Lost in the Basque Country
Debut novelists (and cousins!) Gabriel Urza and Sean Bernard in Conversation
Gabriel Urza and Sean Bernard have a few things in common. Both have debut novels out this autumn: Urza’s All That Followed (Holt) and Bernard’s Studies in the Hereafter (Red Hen). Both teach creative writing. Both write about Basques. Urza’s All That Followed is set in the fictional town of Muriga in the Spanish Basque Country, and the novel sifts through the layers of wreckage that come before and after a politically-charged act of violence. Basque-American culture plays a crucial role in Bernard’s novel, a work in which frustrated angels try their best to improve upon a disappointingly frustrating afterlife. The Basque overlap, though, isn’t too surprising: Urza and Bernard are cousins.
Writing & The Writing Process
Gabriel: Even though we’re cousins we don’t get a chance to see each other very often, so I’m glad to be able to catch up and talk books. What was your path to publishing and writing—were you always going to be a writer?
Sean: I wonder if ‘being a writer’ is a phrase that sounds alien to people—the way that ‘being an astronaut’ sounds to me: a sheer impossibility. Writing has always been very much an ordinary possibility in my life, certainly since I’ve had an awareness of books. And that’s due entirely to your grandfather, Robert Laxalt, who was a writer. Despite the rather cool-seeming political career of my own grandfather, my mom—and she passed this on to me—always thought that your grandfather was the real star of the family. A fantastic author, a globe-trotting journalist for National Geographic, always wearing his cool hat that I don’t know the name of. (Wasn’t he even a Golden Gloves boxer when he was young?) He impressed himself upon me when I was a kid: he liked that I read books, he was always encouraging, always kind. Had that great voice, and his house in Washoe Valley was such a deeply warm place.
I don’t know if I was always going to be a writer . . . but with your grandfather, I always had a very real author role model, and that certainly impacted me. Quite a bit, too: I’ve been studying creative writing since I was eighteen and as I said, I read a lot as a kid. And I wrote many strange things. Including a space thriller featuring the New Kids on the Block (sadly lost) and a bound chapbook, illustrated, which I still own, about King Arthur’s evil twin brother. So the signs have long been there.
What about you? How did the story of your novel enter your mind?
Gabriel: I’d never written about the Basque Country before starting this book—not even a short story. I think I was discouraged from the topic because my grandfather had written about it, and I didn’t want to feel like I was piggy-backing. The political situation in the Basque Country is also so fraught and complex that I felt that I didn’t have the authority (as someone raised in the US) to comment on the political situation.
The plot of the book is influenced by several events that occurred in the Basque Country in the 1980’s and 1990’s during the transition to democracy after the Franco dictatorship, when a militant independence movement (the ETA) was hugely influential on Basque life. When I was in my sophomore year of college, I went on a study abroad program to San Sebastian. Just before I arrived, the ETA kidnapped and killed a young politician, an act that seemed to be a turning point in popular sentiment against the militant independence movement. It’s a story that always stuck with me.
I also spent the better part of my twenties working as a public defender in Reno, Nevada. And I think this is where I realized that though many crimes can be seen as “political,” few crimes are carried out for purely political reasons. This idea gave me the permission I felt I needed to write, at least tangentially, about the Basque situation. I wanted to take a political act and make it about the individuals that are involved, to de-politicize the act. And once I started to write about these characters involved with a political killing—the Basque widow of the victim, the widow’s American friend, and the teenage perpetrator—the characters started to take off on their own. It used to drive me crazy when writers would say that their character would eventually just start operating of their own volition, but it’s true. If you spend enough time with a character, they start to become autonomous. It’s a really cool moment.
Sean: Since the novel does have echoes of reality—I’m wondering: do the characters too? I don’t mean the roles of the people in the true story; I mean people that you personally know in your own life. As I ask this I realize that probably no author would answer this about living people—or at least wouldn’t identify those people. But you can blink twice if yes, blink once if no.
Gabriel: [Blinks twice] The factual similarities with real life are more tangential than you’d think, actually. I drew on a lot of “real people” in composing these characters. And in a way, they each contain a lot of my own personality and anxieties. Damn, that sounds self-involved, but it’s true. For example, I have lived for extended periods of time in the Basque Country, but like Joni, the old American in the novel, I always feel like an outsider no matter how long I’m there.
What about you? In your novel, Studies in the Hereafter, the narrator is telling his story from the afterlife—an afterlife that is surprisingly bureaucratic. Some of the “angels” in the afterlife are essentially authors; they observe and write detailed reports on a couple of subjects that interest them [not the boring ones, of course. Not worth the time—straight to the grey files!], that are complicated or that seem capable of happiness under the right circumstances. And the angels get to intervene, occasionally, in their subjects’ lives. Is this a fair analogy for how you look at the writer/revisionist’s role? Do you think of yourself as detached or lonely as your “authors” in the novel?
Sean: Yes, absolutely. Though I’ll swap in the word ‘lonesome’ for ‘lonely.’ It sounds, and is, more fulfilling. (It’s great that I’m married to a woman who feels, at least I think she does, very much the same. We’re very happily lonesome together.)
I actually want to pause here and do a PSA for aspiring writers. There’s something to be said for feeling lonely, for feeling outside your own skin—I mean in life in general. Specifically, writers who step out of their own inherited culture and into another one—they become liminal, permanently so in some cases.
I wonder if you also think that that liminality—or maybe more accurately the tension of consciously feeling caught between places—is something that serves writers well in terms of giving us anxiety, in terms of making us feel alienated . . . and so having material to work with.
Gabriel: You nailed it on the head. It’s a weird place to be, and that sense of loneliness and homelessness can be deeply unsettling. Every writer I’ve ever knows feels this sense of not belonging and liminality, I think. It’s what gives occasion for storytelling, isn’t it? That something has fundamentally changed, usually for the worse, and that it inspires comment.
Basqueness and Writing
Gabriel: Your characters seem to be often heavily influenced by their vocations, or by their identity (as westerners, or as Basques). How do you see identity as manifesting in your work? And to that end, what aspects of your own identity make it into your writing?
I ask, in part, out of personal curiosity, of course. We share a common cultural identity and a common identity of geography, having been raised with a strong sense of Basque heritage in the West.
Sean: Ah, I’m just American. I don’t have much of a cultural history, and I don’t have very deep roots. Combine those factors with my own discomfort with nostalgia and sentiment and you have me: a terribly shallow modern person with no sense of cultural history. Which is a long way of saying that my characters aren’t really defined by a sense of place-as-identity.
To be completely honest, the Basqueness in the novel was more a convenient and fun way to get into the characters’ mindsets. But I don’t claim that it’s a Basque or even Basque-American book. It’s a Sean book with some people who are called Basque. I’m not certain I really know what Basque people are like. I’ve never been to the Basque Country. I don’t know Basque people. Save family. But they’re American more than they’re Basque.
Gabriel: What does Basqueness mean to you, then? And how does this fit into your novel, which includes not only Basque-American characters, but also a Basque version of heaven?
Sean: Well I definitely like having Basque blood: if anything, growing up, being Basque was a badge of honor for its uniqueness as a culture . . . rather than, say, actually understanding its culture. Like, Oh yeah, kid? You’ve got French blood? And you, you’re German? Well I’m Basque: ha ha ha!
I think that attitude’s still a little true to me, and it’s how the book reads: being Basque means having pride in a thing that is unique and isolated.
Gabriel: I thought the way that you look at American Basqueness in Studies in the Hereafter is really refreshing, and seemed to call into question the very notion of second- or third- generational cultural identity. [Warning to readers that spoilers are not only revealed, but celebrated here.] The novel is divided between characters in “the hearafter” and characters in the “world as we know it,” though these two worlds intersect in interesting ways.
Your two primary terrestrial characters are Carmelo and Tetty. Tetty is Basque-American, but Carmelo is a non-Basque academic who occasionally (and largely unsuccessfully) tries to relive the tropes of Basque Culture, either by trying to herd sheep across California or by recreating an authentic Basque house/restaurant in the middle of the American West. At one point, Carmelo is trying to tell Tetty about this, but she seems to tire of Carmelo’s [in her view] artificial, boring fixation on Basqueness:
“It’s called Uzcaux,” he said. “I found it on my last research trip.”
“Another Basque place? Come on.” [Tetty]
It seems to me that you are critiquing this very notion of cultural identity as abstraction, pointing out its limitations and shortcomings. Is this a fair reading?
Sean: Tetty is more opinionated than I am, far more certain in her opinions. So she’s occasionally irritated by and outspoken about the assumed “Basqueness” of the people around her—lots of those in Reno, as you know!—but more than that she’s just sort of generally annoyed by Carmelo’s need to share his enthusiasms with her.
But people who assume “other” cultural heritages don’t bother me at all. Some of those people, especially in Reno, are my family. I think my mom and aunt both have “Happiness is Being Basque” license plate holders. As long as they don’t get all Carmelo on me and try to get me to put the same license holder on my car, cool by me.
Let me flip this back to you: how do you define Basque culture?
Gabriel: Basque culture in the Basque Country is tough to quantify. But I would characterize Basque arts and culture as extremely progressive in many respects; there is a long tradition of vanguardist modern art, such as painters and sculptors like Oteiza and Chillida, and in the last few decades the Basque Country has emerged as a leader in gastronomy. It’s interesting to compare contemporary Basque food by chefs such as Juan Mari Arzak—who often uses very modern cooking techniques and presentation—to the family-style food of Basque-American restaurants.
In the US, Basque culture (in the way of Basque festivals, dancing, and social clubs) often seems like it’s trapped in a version of Basqueness from the 1940s and 1950s, when the largest waves of immigrants from the Basque Country came to the US on agricultural visas, often to herd sheep. The dances, music, and dress at the American Basque festivals are all frozen in time from this era, and the discussion about American Basqueness is usually apolitical, and not particularly interested in contemporary life in the Basque Country. Even the dialect of Basque that is spoken in the US is antiquated. (I always wonder what it must be like for people from the Basque Country to come visit a Basque festival in the US—it must be like going to an American festival in Spain where everyone is dressed in poodle skirts and lettermen’s jackets). Traditionally “Basque” food in the US is essentially Western ranch food—steak and lamb, French fries, lengua. Even the quintessential Basque cocktail, the Picon Punch, isn’t Basque—it’s brandy, grenadine, and an Italian herbal liqueur called Amaro (Toroni is the brand name I’ve always seen used in bars). If you ask a bartender in San Sebastian or Guernica for a Picon Punch, they’d look at you like you were crazy.
Sean: This kills me. Totally kills me. Picon Punch isn’t authentic?! (I’ll also add: I don’t find it to be a very good drink. At all.)
Gabriel: I’m sure you’ve heard the old refrain around Basque bars, that “Picon Punches are like tits?”—one’s not enough and three is too many…. Refrains aside, there is also a more contemporary political and academic Basque expat community in the US, which I was lucky enough to grow up around. My dad was very involved with the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada Reno, and we always had academics, politicians, and artists from the Basque Country staying with us when I was growing up.
In this community, I felt like there was a much stronger political identity that gave a context for the cultural identity. Basques that immigrated into the US in the 1940s and 1950s—like my dad and his family—were escaping from a Basque Country that was politically, culturally, and economically oppressed by the Franco dictatorship. Here, the concept of Basque identity was not an abstraction; their language, their dance, their political system had all been made illegal. At the time, to be Basque was a political act (and in some ways this is still the case).
That being said, I love much of what Basque-American culture has to offer. The Jaialdi Basque Festival, which occurs ever five year in Boise (including this year!), is lots of fun. There’s a “Basque Block” with great restaurants and bars, lots of music, and exhibitions of traditional Basque sports like handball (pelota), weight lifting (i.e. picking up and setting down massive rocks over and over), and wood chopping. There are also great Basque communities and social clubs across the country. Some noteworthy communities include Miami, San Francisco and Bakersfield (California), and Reno (Nevada). If you’re near northern Nevada, dinner at the Santa Fe or Louis’ Basque Corner in Reno, or J.T.’s Bar in Gardnerville, are not to be missed.
Sean: I’ve seen the weight-lifting before at festivals. Huge guy goes and picks up a huge round stone. Puts it on shoulder. Sets it down. It’s fantastically simple. I’ve never seen pelota played, though I’ve seen the courts. There’s one attached to the Hotel Noriega in Bakersfield, a wonderful spot of Basque-American culture that pops up in my novel—easily one of my favorite Basque enclaves I’ve visited (along with J.T.’s in Gardnerville, which you mentioned: you’ve seen, I’m sure, the aspen drawings in the J.T.’s men’s restroom?).
Gabriel: I don’t remember them offhand, but I’m guessing, based on carvings I’ve seen in the Sierras, that they’re fairly pornographic? I love, by the way, that you included lewd tree carvings in Studies.
Sean: Yes indeed they are. Leaving those out would have been impossible.