Three Questions for Kathleen Alcalá Regarding Her Novel, “Spirits of the Ordinary”

September 16, 2021   •   By Daniel A. Olivas

KATHLEEN ALCALÁ was born in Compton, California, to Mexican parents, grew up in San Bernardino, and now makes her home in the Pacific Northwest. She earned a BA in linguistics from Stanford University, an MA in creative writing from the University of Washington, and an MFA from the University of New Orleans. The author of six books, Alcalá is a recipient of the Western States Book Award, the Governors Writers Award, the International Latino Book Award, and two Artist Trust Fellowships. She also has been recognized by Con Tinta, is a recent Whitely Fellow, and a previous Hugo House Writer in Residence. Alcalá’s most recent book, The Deepest Roots: Finding Food and Community on a Pacific Northwest Island, explores our relationship with geography, food, history, and ethnicity.


Her first novel, Spirits of the Ordinary, has recently been republished by Raven Chronicles Press. This beautiful new edition includes a new foreword by Rigoberto González, who observes that Alcalá’s 1997 novel “was ahead of its time” with its depiction of protagonists that included androgynous twins and feminist women all in the context of northern Mexico in the 1870s. González adds: “I must admit I’m still dazzled by Spirits of the Ordinary because it represents optimism despite the challenges of a hostile world.” Rudolfo Anaya proclaimed that Alcalá’s “craft illuminates the souls of her characters: the Mexican women who carry the universe in their hearts.” Larry McMurtry called it a novel “in which passions both ordinary and extraordinary are made vivid and convincing.” And Alberto Ríos offered simply: “This book entered my dreams.”


Alcalá kindly agreed to answer a few questions for LARB about her novel, Spirits of the Ordinary.


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DANIEL A. OLIVAS: You wrote Spirits of the Ordinary very early in your life as a writer. In preparing your manuscript for this new edition, what observations did the Kathleen Alcalá of today have of her younger self’s first novel published almost 25 years ago?


KATHLEEN ALCALÁ: Thank you, Daniel. It’s a pleasure to talk to you about the novel, especially since you have written a few things during that time yourself!


By the time I wrote Spirits of the Ordinary, I had been an assistant editor with the Seattle Review, then a founding editor of The Raven Chronicles, so I had read and edited many stories. This helped me to understand how stories work, and readied me to tackle a novel. I had also written and published a collection of short stories that included the seed of Spirits of the Ordinary. The collection, Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist, from Calyx Books, includes “La Esmeralda,” named after the mine in the story that the protagonist’s wife assumes is “the other woman.”


I’m relieved to say the plot has held up pretty well. This is a good thing, since it is based on the story of my great-grandparents in Saltillo, Mexico. I would have had trouble imagining a different plot, because the characters unfolded in such a way that a simple, happy marriage would not have worked. And Leo Tolstoy reminds us that all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.


Looking at the novel more objectively, I notice that I do a lot of things that I advise students not to do — too many “main” characters, a lot of interior dialogue. I notice, however, that the characters speak to each other as though privy to each other’s thoughts all along, which seems to work. This keeps the action from getting repetitive, and I reserved description primarily for the landscape, which people seem to love. The novel gives the reader credit for understanding human nature, since we are all human as well, and encourages the reader to empathize with most of the characters.


In the foreword to the new edition, Rigoberto González notes that your novel was ahead of its time in the depiction of nonbinary characters (the twins known as Manzana and Membrillo) as well as three of your female protagonists (Estela, Magdalena, and Corey) who offer three different “depictions of feminism” (to use González’s description). Could you talk a little about your creation of these characters, including whether they were based on actual people?


Rigo has been generous in his support of my work. Membrillo and Manzana were going to be based on adult twins I used to ride the bus with in Seattle. Twins or sisters are a constant in Mexican and Native American creation myths, so I figured (hey, what’s two more main characters?) there was room for them in this type of a book.


When I sat down to write about them, however, Membrillo and Manzana emerged. They were so vivid that I just went with it. I did some research on water witching, or divining, which is a method of finding water still in use today, although there is not a very scientific explanation of why it works. This seemed to be a natural occupation for the twins.


Membrillo and Manzana attract the most comments of any characters in the book, so they must be vivid for other people, too. There are a lot of “what if’s” in this book, and one of them is “What if I could have expressed myself completely as a child, and grown into the person I felt I wanted to be all along?” In that respect, society has changed quite a bit since I wrote these characters. I hope it means more happiness, less struggle.


The other women in the book are based on Mexican women I have met throughout my life — attractive, intelligent women who have few outlets for their intellect or political opinions. As I watched them sitting silently through lively discussions by the men, I often wondered what they were thinking about. In the book, Mariana is literally mute. At the same time, someone like Estela would be the first to condemn someone like Magdalena, so we see the contradictions within the culture. In the last novel of the trilogy, I further develop women in the feminist movement of the time.


The hidden Jews of Mexico play a major role in your novel’s narrative. As a Chicano who learned of my own Jewish roots when my late grandmother passed along the secret shortly before she died 30 years ago, this knowledge can be as life-changing as it is disconcerting because Mexico’s colonial culture is deeply rooted in Catholicism. When did you learn of your Jewish ancestry, and how did you approach depicting this part of your heritage in Spirits of the Ordinary? 


When I was about nine years old, I read all of the Old Testament in the Christian Bible, and told my mother I wished that we were Jewish. She answered that we (or our ancestors) had been, once, but now we were Christian. All that meant to my nine-year-old self was that I was happy that my best friend was Jewish! She, however, could not answer my many questions. As an adult, I became skeptical of our Jewish roots, assuming that we were simply denying our ho-hum Mexican-ness — that we had to be “special” Mexicans. But we were clearly “other,” worshipping in non-Catholic churches with no crucifixes, stripped of all ritual that could be perceived as Catholic.


Years later, I met a member of the Sephardic community in Seattle who connected the dots for me. This was about the time that I was preparing to write Spirits of the Ordinary. To my surprise, all this information surfaced when I began to do research. This was before the internet, so my sources were family members, my uncle’s library in Chihuahua, Mexico, and my grandfather’s journals, which were stored for many years in my aunt’s garage in Monterey Park.


The character of Julio in Spirits of the Ordinary is a man blessed with great intellectual power who struggles to experience the divine. He does not understand his son’s insistence on spending time in the wilderness, nor can he comprehend that his own willfulness, among other things, is driving Zacarías away. The late 19th century was a time of great societal change, when more people were beginning to make decisions as individuals, rather than assuming that they would follow in their parents’ footsteps. The structure of Judaism and study of the mystical Kabbala, hidden within the complications of a Catholic country, add more layers of complexity to Julio’s character. Zacarías is trying to escape the weight of all this religious history, but discovers it is a platform for his own personal transformation.


The book hit a nerve, and many people have since come to me with discussions of their Jewish roots. There is an organization called the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies that offers conferences, online articles, and other resources for the curious.


In 2015, the government of Spain offered expedited citizenship to the descendants of Jews who lost life or property during the Inquisition. My son and I applied, and in the process of researching our genealogy, closed the gap between us and the person who got on a boat and came to the “New World” to become our ancestor.


Many piles of paper and a trip to Spain just before the pandemic shut everything down, we are waiting to hear back on our case. So my relationship with Judaism continues to evolve and change, as I expect it to do for the rest of my life.


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Daniel A. Olivas, a second-generation Angeleno, is the author of nine books including, most recently, The King of Lighting Fixtures: Stories (University of Arizona Press), and Crossing the Border: Collected Poems (Pact Press). He is the editor of the anthology Latinos in Lotusland (Bilingual Press), and co-editor of The Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles (Tía Chucha Press).