By ROBIN CAUDELL
---- — PLATTSBURGH — Themes of identity — personal and national — vibrate at the core of Jose Torres’s debut novel, “The Accidental Native,” published by Arte Publico Press.
Torres has penned a tender but unflinching love/hate story about Puerto Rico as glimpsed through the eyes of Rene “Rennie” Falto, a Nuyorican (New York-Puerto Rican) who returns to his ancestral homeland to bury his parents, who died in a tragic accident.
Upon pressured reflection and a job offer, he returns to reconnect the umbilical between himself and his biological mother, Julia Matos Canales, a fiery attorney and independentista who made a mommy-dearest confession at his parents’ grave site in Bana.
Rennie also seeks to bridge the ruptured connectivity between him and the place he would call home, the Enchanted Island. He teaches at La Universidad de Bana, where there are cancer-cluster-zone whispers about the campus, a former U.S. military base.
As Falto navigates his new life, he tries to find national pride and love against the backdrop of students who strike in a conga line.
Torres wrote much of the book while a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Barcelona, Spain. He spent a sabbatical away from SUNY Plattsburgh, where he is a professor of English.
In “The Accidental Native,” art imitates life. Puerto Rico is glimpsed in all its schizoid independence/statehood glory from Falto’s insider/outside lens that is Torres’ also.
“I lived there from 1981 to 2000 with four years in between when I was away for my Ph.D.,” Torres said.
“During that period, I was very much like the character. Then, I came back to the states and thought that would make a very good novel about going back. There is no book about Puerto Ricans’ return migration. I thought that was a really good idea for a book, and that started me on the road for writing it.”
Writing “The Accidental Native” was never a problem. Structure, however, was.
“I knew he wanted him to go back to the island,” Torres said. “I didn’t know what would be a good reason for him going back.”
Early in his process, he sent chapters to an agent, who told him it wasn’t enough for Falto to simply return.
“He was really right,” Torres said. “You don’t send things to agents until you have things really figured out. I had to change everything and include more chapters with the mother. A lot of time in Latino literature, you have a nice grandmother, another cliché. The idea of him not knowing this was his mother created more tension and a stronger narrative.”
After all the graduate-school critical writing, Torres had to retool to write fiction. He wrote poetry because of time constraints.
“I wrote enough for a collection to be published next spring (“Boricua Passport: Poems,” 2Leaf Press). All that critical writing, I really think it hurt my writing. I started to get my fictional voice back again. That took awhile.”
In 2008, “The Family Terrorist and Other Stories” was published by Arte Publico Press.
“Then, the idea came for this novel. I have regained my footing again. I like to think there’s a lyrical quality to the writing. I go back and forth,” he said. “A lot of my poems are narrative poems, too.”
In “The Accidental Native,” Falto wrestles with a DuBosian double consciousness with a twist, Puerto Rican/American, and it rubs against “real” Puerto Ricans.
“That’s the idea of never being able to go back home,” Torres said. “One of the thematic strains in the books is home and where you feel comfortable by going to the physical homeland. You would think he could fit it. He’s been so distant from that. He grew up in a different culture. He knows little of what his parents tried to teach him. He’s estranged and very foreign to the people there.”
Canales is aghast at her son’s naiveté considering his father’s former political leanings.
“That’s part of the conflict in the novel,” Torres said. “The mother is trying to reclaim the son and the son’s love, and the son is trying to reclaim to his homeland represented by his mother.”
The book cover, designed by Torres’s colleague David Powell, simulates this divide with a man in Western apparel wearing a vejigante mask.
In the novel, Canales and Falto attend the carnival-esque Festival of Santiago in Loíza Aldea. She buys him a mask. The festival’s cast includes the caballeros (knights), vejigantes, locas and viejos (locos).
“The knights all wear masks, ride on horses and have wooden swords,” Torres said. “The Vejigantes are sort of like a trickster character, slapping people with goat bladders of wine and drinking. They are supposed to be silent, make fun and do tricks. They have incredible, very colorful costumes. When the mother really begins to open up to the son, he wears the mask and he’s talking to his mother.”
Email Robin Caudell:firstname.lastname@example.org
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Book signing with J.L. Torres, author of "The Accidental Native."
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30.
WHERE: The Cornerstone Bookshop, 110 Margaret St., Plattsburgh. CONTACT: Call 563-0520.