just about Araceli being undocumented, it's about class, social class in Los Angeles, in California.

And how we construct these identities, this idea of the difference of peoples, of undocumented and documented, legal, illegal, whatever, to justify these inequalities.

And my novel really attempted to be a portrait of a city that was stratified, all the different... There's many, many different kinds of Latino, Latinx identity in this novel. Many different kinds of Latino people, there's... I have a Latino intellectual blogger in there who makes fun of the Latino intellectual class.

And so it's wonderful what's happened in the last 10 years in terms of I think Latino people are much more part of the civic discussion in California than they were back, you know, 10, 15, 20 years ago when I first started writing the novel, but it's also really troubling how long this has dragged out and how there are people who have lived 10, 20, 30, 40 years as undocumented people.

Grande: Yeah, and I think there's something to be said too about the Latino writer, there's been some really great things happening in literature, in the writing community, that have benefited Latino writers.

But not a lot has changed also since 10 years ago when this book came out in terms of what opportunities do Latino writers have?

Tobar: Yeah, I think my books have always been an attempt to expand the idea of what Latino writers can do. Like my last novel, my most recent novel, the last grade road bum, it's about a white guy. And it's about a mid-western family in addition to being about the Salvador and Civil War.

And so I took on something that not a lot of Latino writers feel that they would have quote unquote permission to do. And I know a lot of young Latino writers get advice that tells them... They get this advice from agents, from people at writers conferences, in classrooms, telling them to write a certain kind of story, focus on a certain kind of story. And I've always tried to blow up the idea of what we can do.

And of course, Reyna, you just did this in your last novel. Your novel that's coming out, which I had great honor to read, has Irish immigrants in it. And you did an incredible job of reconstructing this Irish, US identity, the identity of these immigrants. And all the work you did, the research you did to reconstruct their Irishness was... I was so blown away by that.

And that's what I tried to do in the barbarian nurseries, was to say, "Look, I cannot just create Latino characters. I'm going to create this..." Maureen is from Missouri, there's African American characters in the novel. There is a Korean woman character in the novel briefly.

And the novel really is very political, underneath this domestic story there's a lot of strong political messages. And so I just... Yeah, I've all always seen myself as someone trying to stretch the boundaries of what we're supposed to do as Latino writers.

Grande: Yeah, and I think that was also something that I enjoyed in the book is that you ventured out into writing from a female perspective. So that can be tricky. And I know having written this novel that has some male protagonist, I struggle with that, trying to capture what the world looks like from a male perspective.

So what was it like for you when you switched, then you were writing from a female perspective?

Tobar: Well, I was very careful. And part of it is that like you, I went to UC Santa Cruz. And I remember when I showed up as a 17 year old from Eastern LA County at UC Santa Cruz with my ideas of what men and women's roles were in society, that I had the feminists of UC Santa Cruz kick my ass and explain to me the way the world really worked.

And so I think that really taught me something very important, which was to recognize my blind spots. And so with Araceli, I'd ask myself again and again, "What am I not seeing?" Like I said before, I was helped a lot by the fact that we had many women working in our house. And when we lived in Mexico especially I would have conversations with... And my wife and I, we would get to know these women very, very well.

Sometimes we went out to their villages in the outskirts of Mexico City. And I remember also I met a very tall Mexicana once when I was working in Mexico City, and I asked her, "What's it like to be tall?" Tall Mexicana.

And I forgot what she told me, but I did incorporate that notion of Araceli being this tall, lumbering kind of person.

So I worked really hard at it. I observed a lot, I observed... Especially observing in my own household, as I said before, just the way my wife would cooperate with... My wife Virginia, Virginia Espino, who's I know watching this call. The way she would work with the women who worked in our house and the way they would develop the symbiosis with each other when they worked well together. All of that, it was very... This was partly why it took me almost 10, 15 years to finish this novel.

Grande: Wow. Well, when you remember what she told you about what it's like to be a tall Mexican woman let me know, because I'm five feet tall, so I'll never know what it's like to be a tall Mexican woman.

Okay, so my last question before I give the floor back to John is I am really fascinated by the fact that as a journalist, as a reporter, you're also able to write fiction, because that doesn't happen all the time with journalists. I think they struggle to switch, because with journalism, in journalism school they always tell you, you are not the story.Tobar: Right. Right.

Tobar: Right. Right.

Grande: Right. And also in terms of structure, you have to write your articles where you put all the important information at the beginning in case your article gets cut at the end.

So with a novel it's the opposite, because the novel has to have a lot of buildup and it's you're leading to that climax. And then also in the novel you have to be able to embody those characters.

So I'm really fascinated by your ability to do both, to be a journalist and to be a novelist. So what has been challenging for you switching and how has it helped you to be a journalist, and in what ways has it hurt you, hurt your fiction to be a journalist?

Tobar: Yeah, I think 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, you go out to a home in Beverly Hills or whatever, something's going to surprise you. And that's what you pass on to the reader, that sense of surprise.

And so I incorporated that into my fiction, the sense of the awe. The sense of wonder of going to a new place is something that... I constantly rely on that, because I know that's what engages the reader. The hard part is that in journalism, journalism is anti... Daily newspaper writing is very anti-intellectual, it's anti- metaphor, it's anti-symbolism.

So when you try to use that in daily journalism very often I would get made fun of by my editors or whatever, or they would resist my language.

But I have to say that being them, becoming a novelist helped my journalism tremendously because I learned to write about ambiguity, situations that were not clear cut. I learned to write more textured, create more textured worlds and to observe more as a nonfiction writer. It helped me tremendously when I wrote this Chilean miners book because I had learned to think like a novelist. And so I would interview. Now I interview people like a novelist. I want to know the whole person, not just the person who's a survivor, not just the person who has some sort of fact to tell me. I want to know the whole person when I interview somebody. And that is something that I learned from being a novelist.

Grande: Great. Well, thank you so much, Hector.

Tobar: Thank you, Reyna.

Grande: I'm so glad to be here and to listen to you, and I'm learning so much from you and from your work.

Tobar: Thank you. Thank you, and congratulations on the new book coming up.

Grande: Thank you.

Freeman: All right, I've made my window extremely small. I'm about the size of a thumbnail, but it was really great to hear the two of you talk because of the way that your work is connected.

And as we've been talking, a lot of people have been picking up on the metaphor within the title of the book, the barbarian nurseries.

Because on top of everything else that Hector's doing, that we've already talked about in this book, there's also an ecology within the book as a metaphor, of a transplanted garden being ripped up and replanted. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about why you chose the title and what it means as the book evolves.

Tobar: Yeah, the title is a play on the two senses of the word nursery. A nursery is a place where you raise children or where you raise plants. And in Los Angeles, in Southern California, both of those jobs, the tending of gardens and the raising of children, both of those jobs very often involve Latino immigrants. And what is the dominant image of the Latino immigrant let's say in cable news when I was writing the novel?

Well, is of [the] barbaras. The barbaras immigrant, the person who is uneducated or violent. This poor, dumb peasant who has to work in these hard labor jobs or the person who is dangerous. And so it's the barbarian, the barbarian nurseries means the barbarians who raise our children's and the barbarians who tend to our gardens and plants. In the American imagination that they are barbaras people.

Freeman: As the book progresses and Araceli works her way across town, of course I don't think it gives too much away to say that the absence of the two boys is noted and then becomes a story in and of itself. That runs out of control.

And I think as a journalist you must have seen this kind of thing all the time, if not specifically about a non abduction called an abduction, tropes that are deployed and news stories that that must have just set your teeth on edge.

I wonder if you can read a bit from that section of the book as-

Tobar: Yeah.

Freeman: The story runs away from the reality of what's actually happening, which is that Araceli's really simply trying to keep these boys safe.

Tobar: Right, right. So the passage here that's the case was a troubling mystery, that passage that you're... The third one you had mentioned before.

So yeah, this becomes a subject, Araceli is missing with these three children and then she's found. And it becomes as I say here;

The case was a troubling mystery, said the NBC television affiliate reporter, a portrait of gray-haired youthfulness, well known to Southern Californians for the calm urgency of his reporting on the edge of brush fires, mud slides, and assorted gangland crime scenes.

We really don't know what shape those boys are in or what they went through. We don't know if this Mexican nanny will be charged with anything. We don't know what exactly her intentions were, the reporter said, summarizing all he didn't know when his affiliate patched him into the networks national cable feed. For several hours, the repeated transmissions of Araceli's blurred backyard photograph were juxtaposed with the footage of the searches and lines at the border, and of Araceli being tackled. And of the gleaming white home in the neighborhood most often described with the adjectives exclusive, hillside, and gated.

As interest in the story deepened in the early Eastern daylight time evening on national cable news, the class of professional tragedy pundits chimed in. They were former prosecutors and defense attorneys who specialized in taking small bites of nebulous information and chewing on them until they became opinions and insights based on what my gut tells me.

Some opined why not on what they believed they knew about Mexican women and the well-off families that could afford to place their children in the care of foreigners.

These comments intermingled with those of faceless callers to nationwide toll free lines for whom Araceli grew into a figure of menace and dread, while Maureen and Scott became objects of pity splashed with a touch of envy and populous scorn.

There's a good reason to stay at home and be a mom and not leave your kids with a Mexican girl, even if you can afford one for 10 bucks a day, a caller opined in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Speaking to the women of the flaring nostrils, who nodded gravely. In those American homes where Mexican, Guatemalan, and Peruvian women actually worked, mothers and fathers digested the news and looked across their freshly dusted living rooms and tautly made beds and gave their hired help a closer look.

They asked themselves questions that they usually suppressed because the answers were in practice unknowable. Where is this woman from and how much do I really know about her?

Freeman: I love that the book is capacious enough to have all these different registers within it, so that you're even commenting on the pot boiler nature of the story as it's reported. There's some questions been coming in from the audience, and I want to bring in a few of them. One of them is just... Several people have asked, Kathleen among them, if you've ever considered a sequel about Araceli, because I think there could be stories there.

Tobar: I haven't really thought of a sequel, mostly because I really like the ending and I like the ambiguity of the ending, whether or not she goes to Mexico and stays in the United States.

Whoops, I'm giving away the ending. I like the ending because it captures something about being Latino in te US.

But I have thought about giving her cameos in other novels that I'm writing. So Araceli might make a cameo in another novel I've written, but I haven't actually thought of a sequel yet, no.

Freeman: The other thing I thought about rereading this book was just how opposite her journey is to some degree to the character in the last great road bum, who's an adventurer, who leaves and travels by choice. Who inserts himself into history by force of will and desire and curiosity, whereas to some degree, she travels by force of necessity, both to in the United States and then, also across town. And I wonder if you've ever thought about these journeys as Janice faces to not overly simplified, but a certain American motion.

Tobar: Yeah. I mean, I think that makes a lot of sense. I had not really thought of them that way, but I think that definitely, they both are attempts to tell certain kinds of odysseys. The internal odyssey of the megalopolis of Los Angeles and all the worlds that it contains.

And then, Joe Sanderson in my most recent novel, The Last Great Road Bum, that just, the odyssey literally around the globe twice. Literally talking his way into a war. I mean, Joe becomes a soldier in a war in El Salvador, fighting with the rebels.

And I think it speaks to my own desire to be in all these different places and to be in these worlds. And just the wonder of being a writer and being able to imagine all these different worlds. And so, yeah, I never really thought about that, but they are really definitely two sides of the same of same kind of desire.

Freeman: I've had the good fortune to work with you a couple times on some nonfiction pieces, most recently for an anthology about the protests and uprisings of last summer in the context of a long liberationist movement within the United States, which is being pushed back against by a very anti-liberationist movement for how to define what a citizen is. Who deserves care and safety.

And one thing I was quite struck by your contribution in that, is just the almost spiritual nature to the way you threw your voice up into the sky and looked down on what was happening. How would these protests look from the heavens almost? I mean, that's one way I looked at the piece you wrote. And there's a similar aspect of grace that comes up in Deep Down Dark. And I wonder, as you go deeper into your writing career, if you come to face challenges, not just of craft and style, of voice and your ability to imagine, but your ability to reckon with something that is on the scale of the spirit.

Tobar: Yeah. I think that this is you get older, your kids grow up. When I started trying to write fiction, none of my kids have been born yet. And now they're all readers themselves. Two of them are in their 20s, one is about to graduate high school. And I find myself thinking a lot about this spot of earth that occupy, Southern California. And its place in the history of humanity and where we're headed.

And we're living in a really dark time in the United States. We're living in a time of these incredible divisions. I think both you and I, we grew up in times of great optimism. We live this time of American growth and possibility. We saw the creation of a diverse country. We have memories of the tail end of Jim Crow.

And in my case, I can remember the kind of discrimination that ordinary Mexican American, Latino people faced that they don't face so much anymore, unless they're undocumented. And so, to see that world now where we are. I mean, it has placed me in a space of deep reflection. And history is always very, very important in my work. And as you get older, your sense of the depth of human experience through time, it really becomes this incredible palette for you as a writer.

As things get more troubled in this country, I think I enjoy being a writer more because I feel more relevant than ever. I feel like in fiction, in nonfiction, in these literary forms, we are able to touch on these questions of justice and injustice and of the soul, in ways that other people can't in other forms.

Freeman: And you mentioned history. I would like to bring Reyna back on for one last question. I'm sure she has one in her pocket. Just simply because her new novel, which is called a Ballot of Love and Glory, is coming out in March. It borrows from a line from John Greenleaf Whittier's poem in which he mentions a Mexican woman named [Himane].

And I wonder Reyna, if you had a question for Héctor about working in these times and what you can take from, or what you search for in history. Because I saw in the first half of the book of yours I have read, that you're finding something that happened in the past, which maybe wasn't written about, maybe forgotten. And so, you're restoring a Mexican American element to history that perhaps was seen in a unilateral way.

Grande: Yeah, I think, well, for me, writing the novel about the Mexican American war, it came from a place of anger because I was angry that in California schools or schools across the country, we don't study the Mexican American war. Children don't grow up knowing anything about it.

And as a Mexican immigrant, when I came to live in California, I was always made to feel like a foreigner, like an outsider. I was made to feel ashamed about my Mexican roots and my Spanish tongue. And it wasn't until I went to UC Santa Cruz that I learned about the Mexican American war. And I realized how much it would've helped me as a child, knowing that the state of California was once part of Mexico. And that Spanish was spoken here before English was spoken here.

Because of that anger, I started to write this book. And I know, Héctor, you talked about anger too. You mentioned earlier about how anger has also encouraged you and motivated you to write about some of these issues, like immigration, like class and all of these things that you write about. And you say that angry is such a powerful fuel for a writer, because you are able to channel it and turn it into something positive.

Tobar: Yeah. I mean as you know, Reyna, writing a novel is such a slow process and it's 99% done in solitude. And so, it takes a certain kind of self-belief and motivation to sit down in front of the keyboard every morning or every evening, depending on which kind of writer you are, and just to keep on doing it. And so to me, that's where the anger comes in. Is the anger comes when I sit, just to get myself going in the morning. The anger, the frustration, sometimes my own sense of inadequacy before all these different kinds of discrimination.

But what you have to do when you become an artist, when you become a writer, is to turn that inside out, as you do in your work. For example, in your wonderful book, the Distance Between Us, what you do with your father. Your father is someone who inflicted traumas on you. And yet, you enter his point of view. You make him into this full human being.

And so, in my work lately, I write very often about people who are evil, people who have done horrible things. And my idea is to enter into the kind of thinking that creates that person. Like in The Tattooed Soldier, my novel which is about a killer. How do I get inside this small person's head, this small person who becomes a killer? And that's the real wonderful justification of the whole genre as an art form, is that you end up turning things inside out and revealing truths that we don't see if we always see things in black and white. Absolutely.

Freeman: There is a call from the audience that someone would like you to be their therapist, Héctor.

Tobar: Well, I was like a therapist when I wrote this book on the Chilean miners, except that I was a therapist who got all these guys to reveal their secrets. And then I told them all the stories of their secrets in a book. A writer is not the kind of therapist you want to have. A therapist who is going to tell the world what you shared with them. But thank you for saying that. I have been through therapy, so I can appreciate that. [crosstalk]

Grande: I have a friend who is a therapist during the day, and she is a writer at night. And she told me that that's where she gets all her ideas for her novels is from her patients.

Tobar: Oh. And there have been therapists. Amy Bloom is a wonderful short story writer and therapist too. There are many people who have done that leap back and forth between those two professions.

Freeman: Have you ever thought, Héctor, of writing a memoir? Reyna's written one that I think has changed the form of memoir in California that can be possibly written.

Tobar: Yeah, absolutely.

Freeman: And no doubt, has given birth to many others. And I'm curious if you ever thought about writing one or if you would shape it differently?

Tobar: I think that there have been bits of memoir in all of my works. All of my works have little bits of me. And I now just finished a nonfiction project, just sent it off to my agent a few weeks ago, which is a nonfiction book that has many elements of memoir in it. I think that what I have learned when I have let little bits of myself out there is the effect that can have on my family. My relationship with my father has not quite recovered from the last New Yorker piece that I did, in which I talked about his young adulthood in California and some of the things that caused my parents to be divorced.

And so it's, yeah, I have thought about it, but I think that I probably will end my career never writing a memoir per se. Instead just treating the episodes of my life, like a garage sale or a swap meet. I've taken little bits and pieces here and there and put them in. And so my new book, which will probably come out in a couple of years, does have a little bit more scenes from here and there of my life, but not a full fledged memoir.

Freeman: Do you support that, Reyna?

Grande: Well, yes and no. But I do think there's a lot of fear when you write memoir because of that, because of how it's going to impact your family.

Tobar: Right.

Grande: And that's also one reason why I wrote novels before I even wrote the memoir. But was because I wanted to write about my experiences, but without exposing myself or my family and making myself so vulnerable on the page.

I hear what you're saying, and I understand where you're coming from. And I think for now, if you are able to still write about yourself, but in your fiction. And if that fulfills you, then I say, yeah, go for it. And maybe, who knows? Maybe 10 years from now, you might change your mind.

Tobar: Yeah. I mean speaking of little bits and pieces, Scott Torres, who is cutting the lawn at the beginning of the novel, is from South Whittier, like I was from south Whittier. And Scott Torres cutting the lawn, well, that was my job when I was growing up in the suburbs, was I had to cut the lawn. That was my chore. And I was the guy who had the trouble getting the lawn mower started. There's tons of stuff like that in my novels.

And there's a little boy who reads too much in the Barbarian Nurseries. And that was inspired a lot by Don Quixote it because I was reading Don Quixote there also, as I was writing the Barbarian Nurseries. And that little boy is a composite of my two boys, of Diego and Dante. Diego, big imagination, Dante big reader. And so, yeah, there's a lot of elements in there that I have taken from my own family life.

Freeman: Susan Berg wants to know if you would change anything if you wrote the book today.

Tobar: The one thing that I think is of the prosecutor, Ian Goller in the novel. And I think I would really spend more time with him. And I think I know that kind of person really well now, even better now. And the funny thing is I've had lawyers come up to me and tell me, "Yeah. I know I met people like that. I met DAs like that." But I really think I would spend a little bit more time with him. And so that, I think I might change that.

There's some parts too that to me feel, rereading them 10, 15 years later, because I wrote a lot of the novel a long time ago, I'm surprised by how satirical I was. It's like, I'd be laughing out loud at something that I wrote and I'm thinking, "Oh my God. How could you do that?" How could I do that? How could I be so satirical? Well, actually, I'm also proud of myself for getting away with it. But yeah.

There's a lot of little things I would choose because that's the thing. I remember Garcia Márquez saying this. They asked him, "When is a novel done?" And he said, "Never." That there were things in One Hundred Years of Solitude that he wanted to change. The book was in gales and finally his publisher told him, "Stop. No, it's over. It's done." All of my books are books that I could continue to revise. And I could definitely continue to revise the Barbarian Nurseries as much as anyone.

Freeman: One final question. The three of us are all products of California public schools.

Tobar: Yes.

Freeman: Different places. And one of the things that makes me enormously happy is knowing that The Distance Between Us and Barbarian Nurseries or Translation Nation are being taught now in high schools. And I'm sure both of you have been to those programs as they've been teaching your book. And I wonder if you had anything that you could tell us about what that experience is like, or what kind of things that the students bring to you, that either trouble you or give you hope or just have delighted you.

Tobar: Reyna, why don't you [crosstalk]?

Grande: Yeah. Well, I think for me, I feel so honored to be able to come into these high schools or middle schools, or sometimes even elementary schools, because I was in my 20s when I met my first writer in person. And I remember when I saw her, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, in person. And I said, "Oh my God, she's real. That means my dream is real too." And it was so empowering.

Being able to come into these schools and meet the students and the high schoolers, the middle schoolers, the little sixth graders, I just want to be there and tell them, " Yes, your dreams are real. They can be real. You got to hold on to them. You got to fight for them."

That's something that I come in with that positive attitude. And I just want the kids to fully embrace their dreams, their goals. And to really fight to become the people that they are meant to be.

Tobar: Yeah, it's wonderful to create that image for someone of what they can do. And I feel that almost every day, not just when I publish a book, but when I teach. I teach at University of California Irvine. And just seeing these future thinkers or these people beginning their careers as thinkers. That to me, is so gratifying to be able to share a little bit of my own journey as a thinker, as a writer.

I've had several times when I have met someone who told me, "Well, your book saved my life." Which blows me away. Especially the Tattooed Soldier, because the Tattooed Soldier is taught so much in universities and community colleges. And it's a really angry and violent book. And I think that's why a lot of young readers really like it.

And so, just meeting them. And this idea that something that I worked on for so long in my solitude could actually help somebody, is a wonderful experience. And also, that you've created a kind of pathway for people to enjoy the rest of literature. Because Reyna, I know you've had this experience of people, it might be the first book that they finished reading in English. A whole first book is your book.

I know that I met a young man once at Pasadena City College, who gave my book to his father, a Salvadoran immigrant. And it was the first book his father had ever read in English. And he told his son, "Now you know what I went through." And that, to me, I mean, I was weeping when he told me that, because it was such an affirmation of the craft of being a writer. Of taking emotions and ideas and facts, and making them into a work of art that people can enjoy. And how liberating that can be. And that can show people possibilities.

And like you, I did not meet a writer until I had graduated from college. I was already in my mid-20s when I've met my first writer in person. And just to be that person and to be able to show somebody those possibilities, it's just a wonderful gift. Absolutely.

Freeman: Well, you've done it again tonight. And it's been such an honor to have you here, Héctor. And to celebrate and talk about Barbarian Nurseries. And Reyna, congratulations on a Ballot of Love and Glory, coming in March.

Grande: Thank you.

Freeman: It's such a pleasure to have you back, and it was a pleasure to have you on the first time. It's a wonderful way to end the year of the book club with you. David, I think you're still here. I think we need you to come back and give us our outro. But thank you, everyone, for coming.

Ulin: Thanks, John. Thanks, Héctor. Thanks, Reyna. That was a remarkable conversation and I agree entirely, what a great way to close out the year of California Book Club. This interview was recorded and will be available at

Next month on Thursday, January 20th, the book club selection will be Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's story collection, Likes. Again, I want to remind everybody of the sale on Alta membership for California Book Club members at And please, if you're willing, participate in a two minute survey that will pop up as soon as we end the event. Stay safe, wear a mask. See you next month. Happy holidays. Take care, everybody. Have a good night.•

The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar
Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
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