The Weekly Chat: Author and book fest keynote speaker Luis Alberto Urrea

The writer of ‘The Hummingbird’s Daughter’ on Vegas, being ‘border boy’ and what he’s working on next

Author Luís Alberto Urrea is leaving the Mexican-American border behind in his next book about forgotten WWII heroes.

Author and poet Luis Alberto Urrea is known for stories that grapple with the beauty and complexity of the Mexican-American border, books like The Devil’s Highway and Into the Beautiful North. But as the Vegas Valley Book Fest keynote speaker told the Weekly, he’s leaving Mexico behind for a while in favor of an epic World War II tale about the war’s forgotten heroes.

So, you’re currently working on a book about World War II.

It feels like the coolest thing I’ve done, which is hard to believe since I’ve been lucky enough to do some really cool projects. It’s about a forgotten population of World World II heroes.

Your book The Hummingbird’s Daughter is about a long-ago relative who has turned into a something of a family myth. How did you discover this new story?

My mom. She was in the Red Cross in World War II, but she wasn’t a nurse. She was in this thing they called the Clubmobile Service, and they got to be known as Donut Dollies. And these women went to war to lend moral support to the GIs. She served under General Patton, and these women fought the Battle of the Bulge, but their job was to make coffee and donuts for the GIs. They’re largely forgotten. I talk about them a lot just see if there’s anybody who has one in their family or might be one. They’re just largely forgotten by history. I started realizing, wait, this is a band of sisters, man. And whenever I talk about them, people flip out about these women. There are books and stuff, but they’re all self-printed; there was never a major publication. I have my mom’s diaries and journals and scrapbooks, but I also have every one of the books that these women wrote remembering their adventure. So I’m deep, deep into reconstructing this journey they were on and what happened to them.

You described it as the coolest thing you’ve done. Does every project feel that way when you’re in the middle of it?

Yeah. But some strange alchemy is going on for me in the writing process, which is really exciting. You feel like you’re summoning something, like you’re witnessing something. Probably the most tumultuous experience as a writer of my life was Hummingbird’s Daughter—20 years hanging out with shamans and stuff, trying to understand the medicine world. That was pretty interesting. But this feels really good to be able to bring voice to people who might not have gotten the historical attention they deserve.

Do you think your work on Hummingbird’s opened your eyes to seeing those kind serendipitous interactions you’re talking about?

Oh yes. There’s no question. When you end up working in the medicine world you understand that there really is this whole other way of seeing and perceiving the world. And the teachers were really generous and kind with me over those years, but they had a real strong sense of the sacredness of the day, every day. Not even speaking religiously, but just that every day was sacred and every day was full of gifts and wonders; we just don’t always notice it ’cause we’re busy and distracted. So, that’s had a major impact on everything I think and do as a writer.

Many of your books have revolved around the U.S.-Mexico border, where you grew up. This new book takes you away from that. Do you think your readers will come along?

My fans are unbelievable. They seem to be ready to go wherever I go, because I wander far afield a lot. But also, honestly, I’ve been telling this to audiences lately … I think a lot of my readers are going to be thumbing through this book going, “Where are the Mexicans?” But the border for me, it’s just a metaphor. The Mexican border is a great metaphor, but it’s just a metaphor for me about the things that separate human beings. 'Cause there are borders everywhere. You can see them in the different parts of Vegas. They are cultural, or economic, or religious, or racial—there are things that divide human beings all the time. So the border is handy, partially because it’s uncomfortable. Once you start talking about a difficult topic right off the bat and people realize that you can actually have a cool conversation and it’s not dangerous, then you can go anywhere. You can talk about anything. So that’s really what’s going on with the border books for me. And in some ways, I don’t want to be border boy for the rest of my life. There’s other stuff I want to write about. So part of it is a process of growing up as a writer. I’ve paid really close attention to my dad’s culture, and it’s really fun to honor my mother’s culture and my gringo side.

Have you been back to Tijuana recently?

Oh yeah. I did a story for Playboy recently about deported American war vets. They thought they were going to get citizenship if they went to war, and then they were like, “Surprise, surprise, surprise. You’re outta here.” That was a pretty cool story. So yeah, I go back. I have family there still.

Do you feel the city has changed or the way you see it has changed?

It’s totally different. For a while they were doing kind of like a Disney, or maybe their attempt to do a Las Vegas Strip, and they built this big river plaza and packed it with nightclubs and an IMAX theater. There’s a nightclub with an erupting volcano. They made this entertainment zone, so that was a major change. And then narco war kicked in, and for a while Tijuana was unbelievably scary and dangerous, and then they mellowed out. So now I think it’s in a state of transition, and I’m really fascinated to see what happens to it and where it’s going to go now. Who knows? It’s a really interesting place because it’s always changing. Sometimes it’s mutating, turning into this really weird life form no one anticipated, but mostly it’s constantly transforming itself.

I was born there and I spent my first years there, and I spent all of my life going back and forth between there and the U.S. I always thought Tijuana was this really cool place where grandma lived and the food was awesome. As a kid, I started finding out that people looked down on Tijuana and us. I was like, “What? Are you serious?” I was so shocked it had such a horrible reputation. And then, of course, working with the poor that gave me a really radicalized perspective about suffering and so forth. But I think Tijuana always existed to service the hungers and needs of the United States. It’s truly our child.

Do you find that Mexicans and people from the U.S. react to your work differently?

It’s funny, because the National Endowment of the Arts picked Into the Beautiful North as one of the Big Reads, so I’m touring and touring and touring, and a lot of places are doing it in Spanish. So I’m getting all of the Mexican audience, which I don’t often get to meet. And I’ve been doing stuff in places like San Miguel de Allende, [Mexico,] and the responses there are a little mind-boggling to me, because there’s a kind of level of love and excitement that I’m not used to. There’s a lot of joy always when I do readings, but I’ve realized it really means something to the Mexican American and Mexican readers that I hadn’t expected. And it’s really touching. Last night I was in Aurora, Illinois, doing a gig with Mexican immigrants and I was stunned at the kind of emotion that was in the room. It was really beautiful. And in Mexico, we have a real culture of honoring authors, anyway, so you can get away with murder. People don’t call you out much, they’re just like, “Oh my God, you’re a writer.”

Your writing covers memoir, poetry, fiction, journalism, short story, mystery, even graphic novels. Is there an area of literature or style you haven’t tried that’s tempting you?

It all tempts me all the time. I haven’t done screenwriting. I can’t figure out how people screenwrite. And it would probably be smart for me, because there are always people adapting my work, and you’re a victim of their vision or lack of it. I was in a very real sense self-taught. My dad had always been a kind of a custodian, janitorial kind of guy, so I was used to hands-on stuff. So I figured, if you’re going to be a writer, you’ve got to teach yourself everything, like a journeyman carpenter. You’re going to need to know every tool. I didn’t realize we could specialize, so I tried really hard to study everything. And it became my joy. I think of it as all writing, as one body of work. It just has different voices.

You’re also active on Twitter.

The social media thing was funny. The publisher pushed me into it and I was like, “Man, I’m not going to tweet, are you nuts? I’m not going to Facebook. And then it turned out to be this wonderful thing, and I really enjoy it.

I love the author writing in 140 characters.

It’s a good thing I love haiku. But yeah, it’s a lot of fun, and there are so many fun relationships and friendships. You’ll speak to a high school and you tell the kids, “Hey man, I’m on Twitter,” and all of a sudden you have a billion high school kids writing to you.

You’ve said your appearances are somewhat like theatrical performances, “Luis Urrea doing Luis Urrea.” What can we expect from your keynote address at the Vegas Valley Book Fest?

I guess I’m the Wayne Newton of writers all of a sudden. It’s so much more fun to tell stories than do readings, and share maybe Mark Twain Tonight!-style the stories that you lived. It ends up being a lot of fun and funny and energetic. You feed off the audience and just try to have a good time and make everybody happy. I really love it. It might be because I had theater training first. So it’s kind of fun to perform.

Have you spent much time in Vegas?

Yeah man. I have two older kids who, in their teen years, were just like, “Las Vegas, Las Vegas, Las Vegas.” So we’d take them to Las Vegas. My daughter Megan, a photographer, she was in her teens and I took her out walking around the Strip late at night with her camera and she said, “This is all I have ever wanted.” (laughs).

Luís Alberto Urrea keynote address November 2, 5 p.m., Fifth Street School Auditorium.

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