Foundry No. 2 reader Jean Guerrero recently won the esteemed PEN/Fusion Prize for her memoir, Crux. Jean is going to be featured in our next installment of the Foundry, our new literary reading series, featuring stories and readings by touring authors, writers living in San Diego, and our favorite emerging literary citizens. Details here. Jean will also be reading with Aaron Burch, Juliet Escoria, Uzodinma Okehi, Scott McClanahan, and Jim Ruland.
A gorgeous and heart-wrenching portion of her manuscript, Crux, was performed as “VHS Vortex” in our August 2015 VAMP: Red Flags storytelling showcase. We also admire and respect the work Jean does in journalism. Check out this piece for KPBS on the deadly police raids in Tijuana tunnels: http://www.kpbs.org/news/2016/jan/28/tijuana-migrants-hide-tunnels-police-raids-get-dea/
To prepare for the reading and get you all excited to hear Jean read, So Say We All’s Julia Dixon Evans talked with Jean about her book, her work, the nature of truth in storytelling, and winning the PEN/Fusion prize.
So Say We All’s Julia Dixon Evans: Jean! Congratulations! Are you still buzzing with excitement about this, or has it begun to sink in?
Jean Guerrero: Crux has been my dream for so many years – to see it recognized this way feels like some kind of hallucination. I’m surprised so many weeks have passed since the announcement and I still haven’t woken up.
JDE: When did you start writing this project, your memoir, Crux?
JG: The first version of Crux was a novel. In college, I was afraid to approach the naked truth when it came to my own life. But I made the decision to pursue journalism as a career because telling the truth about the world outside myself was comparatively easy and exciting. Plus, striving to become a novelist (and studying creative writing) seemed too fanciful. I didn’t believe you could be taught how to be creative. Two creative writing professors told me my decision was a mistake – that journalism would strip my writing of creativity and magic and severely limit its power to inspire.
It wasn’t until I started my career as a journalist that I realized how magical pure nonfiction can be. True fairy tales can be excavated from facts. As someone who was born and raised in the U.S. but comes of Mexican and Puerto Rican parents, I have faith in science and objectivity but can’t entirely discount the supernatural. So in 2013, I pursued an MFA in creative nonfiction through the low-residency program at Goucher College to write what is now Crux, which journalistically explores alternative explanations for what I grew up believing was my father’s “schizophrenia,” and some of them are mystical.
JDE: Your book is about searching: For understanding, for history, for explanations, for reconciliations. At what point in this lifelong search did you become aware of the search? And at what point did you realize that you would be/were recording it?
JG: I was self-destructive as a teenager, thanks to the conviction that I was doomed to become “schizophrenic” like my father. I was writing essays and short stories about him, but I always saw it more as an escape or exorcism – like venting – than a search. Sophomore year of college, I was hospitalized for cutting my wrists, and I decided to minor in neuroscience. I found myself attending creative writing classes to write fiction about my father. The writing itself – as well as my study of dendrites, axon potentials and the Diagnostic Statistical Manual – made me very aware of the fact that I was searching for understanding.
Coincidentally, around this time, my father started telling me his story. I was captivated, and I suddenly felt that the beliefs I had grown up with – that he was a paranoid schizophrenic, that I had a genetic predisposition toward craziness – were not the truth, at least not with a capital T. It was kind of a perfect storm.
JDE: One of my favorite parts of the excerpt you read for us at our August 2015 VAMP showcase, “Red Flags,” is this line: “Moments after my father took this photograph, the two entered the tent behind her to mix the witch’s brew of me. I search for myself in the sinister blackness lurching toward my mother from the direction of the sea.” There’s something vaguely unsettling in writing about the personal lives of our parents and ancestors, and you tackle it with a really graceful curiosity. How do you do this? Do you classify these real people as characters? Or is there a current of reality in every line you write?
JG: As a journalist, and as someone who studied creative nonfiction at Goucher College, where they are fanatic about Truth, I feel very strongly about sticking to the truth and nothing but the truth. Once you blur the line between fact and fiction, you forfeit any chance of revelation from your writing – at least in nonfiction. Fiction is another story, of course. In nonfiction, you’re breaking a pact with the reader when you fabricate or exaggerate. Most likely, the reader is going to sense that lack of sincerity and put down the book. If you assume the reader is stupid, your writing is going to be rudimentary.
JDE: I think what I really meant was: Do you need to distance yourself from them? Stop thinking of them as family and think of them as…perhaps a more journalistic term for it would be “subjects”? Like, is it easier for you to think and write of their personal lives so thoroughly if they’re not your mother and father but someone (still real) that is separate from you? Coming at writing/teaching memoir and personal narrative from a creative writing standpoint, it can help beginners (and me sometimes) to stop thinking of someone as “mom” or even “I,” and start thinking of them as a character or narrator. Not out of a fictionalization sense, but as a way of letting the story take hold, seeking character development, stakes, etc. I am definitely committed to truth in non-fiction writing, though I know some personal essayists have different takes on that.
JG: Your strategy of distancing yourself from your subject matter – at least in the beginning – makes sense. I guess you could argue that’s why my initial instinct was to approach the material as fiction.
But for me, the real insights emerged only when the writing became very personal. I’m trying to understand myself through my family. I’m not trying to expose anyone. I don’t presume to know what’s right or wrong when it comes to other people.
JDE: We loved seeing you perform in VAMP, and I think many of us learned a lot from you – to name one thing: telling a story that was (on the surface) about these other people, your parents, but was so deeply and wholly about you. What are some things you learned about your writing or your story during the VAMP process?
JG: I was just starting out as a radio and TV reporter, so the performance training I received through VAMP was very useful. In MFA programs, you aren’t taught how to read aloud. Writers tend to oscillate between monotone and melodramatic tones. I think learning how to read your stories aloud in a compelling way helps you inject a more authentic voice into your writing. It creates a sort of bridge between how you talk and how you write. You start to sound a lot more like yourself, in both speech and prose.
JDE: You’re a journalist, working for KPBS in San Diego. How has journalism shaped your memoir writing? And how has your work on Crux in turn shaped what you do as a journalist, or which stories you are drawn to?
JG: Journalism gave me the tools to dig deep into my family history. One of my favorite chapters relies almost exclusively on the paper trail of my ancestors. My first job after graduating college was as a foreign correspondent for Mexico City – my father’s birthplace. My career has always led me in the direction of writing Crux the true way.
As for how Crux shaped me as a journalist – my manuscript is largely about migration. My beat is the border. The themes run in perfect parallel. When I’m reporting, I’m most attracted to sources who remind me of my father: male outcasts with eccentric personalities. It’s worth noting, by the way, that the superstar journalist Gay Talese recently offended hundreds of female journalists, including myself, when he said his idols in journalism exclude women because “educated women” aren’t interested in the antisocial characters he finds magnetic. In fact, I know more women than men who are fascinated by Dostoevskian types.
JDE: San Diego has a vibrant writing community. Are you a solitary writer, or do you thrive on this community? Or a mixture of both?
JG: I knew a writer in Mexico City who threw parties when he wanted to write. He brought his desk into a corner of his living room and pounded at his keyboard while everyone drank and talked around him. He felt most inspired in the midst of this chaos. It was impressive – I wish I could do that! But I need to be alone to focus. That said, I’m thrilled about San Diego’s literary community. The story of how I learned of its existence is embarrassing, so I’ll tell it. I was living at my mom’s house, transitioning from Mexico to the U.S., sitting on the living room couch in pajamas, wearing no makeup, depressed about a deteriorating relationship and the fact that I was living with my mother, when the magical writer Lizz Huerta just materialized in front of me. She asked: “Are you a writer?” She just appeared like that, all gorgeous in her paint-stained overalls, posing that perfect question. I had no idea who she was or why she was in my house. It turns out she was painting the railing on my mom’s staircase – for those who don’t already know, Lizz’s talents are infinite. Anyway, she was bonding with my mom about their shared Puerto Rican heritage when she noticed my bookshelf and came looking for me. At the time, I thought there was no writing community in San Diego. Huerta enlightened me. It was one of the best days of 2015 for me.
JDE: What are you working on right now?
JG: I’ve been polishing my manuscript with my agent. But after dwelling inside of it for so long, cutting and carving and creating, I feel I have gone blind to it. I stare at sentences and have this sense they’re in a foreign language, or even hieroglyphics. It’s like when you gape at any object for too long – it starts to look kind of alien and incomprehensible. I spoke to Huerta about this, and she told me the solution was simple: to go have an affair – as in, a little fling with fiction. Apparently all professional writers know this is the secret to rekindling creative fire. It seems to be working. I’m writing a short story about an alcoholic deportee who sleeps with cockroaches in Tijuana while he dreams of his family across the border.
JDE: I know exactly what you mean. And that sounds amazing, and it sounds like exactly the sort of story I would read and then call Lizz and demand that she read it too.
Congratulations again. We are so proud and thrilled for you, and we can’t wait to hear you read from Crux at The Foundry No. 2 on July 30th. And best of luck with the book as it makes its way into the world!
Come hear Jean read! July 30th, 7 PM, at Tiger Eye Hair in Golden Hill: https://www.facebook.com/events/1762857903955708/
Jean Guerrero is the 2016 recipient of the PEN/FUSION Emerging Writers award for her manuscript Crux, a cross-border memoir about her quest to understand her Mexican father, whom she grew up believing was schizophrenic. She is the Fronteras reporter at KPBS, San Diego’s NPR and PBS affiliate, where she covers immigration and other border issues. Previously, she was a correspondent in Mexico City for the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires, trekking through mountains with coffee smugglers, opium poppy producers and maize farmers. More recently, she ventured into Tijuana’s sewers to expose the plight of deported migrants. She holds a master’s in creative nonfiction from Goucher College, as well as a University of Southern California bachelor’s in journalism and minor in neuroscience. She is half Mexican, half Puerto Rican.