Francisco Cantú Answers the Orion Questionnaire

In which we get to know our favorite writers better by exploring the sacred and mundane.

Francisco Cantú is a writer and translator fascinated by borderlands, a former Fulbright Fellow, recipient of a Whiting Award, and the author of The Line Becomes a River. He loves the desert, asking lots of questions, and the joys of pickup soccer, and wishes he could make pancakes with Selena.


There’s a spider in the room; what do you do?

If it’s somewhere I’m worried about—on the couch, in my bed, my dog’s bed, etc., I’d catch it in a jar and release it outside. Otherwise, let it live its spider life!


What is your most treasured comfort meal?

Probably a simple bean burrito—no cheese, perfectly salted beans, and a chewy Sonoran-style tortilla.


Would you jump at an opportunity to go into space? Why or why not?

As much as I’d love to experience weightlessness and see Earth’s surface recontextualized, I’d probably end up turning this down—I’ve seen too many space movies where it ends badly and there’s enough otherworldly places to visit on Earth . . .


Have you ever been bitten by an animal, wild or domestic?

I remember getting bit by our family dog, Chip, as a kid, because I was trying to inspect his food or pet his face while he was eating. I got a good explanation about why it was important to leave Chip alone during mealtime, and it didn’t traumatize me. I still miss ol’ Chip, and don’t think I’ve been bitten by anyone since.


Ocean, garden, desert, or forest?

Desert all the way.


My favorite tree in the world is _____.

This is probably a toss-up between juniper and piñon . . . they go together, after all!


Nature would be better without _____.

Mosquitoes. I know, I know, every creature is a vital link in the web of life, but are there really not enough other tiny flying insects to cover for the mosquito if it goes missing forever?


What is something you’re looking forward to?

At the moment, I’m looking forward to playing pickup soccer later today, which is something I look forward to at least twice a week. There’s the cardio and exercise component, of course, but beyond that there’s a certain type of mental engagement, attentiveness and improvisation, and above all else, on-field community and camaraderie that I just don’t get anywhere else. Some people on the field are folks I’ve been playing with for over a decade, and when I travel, I always try to sniff out a pickup game too, which is a great way to get to know a place. Soccer, football, whatever you want to call it, is really a worldwide language, and I love it for that too, the instantaneous way it can connect you with people you might otherwise never connect with. My desire to never get injured makes me a cautious player, because I want to keep playing soccer for the long haul—I didn’t start playing until my late twenties, and am hoping to make up for lost golden years by grinding away on the pickup field for pretty much as long as I’m able to move around on two feet.


Do you like scary movies?

For sure, especially ones where you never see the monster—which is what real horror is all about, I think: fear of the unknown and unknowable.


Do you have any unusual hobbies, hidden talents, or superpowers you’d like to share?

Hmm. Maybe one of my superpowers is that I ask tons of questions, and I’m not afraid to look or sound stupid in front of others if I think it’s going to help me understand something. I figured this out when I was a freshman or sophomore in high school, struggling to keep up in a really rigorous chemistry class—I became that kid who just annoyingly asked tons of questions; it even became kind of a joke in the class. In a way, learning to unabashedly ask questions kind of changed my life. It’s certainly one of my most essential tools as a writer, I think, but more generally listening/learning/asking have also enabled me to do all sorts of other things I never thought I’d be capable of. I’m continually surprised by this . . . most recently I’ve been slowly building a guesthouse in our backyard, learning from friends who are skilled in woodworking, welding, natural building, water harvesting, etc.


If you could make pancakes with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?

Oh, that’s easy—Selena Quintanilla Pérez.


Can you make any convincing birdcalls?

I can do a pretty good airy mourning dove call, I think. But it requires me to sort of curl my tongue and stick it out, so hopefully no one asks me to do it in front of them.


What are some of your favorite words?

I love Spanglish and the new words and verbs and ways of speaking it engenders. Voy a parquear la troca. Oye, let’s grab lonche, I’ve got to give you the latest chisme. I love it when someone calls me mijo. I also love when slang expressions slowly creep into formal settings, like when something is referred to as “dope” during a literary panel. Oh, and I’m a huge fan of an expertly deployed curse word in almost any context.


Who are some of your heroes or heroines, real or fictional?

Hmm. Gonna have to go with Selena Quintanilla Pérez again. Her life ended in tragedy, but who else has reached such heights as an almost universally legible pop icon for the joy, fun, and vibrancy of border culture?


You have twenty-four hours suspended from time. Where and how do you spend them?

I think I’d just fly above the landscape like in one of those dreams where you slowly jump higher and higher until you’re suspended in the air, traveling across entire regions and ecosystems, observing the slow transitions and transformations from one place into the another. And if time is suspended, does this mean I can go back in time too? I’d want to visit some of the places I know most intimately before they were cities, before the arrival of industry, infrastructure, militarism, in all different stages in their geologic life.


It’s six o’clock on a summer Saturday, you’re sitting with your feet in a cool creek, and someone hands you the perfect beverage. What is it? 

Oof, as much as I love spirits like mezcal and amaro, with their place-encapsulating narratives and botanicals, if we’re talking about a hot summer day, feet in the creek, it’d be hard to beat a cold can of Tecate doused with salt and lime.


Are you a morning person or a night owl? 

I do my best writing and thinking in the early morning, before e-mails start rolling in and my devices start chiming, and I love that brief sense you sometimes get of carving out a little bit of extra space in a time when most others are sleeping. If feels like bonus time, in a way, and there’s that added treat of sometimes catching a sunrise, little glimpses of the landscape waking, the swelling chatter of birds, all that. And in the desert, during the hottest months, the early morning hours are also the coolest time to be out and about.


Do you remember your dreams?

Yes, but usually only if I make a concerted effort to retrace and revisit the events in my mind when I first wake up. The safer bet is to write something down, even if it’s just a line, but I go in and out of remembering to do this.


Are you optimistic about the future?

At a macro level, looking at our social and economic and political structures—no, not at all. But I’m optimistic about the power of communities, of mutual aid networks, of people taking care of people even as these other systems fail around us.


Would you rather drink a piña colada or get caught in the rain?

As a desert dweller, I can never say no to a good rain.


What is a smell that makes you stop in your tracks?

Creosote after that rain in the desert.


Where did you grow up?

Prescott, Arizona, which is uniquely situated near where the high desert transitions into mile-high forests of juniper/pine/fir. Prescott is also not far from the Mogollon Rim and Colorado Plateau, so depending what direction you travel in, you can be in wooded mountains, canyons, river valleys, dry deserts, or grasslands in about an hour or less.


Are you the same person you were as a child?

That’s a hard one. I feel as if I’m connected by the most tenuous thread to my childhood self, and I’m constantly trying to rediscover and reconnect with that little person, to uncover and exhume the things he found joy and escape in, to connect with the way he saw the world. Sometimes this just equates to simple nostalgia stuff—watching a movie or playing a video game I remember getting lost in as a kid. But other times it’s deeper than that, trying to tap into the mystery of howling wind or the vastness of a view across the desert, imagining myself walking on the grass of a far-off mountainside.


What song or album reminds you of high school?

Yikes, there’s a lot. I probably listened to more music in those days than at any other time in my life. I was into punk and hard-core, but I also liked wistful indie rock and emo. The albums that I remember the most are ones I’d fall asleep to. For some reason there was this album of classical Spanish guitar that I loved; it made my mind wander off to fantastic places. I liked listening to stuff I could get lost in at night—I remember listening to Sigur Rós, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Jets to Brazil, and Radiohead (something about Kid A and OK Computer made me feel like I was a serious person with grown-up tastes).


What did an average Friday night look like for you as a teenager? 

It probably involved hanging out with friends around the courthouse square making inane inside jokes, or maybe a trip to Hastings, our local record/video/book store, where we’d probably end up in the parking lot after closing time, standing around making more inane inside jokes. The night might end with a trip to the nearby Taco Bell, or if it was after they closed, the Denny’s or Whataburger drive-thru, the only two places in town open twenty-four hours.


If you could live anywhere, where would it be?

Probably right here in Tucson, or somewhere nearby. I think there’s too much community here, family and friends and plants and animals I’ve grown to understand and love, for any other place to truly feel like home. But this small part of me always dreamed of living in some tucked-away pueblito in Mexico with a dog and donkey and a garden, or maybe in a small mountain village in Japan with hot springs and a bathhouse.


Do you step on sidewalk cracks?

Sure, although I remember trying very hard not to as a kid.


You’re in a deserted island situation for an unknown period of time. You get three items and one book. What do you bring?

If we’re talking about survival, I’d say a knife, an endless supply of fresh water, regionally appropriate seeds for planting, and a field guide to local flora and fauna.


What would you like to be most remembered for? 

Being a great dad, a loving partner, and a generous community member.


What flower would you want pinned to your breast after you die?

Gosh, maybe a little bundle of creosote and paloverde flowers. Or a little bundle of juniper and piñon, although neither of those are flowers.


If you could come back as any organism, who or what would you be?

As a kid, I dreamed about being reincarnated as a dolphin. Today, I feel like maybe I’d want to come back as lichen on a rock with a nice view, or maybe as a network of mycelium on the forest floor. It also doesn’t sound like a bad deal to come back as a dog in a good home, alternating all day between relaxation and play.


Read Camille T. Dungy’s answers to the Orion Questionnaire here.

Francisco Cantú is a writer, translator, and author of The Line Becomes a River, winner of the 2018 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction. A former Fulbright Fellow, he has been the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Whiting Award, and an Art for Justice Fellowship. His writing and translations have been featured in The New Yorker, Best American Essays, Granta, and VQR, as well as on This American Life. A lifelong resident of the Southwest, he now lives in Tucson and coordinates the Field Studies in Writing program at the University of Arizona, a residency that fosters work at the intersection of border justice and environmental issues.