Luis Alberto Urrea follows up on family history in 'Queen of America'

February 23, 2012

I suppose a good interviewer, like a good parent, shouldn't chose favorites. So don't tell anyone, but I really, really dig talking to writer Luis Alberto Urrea.

For one, the man is genial. When we talked-- which already seems like ages ago-- Urrea was fresh off a long book tour, behind his new novel Queen of America, which picks up the trail of his Yaqui Indian foremother, Teresa Urrea, Saint of Cabora, whose tale he first unwound in The Hummingbird's Daughter.

Even amid the fluorescent lights and bare bones decor of our studio, Luis and his wife/constant companion/fixer/soul mate, Cindy, seemed relieved to be back on home turf-- if slightly disoriented from their travels. And though Urrea invoked his tired, cranky state more than once, he did so with a fine helping of good cheer:

Which leads to my "for two": Urrea has an amazing ability to wrap you up in a story before you even know what's happening. Think of a Derrick Rose drive to the bucket-- Urrea's story-telling machine is that fast and unstoppable.

Which, okay, he's a writer, so no big deal. But sitting down with him, which I have done now a handful of times, is always like stepping into the clear rushing stream of a conversation already in progress. 

Now as with any genre, a Urrea-spun story has its recognizable conventions. A big one: digressions. Here he explains how he first came to hear of his famous relative Teresita: 

There are also frequently-drawn parallels between past and present. Following Teresita's story means Urrea has been living among the mores of 19th century Mexico and America for a couple of decades now. Still, he's a 21st century guy, so no surprise that he sees connections between that era's wild and emerging popular culture and our own anarchic forms of entertainment.  But still. I didn't totally expect Urrea to invoke her:

And then there are the touchstones - like family. Of course Queen and Hummingbird are family stories-- family histories as well. But they've also proven to be far-reaching, tendril-like tales, which have drawn and tightened family around Urrea himself. 

Family is both troubled and tender terrain for me. So Urrea's small stories of connecting with his relatives on the road, as well as the unsettled relations between Teresita and her parents in Queen, are both sorrowful and a balm. Maybe he's inherited his famous aunt's healing touch! Or maybe he just has a broad sense of clan, one that doesn't quite recognize or abide by the various borders we are constantly trying to establish.

Tune into Worldview today at noon to hear my full interview with Luis Alberto Urrea.  And head to Wentz Hall in Naperville to hear him read and talk in person - tonight at 7 p.m.!