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Between the Lost and the Found

(Photo by Mathieu Bourgois)

(Photo by Mathieu Bourgois)

{mosimage} Before reading from his novel Lost City Radio at Skylight Books in Los Feliz recently, Peruvian-born author Daniel Alarcón shared a tiny item from The New York Times that captured in just a few lines the sort of human drama he is drawn to as a writer. It was about a woman in Thailand who was separated from her family for 25 years, lost after boarding the wrong bus. Holding a jacketless copy of his novel, Alarcón then said: “This is a book about missing people.”

It was a deceptive description. In exploring the lives of people who’ve gone missing, Alarcón actually succeeds in finding people, connecting them across cultures and continents, both in fiction and in real life. I saw as much after his reading, when the author ambled over to a friend’s comfy apartment in the Los Feliz hills to celebrate his 30th birthday. Alarcón’s Southern California circle included people who appeared worldly in a sense not often associated with the term: young people of color, many children of immigrants, writers and educators, and creative types enriched by experiences living or growing up in Africa, India, Mexico, L.A., New York City and beyond. Alarcón, even-tempered and well-mannered, spent the evening dining on boxed sushi, nursing a bottle of Dewar’s whiskey and collecting congratulations.

He deserved a party. Lost City Radio is the culmination of nearly eight years of research and writing that establishes Alarcón as a major new literary talent. His talents were first announced with the 2003 publication of a short story, “City of Clowns,” in The New Yorker. It was his debut as a fiction writer. By then, he had completed a degree at Columbia University, taught public school in Harlem for two years, and was halfway through the prestigious Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. He had also spent a year in Lima on a Fulbright scholarship, teaching photography to youth in an impoverished outlying district called San Juan de Lurigancho. For a time, Alarcón lived there in a $15-a-month room above a bodega. The experience partly inspired a widely celebrated story collection, War by Candlelight, published in 2005.

Throughout all this, Lost City Radio was taking shape. Alarcón began collecting material during a trip to Lima in 1999 to research the life of his uncle Javier, a leftist professor who was “disappeared” 10 years earlier during the violent Shining Path guerrilla war that over two decades claimed 69,000 lives. His uncle’s life is the basis for the character Rey, a university botanist who ventures into the jungle and gradually becomes involved in a guerrilla movement. During his time in Lima, Alarcón was an avid fan of a radio show called Buscapersonas, or “People Finder.” In Lost City Radio, the host of the fictional program is Norma, a national superstar whose world is jolted when Victor, a small boy from the jungle, arrives at her station with a list of his town’s missing. Among the names is an alias for her missing husband, Rey.

“It was this family story that I really wanted to tell,” Alarcón told me. “You’re not ever your characters, but in a sense, you are always your characters too. Norma, specifically — once I got her, once she got me.”

Although Lost City Radio is set in a nameless South American city shattered by years of war, it is clearly inspired primarily by the story of Peru and its civil war. The conflict is depicted in the novel as a slow-moving phenomenon in which perpetrators, victims and even motives are arbitrary and often unknown. In the war’s aftermath, rural people are abandoning the rainforest and countryside and pouring into urban zones that are swollen and constantly expanding. In this way, in the age of globalization, the novel could be taking place in Beijing or Karachi or Mumbai or Mexico City or even, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles.

Alarcón, a slight guy with a fluffy shock of slate-brown hair, was born in Lima and raised in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. He studied abroad in Ghana and now lives in the Fruitvale district of Oakland. Dubbed “the model for a certain kind of future great American novelist” by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he’s a writer one can comfortably call the voice for this generation, shaped by a global culture that is constantly shifting and expanding. The day after his reading, we met at Piper’s diner in Koreatown for breakfast and a wide-ranging, border-crossing discussion.

L.A. WEEKLY: As I understand it, you began researching this novel by interviewing people who knew your uncle in Lima, and then interviewing people in other South American countries recovering from war. So you started it much as a journalist would.

DANIEL ALARCÓN: I very rarely write anything about myself, my own life, so it was natural for me to want to use the tools of a journalist to go out and pursue the story. It turned out [my uncle] had known a lot of people. Politicians, union leaders, workers — they remembered him very well. People wanted to talk about him, and then there were all these silences around the end of his life. The way someone’s presence expands in your imagination once they disappear is what I really wanted to address.

Your book also explores the effects of migration on the psyche. This is something you have direct knowledge of, having moved from Peru to Alabama. How did growing up in Birmingham affect your sense of the world?

For me, for everyone, the first thing people think of is the issue of race, and at the time, there were so few Others. Everyone was black or white; people don’t really know what to do with Others. When I was growing up there, it felt like people were from the South, ‘FROM’ in capital letters, and I mean black folks and white folks who went back generations and generations in the South. In a way, it felt for me like a place I was passing through. I would go to college and never come back. And some of that has to do with the fact that the South is a place of such history, and people are totally tethered to the land.

{mosimage}Why did you go to New York?

I really didn’t consider going anywhere else. It was exactly what I wanted. There was a jazz show I used to listen to late at night out of New York, Jazz After Hours. I remembered they would always announce all the shows that were happening in New York. I was really a big fan of the Velvet Underground, and I felt Lou Reed was kind of the bard of New York. So those two reasons were enough. In New York, suddenly being Latino felt relevant, a city where 25 percent of the population is Latino. Or that at the time, by the 2000 census, 40 percent of the population had been born abroad, which is astonishing. It does feel like it’s the capital of the world. But there’s also, unfortunately, a certain provincialism in New Yorkers, so they don’t feel like they ever have to take the trouble to go anywhere, because the world comes to them. And that’s an unfortunate aspect of it. The periphery knows more about the center than the center knows about the periphery.

What do you think of L.A.?

Each time, I like it more and more. In this weird way, Oakland exists more in the orbit of L.A. than it does San Francisco. It’s something about the lifestyle of Oakland, I think. Maybe the driving culture, the fact that it’s a little more spread out, it’s more of the arrival point for immigrants. I think of L.A. right now as being the capital of Latino culture in the United States, in the way Miami might once have been if it weren’t so . . . wack. I feel like Miami is where the ruling classes of our various countries go to shop, whereas L.A. is the place where the working classes come — to work and pursue the American Dream. Like L.A. is a necessity and Miami is a choice. That’s why I love L.A., and I think Oakland has more of that than San Francisco.

The city in Lost City Radio is made up. Why didn’t you write a historical novel?

It’s just more fun to make it up. I had a map of Lima in front of my desk the whole time, and just went over it with a bright marker and drew new boundaries and put names on all the districts. It took me a long time, but it was really fun: the Monument district, Collectors, Tamoé, Miamiville, Venice because it always floods, the Settlement, the Thousands. Some of those names are districts of Accra, the capital of Ghana, where I lived for a while.

I’m sure you hear from Latin Americans that the city in Lost City Radio sounds like their city. To me, it felt like Mexico City.

I love Mexico City. I was there in 2004. It felt like New York with Mexicans in it. To a Peruvian, Mexico City looks so rich. Peru hasn’t made peace with the fact that it’s a nation of indigenous people. And that affects everything. And, you know, I don’t want to idealize Mexican national identity in any way, but it does seem like something very agile has been accomplished in terms of creating this mestizo identity. Certainly, this hasn’t yet been accomplished in Peru. An example is the upper-class Mexican guy named Cuauhtémoc. There’s no corollary to that in Peru.

There’s a passage in the book in which a street-vendor lady says to Victor and his teacher shortly after they arrive in the city, “You people have ruined this place.” That definitely sounds familiar for Mexico.

It’s an unintended consequence, or in many cases an intended consequence: You know, bankrupt the countryside, take all of its wealth for the benefit of the city, and when people inevitably come to live and eat and work, it’s, “Oh my God, they’re ruining this place.” One can’t exist without the other, the wealth of the city can’t exist without the relative poverty of the countryside. So yeah, of course you hear it in Mexico. You hear it in Peru all the time too. You see it playing out in generations too, in terms of people assimilating into the city and then acquiring the same prejudices that were once leveled at their parents, for example. It’s a fascinating process. The tumultuous nature of Peruvian politics is related to that question. Why haven’t we yet made peace with the fact that we’re a nation of indigenous people? Why is that so controversial?

The city is really active in this book, almost taking the form of a character. What do you see happening in cities today?

I see them as places of real cultural exchange. Necessarily, people are having to blend, having to decide what is vital and what is not about their culture and their identity, having to take on new identities, new languages, new customs. You also have this overlay of globalization happening now, and that just makes everything stranger. You have kids coming from the Andes who won’t listen to any of the music their parents listen to, who won’t listen to the quote-unquote traditional music of the past. They won’t even listen to salsa, the pan–Latin American sound. They’ll only listen to electronic music. It’s like skipping over entire centuries.

Why did you choose to write Lost City Radio in English, or not put any Spanish in it?

Tough question, I don’t know. I thought about it. I think to give it that kind of it’s-not-placed-anywhere feel. It’s very realistic, but it’s not entirely grounded in this world. There’s no TV, you can tell it’s Latin America, but it also could easily be lots of other places. I wanted it to exist just above this commonly agreed-upon reality.

Do you write in Spanish?

I don’t. I read it. I write e-mails. A lot of the work I do for Etiqueta is in Spanish. [Alarcón is an editor for the Peruvian journal Etiqueta Negra.] If anything, if in English I have five or six ways to say something or express an idea, in Spanish, only two or three will come. It just takes much longer to learn Spanish. That said, I think of it as an accomplishment that I can read a novel and enjoy it in Spanish. When I decided I was going to get my Spanish up, the first book I read was Amor en el Tiempo de Colera [Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera]. It took me like two and a half months, but I did it.

Are you American?

You mean what kind of passport I have? I don’t think there’s any contradiction in saying I’m American and also Peruvian. I think Peruvian-American is not a set of words that exists, not the way you say Mexican-American or Chicano, and people understand that. But the fact is, we’re going to need a much broader vocabulary to describe types of Americans that exist. I have a lot of affection for those two words that mean nothing basically, for the word “Peruvian” and the word “Latino.” I don’t think I would be able to really explain what those words mean or explain to you, or why I have such cariño for those two ideas.

It’s a weird word, “Latino.”

It’s a bizarre word. What does a recent immigrant from Guatemala have to do with a fourth-generation boriqua from East Harlem? Or those folks from Colorado who don’t speak Spanish? But it’s still an idea that I find somehow broad enough to say something about who I am.

What do you think is going to happen to Latin America next? They’re still working through all this, right?

Yeah, but we’re working through something different now too. The U.S. has been ignoring Latin America since 9/11. And then it seems like last year the U.S. snapped and was like, “Oh shit, we have to pay attention now.” Chávez is, of course, the prime mover of this. They look down, “We got Lula [in Brazil], we got Kercher [in Argentina], we got Evo [Morales in Bolivia], we got Chávez.” Peru could have gone to Humala, easily, easily. If Chávez had just kept his mouth shut, it could have gone to Humala. You have Ortega back [in Nicaragua]. You have this entire sea change.

What Chávez is saying is making perfect sense to a lot of people. You’re like, “Maybe I don’t like the way he says it, maybe his style is not the most couth, maybe he’s a little rough around the edges.” But a lot of people are like, “Well, he’s clearly not lying. Look at what they’re doing abroad.” Chávez is not popular in Peru at all. Mostly because he won’t just keep his mouth shut. He interferes a lot, throws his weight around in a way that Peruvians find unseemly, or in a way that offends our own sense of nationalism. There’s many things about Chávez I admire, but the fact that he’s, like, not ever going to leave bothers me a great deal, makes me very sad for institutionality.

By that you mean, for the rule of law, decorum, democratic checks and balances. I agree. The leftward tilt gives you a measure of hope or optimism, but at the same time, look at Chávez.

As long as there are no spectacular cases of corruption, he’s never going to lose an election. But I think it’s just a step backward for institutionality in Latin America, after a lot of the struggles from the left have been to restore institutionality, to end the era of dictatorships and install the era of electoral democracy. It was something that a lot of people fought and died for. A lot of people worked very hard simply to allow the kind of rotating leadership, to avoid installing a king. He’s never going to leave, man, he’s going to be Castro. And the romance of Castro ended generations ago.

Is the U.S. a Latin American country?

Increasingly. California is. I always say this: There's something about L.A., even the white people are Mexican. I was trying to teach my niece Lucia to say, No mames, guey [which is an affectionate phrase tossed around male friends, but roughly translates to “Don’t be a dickhead, dick”]. It’s not Peruvian at all, but it’s totally Californian, it’s totally Mexican. [Laughs.] “You know, you’re going to be a Latina in Oakland, you better learn how to say it.” She’s 2½ years old. But she’s going to get it.

But now, Alabama, Iowa, Minnesota, New York City is even Mexicanizing.

It’s funny it is causing this kind of nativist uproar. To a certain extent, that’s natural, but I don’t understand the nativist anxiety, because I’m not native.

But the shifts freak people out.

I remember my dad took me to New York to go to school; the waiter would come by and speak Spanish, and my dad would be like, “I’m from Peru, where you from?” And the waiter would be like, “Who the fuck is this guy?” You don’t have that natural intimacy when you see another Latino like we did in Alabama. Finding another Latino in Birmingham was always an event. It’s gone by the wayside, like the way people used to clap when the plane landed. They don’t do that anymore. They do in Latin America.

They do, right?

It’s amazing. We just flew this thing in the air, and it landed, and we’re all still alive. You should clap. I mean, just because it happens all the time doesn’t mean it’s not a miracle.

California is always the exporter of urban trends in the U.S., and California is totally bilingual now. And that’s the really interesting part of it, to me, at least. This is where these two things meet, and it creates interesting hybrids but also interesting fissures and tensions.

Yeah, and it’s going to be interesting to see what happens in the next 20 years with the Latino vote. Is it going to become as reliably blue as the black vote? I don’t think it is. It’s going to be much more complicated than that. You know, I meet a lot of second-generation Chicanos who are Republicans. The cult of prosperity. The Republican idea is so seductive: Pay no taxes, you get everything you want, fuck the government, get out of my way, make money. It’s very seductive. And you have people coming, and the stories they tell of their governments back home are about corruption and avarice. So it’s like, that kind of thing resonates. You add in the social factors, the culturally conservative factors that a lot of Latinos have, and you have a potent mix. The only question is whether the Republicans will continue to be so xenophobic and racist that they’re gonna send the Latino vote away, basically write them off.

They may have done that with the immigration stuff that happened last year.

Like the wall that they’re building. Are you kidding me? This is our answer? It’s absurd, man. It’s offensive on a moral level, it’s repugnant, even on a purely realistic level. If the goal of a certain segment of white America is for there to be no more brown-skinned immigrants, then they should work to do economic development in Latin America, period. You want Mexicans not to come, then you should do everything you can to invest in Mexico. People don’t cross the Sonoran Desert for fun. They’re not going to put their lives in God’s hands just to go see Disneyland.

Are you done with Latin America? Will you write about Latin America again?

Yeah, of course I will. In a sense, when you’re writing about Lima, you can also be writing about Cleveland. When it’s presented as a choice, writing about Latin America or about the United States, I think that’s a false dichotomy.

Why is it important to keep writing fiction in the media age, where we’re saturated with information and text and media and signals?

If you’re a writer, you believe there are certain things that fiction can accomplish that can only be accomplished in fiction. There are certain things that movies can’t do, that music can’t do, certain things that Web sites can’t do, radio can’t do. If you believe that, then you’re a writer. If you don’t believe that, then you should do something else. I think that a novel is the closest you can get to walking in someone else’s shoes, both as an artist and as a consumer of that art. I think of art, all of art, as running around the question of what it means to be alive now. A novel allows a reader to commune with other people’s experiences in a really intense, really real way, and I don’t think that other media can do that exactly in that same way.