Marcela Fuentes: Fates and furies

Books

In Malas, the legend of La Llorona (the Weeping Woman) ties together the stories of two women from different generations in a Texas border town. When the two meet in the ‘90s, their connection—including a shared love of Selena—threatens to surface buried town secrets.

Malas is your first novel. Can you tell us a bit about your writing process for the book? When did you start writing it and where did your inspiration come from?

Malas began as my attempt to write a fairy tale for a fairy tales course during my M.F.A. The first thing that came to me was a young and very pregnant Pilar being confronted by an elderly woman claiming to be her husband Jose Alfredo’s ‘real’ wife. I was in Iowa at the time, buried in snow, which made me vividly recall the other extreme—the merciless heat of a south Texas summer, and the dreamlike quality of those still, hot afternoons, perfect for the apparition of this old woman in the street. But though I set out to write a villain, I ended up digging into a lot of vulnerability. I wrote about 40 pages, the opening to the novel, and didn’t turn in my fairy tale after all because the story would not end. Probably six months later, another big chunk came to me, in the form of Gen-X teen Lulu running around at night, full of hurt and rage at her father. Looking back, I think my inspiration came from the style of storytelling I’d heard all my life, a family or local history that might pass for folklore.

This book brims with colorful descriptions and vivid imagery. Your description of the dusty border town of La Cienega was particularly captivating, lending Malas a very precise sense of place and cultural richness. Did you draw at all upon your hometown of Del Rio, Texas, when developing the setting for this book?

Certainly there’s a lot of Del Rio in my novel, but I also drew on other small border towns I’m familiar with, and Laredo, which is my mother’s hometown. I considered setting the novel in an actual place, but ultimately there was more freedom in a fictitious one. I wanted to respect the individual histories of those actual towns, while retaining an authentic sense of the complexity of these communities.

Read our starred review of Malas.

One surprising thing about Malas is that although it begins rooted in the supernatural, it evolves into a story that is more grounded in reality. Can you discuss how you approached that balance and made the choice to shift it over the course of the novel? 

I would say that there are different realities for different people. Pilar has a perspective that might be more susceptible to a belief in the supernatural, and to a certain extent Lulu’s father does too. One of the things I wanted to explore was this idea of reality being very much in the eye of the beholder, and also, the idea that overcoming generational trauma might sometimes be related to not accepting a fate-driven narrative. Another preoccupation in Malas was the idea of stories, romanticized or folkloric, taking the place of factual events, because people are prone to mythologizing, even family histories.

An intergenerational saga, Malas moves between different decades, from the 1940s to the 1990s. What was it about this time period that interested you?

I am very interested in the period before the Civil Rights Movement in Texas, the history for Mexicans and Tejanos, the strictures they dealt with, but also the strength and creativity of this community. Malas is a music novel too, and the 1950s is when Tejano, like many genres of music, began to be influenced by rock ’n’ roll, which very much started the trajectory that led to the “Tejano Boom” of the 1990s, and Selena’s unique sound. The history of Tejano music is the history of this place.

Lulu is an avid music fan and aspiring punk singer, and the book is peppered throughout with musical references, particularly to Tejano and norteño bands. If you were to create a soundtrack for readers to listen to while reading Malas, what songs would you include?

For sure, “Hey Baby, Que Paso” by The Texas Tornados, “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” by Selena, and so much Pedro Infante.

Listen to Marcela Fuentes’ full Malas Spotify playlist!

One powerful scene in the book occurs when Lulu’s father educates her about the various types of gritos in Mexican music and teaches her how to perform one. Could you tell us more about the importance of the grito?

A grito is a vocal eruption of emotion—joy, grief, rage, love, pride—and sometimes the sound of rebellion. In music, it’s a cathartic yelling, amping up the emotion. And, as Lulu says in the novel, it’s a war cry. There’s a highly mythologized account of the “grito de Dolores” the cry of a priest to call his congregation to arms on the eve of Mexican Independence. The scene in the book is an important moment between Lulu and her father because music is one thing that remains a bond between them. Fraught as their relationship is, the heartbreaking thing is they actually love each other very deeply and they are quite similar personalities. I wanted this to be a moment of that love, a bit of closeness and vulnerability for both of them. He’s handing down a heritage to her, and it is a heritage of rebellion, though he doesn’t realize she wants to use it to rebel against him.

Throughout the book, we observe Lulu grappling with the transition between girlhood and womanhood, something that is also symbolized by her impending quinceañera. What did you find the most challenging about telling the story of a protagonist who is navigating this particularly complicated time in one’s life?

The most challenging part was going to that emotionally vulnerable place and trying to forget my adult consciousness, placing myself in the headspace of an angry, hurt kid. I kept having to remind myself that a 14-year-old can morph from child to adult, even moment to moment. Lulu’s a smart girl, overconfident in her abilities and toughness. Her feelings, much as she disavows them, are ardent and immediate and she doesn’t have the maturity or the parental guidance to process them.

“[F]ind your writer friends. You’ll keep each other writing no matter what life throws at you.”

With your debut novel under your belt, can you tell us what you’ll be working on next?

I’m finishing a linked story collection called My Heart Has More Rooms Than a Whorehouse. It follows the members of an extended Latinx family and explores the pressure points of familial obligations and the complexities of love. A young boy from the barrio settles a wager his dead father made with a rich man. A sister tries to make sense of her brother’s career as a bull rider. A group of kids search for the bogeyman haunting their grandmother’s house. A suburban wife aches to understand her volatile husband. The people in these stories navigate the web of family allegiances while trying to find breathing space for themselves.

You are a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and now teach Creative Writing at Texas Christian University. What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve received and now give to your students?

The best piece of advice I got was that my writing community, writer friends, were the best thing I’d get from my M.F.A. I have a group of writer friends. I trust their eyes on my work, as they trust mine on theirs. I tell my students the same thing: find your writer friends. You’ll keep each other writing no matter what life throws at you.

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