‘The Devil’s Highway’ author Luis Alberto Urrea reads for Mission Creek

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Luis Alberto Urrea -- photo by Joe Mazza courtesy of the Tuesday Agency
Luis Alberto Urrea reads at the Steven Vail Gallery as part of the Mission Creek festival — photo by Joe Mazza courtesy of the Tuesday Agency

Writer Luis Alberto Urrea

Steven Vail Fine Arts — Wednesday, April 1 at 5 p.m.

Luis Alberto Urrea, a member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame and a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his nonfiction work The Devil’s Highway, will read Wednesday as part of the Mission Creek literary line-up. An author of more than a dozen books spanning several genres, Urrea remains prolific as ever. A book of his poetry was published this March, The Tijuana Book of the Dead, and his short collection The Water Museum: Stories is set for release next week. Little Village spoke with Alberto Urrea about the past, present and future of his writing career.

Little Village: You were born in Tijuana. How did growing up in this notorious border-town influence your passion for writing and storytelling?

Luis Alberto Urrea: Oh, Tijuana! Well, I grew up in San Diego. Let’s say, once I moved to the U.S., it was a 70/30 split. But TJ was ripe and full of funk and lore and outrageousness and shocks. And family. And laughter. And the best food.

As I got older, it also gave me an endless source of otherness. A dash of the surreal. Who wouldn’t want to write?

You’ve written about being a man without a flag and spoken about the tribulations of being a bi-cultural writer. To us, your perspective is fascinating. What would you consider the greatest challenge you’ve faced? And your greatest achievement?

Challenges are universal. But I think that the original battle to get my work seen made me tougher. I was told my name was too weird to go on a book. Stuff like that. So I set out to wear the bastards down, and that plan worked!

My greatest satisfaction is also what makes it great to be a Latino writer: loving my Latino kids, all over the country. Speaking to hundreds of them. Every month. And seeing the hope shine in their faces.

With 13 books in publication, many spanning different genres, it’s clear you’re not afraid of taking risks in writing. What advice would you have for writers today who are looking to find their niche?

The niche can be a good thing, but it can imprison you. My advice? Don’t sell your soul. Don’t publish crap just so you can get something out there. Sweat blood. Walk the 10,000 miles you need to walk. But never be silenced. Never give up. Write when you sleep, when you take a walk, when you brush your teeth. It’s a form of being, not a form of doing.

Many of your stories hinge on historical narratives, family histories and legends of time gone by. What can you tell us about the process of going deeply into the past and bringing it forward into the future?

To dip into the past, remember that it wasn’t the past for your characters. It was right now, vivid and vexing and smelly and sexy and in color. I need to know details — the name of a tool or a meal. A slang word. When those trivial things join the research, magic happens. Of course, lots of my historical stuff happened with medicine people. So I can’t discount ghosts and apparitions.

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Who would you put on a list of your top five favorite Latino writers?

I discovered my favorite Latino writers in college, in San Diego. Five? That’s all? I’ll try: Neruda, Juan Rulfo, Borges, Julio Cortazar, Garcia Marquez. But this is only a start! And I am thinking of 50 more right now!

In your TEDx talk, you spoke of powerful stories driving immigration reform. What role do you believe writers and writing have in changing the world for better?

Etheridge Knight once said, “You have to be telling people … ‘I love you,’ or you have no basis for your art.” It is incumbent on writers to help the world. Save the world. We are partners in a great creation and chroniclers of both good and bad. We. Must. Bear. Witness.

What is on the horizon for your next book?

Great horizons are shining. Waves are breaking. Expect miracles. That’s what I’m typing away at.

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