Interview with Tanya Barrone about Drift

Interview with Manuel Luis Martinez


Q.  You seem to write about adolescents quite a bit,

at least in your novels.  Why?


A.  One of the things I have recognized over the last

few years of my writing and reading, is that we, as

humans, seem to understand the world and our place in

it based on things we learned as children or

teenagers.  I always tell my creative writing students

that the claim that you don't have anything to write

about because you're too young, is extremely

shortsighted.  We learn about death, disappointment,

strength, perserverence, compassion, love, and faith

in that first part of our lives.  In many ways,

despite the years of formal education and experience

that have followed, I still see the world through the

framework I developed as a seventeen-year old.  That's

not to say, that people can't change or learn.  That

would be ridiculous.  But it is to say that as "kids,"

we make our initial forays into the "real world."  And

that is the stuff of drama.


Q.  So there's wisdom in the yearnings of the young?

A.  The beginning of wisdom because it's the beginning

of pain.  Inside everyone of us is still the confused,

even dumbfounded adolescent who is still mystified by

the unpredictability of life and of people.  I've

wanted to articulate those moments.


Q.  Your character Robert is born and raised in San

Antonio.  How much of him is you?

A.  I think all writers get asked that question.  The

presumption is always that the work is

autobiographical.  I agree with that, by the way.  I

don't care how one creates a fiction, the work always

points back to the writer, to his or her community,

his or her past.  We as humans are always in the

process of working the past out.  That's the key to

being conscious, to being aware, to growth.  Robert is

thrown into circumstances that force him to become an

"adult" even though he's not ready for it, but God

bless him, he insists that he is ready.  Robert is

braver than I ever was, but we do share a lot in

common.  My father is a musician, my mother also a

musician.  My parents' divorce threw us all into a

dark, horrible place for a long time, and we had to

cope with it.  I'm luckier than Robert because I had

two brothers and two sisters and a mother who is much

stronger than Robert's mother, Teresa.  But I was

thrown into the role of provider and protecter and I

had to deal with the emotional aftermath of my

father's leaving us.


I also grew up on the westside of San Antonio, a

dangerous, mysterious, wonderful place.  Good things

come out of the westside: art, music, love, pain, the

unexpected.  I wanted to document that to a certain

extent, to show how the tumult of the barrio echoes

the tumult of Robert's life, and how that chaos

creates something solid, and beautiful, and sad, and

joyous.  This book is in many ways, a love poem to the

westside and to the barrio.  I think I try to use

Robert's "Grams" to personify all that is good about

the barrio.


Q.  Do you think you're romanticizing the barrio or

poverty?

A.  Absolutely not.  Robert's pain, his bleeding

ulcer, his beatings, the violence, the suffering are

there for everyone to read.  This is a realistic

portrait of poverty, of having to work and take on

responsibilities in the face of great odds.  Mexican

Americans do that everyday where I grew up.  No money

for doctors, lawyers, or fancy things.  But they

survive.  And survival can be bumpy, even brutal.  But

in the act of surviving, and this is what I wanted to

show in _Drift_, one finds what one needs to keep

going.  One creates.  It's the very essence of

"rasquache," which comes up in the novel a time or

two.  Rasquache means something like "improvisation"

to the Mexican American.  It means "making do," but in

the making do of it, one has to get funky, to get

creative: it's the lowrider, the menudo, the urban

esthetic, the pachuco's pressed khakis, the mural that

decorates rundown project houses in the hood.  But I

would never deny or ignore that those brave and

creative responses are borne in abject poverty and

psychic and emotional pain.


Q.  You seem to have done alright.  A Stanford Ph.D,

multiple scholarships, a good job at a topnotch

university.  Is the message of _Drift_, or _Crossing_

your first book, that one can overcome the odds if one

struggles hard enough?

A.  Not really.  As I say, I got lucky.  A supportive

family and some good breaks from places like St.

Mary's University that gave me a chance despite a poor

showing in highschool (I, like Robert, also got kicked

out of two highschools).  I also ran into people who

were willing to help me: mentors like Richard

Pressman, Bill Allen, Albert Gelpi, Ramon Saldivar,

Delfino Sanchez.  That doesn't happen for a lot of

people in the barrio.  That's the difference.  I

always tell people that I'm not "special," I'm simply

a representative of all the Chicanos who were as

talented as me, but didn't get any breaks.  The

tragedy of the barrio, of the Mexican American, is the

lost potential, the lost voices that are never heard.


Q.  So, if you were talking to Robert, what would you

tell him to help him turn his life around?

A.  Well, my brother Eli, to whom the book is

dedicated, was a kind of Robert: smart, tough,

compassionate, confused.  And I saw him through some

tough times in which he succumbed to violence, drug

use, petty crime, that trio which claims so many of

our youth.  I was at Stanford when he started getting

involved in some dangerous situations, and I found

that you can tell kids all sorts of things, but it

doesn't mean a damned thing if you don't back it up

with action.  Kids need you to get involved in their

lives, to give them a model to follow.  When I was a

kid, I knew I wanted to succeed, but I didn't know

_how_ one went about doing that.  I had to figure it

out piecemeal, by jumps and starts.  What I gave my

brother Eli, was a practical model:  I had him drop

out of highschool, move to California with me, where I

enrolled him in junior college, had him take a job,

and then dedicated myself to doing the really tough

thing: actually watching out for him, guiding him

through treacherous territory.  He's about to graduate

from law school now, and I couldn't be prouder of him.

He's going to do child advocacy.


Q.  So is Robert a model?

A.  In a way.  He represents the desire to belong to a

family, to take care of those he loves.  He voices the

deep need in him to reform his life, to make something

positive in a very negative situation and in that

sense, he is a model.  I want readers to see beyond

the stereotypes, and to see the human faces of the

people that we find easy to dismiss.


Q.  What are you working on now?

A.  I've just finished a book on Mexican migrant

writers and their contribution to the democratic

debate in American letters.  That book, _Countering

the Counterculture_ is due out in November.


I've also finished a draft of my next novel, _Tougher

Than Us_.  It's a meditation of sorts on what men

want, and by "want," I mean not only "desire," but

"need."  It's the story of three friends, a Mexican

national, a Mexican American, and an Irish Canadian

who meet in college and keep their friendship alive by

taking trips together whenever they can.  The book

takes a look at their lives as they undergo the change

from boys to men, so to speak.


Q.  What are your hopes for _Drift_?

A.  I hope that it becomes the Latino _Catcher in the

Rye_.  By that, I mean that I hope it effects both

young and not so young readers, and that it

articulates the real lives of our kids.  I want

readers to see themselves in this story, no matter

where or how you grew up.  Because in the end,

Robert's journey is quintessentially human and thus

universal.  I hope it will touch people.