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Georgette M. Dorn: Today, April 11, 2013, we are recording Fred Arroyo for the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape. My name is Georgette Dorn and I am the Chief of the Hispanic Division and the Curator of the Archive. It is very, very nice to have you here, Fred, at the Library on this beautiful spring day, when it will be almost the summer and not spring.

Fred Arroyo: Thank you.

GMD: Tell us a little about yourself. Did you grow up in Puerto Rico?

FA: I did not. I was born in Three Rivers, Michigan and my father had come there originally to work and met my mother, who is not puertorriqueña. And I was born in Michigan and right after I was born, we lived in Chicago very briefly. And then we went to Hartford, Connecticut, where there is a little Puerto Rico there. And that is where his father had been migrating for many years—especially during the summertime, when it is hot in Puerto Rico—to work in Connecticut. And other relatives came up as well, so Hartford became the place. My dad was the oldest, so he was first. But all his brothers and sisters followed as well. So, I grew up there, you know, bilingual: really primarily Spanish at home, in the schoolyard, in the city . . . and then in the fourth grade, we left and went back to Michigan. And that sort of caused a kind of rupture in things.

GMD: So basically, you are a Michigan person? You grew up there?

FA: Yes.

GMD: Yeah.

FA: And I’ve lived in the Midwest for a long time, so it’s pretty much home in a way. But I still can’t get rid of some of the urban things from being on the East Coast. So, I see that as part of my home as well.

GMD: And now you’re teaching in South Dakota, at the University of South Dakota?

FA: Yes I am. I was in California for a year living last year and I really loved it. I lived in a little town that was 80,000 people, and the majority of the people—90% were, you know, Mexican-American, Latinos. That was really interesting, and I really loved it—and at the same time, though, I would wake up a lot and I wasn’t writing a lot because there were lots of things I was doing outside and it was just beautiful weather and I had sort of lost my outsiderness. Being in the Midwest, I’m both a part of that place but I’m also an outsider and it gives me a special way of looking at things, I think, and I am close to that landscape and seeing the stories that are there literally—like, in the fields, in the dirt, in the landscape, in the old buildings. And being in California, I was sort of away from that and I was starting to lose a little bit of my edge, I think—the issues of longing and want that I usually write from. So, I kind of wanted to go back to the Midwest and I was just trying to find the right place. I’m interested in the upper Midwest a lot: Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. So, it was just like a fate thing that I got to go there.

GMD: So you’re in the right place now, in South Dakota? You’re very happy to be there, right?

FA: Oh yeah. We have a great graduate program. I get to teach fiction writing and creative non-fiction and I am close to the things I’m writing about now, part of it—Lake Superior and part of it the oil boom that’s happening in North Dakota. So, it’s good to be close to those things.

GMD: When did you start writing? At what point in your life did you start writing?

FA: I was probably about twenty-two, twenty-one. The story is that my father has only a third-grade education and my mother graduated from high school later, like, going to night school. But, education wasn’t really important in our family. So, I had to do a lot of work and we didn’t have any books in our house and reading wasn’t important. But, later, I wasn’t a very good student either, but I did graduate from high school. But then later, as I was older working, I started reading things on the side and just sort of by accident one day I had sat down and started writing these powerful images or memories I was having. I started putting them in a notebook. And I wasn’t taking a class for it or anything; I was just writing. And that sort of started some things. And then I started going to community college and just kept working in that way. But, once I started writing it was kind of hard to stop.

GMD: So really, it’s an in-born talent more than . . . you can’t really teach writing, or can you? Can you teach writing poetry and prose or?

FA: Yeah. You can teach it. But, I mean . . .

GMD: You can teach some tricks but it has to come from within, does it not?

FA: I do . . . yeah, in my own case, it’s something really deep within that drives me. And I think that it’s part of the obsession, but it’s also . . . I like to call them linguistic memories. That every person has memories but I have particular memories that are guided by language and they—when I go back to those memories, they tell me something about reading and writing. And oftentimes the memories that I’m writing about are all in Spanish and so there’s like, you know, I can hear it, but it’s also like a silence around it because I’m writing it in English and I’m not really trying to translate it or anything. I’m not trying to capture that Spanish, but it’s driving what I’m doing and so I think I’m a writer because I grew up that way. That I had a language and I lost it and then I was never really good at English and I started out at a really low level when I tried to go to school. I couldn’t really write English really well. And so maybe in a way, I’m trying to find this lost self, this lost linguistic self.

GMD: You still know Spanish, right?

FA: Yeah, a little bit, yeah.

GMD: But you don’t use it anymore.

FA: No. I lived in Madrid for five months and I used it a lot then, but I don’t really get to use it that often.

GMD: You know language has to be practiced.

FA: Yes.

GMD: And it’s in your brain forever and then if you suddenly use it, it surfaces again.

FA: Yes. And that is what happened when I moved there.

GMD: Yeah. It takes a couple of days for the language to just come up, like from deep water it comes right up to the surface. So, you never lost it. You lose Spanish.

FA: Yes. That’s what I mean about these memories. They just come from this deep water like that and they surface and it’s just, you’re writing away.

GMD: I interviewed Julio Cortázar right here, the Argentine writer, and he spoke two or three languages very well: French, Spanish, English, not much English anyway. But, he told me that you can only know one language perfectly at any given time and then all the others go down from 100%, to 98%, 97%, and they come up and down, which is very interesting and I think that’s true.

FA: Yes. And that’s what happened . . . when I went to college, there was a point in which I went to Tulane University to visit because I was going to go there and I was thinking I was just going to study Spanish because I was reading Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, and Borges, and I thought I wanted to make that leap and just study Spanish and I decided not to. And when I decided not to, it was very much what you were saying about Cortázar. I decided I needed to become the best writer of English prose that I could become and sort of dedicated myself to that.

GMD: That was a very wise choice. Well, would you read some selections from your work?

FA: Sure.

GMD: Which one are you going to read from first?

FA: I’m going to read from Western Avenue and Other Fictions and I’m going to start with a story called "Someday You’ll See." And in this book, there are seven longer traditional length short stories over three thousand words and then there are seven other short stories that are all under five hundred words and they each come at particular moments in between the longer stories to try to create a kind of form. And—but part of it was, I was really interested in trying to capture all the different kinds of voices that were circling around me and around this community. And, so there is man, and there’s women, but then the landscape itself started to have a voice. Memory started to have a voice. And so this story, "Someday You’ll See," is a character María and she lives in a little town. It’s a real town but it’s my fictional version of the town called Niles, Michigan, and like all my work so far it has to do with this handful of puertorriqueño men who came to this town to work at a Green Giant cannery. And they worked there for a while and the cannery closed and they were sort of shipwrecked and stayed there forever. But at the same time it is an area—one of the richest agricultural parts in America for fruits and vegetables—and a lot of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans historically for a hundred years have been traveling to this area to work. And I am sort of dealing with the confluence of those cultures and peoples and the policies in the last ten years in which immigration and custom enforcement is taking a much more, kind of, violent role in you know and like, cracking down in particular places and we wonder like: why choose those? And so, ice appears in the book several times and in this story in particular. “Someday You’ll See.”

  • Author reads excerpt from “Someday You’ll See”—Western Avenue and Other Fictions (2012)

GMD: Very good. That’s very, very, very excellent. You read very well.

FA: Thank you. And I think I am going to read a few of the shorter short stories.

GMD: Yeah.

FA: And well, since he was here, I just have to say it. I spent a lot of time reading and studying the work of Mario Vargas Llosa. He is so, you know, intelligent and artistic— the way in which he talks about narrative and especially novels. And it was by reading him that I realized that that’s all I really want to do is become a novelist.

GMD: Which book did you read first?

FA: The Green House.

GMD: Ah yes. Excellent. His earlier works . . . it’s the second or third, yes.

FA: And then . . .

GMD: Well, he was here very often. We recorded him in Oklahoma first and then he’s been here. He was teaching at Georgetown so he was in and out of the Library quite often. In fact, he wrote The War of the End of the World while he was at the Wilson Center as a scholar and resident. So, he used the Library’s collections to write The War of the End of the World.

FA: Yeah. And that whole . . .

GMD: That’s a fascinating book.

FA: Yes. The way he uses the archive and myths, you know, and minds both of them to create his works and just situated in history and society and even though . . . he himself, and myself too, like, you know, are like Jean Paul Satre’s idea of like, engaged—to be engaged as writer and you’re already situated in the world. But, we really live in a time in which most American writers shun, like, any kind of politics and that’s not in it to say that I begin with any kind of political agenda. But from Vargas Llosa I learned a lot about thinking about how my work is situated in a society and where you draw your work from. And he has a book called The Cubs and Other Stories. And he wrote an English essay on that book. And in that book, he goes through all these various things of talking really about the angst and origins of writing that first book. But, he says that the one thing he was trying to do in that book was he was trying to capture the voice of the barrio. And he talks about getting that, like, how do you get a collective voice inside a work? So, even though the Western Avenue and Other Fictions is a collection of short stories, for me it’s really a novel and I’m trying to capture that collective voice. And these little pieces kind of get at that collective voice, I think. Because it’s like the little pieces become, like in a building’s roman, that the moments of consciousness, but when you encounter this consciousness you don’t know: is it the little boy’s consciousness, is it the father’s consciousness, or is it, like, the place itself trying to tell its story, trying to speak? So, this first one is called "Arrival, circa 1976, el Morro."

  • Author reads excerpt from “Arrival, circa 1976, el Morro”— Western Avenue and Other Fictions (2012)

GMD: Are you going to read from your other work as well?

FA: Yes.

GMD: I think I would like you to. That’s your newest book, right?

FA: The one I am reading from now is the new one.

GMD: The Region of Lost Names.

FA: Is the older one. It was published in 2008.

GMD: Oh. You’re not reading from the recent one? The Region of Lost Names?

FA: I will now. Sure, yeah.

GMD: Oh. Right.

FA: Yeah, so The Region of Lost Names was published in 2008 and it’s a novel and it has four books inside of it and the books alternate between two characters, Ernest and Magdalene. And this book in . . . the two books are connected. You have a lot of repeating characters. But, it has to do with . . . Ernest and Magdalene are of the newer generation, really close to our present time, and they both don’t know that much about their fathers. Ernest knows his father but his father never talked to him very much. He was very silent. He drank a lot. And Magdalene does not know who her father is at all and I was really interested in how it was that the new generation dealt with this history and memory of these men who came to a place like Michigan and gave their bodies and their sweat and their souls and then their names to this land and worked it and then people forgot about them. They forgot their names. So, I wanted to try to understand that element of like, why it is that Puerto Rican men, African American men, they’re not like shiftless men. They’re not men that have no purpose. And people think they just run around and like, do nothing. But there’s a lot of social pressures because of racism, because of work, because of migrating that pushes them, you know, to live in a certain way that people, you know, point a finger at as wrong, but they don’t look at, like, what are the forces behind that. Or in Magdalene’s case, she has a child with Ernest and instead of letting Ernest know and repeating that cycle of history where he might run away, she wants him to live the life he has so she moves to Puerto Rico with the child without letting him know. And that same sort of, lots of, you know, in my own life, like, people looking down on puertorriqueñas who did not know who would not reveal, like, who the father was of the children. And people looking down on them. You know, they’re not welfare mothers. They’re not bad people. There are a lot of social and historical forces that are, you know, impinging on our lives and to try and recognize those. Ok, so this is Ernest and Boogaloo together. It’s very early in the novel and Boogaloo is a man that Ernest had worked with when he was young in the fields and Boogaloo is a friend of Ernest’s father. And the beginning of the book begins with Boogaloo dying and Ernest has to go claim his ashes. But, this is Chapter three and it’s a memory of a time just before he went to pick up his ashes that he had a moment with Boogaloo.

  • Author reads excerpt from The Region of Lost Names (2008).

FA: And so, there was a mention there of notes and letters so the last thing I am going to read is an actual letter that’s put in the novel. And the reason I am going to read the letter is because inside the letter, like, the deep seed inside the letter is, like, the first thing I ever wrote in my life.

GMD: Oh, wonderful. That’s very good.

FA: And I think it might be good to sort of end with that.

GMD: Yeah. That’s very good.

FA: Alright. So we’re on page 170 and it’s Ernest who wrote the letter and Magdalene is in Puerto Rico reading the letter. It’s very close to the end of the novel.

  • Author reads second excerpt from The Region of Lost Names (2008).

GMD: You have a different version. That’s a newer book.

FA: This is the reader’s copy. You’ve got the newer. Sorry about that.

GMD: Oh, it’s ok. I don’t think we have . . . is this the same letter?

FA: Yes.

GMD: Ok. So it’s the letter?

FA: 170-171.

GMD: Right.

FA: Yes. That whole italicized part.

GMD: Well, that’s very good. This is a beautiful, excellent readings. Thank you very much. I mean, you really recovered the raíces, you know, your roots.

FA: Yes.

GMD: Which was hard because you lived all your life here.

FA: Yeah.

GMD: In the, I mean, here not in Puerto Rico, right?

FA: Absolutely.

GMD: Yeah.

FA: So, I’m trying to back to the well spring of what Arroyo is. To get back to that source, if you will.

GMD: Did your grandparents live in Puerto Rico? Did you visit them?

FA: Yes.

GMD: Yeah, so . . .

FA: And they came to the U.S. a lot, too.

GMD: Yeah. I think the more, almost more people are living here than in Puerto Rico, I think. I read that somewhere.

FA: Yeah, it’s pretty . . .

GMD: Or told, historically if you look back 150 years.

FA: Yeah. And that’s part of . . . I’m trying to capture that we’re on a, like Luis Rafael Sánchez says, “We’re on a flying bus.”

GMD: We have him recorded too, Luis Rafael Sánchez. He’s very, excellent writer.

FA: Yeah. It’s an honor to be included next to . . .

GMD: We have the Puerto Ricans separate from the . . . so we have a problem: where are we going to be put you? Because the Puerto Ricans are in Puerto Rico and you are really more a U.S. writer, so I think I’ll put you with U.S.Latinos.

FA: Ok.

GMD: It’s getting harder and harder where to put people, you know.

FA: Sure.

GMD: But you were born here, right? So that makes you U.S.

FA: And that’s part of, you know, what it means to be puertorriqueño is changing every day.

GMD: Oh yeah. Yes, yes, yes. Well, it’s wonderful. It’s a beautiful island.

FA: Thank you very much for having me. It’s an honor.

GMD: Thank you, Fred. This was wonderful. I look forward to seeing you.

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Prose in English at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, April 11, 2013

Approximately 1 hour.

Recording Title: U.S.-Latino Writer Fred Arroyo Reading from his Works
Reading moderated by: Georgette M. Dorn

Introduction

1). Selections from Western Avenue and Other Fictions (2012)

  • “Someday You’ll See” – (min. 10:17)
  • “Arrival, circa 1976, el Morro” – (min. 25:55)
  • “Avenue of the Americas, circa 1952” – (min. 31:33)

2). Selections from ‘The Region of Lost Names’ (2008)

  • “Excerpt from Chapter 3” – (min. 34:00)
  • “Excerpt from Chapter 27” – (min. 51:11)

Conclusion – (min. 56:09)

End – (min. 58:17)

Western Avenue and Other Fictions

LC Catalog record:  http://lccn.loc.gov/2011043553
Fred Arroyo, Western Avenue and Other Fictions (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012).

The Region of Lost Names

LC Catalog record:  http://lccn.loc.gov/2007029696
Fred Arroyo, The Region of Lost Names (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2008).

Fred Arroyo

Fred Arroyo

Fred Arroyo is the author of the novel The Region of Lost Names and a collection of short stories, Western Avenue and Other Fictions, a finalist for the 2008 Premio Aztlán Literary Prize. His stories have been featured in literary journals such as Pinyon, Crab Orchard Review, and Washington Square. Arroyo is a recipient of an Individual Artist Grant from the Indiana Grants Commission and a postdoctoral fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. He was named a 2009 Top Ten “New” Latino Author to Watch (and Read) by LatinoStories.com. Arroyo is an assistant professor at the University of South Dakota and serves as a faculty mentor in the University of Nebraska MFA in Writing low-residency program.