In this explosive and timely novel, T. Coraghessan Boyle explores an issue that is at the forefront of the political arena. He confronts the controversy over illegal immigration head-on, illuminating through a poignant, gripping story the people on both sides of the issue, the haves and the have-nots.
In Southern California’s Topanga Canyon, two couples live in close proximity and yet are worlds apart. High atop a hill overlooking the canyon, nature writer Delaney Mossbacher and his wife, real estate agent Kyra Menaker-Mossbacher, reside in an exclusive, secluded housing development with their son, Jordan. The Mossbachers are agnostic liberals with a passion for recycling and fitness. Camped out in a ravine at the bottom of the canyon are Cándido and América Rincón, a Mexican couple who have crossed the border illegally. On the edge of starvation, they search desperately for work in the hope of moving into an apartment before their baby is born. They cling to their vision of the American dream, which, no matter how hard they try to achieve it, manages to elude their grasp at every turn.
A chance, violent encounter brings together Delaney and Cándido, instigating a chain of events that eventually culminates in a harrowing confrontation. The novel shifts back and forth between the two couples, giving voice to each of the four main characters as their lives become inextricably intertwined and their worlds collide. The Rincóns’ search for the American dream, and the Mossbachers’ attempts to protect it, comprise the heart of the story. In scenes that are alternately comic, frightening, and satirical, but always all “too real,” Boyle confronts not only immigration but social consciousness, environmental awareness, crime, and unemployment in a tale that raises the curtain on the dark side of the American dream.
The United States and Immigration
The debate over immigration continues to escalate across the nation, particularly in California, and this sampling of quotations and statistics from various newspapers and magazines sheds light on the issue.
History suggests that those who truly yearn to come to America and stay will find a way to do it. (Newsweek, August 9, 1993)
In November 1994, California passed by a 59% to 41% vote Proposition 187, a bill that denies certain social privileges, mainly welfare, public schooling, and non-emergency medical care, to illegal immigrants. (The New York Times, November 11, 1994)
California hosts about 40% of the nation’s estimated 3.4 million illegal immigrants. (Time, November 21, 1994)
“All Americans…are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country…. We are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation of laws. It is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years, and we must do more to stop it.” (President Clinton, “We Heard America Shouting,” Address to Joint Session of Congress, January 25, 1995)
“Our immigration policy is a measure of who we are as a people. I believe we are a people who draw strength from our diversity and meet our challenges head on. I believe we want and deserve immigration laws that favor those who play by the rules.” (Bill Bradley, former U.S. Senator, New Jersey, The New Jersey Record, June 8, 1995)
About 800,000 people follow the rules and enter the United States legally as immigrants each year. An additional 200,000 to 300,000 come to the country illegally. (San Francisco Chronicle, December 5, 1995)
Half of illegal immigrants do not cross the borders unlawfully—they enter legally and overstay their visas. (San Francisco Chronicle, March 18, 1996)
T. Coraghessan Boyle was born in 1948 and grew up in Peekskill, New York. He is a graduate of the State University of New York at Potsdam, and received his doctorate in nineteenth-century English literature from the University of Iowa in 1977. Since 1977, Boyle has taught creative writing at the University of Southern California. While in college, Boyle exchanged his middle name, John, for the unusual Coraghessan, the name of one of his Irish ancestors.
Boyle is the author of Descent of Man (1979), Water Music (1982), Budding Prospects (1984), Greasy Lake(1985), World’s End (1987, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction), If the River Was Whiskey (1989), East Is East(1990), The Road to Wellville (1993), which was made into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins, and Without a Hero (1994). His work has appeared in major American magazines, including The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s, The Paris Review, and The Atlantic Monthly. Boyle lives with his wife, Karen, and their three children near Santa Barbara, California, in a house designed in 1909 by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
What is the significance of the title of the book?
The title comes from a common phrase for the Mexican border, The Tortilla Curtain, and I envision it in this way. We have the Iron Curtain, which as an image is impenetrable. You picture this wall across Eastern Europe. Then we have the Bamboo Curtain with regard to China. As I see it, that isn’t quite as impenetrable as an iron curtain. It shatters easily and has gaps in it. It’s not uniform. And now we have The Tortilla Curtain, which is the opposite of impregnable. It’s three strips of barbed wire with some limp tortillas hanging on it. The central question of this, and of the images of walls that appear throughout the book—the walls, the gates, walling people out, what do you wall in, all of that—has to do with us as a species and who owns what. Do you really own your own property? Do you have a right to fence people out? Do we have an obligation to assist people who come over that border, that wall, that gate? How is it that Americans are allowed to have this incredible standard of living while others do not? All of these questions, I think, are wrapped up in my view of our debate over immigration.
What is your view on immigration?
I feel that, on the one hand, we do have a right to be a sovereign nation and to protect our borders. Illegal immigration makes a mockery of legal immigration, and no other country in the world allows this sort of thing to happen. On the other hand, what I object to even more than that is this kind of demonizing of a whole race and class of people, as in considering all Mexicans, all Guatemalans, all Salvadorans to be bad because they’re invading our country as impoverished and ignorant individuals. The final gesture of the book, I think, shows you that we are one species and we do have to understand and appreciate that fact despite ethnic and national differences. But it’s a small gesture because I think that it’s a very, very complex issue that people have to work towards answering.
As an epigraph to the book you use a quotation from The Grapes of Wrath. Did you have John Steinbeck’s novel in mind when you wrote The Tortilla Curtain?
I’m not trying to re-write Steinbeck in any way. I chose the epigraph from him because I wanted to see how the ethos of the 1930s, and the traditional liberal ethos of providing for everybody, is applied to today.
The book is essentially set in your own backyard. Did this prompt you to write it? Did the proposal and passing of Proposition 187 (a bill passed in California that denies certain social benefits to illegal immigrants) factor in?
The book was somewhat misunderstood because it came out after the 187 vote, and people attacked the book or enjoyed it based on their own perspective. The book was actually conceived and written prior to Proposition 187’s even being drafted, and I think it came from the fact that I lived in Los Angeles for sixteen years. Reading about immigration in the newspaper every day and talking to people at parties like the ones that Delaney and Kyra give, I began to get a sense of something brewing that was akin to what happened here in Steinbeck’s day, but had the added element that the Okies of today are not American citizens and they’re of a different race.
Do you see The Tortilla Curtain as a political novel?
I think obviously people will want to talk about 187, and the campaign to draft a national bill like 187, but this book isn’t a political novel in the sense that it takes a position and is meant to have people agree or disagree with that position. It’s political in a different sense. I don’t think political novels work because they have “an ax to grind.” If you have “an ax to grind,” then you have to sacrifice aesthetics and the discovery of the book in order to make your point or to make people join your party or to see your point of view. I write a book like The Tortilla Curtain from having lived here and picked up on everything going on that finally resulted in 187, and from trying to sort out my own feelings. I don’t have a position when I begin a book, any book. I write in order to put some hypothetical elements together and see what will happen. I don’t know what’s going to happen even chapter by chapter, and I don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the book. That’s a process of discovery, which is why I write novels rather than, let’s say, a polemic, to discover how I feel about the issues, but particularly about this issue.
Critics and readers on both sides of the immigration issue had mixed reactions to The Tortilla Curtain. Why do you think the book generated so much controversy?
I’m not presenting any answers, and I think that’s why the book was very controversial. People want a polemic. They want to raise their fist in the air and say, “Yes, you’re on our side.” Well, I’m not on your side. I am presenting a fable, a fiction, so that you can judge for yourself. A lot of people simply read the book and flew off the handle because it either accords with what they want it to or it doesn’t. People want things to be very clear-cut. Here’s the issue and here’s how I stand on it. But I think it’s much more complex. I think it has to do with biology. You may notice that Delaney is a nature writer. Well, nature writers are generally very liberal, even radically liberal on all issues except one—the issue of immigration, on which they are more reactionary than anyone. The reason for this is they argue that there are six billion people on the planet now, and who is the enemy of the environment? Who is the enemy of clean air, clean water, all the dwindling animal species? Well, it’s us. Us, human beings. Our species. And this is an element of the book which is very important and has been overlooked. There is this population pressure on the world in all the industrial nations, not simply the United States. England, Germany, and France all have huge influxes of immigrants, and I’m wondering, what does this mean and how are people going to deal with it? I think ultimately, as you see in The Tortilla Curtain, it may simply exacerbate racist tendencies.
What research did you do to prepare for the writing of The Tortilla Curtain?
It may sound silly, but I’ve always felt an affection for Mexico and Mexican culture. I grew up in New York, as you may know, and the language I studied from eighth grade on was Spanish. In fact, the only language I can speak besides English is Spanish. I’ve always been attracted to the culture, and even before I moved to California I had traveled in Mexico and Central America. When I decided to write this book, I knew that I had to see one thing only. And that was the fence at the border. So I went back to Tijuana, where I hadn’t been for some years, and spent the day there. I talked to people. I walked along the fence. I saw people waiting to climb over the fence with little plastic bags with everything they owned in them. I saw the border guards eyeing me suspiciously from the other side. I saw the huge fence the U.S. is building out into the water, and so on, just to get a feel for that again and see what it’s like. And it’s a real war zone, it’s a real disaster, Tijuana, let me tell you.
The search for the American dream is a theme that resounds throughout The Tortilla Curtain. Do you think there is such a thing as the American dream?
I’ve addressed this throughout all of my work, our material obsession, all the stuff I’ve written about eating and how much we have and the surfeit of things; my story “Filthy with Things,” for instance. What is the American dream? Well, the American dream is, “you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you make it, you have a house, you live in the suburbs, and you drive a new car.” What is that? That is a material dream. If you have nothing, then you have material dreams. Presumably, if you have an education and you have enough to eat, then you can have aesthetic dreams or humanistic dreams. Easy for me to say. I have every material thing I could want. I didn’t become a writer to make money. I became a writer because that is my obsession and that’s how I view the world. As a novelist, my job is to try to inhabit people of any culture, to be a person of another sex, or another race, or another ethnic group. I think it helps me to understand them, and it helps the reader to understand them, too.
What writers do you admire? Have any of them influenced your work?
I admire hundreds of writers of the past and present and many, many of them have influenced my work. A writer who has influenced me with regard to this type of book is Steinbeck because I’m re-examining his ethos, as we said. In terms of satire, people like Flannery O’Connor and Evelyn Waugh have been influential on me, writers who are sort of angry about the way things are happening in society, and so they hold up certain behaviors to ridicule.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a historical novel entitled Riven Rock about the psychopathology of love. It’s set in my new hometown of Santa Barbara, and it deals with actual historical figures. The story centers around Stanley McCormick, the son of the man who invented the reaper, and his wife, Katherine Dexter. It’s quite a wonderful and extraordinary love story.