My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Lawrence Coates, author of five books, most recently The Goodbye House, a novel set amid the housing tracts of San Jose in the aftermath of the first dot-com bust and the attacks of 9/11, and Camp Olvido, a novella set in a labor camp in California’s Great Central Valley (and a book I named one of the best I read last year). His work has been recognized with the Western States Book Award in Fiction, the Donald Barthelme Prize in Short Prose, the Miami University Press Novella Prize, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction. He is currently a professor of creative writing at Bowling Green State University.
The First Time I Wrote about Somebody Other than Myself
I’m looking at some notes I wrote on a manual typewriter in the Hotel Correo in Ciudad Juárez in 1986. I haven’t seen these pages for many years, and they only reappeared because I was rummaging through old boxes in the basement looking for some photographs my friend Victor had taken on our trip along the border in a Volkswagen bus nicknamed Shoebox.
At that time, I’d published three short stories in literary journals, and I’d also begun freelancing for some local tabloids in Santa Cruz, California. I found I liked freelancing. I liked the way people were willing to talk about things if you told them you were working for a publication. And I liked writing something, seeing it in print within a week, and getting paid fifty or a hundred dollars.
In Tijuana, we went to a gathering place close to the borderline we’d heard of, a place called Canelas. South of the border, small businesses had sprung up to supply the emigrants, selling food, beer, shoes, warm jackets, tequila, cigarettes. North of the border, the land was clear and open, criss-crossed by jeep tracks that the Border Patrol used to chase people down.
I was surprised then, and am still surprised, how willingly people shared their stories with us. There was an auto mechanic who worked in Los Angeles and who was crossing back north with his new bride, a young woman from his hometown. There was a farm worker who had carefully saved receipts from his jobs in past years, in case the new law being debated required that people prove they had been working up north for a certain number of years in order to receive a green card. There were men with young children at home who told me that they didn’t mind suffering, as long as their families benefitted. We stayed there until nightfall, until we saw small groups of people peer into the darkness, look up for the lights of helicopters, and then begin the walk north.
From there, we drove to Nogales, and then on to El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. In Juárez, by sheer chance, Victor and I had coffee late at night in a neighborhood café on the Calle Mariscal, away from bright lights of bars and strip clubs that catered to American tourists, and we met Rosa and Cristina and Lorenzo, three people from Veracruz who were planning on going north to pick chiles in New Mexico. Rosa was the oldest, a woman in her mid-thirties, and she called the other two “m’ija,” and “m’ijo.” She talked about the husband who had left her, the two children she left behind with her mother, her dream about being able to be live in the north with papers, so that she could walk around without fear. And she talked about wanting to own a farm herself someday and work it with nothing but “mojados, puros mojados. Nobody but mojados will be able to work on my farm. And if anyone comes with papers, or with a green card, I’ll kick them out!”
They walked across the river, and in a minute they were on the other side, climbing onto the levee and squeegeeing water off their bodies with their hands. They stayed low, out of sight, until they were dry enough to put on their clothes. Then they climbed toward a hole in the cyclone fence at the top of the levee. Victor and I called across the river, “Adios, que les vaya bien.” They turned back toward the Mexican side and waved. Then one by one they slipped through the fence and onto United States soil.
I began to realize something on that trip. I was struggling with it the next day, in the room in the Hotel Correo where I was putting down my impressions on my manual typewriter. I was writing about Rosa, especially, and the little bit of her life she’d shared with me, and I thought how spirited she was, interesting and intelligent and strong in the face of challenges I would never have to face. And though I didn’t work it all out that day, I began to understand she was much more worth writing about than I myself was.
Ironically, during that journey to Mexico, I was also working on my first novel. It was a semi-autobiographical novel, something about the sadly tragic life I was leading, or else about the tragically sad life I was leading. I can’t remember which. I completed a draft of the novel, and it was never published, and in retrospect I’m glad.
I also wrote a long feature about the border region that Victor and I visited, and I shopped it around to newspapers. To my surprise, it was picked up by The Chicago Tribune and published as the cover story of their Sunday Supplement.
When I look at those two pieces of writing now, nearly thirty years later, the unpublished novel seems dreary, self-centered, awful, and the piece of journalism seems vibrant, alive with setting and character and real story.
I’ve published stories and novels since then, and I think one of the real keys to all my work is the understanding I began groping toward in that hotel in Juárez – that I am far from the most interesting person in the world, that there are stories more important to tell than anything I could write about myself, and that my best work would be about the broader world. And also that, if I approach with some humility about my own limited understanding, people will show a generosity in sharing about their lives and their work that is always astonishing.