The Friends of the St. Paul Library hosted a reading by George Rabasa from his latest novel The Cleansing as part of their 9th annual Chicano and Latino Writers Festival. Being a resident of St. Paul’s largely Hispanic West Side and briefly, of Mexico City, I was interested in both the festival and the writer, although I’ve never read his books. The event was not a pleasure, exactly, but it was memorable.
Perhaps the early dark and cold of 7:00 p.m. on the first of November siphoned a bit of energy from the room. Maybe it was the room: a fluorescent-lit library basement (Riverview) with ketchup stains on the carpet (after-school homework help) and an odd smell (books, teenagers, employee break room). I hoped it was not portentous when, arriving at 6:55, I found only the author, the hostess and one other attendee sitting on sofas in the corner. The semicircle of chairs in front of the dais was empty. There were trays of cookies, and lemonade.
Wendy, from the Friends, was extra cheerful. She introduced me to George Rabasa. He made a joke about, bonus, getting to hang out in the comfy chairs if nobody else showed; we laughed. Wendy pushed the cookies and lemonade. I sat down in the corner of a puffy gray sofa. A few more people wandered in, and then a few who knew Rabasa. There were inquiries as to the whereabouts of someone named Bart.
At 7:15, Rabasa suggested that everyone pull up chairs. Wendy introduced him as being great at characters, and the recipient of two Minnesota Book Awards. Then she said that she had intended to read several selections from the book, but thought it would be best just to turn it over to George. George thanked her, and thanked us for coming.
He talked for a minute or two about extending the name of the Chicano & Latino Writers Festival to include Chilangos. Rabasa explained that this term refers, without much affection, to those born and raised in Mexico City, of which he is one. With the remains of an accent that burst open over Spanish words, his voice was a pleasure to listen to. He spoke of fiction in general and its ability to define the character of a villain by who he is, not just by what he does; by his humanity, not only his inhumanity. He referred to The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez as an example.
Rabasa then introduced The Cleansing with the idea that had brought it about: a speculation on three former friends who have an unexpected, unwanted reunion after twenty years. He read the first of three excerpts. This scene set up the main relationships, started the story moving, and was interesting for his attention to specific medical details. It pulled us in.
When he’d finished, he took a sip of water and spoke of living in Mexico City for thirty-five years, and of not being able to write about it until he’d been away for twenty. He continued the reading as a few more people drifted into the room.
George Rabasa’s second passage raised ghosts and the hairs on the back of my neck. The scene took place in Mexico City between an American woman and two Mexican children who were street acrobats, beggars. Filled with detail and subtle action, the tension bloomed and then clenched down as the woman followed the children deeper into the night of their real lives on the outskirts of the immense city. In this scene Rabasa absolutely nailed the feeling of being an outsider in that place. It brought back vividly the peddler on my street in Colonia del Valle who set up a folding table every morning next to the pharmacia and covered it with ranks and files of tiny, cheap plastic toy cars that no one ever bought. It raised the caballero from the rodeo in Puebla who crept up with grins and mutterings as I paused naively to pet his horse. It conjured the shocking poverty of Mexico City’s vast northern slums, en route to the pretty, artsy towns of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende, driving with my friends in a silver BMW. It made me remember all the reasons I couldn’t stay there one moment longer than I did.
The final story from The Cleansing brought us into the spiritual heart of Mexico, another place not meant for outsiders. The scene of the village of Santa Catalina celebrating her martyrdom and saint’s day was so otherworldly and creepy I’m certain I’ll never forget it. It reminded me of Daddy Mention in The Big Easy and, worse, of the Mickey Rourke movie Angel Heart.
After he finished reading, Rabasa took a couple of questions about his writing practice (four hours a day) and process (shitty first drafts then lots of rearranging) and thanked us again for coming. We applauded and struggled out of the marshmallow furniture to our feet. George’s friends gathered around him as the vanished Bart appeared and said, “You didn’t need us. This is a nice little crowd.”