Two days ago at the Brooklyn Book Festival a young woman came up to me after my reading, and asked me a simple question: Why did I write my novel, From This Wicked Patch of Dust? The festival was my first big event to launch the novel, and although what she asked was straightforward, the answer is anything but. Let me give it a shot.
I wrote From This Wicked Patch of Dust, because I wanted to write about the Mexican-American border, where I grew up. I wanted to write about the poorest of the poor in a Texas colonia, or shantytown, with a dream of becoming American. Although the novel is fiction, my family was also dirt poor in Ysleta on the outskirts of El Paso, yet I loved my childhood. Any voice I have as a writer is in one way or another rooted in communicating what was good, what was struggle, and what we couldn’t answer in Ysleta.
Much of our political rhetoric only caricatures poor immigrants, documented and undocumented. There is rarely a sense of the commonality we, the more established inhabitants of these United States, share with these newcomers. I wanted to portray characters who come to life, reach out to the reader, and find a place in his or her thoughts, emotions, and even laughter. I hope you will see the Martínez family clearly, their warts as well as their merits, and believe in these characters.
I also wanted to focus on the dynamics of immigrant families. If you read From This Wicked Patch of Dust you will experience the lives of Cuauhtémoc and Pilar Martínez, the parents from the ‘old world,’ so to speak, who sometimes, and sometimes do not, see eye-to-eye on whether and how their family should become American. The children —Julia, Francisco, Marcos, and Ismael— take divergent paths to becoming American, adopt different religions or cultures, and even move to different places across the country. The siblings are in conflict with each other, they are in conflict with their parents, yet all of them still belong to and love their family. The Martinez family tries to keep it together as many things, including their own decisions, pull this family apart. How do we honor who we are, how do we break away from where we began, and what does all of this mean for our families?
Another question at the heart of my novel was: How can I portray the culture of a group, not one individual, but a related group, as in a family? That is the reason From This Wicked Patch of Dust is told, alternatively, from the six perspectives of each family member. We live in families, yet each of us experiences being part of a family in a different way. We are together, yet we are also apart, in a family. What keeps us together, and what drives us apart? That’s the drama at the heart of the novel.
How does time fragment the togetherness of a family? This is why the chapters in From This Wicked Patch of Dust are several years apart. Our common experiences are the bonds that keep us together for a while, but as we get older, as individuals and as a group, those common experiences become more experiences in the past. We start living our lives apart, yet we often yearn to come back together, as adult children, as elderly parents, to that togetherness we once had. Even though the children of Pilar and Cuauhtémoc Martínez end up in different parts of the world, so far from Ysleta in many ways beyond geography, they retain a bit of Ysleta within them.
I imagined the novel as an orchestra piece, where the different perspectives and time fragments would yield a music by the end of the novel that would give a sense to each reader of what is achieved and what is left behind after a family is gone. Some would call this micro-history, but it is a 'private history' we all experience in one way or another in our lifetime. And this experience has so much to do with what kind of selves we become. Certainly it is a different kind of storytelling than the escapism and neat ending of a typical Hollywood movie, which encourages short-term satisfaction rather than reflection. As a writer, I hope I have caused my readers to think.
Finally, the allegorical allusions in the novel are focused on this question: Why are we as a country growing further apart? Why do we have less in common with each other? Why do we see only ‘the other’ in our neighbor, or in an ethnic group not quite like us, or in a religious group not quite like us? Admittedly, a country is not a family. I know that. But there is a sense when a group feels more together, and when it has ceased to be a group at all and individuals just exist next to each other, ready to take advantage of each other at a moment’s notice.
Have we reached that point in the United States, where we have little in common with each other? Where Birmingham, New York City, and Reno are as foreign as Cairo and Tel Aviv? There is no way empirically to prove or disprove this. I can only point to our bitter political rhetoric, the media manipulation to promote narrow agendas and to divide us, and what I hear and see on the streets of El Paso, New York, Kansas City, San Francisco, and wherever else I travel.
What can bring us back together, if anything? From This Wicked Patch of Dust has a tentative answer at the end of the novel. Of course, I am always hopeful. I will always make the effort to grapple with a question even when it is one such as: Why did you write this novel? I must have said something coherent to the young woman at the Brooklyn Book Festival. After I finished talking, she bought the book and asked me to sign it to ‘Meryl.’