Empathy and Solidarity: On Alejandro Varela’s “The Town of Babylon”
By Alex EspinozaAugust 26, 2022
The Town of Babylon by Alejandro Varela
In The Town of Babylon, we meet Andrés, a public health professor who returns home to care for his ailing father. Reeling from his husband’s recent infidelity and with nothing else to do, Andrés decides to attend his 20-year high school reunion. There, he is forced to confront old wounds, the harsh legacy of homophobia, and the choices he’s been forced to make to secure a better life for himself. Publishers Weekly called The Town of Babylon a “dazzling debut” and “an incandescent bildungsroman.”
Varela took some time to chat with me about issues of mental health, the myth of meritocracy, and the importance of dismantling systems of oppression.
ALEX ESPINOZA: Can you tell us what inspired you to write The Town of Babylon? What was the initial spark?
ALEJANDRO VARELA: This is a twofold answer. On the one hand, this novel came out of necessity. No one wanted my short story collection. Do you have a novel? Could you make these stories a novel? I heard this from several editors. At some point, I gave in and wrote the novel. That’s the unromantic response. The other take is that I’d been wanting to write about Roseto, a town in Pennsylvania. It’s a place with a storied public health history that had a tremendous impact on me in graduate school. Understanding the health of that tightly knit community and its resilience in the face of a common enemy had become almost allegorical in my understanding of how hierarchies negatively affect health. I wanted to tell a story about that, and I carried around that idea for years. The novel gave me the opportunity to write it.
Andrés, the main narrator, is incisive and unsparing about the people and places of his youth, but he’s also witty and humorous. How did you go about striking such a wide tonal balance?
In part, I share the style of communication with Andrés, which is to say, I try to find the right balance between tones. Having grown up in an environment defined by its precarity, I’ve learned how to read a room. I think I know when to pump the brakes and when to cut loose — almost never. I learned at an early age that there must be give and take or you risk anger and retribution. I write thinking, How much can my reader stomach? How much is too much? Is this too heavy? Should I undercut with some humor?
In addition to exposing readers to a well-rounded and complex cast of characters, The Town of Babylon also features a great deal of social commentary on race, class, and homophobia, to name just a few issues. Yet this social commentary never feels forced or heavy. Can you tell us how you manage to achieve this?
I knew if I was too dogmatic, I’d lose my reader. I’m grateful to hear that it didn’t feel forced or heavy. In fact, I think I have lost readers because of my protagonists’ political piousness and, at times, condescension. That was a choice on my part. I feel an urgency to tell the stories that I’m telling. They are an extension of my public health work, which was primarily advocacy. I knew that Andrés’s internal soliloquizing might happen too frequently and would go on for too long, but I chose to write a political, public health–themed novel, and I knew I couldn’t be half-assed about it. And yet, I cut plenty of commentary from the manuscript, some of which was heavy-handed even for me, but some of which my editor highlighted. You were certainly spared!
Readers and critics are often quick to draw similarities between queer POC writers and their characters. In a piece you published in Lit Hub called “When People Assume Your Fiction Is About Your Life,” you wrote, “Maybe, then, what rubs me the wrong way isn’t the assumption that I am my own protagonist, but instead its implication of artistic laziness.” Why do you think this so often happens to us queer POC writers, and how can we counter this assumption?
The biggest assumption of them all is that we’re writing veiled autobiographies and that one experience stands in for the experience of an entire [insert oppressed group here]. This has everything to do with exposure. The average reader isn’t familiar with the diversity of — in this case — the queer, class-jumping, Latine/x experience. Consequently, the focus turns almost exclusively to the demographic elements of the story and its protagonists and their congruity with the writer. As an example, straight, cisgender white men don’t get too many How much of this is autobiographical? questions. Not as often as we do. The diversity of that particular perspective has been tread often — David Copperfield, Jay Gatsby, Rabbit Angstrom, etc. The reader and reviewer can then focus on the story, the writing, the merits of the political positions, etc., instead of wondering if that’s how white people are and live.
But readers haven’t yet seen enough of us to take our identities for granted. This is further complicated by the fact that drama sells. I’m telling a story that’s captivating. It’s realist fiction, but it magnifies and dials up reality for the purposes of entertainment. The consequence is that our underexplored lives are now conflated with the extremes of storytelling. Certainly, discrimination and marginalization are stressful and traumatic, but life isn’t a work of fiction. There is also an expectation that, when we write stories, we’ll stay in a particular lane. Andrés’s politicking, for example, has been off-putting to some readers — I hate to say it, but mostly white readers and editors — because they’re uncomfortable with a queer mestizo reading (read: criticizing) their country and society. If Andrés were white European — if he were named Andrew, let’s say — his dogma would be his virtue, his endearing quirk. In fact, the joy of post-publication has been to hear feedback from other POC and queer POC readers who related very strongly with Andrés’s political lens.
You’ve published many short stories and essays. In what ways was writing a novel different? What artistic surprises did you encounter throughout the writing of The Town of Babylon?
My short stories typically live in my mind until they’re complete, at which point I race over to my laptop and type away furiously. If I am unable to complete a first draft in one sitting, I reread and edit what I’ve already written before I continue writing. That’s how I wrote for several years. But the novel was different. Although I wrote quickly — it took me 13 weeks: three weeks in the spring and 10 in the winter of 2019–20 — I did it without a roadmap. I had a general idea of the story I wanted to tell, but primarily I had settings, protagonists, arcs, and themes in mind. And once I began writing, I never looked back, beginning each day exactly where I’d left off the previous day. I had a lot of fun making it up as I went along. Of course, I’d think about the storylines and their trajectories when I wasn’t writing, but nothing was definitive until I typed it. This way of writing was simultaneously frightening — What if it doesn’t come together? What if I forget where I am going? — and liberating — I could go in any direction I want and for as long as I want. But freedom, too, came with fears — What if I go too far out and can’t reel the story back in?
What were some challenges you faced while writing your novel?
I didn’t know if I could trust my instincts. At one point, I’d written sections where the narrators (first-person Andrés and the omniscient third person) conversed with each other. It was a way for me to question the idea of a singular truth, as well as to highlight the humor of a writer who splits himself up into various points of view, all of which are ultimately him — me. In the end, I cut it because I feared it was too confusing, a sentiment that my editor corroborated. Ultimately, I made the right decision, but the uncertainty was something that appeared throughout the writing process and was much more pronounced than in my short-story writing.
Another challenge while working on this novel — and everything, really — was writing outside of my own experience. I am largely at ease in the experience of cisgender mestizo men from working- and middle-class backgrounds, which is my experience. I’m also comfortable writing from the perspective of a white man because it is the universal one of our society. I have been indoctrinated — we all have. But writing any oppressed experience that isn’t my own, including women, gives me a great deal of anxiety. I do a lot of gut checks and overthinking. Primarily, I fear contributing to the marginalization. I fear writing incomplete experiences that shrivel up into stereotypes or trauma porn. I’d like to give myself more credit than that, but the truth is I am as much a product of our racist patriarchal society as anyone else, so I have to remain vigilant. For example, Simone is a Black woman with schizophrenia. Was it my place to explore that experience, and if it was, could I do it without reducing her to mere tropes? Could I present mental illness in a way that was just and accurate? Did I owe Simone particular care because of the ways Black women are regularly disrespected in art and society? I’ve heard people argue that this degree of scrutiny can blunt creativity. I suspect this is true if these aren’t concerns for the writer. Overcoming the usual tribulations of this craft on top of overcoming a lack of empathy could interfere with one’s creativity. In that regard, I feel lucky that empathy and solidarity are important values and ways of living for me.
You have a background in public health. How did this influence the writing of your novel?
This book is the novelization of my public health passions, primarily the research on the negative effects of hierarchy. I concocted a town based on Roseto and my own hometown, but on some level I was trying to communicate that a society without social capital — that is, a sense of community and belonging for all of its members — will suffer. The buffers and coping mechanisms that come from social trust and bonding are life-extending as well as lifesaving. My protagonists are victims of capitalism and the atomization of society that prioritizes competition and success over health and happiness. The town itself is a community of battalions who have mistaken differences for barriers — barriers that have been erected, upheld, and manipulated by economic policies since at least World War II. What happens in that town happens all over this country, in all towns where we organize ourselves hierarchically.
What do you hope readers take away after finishing The Town of Babylon?
- The fewer the barriers between us, the healthier we all are.
- Hierarchies — gender, racial, economic, sexual, etc. — are effectively barriers to health.
- Sacrificing community for economic advancement is a bad idea.
- Meritocracy is a myth when white supremacy and patriarchy exist.
- Generational wealth has kept whites afloat for centuries and has widened a Black-white wealth gap that can only be narrowed with reparations, which is effectively backlogged generational wealth.
- We can’t postpone conversations about mental illness.
- Being a class jumper can be a disorienting experience in the United States.
- The way we organize ourselves — whether in hierarchies or into cities and suburbs — has consequences on our health.
What do you think the future of publishing looks like for us LGBTQ writers?
I think our very large and varied community is in the mainstream for sure, but of course, I worry about who under our umbrella isn’t getting attention and space. Our alphabet soup of identities is diverse enough to allow for the re-creation of the same systems that didn’t allow us to participate openly in the first place. As a former public health researcher, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that we should look at the data. Are all the letters and colors within LGBTQIA+ being represented equitably? Do we see lesbian and trans writers of color on our shelves as often as we see gay writers? What about intersex writers? Queer writers with disabilities? How about Black and Indigenous writers? They exist and some get attention, but what are the proportions? Inevitably, someone tweets a bar graph showing us that white men are far overrepresented and that we’ve been focusing on a few marginalized writers at the expense of the truth. Our collective advocacy should recognize these inequities and make noise until all of us are represented equally in this industry.
I’d also like to draw some attention to the Q in our community. I hope the future of publishing includes radical and progressive voices from our community. There is still something subversive in presenting LGBTQIA+ lives and perspectives in literature, but it’s important that we use our platforms to question the oppressive systems that have kept us — and our loud, proud voices — out of the industry. Our future depends on whether there are editors and publishers willing to publish writers of conscience. In that regard, I was lucky to find a home with Danny Vazquez and Astra House.
Can you tell us a little about what you are working on next?
I’m editing the manuscript of the story collection that comes out in spring 2023 (also from Astra House). It’s called The People Who Report More Stress. If Babylon is about not being able to go home, Stress is about not being at peace wherever you land. Apart from that, I’m editing a few stories that won’t be included in the collection, as well as an essay about reparations that will appear soon in Reparations Daily, an essay about the gay best friend’s role in supporting abortion rights, and an essay recounting my father’s experience meeting Gabriel García Márquez — might you know of a home for it? And then I can get to work on the next novel, which is my Bernard Kincaid novel about the faux progressivism of an overly gentrified Brooklyn. No one is safe in that story.
Alex Espinoza is the author of The Five Acts of Diego Léon.
Alex Espinoza was born in Tijuana, Mexico. He came to the United States with his family at the age of two and grew up in suburban Los Angeles. Author of the novel Still Water Saints, he received an MFA from the University of California, Irvine. A recipient of the Margaret Bridgman Fellowship in Fiction at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Espinoza is currently an associate professor of English at California State University, Fresno. His latest book is The Five Acts of Diego Léon.
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