Oscar Casares’s short story collection Brownsville (Back Bay, 2003) was an instant hit with critics and readers, establishing Casares as a writer to watch. His follow-up, Amigoland (Little Brown, 2009),w was released in August and met with similar critical acclaim. In the novel, Don Fidencio, a ninety-one-year-old in the eponymous nursing home, has suffered a stroke, and shuns other residents. With incredible determination, Don Fidencio—with the help of his younger brother Don Celestino and his girlfriend Socorro—pursues the kernel of memory that haunts him: the legend of the abduction of his grandfather as a child, by Indians who abandoned him on the American side of the border. Together the three embark on an unauthorized trip to Linares, Mexico, where the family originated. In Casares’s compassionate fictional world, time, place, and memory can be forgiving—with a bit of luck. Casares spoke with Anis Shivani by phone from his office at the University of Texas at Austin. To hear a recording of the full interview, click play below.
Observer: Brownsville seems so powerful now, because although ethnicity is part of it, it’s stripped of a political agenda.
Casares: When you live on the border, where Mexican-Americans are 95 to 96 percent of the population, questions of ethnicity and race aren’t what they are in other parts of the country. The questions become more about class, for instance.
So you didn’t feel the need to explain things, which often turns into exoticism?
No, you’re coming into my world. I’m going to do my job to acclimate you to this new environment, but you have to do your part. If you’re observant and curious, you don’t ask too many questions but just observe and note the differences. By not talking about ethnicity, the stories get beyond that issue and suddenly you’re looking at these people as people and not as an ethnic group.
When you were younger, did you want to write against the politically-charged protest literature of the Chicano Movement writers of the 1960s and 1970s, like Raymond Barrio, Ricardo Sánchez and Richard Vásquez?
I was already in my thirties before I started writing. It wasn’t until I moved from the border that I started hearing terms like Mexican-American and Chicano and Hispanic and all these labels that each came with its own baggage. Brownsville gave me a safe place to get away from talking about the differences and more about the similarities.
What was the genesis of Amigoland? Did it take a while to understand your characters?
It took me a long time to understand my characters. I must have written three or four hundred pages before I had a sense of who they were. The genesis of the novel has to do with the family legend I heard growing up. The story my uncle used to tell was that my great-great-grandfather was living in Northern Mexico, and Indians had attacked this festival he was attending as a child. They took several other children, and the Mexican army was behind them, and when they got to the border, which had just become the United States, they kept going north and they dropped one child, and that child was our great-great-grandfather. My father claimed it never happened, my uncle was making it up. As I got deeper I realized I wanted to write more about this competing mythology of where we came from. I knew this was going to be told by these two older men, and slowly they took shape and became who they are now. I made a tough decision to lose a lot of what I had written to gain clarity.
Brownsville is often about young people, while Amigoland is about people at the end of their lives.
I grew up in a house with much older parents. My Dad was fifty when I was born, my mother was forty-two. In 2004, when my father was ninety-two, he broke his hip and ended up in a nursing home and I found myself helping out whenever I could. My real life had intersected with my fictional narrative. I didn’t want to compromise the story by making it overly sentimental and it took longer because of that.
Don Fidencio has forgotten much, but remembers the most important thing.
A lot of times memory loss happens with incidents closer to the present and the memories that stay with us are the ones that happen to us in formative years. Don Fidencio has a close bond with the grandfather, who is more like a father figure.
In both your books the border is blurred.
I teach a class on the border and we write personal essays. The border is not static. There’s tension because of the wall and the drug war, but in the stories and the novel the notion that you suddenly cross the border into another world and leave everything behind doesn’t exist. People have a wedding in Brownsville and the reception in Matamoros because it’s less expensive. Socorro, the girlfriend of Don Celestino, comes back and forth practically every day. That was what I knew growing up. I was down there recently and it was the first time I needed a passport to get back. It’s changed dramatically—the number of border patrol agents, and the various checkpoints that didn’t exist. It feels like a military state.
So for younger people it might be a sharper line.
I wrote a story for Texas Monthly about the high school soccer team. Before the school bus leaves Brownsville they bring on the sniffing dogs. Then the bus stops at the checkpoint and the inspector walks through. I played sports when I was a kid and I don’t remember drug dogs coming on.
The stereotypical journey of the Mexican is from the south to the north. Amigoland reverses it and the main characters head south.
They do it illegally. They don’t have any papers, only Socorro, a Mexican citizen…
An illegal border crossing in the other direction…
It does put that whole notion on its head. Don Fidencio in his mind owns the mythology, so the question of the crossing matters less to him.
You question the illegality of human beings, how they became abstractions, not people.
In Brownsville I tried not to let it influence the writing but just to get the story down. Then the climate changed greatly. The southern border intensified. The immigration marches took place. As with my father, it became one of the challenges. To write about it honestly but not let it influence too much of the writing.
Don Fidencio gives obnoxious names to people at the nursing home. Why can’t he empathize, as he does with his ancient relative in Mexico?
His mild stroke has impaired his memory so the names, though cruel, are a way of coping. As for the empathy at the end of the novel, there’s also a self-serving agenda to make more out of this trip, which seems on very shaky ground.
Once you have finished the book, it seems impossible to conceive of a different ending for Don Fidencio once he reaches Linares. Did you ever think of one?
Today I was cleaning up my office. I had put up all these Post-It notes to have some visual sense of how the novel was evolving. The notes seemed utterly foreign to me. Again, struggling with my father’s condition, as much as I wanted that not to influence me… Don Celestino is struggling with intimacy all along and the trip forces things to the surface, so that was what I wanted to produce for Don Celestino and Soccoro. With Don Fidencio I didn’t quite know where this was going to end but I knew whatever would happen, it would be on his own terms.
Don Fidencio has a greater need to be liberated…
As the novel opens he has nothing—
None whatsoever. Though Don Celestino’s world is shutting down, he’s still not at the edge of what Don Fidencio is experiencing. At the beginning it looks pretty bleak for him.
And he’s stubborn. The machismo is also present in Brownsville. In Don Fidencio’s case it’s endearing.
This is based on the older men I grew up around, the pride they took in their work, how they took care of their families. In spite of all their flaws this was part of their character, the freedom they had—sometimes too much freedom that got them in trouble.
Symbols often carry the stories in Brownsville. The monkey’s head, the hammer, the bowling bowl. In Amigoland the slow passage of time creates the same visceral connection to reality.
Those objects don’t mean anything at the beginning. The monkey’s head is weird, but it only means something when you understand the character. The novel covers a much larger span of time, uses multiple points of view, but I challenged myself not to have anything extraneous.
Did you experience Linares as you were writing the book?
I did it on the front end, I spoke to the state archivist of León, found quite a bit of documentation to back up the story, but I wasn’t writing a historical novel or travelogue and everything had to have a reason for being.
Anis Shivani is a fiction writer, poet, and critic in Houston. His short fiction collection, Anatolia and Other Stories, is being published in October 2009 by Black Lawrence Press/Dzanc Books.