Interviews

Fiction for a New-New World

An interview with Michael Zapata about his new novel, The Lost Book of Adana Moreau.

With The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, Chicago-based novelist Michael Zapata delivers a globe-circling and generation-spanning debut that expands the notion of home and the meaning of storytelling. In the early twentieth century, a Dominican immigrant named Adana Moreau publishes Lost City, a work of science fiction that inspires a dedicated fandom transcending generations. Her second novel, A Model Earth, depicts refugees fleeing a ravaged planet, but on her deathbed in New Orleans, she asks her son to destroy the manuscript.

Several decades later, a man named Saul finds a copy of the manuscript in his late grandfather’s apartment in Chicago. Intrigued, he travels to New Orleans to learn more about Moreau, and his timing couldn’t be worse: he lands in the city just after Hurricane Katrina. What follows is a masterfully written novel that finds worlds of possibility in the ways that books and history connect us all.

I spoke with Zapata about what inspired his novel, how the novel addresses the “parallel worlds” that biracial children inhabit, how climate change shapes our storytelling, and the role that novels play in shaping social movements.

Amy Brady

The Lost Book of Adana Moreau is set in many places: New Orleans and Chicago, with characters originating from South America and the Caribbean. As someone who’s lived all over the world, did your own travels inspire parts of this novel?

Michael Zapata

Yes, absolutely. I grew up in Chicago and the suburbs of Chicago as a biracial child – Latinx and Lithuanian-heritage Jewish – and so in a type of bifurcated reality. When we could we visited family in Ecuador, in Quito, and in Santa Fe, the small farming village where my father was from, in a winding Andean valley under the ice-capped volcano Chimborazo. I learned early on – in large part because the United States so often has little place for biracial kids – that I felt most comfortable in those liminal spaces between languages, countries, and continents. It’s a messy space full of parallel worlds, a little lonely, but, if you allow it, also quite joyful. I often feel most at home while traveling or living abroad. So, I’ve made temporary homes of New Orleans, Quito, Cuenca, Buenos Aires, Lodi (Italy), among others. As a reader and writer, I’ve always been very interested in people that also exist in those liminal spaces. I have a strange kinship with them.

Amy Brady

To be more specific about place, a part of your novel is set in post-Katrina New Orleans, at a time when the city was still in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. The setting resonated with me as a reader deeply concerned about climate change: how climate change is strengthening hurricanes, and how the United States (and other countries) is still woefully unprepared to deal with another Katrina-sized crisis. Why set a part of your novel in post-Katrina New Orleans? 

Michael Zapata

In Roberto Bolaño’s apocalypse-riddled masterpiece 2666, a 70-year-old seer and healer says, “Every hundred feet the world changes.” In Santa Fe, my grandfather, a farmer and union organizer, used to say something similar when talking about the precariousness of farming in the Andes. Climate change is both indigenous to our lives and always happening elsewhere. A tough farming season or strengthening hurricanes in the Gulf Coast are both manifestations of local, new realities and also instances of a global phenomenon that will last millennia. For many, especially those displaced from New Orleans, Katrina was the first deep recognition of this new 21st century reality, but, as a capitalist empire, the United States has an uneasy, even adverse, relationship with reality. After Katrina, I interviewed people returning to the city to rebuild and they spoke to this unreal sentiment time and time again. So, in the narratives we tell ourselves, both in journalism and fiction, we are obsessed with disaster, but, yes, I agree, our country is woefully, even purposefully, unprepared for dealing with it.

Amy Brady

As your novel unfolds, we learn that the “lost book” of Adana Moreau is about a network of portals that can take people to different versions of Earth. Reading this in 2020 – a year when climate change continues mostly unabated – I couldn’t help but interpret such a story as a kind of hopeful wishing that there might be other Earths out there, even if humanity destroys this one.

Michael Zapata

Sometimes I think that, just by the sheer mathematics of the multiverse, humanity, where it exists, has destroyed most Earths. Adana Moreau’s novel, A Model Earth, is filled with refugees fleeing ruined, uninhabitable Earths. On the other hand, by thinking about all those other Earths, all the other branches of reality that we’ve abandoned or recklessly pursued, inextricably erasing ecologies and people along the way, we can imagine the possibility of a better reality on this Earth. It’s an ethical and material framework. Extraordinarily, even though the multiverse is a scientific theory, this is also the architecture in which storytelling (and storytelling as a form of survival) exists. What if? We live day-to-day in a type of unstable realism – we see it in the news and in the fiction of Liliana Colanzi, Samantha Schweblin, and Yuri Herrera – and, with impending, potentially civilization-ending climate change, we have no choice but to imagine and then work toward a type of New-New World.                 

Amy Brady   

Many of your characters are immigrants living in exile. What inspired you to write a mystery that touches on these larger issues?

Michael Zapata

Beyond what the ruling class deems as a current border-chic fad, the predominant American story has always been one of exile, diaspora, and erasure. In Chicago, I grew up listening to working class Americans, immigrants, and first-generation families from Iraq, India, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Brazil, Mexico, in short, desplazados (displaced people) and the children of desplazados. Their stories were America to me. As a kid, I sometimes worked in Jeweler’s Row with my father, a jewelry caster. Once, while picking up a job from one of my father’s friends, a polisher from San Salvador, he told me a rebellious story about how he had been jailed by the US-trained government military junta for helping out farmers. He took out sheets of paper with illustrations he had made of the jail. They were folded, I can only imagine now, like currency from a vanished country. For decades, his story clung to me like oil. Why would he tell a 12-year-old this? What purpose did it serve?

Amy Brady

Do you think that novels have the power to inspire readers to think more expansively about big topics? Or, to put it even more boldly, can novels inspire social change?

Michael Zapata

I’m deeply suspicious of any novel that exists as an empathy machine or, especially as a Latinx reader, claims to give “voice to the voiceless.” I can’t imagine with a straight face anyone telling my father that he doesn’t have a voice. Still, storytelling is the primary infrastructure through which people understand their lives. This threads well with organizing for social change. Kenzo Shibata, a Chicago teacher and host of Class Time podcast, says, “The first step in effecting change in people is to listen to them…Organizing is learning about the person and helping them find the power in themselves.” From national teacher strikes, to cacerolazo protests in Chile, to indigenous struggles against austerity and Amazon oil extraction in Ecuador, I can’t help but think that every movement for social change starts both with the inequitable material conditions that created it and also a narrative of how the past and future collide with the present. The novel, with all its vast interiority and universe-bending possibility, is vital to that.

Amy Brady

Your novel isn’t a work of science fiction, but it reads like a love letter to the genre. Are you an avid sci-fi reader yourself? Who do you like to read?

Michael Zapata

Absolutely! After all, there are few better ways to experience literature when late-capitalist horrors, technological dreams/nightmares, and irreversible ecological disasters are increasingly recognizable in our daily lives. Science fiction is a direct examination of our most valued ideals and assumptions about civilization. It’s literature on the offensive. I feel like I always come back to writers like Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia E. Butler, and Jorge Luis Borges. Recently, I was enthralled with both Namwali Serpell’s ever-expansive The Old Drift and the graphic novel Barrier by Brian K Vaughan and Marcos Martin, a bilingual story about immigration and alien abduction. The Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy by Cixin Liu is mind-blowingly good. After the recent heartbreaking loss of Alasdair Gray, I’m re-reading his masterpiece, Lanark, which is a type of rebellion against genre.

Amy Brady

What’s next for you?

Michael Zapata

I’m insanely excited to go on a national tour for The Lost Book of Adana Moreau. I’m also in the early happy wandering stages of researching and writing a novel centered on an indigenous, Latinx ecologist in the Ecuadorian Amazon and her son, a census taker in Chicago in the year 2050.

Cover of Lost Book

FICTION
The Lost Book of Adana Moreau
By Michael Zapata
Hanover Square Press
Published February 4, 2020

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