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It’s Just a River Rivering: A Conversation with Mesha Maren – lareviewofbooks

MESHA MAREN’S JANUARY 2019 debut, Sugar Run, chronicled her protagonist Jodi’s reentry experience after being released from jail and her doomed-love-bordering-on-obsession with Miranda, set within the stifling insularity of Appalachia. Her January 2022 second novel, Perpetual West, charted similar emotional ground — a complicated, queer relationship as a refugee — but in an entirely different setting and style. Perpetual West brings spouses Alex and Elana from the mountains of West Virginia to the US-Mexico border, straddling El Paso, Texas, and Juárez, Mexico. After Elana goes home to Appalachia for a visit, she returns and finds Alex is missing — or as the police suspect, has run away with his lover, Mateo, a lucha libre wrestler with drug cartel connections. The ensuing story feels as hopeless as the desolate landscape, and Maren uses those feelings to interrogate readers’ understanding of immigration and border politics. Maren is an assistant professor of the practice of English at Duke University and serves as a National Endowment of the Arts Writing Fellow at the federal prison camp in Alderson, West Virginia. 

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KATIE SMITH: Perpetual West takes place largely in El Paso, Texas, and across the US-Mexico border in Juárez. What’s your connection to the area?

MESHA MAREN: When I was 21, I fell in love with a woman who moved to Juárez and was taking classes in El Paso, Texas. She was participating in an exchange program, and I moved out there to be near her. She went on ahead and started her classes, and I tied up loose ends in Asheville, North Carolina, and then took a long Greyhound ride to meet her (I wrote an essay about this bus ride that you can read here). I started my new life there and began an internship in El Paso at La Mujer Obrera, a community cultural center run by labor rights activists who had formerly worked as seamstresses in a garment factory, and all my free time was spent crossing over to meet up with the woman I was in love with.

When I arrived, she was all abuzz about a friend she had made, a young punk guy in Juárez who was in training to become a professional wrestler. She took me straight from the Greyhound station in El Paso over the border to the sex toy shop where her new friend worked — she wanted me to meet him right away. It didn’t take me too long to figure out that her new friend was more than just a friend, and I was heartbroken. Even in my despair though, I always knew that I wanted to write about that place and that time in my life — the way that my brain and heart were both split open and reformed so quickly, how much I learned during that time about the US-Mexico relationship and the ways that we wound our neighboring country, and how all of that political awareness was wrapped up in bittersweet love and the thundering propulsion of youth, drunk nights of immortality, and sad, sad mornings of new perceptions. I tried to write it as it happened, from my perspective, and it was terrible. I couldn’t make it sing, couldn’t make it taste like it had then. I put it away for a very long time and wrote Sugar Run instead. Eventually, I came back around to it but through Elana, Alex, and Mateo.

In both this novel and in Sugar Run, the setting really functions as a character. I’m thinking of this novel’s epilogue in particular, but really throughout each, your writing about the landscape is striking. How do you see the role of setting? What were your goals for this novel in writing such distinct places?

Setting is often what matters most to me, at least in early drafts of my novels. I care deeply about getting the essence of a place to come alive on the page. James Agee wrote in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: “If I could do it, I’d do no writing here at all. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and excrement.” Sometimes I feel crazy because I care so deeply about describing a certain set of shacks along a highway at dusk or the flank of a mountain in the first light of day or the curve of the branch of a jacaranda tree.

Thinking back to Sugar Run, if I had to pinpoint one aspect of the novel that really drove home the kind of fatalism and ambiguity I associate with noir, it would be your writing about place. Is that what you were going for? What’s different about the setting in Perpetual West with respect to this feeling?

I love how you tie place to noir through fatalism and ambiguity. One of the reasons that I love writing settings is because of the enormity of certain landscapes and the ways in which I feel like certain places are almost lovingly apathetic toward the people who occupy them. By that I mean, I get this strong feeling in places like West Virginia and Northern Mexico that the land itself has been around for so much longer than I have, and it will continue to be there for so much longer than I will, and therefore it doesn’t care about me — but in an almost affectionate way — if that makes sense. I do think that places can feel the love and awe that we give to them but they are also able to see the big picture in a way that we never, ever can. And there is something fatalistic about that. A river might drown you, but it does not hate you. It is just a river rivering. You can call that “fate” if you want. The novel Butcher’s Crossing is almost entirely about this. The land doesn’t love us really or hate us at all; it is just concerned with things that are so much bigger than we could ever be.

There are parts of Sugar Run where Jodi talks about missing West Virginia, or longing for West Virginia, even while she is there in it. I think that Alex and Mateo have a similar relationship to Juárez and Chihuahua. How can you ever truly be in the midst of a river rivering? Can you ever really fully experience it and live?

Elana’s struggles in Spanish particularly struck me, as someone who has learned a second language and had a lot of those feelings and anxieties. Was any of that autobiographical?

Yes, absolutely, many different parts of the novel were autobiographical in various ways, but Elana’s struggles with Spanish were taken directly from my own language experiences. I had learned a bit of Spanish in high school but mostly I learned the language just as Elana does, by sitting quietly in the corner at social gatherings in Mexico and Guatemala and memorizing every phrase I could. In Perpetual West, I really wanted to engage with the strange ways that our egos show themselves when it comes to learning a language or traveling in a foreign country, how easily we build up a false sense of pride and hold it over other people, how desperate we are to be “in the know.”

There are certain ways in which this egotism intersects with whiteness also that I find fascinating. There is a part of Perpetual West where an exchange student from Portland tells Elana that she is so lucky because with her dark hair and eyes she could “almost look Mexican.” This piece of the novel was taken from real life, from a comment I overheard in Juárez, and it struck me as so strange, the way that one white woman spoke to another white woman about how lucky she was to be able to potentially shed some of her whiteness. This seemed like such a quintessential form of whiteness, the jealous admiration of one white woman for the “privilege” of another white woman’s ability to travel while not appearing white. I am rambling now, but I think this relationship to privilege and whiteness is often echoed in the process of language acquisition and proficiency as well. Even when I myself am aware of it, I can easily fall into this trap of thinking that I can somehow lessen the odiousness of my whiteness if I pronounce my words and conjugate my Spanish verbs well enough.

That’s a great moment! You give readers so many really interesting, overt ways to analyze certain sociopolitical issues on the border and the intersections with gender, in particular in Alex’s and Elana’s theses. What was the process of creating these intense ideas and thought processes like for you? What did you draw on, and who influenced you?

Thank you so much for engaging deeply with these ideas! Maybe the best way to answer this question is to look at a photo I have from November 2018 that shows the stacks of books I was keeping readily available on my desk at that time. These include: Kerry Howley’s Thrown, Molly Molloy and Charles Bowden’s El Sicario, Jon Sack and Adam Shapiro’s La Lucha, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Edward Chitham’s A Life of Emily Brontë, Roberto Bolaño’s Amulet, Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God, Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace’s A Narco History, Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, Leonard Gardner’s Fat City, Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Works.

These are just a small selection, really. There are many other texts whose authors I thank in my acknowledgments. For inspiration, I like to look at writers like Robert Stone. He writes action without sacrificing language or imagery or character. There was a lot of literal research that I had to do for Perpetual West (like technical aspects of wrestling and aspects of the cartel world) but there was also a lot of psyche research, work I had to do to be able to tap into each character’s perspective. For Elana, it was really Anne Carson’s writing that broke her open as a person and character for me and showed me what was going on inside. For Alex, it was David Wojnarowicz. For Mateo, it was a combination of Leonard Gardner and Roberto Bolaño.

You write some really quickly paced and high-energy scenes involving fighting and torture. If I’m right that these were a different writing style for you, how did you handle them? What was different in writing these scenes, and what inspiration did you draw on for them?

Yes, you are very correct. Part of this comes from the fact that I write plot last. The first thing that comes to me is an image, and then I spend a long time (years) with the characters, literally just working with the characters longhand in notebooks, and only much later do I build the narrative scaffolding or plot that holds everything together.

With both of my novels, I started with an image. For Sugar Run, it was an image of a glass of whiskey with ice melting in it and a curtain blowing in an open window. For Perpetual West, it was the image of a car arriving at the border and the van in front of the car exploding with groceries. My writing process involves slowly opening the aperture on the image, widening the view and asking questions. Who is inside this car? Where are they coming from? Why? Etc. etc. And for each new scene in the novel, it is an image that comes first, characters next, and the story last. I am not sure that this is the “best” way to write a novel, but it is the only way that I seem to be able to do it.

Getting back to that character work: So much of each character’s internal dialogue throughout the novel centers around focusing on yourself as an individual versus being part of a collective. Elana struggles throughout the novel with never feeling seen or known, even by her own husband and family. As the novel really comes to a head, though, those messages really become politicized — American individualism and its toxic spread. How are you thinking about this now? I won’t ask you to make any foreign policy recommendations, but as an ideology, what are your feelings on this very American idea of the self and selfhood?

The time that I spent on the border and in Mexico was so illuminating for me in terms of the ways that I thought about myself as an individual. In the United States, it is so normalized to prioritize yourself above everyone and everything else. The self as something separate and set apart is crucial to the American identity, and this way of thinking is so destructive and just plain weird. I remember when I first arrived at the border, most of the people that I met through my work with La Mujer Obrera asked me if I had family in the area, and when I said no, they were curious as to what I was doing there. It wasn’t like they didn’t understand why a 21-year-old kid would take off and go someplace new, but they were, how should I say, maybe a little suspicious of my motives and suspicious of me as a person who would so easily leave my family and my community of friends in Appalachia.

Now I think they were right to be suspicious. It is strange not to prioritize family and community; and by family I don’t necessarily mean birth family, I also mean chosen family. I think it is very healthy to be skeptical of the idea that a person is somehow more themselves when they are alone. I think that so many problems that we are facing right now in the United States — climate change, the opioid epidemic, the failure of the health-care system — are related to the idea of the supremacy of individuality and individual choice.

Is there a safety in expounding such sociopolitical ideas in a character’s mouth instead of, I don’t know, your own essay in The Atlantic? And I’m wondering what value you put on the scholarship like Alex’s, given that it doesn’t really help him out much in the end. I don’t mean that disrespectfully: I know you’re an academic, but you also teach women who are incarcerated — so I imagine you get the difference between the theoretical world and, sometimes, the real world.

Oh yes, I agree, there is a huge gap between academia and the real world, and that gap is the problem. The problem is not necessarily in the expounding but in the fact that we expound to an echo chamber. I think that there is a very interesting tension in this dynamic, and I wanted to play with that in the novel. When Alex talks with Mateo about his thesis, he worries that the language he uses will alienate Mateo, and Mateo in turn becomes angry that Alex assumes that he won’t understand. There is an extractive quality to a lot of academia and even to a certain extent fiction writing, and I think it is worth questioning and exploring. 

And, to close, who are your go-to Mexican punk recs? 

I am obsessed with this band, Heterofobia. Read about them here

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Katie Smith is a writer and immigration advocate from Philadelphia. Find her on Instagram at @saddy_yankee for cat pics.

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