AUGUST 29, 2014
“I’M CERTAIN that it’s only a matter of time before [my father’s] past catches up with him, before he turns up dead, and I’ve decided that when that call comes, I will not shed a single tear.” This is Maria Venegas’s resolution early in Bulletproof Vest. Jose, her father, deserted Maria, her seven siblings, and their mother in Chicago when she was young — but not without first imparting larger-than-life tales of his adventures as an outlaw. In her memoir, a ballad both thrilling and touching, Maria artfully weaves his stories together with her own. Her declaration that she will not weep for her father reflects the distance she maintains throughout. But although she refuses to idealize the man, when he dies while she is in the middle of the book, the writing takes on a new gravity. Venegas and I discussed her memoir and her experience writing about her father.
CLAIRE LUCHETTE: Most fascinating to me was how you structured this memoir, how the stories overlapped and flowed. How did you decide the order of the stories?
MARIA VENEGAS: I knew early on that I didn’t want to write an expository, first-person, chronological narrative, so I came at the material from several different angles. When I initially started the book, my main goal was to write a work of nonfiction that would read like a novel. Not only did the material lend itself to that approach, but it also made the writing process more engaging for me. It allowed me to play with different crafting techniques. For example, I first wrote the opening scene, in which my father is ambushed with two machine guns, in first person, so that the story was being revealed to the reader the way it had come to me; but that particular format killed the urgency. It wasn’t until I wrote the scene in third person, from my father’s perspective, that it clicked. Writing from his vantage point enabled me to put the reader in the truck with him: to see the bugs hit the windshield, to catch the whiff of a decomposing animal on the side of the road — and then to hear the hail of bullets from the guns. Once I wrote that scene from my father’s perspective, I knew I had the structure — the weaving between first and third person, between his point of view and my own.
You said that the stories your father told you provided the skeleton for this memoir. How so?
Over the years, I realized that my father kept going back to the same stories. He had pinpointed the formative moments in his life — his mother handing him his first gun, her pride after he shot a man for the first time at age 12, the botched attempt to send him to the seminary, et cetera. I often felt as though his sharing these stories was his way of explaining to me why he had lived such a violent and self-destructive life. Though he had gone back and identified the events that had set him on the path he would travel, he was unable to rescue himself from his past. After he died, his neighbors, relatives, and even my mother seemed eager to share stories about him, and, for the most part, they were the same stories he had been telling. It was as though he had already written his own corrido — the ballad of his life.
Did you consider fictionalizing your father, or could you only seek to understand him through nonfiction?
There was no need to fictionalize a man that already loomed larger than life, who was mythical. If the book had been published as fiction, it would have felt like I had turned a blind eye to the truth. Nonfiction was the only way. Books have long been alternative forms of history, a way to tell personal narratives, stories you’re not going to find in newspapers or history books. I think it’s important that we tell our stories, that they become woven into the discussion, and into the web that will become our history.
How did you provide the details for gunfight scenes set in the 19th century?
Often, while riding with my father out to his ranch, we’d come upon a gate or a creek and it would spark a story that had taken place in that area. For example, he’d point at a mesquite and explain how it was near that tree where he and Antonio, his older brother, had run into Fidel. Antonio and Fidel had exchanged words, pulled out their guns, and shot at one another. Knowing the events that led to that encounter, it wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine the conversation that ultimately ended in a gunfight. My father’s ranch and many of the surrounding ranches have remained largely untouched for generations, so it wasn’t very difficult to fill in the details, especially those pertaining to time and place.
You wrote the chapter about your rape in the second person, which you said enabled you to distance yourself from the memory. Do you often look back at painful memories with remove, or just when you write about them?
I look back at most of my past with a bit of remove.
Will the memoir be translated into Spanish? Do you want your mother to read it?
Bulletproof Vest is being translated into Spanish, and I would love for my mother to read it. Back in 2009, Granta published an excerpt — they printed the prologue and the first chapter, about my father leaving for Mexico — and then translated it into Spanish and reprinted it in one of their Spanish issues about two or three years later. I received a copy of that Spanish issue, and my mother happened to be visiting me in New York, so I gave it to her. She was reading it one day and started cracking up. I asked, “What is so funny?” She said, “You wrote that I came out of the bedroom with my bra strap hanging halfway down my arm?” And then she said, “You think kids aren’t paying attention, yet all the while they’re there like little tape recorders, picking up all the details.” She really enjoyed the piece and we had a good laugh over it.
Your tone is raw throughout, but you are especially apathetic when your sister calls and tells you your father’s been shot. What was your full reaction to the news of his death?
Six months after Farrar, Straus and Giroux bought the book, my father died in a very brutal and unexpected way. Losing him midway through the writing was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to deal with. I had lost him for the second and final time. But I knew that no matter how painful, I had to see the project through. Writing about my father while he was still alive often felt as though I was trying to capture a snapshot of a moving target. I wasn’t certain where the book was going. It could have been about a reconciliation between a father and daughter. It could have ended with my initial visit, or any subsequent visit to him. It’s ironic, because when I started to write about my father, my instinct was to write a book-length corrido about his life — this particular genre is problematic, as corridos are ballads that are traditionally written to commemorate a life after the person has passed away. After he died, it made sense, and I knew what end I was writing toward.
Tell me about your work as a writing coach at Still Waters in a Storm. What does the work involve?
Still Waters is a reading and writing sanctuary for children in Bushwick, and I first went there as a visiting author for one of their Saturday writing workshops. While I was there, I read a short piece I had written called “The Devil’s Spine,” which had just been published in Ploughshares. The piece was about a four-year-old girl on a bus that was snaking around the mountain tops and through the clouds, and though the girl was nauseous, she was being quizzed: there was a name she had to memorize, a name she had to give the men in uniforms when she reached the border. If she gave the wrong answer, she’d never see her parents again. Many of the kids at Still Waters are immigrants themselves, or the children of immigrants, and so they really responded. After the reading, I gave them a few writing prompts, and I was astounded by the pieces they came up with. I think it’s important for these kids to know that they have a voice, and that what they have to say matters. Not only were their stories heartfelt and brave, but while each child read out loud, all the others sat quietly and listened — it was beautiful. I knew I had to be a part of it.