We mentioned last week that Luis Alberto Urrea's The Hummingbird's Daughter just won the prestigious Kiriyama Prize. Daniel Olivas, who originally reviewed the book for us and then interviewed Urrea managed to catch up with the author once more for a follow-up interview, which follows.
Last May, Luis Alberto Urrea published his twelfth book, The Hummingbird’s Daughter (Little, Brown), which was twenty years in the making. Urrea’s novel brings us to the harsh yet thriving landscape of Mexico, circa 1880, where the corrupt government of Porfirio Díaz viciously rules the land. In the midst of brewing revolutionary sentiments, a poor, illiterate and unmarried Yaqui woman (known by her tribe as the “hummingbird”), gives birth to Teresita. She eventually falls under the tutelage of the town's curandera named Huila, a cantankerous, powerful and often wise healer who lives in a room in the great hacienda owned by the wealthy, womanizing Don Tomás Urrea. Teresita invades Don Tomás's life through a series of unfortunate events and is subsequently taken under Huila's wing. Huila recognizes Teresita’s special abilities as much as she recognizes a family resemblance to Don Tomás who eventually admits to parenthood. The narrative follows the life of Teresita and her family as they confront what Urrea calls the “catastrophe of holiness.”
In a review published on TEV the week of its release, I stated that the novel was “a sumptuous, dazzling novel to which no review can do justice; one simply must read it.” TEV was not alone. Throughout the months that followed, The Hummingbird’s Daughter spent time on the bestsellers lists for both the Los Angeles Times and New York Times and it garnered universal and unusually effusive reviews from the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Oregonian, and many others.
Last year, Urrea kindly agreed to an interview with TEV. Now that The Hummingbird’s Daughter will be released in paperback April 3 (with the TEV review excerpted in the front pages along with other praise for the novel), we asked Urrea if he’d suffer through another round of questions. Luckily for us, he said yes.
DANIEL OLIVAS: You have just won the Kiriyama Book Prize in the fiction category for The Hummingbird's Daughter with prize's chair saying: “Urrea masterfully brings together a story of a clash of cultures, politics and corruption, religion and spirituality, love and heartbreak to a dazzling effect.” What is the importance of winning this prestigious award?
LUIS ALBERTO URREA: Here's the thing about the Kiriyama Prize: I was fortunate enough to have been the first person shortlisted in different genres (last year, The Devil's Highway was a finalist in nonfiction). That, in itself, was good enough. Kiriyama is, essentially, an Asian prize. The Pacific Rim award covers a vast territory and frankly, the competition this year was overwhelming. I believe this is the first time a Latino book has won it. So, obviously in the "Super Bowl" sense, it's a great win. However, what touches me deeply is that much of the soulwork that Teresita does in the novel reflects elements of Zen training and Tai-chi training. I had a strong sense of the universal flow of soul so in a very mysterious way, winning the Kiriyama Prize brings the story full circle. Finally, and I'm saying this regardless of it being about my book, it is very important to me to have a Latino book stand up on the world stage and be declared triumphant. Latin American writers have long been honored, but winning something like the Kiriyama or being shortlisted for the Pultizer are clear signals that we are not a ghettoized, substandard or marginalized genre of writing. A book like The Hummingbird's Daughter doesn't win a prize for me. It's winning a prize for all of the writers around and behind me. We always cut trail and when we climb up the mountain, we must always reach back and offer a hand up. That's what it's all about.
OLIVAS: It’s been a year since you brought Teresita to the reading public. Initially, how has the novelization of this remarkable woman changed your feelings about her, if at all?
URREA: The only way to answer this question veers into an area that I'm not always comfortable sharing with the general public. And that area is more spiritual than literary. You have to understand that in a real sense the research for this book has gone on my whole life. Anybody with Mexican roots knows what I'm talking about when I mention the outrageous, miraculous and impossible stories we hear from childhood on. That being said, the actual hardcore research took about 20 years. Obviously, this wasn't full-time research. But it did entail much travel, reading, interviewing and later, actual field experience among healers and shamans. I think it is fair to say that Teresita entered my dreams. She drew very near to me in my daily perceptions of the world, so I think what happened for me was a strong sense of cross-time connection with a real person. So I felt almost like I had an actual relationship with Teresita and Huila and even Tomas. As a writer, this was good because it helped me create those characters. In a way, it felt like cheating because I was just telling the readers about my dear relatives. Now, to answer your question about the last year. To be honest, I've put her and her world far out of my mind. My perception of her has not changed. The literally hundreds and hundreds of meetings, conversations and emails I've had about her confirm everything I was hoping to say. I honestly have a hard time even remembering lines from the book until I pick it up and look at it. I think this is a healthy thing. I set out to write a novel, not start a cult. And in a sense, the readers have picked up that thread of the work and set me free. She remains who I thought she was for them.
OLIVAS: You’ve been on the road doing readings from the novel and I was lucky enough to attend one of your Southern California appearances. How has the public reacted to Teresita? Have people questioned the more “mystical” aspects of her life? How have you responded?
URREA: The response has been overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic. I was braced for skepticism and some hard-core questioning of the more spiritual claims from the book and have been startled that it has never been challenged. In fact, one of my favorite moments was when a very practical professional pilot who is also an atheist said to me, "Please don't make me believe." If anything, there has been pleasant discussion/debate about historical data. But the other stuff seems to have been accepted. This may be a feature of people simply thinking the book is an example of magic realism when it isn't.
OLIVAS: Will you share with us one or two of the most moving or interesting interactions you’ve had while on book tour?
URREA: There are so many that I don't know where to begin. Was it breakfast with Teresita's great-granddaughter? Having her bring us an album of family reunion photographs. Or was it Gabriela Cantua's grandkids bringing pictures of "Mama Gabriela" to a Texas reading? One thing I have enjoyed doing is taking the actual shawl of the medicine woman who is the model for Huila and having women ask reverently if they can simply touch it. Lately, the most astounding thing has been happening to me. Soldiers and sailors in Iraq have somehow been finding the international edition of the novel and have been emailing me. I never thought Teresita could actually reach into a modern war. But there she is again, facing rifles.
OLIVAS: Last year, in response to my question regarding your decision to use fiction rather than biography to write about Teresita, you said: “[Y]ou can't footnote a dream.” But are you also saying there can be more truth in fiction than “history”?
URREA: Yes. Fiction is the art of painting using the soul as your medium. You know as well as I do that a great fictional character can be more real than people you have actually known. You might go to your high school reunion and not remember the person glad-handing you, but Tom Sawyer, Captain Ahab or even Ultima are still your bosom companions.
OLIVAS: We previously discussed your plans for a sequel. Where are you in that process? I’m particularly interested because Hummingbird was twenty years in the making!
URREA: Little Brown was very aware of the 20-year part of the story and gave me a 2007 deadline. Gulp. The good thing is almost all of the research has already been done. That's what the 20 years was all about. The sequel is very much a continuation of the original book. Think of it as one really really long book. That being said, I haven't typed a word. Yet.
OLIVAS: Have beginning writers introduced themselves to you at your book readings? What kind of advice have you offered them?
URREA: Here's a funny thing: Bloggers and filmmakers come to the readings. Beginning writers email me like crazy. The only advice I can give anyone sounds lame and processed, so I am leery of giving blanket advice. I tell them what worked for me, which most of them don't want to hear. It took 10 years of constant rejection to get somebody to publish my first book, Across the Wire. It took 20 years to get to a place where I could actually write The Hummingbird's Daughter. Many of those seeking counsel want to know if there is a shortcut. I may be the wrong person to ask about shortcuts ...
OLIVAS: Any plans to put Teresita on the big screen?
URREA: Yes. All I can tell you until the ink is dry is that the contracts are being finalized now. It's a major director, it will be a major production, it will be an American motion picture with very strong Latino input. How's that for cryptic?
OLIVAS: What are you reading these days? Any books to recommend?
URREA: I read all the time, all the genres. I have been enjoying Jonis Agee a lot lately. I am reading Franz Wright's new book of poems. I am re-reading Malachi Martin. I'm lookin' around for some juicy mysteries.
OLIVAS: How has the Web changed or affected the way you promote your writing?
URREA: Everything I do now has a web element. I honestly think that much of the attention the book has gotten has been driven by litblogs. The combination of litblogs and independent booksellers has been very powerful. Also, the web has managed to create a community outside of promotion/touring/reviews/etc. You can see in my blog that it's like hanging out in the writing room of an author and peeking into his notebooks. The web also affords me immediate response. I hear from someone new every day. Well, every night. They tend to write to me at night when they finish reading the book.
OLIVAS: What question have interviewers failed to ask you that you’d love to answer?
URREA: No one has ever asked me about some of the obscure personal and historical trivia hidden throughout The Hummingbird's Daughter. The whole book is full of family names and tips of the hat to people. Rudy Anaya appears in the book, for example. Teresita accidentally gives Pancho Villa the idea of being called Pancho. There is a character early in the book, an Arab named Swayfeta. He was a real historical character who was John Reed's guide into revolutionary Mexico and is featured in the book, Insurgent Mexico. I get asked spiritual and personal questions constantly. I get asked few concrete writing questions.
OLIVAS: Other than the sequel, are you working on any other projects?
URREA: Absolutely. If there's one thing you can know about me, it's that there are six books circling my brain like small planets any day of the week.
OLIVAS: Thank you for spending time with TEV again.
Luis Alberto Urrea will be promoting the paperback release of The Hummingbird’s Daughter. Some of his upcoming appearances are:
April 5, 2006 7 p.m. Celebrate the paperback release of The Hummingbird's Daughter Reading and signing Anderson's Bookshop Naperville, IL www.andersonsbookshop.com
April 12-13, 2006 Keynote Reading Third Annual Geoconference "Spankin' the Muse" Truman State University Kirksville, MO www.gradeng.truman.edu
April 21-23, 2006 Border Book Festival Mesilla, NM www.borderbookfestival.org