Q+A with Robert Lopez about Dispatches From Puerto Nowhere
In March 2023, we are publishing the debut work of non-fiction by acclaimed fiction writer, Robert Lopez, a masterful consideration of memory and cultural preservation called Dispatches From Puerto Nowhere: An American Story of Assimilation and Erasure. The book dives deep into Lopez's Puerto Rican heritage, going back to his grandfather, Sixto, who immigrated to Brooklyn in the 1920s. There isn't much known about Sixto, or what inspired him to move to New York in the first place, and even less passed down in terms of family stories, language, or the Puerto Rican culture to the point where Robert feels — only two generations removed — as though he might be Latin In Name Only.
Dispatches From Puerto Nowhere braids Sixto's journey from Mayaguez to Red Hook, Brooklyn, where he works as a longshoreman and starts a family, with Robert's own upbringing in the predominantly white suburbs of Long Island, grappling with racial slurs and the thought of how much his family's assimilation was intentional, as well as how much he benefited from that assimilation. Having lived most of his adult life in Brooklyn, Lopez reflects on the diversity and rich heritage of his tennis community.
Dispatches From Puerto Nowhere is marvelous, thoughtful, and compassionate, and stands as a testament to Lopez's tremendous dexterity and prodigious talent as a writer.
Justin Torres, author of We the Animals, calls the book:
"A masterpiece clear and honest and alive to the world and its contradictions. Dispatches From Puerto Nowhere will hit you where you live."
Nick Flynn, author of This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire, The Ticking is the Bomb, and Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, says:
"Dispatches From Puerto Nowhere is a deceptively subversive book, full of insights and humor and a level of honest examination (both of racism and of the author himself) that is rare. Lopez writes in distilled bursts, each labelled 'Dispatch from…' (A Better Moment; Something Irretrievable; It’s Now or Never, etc), as if he wasn’t standing right beside us, murmuring these complicated truths in our ears, but beaming them in from some distant, forgotten past. He carries the weight of this past, yet it does not crush him. Or—thankfully, beautifully—us."
Ander Monson, author of The Gnome Stories and I Will Take the Answer, says: "Robert Lopez’s Dispatches From Puerto Nowhere is somewhere between a speculative memoir, a mostly unresolved detective story, and a meditation on learning to play tennis. That it’s none and all of these things—and more—is its particular genius."
Following is an interview with Robert Lopez about Dispatches From Puerto Nowhere: An American Story of Assimilation and Erasure.
Question: At this point you’ve published four novels and two collections of stories. What made you realize that you wanted to branch out into non-fiction, and why with this story in particular?
Robert Lopez: I can’t quite remember the genesis of this particular project. The first essay I wrote started with the line “The first time someone called me a spic was during recess or after school in the playground or in the park across the street from my house.” I think I wanted to talk about the disconnect I feel to my heritage and this was the sentence that presented itself as a way in. Most of what I’ve done with prose seems to concern confusion and uncertainty. I realized I didn’t know anything about my grandfather and starting from that kind of ignorance is right in my wheelhouse.
Q: While your various family members have Italian, Spanish, and Cuban ancestry, why do you think it is that the Puerto Rican line, and your grandfather Sixto Lopez, is the one that you seem to feel the most drawn to and chose to focus on with this book?
RL: I always thought of myself as Puerto Rican first when it comes to the entirety of my ethnic makeup. It’s my name. And Sixto made for an interesting character for all the reasons that are illustrated in the book and what I mentioned in the first answer. I realized I didn’t know anything about him and started to wonder why that was the case. That he was a musician, superstitious, and a prototypical Latino from that mostly/hopefully bygone era when it comes to the male/female dynamic, made for a meaty skeleton to start with, at least.
Q: Tennis is a big part of the book. It’s both an escape for you, as well as a way to explore culture, diversity, and community. In the banter between sets, you and your friends joke with one another, and share your heritage. What has tennis and your tennis community come to mean to you?
RL: Tennis is everything. Tennis is food and water, the sun and moon. Since the pandemic almost the entirety of my social life takes place on the courts. That’s only partially hyperbolic. I’ve forged lasting friendships with members of my tennis community that extend beyond the court. And that these people come from everywhere and are talented and smart and all that jive, it’s made my life richer. I can’t imagine a life without it.
Q: One of the things that is striking to me about your grandfather, Sixto, is how little you actually know about the man. Apart from basic observations from your childhood, there were so few family stories passed down. How did you grapple with that lack of information while putting this book together?
RL: Again, almost everything I’ve ever done comes from a lack of information. This is my home on the page, where I reside. The trick was to activate the imagination and find ways to engage with what I didn’t know and play with any number of alternate or potential or fictitious histories. At the same time I had to take a deep dive into the little I did know and try to examine all of it from as many angles as possible.
Q: You discuss the racist rhetoric from not only the Trump era in the wake of Hurricane Maria, to also the aggressive jingoism in the years after 9/11, and also your experiences with racism as a child growing up on Long Island. How do you think that Puerto Rico exists in relation to the rest of the United States?
RL: Puerto Rico is the redheaded step-child of the U.S. Convenient sometimes, but mostly an afterthought, a non-entity. Easy to ignore, abuse, subjugate. Puerto Rico is hamstrung in that it’s dependent on the US economy. Puerto Rican independence is a romantic idea, but if it ever happened Puerto Rico would become Cuba or the Dominican Republic. It’s pretty close to that now, economically, even with the association to the mainland. And the Republicans will never allow statehood.
Q: Immigration and family assimilation, whether some may be willing to admit to it or not, is a universally American story. How do you think this idea fares with the political circumstances and rhetoric from the past few years?
RL: We have been circling the drain for decades now, but the gravity and flow is increasing exponentially in recent years. Americans know nothing of history. Which goes hand in hand with their knowledge of other subjects in the Humanities. But they also know nothing of science and math, so more’s the pity. This country is doomed, but maybe something more manageable can replace it. Something less than an empire, something not at all great. Something like six or seven sovereign nations sounds about right. Maybe city-states. Whenever some “American” tells someone else to go back from where they came from… it’s laughable and tragic and sad and ugly.
Q: If there were one thing about your Puerto Rican family’s history that you wish you could find out, what would it be?
RL: I’d like to know how long the Lopezes lived in Puerto Rico, how far back it goes and who was involved and what they all did as people on the planet.
Dispatches From Puerto Nowhere: An American Story of Assimilation and Erasure is out on March 14, 2023.
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