Newly released from Floricanto Press, Patrick Fontes’ novel, Maria’s Purgatorio, is a book of terse prose with cold and hot shots of the visceral and misfit characters that dazzle and disturb, in places both brutal and provocative. It lays bare another California, a world with a profane kind of sunshine and sidewalks seeped with death and longing. Here Fontes discusses the writing of the novel, its’ political relevancy and offers advice for publishing a first novel.
Monique Quintana: The novel is set in your hometown of Fresno, CA. It’s my hometown as well. Can you describe Fresno for readers that have never been here before? Why do you think Fresno is a good inspiration for writing fiction?
Patrick Fontes: Fresno is different in many ways from other cities along the coast in CA, and these unique factors present windows into humanity that are great for writing. I grew up poor working class in Fresno. My neighborhood was on the border of a crime-saturated part of the city; I saw a lot of nasty shit growing up–shootings, gang life, welfare-poverty, and domestic violence–not necessarily within my own family, but around the area. Half of Fresno is unemployed with more people out of work than the Great Depression. What happens when the summer temperatures reach past 100 degrees for 3 months straight and thousands of men are out of work? Beer flows, aggression skyrockets, cops are on edge, weaker citizens quake in fear–this is a great part of Fresno. Of course, not everyone in Fresno lives as part of the underbelly of society. There is a stark dividing line between the poor and wealthy. The folks over on the north side, around the Champlain and Perrin area have no idea what it’s like to grow up as a poor Chicano living in the East Side. Do you think if you dropped off Mayor Ashley Swearengin at Kings Canyon and 6th she would know where she was? I don’t think they know that part of the city exists. There are two Fresnos–I write about the bottom half, where poverty and violence and drugs and heartache and tragedy create moments where human expression is profound.
MQ: How do you hear the novel speaking to the current climate of racial politics?
PF: One of the major threads in today’s political climate is identity–what does it mean to be American? What does it mean to be British? I think the triumph of Trump and hate politics has caused people from every sector to take stock of who they are, to ponder their roots and identity. This has several consequences. In one way, it divides Americans. As Trump supporters, who are overwhelming white, define in concrete ways what an American is–Christian, lily white, conservative, anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican, anti-anything that stands against Trump–then the rest of us are forced to define even more our ethnic roots as a defense mechanism. I am a 4th generation Mexican American. When I was a kid, I never thought of myself as Mexican, I mean I knew my great grandparents were from Mexico, and we ate Mexican food, but I lived my life as an American boy. Racial hate politics espoused by men like Trump pushes the rest of us against the corner, in a type of survival mode. I am more Mexican now because of Trump that I ever have been. He has insulted the memory and dignity of my great grandparents who crossed over the border in 1917 during the Mexican Revolution. They were upstanding, church-going, hard working people who settled in Fresno in 1920, built a home and raised several children, two who fought in WWII and Korea. Yet Trump painted them as rapists and criminals.
In my novel, the protagonist Maria lives in this world where she is seeking her own identity and at last finds herself in the one place she has always run away from–her large Mexican American family. So even though Trump and politics are never explicitly mentioned in my novel, I think our current cultural milieu certainly informs her journey.
MQ: Why did you ultimately decide to write the novel using several different points of view?
PF: Empathy. Everyone is multifaceted; none of us are only one thing in life. The prostitute on the street has a story, a rough road that brought her to that place in life where she now walks Belmont Avenue, selling her body. She is someone’s sister, daughter, at one time someone’s elementary school best friend–she was once a little girl with dreams. It is easy for us to judge someone’s life by a mere snapshot of what they are in our momentary glimpse. Empathy allows me to understand their point of view, from the vantage point of their journey, not mine.
MQ: You’re a poet, historian, and photographer. How did these facets of your intellectual and artistic self lend to the writing of Maria’s Purgatorio?
PF: I have a deep desire to capture the human experience, to understand people below the surface. The tools of a historian allow me to pursue this idea intellectually through research in archives, writing, discussing ideas with other historians. Yet the parameters of history sometimes place roadblocks into a much deeper investigation of the human condition, and this is where prose and poetry answer the call. As a historian, I can only write about what I am able to document. I may have a hunch something occurred in the past or a particular person in the past had certain motives, but without hard documentation, I can’t incorporate these ideas into writing. Prose and poetry allow me to fill in those gaps of the human condition that history denies. Photography is an extension of my quest to capture the human condition.
MQ: How did you go about finding a publishing home for the novel?
PF: Maria’s Purgatorio is my first novel, yet certainly not my last. As a first time novelist, I was naive to what I should be looking for in a publisher. I simply searched online for publishers who were accepting manuscripts. I sent it out to four publishers within the span of about three weeks. The fourth place I sent it out to accepted it for publication. Of course, I was totally thrilled. Yet, now in retrospect, I wish I had done my homework and shopped the manuscript around for a better deal. So the lesson for first time novelists is due diligence when searching for a publisher. Ask around to established authors and get their feedback.
MQ: What projects are you working on now?
PF: Right now I am submitting a poetry manuscript to various publishers. I am also working on a book concerning the Fresno County justice system 1900-1930 and its treatment of various immigrant groups, especially Mexican immigrants. I’m excited about this project and hope that it will be a solid contribution to both California and Mexican American history. Currently I am on a committee to establish a Mexican American archives here in Fresno– CASP of Fresno County (Chicano Archives and Special Collections of Fresno County).
Patrick Fontes received a PhD in American history, with an emphasis on the Mexican American experience, from Stanford University. His research interests include the criminalization of the Mexican immigrant, California history, border issues, Mexican religion, the Virgin Mary from Medieval Spain to the Present. He grew up in Fresno, in a working class Chicano home. The smells, voices, sounds, hopes and ghosts of his familia who have gone before him saturate his prose, poetry and historical work.