The Weight of Invisibility: A Chat with Novelist Brando Skyhorse
Brando Skyhorse’ wonderful new novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park, chronicles life in a Mexican-American neighborhood in Los Angeles. The moving, lyrical book is constructed as a series of interwoven stories, each from a different first-person perspective. The voices offer a complex, multifacted portrait of the community—the overarching narrative stretches more than two decades, from the '80s to today. Skyhorse will read from his novel at Politics and Prose this Sunday at 1 p.m.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to write this book?
When I was three years old, my Mexican father abandoned me. My mother decided to raise me as the biological son of another boyfriend-slash-husband, an Indian in prison named Paul Skyhorse Johnson.
For many years, I didn't know the truth about my past. I was raised as an Indian and was introduced to Indians who were part of the American Indian Movement in Los Angeles during the 1970s. Then when I did know the truth, I lied about it because my mother was living her own life as a Native American, telling people she was Indian even though she was Mexican. It was also easier to keep up the lie than to offer a long-winded explanation of what the truth was.
Living as an Indian for a number of years in a Mexican neighborhood allowed me to both witness and experience for myself first and second generation Californian Mexicans striving to become fully “American.” These Mexicans were born here, grew up on Dick Clark or, if it was their children, MTV, and took pride in knowing more English than their parents did. They embraced their Mexican culture, but they loved American culture too and wanted to blend in as Americans, nice and easy. These are the families and kids I grew up with and these are the people I wanted to write about.
Did you experience friction with your mother when you started to come clean about your true origins?
No, because I wasn’t courageous enough to be honest to everyone I met until well after my mother’s unexpected passing in early 1998. I made feeble stabs at honesty with the occasional friend or acquaintance but I was sometimes rewarded with a less than ideal reaction… My first girlfriend, whom I dated in the twelfth grade, broke up with me when I told her I was Mexican. She was Vietnamese and her first negative experiences here in America were with Mexicans who teased and bullied her. I understand that reaction now and we ultimately reconciled but to get that kind of message from someone I was in love with was hard to absorb.
Why did you decide to write a fictional Author’s Note?
When I was writing the book, there was a spate of memoirists that had the veracity of their texts called into question. One of them had to write an “author’s note” as a penance and I thought how fascinating that was because if we weren’t to believe what was in the actual memoir, why would we then believe what was in the author’s note? There’s something about that disclaimer—“author’s note—which readers are supposed to accept as gospel, the one unshakable pillar of truth in the book. So I thought, what better place to create a fictionalized reality for my experience.
I noticed certain parallels between you and the character, Aurora. In the story, she was in your class at school. Later, she left L.A., like you did, and when you finally revisit her in the last chapter, she is close to your current age. Do you feel particularly connected to her character?
I do, but she’s not my literary doppelganger or “me” as a woman. She has the longest journey in the book because her questions and concerns are closer to mine than the other characters. I also like to think I’ve left my “all consuming Morrissey phase” behind, but one never knows….
Why did you decide to change the book’s title from Amexicans to The Madonnas of Echo Park?
Amexicans was the first word I wrote for this project and worked as a supporting scaffold while I made my way through the book. As often happens with scaffolds, though, when the structure it’s supporting is strong enough to stand on its own, the scaffolding comes down. That’s what happened here. Early readers at my publishing company felt that Amexicans was a word that didn’t capture the range of what the book was about. For example, four of the book’s nine narrators are women, something that’d be hard to assume with the book’s original title. It took me some time to accept the new title (Madonnas was my suggestion) but now I couldn’t imagine the book being called anything else.
Why did you decide to write your book as a series of interwoven stories? Did you map out the book’s structure in advance or did you just start writing and let it evolve on its own?
The inspiration for the entire book came in a single afternoon and it came as a series of episodes that I always knew were connected in the way the chapters of a novel are connected. I never conceived of this as a collection of short stories…I knew that there would be some discussion when the book was finished about whether this was a novel, a novel in stories, etc., but my goal was just to write the episodes out as they came to me and worry about the form later.
I was particularly struck by the quotation on the first page, when Hector says, “The more you lose, the more American you can become.” Do you think that this statement has any truth or that most of the characters in your book would agree with it?
Every character—even “Brando” from the Author’s Note—is experiencing this to a degree though some of them may be more aware of it than others. The idea of a “melting pot” is that different ethnicities melt away parts of their heritage to create a common “American” identity. Yet in times of crisis, those who haven’t melted off enough of their heritage are singled out for particular attention. The trick, then, is to keep shedding parts of your identity to keep that negative attention (which can come from anyone) off of you. America is steeped in the idea of individuality but for the characters in my book, being American is more about dealing with, as “Brando” puts it, “the weight of invisibility.”
Geography played an important part in the story. You have said that when writing the book, you hadn’t seen Echo Park in years. Was it a conscious decision not to go back? Were you interested in the idea of writing about a place purely from memory?
It was a financial decision, one that I was able to use to my advantage. I didn’t have the money required for an extended visit. I was priced out of the neighborhood, a process that I contributed to when I sold my family home in 2000. (My mother and grandmother died in successive years and with my life established in New York City, there was no way I could keep and maintain the house from an opposite coast).
I soon realized though that the only way I could write about Echo Park was to do so from a distance. Distance gave me the clarity of vision to write about things from memory and not be influenced (as I’m sure I would have) by the encroaching wave of gentrification.
Some of your younger characters had left Echo Park and later returned. Did you consider setting parts of your book in other locations?
Echo Park was always the maypole upon which my characters danced around and the anchor, which held the chapters together. There were several sketched out episodes that didn’t make the final cut but I couldn’t imagine what’s in the final book being set anywhere else.
Your title refers to both Madonna the pop singer and the Virgin Mary. Another character, “The Lord” who “works in mysterious ways” is really a local eccentric. What were you trying to communicate by creating these dualities between religious and secular figures?
I like this idea but I wasn’t trying to connect these figures in a conscious way. The book’s title came about after the book had been accepted for publication. Sometimes these connections become evident after a work is finished. I think they’re there but I couldn’t explain them to you in any way beyond the fact that they were instinctual choices. Sorry if that sounds like a cop-out.
Who are you reading now?
I’m on the cusp of finishing Aimee Bender’s magnificent new novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. It’s the culmination of everything I’ve loved about her writing from the moment I first read it when we were in the same grad school workshop at UC Irvine. It’s the work of a visionary at the height of her powers and I’m thrilled it’s connecting with so many readers who I hope will be encouraged to check out the rest of her backlist. If Cake is your introduction to Bender, start with her first book The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and go from there.