Fernando A. Flores is a magician. Before your very eyes he will transform the familiar into the fantastical and the fantastical into the familiar. His debut novel Tears of the Trufflepig is set on a border much like the U.S.-Mexico border that we think we know, but in his skillful hands we have jumped forward in time and sideways in space. His novel is a trip that will leave you with real-life thoughts and feelings.
Flores’ novel is on the long list for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. He is the author of the collection Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas and he was the recipient of a 2014 literary award from the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation. His fiction and poetry have appeared in various publications since 2006, and was featured as one of Ten Writers to Watch in the October 2015 issue of Texas Monthly. I spoke with Flores about defamiliarization, the ubiquity of violence and the experience of writing fiction versus nonfiction.
I wanted to start by asking you about language. Tears of the Trufflepig occurs in a time and place that are a lot like our current time and place but are also significantly different. It is set on a border that is recognizable—the U.S.-Mexico border—at some point in the not so distant future. Some things have changed, though. Drugs are legal and smugglers are trading synthetically generated animals.
These changes are reflected in the very language of the novel. Most of the words are familiar but some of the terms and phrases have quite different meanings. The two that stood out the most to me were “filter” and “Border Protector.” The latter is a U.S. officer who works along back-to-back border walls and shoot to kill any people they find crossing. Their role is similar to that of a Border Patrol agent, but by shifting their title just a little, you made me see these agents in a new way. In the words of Viktor Shklovsky, were you trying to “defamiliarize” the border agents?
Fernando A. Flores
It’s funny that you bring up Shklovsky. While writing this novel, I was very much influenced by the mentalities of art movements like Russian Constructivism, and of the underground Russian writers between world wars. I was really interested in how these artists approached criticizing the government and society in an indirect manner, because if they were lucky enough to get published, they had to be indirect to get by the censors. I started wondering what kind of story I would tell if writing about immigration, racism, and the border were prohibited. If it were against the law to write about cultural genocide, how would you smuggle in that concept into your fiction? How would you write about the things that are most resonant in your life and the world around you if you weren’t allowed to?
These questions were very important to how I approached [writing the novel], on more of a meditative and performative level than anything else. The language was very important in the writing of it, because it allowed me to detach myself from pre-existing things and to tell a story completely organically. One of the things I always admired about what we call “speculative fiction” or “science-fiction” is that those writers often use words and language in a new way. I know this also gets lampooned by more “serious” writers who have a strict definition of what literature is, but in our lives we see it happen all the time—imagine asking somebody if they “tweet” in 1997; they’d think you’re out of your mind.
I was also very interested in your choice of the verb “filter.” In the context of Tears of the Trufflepig to filter means to create something synthetically in a laboratory. The thing that is filtered could be onions, cows or trufflepigs. Can you talk about how you came to decide on the verb “filter” to describe this process?
Fernando A. Flores
I actually don’t recall where the idea to use the word “filter” came from, but I know that I was interested in using a pre-existing word and changing its meaning within the context of the story. Same with the Border Protectors, I know at the time I wanted to give them a slightly different name that would also remain true to Orwellian doublespeak.
Violence is pervasive in Tears of the Trufflepig. While there is only one actual shootout, war and death seem to float all around. The characters listen to WWII songs while they drive, and they interact with mutilated bodies and shrunken heads on a daily basis. Your main character, Bellacosa, believes humans are to blame. He says: “It wasn’t some monster or cheap science-fiction alien conquest, but people creating all the horror […] there was a constant, unspoken war and the battlefield was always somewhere in the map of the collective brain.”
If violence is not alien but rather innate to human nature, then what is the relationship between this endless collective violence and borders? Have borders always been, and will they always be, sites of constant unspoken war? Can we do away with borders, or are they also innate to us?
Fernando A. Flores
It’s interesting that you say violence is pervasive, because we don’t really see any of it besides this scene. But, yes, you are right, the feeling of it is always around. Perhaps it’s similar to the feeling of actually being on the border. Chances are everything is going to be totally fine and nothing crazy is going to happen at all, but you remember you’re surrounded by these stories and these headlines, and in a way, you can’t escape the violence. I’m not a person who is drawn to writing about or depicting violence, so this was one of the reasons writing this book weighed heavily upon me. Unfortunately, I don’t feel qualified to answer your questions regarding borders at the moment. However, these are things I am always approaching in my work in one way or another, whether I’m conscious of it or not.
Do you think that it is important that we identify ourselves as writers by where we come from? And do you think that a writer has to have some stake in the place that they are writing about in order to do a good job of writing about it? I guess what I am asking is, who gets to write about the border and why?
I ask this from a personal perspective because I was born and raised in West Virginia and a lot, but not all, of my writing is set here. On a purely intellectual level I do not believe that anyone has to be from West Virginia or Appalachia to write good literature about it but when I read books set in West Virginia and written by non-West Virginians I always have this little gut punch of why? This place is mine!
Fernando A. Flores
You know, I’m the kind of person who, maybe because I’m an immigrant, always feels like an outsider everywhere, even in the places where I supposedly belong. I was raised in South Texas, but lived in Mexico until I was five, and when I visited the place growing up it was always very apparent I wasn’t Mexican in the way my relatives were. And in South Texas, I could see I was also different from my non-Spanish-speaking Mexican-American friends, who came from many generations living in South Texas. Later in life, when I began reading voraciously, I read all the border/regional and Mexican-American writers, and though a lot of it was good writing I never really felt like it spoke to who I was in any way; it didn’t represent me. If anything, I felt alienated even more. Strangely, it has always been the artists and movements most removed from me that make me feel at home. Through no fault of my own. I don’t think we get to choose the art that ends up speaking to us. I was raised along both sides of the South Texas border, but I also haven’t lived on the border in almost 15 years. Maybe I’ll be labeled as a border writer, but to somebody living on the border today I may not be a border writer to them.
I see what you mean about your feelings on West Virginia, and I’m wondering if I feel the same way. I’m wondering, also, about building walls, and if this is another way in which we subtly build borders in our minds, of being territorial with the landscapes that appear in our literature. The border as a setting is tricky and different, now, especially for a person having to cross. Because even after crossing the border, and ending up far north, the border never really leaves you. It’s always there, and if you don’t have the papers the threat of being sent away is always there along with it. You are never safe. I don’t think I have a problem with anybody writing about the South Texas border because of this, even if you’re not from there. Maybe it becomes a problem when the writer turns into a sort of spokesperson for a cause that’s actually far away from them—just because you wrote about it doesn’t make you an expert or “the source”—but that’s a different thing.
Tears of the Trufflepig is in many ways about storytelling and writing—it is riddled with myths and tales and characters like Paco Herbert who is following journalistic stories throughout. At one point near the end, a Border Protector brings Herbert to a warehouse to show him something because he “wanted somebody to see it” before it is discovered and disposed of. This line made me think about the power of witnessing and documenting truths.
There are also ways in which your novel seems to be exploring the power of fiction. The infamous trufflepig itself is a “fiction”—it is made up—and it is very powerful. It serves as “A mirror reflecting who we are as a people beyond time and space.” Do you think that fiction in books can also serve as a mirror? What are the powers of a fictional universe and how do they differ from the powers of nonfiction?
Fernando A. Flores
It took me seven or eight years of writing fiction before I realized I wasn’t interested in capturing tangible facts. It may be silly to say, but through years of writing and reading I realized I wasn’t a journalist. I felt that, at least with my work, trying to insert journalistic qualities into stories had actually hindered my abilities. In my previous book of stories, Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, I tried to experiment with this anti-research kind of style for the first time. But in that project I also had casual references throughout of real people, songs, and bits of culture, and I felt that was enough after finishing it. I can’t bring myself to reference even a real song in anything anymore, unless it’s very, very old or unknown, so my solution always is to invent the culture from the ground up in every narrative. Tears of the Trufflepig was my first real attempt at this with a novel.
Going back again to Soviet writers, I’m thinking, why would a government make it against the law to write in any way outside the accepted form of socialist realism? Why would absurdist writers remain unpublished, be jailed, or made to disappear merely for their work? I guess I’m running around here trying to answer your question about fiction and nonfiction. Right now, there are people out there who are debating the phrase “concentration camp” while reading about the horrors happening to brown children. And I’m thinking, if when reading those facts those horrors don’t shock you, or make you feel anything, then do we have to trick a society into feeling these things through fiction and art? If something as real as children being held in camps doesn’t move you, then what will, and how, and what is art and literature’s role in all this madness and chaos?
For the first time in our lifetimes there’s a mainstream way of thinking that is pushing against this patriarchal, ultra-capitalist society we live in, and I really do believe that along with all this we have to search for new forms and ways of telling stories, for new music and new art. The battle is in the realm of the subconscious as well as in the physical world, and not everything can be learned in a classroom
Writing Tears of the Trufflepig back in late 2014 was the first time I approached the first draft of a project in a performative manner, keeping all these mentalities in mind when there was no way of knowing this was our future. Even if it were against the law to write about the border, immigration, racism, genocide, gentrification, assimilation, and I really felt the urge to write in that reality, Tears of the Trufflepig would have been the book that I’d written—or something very like it.
Tears of the Trufflepig
By Fernando A. Flores
MCD x FSG Originals
Published May 14, 2019
Mesha Maren is the author of the novel Sugar Run (Algonquin Books). Her short stories have appeared in Tin House, Oxford American, The Southern Review, Triquarterly, Crazyhorse and elsewhere. She serves as a National Endowment of the Arts Writing Fellow at the Federal Prison Camp in Alderson, West Virginia and is an Assistant Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Duke University.