An interview with Oscar Casares
Short story writer Oscar Casares is celebrating a homecoming of sorts, returning to his hometown of Brownsville, Texas, after years living in Austin, Minneapolis, and Iowa City. Casares got his bachelor's degree at the University of Texas before taking an advertising job in Minnesota. It was there he started writing short stories, based largely on his childhood and adolescence in the Rio Grande Valley. Casares received an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, and his first story collection, Brownsville, was published in March by Little, Brown. He spoke to Bookslut from his home in Brownsville.
You recently moved back to Brownsville, is that right?
Yeah, I moved back unofficially in March, but then I went on tour, and then (moved back) sort of officially in May, when the tour started slowing down somewhat. Now I'm here for good.
How did it feel to return to Brownsville after spending so much time away?
It's kind of a whole different experience. I didn't know what to expect, but it's not the Brownsville that I left. It's grown tremendously in the, whatever it's been, eighteen years since I left. You tend to go to the same places, regardless of how big a city grows, so I haven't seen a dramatic shift in how I am here, but it's interesting. A lot of the landmarks are the same, but there's new people, new businesses. Everything's just slightly off from the way I left it.
I noticed that Lincoln Park plays a part in some of your stories. That's been torn down? They actually moved it to another part of town, apparently not too far from here. I haven't seen it, though. The old one is a bridge now; it's a major thoroughfare into Mexico. It's the third of the bridges that they've built into Mexico.
How have people in Brownsville reacted to your book?
It's interesting. It depends on where I'm at. Generally speaking, people will come up to me at a store or a restaurant or whatever. The other day I was here at home -- I live in a sort of big two-story house -- and the doorbell rang. I had to rush all the way to the other end of the house to answer the front door. There was this little kid, and I said, "Yes, can I help you?" and he said, "Well, I'm selling tickets to a chicken barbecue at my church." I said, "Oh, man, I'm sorry, I'm just not interested right now." I was going to close the door, and at the last second he turns around and says, "Hey, wait a minute, aren't you the guy who wrote that book?" He's like nine or ten years old, and he'd been at this reading. His mom or his aunt had taken him to it.
Your book is being sold at H-E-B (supermarkets), which seems unusual for a literary fiction trade paperback. How did that come about?
Early on, I was talking to my publisher, trying to tell them that it was really important for me personally to have the book available in South Texas, Brownsville in particular. The problem was that there weren't very many outlets. In fact, there's only one bookstore, and there's the college, and that's about it. I mean, ideally there would be a big bookstore here, and people would have access to (the book). But since there isn't that, I figured the next best thing would be to get it into a major distribution point where people were going all the time. And so I started telling them about H-E-B, and at first they were kind of like, "H-E-B? What's that?" (They had) no concept of the store's presence in Texas. Eventually we got the book in the hands of a few key people at the store, and they placed a major order. It helped tremendously, because that itself got a lot of publicity, the fact that it was in H-E-B. The whole idea was just to make it more accessible, to make it so where everyone and anyone could get their hands on the book if they wanted to.
You spoke at the University of Iowa on the book tour. What was it like to go back there as a published writer?
It was interesting. You really walk in (to the M.F.A. program) with a great amount of respect in the community, because the program has such a presence and history there. So it was cool in that sense, but there's still the feeling that you're starting out and you've got a long way to go while you're there. So it was cool going back and having a book. I still have a lot of friends there. It was nice going back and standing in front of the audience instead of being in the audience.
How important would you say your M.F.A. training at Iowa was to your development as a writer?
The program was important to me primarily because it gave me the time to write. It helped me in other regards, because I had people reading my work that knew nothing of Texas, or South Texas, or the border, for that matter. It was more the time and the environment itself that was productive.
You lived in Iowa and Minnesota for a while. What were people's perceptions there of the Rio Grande Valley, or did they have any at all?
Sometimes they didn't even know it existed. I'd tell them about Brownsville, and they'd think I was talking about a fictional place. The majority of people, if they'd heard about Brownsville, it was generally very sensational. That's generally the news that comes out of here. The national media focuses on drug busts, immigrant crossings and smuggling, all these events. And part of that has to do with the geographical isolation of the region. It's not as easy for them to come down here and cover an average story. So when they do (report) something, it tends to be something not so nice, like a killing or something. And those things happen, sure. But so much else is happening, just like in any city. A lot of people actually move back here just because it is a nice place to raise a family.
How do you see yourself in terms of other writers who have written about the Rio Grande Valley, like Americo Paredes?
To some degree, I'm definitely following in his footsteps. He had a completely different angle on it, though. He was more of a cultural anthropologist. Even in his works of fiction, he's sort of illuminating or educating his readers as to what life is like down here. And I don't necessarily have that need. If I'm enlightening anyone or educating anyone, it's by way of the story itself. I sort of feel my form of activism is that by showing Mexican-Americans involved in ordinary things as I have always seen them, by normalizing them, what I'm doing is sort of showing the humanity of the group. And I think if the reader can begin to look at not the group, but at the lives and the struggles, that is itself a form of activism, because they've stopped seeing them as a group, stopped seeing them as a demographic. There are real lives there. And if there is some sort of political action to take, I think that's going to get us a lot closer to it than showing the differences.
One of the things that struck me most about the book was the characters' voices. They seem so natural and unforced. Is it hard to capture the particular rhythms of these voices in the written word?
No, it's really not. I had an interesting conversation the other day with someone, and they said, "You know, you write most of these stories in the first person." And I said, "No, I don't." So I went back and looked at a copy of the book, and I think maybe three stories -- "RG," "Jerry Fuentes," "Yolanda" -- were in the first person. But his impression was that they were all in first person, and in a sense, they kind of are. The narrator has such a presence in each of the stories regardless of whether it's first person or third person. You know, at times I'll be writing something, and I'll think, "Whoa, is that really the way I would say it? Is that the way I remember it?" And I'll go back and think about it, I may ask someone, and sure enough, it's generally the way it should be. Finding the initial rhythm can be difficult. Finding that first line can be the most difficult part.
Of these characters in Brownsville, are there any that you find particularly compelling, that you identify more strongly with?
There's some. The Bony character in "Chango" is one that I'm pretty attached to. I found that story kind of necessary to write, because there are a lot of guys like that I've run across, and it's really easy to project these images on them, to say, "They're just wasting their lives." It's more of a challenge to dig a bit and find out how they got there. Another one, which I didn't think all that much about initially, but has really kind of grown on me recently, is the Big Jesse character. That one still kind of haunts me. There's a real sort of tragedy in that story. He's generally a pretty nice guy, but in way over his head.
Were these stories emotionally difficult to write? Some of them are so personal, so heartbreaking.
Yeah, in some cases, they were. There's something in each of those stories that's based on a real life event, either something that happened to me, or to my family, or someone close to me. So in a sense, I want to be respectful to the situation, but there's a point where the story sort of takes over, and the drama of the story has to come off for the story to work.
You've mentioned in some interviews that you've told some of these stories before, about your family and people you knew in Brownsville, to your colleagues and friends in Minnesota and Iowa. How did they react when they heard these stories about a region they'd probably never even thought about before?
Oh, they usually thought I was just bullshitting them. They were like, "There's just no way that happened." And it was kind of funny, but it was really frustrating at the same time. I'd be telling a story with all these twists and turns in it, and they'd say, "No way! You're making that up!" I still find that to be part of my challenge, having the stuff be believable. In some cases, it's just kind of a leap of faith. I guess the most asked question is usually about the monkey head (in "Chango"). I mean, the story works in part because the monkey head is a given. It's not up for debate, it's just, "He found a monkey's head, OK, let's go." It's not like we lead up to the monkey's head; we start with the monkey's head. And it essentially becomes Bony's story. It is Bony's story, you know, the monkey is just sort of facilitating the story.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a novel.
Is it going to be set in Brownsville?
It's going to be set in South Texas.
How's it going so far?
It's going well. I'm getting settled in here, just getting into the rhythm of it. I'm excited about it, though. I'm excited about my new/old surroundings. Just returning and being received well...it's all very nice. I couldn't have written it any better. It's kind of a dream now.
Brownsville by Oscar Casares
Back Bay Books