Twenty years ago, when we both joined the same writers’ group in Tucson, Arizona, Beth Alvarado was already occupying the revolving space between the personal, the social, and the political. Her sentences had a ghostly confidence, by which I mean they had a lasting ephemerality or ethereal reality. Alvarado can bring absence—that which you can’t see anymore—to the page so that you feel you’re holding the missing thing in your hand.
There is a lot that is vanishing. In Alvarado’s latest essay collection, Anxious Attachments (2019), she considers the water pollution that contributed to her husband’s death, the anxieties of motherhood rearing up in the middle of wildfire season, her own “apocalyptic imagination.” “I grew a garden in the backyard because I wanted to be able to feed my family when civilization ended,” she writes.
In one of the fourteen essays, “Ordinary Devotions,” Alvarado’s daughter gives birth to twins on the eve of Trump’s election and almost loses one in an emergency delivery. There, in the shadow of what is nearly lost, so much more becomes visible. “Waiting for my daughter, the irony of my fears did not escape me. I was watching the muted television news, and I was aware of what was not being shown: not the children actually being orphaned or killed in Aleppo, not the families of refugees in flimsy boats on the Mediterranean seas, not the child refugees atop the train called The Beast . . . not the children in Flint who had no clean water to drink, not the women giving birth as they were protesting the Dakota Pipeline.”
I called Alvarado for literary advice last December. Her short-story collection, Jillian in the Borderlands: A Cycle of Rather Dark Tales, in which a young woman, lost in the desert, is led to safety by the ghosts of dead migrants, comes out in the fall. I had also been writing about grief, love, desert ecology, the fragility and in-betweeness of the borderlands, and the ends of things. My novel, The Lightest Object in the Universe, is set during a complete breakdown of society—economic, technological, and political—that plays out through intimate relationships. The book’s vision, that devotion to one another and to our ideals can help us survive, was one that Alvarado could identify with.
We had no idea then that the virus was there, waiting, and about to be so swiftly spread. Or maybe we did know, could sense, our own precarity. What could possibly sustain a world so stacked toward some and against others? So here we are, in the midst of a pandemic, trying to breathe. Our communities are in exile. We cannot touch each other. But we can listen. We can make room for grief.
In a series of conversations, Alvarado and I talked about grieving in dreams; using certainty as a defense mechanism; and living in the borderlands, which has informed not only what we write but how, bringing us toward hybridity, liminality, a philosophy of responsibility to outsiders as well as to community. In desert cultures, you never turn anyone away.
—Kimi Eisele for Guernica
Guernica: Can you talk about how place informs the way you think, live, and write?
Beth Alvarado: My family moved to Tucson when I was fourteen and I remember how strange the landscape seemed. Palm trees and saguaros. The jets from Davis Monthan, sonic booms, air-raid sirens. I understood our water had to be pumped out of artesian wells. It all seemed precarious. This change of landscape created what I call my “apocalyptic imagination.” I’m always trying to figure out how to survive, which is why I was so drawn to your novel. Of course, my fears were strongest when my children were small. I wondered not only about how I would survive without water, but would I be able to carry them to a place where there was water? As time went on, I came to love Tucson: the beauty of the Catalinas, the lush desert, the drama of the monsoons. I was grounded there by my husband and his family, and so the desert has always been more than a “setting.” It is a spiritual space.
Now, when I think of desert treks, I think of migrants and how our policies push them to the most dangerous passages. There’s a reason most desert cultures emphasize welcoming the sojourner! Where I live now is high desert, a town ringed by volcanoes, instead of missiles. We have terrible wildfire seasons. When my daughter’s twins were infants, we thought we would have to evacuate on roads clogged with tourists, and I was again faced with my own human limitations: Could I carry one of these children to safety? No matter where I am, I am aware of our fragility. But your writing and your dance performances seem more focused on the fragility of nature itself and its dependence on us.
Guernica: You’re speaking, in part, about the anxiety of living in fragile places, which I think mirrors the anxiety we feel about living, period. Because life on earth is fragile, though resilient. I was also addressing an anxiety when I wrote my novel: this very real sense of the precarity of the whole system. My book arose out of a grief about how America was born—on the backs of displaced people and displaced habitats for other species—and how to reconcile that truth with the privileges I’ve had. Mostly through my dance work, I’ve come to understand nature as something we are in relationship with, something we are a part of, versus a resource or something to use. My novel is not specifically about collapsing ecosystems, but about collapsing economic and communications systems. I was working with this idea of how we are inherently interdependent and how that can be the basis of a new kind of survival, a more humane and equitable one, and one that acknowledges our place on the planet as a shared place with other species.
I think that’s why the novel is so hopeful, even in its post-apocalyptic setting. Because it recognizes the power of disaster and hardship and grief as an invitation to re-evaluate, to notice new things, to find new connections. I was interested in how personal loss plugged into universal loss, how loss itself might be the thing that connects people.
Anxious Attachments is also very much about grief. How did writing about the loss of your husband and your mother rearrange grief for you?
Alvarado: Everything in my life changed after my husband died, but I don’t know that writing about the loss is cathartic. There is a way that my grief is inaccessible to me. I feel very far from myself. Every now and then, I’m surprised by a sharp pang of grief, but mostly I feel defended against it. Writing about Fernando—alive, dying, dead—is a kind of meditation. It allows me to relive moments and to feel what I’ve been denying, but, ironically, it gives me yet another way of containing my grief. My dreams give me access. I grieve in my dreams. I dream he has abandoned me. I write about the dreams. I create characters who can grieve. Writing this, I feel how much I loved him and how essential that love was and is to how I feel about myself. One reviewer of Anxious Attachments said the book was a “love song to Fernando”—which surprised me, because most of the essays were not “about” him and, in fact, in many, he’s only a minor character.
Guernica: How have the borderlands, in particular, seeped into your work?
Alvarado: Living in the borderlands for so many years has made me more sensitive to the ways that there are no clear dividing lines, not between countries, not between cultures, not between languages, not even between the physical and spiritual. And I love living in that liminal space, where nothing is definitive.
The collection I have coming out in the fall, Jillian in the Borderlands: A Cycle of Rather Dark Tales, more directly explores borderlands issues than anything I’ve written so far. I started writing it in 2010 in response, at least partly, to the murders of four girls in Tucson and to SB1070, the Arizona law that caused the profiling of migrants and anyone who didn’t look “American,” or white. The project was prompted by an intersectional anxiety. The last few stories were triggered by the separation of children from their parents at the border, so it’s responding to current injustices. Its inspiration was Candide: I wanted the political events and the underlying philosophies, like Dominionism, to be embedded in the fiction and questioned by it.
And there are magical elements, where there are no clear distinctions, even between the living and the dead. Jillian is a young mute girl at the beginning, and she and her mother go on a series of adventures in the borderlands. Fantastic things happen; we see, through the eyes of recurring characters, both the horrors and absurdities. By the end, Jillian is a young woman, an artist, who gets lost in the desert and is led by the spirits of dead migrants to safety in Mexico, where she gives birth. So I’ve tried, at least conceptually, to invert north and south—or to at least question the dominant narratives about the US and Mexico.
Guernica: Speaking of that space in which nothing is definitive: One thing I noticed so often in Anxious Attachments is the word “maybe,” which you use as a way of thinking out loud. I loved the continued possibility of uncertainty throughout these pieces. I remember thinking that not many male writers use the word “maybe.” Also, the word clearly reflects the liminality of the experiences you write about here. Maybe?
Alvarado: I love that part of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, where she talks about the male writer as a giant “I” whose shadow falls across the page. I have never trusted certainty. Certainty means to me that you have never considered all the possibilities, that you don’t know enough to know what you don’t know, or you don’t know enough to ask the right questions. Certainty is a pose, a mask, a defense borne of fear or insecurity. It is, maybe, the refusal to consider other subjectivities. And although we desire certainty, I think it can be politically dangerous—like blind patriotism.
When I married into my husband’s family, I learned that everything I had been taught was from a point of view—a white, American, middle-class, Protestant, patriarchal point of view—not “the way it was.” It was only one very limited worldview. Maybe, because of that, I am comfortable with being uncomfortable. And with mystery. The essay form lends itself to inquiry into the irresolvable. When I say “maybe,” I am wondering, testing, and speculating. It’s a philosophy. The other half of the philosophical “maybe” is faith, as you say. If there is that questioning “maybe” on one hand, on the other there has to be a kind of faith in the process, faith that I can come to an understanding, if not a conclusion.
When I think of our writing group, all those years ago, I remember admiring your essays—they were about your work with the children in Nogales, Mexico—because of your openness, your willingness to listen to the children. I know your new project is also veering toward hybridity and want to hear more.
Guernica: I’m working on a novel about miscarriage, infertility, and what it means to be an artist. One narrator is an artist who wants badly to be a mother but can’t conceive; the other is the small, non-binary unfinished being she miscarried and placed in the desert. The story spans nine years and reaches geographically from the Sonoran Desert to the coastal rainforests of Southeast Alaska. I’ve swung wildly from memoir to novel, and finally I’m finding an acceptance in the liminal, which I suppose is fitting given who these characters are. I’ve learned from you, obviously. In the end, it may not matter what I call it, as long as I write it.
I was supposed to be in Alaska for the next month at a residency for women writers, working on the book. I longed for the quiet, dark thaw of spring to dive in deep. That got cancelled, of course. We started this conversation before the coronavirus and now we’re watching it tumble across the globe. Social distancing, staying home, and staying well are bringing out a certain kind of quiet and stillness and incredible human connection, the likes of which we may not have ever seen in our lifetime. I think that duality applies to life in the borderlands and also to living in, with, through grief. And maybe to writing nonfiction and fiction, how we have to decide in any given moment what to focus on. Or how, when we are indecisive or simply bereft, the choice is sometimes made for us. How do you know when to write fiction and when to write nonfiction? Does something inside guide you toward one or the other or to the in-between?
Alvarado: I love hybridity so much, to read it, but when I write, I always know, when I sit down, whether I’m going to write fiction or nonfiction. For me, there are two main differences. Fiction always begins with character and with the character’s conflict and voice, and nonfiction is more about an idea, not a thesis, not a message, but a concept that I want to explore. The other difference is that fiction, as a process, is about invention. I have to have a lot of time to myself to imagine possibilities and that often involves research. In nonfiction, even though I do research, I feel like the material is there, in my experiences and in the world, and my job is to pare it down to its essentials, so that it yields something new. Writing fiction is more like painting on a blank canvas and nonfiction is more like sculpting.
Fiction is also liberating in a certain way. After Fernando died, the first thing I wrote was a story for Jillian in the Borderlands. It was almost as if I couldn’t bear to approach his death directly and needed the distance of re-experiencing it through characters I’d invented but who were not me. Later—because I was working on both books at the same time—I would write essays about his death, in my own voice. In the stories, I was free to riff on however the characters might feel, on whatever might be possible, whereas in the essays, I had to be more faithful to experience because the experience of his death was not mine alone but also his and those of everyone else who loved him.
I guess I would say my own psychological need draws me toward one or the other. Right now, in this crisis of pandemic, I don’t think I could write fiction because I’m afraid to let my imagination go. It would probably go to some very dark places. In fact, I felt pretty paralyzed because I was tamping down everything—I wouldn’t allow myself to think or feel. But then I wrote a blurb about memory as a palimpsest. After I wrote it, I thought, isn’t this true, in a way, of any memoir? Or of any memoir I would want to read?
And so I gave myself an assignment, to write three short paragraphs every day, and now I find I’ve started my own palimpsest of memory. Whether or not it will ever become anything doesn’t seem to matter. I send my three paragraphs to a few friends every day and they send me theirs and, in this way, we keep each other going.
How has this pandemic affected your writing? Are you able to write?
Guernica: On the first day of stay-home-to-stay-well, I found online Gaga dance classes, which have nothing to do with Lady Gaga. Gaga is a movement technique created by Ohad Naharin, director of Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv, Israel. I’ve been doing a 45-minute class for dancers nearly every day. I move alone in my studio along with over 500 people from around the world as little tiny bodies inside squares on my screen. The instructor invites us to feel gravity, to float, to break apart, to reassemble, to rise. All while moving. It feels very fitting for this moment of living through a virus. I’m back in my body in a way I haven’t been for years. It’s not writing, but it’s something.
I do have a “duet in words” document going with another writer, which started off as poetic snippets and has morphed into a journal of days, more or less. Fragments. It feels like fragments are what is available right now. I’m so grateful for this essay by Ysabelle Cheung about writing through the anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong, which gave wonderful permission for fragments. I have a fragmented essay in the works. I have not touched the novel. What you’ve just said about knowing and feeling the difference between fiction and nonfiction at the moment of pen to paper feels very affirming to me. I think maybe I know the difference now for me, too.
What does today look like for you?
Alvarado: Last night, everyone in my virtual writer’s group was sad, so we disbanded early and I drank an extra vodka and lemonade and watched TV too late. I am tired today. It’s snowing again, which means we probably won’t get to go outside. I can’t focus to read, so I will write, and then I’ll go downstairs and help with the twins, which will cheer me up. The reason they call writing a practice is because you need to do it even when you don’t feel like doing it, so that when you really need to do it, you can.