The Macondo Dimension of South El Monte: Carribean Fragoza in Conversation with Héctor Tobar

Feb 28, 2022

split image, Carribean Fragoza on the left and Hector Tobar on the right, both smiling

This is an excerpt of a free event for our virtual events series, City Lights LIVE. This event featured Carribean Fragoza in conversation with Héctor Tobar, celebrating the launch of her new book Eat the Mouth That Feeds You, published by City Lights Books. This event was originally broadcast live via Zoom and hosted by Josiah Luis Alderete. You can listen to the entire event on our podcast. You can watch it in full as well on our YouTube channel. This excerpt was transcribed by Molly O’Donnell.

Héctor Tobar: When did you begin to tell yourself that you needed to write fiction about the place where you grew up and to bring these voices to the page? Can you remember when you first got that sort of inkling that “I need to do this”?

Carribean Fragoza: Gosh, I started writing fiction at a pretty young age, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I think I was trying to capture certain characters that felt real to me. I think many of us writers of color go through a phase when we’re trying to write like the writers, the authors that we learned about in school, and we try to mimic them, which is often a good kind of practice. But then we have to find our own voices and our own characters. And I remember at a young age, like in high school especially, really trying to look at the people around me and find characters there.

But about [my hometown of] South El Monte? I think that didn’t start happening until sometime in my adulthood. I can’t even remember specifically when. It might have been [my story] “The Vicious Ladies.” I think for a while I was writing a lot of stories that were talking about Mexico, women remembering the homeland. But at some point, as I was really trying to hone in on my voice and my vision for my stories, I started arriving closer and closer to home, until I realized where I was, which was back in South El Monte, but like you have said in that sort of “Macondo dimension” of South El Monte. It’s like a dimension that’s slightly elevated in a way, not exactly right on the ground of South El Monte, but just a couple degrees off what it exactly is. So I guess it was a journey. It took a while.

Héctor Tobar: I remember starting off my own career thinking there were certain things that I wanted, certain holes I wanted to fill in United States literature or the literature you’d find in a bookstore that I didn’t quite feel represented by, in terms of what I had seen in my life and how my family and I had lived. What was it you felt that you could bring that was missing from American literature?

Carribean Fragoza: I think I was really lucky because I was able to major in Chicano studies. Chicano studies at UCLA was one of my majors and it built a really strong base. I mean, obviously, I got all of the the literary canon that we would expect in high school, but at UCLA, I really made it a point to find a new canon for myself, and that started happening in Chicano studies where I was learning about the Chicano movement and the literary movements that came out of that and the arts movements. But even that felt a little off the mark for me, because there’s expectations and I think a sort of style, or even a trope that’s developed over time of what a Chicano or a Chicana is supposed to sound like, or what kinds of themes we’re supposed to address, and some of them are imposed upon us. And some of them are self imposed. And sometimes they make sense. And sometimes it’s time to find new ways of talking about ourselves and our experiences.

So I feel like through the Chicano studies major and also comparative literature, I was able to build out my literary canon in an international way and start thinking of myself as a writer that’s connected to writers all over the world, not just in the United States. I felt like I could build off of that. And I have to just say, and it’s not really addressing your question, but Jamaica Kincaid’s “Lucy” and “A Small Place” were just so influential on me in developing, particularly female voices, with a lot of attitude and complex character, so I always credit Jamaica Kincaid.

I was just in this emotional space of becoming a mother, getting ready to be a mother for the first time, but then also having to let go of the previous generations of my grandmother and my great grandmother. And that story, I just sat down––I remember where I was sitting at my mother’s house, and I just started writing it from beginning to end.

Héctor Tobar: No, absolutely. That was my next question was about influences. And you mentioned world literature. I sensed a little Kafka, you know, and some other things and so, yes, absolutely. I think we all sort of come to our voices from the books that fall into our laps from teachers and courses. But what I’m really impressed about in Eat the Mouth That Feeds You is how different each story is from the next, and they all take place in these different places. Can you talk a little bit about switching back and forth between these different genres? You have stories that are set in this almost historical kind of hybrid, mysterious place. Others that are very, very clearly in the sort of surreal setting, others that are more realistic. Are you experimenting? What’s going on here with all this moving between genres? How do you do that? And also you do journalism. I imagine there’s sort of a switch you have to pull to go through all these different places.

Carribean Fragoza: So maybe I can start off by addressing the switching between nonfiction and fiction, because sometimes I get questions about that. And one of the things I always say, and I really believe in, is that sometimes stories in the world are factual stories, real stories, and if I made them up as fiction, nobody would believe them. I mean, sometimes the world is just so astonishing. And the stories that it offers us, a writer doesn’t need to add anything––it’s just phenomenal as it is. And nonfiction can serve a story best as a piece of journalism, or an essay.

And for the fiction, for me, and I’ve said it before, it usually depends on the voice of the character. And I think in my earlier stories, I was more grounded in the real, not so much in the magical or in that alternative reality space. And that really came from listening to people around me and trying to capture the sounds of their stories, the cadence in their bodies and in their voices. And it was like a real exercise for me to try to do that. So those were very realistic. And then the magical ones I think were more internal for me, like “Eat the Mouth That Feeds You,” the story where the mother’s being consumed. She’s being eaten by her daughter, and that came from a very internal place. So I kind of tap into a voice that’s inside of me, for whatever reason. I don’t always know how it gets there. And then I try to listen to that internal voice and those will often spin me off into a different dimension.

Héctor Tobar: The title story of Eat the Mouth That Feeds You really struck me as an allegory about motherhood in general. Right? You have two young children. Correct? Was that a story you started writing after you had kids?

Carribean Fragoza: Yeah, I started writing that story shortly after I found out I was pregnant with my first kid. So there were two things going on: I was newly pregnant for the first time ever, with Aura, who’s now nine. And then my grandmother and my great grandmother had just recently passed away. So I was just in this emotional space of becoming a mother, getting ready to be a mother for the first time, but then also having to let go of the previous generations of my grandmother and my great grandmother. And that story, I just sat down––I remember where I was sitting at my mother’s house, and I just started writing it from beginning to end.

Héctor Tobar: Wow––

Carribean Fragoza: ––basically, in one sitting.

Héctor Tobar: It felt that way, it really felt that way. Maybe you can just tell, you know, tell the audience here, what the central idea is of that story.

Carribean Fragoza: So it starts off with a mother describing how her daughter, a grown daughter, is literally eating her, taking bites out of her body. “My daughter for lack of memory eats me.” And the reason she’s eating her is because the daughter has a lot of questions about the family, about why they are the way they are and where they come from. And the mother doesn’t know how to answer. So this daughter becomes more and more obsessed with, not just eating the mother, but also eating objects. And she eats letters and drinks ink. And this is her process of trying to learn about family and about their blood. And then we also are transported to Mexico where the family is from and we learn about clay eating, which I learned later, there’s a tradition of clay eating amongst different cultures. So that’s just kind of it. And then the mother eventually decides that maybe she needs to try some of these strange eating habits as well to come to terms with her own place and the family line.

Josiah Luis Alderete: So, themes of obligation and loyalty often come up in the book, do you start off with big themes in mind, as you launch into a story?

Carribean Fragoza: I have to think about that a little more. That’s a really good question. But I do know that even when I’m not trying to write about these big themes, especially like obligation and loyalty, it’s gonna come out, especially in my female characters, because I’m the oldest daughter of three. And I’ve always carried this sense of obligation as the eldest, but also as the firstborn in this country, to a family of immigrants. I was the first to go to college. And I just have always felt this obligation, this duty, this responsibility to be as successful as possible and to do good with the privileges that I have. And then also, of course, many of us grow up with this really strong loyalty to family. Obligation and loyalty are things that are complicated. We can accept them without question, just as many people do, but I also think it’s important to push back and to really understand what these obligations and these loyalties mean, and what do we sacrifice for the sake of these obligations and these loyalties? And is it even worth it sometimes? When is it a necessity? And when is it too much of a sacrifice for us? So these are two really important themes for me.

Watch the complete conversation below on our YouTube channel.

Eat the Mouth That Feeds You by Carribean Fragoza is available on for the website-only discount of 30% off.

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