Francisco Cantú is a former Border Patrol Agent and a 2017 Whiting Award winner. A 2016 graduate of the University of Arizona MFA program, his work has since appeared in Best American Essays and This American Life. His book The Line Becomes a River will be published by Riverhead Books in 2018.
Gabe Dozal is an MFA Candidate in Poetry at the University of Arizona. From El Paso, TX, he writes about the code-switching, camouflage, and chameleon nature of the borderlands.
(Competing with car horns, and police sirens on the patio, Francisco’s dog Walt, newly from the vet, has a cone around its head.)
G: You were just here at Five Points this morning?
F: Yeah, every month I have breakfast here, with a group of so-called “desert rats,” writers and naturalists and other friends who share an obsession with the Sonoran desert. .
G: There’s a lot to congratulate you on but I’m most impressed with your “This American Life” piece. I like where the essay starts, with a scene of Border Patrol trainees on stationary bikes, sort of a metaphor for what their role might be like.
F: It was great to be on the program. The piece I read is sort of a hybrid—all of the writing is from the book that will be out next year, but some of the scenes were written years ago before I started my MFA and others much more recently. That’s one thing that’s cool about the book, it’s comprised of all these vignettes that are easy to pull out and present on their own. An earlier version of what I read on This American Life appeared in Best American Essays 2016. But that bicycle scene was one I remembered and added to the manuscript much later. It’s funny, when I was recording it the producers kept telling me to read “more flat” for radio.
G: You have these poetic flourishes that come at the end of these vignettes that I like a lot. As a poet, hearing you read made me want to explore my own writing in more of a prose style while exploring a border culture, but through code-switching.
F: Ocean Vuong gave a reading here recently, and during a Q&A he was arguing that as writers we all have our own innate voice, and that it’s just a matter of finding it. There’s also that old cliché about Michelangelo, that when he looked at a chunk of marble he saw the statue within it, and only had to work to get rid of all the unnecessary stuff around it. Maybe it’s similar for a writer as they find their voice.
G: Territory, in which an essay of yours appears, is a literary journal about maps, it’s run by former University of Arizona grads right?
F: That’s right, it’s run by Thomas Mira y Lopez and Nick Greer. I love Territory, I wouldn’t have written that piece if they hadn’t asked me to come up with something for that issue, an issue they were doing all about the state of Arizona. It’s a piece I had been wanting to write for a long time, and I was happy to have the occasion to write it.
G: The MFA program here at the U of A is on fire right now: Alison Deming was just named a Regents’ Professor, Taneum Bambrick won the inaugural Yemassee Chapbook Contest judged by Ocean Vuong, Jos Charles won a fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and has a new book of poetry, and Ander Monson just won a Gugg.
F: Yes, it’s great to see the program on such a roll. I was lucky enough to be in class with everyone on that list. Alison was my thesis advisor, and she has an incredible way of focusing you on your project and making sure it takes shape as a book. She’s also incredibly good at helping you make the right connections so that your work finds a home in the world. And with Ander, if I was struggling with an essay in workshop, I was always amazed at how he would throw out all these different ideas, some that might seem incredibly particular, others that might seem crazy, but there was always a golden idea in there that would really help you narrow in on something unexpected and focus the essay on the most interesting and uncommon aspects of your topic.
(More static noise distracts for a bit before we continued to talk about writing and the border, writing about that liminal space.)
F: You know, you mentioned your poetry earlier, and I really like how in many of your poems the border is named, it’s not just something in the background, I like all the ways it gains shape to become a character.
G: I want it to embody things and make it do things. I would replace the I’s in a piece of writing with the word “border” so there’d be sentences that sounded like: “Border need to drink less coffee” and “Border love that movie.”
F: I’m interested in the idea that we can direct anger and emotion towards the border itself, not just mince words over policy but distill an emotion and direct it at this dividing line.
G: I like how you put that because when I lived in El Paso, I felt like I was always negotiating these different worlds: my Grandmas, the Texans, the Tejanos, 2nd,3rd,4th, generation Mexican-Americans, military people (Fort Bliss), Chicana, cholo, Chicanx, tías, primas, fobs, and all with varying stratified experiences.
F: That makes a lot of sense. There can be a lot of simultaneous cross-over and division among all those groups. I always get confused when the generations start. I guess I’m 3rd generation, my grandpa crossed over as a boy during the Mexican Revolution and my mother grew up here.
G: Me too, I’m always balancing the generations in my family. On one side my great-grandparents came here and had my grandma in west Texas, so I have deep roots there. You lived in El Paso too, right? What was your time like there?
F: I was only in El Paso for 8 months but I’ve always felt close to West Texas. When I was a boy my Mom worked for the park service, in the Guadalupe Mountains, and we would go to El Paso to get groceries and stuff. After we moved away we would return every once in awhile. One of those trips is the prologue to my book, a trip I took to Juarez with my mother when I was an undergrad. I wanted to go to the border for an essay project in one of my classes.
G: Now that you’ve won the Whiting does it change the scope of future projects?
F: The Whiting has a done a few things for me. First and foremost, in how I think about my own work, how I think about my career, it’s extremely legitimizing, it’s a huge confidence booster as far as someone saying: “Hey, keep on this path that you’re on.” It’s very affirming which sounds like it’s not that big of a deal, but in the context of the financial and professional risks you take to be a creative person, it really means a lot. That’s also one of the best things I got from the MFA experience, the confidence to consider myself a writer in the first place.
G: Right? Like, is all of this writing I’m doing just terrible? We were talking about 2nd , 1st generation so it’s cool to see that you’re moving into a different kind of crossing narrative. I remember telling you in Patagonia (Arizona, more on that in a bit) that at first I didn’t want to write about the border. Everyone I knew in El Paso was writing about it so I didn’t want to, I felt like it was too common, too easy.
F: You know, I grew up in Prescott, Arizona. It’s a pretty white town, four and half hours from the border and I had a totally American upbringing. My mom didn’t speak Spanish around the house, she hadn’t grown up speaking it either, so I never really felt like I was that different from the kids I was going to school with. But I remember when I was going into high school my dad was like “Hey, you should probably learn to speak Spanish because with your name, people are going to expect you to speak it.” That’s when I first really began to think about my identity and my background. But growing up, and even today with most things in my life, I’ve had all the privileges of a white man. I look pretty white and I’m usually treated like a white guy, so it’s been interesting for me to see who my writing resonates with. When I first started writing I didn’t think about myself as a Latino writer. But then I began to realize that a lot of people have a story like mine, a lot of us have Latino heritage and still feel totally American except for these brief moments when we have to stop and say “Oh no, wait. There’s something else here and I want to get to the bottom of it, investigate it.” Writing gives you a way to do that, and even if you’ve been living in a white dominated world and never before thought of yourself as a writer of color, you gradually start to realize that you’re part of something more complicated.
G: I learned to speak better Spanish working in a German bakery after high school in El Paso. The owner was German but everyone who I worked with in the kitchen spoke only Spanish. My parents grew up speaking English, growing up and listening to Elton John and Jim Croce, so when they had me and my brother it was easier for them to just speak mostly in English to us.
(Car horns and other noise interrupt us for a bit, before we continue thinking about how we both grew up. Francisco and I also lived in D.C., though not at the same time, before coming to the U of A. Some writer-ly, Latinx paths. Our conversation returns to the Whiting.)
F: The other thing about the Whiting that’s inspirational is that there are ten other winners and you get to spend time with them and their work, and it’s inspirational to be in a new cohort of writers outside of the MFA program. I’ve been reading plays from some of the other Whiting winners—James Ijames, Claire Barron, Clarence Coo. So in a way I’ve discovered a new literary genre through their work, you know? Maybe you’ve heard of the poets who won—Simone White and Phillip B. Williams—incredible poets and thinkers. So it’s nice to be in a tiny community with these people, to experience the award together, because as writers we spend all our time expecting to get rejected and never hear back, but all of a sudden we’re receiving this attention together.
A nice thing about the Whiting is that it isn’t political—the judges are anonymous, you don’t know who nominated you, so it’s not like in many MFA programs where you’re competing against your friends and colleagues for awards and funding. The money is great, of course, and one of the most beneficial things is that they organized a three-hour financial seminar for us, from an accountant who sort of showed us from scratch us how to file taxes as a self-employed writer. It’s so hard to build a sustainable writing career—most of the time you need to be teaching and you’re not sure when you’ll get an opportunity to just take time for your writing.
G: I’m looking forward to working with you in Patagonia for the The Southwest Field Studies program. Can you tell us a little about it?
F: Yeah, the Southwest Field Studies will explore how arts and culture contribute to understanding and responding to challenges of climate change, border issues and social justice. I’ve been lucky enough to coordinate the program with Alison Deming and Susan Briante. We’ll be bringing three MFA candidates, (you, Raquel Gutierrez, and Abby Dockter) for a two-week immersion trip in the Patagonia/Nogales region to work on research and writing projects. The project is made possible by the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice and we’ll also be partnering with the Borderlands Earth Care Youth Corps to engage a group of local high schoolers in writing, storytelling, and oral history to talk about the unique ways they are coming of age in a place where environmental and social justice issues are so intertwined. The idea is for the MFA fellows to mentor these students in creating a shared portrait of the border.
G: And…when does your pup get its cone off?
F: He had an allergic reaction and scratched his head and neck up, so after all his cuts heal, I guess. Gotta keep him from pawing at those wounds.
(At this point, maybe “El Chico De Apartamento 512” by Selena starts playing over the patio speakers at 5 Points. Maybe me, Francisco, and Walt, break into a dance we choreographed the night before where we lead his pup in an array of Zoot Suit inspired dance moves: the rhumba, zumba, y el danzon. Walt was having trouble negotiating the cone. Maybe patrons were staring, a little shocked, but seemingly enjoying our mini-flash mob.)