Some politicians paint such a dire picture of the Texas/Mexico border it’s natural to wonder where all this is leading.
The border is a place steeped in a real humanitarian crisis, an imperiled environmental quagmire, and the inflamed rhetoric about walls.
Fernando A. Flores imagines life on the border in the near-future in his novel "Tears of the Trufflepig."
This border is a place where there has been a global food shortage. The wealthy elite survive on what is known as "filtering," a process by which vegetables and then animals are engineered and created for meat and fur.
This is an imagined space where there are now two border walls and a third one is about to be built.
Flores' protagonist must deal with these large issues even while he mourns the deaths of his daughter and wife.
Then a new threat emerges: those with an indigenous heritage could fall prey to a shrunken-head industry.
If that sounds absurd, that's because life is, too, and what seems so surreal in the ficitional town of MacArthur, seems all too real with Fernando Flores as our guide through a Texas/Mexico border that simply isn't far off the beaten path as his character thinks wistfully of earlier times when life was simpler.
Now all he can do is try to survive these new treacheries while hanging on to his love of literature, art, film, and music.
Texas Public Radio contributor Yvette Benavides interviewed Fernando A. Flores about his novel, "Tears of the Trufflepig." It's published by MCD & FSG Originals.
YB: So, before we talk about the novel, I want to ask you about your life as a book seller in Austin because for me it seems like that is such a dream job, but at the same time, what is immersing yourself in books as you've done? Even when you were, I read you were working on the campus of the University of PanAm and kind of hiding out in the library and doing a bunch of your meeting there. So what has that done for your writing life?
FF: Well, I was in the food industry for nine years, almost a decade. And it allowed me to take a big leap and try to immerse my life in books. It allowed me to also see how the publishing industry worked. I really had no idea. I really had no idea anything about the publishing industry, about the differences between independent books, independent presses, big presses. And it allowed me to be oriented to what's in print and what is out there, what is coming out all the time. It allows me to also visualize what was going on in literature. How is this big huge beast that is literature is moving slugging through time.
YB: The one of the things I've realized about you, just from my research, is that you are extremely well read. It's very impressive. I'm thinking about the ways in which you have had this exposure to the way publishing works and to sort of having maybe even being this barometer for what's out there. And knowing where there are gaps or where the demand is. But at the same time what was kind of unusual about your particular case that kind of flies in the face of what most people think about the publishing world is that you wrote this book really fast.
FF: I did, yes. Three months,
YB: Three months; that is really, really quick. And, and you also engaged sort of right off the bat with a publisher who is very interested in you and you worked with the editor. But that's not a typical kind of story.
FF: Yeah, definitely. At the time when I wrote this, I wrote the whole thing just in three months. And from October, 2014 to January, 2015 and I typed the whole thing on an Olivetti Underwood literate, 32 a typewriter. Really at the time, I also didn't know how to publish a book. After I typed the whole thing out, I put it into the computer. I started looking for an agent and that took a long time. That took like a year. And then I took another year and a half of doing a few revisions. And then I had a series of extremely fortunate events I found my publishers.
YB: But what was that process like? I mean, you must have just been completely immersed, obsessed
FF: Definitely. I had never in my life being given the opportunity of time to work on projects. In my life when I moved to Austin, Texas in 2005, I did so knowing that I had no interest in getting a car or getting a job that will pay well, my interest was just to survive however I could so that I could write and read as much as possible. So I live my life very minimalistically. After doing that for such a long time and I won an award in the summer of 2014 by the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation. I lost my job within a week also of getting that award. I got laid off and I got hired at the bookstore all within 10 days. But I got hired at the bookstore to work only two days a week. So out of convenience, I was like, okay, I was given a little bit of prize money, it's now or never. Either this prize money's gonna run out one day and I'm going to have to get either another job or work longer hours at the bookstore, so here it is - now or never. So my driving force primarily was the fear of running both out of time and out of money.
YB: Wow. And this was the book, like this was the book that was on the line for you, right.
FF: This is the book. So I did, so in that time I said to myself, look, I'm either going to revise old projects, go through old projects and try to make a book out of them, or I'm going to do something completely new and different that I've never done before. So to me, that was more enticing to the go to who is the unknown.
YB: And how did you come upon this particular idea? Like, or maybe can you give us just the briefest spoiler free synopsis of the book for those who haven't read it?
FF: Yes. “Tears Of the Truffle Pig” takes place like in an alternate South Texas with two border walls and a controversial third border wall about to be erected. And it's about a widower looking for his brother who got kidnapped by a headhunting syndicate, which is a syndicate that finds people and they cut their heads off and shrink their heads and sells them on the underground art market. And the darker your skin is, the more your head is worth. Also after this worldwide food shortage scientists create this technology where in these troughs they grow crops and food in a rapid manner and an accelerated manner, which then eventually it evolves into growing farm animals. And also in this world drugs have been legalized.
And in the background of all this there are the indigenous people of South Texas and the myth it comes along with them. They like 500 years before our narrative starts, they had disappeared mysteriously, but also 50 years prior where I needed to start to stay somehow started returning to South Texas. And people are remembering the, their myth and this creature, they worship, which is the truffle pig, which is, if you can imagine a like a pig would reptilian skin and hooves like a deer and a beak like an eagle. And there are myths about this truffle pig having magical characteristics. So, along all this the syndicates fighting for power down in South Texas steals 13 of the Olmec Heads in Mexico overnight to sell at an underground art auction. So all these things are spinning around throughout, throughout this narrative.
YB: There's so many things, but you do such a good job of keeping the, the story very clear for us. In this novel there are these layers. I'm going to call it surrealism. And there's this kind of rough hewn dystopian landscape as the backdrop for every other strange element in the story. That's just a little bit surreal and yet it's grounded in this very verisimilitude and, and these realities about the border and about people and about myths and culture and our obsession with food and the threat of starvation. There are so many elements that are so interesting. But I want to ask you about that surrealism because sometimes readers are turned off by the idea. They just want to kind of a straight up story. They don't, they don't see surrealism or these kinds of fantastical elements as useful for a story. But what do you see as the importance of these elements? What do they help you do in telling a story?
FF: Yes. It's very interesting to me because in our history of literature this idea of what we call realism is really only about 500 years old. It's still very much a modern concept in our evolution. And the oldest stories that anybody has that we all have collectively as a people are fantastical stories. It is the oldest story is that existed in the Americas, here in Texas before 1492. I bet you they were all fantastical stories, just because nobody wrote them down does not make them any less real or present in this land. So I was very much interested in trying to access some of that lost mythology that we have. But because of this, I don't know, maybe a cultural western concept of what literature is, which is people see it as the reflection of our everyday lives. But to me that is like saying an imitation of something is more valuable than something that is complete that is imagined from the ground up.
YB: This book would you start started in 2014 actually addresses a number of the subjects that we're dealing with today in ways that are prophetic. So even if you're not intending to be political or making political statements it's prophetic in ways that I think can come from someone who spent a lot of time on the border and also from someone who's removed from it and can develop a, a pretty clear eyed perspective about it. I mean, most of us from the border, I think live with the fear of the promise of the nightmarish reality that we're living in right now about border walls and military spaces and living under the thumb of corrupt political machines. But did, did you have in mind when you started the book that that this is where we were headed in 2019
FF: I don't think I had any way of knowing to be honest. I will say this though, when I put the two border walls in the book and with the third border wall coming up, I knew immediately any society that is absurd enough to build one border wall, we'll build another one after that and because it's not going to work. And then after that there was another one because it's not going to work. And then they'll remember how good a time they had putting up a wall. So when people say “Build That Wall” build five walls, none of them are going to work. So to me, something that I appreciate about writing, about literature, trying to write a story, I try to give myself as much silence as possible. It takes me a long time to try to access what I see as the unknown.
To me, writing the story, you know, came from an unknown place. It was written so fast because of things that I was afraid of, where it would lead me if I didn't do it fast.
So, also I was really influenced by an idea I got from working at the bookstore. There was this tiny book from this press called New Directions. This is the oldest independent publisher in the United States. It has been around since 1936. They put out a little book called Revelations. And I asked myself, how do you write a prophecy? How do you just sit down and write a prophecy? And the obvious answer was - well, you know, you sit down, you start writing it, and then you keep doing it till it’s finished.
That's the way to do it. So to me, that's how I remembered that. That's what I tried to remember. I was all right, I have to write this book. And how do you write a book? Well, you sit down and you do it until you finish.