Jane Hawley grew up in California, received her BA from the University of Wyoming, and is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Texas State University, where she serves as the managing editor of Front Porch Journal. Her nonfiction has been published in the Pinch and Memoir Journal.
To read an excerpt from her story “The Suitcases of San León” and an exercise on writing from news headlines, click here.
In this interview, Hawley discusses the challenges presented by the “we” point of view, her approach to violence and memory in fiction, and the connection between geography and emotion.
I’m curious about the story’s setting. Ostensibly it’s set in Mexico, in a small town at the end of a bus route, but the setting also feels a bit like a fable—as if Gabriel Garcia Marquez decided to rewrite “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” and set it in Mexico during the narco violence. The setting has an everywhere quality to it that doesn’t feel specific to any particular place. Was this intentional? How did you approach setting in the story?
I began the story with the intention of using first person plural point of view, which I think really lends itself to giving the setting an everywhere quality since the point of view is so artificial and communal. It was also important to me to set the story in a particular time and social-historical circumstance, but I wanted the focus to be more on how people are affected by violence, oppression, displacement, and abandonment. The drug war is a political reality, but I think the effects of the situation translate to a variety of historical and contemporary moments. I wanted to honor the very real troubles the Mexican people are facing regarding the drug war, but I also wanted to create my own story-world. I wanted readers to emotionally connect to the town—perhaps even more so than the characters. It’s the town that arguably experiences more change than anything or anyone else.
It only recently occurred to me that though the setting and point of view have a fablesque quality to them, but all of the story’s events are firmly based in reality. San León is modeled after San Fernando, a city about 85 miles away from Brownsville Texas where two of the largest recorded massacres of the Mexican Drug War took place. I initially came up with the concept of the story when I read an article about abandoned suitcases showing up in bus depots across the region that were eventually discovered to belong to the victims of the massacres.
Speaking of the point of view, first person plural—we and us—is not easy to pull off, and I noticed that in the middle of the story, it shifts a bit to focus on the actions of a few particular individuals (Damacio, Juan Manuel, Alejandra). That shift seems inevitable, in a way, as it would seem difficult to create particular actions in a plot when the actors are we. Were these characters in the story from the earliest drafts? Or did you need to create them in order to move the plot forward?
This is by far the most technically challenging story I’ve written because of the first person plural point of view, which I’ve always admired. It often seems to carry a tone of nostalgia, a fable-like quality and allows a writer to tell the story of a community. This is where the craft gets difficult. No one character feels the same as another. The characters are individuals, yet they’re also part of a group. This is an effect I wanted to capture with the point of view shifts. After following a particular character, the narrative always returns to the first person plural voice.
Two major inspirations for writing the story were The Virgin Suicides and The Buddha In The Attic. In the first novel, you almost forget you’re reading first person plural as you follow the Lisbon girls (or at least those lives as perceived by the neighborhood boys). The first person plural voice in The Buddha In The Attic is much stronger and more removed from the individual lives—readers never get to know characters individually. I decided to use a combination of these techniques because I wanted to be able to show the variety of the bus depot workers’ personal reactions to their situation while also retaining their membership in a collective experience of the historical moment.
When I began the story, I thought that the suitcases provide a way to show the effects of Mexico’s narco violence without getting into the gory details of their murders. The story is about the rippling effects of the violence, but it also definitely describes how the violence is perpetrated. What was your thought process for showing that violence? In some ways, it’s so awful that it can seem unreal. Did you ever worry that details of the violence would overwhelm the more quotidian parts of the story?
Violence can be so difficult to approach in fiction because of how strongly visceral the details can and should be, and I think for many stories the less is more approach is probably the most effective, especially for authors who have not experienced violence firsthand. I see violent images all the time—both real and fictional—in movies and on the news, but I’ve never seen firsthand the kinds of things that my characters have ostensibly experienced in this particular story. I’ve never had a gun held to my chest. I’ve never seen a dismembered hand. I wanted to get those experiences right, though, so I tried to just depict them on the page as simply and honestly as I could. I had to trust that the details themselves would do the heavy lifting. However, I came to learn through the writing of this story is that the memory of violence, the constant returning to those moments and images, adds to the psychic terror of the initial violent experience. Memory is a curse. It weighs you down. It changes your identity, your perception of the world. I wanted readers not to be overwhelmed by the violence itself, but more by the “long-term” psychological and emotional trauma. That’s one of the reasons the end of the story occurs in a near-distant future when the characters are approaching the ends of their lives.
This is your first published short story. How does it fit with the rest of your work? Do you often write about Mexico? Does your work as a whole have a fable-like tone?
My stories range from strict realism to fabulist or fairytale, but I try to always maintain a sense of wonder or imaginative, supernatural, or magical experience. My approach to place is probably the strongest element that ties my short fiction together. Only a few take place in Mexico although many of them are set in the West and Southwest. I’m from California and I’ve traveled a lot through the western states and Baja California so those places are very close to me—I feel like I understand them on a quasi-emotional level. I’ve been studying Guy Debord’s concept of psychogeography (briefly, “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals”) and considering how that concept can frame and arrange stories in interesting ways.