A Conversation with Brando Skyhorse

by Brian Rocha

Brando Skyhorse is a Mexican American with an American Indian name and a foot in both of these identities, one true and one a lie. It’s confusing for him too. Winner of the 2011 PEN/Hemingway Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Skyhorse has written two books, Take This Man and The Madonnas of Echo Park. Most recently he co-edited an essay anthology, We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America. Skyhorse visited Butler in September 2018 and sat down with Booth to talk about how he negotiates his complicated identity.

 
Brian Rocha: Your work tends to explore identity, with an emphasis on the fluidity of race and culture, whether in your own life or in the lives of others. Why do you find yourself returning to this theme?

Brando Skyhorse: I keep returning to it because people keep asking me to answer that question. I taught a class on ethnic and racial passing a couple of years ago, and one of the things we learned about is the concept of gatekeepers and gatekeeping. There’s usually a person who feels very comfortable asserting their position of privilege or authority—this sense of “I have the right to demand what box to put you in.” And that’s different than someone who’s just curious about who I am. My features are of somewhat indeterminate origin. So when I’m in California, people think I’m Mexican. When I’m in New York, people think I’m Afghani. When I’m at an airport, they don’t know what to think. There’s always that sense of “we gotta put you in a box.” I just keep getting asked that question, directly and indirectly. That’s my life, and I write about those issues because I’m trying to figure it out. And that’s something I’m going to be wrestling with for as long as I continue to publish work.

BR: You most recently co-edited an anthology of essays titled We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America. It focuses on the meaning and complexity of passing as something you’re not, as something you want to be. Why did you feel that a collection centered on this theme was important now?

BS: A couple of years ago, there was a woman named Rachel Dolezal in Spokane, Washington, who was the head of the NAACP and was very active in the African American community. And she was outed as a white woman. I was in DC at the time, working with an amazing professor named Lisa Page. She has parents of different ethnicities, and we were both saying, “Wow, everyone is talking about Rachel Dolezal. Why aren’t they asking us? I think we can illuminate this conversation.” We felt writers of color should be part of the conversation. And we were like, “Let’s just put a book together.” Of course, we did it the hard way, and we commissioned original essays. I think it’s an amazing book, and I’d love to see it get into more classrooms, because this is a conversation that people keep having. As we wrestle with the concepts of race and identity, I think people who are in that borderland can really offer illuminating insights.

BR: How do you personally define passing, and how has it intersected your life?

BS: Passing is essentially when you occupy a space meant for somebody else to achieve a perceived or desired benefit. And there’s silent passing and active passing. Silent passing is when somebody, usually a gatekeeper, makes the decision, and active passing is when you actively go out to pass yourself.

BR: On the flip side, don’t some people in the current political climate use passing as a defense mechanism?

BS: There has never been a time in this country’s history when people of different ethnicities or races haven’t been scrutinized to a certain degree. Ever. And passing has always been a way to try to hack racism, this thing that ostensibly doesn’t exist. That’s what continues to fascinate me. You ask people, “Does racism exist in America?” Depending on who you’re asking, you’re going to get very different answers. But if you don’t believe that racism exists, how do you explain passing? If it doesn’t exist, then passing shouldn’t be a phenomenon at all. As long as racism is perceived to exist, there’s going to be passing.

My mom decided to pass me off as an American Indian in the seventies, and I thought she was the craziest person alive. But as I got older, I realized, “Oh my god, maybe she was onto something. People really hate Mexicans.” The wild thing is that when I’ve met and talked to American Indians, they were like, “That was definitely a California phenomenon, because if she pretended you were an Indian in Oklahoma or Arkansas or another state where Indians are perceived negatively through those stereotypes, they’re not fetishized. It wouldn’t have been a shield.” So that’s wild too, that passing is context-specific depending on where you live. I think it’s something that is omnipresent and will be with us as long as we humans, Americans, whatever, have to put the people into the boxes. It’s not going away.

BR: How did your experience of putting together the anthology and collaborating with a co-editor differ from working relatively independently on your previous works?

BS: I worked in publishing for ten years, and as an editor, it’s like air traffic control. Somebody once told me that a good editor is neither seen nor heard. What an interesting way to categorize your job: if you do your job effectively, nobody knows you were there. So, when I put this anthology together, it felt very comfortable to go back into that role for a short while. You’re thinking about a hundred different things at once—writers miss deadlines, writers don’t turn things in at all, or writers turn in things that you didn’t expect or are longer or shorter. Writers also like feedback and so on and so forth. Original work in particular doubles or triples the workload. It was great to have somebody like Lisa there who was responsible for getting almost every single person on our list. She landed them, and I had to prepare them. It was a really good relationship, and it was nice for a while to put my own work aside and say, “Hey, we had this idea in someone’s kitchen and now it’s a book.” That’s a special thing. Any time a book comes into existence, that’s always a special thing.

BR: In Take This Man you write, “I’m not an Indian either but feel I’m still somewhere between two names and two cultures. It’s difficult because I can’t even occupy the gray space mixed children try to claim for themselves.” How do you think something like this affects people who, like you, were intentionally deceived only to later discover the truth?

BS: I don’t know how many people there are, but when the memoir came out, a number of people came up to me at my readings and said, “This happened. My mom told me I was another race, another ethnicity.” I can talk about it openly now because we do live in a culture where people are interested in those stories, but for years there was a great deal of shame, a sense of loss. Also wondering, how would American Indians feel about my story? Would they think I’m just like my mother? I made a conscious decision to keep the name. Am I marginalizing their community? Am I yet another person who’s taking something away from a culture that has had so much taken away? What I talk about in the anthology is that I try to live a life now that I call ethical passing. I have the name, but the moment anyone asks me about it I say, “Well, I’m Mexican, but I have an American Indian name.” That’s something I have to wrestle with every single day. But my mom did want this identity for me. This was her version of the American Dream to get me to a better life, and she thought this narrative was going to keep me moving forward.

BR: Have people taken offense to your surname, and if so how do you respond to those critics?

BS: It has happened on certain occasions with Latinos. They’ve said, “Well, you should be proud of your name.” And I’ve talked about this a little bit with my bio-dad; we’ve only been in touch for the past eight years. I can’t in good conscience take his last name. I can’t. That’s my own struggle. I can’t carry the name of a man who knowingly abandoned me and who made no contact with me for years and years and years. I can’t do it. But also there’s Skyhorse. My mom gave that name to me, but it wasn’t really hers to give. So what do I do? Just go by the single name Brando? I would be OK with that, but I think my story is a more valuable resource than if I were to hide it or go back to Ulloa. I’m trying to do my best as an advocate to use this situation to talk about larger issues. Could I do that without Skyhorse as a last name? Possibly, but we live in a society where you still need last names. Until we get to that place, this is where I’m at, and that works for me. If that doesn’t work for someone else, I understand. It doesn’t have to work for everybody, but it works for me.

BR: How successfully do you think you’re navigating the two spaces?

BS: Well, I think OK, probably better than average given how catastrophic my upbringing was. I can talk about it and have pretty meaningful conversations with younger writers and just younger people in general. People who are younger, they get it. They realize there’s no maliciousness intended, in part because it’s not like I’m saying I am Brando Skyhorse, American Indian, son of a chief—the whole story my mom had. It’s like, “Yes, my name is Brando Skyhorse, and I legally changed it and here’s why. Maybe that can help you come to some sort of understanding about how race works in this country, how ethnicity works. Maybe you can draw your own conclusions about it.” I think that feels like an OK place for me to occupy.

BR: When you changed your name legally, did any Skyhorses reach out to you?

BS: No, no. It was very simple. I went down to the courthouse and filled out a few forms, and that was basically it. But I was doing a book reading in Seattle, and this person came up to me and said, “My name is Pat Skyhorse, and I’m related to the Paul Skyhorse who was on trial for murder in the 1970s,” and she was like, “Who are you?” So I told her my story, and within ten minutes she was like, “Oh, we Skyhorses have to stick together.” That was it. She literally just wanted the story. She wanted to know who I was.

My mom was very active in the American Indian scene in the 1970s. That’s not an excuse; she took something that wasn’t hers. But that’s where it came from. If you tell people straight, “This is the truth. This is what happened,” more often than not people are like, “Oh, OK. Thank you for explaining that to me. I didn’t know.” I think people get into trouble when they hide or evade. If you just answer the question, you defuse it. I’m sure some people will say, “No, you’re wrong. You’re a terrible person.” OK, bye, you’re welcome to think that, but I know I’ve had really constructive and positive conversations about this that I wouldn’t have had if I had just gone back to Ulloa. And I have published books as Brando Skyhorse. If I were to change my name again, it’s like, “OK, who’s this guy?” Well, I used to be this and now I’m this—it would feel, in a certain way, that it was part of my life I was trying to run from or hide from. I can’t change the fact that this is what my mom did. I can’t change the fact that my mom was very determined about me having this kind of existence. So, in a certain way, keeping the name is a way of remembering my mom. That’s what she wanted for me. As much as I love my mom, as great as she was in many ways, she was also very flawed. She’d be the first person to tell me, “Yeah, who cares what they think? Why would you tell them anything? This is your story. You do what you want.” I’m trying to be in that middle zone of, well, my mom wasn’t 100 percent right, but let me use this as a way to explore things people are interested in right now and want to talk about.

BR: In the memoir you seem to reflect very clearly on your childhood experiences. How were you able to retain so many memories, and what sort of research did you have to do to access some of the harder-to-reach memories?

BS: I started an initial draft of it in ’96 and published it in 2014, so that’s eighteen years, off and on. Two years into it my mom died unexpectedly, and my grandmother died the following year. They would have been of limited use to me anyway because they were both liars. I had a memoir class with Geoffrey Wolff when I was a grad student, so I had interviewed them, and I had some notes. Some of that material actually made it into the book. The other part was learning how to create scenes when I had limited information. There’s a scene where my mom gets mad at me because I lost some Frosted Flakes box tops that I was going to use to travel on a train, and she sticks my head in a toilet. Do I remember very vividly what it was like as a five-year-old child to have my head dunked in a toilet? You’d better believe it. You don’t forget something like that, that was clear. Do I remember all the specific dialogue around that? No, of course not. But do I remember other instances of my mother completely losing control and saying things to me? Is it plausible or possible that she used similar language or rhetoric when I was five versus when I was ten or eleven and I had a more clear idea of what she was saying? Yes. That helps readers have the same visceral experience I had as I was going through it. Ultimately, memoir is about change and transformation. Memoir is not a transcript. It is not a mere recitation of events. You are demonstrating change, and I feel the writer has carte blanche to use whatever tools they have, without making something up. That’s not acceptable—if you make something up, what you’re doing is selling out your own artistic creation. That’s not the purpose of memoir. The purpose of memoir, I think, is to examine a period in your life and examine why you have changed or transformed in some way. To do that, you have to be as honest as your memory allows.

BR: Is there anything you wish you’d included that got left on the cutting room floor?

BS: There was a lot about passing that is not in the memoir. Honestly, I just didn’t know enough about it. I didn’t have the language; I didn’t know how to talk about it. When I wrote my essay, I read some books, and I spent time thinking about it and talking with students and such. Teaching them helped me understand more of where I was coming from. Thankfully I was able to find a place for it elsewhere. But I don’t think I’m the kind of person who has multiple memoirs in me. I think I got everything I needed in that one book. And I’m really, really proud of that book. It essentially gave me the container I needed to understand my story. For many years I felt like there was a black cloud over me. I kept thinking I was defective in some way. I had friends in high school who were like, “Man, your family has the worst luck. Why does this keep happening to you?” So I wanted an answer to that question, and thankfully I think the book answers it. It’s not like there was one big event; it was just broken people continually making unhealthy decisions, and over a lifetime it catches up to you.

BR: Do you think your mother’s penchant to, let’s say, stretch the truth—

BS: To lie, yes [laughs].

BR: Was that a factor in your becoming a writer and in essence creating fabrications of your own?

BS: Yes and no. I think my mom liked to entertain. She had such a crazy life, so she could entertain without lying at all. She died unexpectedly, so we never got to have that conversation. People loved my mom without her lying; she didn’t need that. I think my desire to write does stem in part from how she liked to hold a person’s attention. I know for many years she was trying to work on her own writing, and she just didn’t do it in a methodical way. I was drawn to the idea that she could create something on paper that I could then be invested in. So I think in a certain way, if this is the family business, I’m trying.

BR: Do you feel you’re completing a legacy she never finished herself?

BS: That’s a very kind way to put it. I’d like to think of it that way. I don’t know what she would have thought, but I can tell you this. When my first book came out, if she had been alive, she would have gone to Amazon and left the first review, and it would have been a five-star review. It would have said, “This is my son’s book. It’s brilliant. You gotta read it.” And then, ten minutes later, she would have left a one-star review saying, “This is full of crap. This guy doesn’t know what he’s doing. You want the real story? Email me at this address, and I’ll tell you everything you need to know.” That’s what I feel my legacy is, navigating between those two points.

BR: You first explored your roots through fiction with your debut, The Madonnas of Echo Park. What was it that drove you to take it a step further and write the memoir?

BS: I was interested in navigating both of those identities, because when you write a first book there’s always the assumption that it’s autobiographical. But I think the novel explores Echo Park more than anything else. It’s my understanding of how Echo Park works, what Echo Park represents, and what Echo Park means to me. The neighborhood is the primary character in that book. I love it for that because it represents an Echo Park that is no longer there. There are million-dollar apartments in Echo Park now, hipster coffee shops, the sort of stuff that would have been unthinkable when I was growing up there in the seventies and eighties. It was a neighborhood that was virtually ignored. I wanted to capture that. Now, for anyone who reads the book, it’s there forever. No one can take that away from me.

The memoir was more thinking about my experiences and trying to figure something out. With the novel I was trying to figure out, “How does this neighborhood work? What are the mechanics behind it? What does it mean to live in an area that was once ignored and is all of a sudden in demand?” With the memoir it was more like, “What does it mean to live a life where you’re told one thing and all of a sudden you realize another?” With the novel I’m working on now, it’s that same question. There’s a character who has to figure out, “What does it mean to be American?” She has a very specific idea of what that means, and then it changes. Each of these things is me trying to answer a question that I find interesting, and I think that’s where really good fiction comes from: writers trying to figure something out.

BR: Do you think that writing Madonnas helped you texture Echo Park in the memoir?

BS: Absolutely, because there was that sense of, “OK, I really got this neighborhood and I really got the setting, and now let’s focus on these people.” In many ways they’re companion pieces, but they aren’t overlapping. I was very conscious of that because I didn’t want people to think I was double-dipping. They’re two radically different experiences set in the same territory.

BR: I was going to ask you how Echo Park has changed, but you’ve touched on this a little bit.

BS: It’s different. I looked on Zillow, and the house I sold in ’99 or 2000 for $150,000 now has a Zillow estimate of $850,000. My mother waited her whole life for that to happen. She was enamored with the West Side and fancy restaurants and stuff like that. So part of me is a little sad that she’s missing it. But my grandmother would have hated that stuff. I think there’s that tension in any neighborhood when residents who have been there a long time start to see changes and understandably get nervous. Like Chavez Ravine—the city came in and said, “This is our neighborhood now. We’re taking it, we’re building a baseball stadium, and here’s your check for three dollars (or whatever it was), and we’re gonna come here with bulldozers on Sunday, and if you aren’t out, we will forcibly remove you.” How can you navigate an area where the tienda on the corner where you used to hang out and gossip is now a coffee shop that’s selling iced coffee for six-fifty? That’s not to say I have an answer, or that there’s one right way or wrong way to look at it. I don’t think that’s really my job. You have to leave enough space for the reader to say, “OK, here’s the writer attempting to answer something, and here’s what I think about it.”

BR: Do you find your fiction tending to draw heavily on your personal experiences, or was that just what bubbled up when you were writing Madonnas?

BS: Madonnas draws much less on personal experience than I think one would suspect. It draws on the experience of being in a neighborhood like that. But that’s the one thing that disappoints me in myself as a writer. I sometimes wish I didn’t lean so heavily on my own story, that I wrote big doorstop novels set in the nineteenth century about railroad tycoons. But you can’t really help what you’re drawn to. This is the stuff I’m trying to figure out, so this is where I’ve got to be.

BR: You have two nonfiction titles under your belt. Do you see that trend continuing, or is there a return to fiction?

BS: Absolutely a return to fiction. I was a nonfiction editor, but I only wrote fiction, and then when I started writing the memoir I wrote a draft of it that was abysmal because I didn’t set things in scene. I didn’t know how things worked. I essentially had to teach myself how to write nonfiction. But fiction is really what I love to do, and the challenge now is I’m really rusty. You have to figure your way back into it. What’s the story? Who are the characters? I try to teach my students, but I have to teach myself, as well. I’m eager to get back into fiction because I think fiction now is the place where I can address questions that are interesting to me, without the weight of “I only have this finite number of elements I can use” because in nonfiction you have to use what’s there. I want to take the elements of my life and create something that’s new and fantastical and exploded in a way that might help me learn more about myself and how I’m living at this point in American history.

BR: Is the book far along?

BS: I’m going to take the fifth on that. I’m probably not as far along as I should be, but it’s something that I’m thinking about every day. If that’s where you’re at as a writer, if you’ve got the project in front of you every day, that’s a good place to be because it means you’re trying to solve problems. So if I come back to the keyboard every day and solve a different problem, that’s how an idea becomes a novel.

BR: In Take This Man you mention your mother’s habit of asking whether a character “makes it” at the end of a movie. So I want to ask you, do you think you’ve made it?

BS: We’ll see [laughs]. I’m working on it.

Brian Rocha is an MFA candidate at Butler University. When he’s not reading for Booth, he can be found admiring his two cats (Georgina and Bubba), road-tripping, and—when the admiring and traveling are through—writing.