TOP

For Dinuba native Manuel Muñoz, the Valley provides fertile ground for his latest acclaimed book of short stories

In the title story in Manuel Muñoz’s beautiful new collection, “The Consequences,” we meet a man named Mark, who lives a drab, desultory life in Fresno. Mark has an apartment in the central part of town and a job as a payments clerk for the water department, which involves “long days of long lines of people waiting to argue over their bills.” To kill time after work, he hangs out at his mother’s house after work watching old movies. He is, Muñoz writes, as bored with his life as his mother is lonely with hers.

Muñoz was on the Fresno State campus this weekend to give the keynote address at the annual graduate symposium hosted by the Students of English Studies Association. He’s received national attention for his 2011 novel, “What You See in the Dark,” and three short-story collections. Just days ago “The Consequences” was singled out as a top read of the week by New York Times editors, who noted: “Set among Mexican American communities in California’s San Joaquin Valley, these well-crafted stories are attuned to suffering, with characters engaged in difficult agricultural labor punctuated by the back-and-forth of deportations and border crossings.”

A native of Dinuba, Muñoz grew up close to Fresno. But the city felt farther away – both geographically and psychically – than simply a mere 30-minute destination from his hometown. When you’re young and first figuring out how to navigate in a bigger world, a place like Fresno can be a significant and formidable location. It becomes more than just a quick road trip to somewhere with a Macys.

I begin to think about this as I’m reading some of the stories in Muñoz’s new book, and I ponder it even more when I talk to him on the phone from Tucson, Arizona, where he teaches writing at the University of Arizona.

In fact, I get the feeling that Fresno looms larger and more distinctively for Muñoz, all these years later, than for me, who’s lived here for more than three decades.

That’s because, in the terrain of his childhood memories, Fresno is the “bigger” place that one can escape to. It isn’t the “biggest” place, thanks to the unique geographical condition of Fresno being smack in the middle between two world-class cities. But Fresno is more realistic. More manageable. The safer option for escape.

SPONSORED CONTENT



The Munro Review has no paywall but is financially supported by readers who believe in its non-profit mission of bringing professional arts journalism to the central San Joaquin Valley. You can help by signing up for a monthly recurring paid membership or make a one-time donation of as little as $3. All memberships and donations are tax-deductible.

At the same time, Fresno isn’t San Francisco or Los Angeles. Even as it beckons as the “bigger city,” its familiarity and lack of starpower invites at least a hint of ambivalence. Mark’s Fresno, in the story “The Consequences,” is gray and dreary.

I ask Muñoz how he thinks Fresno is fixed in his mind.

“It kind of skirts that line between having everything you need, really, but also reminding you that you’re still in the same place,” he says. “It kind of kicks up that urge to break free of it altogether. I think that’s what Fresno has always represented to me.”

He writes in the story:

The next day was Sunday. Mark drove over to his mother’s early in the morning to take her to church. He dropped her off and then waited at a coffee shop on Shaw Avenue, absently flipping the newspapers past stories of workers striking in Poland, the closing of a Renault factory in France. The reality of their distances became clear to him, the world so far away from the fogged-out streets of Fresno.

I am fascinated – and not in any way disturbed – by the tone of this impression of Fresno. I like it. As a voracious novel reader and former film critic, as someone who has absorbed so many literary immersions in New York City and London and Los Angeles that I feel I could sell real estate in each of those places, there’s something tender and thrilling about recognizing Shaw Avenue, say, in a book. Who cares if it avoids the gush and vigor of a Chamber of Commerce web page?

Muñoz, too, grew up with different slices of Valley life in his forefront compared to the scenes I encounter in mine.

◊     ◊     ◊

Alexis Burling, reviewing “The Consequences” in the San Francisco Chronicle, explains how Muñoz’s background impacts his work: “His parents, both rich storytellers, spent time working in the fields, as did he and his four siblings. Imprints of their experiences and those of other Mexican and Mexican American farmworkers — the resilience and connections they maintained and the trauma they often endured — are on every page. Set mostly in the 1980s and ’90s, the stories feature characters whose strength lies in their ability to keep going despite their strained circumstances.”

In her New York Times review, Brenda Peynado noted: “A common thread throughout the collection is the choice between kindness and cruelty, whether through violence or disregard. … This collection pushes the reader to appreciate life’s small moments of unexpected tenderness with fresh eyes.”

Muñoz acknowledges – and revels – in the power of place, which is why he so adamantly sets his works in the greater San Joaquin Valley. (His canvas can be wider than just Fresno County. His novel, “What You See in the Dark,” a distinctive adaptation of the movie “Psycho,” is set in Bakersfield.)

But even though he’s lived in Boston, Ithaca, New York City and now Tucson, he’s scrupulous about maintaining his geographical focus. He jokes that he broke his “rule” of writing only about the Valley by setting parts of two of his stories in “The Consequences” in Texas. But there’s a special reason for that. His mother grew up in the small, bleak town of Mathis, Texas. On a chance visit, he was so moved by seeing where his mother grew up – and in particular an old, weathered church he stumbled upon – that it became a pivotal setting in the title story.

◊     ◊     ◊

When he was growing up in Dinuba, in the days before he went on to Harvard University for his undergraduate degree and Cornell University for an MFA in creative writing, a teacher gave him a copy of Gary Soto’s “Black Hair.” Reading that collection of poems was a pivotal moment for Muñoz.

“Those had resonated with me in a different kind of way,” he says. “ ‘Black Hair’ was a pinpoint because of how specific it was and how contemporary it felt for me at the time, to know not only that but that there was a whole Fresno school of poetry that I had no idea about, but that’s really cool.”

He’s made Tucson his home for 15 years, but he makes it back to Dinuba to visit family at least a couple of times a year. He’s also been a repeat guest speaker at the popular Reedley College Literary Arts series.

His Dinuba has grown a lot, of course. There are more chain restaurants, and the big-box stores invaded. Still, he says, it maintains a smaller quality.

“If you go to the Wal-Mart at a certain time, you’re bound to run into somebody you grew up with. In some ways the part of town where I grew up remains very much the same.”

And what of Fresno?

Much, much bigger, he says with a laugh. But with size comes more opportunities. As we’re wrapping up the interview, he tells me how excited he is by such newer institutions as the Selma Arts Center, which has become a center of theater in the greater Fresno area. (I tell him the company just finished up a run of Luis Alfaro’s “Oedipus el Rey,” a powerhouse piece of Latinx theater.)

“That’s an example of change as well,” he says of the Selma theater company. “Because that was not something that was around when I was growing up. I just find that super exciting. And it’s one thing I haven’t been able to do yet.”

We agree: The next time he’s in town and there’s a show running, I’ll ask him to tag along.

◊     ◊     ◊

I’m impressed with how much the Valley – which he insists to his editors is always capitalized, never a small “V” in his published works – is part of his cultural DNA. The big towns and the small. The Selma Arts Centers and the Wal-Marts. The sleek office buildings at River Park and the grapes in Dinuba.

One of the stories in Muñoz’s new book is titled “The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA.” It’s about a woman traveling to Los Angeles to pick up her boyfriend. He is an undocumented farmworker caught up in what seems a never-ending cycle of deportation and then recrossing the border to labor in the fields, an essential part of the Valley’s agricultural economy. She isn’t alone:

It’s always the same when I board the bus—it’s already half-full, mostly women from Fresno and the little towns just south of it, like Fowler and Selma. I get a seat alone and the bus moves on to Goshen, then Tulare and Delano, each woman who boards more weary than the last. They’re all like me. Or at least, they look like me. I don’t know their histories. I don’t know if they came from south Texas like I did, were taken from school in the third grade to work in the fields like me. I was resentful of my parents for giving me the life of a dumb mule and I left them almost to the minute of my eighteenth birthday, with only a scrap of paper with their address and phone number that I never ended up using. I walk around with a lot of pride because I did that, because I proved that I could support myself in a hard world. I did all right for myself for a while. Then I fell in love.

These are Muñoz’s characters: resilient, fierce and aching. And also filled with humanity, as we learn after the narrator of the story grudgingly befriends another woman on the bus going through the experience of “rescuing” her man for the first time.

In many ways, Muñoz represents an archetype of the successful creative person from the Valley who moves away to pursue great things but can’t completely stay away. Some of them boomerang back and stay for good. Others return to visit family. But all retain that cultural imprint.

Muñoz hopes they realize they come from a fascinating and special place. One way he can do that by letting the world know about it.

“Seeing a place with frequency starts to create familiarity,” he says. “Even now, I’m 20 years into a writing career, and people who encounter me for the first time sort of approach Fresno as this place that no one ever talks about. And I say, Yeah, that’s part of our entire frustration is that we’re forgotten all the time. On the one hand, we want to get out of Fresno but on the other hand, we’re connected to it. A lot of us do love it and there’s a reason we stay.”

Taking the long view of it, he says, the more stories he writes about the Valley and the more details that he can put in about what it feels like to live there, it’s another small step in cementing the region in American literature.

“Part of my project is to let people know that stories happen here. I’m going to prove that I can write as many Valley stories as I can.”


 

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (2)

  • Janet K Adams

    Munoz gave a reading at Reedley Community College a few weeks ago.
    What a remarkable writer and reader is has become.

    reply
  • The Fresno County Library has provided me with three of Munoz’s books. Yes, the Valley feel resonates in his stories. I’m looking forward to reading his latest. Says the girl who grew up in Kerman, always seeing Fresno as the “big city.”

    reply

Leave a Reply