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Daniel Peña on Absurdism in the Borderlands

Daniel Peña on Absurdism in the Borderlands

One of the first short stories Arcturus published that I was really excited about was Daniel Peña’s “Three Phases of Love and Deportation in Ciudad Juarez”. I loved Peña’s prose style and his rich storytelling. Shortly after we accepted his story, Peña won a 2017 Pushcart Prize. This year he published his debut novel, Bang.

Published by Arte Público Press, Bang is the story of a undocumented family who gets separated on both sides of the border after a plane accident. In Texas Araceli waits for her husband to return on their son Uli’s birthday. That night Uli and Cuauhtémoc fly a crop duster and the plane crashes and they end up—separated—in Mexico. The brothers each find themselves in a land devastated by drug cartels and are faced with danger. The novel is a riveting exploration of a family caught in turmoil.


Rachel León

As someone who first became aware of your work through your short stories, I’m curious about your experience of writing a novel compared to short fiction. 

Daniel Peña

I think it was Rodrigo Hasbun who said that if a novel is a marriage and a short story is a fling, then the short novel is something like a summer romance that leaves you only with unforgettable memories and an enduring sense of strangeness. I felt like writing Bang was all three of those at once.  Manic and mundane, beautiful and disastrous (sometimes both of those things in the same day), but always coming from this incredible place of strangeness, which was really the fallout of a single question: What is dignity really?  

If there’s any connective tissue between my short fiction and my novel, it’s in that question and, of course, the ancillary questions that spring from it: Can you ever blame someone for trying to find that dignity? And what about asserting it? Is dignity a right or privilege? And if it’s a right, who gets to say what is legal and illegal when systems stymy or strip that dignity from people?

In my short fiction, I’m usually meditating on one of those questions. In the novel, I’m meditating on all of them at once and the first drafts of Bang felt almost like an exercise in absurdism—you’re kind of breaking down the very fabric of these systems we, as society, we’re told to buy into. And I think that strangeness both excited and propelled me through the novel. I think that nihilism regarding the border as a set of systems bled through into the characters as well. There is a kind of absurdism and dark humor that’s pervasive in the borderlands and I tried to articulate that through the characters in the novel, especially June. Of course the drug war is grim, but there’s something more profound there than gets reported or sensationalized.

Rachel León

Where did you get the idea for Bang?

Daniel Peña

I used to be a pilot (just single-engine), and I trained at these really rural airports in south and east Texas where there was almost no air-traffic. A class D airport isn’t required to have a tower and the landing strips are usually no longer than 500 meters so the larger planes aren’t hassling you for air space or rushing your landings and you’re never having to deal with anyone over the radios. You just announce your landing and then land.

I’d practice touch-and-go’s—landings and takeoffs—in all kinds of weather: cross-winds, headwinds, rain, etc. at these little airports.  And I remember one time I flew to a strip just outside of Houston and before I could land I saw a jet parked off to the side of the runway. It wasn’t egregiously huge but it was large enough that I wondered how the pilot managed to stick a landing on a strip that short.  They didn’t have enough runway to take off again.

So, I landed. I got out of my shitty little Cessna 152, and when I walked over to the jet  I could see the tail number was Mexican—American tail-numbers always start with an N, Mexican tail-numbers always start with an X—and out there was an airport manager checking it out, trying to figure out how to get it off his runway. And when I looked inside the cockpit I could see everything was gutted. The avionics were in there and a seat for the pilot and that was it.

The airport manager went off on this racist tirade about respect and rule-of-law and all that other he-man, John-Wayne kind of bullshit. And I didn’t have the heart or patience to tell him that I was Mexican—an American by birth but also a Mexican national—and  I think that was the first time I thought seriously about dignity and where it comes from and the way the pursuit of it can be weaponized or racialized and, to that end, the way systems destroy it. It was also the first time I thought seriously about this drug war as connected to dignity. And how when systems fail people, people create their own systems.

Rachel León

I’m assuming you had to do some research. What was that process like? 

Daniel Peña

The aviation and gearhead bits of the novel came naturally as an extension of my training. I was a terrible pilot who trained in really decrepit planes, so I was familiar with what it was like to fly but also with what it was like to maintain those planes and maybe have an engine die on you mid-flight. In the novel, the planes are always crapping out on Cuauhtemoc who is a crop duster-turned-narco pilot and the crash in the beginning of the novel is the catalyst for everything that comes after it.

I did a lot of intense research in archives, libraries, and newspapers in Mexico and the US. As a Fulbright Scholar, I did a lot of the research on the historical roots of the drug war at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, where there’s an incredible library  in Torre II dedicated to the sociology of Latin America and the Caribbean, which proved crucial to executing this novel. I dedicated an entire year to just unpacking documents from that library and aligning the contemporary drug war with its historical trajectory.

I was also living in Mexico City when the 43 Normalista students from Ayotzinapa were disappeared and those protests had a profound impact on me in terms of thinking through the way the Mexican government sometimes works with cartels to dispose of political enemies. And in recontextualizing America’s drug war in Mexico as a kind of dirty war that disposes of the poor and the indigenous.

I have a lot of family throughout Mexico, and I’m a Mexican national myself, so many of the textural details came from my time there, especially the Norteño bits.

Rachel León

The characters all felt fully realized and true. Do you have a favorite character?

Daniel Peña

I really appreciate that. My favorite character is definitely Araceli. She’s the mother of Uli and Cuauhtemoc, the brothers who crash the plane in the beginning of the novel. And though she’s very selfless, I love that she has these very delinquent tendencies that show she’s lived a life before her sons and outside of her marriage. She feels isolated by virtue of her undocumented status in Texas, but she’s also very worldly and kind of salty. She’s mechanically savvy which proves crucial to her survival in the book. She also knows how to roll a blunt, which also proves crucial in the book. But she’s also conscious of the way people essentialize her as a Mexican mother and she uses that to her advantage.

Araceli, for me, is also a character who explores the way Mexican women largely bear the brunt and burden of the drug war in Mexico. Where the state can’t or won’t provide closure, women provide that closure for them. And I think it’s a really troubling relationship the Mexican state (but also the United States) cultivates with Mexican women. That labor is not cheap, nor is it free.

Rachel León

You do an incredible job of capturing the state of fear that accompanies being undocumented in this country. Do you think fear has become part of the experience for immigrants trying to live the American dream?

Daniel Peña

I really appreciate those kind words. And regarding fear, definitely. I was talking with an undocumented friend this morning about buying a car. She explained how even that task is laced with fear: the fear of being outed while applying for financing, the fear of driving with paper plates, the fear of resorting to private sellers who can sometimes be less than forthcoming about the history of the car (oil changes, etc.) and sometimes threaten to turn you in if you’re less than enthusiastic about taking that clunker off their hands under their terms. Add on to that the number of grifters who have entered markets that are historically exploitive of the undocumented community—especially used car dealers—and it’s a minefield for undocumented people to navigate.  And that’s just buying a car. It’s a struggle to live.

The perpetuation of systems that instill fear in undocumented people is a form of state-sponsored terror. And I don’t think of that as an extreme position so much as a fact. This administration is actively invested in maintaining systems that keep immigrants undocumented by denying them pathways toward naturalization and then persecuting them for their undocumented status. That denial of a pathway is designed to withhold legitimacy, to crystallize a second class. And that fear in the day-to-day is designed to wear undocumented people down by terrorizing them psychologically and regularly at their homes, in the workplace, and increasingly everywhere else.

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It’s not uncommon, in Houston, for ICE to walk up to people (in the grocery store, in parking lots, in apartment complexes) who they merely suspect of being undocumented and demand papers without a warrant or cause. Like a cold call. Employer audits are also becoming increasingly common. ICE shows up to employers and threatens to throw the book at them should they be unable to prove the status of every single one of their employees. Employees are then given a certain number of days to produce papers to show they’re in the country legally. Obviously, this is happening to people who are completely legal. And, in some cases, completely American.

This has created a kind of good-citizen/bad-citizen dichotomy, in which even undocumented people I know buy into the idea that if only they were legal they might become “good citizens,” they might exist outside of the second class. The tragedy is that they’ve bought into an America that exists only in rhetoric. And these systems do not distinguish between documented and undocumented, only between white and non-white.  These systems were designed by bullies and delinquents. And the only way to subvert a delinquent is to become a bigger delinquent. To that end, we cannot give ICE that satisfaction of our fear. We are the people and they serve at the pleasure of our confidence in them. Mass non-compliance will strip them of their power. They’re only as strong as a society who gives them credibility. And as they continue to abuse their power and credibility, they will face the repercussions of this social fabric, which includes undocumented people whether they like it or not.

Rachel León

I wondered if you have any worries about the focus on undocumented immigration and violent drug cartels perpetuating stereotypes in non-Latino readers?

Daniel Peña

This is a really great question. I wrote on this a little while ago for the Ploughshares Blog. And I still feel the same way about it: I’m generally suspicious when anyone tells any writer of color, you shouldn’t write about that. Baldwin has taught us that respectability politics saves no one. And I think the most effective way to decenter a stereotype is to look it in the eye, explore the complexity and humanity in that stereotype, and then reclaim it away from the white gaze.

If we feel cheated by a stereotype, it’s probably because it caters to the white gaze. Those stories are not theirs to begin with anyway (think Narcos, think Breaking Bad). Those stories are ours. And I think if we’re actively reclaiming those characters in our stories we’re breaking down the stereotypes that have been weaponized against us, not reinforcing them. Looking away from them (or avoiding them altogether) is a form of passive acceptance. And as a writer I think there’s so much you can do to de-weaponize a stereotype by creating dissonance between the familiar and the new or unknown.

With Bang, I was very conscious of telling a story about people and their problems, not problems and their people (to borrow a phrase from the great Tayari Jones). And if those characters seem familiar, I hope it’s because their humanity resonates within the novel.  Practicing and writing from that place of radical empathy is how we keep from growing numb to a kind of generic trauma, especially when writing about something as centered in the public imagination as the US’s drug war in Mexico or transmigration. The familiarity of those things is the door into the story, the conduit to rapport, but the character is ultimately queen.

Rachel León

What’s next for you?

Daniel Peña

I’m working on a novel about post-truth. It’s kind of in its nascent stages, but right now there’s a lot of bull-riding, a lot of Hurricane Harvey stuff, and a lot of millennial angst amidst black market systems that gripped Houston after Harvey. I’m really excited about that one.

I’m also working on a Mexico City novel that’s big and unruly and I’m not sure if I’m skilled enough to write it yet, but I’m so mediocre that I don’t even know what I don’t know yet. And that’s kind of thrilling. I’m taking that project one brick at a time. I’m sure it’ll take forever and it’ll be the end of me and we’ll all have a good laugh when that end comes.

Bang by Daniel Peña
Arte Público Press
Published January 30, 2018

Daniel Peña is a Pushcart Prize-winning writer, is an assistant professor at the University of Houston-Downtown, where he teaches in the Department of English. Previously he was at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City, where he worked as a writer, blogger, book reviewer and journalist. A Cornell University graduate and Fulbright-Garcia Robles scholar, his fiction has been widely published, appearing in such journals as Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Callaloo and the Kenyon Review Online. Bang is his debut novel.

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