Welcome to the Orchard

Writing the 3rd Generation Migrant Story

3 JUNE 2016,
El Niño
El Niño

Slowly, I drove up the mountainous road to Bonny Doon—negotiating the paltry rock slides provoked by the heavy El Niño downpour and the slick, oily surfaces of the road’s curvature. I pulled left onto a gravel road that took me to a gated commune behind a private airport.

After unlatching the gate, I drove past a small wooden studio, and a few pomegranate and apple trees, before pulling up to a single-story, easter-yellow apartment complex. After knocking on the apartment door, I sought refuge from the downpour under a lemon tree. Waiting for a minute or two, a pair of squinting eyes peered up at me through a parted curtain, before Angel Dominguez opened the door, and said, “Welcome to the orchard.”

I took a seat on his sofa. There were crystals of geometric and colored variety beside a stack of chapbook manuscripts on his busy coffee table. On one side of the room there was a salvaged piano in the corner with a few string instruments hung above it and on the other side was a book-shelf replete with novels, essays and manuscripts, beside a table with unassorted papers and a turn-table.

Angel placed a cup of coffee before me, poured from a bench press, and sat himself in a chair beside the piano. After taking a gentle sip, he began to say, “To think about my book in terms of a California narrative is a really interesting way to go about it because the narrative found within the book comes from a third generation, diaspora… you know, immigrant from the Yucatan Peninsula. I am that third generation immigrant. And there is this heavy dissonance that stays throughout the book: this notion of arrival, departure, arrival, departure migration. It is sort of this ability to arrive at a space of ‘home.’ The novel resists the ability to be timeless.”

He takes a sip and continues, “In terms of it being a California novel, it’s like a heavy, surreal delirium—like a road novel, but you never really touch the road. In the novel, you’re always in transit and there’s always this longing, there’s always this approach or hope of recuperation, like some healing that’s pointed at, our reached towards. I think, the experiment of the text is California.”

Angel and I were in a creative writing intensive at the University of California at Santa Cruz. After graduating he went off to Naropa University’s School of Disembodied Poetics where he received his MFA and completed his novel. Since his return to Santa Cruz, California, the novel has been published in December 2015 by an independent Oakland press.

Despite his extraordinary talent and poignant vision, I believe there is a substantial reason for the success of his unconventional prose. Unlike many other new writer’s attempts at experimenting with the form and content of novel writing, Angel is the architect of something thoughtful and patient. Where many other young writers fall prey to over-saturation and complexity, his novel exceeds clumsiness and obscurity.

In what may seem like a discordant and fractured narrative on the surface, is actually an or-ganic and masterfully articulated prism of concepts that coalesce into a rich handbook for modernity in California—which is, to him, a narrative of exhaustion and recuperation. Instead of looking for an exit from the Platonic cave, he shines a light on the crystallites inside, illuminating the universal geometry of one’s memory and identity. This is the identity and the body memory of a migrant, transient and transplant. The modern individual no longer holds identity to a place, but a memory of a place, of a heritage. To Angel, when the individual travels—his modus operandi being flight—they lose their sense of habit and involuntary, unconscious action invokes the recovery genealogical memory.

“The transient self reawakens somatic memories that are buried in our blood. They are muscle tissue, muscle memory. In the act of travel, the act transit, you are put in the previous unknown situation. In doing that, I think the body itself has the ability to recall what your brain doesn’t, or trauma that your brain doesn’t want to recall,” Angel waxed over the nearly finished cup of coffee.

In this discussion Angel explained that much of what body memory recovers has to be done in acts outside of writing. For the body to really remember it must participate. Only then will the unearthing of the phantom memory occur.

“While writing this novel I was working two jobs, full-time and going to grad school. I was exhausted. I was blurring my dreams into everyday life. I found myself in a precarious state where these memories would find their way into my dreams. Or, I would be in the middle of a gestural movement and suddenly I would go straight back to the day we buried my grandfather.”

Angel’s grandfather plays an instrumental role in his novel. He is the narrator’s Vigil leading him through orange orchards, the markets and bus terminals of Los Angeles, guiding him through existential pondering while in flight, and teaching him of the Dzonots—rhizomic underground water channels of the Yucatan peninsula. He writes:

Every Dzonot holds its own myth, its own history and its own power…I’ve been trying to form a Dzonot from ribbons of night and the atoms of dreams. I’ve been attempting to communicate something else, outside of our world. Dzonots are portals to Xibalba, the Yucatec Mayan under-world.

“It is my secret hope that this book is an extended meditation on the poetics of exhaustion. I think in general we are all reaching this point of exhaustion. Whether we are physically exhausted or emotionally exhausted, I think that the children of immigrants, the grandchildren of immigrants are reaching this place of disassociation and it’s very waring. It becomes a very quiet and prolonged identity crisis. We are reaching an exhaustion that has nearly become a Second Wind. And I think the book itself is a Second Wind.”

He looks for a moment out the window, blurred by the ceaseless rain, as I ask him about trespassing. Continuing his focus on the window, he says, “To me trespassing these days is taking a Yucatan codex and placing it in Madrid museum. It is taking the memory and commodifying it. These days I see Yucatan patterns in Urban Outfitters. There are panties with my ancestors’ culture printed on them. I mean, what the hell! That is modern trespassing.

See, when I think of in the framework of the elections this year, we live in a time of heighten nationalism. But there is no nationalism. Yet, when I say that I know there isn’t this ‘we are the world’ bulls**t.” I then interrupted and asked, “While writing your novel was it a concern that your work would commodify or exploit your ancestors?”

“Well, it’s funny that you say that, because I struggled so much with that. I struggle so much with feeling like I had a legitimacy or validity in writing about my heritage, about my culture…my own family. There was so much caution taken. There was so much anxiety in using the Spanish language, or using the Yucatan language. And yet, I felt compelled to, my body needs to get this out.

“You know, it’s actually addressed in the first section of the book, Vestibule A, Appendix 1: I smash the book against face and weep when I can’t read the words. Our longing is our legitimacy”. “I considered for a while: is what I’m doing a form of appropriation? Being that I am this third generation, born in Los Angeles, young hood-rat—who is this fool to talk about ‘The Peninsula?’ Who am I to talk about Xibalba and tell you about Dzonots?”

“And you know, you cannot be afraid. You cannot be afraid. Think about it, the colonizers have taken everything from us. What they can’t take away is our longing. They can’t take away our strength within ourselves. For me, it was: how do I know my longing for my culture, this longing for family, how do I know that is enough? Our longing is our legitimacy.”

I drove down the winding mountain road to the grey town of Santa Cruz clouded in a nautical fog. Parking on the West Cliff, overlooking the ocean, I watched the torrential fall of rain plummet into the serene turbulence of the Pacific. I remembered Angel saying that he wanted to make time non-linear, so that the reader can open any page and be at the beginning and end all at once. So, on my dashboard was his novel. I opened to a random page and read:
A single mirror is placed on this earth, sinking beyond sight;
everything remains this far away.