Criticism & Features


Small Press Spotlight: Aaron Michael Morales

By Rigoberto Gonzalez


Drowning Tucson, Coffee House Press, 2010.

Aaron Michael Morales grew up in Tucson and now teaches writing and literature at Indiana State University.

Few books call as much attention to the table of contents as Drowning Tucson, which is composed of ten shorter pieces. In the tradition of Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch (or a more contemporary example, Ana Castillo’s The Mixquiahuala Letters) the table of contents maps out six different journeys into the book. This appears to be one more way the novel breaks with convention: already it’s a novel-in-stories, already it’s a complicated multi-layered drama about a group of people whose fates wind and circle and collide through the troubled streets of a working class Latino neighborhood. Can you speak more about your decision to challenge the reader’s experience with these alternate paths into a world where all entry points lead to conflict? How do these structures help us understand the complexity of this Arizona town and the way its people navigate it in order to survive?

I am purposefully following in the footsteps of both Cortázar and Castillo. Their approaches to mapping out those two books had a profound effect on me as a reader and a writer. However, I wanted to put my own spin on this particular technique by engaging readers on an even more personal level, if that is possible. After all, reading—especially in our modern, hyperactive world—is one of the last few remaining acts of intimacy in which we can partake as humans. And it is this intimacy that I try to exploit, maybe even exaggerate, by reminding readers of our role in this intimate process. When we sit down to read, we bring all of our emotional and intellectual capabilities along for the ride, and I think the multiple tables of contents will, by their very existence, allow readers a moment to reflect on the process of reading, on the act of involving ourselves with the written word, regardless of whether or not one chooses an alternate route on the journey of reading this novel.

The idea is that we all view the world through different lenses. We all have our vision clouded by our perceptions of life on earth—what we think reality is—based upon our experiences and education, or lack thereof. Certainly more personality types exist than the six options listed in the tables of contents, but I think that all readers can choose a suitable and meaningful course with which to journey to Tucson’s saddest places. No matter which approach readers take, the same story emerges, the characters’ lives dance and weave and intertwine the way our lives naturally do. The story that emerges is that of a community of (mostly) working class Latinos, many of whom fall victim to bad decisions, economic circumstance, the powerful codes of “street life,” as well as the pitfalls of excessive masculinity, or machismo. They are faced with the onslaught of poverty, cycles of violence, misogyny, corruption, and the sorts of attitudes we see on display in the theater of Arizona news lately.

In terms of how the tables of contents mirror the structure of Tucson, I’d have to say that we navigate the world the same way these options allow readers to navigate my fictional representation of Tucson. How a person sees and interacts with a place is also based upon our worldview. We don’t see poverty if we choose to look away, or if we aren’t aware of the subtle and devastating difficulties of being poor. We don’t see suffering if we believe in the innate goodness of mankind, or if we’ve never really suffered much ourselves. It’s also important to understand the city of Tucson is a complex place. There are forces that are simply not to be trifled with. They are palpable. Bad forces and good forces coexist, swirling in the air above the city. There is the bloody “Old West” history, mingling with the history of genocide against the Native American people. Geronimo and Dillinger were both captured and paraded before Tucson’s citizens. Mexican-Americans have long lived there. It used to be understood that the U.S. border jumped these people who have been there for many generations, rather than the opposite. On top of all this, retirees still swarm to Tucson for the golf courses and the good weather. So it’s a complicated city, teeming with people who interact in complex ways.

There are also many strange features to the city. For example, it is located in the middle of the Sonora desert, and because of this it seems that the city is forever fighting a losing battle against nature. Nature keeps trying to reclaim the city. There are patches of desert throughout town, the streets and sidewalks and buildings are constantly assaulted by the sun and the monsoon storms. And there is a whole separate culture beneath the city in its arroyos where homeless people sleep, where crimes regularly take place beneath the public gaze. Ultimately, it seemed the perfect place to set the novel because of all these features, plus the fact that the desert itself is a savage and brutal place where even the plants and animals can be violent and lethal. Luis Alberto Urrea perfectly captures the harshness of this particular desert in his incredible book, The Devil’s Highway.

Though there are plenty of female characters (most noticeably Rainbow the prostitute), Drowning Tucson is a very male book: men must earn, prove or defend their masculinity at virtually every space where men converge. Domestic scenes are present but they become overshadowed or “drowned out” by the urgencies and pressures of the exterior (crime, poverty, etc.). And the language of the narrative is usually infused with the tough talk of the streets. When Rainbow makes her memorable appearances throughout the book, she’s a constant reminder of the corruption of beauty and femininity, though one also gets the sense that she’s better equipped than any of the men to make it through the tough times. This bleak portrait brings to mind another Tucson-centered book, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead, which celebrated the power of the woman of color. What is it about this landscape that’s able to contain such harsh realities and not implode? How did you reconcile the difficulty in finding a place for women in this male-driven novel?

The landscape is forbidding, to be sure. But it’s also a breathtakingly beautiful place. A Tucson sunrise or sunset is an amazing sight to behold. That said, Tucson lends itself as the perfect setting for my book because of its juxtaposition of beauty and brutality. Silko’s Almanac of the Dead is an excellent depiction of Tucson. She, too, captures the oddity of a desert town known for its resorts and spas. A city renowned for its well-watered golf courses. But beneath the pristine, Chamber-of-Commerce portrayal of the city is a throbbing sense of hopelessness for certain groups of people whose very attempt to eke out a halfway decent existence is constantly assaulted by ruthless violence and poverty. Look at her depiction of Miracle Mile. Of the illicit drug trade. It only makes sense that a place that was founded as an outpost, a mere hour’s drive north of Mexico, which is regularly used as a stopping point for drug, arms, and human traffickers, would have these sorts of issues with crime and violence.

However, I think the place doesn’t implode because there is hope for it. Take the whole SB1070 issue. Tucson is the only city in Arizona that publicly decried the new bill. Its Chief of Police refused to allow his officers to enforce the law. It is a city that has mostly held itself together by encouraging citizens of all backgrounds to celebrate their particular cultures together. They celebrate the rodeo just as thoroughly as they celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Cowboy culture lives next to Latino culture, which lives next to Native American culture. It has had its issues, like any other city, but Tucson is a place holding itself together by claiming its own very unique identity that sets it apart from every other North American city.

As for the issue of finding a place for women, it was a difficult task. I think people might overlook the fact that there are more than simply women who play the role of victims in Drowning Tucson. There are powerful women who bear the weight of their circumstances in particularly noble ways, but maybe they too can be “drowned out” by the overwhelming masculine violence of the book. Still, I think they found their place within this male-dominated text because of the importance of women to the male identity. Regardless of sexual orientation, men use their relationship to women to define themselves. Some do this by merely looking at women as sex objects or conquests, while others look to women’s expectations of men to define the type of men they’d like to become. Of course, the relationship between women and men is much more complicated than that, but I think that there are many important and strong women in my book. After all, it takes a strong woman with very thick skin to survive in an environment as dangerous as the one I depict.

This issue of women and their roles in men’s lives comes to the forefront of several of my male characters’ narratives. Take Peanut, for example. His whole dilemma centers on the fact that he has an epiphany one day. He has—like every other member of his street crew—merely been using women as sex objects. Their only purpose in his world is to be exploited. Then one day he takes a long look at his baby sister and he actually sees her. Peanut suddenly realizes that she will grow into a woman one day herself. He finally makes the connection and has an overwhelming desire to protect his sister from the very environment that his membership in a gang helps to perpetuate. Moments like these are peppered throughout the book. The men, as vulgar and primal as they can be at times, often realize the permanence and necessity of women in their lives. Some deal with it well, others do not.

Another reason to appreciate Drowning Tucson is that it presents a different view of Arizona than what the media (and the Arizona politicians of late) have been showing–a state teeming with undocumented aliens who are burdening the welfare system. Your novel gives readers a place where Mexican/Chicano/Latino identity and culture are deeply rooted, which is why for many it is difficult to exit or to tear away from the positive and negative tissue of this community. That said, why was it important to set the novel in the 1980s?

I’m glad you mentioned the deep roots of Latino culture in Tucson because I think both the politicians and the media are doing Arizona an incredible disservice in their portrayal of the state as being overrun with illegal immigrants. It’s so much more complicated than that. But people really believe that our country is under siege. It’s ridiculous. What’s most frustrating to me about all this is that people ignore the history of this area, how there have long been Mexican citizens who basically commuted to work in the various Southwest border cities and towns, then returned home in the evenings to be with their families. It has always been a fairly loose and porous border. Especially in the ‘80s when the main task for the Border Patrol was to detect and stop drug trafficking.

But the border issue is not why I chose to set the novel in that particular decade. For me, the reason was simple. In terms of violence nationwide, I think the late ‘80s was a very pivotal time for several reasons. The first is that the creation of gangsta rap occurred during this time and it took the country by storm. When N.W.A. rapped about living in the ghetto, its violence, its misogyny, young men all over the country began to emulate this behavior. But rap music’s turn to violence was only the beginning. Another important event was the release of the movie Colors. The film depicted the rivalry between the two now-famous L.A. gangs, the Crips and the Bloods. What I saw happen was a distinct change in the nature of gang life. Since I lived in a place where gangs ran, and since my brother ran with them, the shift was both dramatic and clearly visible for me.

These young men who previously were getting into fistfights and stabbing one another began packing guns and doing drive-bys and executing each other. It’s absurd to think of the early to mid-‘80s when people would actually settle their disputes with a dance-off. But all of that is long in the past, and we’re stuck with the fallout of the Colors era. Now, there is a permanent gangsta culture in America, and it was in the late ‘80s that it first flourished. This was a huge issue in Tucson, but I remember seeing shows about gangs popping up in the unlikeliest places—Little Rock, Kansas City, Boise. So it really was a turning point for our nation and I needed to set the novel during this timeframe because it defined an entire generation of men. It upped the ante in a game that was already plenty dangerous.

For a long time I kept calling the novel Leaving Tucson, perhaps influenced by the desires of many of these characters to find another place to thrive, or at the very least, set out into the unknown as long as they could leave Tucson behind. What are the ways in which you yourself have left Tucson (or maybe you haven’t)? Where is your next project taking readers?       

Escape is an important theme in the novel. However, I don’t think that most of the characters want to escape the city itself. Well, the characters Peanut and Rainbow do. In fact, while writing Rainbow’s final scene I couldn’t help wishing alongside her that the statue of Pancho Villa would come alive and carry her away. I knew that if it did she would be okay. She’s a strong woman in many ways, as she would have to be to survive on the streets alone for so many years. But the novel’s other characters desperately want to escape their circumstances, perhaps even the neighborhood, moreso than the city itself. They are all united by the desire to leave their lives behind and better themselves in some way, as many people are. To me that’s the real definition of the “American Dream,” what people come here to realize: we want our lives to be a little better off, and for our children to have it a little better than us. We want our grandchildren to have it a little better than our children, and so on. Many of my characters do not see the city as the problem, rather they (sometimes) become aware that more abstract ideas are keeping them from realizing a more bearable existence, things they can’t exactly put a finger on, such as the poverty, violence, the overbearing requirements of machismo, the subservient role women are expected to accept. It bothers them like an itch, and it slowly becomes inflamed until they have to react in some fashion. Unfortunately, most of them choose a more destructive or desperate path and end up worse off than before. Still, that’s the reality of a hard life. We can stand on the outside from the comfort of our “normal” lives and judge people who are less fortunate. We can see the error of a bad decision when we’re not the ones in such claustrophobic circumstances. We don’t act. We just stand aside while people flail around for a way out. That’s the reason I wrote this book. It is me taking action, despite how difficult it was to write it and how difficult it might be to read it.

I’m doing the same thing with my current project, a novel titled Eat Your Children. The short description is that it focuses on the children of meth addicts. So the novel is set where I’m currently living and teaching, in Terre Haute, Indiana. I chose this place because I’ve been here for many years now, and I’ve begun to know it as intimately as I know Tucson. The truth is that the novel could be set anywhere in the Midwest because meth is a very working class, Midwestern drug. It’s a problem everywhere, but it’s more prevalent here in the Midwest. There has been a lot of attention given to meth users and the horrors of this particular drug addiction, but I found that despite the successes of books such as Beautiful Boy and Methland, or even the movies and TV shows such as Breaking Bad and Spun, no one has really given much time to the unseen victims of this drug epidemic, which are the children. So my book is going there. It’s not pretty, but, again, I think someone needs to bear witness. The children of meth addicts are doomed from the start, and in all likelyhood several future generations will be damaged by the emotional and physical fallout of the drug. It’s been painful for me to delve into this world, but I think it’s just as necesary as the subject matter of Drowning Tucson. The title is an allusion to Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” for reasons that become quite apparent early on in Eat Your Children.  

As for the question of me leaving Tucson, I don’t think I ever really left. Sure, I moved away many years ago, but I am a proud Tucsonan through and through. When people ask where I’m from, that’s what I’ll always tell them. Honestly, I’m there every day. It breaks my heart to watch the state of Arizona become the battleground that it has become. But, in a lot of ways, it’s not all that surprising. After all, it’s been a battleground for centuries now. Still, Tucson is just as much a part of my identity as, say, being an American. Or being a parent. I love it and all of its brutality and beauty. It’s a city with grit. It’s my city.