Not surprisingly, as the son of Guatemalan parents, a L.A. native, a former Los Angeles Times bureau chief in Buenos Aires, and a weekly local columnist, Héctor Tobar’s fiction is infused with the desire to illuminate the complex layers, significance, and consequences of cultural and ethnic differences and conflict.
His latest novel, The Barbarian Nurseries, is an incredibly dense reveal of the city of Los Angeles. Within the details of the varied sections of this metropolis, he has created a story that focuses on Araceli, a Mexican maid, who after four yours of service is suddenly thrust into the additional role of nanny when the parents, Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson, make the executive decision (independently of one another) to give themselves a “time-out” from their suddenly taxing lives. The ensuing adventure, and clash of class and culture, reveals the abundance of deep-seated issues at play, and a mistrust and misunderstanding that can relegate society to stagnancy.
HP: How did the title Barbarian Nurseries come about, and what were you hoping to convey by this title?
HT: It’s a play on the two meanings of the word “nursery” as a place where plants are cultivated and as a place where children are cared for and raised.
Both of these jobs are performed in the U.S. by Latino immigrants to a large degree. Mostly people from Mexico. And in talk radio and right-wing commentary, Mexico especially is considered a place of barbarism, a place without civilization; people think of it as a place dominated by drug gangs and lacking in culture, a perverse and inaccurate vision of what the country is, to be sure.
HT: I started off more than a decade ago, and wrote a first draft of a novel that was a response to the growing anti-immigration movement in the U.S. and a response to this rhetoric that sees the newly arrived immigrant as the dangerous ‘other.’
The initial inspiration came from the protagonist of Camus’ The Stranger and from the idea of the first image in my novel: a man trying to cut his own lawn without a Mexican to do it for him.
I didn’t really want to start a discussion, as much as I wanted to write an artistic and intellectual response to the moment in which I was living as a native Californian and the son of immigrants.
H-P: Right from the start, you set up the divide and distinction between employer and employee. Could you comment on that?
HT: A big part of the novel is how social class seeps into everyday actions in the home. This is deliberate, of course. It comes from having crossed the class divide myself, or, rather, from having seen my family cross that. We come from Guatemala, a country that’s synonymous these days with service work here in L.A. My father parked cars, worked in hotels. We ascended to the middle class. At one point, I lived abroad as a writer with servants in my home. So I’ve been lucky enough to see that class divide in my own life from both sides.
H-P: Even secondary characters get back stories, even if they’re mini ones, such as the young woman of whom Araceli asks directions in the fashion district. What was the aim in doing this?
HT: I’ve been privileged to be a journalist and writer in L.A. for a long time. I’ve been to many different kinds of neighborhoods, rich and poor and in between. So I figured I had the chance to share with the reader a real tableau of the social differences and gaps and the variety of experience in the metropolis.
H-P: We have to say, we thought the most alarming part of the book started on page 241 and lasted a mere 38 lines.
HT: Yeah, I was a reporter for a major newspaper covering crime many years ago. I saw firsthand the way the media can assemble melodramas from complex, ambiguous human events. It’s become a big industry in the years since, but the basic manipulation of the truth is the same: take complicated lives and boil them down to issues of good and evil.
H-P: Was the ending of the book, the way the three main characters head off in new directions, just the way the story came to you, or was it a conscious decision?
HT: Maureen and Scott at the end are being set up for another fall. They’ve been humiliated, and forced to lower their expectations. As for Araceli, I wanted to leave her in an in-between state, her story leading to either Mexico or to the U.S., because to me that’s what it means to be an immigrant in the U.S. This country changes you, you can’t go back home and be the same, while at the same time living here can be a fraught experience, as Araceli has learned.
H-P: From the very beginning, we were drawn into the story by your wording and the images you create with your words.
HT: Thanks so much for the kind words. Yes, I’ve spent many long years working on my prose style, trying to develop something that’s evocative and accessible. I’ve had a lot of influences, from short story writers such as Nadine Gordimer and Sandra Cisneros, to novelists like Gunter Grass and Don DeLillo. I like to think of it as reaching for a kind of accessible transcendence, if that makes any sense.
H-P: In reference to being a writer, how do you know when a manuscript is finished?
HT: When your editor pries it from you hands. I think we are perpetual tinkerers. The real question is: when does the writer stop working on his manuscript and show it to his agent/editor? That’s hard to answer. Personally, when I feel nauseous just looking at it, I know I’m done.
H-P: Do you have a particular connection with Pasadena? We know your children attend Sequoyah School, but is there anything else?
HT: One of the final sections of the novel takes place in the Arroyo Seco, in that hazy area near the border between South Pasadena and Pasadena. I use the Craftsman architecture, with its Midwestern influences, as a symbol of Maureen’s desire to return to the values of openness and simplicity of her youth. Also, there are a couple of Sequoyah parents and their kids who served as inspirations for characters.
Héctor Tobar, author of The Barbarian Nurseries
He will be reading at the L.A. Central Library
Thursday, January 26th, 7 p.m.
630 W. 5th Street, L.A., lapl.org/central