Identity, Empathy and Lucha Libre in “Perpetual West”

Mesha Maren is Assistant Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Duke University, and she is also the National Endowment of the Arts Writing Fellow at the Federal Prison Camp in Alderson, West Virginia. Her writing is steeped in themes of place and identity, and her new novel, Perpetual West, takes readers to the U.S./Mexico border to explore how we make sense of our relationships to places, to others, and to ourselves.

In Perpetual West, a young couple, Alex and Elana, move from Virginia to El Paso, Texas, and the move forces both of them to explore their true selves. While Elana tries to disguise an eating disorder, her husband, Alex, goes missing across the border in Juárez. The novel follows their diverging paths as readers anxiously await each new revelation. Perpetual West’s crime novel pacing and complex characters are a brilliant combination.

Recently, I had the joy of talking with Mesha Maren about the inspiration for Perpetual West and her research process.

In your Otherppl interview with Brad Listi, you talked about your first novel, Sugar Run, being informed by your time in West Virginia, but Perpetual West is mostly set in El Paso and Juárez. What are your connections to those places and how do those connections shape the novel?

In 2005 when I just turned 21, I had fallen in love with a woman who was taking classes in Juárez and El Paso. I took a greyhound bus out there to meet up with her. When I got there she was all excited about this new friend, this young punk guy who was living in Juárez and was part of a communal arts and activism house. He also had started training in professional wrestling. I got off the bus there in El Paso, and she wanted to take me immediately to meet this new friend across the border.

I was often crossing the border like the characters in the book, and it didn’t take me long to figure out that her new friend was more than just a friend. I was thrown into a deep heartache. But I stayed there in El Paso. Although it’s very far from West Virginia, I found that there’s something that’s incredibly new and different but also familiar about El Paso and Juárez and the way that people there love their home. It kind of reminded me of West Virginia in certain ways. It’s not the easiest place to love, but people who love it, love it fiercely.

I wanted to write about that place and time, but I wasn’t able to capture what I had experienced or what I wanted to put into words about that experience of being in my very early twenties there. It took me years. When I finally did start to try to write about that place and that time again, I Facebook searched the young man. His wrestling name is Pagano, and I reached out to him. He remembered me, and he was very generous. He showed me all the different wrestling arenas in Juárez and let me ask him a million questions. So I was able to access that place and time again, and then turn it into something much more fictional.

How has your work in West Virginia informed this novel which only touches on West Virginia briefly?

Perpetual West only has a couple of scenes that are actually set in West Virginia, but place and landscape have a much deeper reach within the narrative and within my writing. I get sort of obsessed with place and landscape and character’s relationship to place. Alex was born in Northern Mexico, but he was brought to West Virginia as an infant and raised there. When he goes to Texas and back to Chihuahua where he was born, everything that he sees, he sees through the lens of having grown up in rural West Virginia. There are ways of being in the world that people raised in that place can’t shake.

One thing that continually shows up in my writing is the question of identity and place and the kind of reciprocal relationship between them, particularly for queers living in rural spaces. Questions of how do we define ourselves by the places that we’re from or the relationships we have with people or who has the right to define themselves by a certain place. Even what does it really mean to be “from” a place. Of course, I’m not the first person to explore these themes. 

A colleague of mine, Charlotte Sussman, has written this really brilliant book (Peopling the World: Representing Human Mobility from Milton to Malthus) about Milton’s Paradise Lost and ideas of place and identity. She’s talking about how in that book Adam laments the loss of the Garden of Eden because in leaving it, he’s not only leaving a place that he knows really well, but he also talks about the garden “knowing us.” There’s a reciprocality there, and that feels true to my experience. I feel like places can know me. Whether or not [my books are] actually literally set in West Virginia, there will always be a tie back there with questions of identity and place.

Perpetual West is an incredibly fun book to read, even though it has some dark moments and themes. Obviously, writing a book is difficult, but were there particularly fun or interesting moments in the writing and research process?

I’ve always loved wrestling. When I started to see that lucha libre was going to be part of this novel, it was a great excuse to watch more wrestling. I went to Juárez, and the wrestler Pagano showed me around, and then I spent almost two months in Mexico City doing research and kind of shadowing Pagano. That research part was totally a joy.

Does the lucha libre aspect of the novel come from that prior fascination with wrestling or did you find your way to it as part of the writing process?

I remember going to a wrestling match when I was little and I just really loved the personas, the storyline, the audience interaction. It was a really small local event, and it was crazy and amazing to me. Then, I didn’t really go to many wrestling matches until later when I was living in El Paso. Pagano was in training, so all the people from the communal house where he was living would go a lot. That restarted my interest in wrestling.

When I realized that one of the characters in the book was actually going to be a wrestler, I did a lot of different things, including attending a wrestling school in Greensboro, North Carolina; it’s called Fire Star Pro Wrestling. The trainer there, LaBron Kozone, was awesome. I told him why I wanted to come; I felt like I needed to know what it felt like to stand in the ring, to know what the ropes felt like. To write Mateo’s character, I needed those physical aspects.

I may have had small dreams that actually I would be good at it, but the trainer said to me at one point that I should pull back. He was like “You’re going to give yourself a concussion, and then you’re not going to be able to write your book.”

Can you tell me a little more about what the Kasa de Kultura para Tod@s is like in real life? Which of the novel’s themes or concerns did they help to develop or illustrate?

The Kasa de Kultura is pulled from real life, but the people there are highly fictionalized versions of some people that I met. In the early 2000s, it was a space for people to have organizing meetings. They had a great library there, a food pantry; they put on punk shows, screened films. They were really incredible. They are no longer open, but they describe themselves as “creating a political cultural space as one of the many ways of dealing with that so-called elitist culture that few of us have access to. In the Kasa de Kultura, we form a self-managed and autonomous organization where the direction of people and ideas is decided by them.”

Unfortunately, not very long after I left the border region, members of the collective started to come under attack. It really became too difficult for them to continue their work. It was emblazoned on my mind just the incredible work they were doing, kind of against all odds. When I started to write about that place and that time, I knew that they were going to be central to it. As the book developed, I began to see it as a great way to bring characters like Alex and Elana into a space where they could have certain conversations about the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, about the federal government in Mexico. It was a reason in the narrative to have them dig into and discuss things that I wanted the reader to think about.

At times, characters reference the “movie version” of events in the novel, lucha libre is very theatrical, and Alex, in particular, seems to carry the weight of expectations. How did you think about audience expectations in developing this story?

I try very hard to avoid thinking about audience expectations at all when I’m very first developing a story. I mostly write in a little cabin in woods in West Virginia on the land where I grew up. The cabin has no electricity even. I really love how cut off it is. I go there, and I try to fall into the dream of whatever I’m working on, and really not even think about anyone ever reading it.

But the characters in the book are thinking a lot about expectations and perceptions. They’re in their early twenties much as I was when I lived in that area, and I think your early twenties are really a time when these questions seem to be so important. Alex, Elana and Mateo are all really dealing with these questions of who are they when they are alone with themselves or inside of themselves versus how they are perceived from the outside.

In Perpetual West, Elana experiences some conflict about being “another Anglo writing about Anglos writing about Mexicans.” Is that a conflict that also concerns you, and how did you navigate that? 

For sure. I think that those words ended up in Elana’s mouth because it is a conflict that concerns me. The way I navigate it is through a combination of doubt and empathy. I think doubt can be a writer’s best friend sometimes. If you doubt your ability to do something well — for me, doubting my ability to write in a truthful way about a place that I did not grow up in — and you persist, then the doubt can be helpful because it can make you circle back and look more closely, not assume that you got it right the first time.

When I was pretty early on in drafting Perpetual West, I read this essay that the poet Kwame Dawes had written. The question to him was “In working with representing the persons affected and infected with HIV/AIDS despite not having the disease yourself, how do you feel you’re able to engage in the tension of ethically representing them?” I really liked the way that Dawes answered that because I was asking myself that same question about ethical representation. The part of Dawes’ answer that I found most helpful was when he said “Empathy is the answer to your question. Empathy as a function of the imagination. As an artist, as a writer, I have to master empathy, and to do so, I must imagine, imagine fully and imagine with discipline and commitment.” It’s not a passive thing. 

I did a lot of research and research is essential, but in the end, there’s something else, and I think that something else is empathy, and actively engaging in empathy as a function of the imagination.

Do you have a go-to piece of advice or a guiding principle for new creative writers or students?

The creative writing teacher who inspired me the most when I was in undergrad is a woman named Katherine Min, and I remember that first day she turned to us and she was like  “almost definitely none of you are going to become published writers.” She followed it up by saying “it’s not because you lack talent.” She hadn’t even read our work yet, but she was like “it takes so much more than talent. It takes persistence, and you have to be in it for the long haul.” Being the person I was when I was in my mid-twenties, I kind of took it as a challenge, which I think is kind of how she meant it. I do like the way she framed that in terms of yes, of course you need some talent, but it’s not just that. It’s so much more. For some students maybe that’s kind of depressing advice, but it worked for me. 

Do you have another project in the works? And if so, what can you tell us about it?

Yeah, I just recently turned over an early draft of a new novel to my agent. I won’t go into any of the particularities. But I can say that I’m going back to West Virginia in it, and that it’s about young queer love and heartbreak.

Perpetual West
By Mesha Maren
Algonquin Books
Published January 25, 2022