At a variety of venues, this year’s Community Read author, discussed with community members young and old the value of literature, the revelatory process of writing and honoring and expressing one’s personal truth.
Luis Alberto Urrea, a culture-, nationality- and genre-crossing author of “Into the Beautiful North,” the 2013 Community Reads: Inyo County Reading One Book novel, talked about his personal and professional life and the writing process as a means of self-discovery, social interaction and cultural bridge-building. He also stressed the importance of listening, talking and reading toward those ends.
Bishop was the last stop on Urrea’s four-month book-promotion road trip with his journalist wife, Cindy. He said he loves the Sierra and had always been curious about the mix of cultures here.
At Urrea’s first Bishop engagement, a reception on Monday evening, guests met the author and mingled, sharing impressions of “Into the Beautiful North.” The consensus among guests was that the novel provided a comfortable platform on which to discuss an issue that is uncomfortable for many people: immigration. Retired Superintendent of Schools George Lozito said, “This is a catalyst to discuss topics that stay under the carpet and shouldn’t be.” Film Commissioner Chris Langley said of the novel, “It was eye-opening and horrifying to see the challenges a lot of people have to endure even if they are in this country.” Northern Inyo Hospital Language Services Manager Jose Garcia said, “This type of event brings us all together.”
Guests also praised the novel’s style – “interesting twists,” “incredibly descriptive,” “strong characters,” “horizon-broadening,” “handles a serious, difficult issue with great humor.”
Betty Denton said, “Into the Beautiful North” is a “good book but (Urrea’s) two histories were even better.”
As it happens, “Into the Beautiful North” is a reaction to those histories, Urrea said. “I needed to laugh.” Still, he choose the immigration topic because his “mandate is a literature of witness.” (One of the histories, “The Hummingbird’s Daughter,” is headed for the big screen, Urrea said, with Antonio Banderas and Ivana Baquero already cast.)
After the reception, Urrea met with the public at the Bishop Union High School auditorium. McAteer’s introduction included several statistics: about half of Americans read only one book a year – “we need more readers to be able to celebrate great literature” – and “97 percent of us” have immigrant roots.
Urrea delivered on his reputation for entertaining while edifying. The audience alternated between bursts of laughter and attentive, leaning-in silence as Urrea regaled them with personal stories about how his work paralleled, diverged from and is inspired by childhood experiences and larger-than-life relatives in Tijuana.
No slouch himself, in his twenties, Urrea did missionary work among the people who lived on garbage dumps, seeing horrors he hadn’t known existed in Tijuana, just blocks away from where he grew up. Once, as he washed the feet of 300 beggars, Urrea said, “I thought I was so righteous; I was blessing them with my largess.” Then he began to sob, realizing, “they were blessing me with their wounds and their kindness.”
Urrea said he learned much more there. When a missionary wanted to keep a mud-encrusted, coin-studded belt he’d found but didn’t want to take from resident peddlers’ livelihood, a tiny old woman said, “Brother, this is the dump. There’s plenty for everyone.” Hence, Urrea uses border settings to create discussions about “the things that separate people all over the world, even when they think there is no fence.”
To an audience question about skills necessary to an aspiring writer, Urrea said, “You can’t think of fame, money and popularity. You write because you can’t not write. Pay attention. Read like crazy. Tell the truth, even when you lie. Never stop practicing. Know what you want to say” and most of all, “fill the pen with love, or don’t write.”
Tuesday morning, Urrea spoke to more than a 1,000 Bishop, Big Pine, Round Valley and Benton students in the Bishop Activity Center. The kids had some great questions said Urrea. “What kind of stories did you write as a child?” asked one. Scifi and poetry, said Urrea. “What’s your favorite Doors song?” The End. “If you’re not strong in the English language, how can you be a writer?” That’s what editor’s are for, Urrea said, “but write for yourself. The soul speaks the same language you speak.”
After the presentation, a girl said, “I only write poetry when I’m mad.” “Me, too,” said the author, “and when I’m sad.” Poetry is “what you are at the core of yourself … Mad is like Popeye’s spinach. Keep strengthening and one day, (the words) rise up out of you.”
Another girl expressed doubts about her personal value. Urrea identified. “I think about me as a kid and I don’t like that kid, so I try to think about how I can help him.”
Urrea also offered help to a local probation officer who wants to start a writing program to help youth access inner turmoil and issues.
The author was building bridges up to the last minute.
“To end like this is the most meaningful thing you could possibly do, Urrea said.”