Sergio Troncoso is the brightest border writer of his generation without condition. He has edited anthologies, written novels, published book-length personal essay collections, and has a collection of short stories: His co-edited anthology with Sarah Cortez, Our Lost Border: Essays on Life amid the Narco-Violence (Arte Publico Press, 2013) most recently won both the Southwest Book Award and the International Latino Book Award; The Last Tortilla and Other Stories (University of Arizona Press, 1999) won the Premio Aztlan Literary Award and the Southwest Book Award; Crossing Borders: Personal Essays (Arte Publico Press, 2011); and From this Wicked Patch of Dust (University of Arizona Press, 2011).
Troncoso was born and raised by his Mexican-immigrant parents in Yselta, a small colonia outside of El Paso, Texas. Most of his works explore the challenges of growing up, living, and raising a family on the Border. But, Troncoso does so with hope, beauty, pride, and a nuanced approach that many Border writers do not explore.
Troncoso is a graduate of Harvard College, and he studied international relations and philosophy at Yale, where he earned a Fulbright to study in Mexico. He was recently inducted into the Hispanic Scholarship Fund’s Alumni Hall of Fame and the Texas Institute of Letters. The City of El Paso honored him by naming the Public Library Yselta Branch after him. He is currently an instructor at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York and a resident faculty member of the Yale Writers’ Conference in New Haven, Connecticut.
Brandon D. Shuler: Let’s discuss your most recent works, or, at least, your most recently released one, The Nature of Truth by Arte Publico Press. This was your first novel, and though acclaimed at the time, in light of your other works, it appears to address the masterpieces of Richard Wright’s Native Son and Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain. But where their protagonists run away from their identities and racial markers, your protagonist embraces his dual racial identities, both the positive and negative of them, while banishing the racial ideals Helmut Sanchez’s nemesis tries to bury and escape. This is all done with a Nietzschean overlay of the Superhuman. Can you explain how these works and authors inspired a young Sergio Troncoso and The Nature of Truth?
Sergio Troncoso: The most important influences on The Nature of Truth were Nietzsche, Heidegger and Dostoyevsky, truth be told. I have always loved philosophy in literature, or works in which a riveting story is also an exploration of ideas. Ideas do matter, and people act on ideas and morality (or at least their version of it). People also take ‘The Truth’ seriously, or at least some of us do. I had read Heidegger as a graduate student at Yale, and Being and Time was fascinating to me, particularly the concept of Being-towards-death: here Heidegger argues that to lead the true philosophical life one must always have one’s death at the forefront of the mind, to be philosophically. That is, to act so that your actions reach toward the most important part of what it is to be a human being, and for Heidegger that meant the mind and its concerns with philosophy. Friendships shouldn’t matter, emotions shouldn’t matter, and everyday concerns are relegated to a secondary status in Being-towards-death. This is a simplistic summary of Heidegger’s complex arguments, and I have left much out. As for Nietzsche, I believed he was an excellent writer not to mention a path-breaking philosopher. Nietzsche dug into himself to understand human beings in a way that I found exciting and exacting and also trustworthy. He would be relentless in his pursuit of understanding himself, and understanding the human being, and he gained a sense of power and vulnerability in this self-pursuit. At least that’s what I remember I found in Nietzsche.
As for Dostoyevsky, he was my favorite writer. Crime and Punishment was the kind of novel I loved, about serious issues of morality, exploring nihilism and truth, and personal responsibility, and a story that was a comment on a certain time and place. I thought Dostoevsky should have written a novel in which the crime was acted upon for the sake of the crime, and not instrumentally. What I mean is that if you are truly questioning right and wrong, then you should be focused on writing about someone committing a wrong for the sake of that wrong and believing it was right. When Raskolnikov kills the old woman, he is doing it for the money, not because he wants her dead. Not because in Raskolnikov’s mind the old woman deserves to die. Also, I thought the end of Crime and Punishment was somewhat of a cop-out, this sense that Raskolnikov discovers Christianity and saves his soul (with the help of Sonya). Why couldn’t someone believing he does something right (although society and most others think his act is wrong) save himself after he commits the deed? That kind of novel would be even more revolutionary, in a way. That kind of novel would question morality at its core. Amid these literary influences, I had been at Harvard and Yale, places where intellectual combat is the norm, places where sometimes very intelligent people act immorally. I was always shocked by the intellectual violence I witnessed at many Ivy League seminars, how people would just eviscerate each other with words, in pursuit of ‘The Truth,’ and how often they would lose themselves in these arguments. They would lose their humanity, in my opinion. Not everyone did, but so many bought into that culture of win-at-all-costs, at least from an intellectual point of view. I also did not feel what was decided or chosen to be ‘The Truth’ in these seminars was anything but well-argued perspectives, and these well-argued perspectives could be different, even incompatible, or contradictory. Perhaps I was a poor philosopher in some respects, and I mean poor as in ‘I did not understand every argument.’ But I did not want to lose myself as a philosopher, and lose my heritage, and lose my humanity. I wanted to write a novel about someone wrestling with these issues of morality and identity, someone picking and choosing where he goes and who he is, a moral actor stumbling badly as he is consumed by the pursuit of ‘The Truth,’ and then finding himself with the help of friends. And finally saving himself. I knew about Roth’s The Human Stain and Richard Wright’s Native Son, and their questions of identity are paramount in The Nature of Truth. But these novels were not my major influences. I think you are right that these racial ideals were something I was questioning deeply in The Nature of Truth, and certainly the racial ideals of the character Werner Hopfgartner. But I think my point was that abstraction—and that abstraction often pursued at great universities, that pursuit of an abstract Truth that is at the heart of the Enlightenment—is a type of categorization that is at the root of racism. Helmut empathizes with Anja and others who are not quite like him, because his mixed identity (mestizo, so to speak) bestows upon him that opening to consider the person in front of him, rather than to assume he or she is ‘that category’ or ‘this category.’ He must make himself and who he is, rather than assume he is such-and-such a person. That making-of-self is fundamentally Aristotelean, in a way, giving importance to the senses and emotions, which also balances with the mind.
BDS: The Nature of Truth and obviously your border works in From This Wicked Patch of Dust, Crossing Borders, and The Last Tortilla & Other Stories address the idea of border, but with little respect for borders, either real or conceived. In your works, it seems all discussion is meant to recognize the border, while in a sense erasing them. I see this theme or idea forming in The Nature of Truth. For you, Ysleta, and the America and Mexico border, what is it, outside of the obvious splitting of families and lands and ideologies, that makes the ideals of gender, racial, geopolitical, and familial borders such fertile ground for authors.
ST: I think you are right: in my work, I want to explore what it has meant to live on the border, not quite belonging here nor there. So I do recognize the border, I am a child of the U.S.-Mexico border, but that also meant I had to choose who I would be. This identity for me was not pre-ordained, but rather a question from the beginning. So yes, I set out to recognize the border and erase it at the same time in the sense that I was picking and choosing who I was. I had to dig deeply to find out what was the best way to be, and that meant I could not have some sort of pre-conceived status or identity. Identity is the eternal question, and not an answer, I think. You are right that this is a central question in The Nature of Truth, the philosophical underpinnings, so to speak, of the work that would come later. Truth is about declaring an identity, to act, to find comfort in who you are, to understand an issue. But at the same time that those ‘Truth declarations’ have value they also restrict you. Living on the border you understood intimately these restrictions, beyond living between two languages or two cultures, beyond racial or gender identities. Someone like Aristotle would say that you don’t understand the Truth unless you practice it, that to comprehend it you have to live it: Truth is not something comprehended abstractly, but intimately imbedded in its practice, and work.
So that, for me, is why the border is such a fertile ground for writers. If you are self-aware enough you will understand, as a border dweller, that you are an issue, you are a work-in-progress, you must pick and choose who you are, and not assume an identity. You could say you are in play as a person, but not everybody appreciates that type of permanent uncertainty. Some people run away from it, rather than try to achieve a balance between knowing who you are and also challenging yourself to search for who you can be: that stretches identity to a sense of a work-in-progress, to artwork that finds who you are as well as challenges who you are.
BDS: Let’s shift gears from your works’ themes for a second. You were recently inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters for your contributions to literature. When one studies your works, you have a couple of novels, collections of short stories, and personal essays. Most often, writers simply try to perfect one form while struggling to find them. What is your advice to an author looking at all three forms? How do you slide back and forth amongst each form with such nuance and success? Do you have a preferred form? And with your prolificness, I have to ask, how do you balance your writing time between each form, is there a mindset you have to find to write in a particular form for the day? It appears even your writing form attempts to bend and shrug off borders.
ST: I am an explorer at heart, and want to know, want to try something new. I will always take a different path to the same destination just so that I can see something new, and awaken my senses. I love being curious, but I think it takes effort to be curious, to prep yourself for discovery, particularly as you get older. You have to be self-aware enough to know that this, whatever ‘this’ is, will open your eyes, will cause you to see the world differently, will encourage you to challenge your assumptions. That’s why I skip around from novels to essays to stories.
I don’t have a preferred form. But I work on multiple projects at once, and focus on whatever is working on the page. I do have a sense of what is different for each form. Stories are more akin to poetry, to a tight literary space in which you can only focus on a few characters, or even just one character, and a moment in time and why that moment is meaningful. Linked stories get closer to the novel in a way, and a collection of stories should have a certain momentum that builds story to story. I reserve my novels for complex questions and characters, where the answers are the experience of the characters on the page. That experience through time becomes the novel, in my mind. Essays are about particular moments in my life, sometimes trivial moments, in which I am trying to make sense of something that happened, to give it meaning. Essays are also about exploring a topic philosophically, so to speak, to dig deeper into something that could also be apprehended by the reader. I like to stay busy, and I have discovered the more I do the more I can do. It’s a self-fulfilling process. I don’t try to analyze it too much, but focus on the work at hand. I’m not a machine, and I do get tired, but I also like to get tired, so tired that I am often exhausted. Is that kind of sick? I love what I do.
BDS: Your writings definitely are for the thinking reader. You tackle big themes with subtlety and nuance with an academic’s approach. Your writing is obviously also informed by post-modern theory and, I think, I read some Lukacs' The Theory of the Novel in your work, but your writing does not necessarily privilege Derrida’s différance nor does your writing suffer from the abstraction that seems to pervade the modern novel. You’re straightforward, but your themes delve deep. How do you balance an academic’s approach with writing for a popular audience? And which comes first, the concept your work explores or the characters and their plight? I guess I am asking, what is your process?
ST: I wish I could tell you I have a neat formula for the balancing act of philosophy in literature, but I don’t. I simply try different stories, and sometimes a few work, and others don’t. I think I believe in writing simply, and I have even been criticized for it. But what I think the more careful reader of my work will notice—and you certainly are one of those readers!—that I am digging into a complex series of questions through straightforward writing. That’s the teacher and explorer in me: I want to tell the reader that we can together explore an issue, we can understand it along the way in as direct a way as possible, and then we can reach an understanding, an experience, that enlightens both of us. Writing simply does not mean you are writing about simple questions. Quite the contrary. But many modern readers may not appreciate the difficulty of the questions, and may just focus on the simple language and judge it superficially.
My process is that I often come across a question that baffles me, and I want to explore it. Sometimes the question pops in my mind. Sometimes the question pops in my mind after I witness something in front of me, a potential character, and then I start thinking about how to write a story about this question/character. So it could be abstract, or it could be concrete, but then I start going back and forth until I have something that I think readers will appreciate. I think about my stories for weeks, even months, before I write anything down.
BDS: You are defined as a Border writer, but a vast part of the border corpus suffers from a sense of being beaten down, underprivileged or lacking a specific identity. Your writing transcends this and shines with a message of hope, perseverance, and exudes pride and equality. Border writers Ben Saenz, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Carmen Tafolla, and Dagoberto Gilb all are on the cusp of being big names, but outside of literary circles and border studies, they have not gained the notoriety that their writing deserves, but again their writing lacks the hope yours does. I am seeing the same thing occurring with young up and coming Border writers, with the exception of Oscar Casares and Domingo Martinez. What is the defining hope for Border writing and what advice would you give to a young writer from Ysleta, Mission, or some small colonia in the Southwest that wants to become a writer?
ST: All of those writers mentioned above, I admire, for one reason or another. I think there is a large part of our border community that is poor, and neglected, and abused, by the wider world. Believe me, I have even had the door slammed in my face. So I understand and appreciate this hardship and racism portrayed in part of our literature. I think it should be. But I don’t believe we should stop there, or even dwell primarily there. If there is any ‘hope’ in my work, as you describe it, what differentiates me from many of these writers is that I will not be defined by the arrows flung at my heart, I will not be beaten down even when I am beaten down, and I will fight back to determine who I want to be, even if it upsets one community or another. Would you call that Will? I guess I would. That Will to survive, that Will taught to me by my abuelita, that hunger to know and not be defeated or determined by obstacles. That fierce determination to rise, at any cost, even at the cost of my life, at the cost of breaking taboos or upsetting the well-to-do or the politically correct. That Will is about character, and as you know Aristotle is about character. Character is about working to become a good human being, and it’s not a stasis, but an anti-stasis. When you push yourself that way, when you become acutely self-aware of who you were, who you are, and who you could be, then, well, you will never suffer fools from any camp, and you will learn to appreciate those who are fighting just as you are, and want nothing more than the opportunity to determine themselves.