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the book report

For his latest novel, The House of Broken Angels, Luis Alberto Urrea tapped into his family experiences, including the death of his own brother.

As with many Americans, the U.S.-Mexico border runs through Luis Alberto Urrea's life. Born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother, Urrea was raised in San Diego. His 17 works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry – including Queen of America, The Hummingbird's Daughter and The Devil's Highway – concern these borderlands as well as borders within the soul. His latest novel, The House of Broken Angels, is the story of the De La Cruz family, set during the dying days of patriarch "Big Angel," amid a birthday party to end all birthday parties.

This novel contains some elements of your own family's story. As a writer, what do you find so compelling about family?

I have often said I come from a family of unreliable narrators. I tend to believe their struggles with racism, identity, nationality do dovetail with my motivation to write.

I find myself trying to define Mexico to those north of the line, while at the same time trying to explain North America to those south of the line. And the borderlands on either side form a long serpentine third nation that remains unnamed. My family inhabits all three worlds. My mother, after all, was from New York. My journey from a dirt street in Tijuana to the rest of the world has been remarkable within the mythology of that family. So in some ways, I am waving a banner from the top of each hill I am allowed to climb: "Hey, I'm here. Come this way!" My hope is that that waving flag can be seen and recognized by all families, not just my own.

Who was the hardest character to write?

Since this novel was inspired by own brother's death, the character of Big Angel provided me with a complex challenge – to be inspired by my brother, but not to create a pastiche of his quirks. The task at hand is to make him a breathing character who could be the big brother of anyone, even a Trumpite. That would feel like the true work. Working through the stages of Big Angel was my own working through the stages of grief. Having observed the remarkable final birthday party gave me the challenge to write what I call "the Mexican Finnegans Wake." I think we all wrestle with elements of our own tribes. The great challenge in creating this character was at that borderline between my brother Juan and the imaginary Big Angel.

This is set prior to the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, but still contains references to the wall, Dreamers and deportations. Is the time significant?

It would be more virulent if it were set right now. I was tamping down both personal grief and profound political rage. Although this was not intended as a polemic against the current regime, it is very much a polemic against the current regime. I rewrote sections as the noise about "bad hombres" got louder because I was very aware how American families who happen to be Mexican were being portrayed. I have been the recipient of that kind of idiocy all my life and I could not let it go unanswered. I wanted to control the image of these American families.

Does publishing this novel now feel any different than your previous books?

This feels different because I believe it's the best work I have done. But my novel will be seen as an immigrant story to all those immigrants who settled in North America. The political climate is often complicated for writers with surnames like mine. The subliminal cultural message seems to be: Immigrant roots lead to ghetto, and a permanent place in some fever dream of an underclass. This paradigm has applied to Chinese, Japanese, Irish, Italian, Jewish, even German immigrants to the U.S. Why couldn't a family with Mexican roots be an American family? I don't want my book to be a subset of American fiction, a Mexican-American novel. It is the story of an American family.

So much of your writing is about the border, but you've eschewed the label "border writer." Why?

Borders are liminal spaces. Anyone worthy of the title of "writer" is a border writer. We all are border people. My topic is the seemingly impenetrable wall that divides us as human beings. The stupidity of militarized fences between two worlds is a metaphor for all the things that divide us as human beings. I'm a theological writer mistaken for a political writer. My theme is: grace versus karma.

Who do you most admire in writing about borders?

A writer who has had immense resonance within my "Latino" community is a fierce border crosser. By border, I mean all those liminal spaces we have spoken of. She covers immense landscapes in her seminal work. Gloria Anzaldua is her name and the book you should read is Borderlands/La Frontera.

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