January 25, 2012, by Jennifer Sahn
Luis Alberto Urrea (pronounced oo-RAY-uh, FYI) is a cultural and literary shape shifter. Born in Tijuana, Mexico, to a Mexican father and an American mother, he has received critical acclaim for his fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, as well as awards far too numerous to name (inquiring minds, go here). Many consider Urrea to be the Latino bad boy of the literary establishment, a title he sports with pride. His first piece for Orion, “Working the Line,” was accompanied by a collection of photos from the borderlands by David Taylor. It was followed by his rollicking short story “The Southside Raza Image Federation Corps of Discovery.” When Luis accepted our invitation to become an Orion columnist I was so excited that I ran around the office giving high-fives. His column The Wastelander will appear thrice yearly, beginning with his inaugural offering, “Night Shift,” in the January/February 2012 issue.
Is The Wastelander man, myth, or legend?
The Wastelander is man, myth, and legend. I stumbled on the phrase in a used book of synonyms from the ’50s. I guess “wastelander” was hip-talk for writer. Aha, I thought. That’s me. It resonated and became a code word for a prose-sketching style a la Kerouac—fleet wild visions of the speeding landscape as I hurtled around on my journeys. And dang if I didn’t write most happily in…well…wastelands. So it permeated my more formal prose, too.
If The Wastelander can be said to have a beat, what would that be?
The beat of The Wastelander is the clickety-clack of freight train wheels on a long dry weedy stretch of old rails; it’s the screaking of a pump-jack nodding all night in West Texas; it’s the clocking of Harry Dean Stanton’s bootheels on some hardpan out there; it’s the slow moan of border wind through a chain-link fence.
Why do these down-and-out places appeal to you so strongly? Or are they trying to suck you in?
The wastelands appeal to me for their freedom. And their ghosts. Man, it’s haunted out there. Dead tech, abandoned gas stations, that ruined motel near the Pecos full from wall to wall with bones that could be deer, could be human. I myself am a wasteland; got a desert in me that yearns for a rainforest. You can’t be from the Mexican border and the beat-down barrio and not find some kind of frightening comfort in gravel lots.
In the inaugural installment of The Wastelander, feces play a starring role. And yet your desire is to bestow dignity on places like this glorified RV parking lot. How do you navigate that narrative tension?
If we look to the Gospel of St. James (Brown), we find him telling Maceo Parker, “Whatsoever it is, it’s got to be funky.” Amen to that. Was it Chekhov who said that feces were as important as roses to a chemist? That’s us. Things are sacred, even when we can’t see it. And holy fire is found not on the mountaintop, not in the rays of the apocalyptic sunset, but down here…in the mud. If you find dignity and sacredness here in the funk, then you have really found something. Something real.
Can you describe some landscapes and characters readers can expect to encounter in future installments of The Wastelander?
In future Wastelanders, I am attacked by an alligator because I pissed on her eggs in the wicked swamp. We will stand in the Tijuana garbage dump and ponder why its trash pickers are no less noble than our heroic sod busters of western American lore—Wastelanders both, who lived in the same damned house. Love the gravel lots, y’all. Love the big empty wind.
Jennifer Sahn is editor of Orion.