Book Lovers: A Conversation with Erik Orrantia, 2011 Lambda Literary Award Winner for Gay Romance
Erik Orrantia, author of the 2011 Lambda Literary Award winning gay romance, Normal Miguel (Cheyenne Publishing), was in Sedona with friends when he found out he won. He says, “I celebrated with a Fuzzy Navel and a steak dinner.” Although the novel about a year in the life of a young school teacher in rural Mexico has met with universal acclaim, Orrantia says that given the caliber of the other romance finalists, “I was overwhelmed with surprise” when he won the award. A close friend who had assisted in editing the manuscript told him, “I knew it was good, I didn’t know it was that good!”
Orrantia, who was born in San Francisco and has a Masters in counseling, has lived in Tijuana for thirteen years after having earned his teaching credential in Mexico City. He teaches middle school in San Diego and was recognized as Teacher of the Year in 2008. He says he commutes across the border daily. “The Tijuana-San Diego border crossing is the busiest border crossing in the world.” But as a Homeland Security “Trusted Traveler,” he says, “I usually cross in less than fifteen minutes, better than any commute in the San Francisco Bay Area.”
It’s not so easy for his partner Francisco. “I met Francisco seven years ago in a bar called El Taurino,” Orrantia says. “He’s a hair stylist and recently started a line of combs named after his grandmother, Doña Porfiria. We live in a cozy, rented house in a comfortable suburb of Tijuana.” But due to the “stringency of the United States in granting tourist visas to Mexicans in the seven years we’ve been together, Francisco’s never been able to cross the border.” Orrantia says he would like to marry Francisco, “just like my hetero brother did with his Taiwanese wife, and Francisco could emigrate to the United States.”
Orrantia brings both his experience as a teacher and his intimate knowledge of Mexico to the pages of Normal Miguel. He says, “In the book, I likened teaching to parenting.” He says teaching is “an emotional experience.” He says, “They’re not always positive emotions. In Normal Miguel, I tried to allow the reader to experience some of that. A teacher develops relationships with all his students, closer relationships with a few. In Normal Miguel, some but not all of Miguel’s forty students take the forefront.” And Miguel loves them, literally warts and all. Orrantia says the greatest satisfaction from his job comes from knowing that “I helped a young person to grow. Not long ago I ran into a former student in the mall. She gave me a huge hug before I recognized her. ‘Because of you,’ she said, ‘I’m in college.’”
Unfortunately, Normal Miguel, which shows Orrantia’s love for teaching on every page, may cost him his job. “I, stupidly, stored Normal Miguel on my work computer because my home computer was on the blink.” School authorities discovered the book and are now trying to oust Orrantia from his career. Orrantia says, “I wasn’t out at my job, but now more people are aware than I intended.” He says through this experience he has discovered just how conservative is the Republican dominated San Diego County.
Orrantia says, “When I wrote Normal Miguel, I was conscious that my Christian mother was going to read it. But I believe that sex is a normal and healthy part of life and, as such, has its place in literature.” He says, “The contrast between Miguel’s sex with his partner, Ruben, and the sex with others was deliberate. The casual sex was meant to be somewhat vulgar, even a bit repulsive. I intended to portray Miguel’s development as an individual, in part, through sexual expression. In the beginning, he easily succumbed to raw temptation. By the end, his attitude was different. I did not write the sex for prurient or erotic purposes. I intended the scenes between Miguel and Ruben to transcend, if you will, the basic carnal release or escape he might have sought with the others. Perhaps it’s the difference between sex and making love.”
The book seemed hard for the publishing industry and reviewers to classify. Cheyenne Publishing published it as a young adult novel, but it has been reviewed as a gay romance. Orrantia says, “I did not set out to write a romance, though, of course, I realize the practicality of genres to categorize, but sometimes they have a pigeon-holing effect. Even nominating the novel for a Lambda Literary Award brought up the debate between whether it was gay general fiction or gay romance, and in his review on www.reviewsbyjessewave.com, Victor Banis said, ‘I am perhaps doing a disservice by labeling this “gay fiction.” It is really more about universal truths.’” Orrantia says, “I love Mexico, writing, and people; I am gay and romantic—my books will reflect all those things.”
Orrantia’s latest novel is The Equinox Convergence, available through Etopia Press. Orrantia says, “My new novel includes drug trafficking and violence. Similar to Normal Miguel, it brings in ordinary people from different walks of Mexican life whose choices, though not always ethical, are at least comprehensible. Atua, a young woman of the fictional Núkul indigenous tribe, aspires to become a shaman like her adoptive father, deferring from the traditional role of women in the tribe. When she confronts the drug runner, Bennie, their destinies are jeopardized.” Bennie is a boy who “wants to be king of the world” and aspires to follow in the footsteps of Saul, who runs a lab for the local drug lord. But, Orrantia says, “Running drugs, Bennie soon finds himself embroiled in unspeakable crimes.” Orrantia says, “Like light and darkness in the equinox, these forces converge.”
Orrantia says, “The Equinox Convergence was inspired, in part, by my travels to rural parts of Mexico and my experience with the indigenous peoples there. I am not an expert, but I have probably had more contact with the Huichol, Tarahumara, and Nahuatl than the average gringo. Their plight concerns me and their ways of life are fascinating. I have attempted to respect the Mexican indigenous by incorporating into the fictional tribe real-life facts from authentic tribes such as some of their customs, beliefs, and symbols.”
Orrantia says, “Part of the idea I had in writing Normal Miguel was to break some stereotypes about Mexico. I spent about a month in a boarding school like that described in the book. I found the majority of the people in the rural town to be warm and open-minded. My then boyfriend visited during the last weekend of my stay there and the people in the village were ecstatic to meet him. They also knew of a few gay locals, one of them also a hair stylist, and homophobia was not in the picture. Moreover, after having worked with children for years, I think most young people find nothing unusual or necessarily bad about one person loving another, regardless of gender.” Orrantia says, “Normal Miguel portrays a plausible story, even in rural Mexico.”
He similarly seeks to dispel some of the sensationalist US coverage of the Mexican drug wars. Orrantia says, “The drug violence in Mexico is a constant debate between people at every level of society. The rate of crimes, specifically brutal crimes like murder, kidnapping, and mutilation, are undeniably high. The statistics are chilling.” However, as an American living in Tijuana, Orrantia says, “The average person in Mexico who is not part of a target group—the rich, the drug traffickers, and the police or military—faces little more threat than in any major metropolis in the world.”
Orrantia is multicultural. His late father was Chinese and his mother was born in Germany. He confesses, “There is actually not a Latino gene inside me. I took Spanish in high school—hated it. I could never imagine what I’d need it for. I became more interested in Spanish the first time I dated [someone of Mexican descent]. I began to study on my own, then I took a few classes in community college, and, now, after living in Mexico for fourteen years I can fool most Spanish-speakers with my accent.” He says, “Some piece of me has become Latino over the years. In part, I use a pen name because I probably wouldn’t buy a book about Mexico from a guy with a Chinese last name. But I assure you, I’m a credible source.”
Reviewers have commented on the simple elegance of Orrantia’s writing. He says, “My style is not exactly sophisticated or academic. I attempt to use specific detail—a screw bouncing around on the floor of the bus, a fallen scoop of ice cream, a wart on a face—to show and not tell. Every word must have a purpose.”
He says, “When I write, I need quiet. I need to sit with myself and think. I hope to hit a groove when the words flow from my fingers and the story starts to tell itself. I really picture it, in full color, and try to explain what I see as if sharing a dream. The story comes from a place deeper than thought. And when I finish a section so inspired, I feel jubilant.” Not that he always finds his sweet spot. He says, “I don’t always find a groove and I often step away from the computer until the story works itself out and comes to me. Groove or no groove, I try to write every day, at least a few thousand words.” He says, “With Normal Miguel, I didn’t have the same hang-ups. I wrote straight through. It still took about a year to write and rewrite, then another six months for the formal publishing process.”
Orrantia praises his publisher, Cheyenne Publishing. He says, “Let me take this chance to plug Cheyenne. This is a wonderful and small group of super talented writers who specialize in gay historical fiction. As you can see by Normal Miguel, it’s not all historical—the catalog includes some contemporary and young adult literature. I’m still working on reading something from every author, but I haven’t been disappointed yet. You can see the catalog at cheyennepublishing.com and join the readers’ group at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/cheyenne_readers. Currently, I’m reading A Hundred Little Lies by Jon Wilson. I’ve also got to recommend the Royal Navy Series by Lee Rowan.”
What’s next for this talented new author? Orrantia says, “I recently finished a manuscript called Taxi Rojo, a Tijuana-based story about a handful of people whose lives come together when they board an ill-fated taxi late one Friday night. Most of them had just left the gay bars, so our cast includes a drag queen who performs in the bars by night and is developing a relationship with an older widower by day, a couple who confront a health issue and Third World medical services, and a middle-aged woman, an undocumented worker in the US, who takes care of everyone but herself.” Orrantia says that in all of his work he tries to show the interconnectedness of humanity. Orrantia says he is also working on a sequel to The Equinox Convergence.
When I ask if being a Lammy winner and all the good reviews have helped sales, Orrantia says, “As a mathematician, I figured if I only sold one book to every 10,000 gays I’d be in the thousands. Anyway, I just like writing.”
You can keep up with Erik on his blog at erikorrantia.com.