On Tuesday evening, Luis Alberto Urrea (The Devil’s Highway, Queen of America, and a dozen other books) delivered the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home’s 4th Ashley and Terry Ursrey Memorial Lecture at Trinity United Methodist Church here in Savannah.
About 150 people — a great crowd for a literary event in Savannah, especially in August — turned out for Urrea’s moving, detailed, and compelling hourlong talk in which he took the listeners along for the ride through the complex and often funny stories of his writing roots.
Those roots are obviously intimately tied to his familial ones.There were plenty of details that I wanted to know more about. I could easily imagine a quieter conversation with me regularly interrupting him, especially as he talked about his mother’s history — her traumatic experiences in World War Two and a seemingly improbable marriage to Urrea’s father.
His mother lived in several worlds, including one of demitasse cups and grapefruit spoons and another of hardscrabble persistence as she tried to nurture her son’s writing.
One of the young Luis’ first memorable encounters with literature was listening to his mother read Mark Twain. “I couldn’t believe a guy who was so dead and gone could be so immediate,” Urrea said from the Trinity pulpit. I’d get in touch with him to confirm that precise quote, but he didn’t use any notes at all.
He had his mother reread the scene when Tom puts Becky’s already-chewed gum in his mouth. His “first erotic moment,” Urrea laughed.
Urrea mentioned a wide range of influences on his storytelling — Stephen Crane, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, John Irving, Eudora Welty.
But experience seems to have outweighed those more solitary pursuits, and human connections gave meaning to his writing life. I especially liked the details about his mother giving him a typewriter and later hand-binding his first stories into a book.
“Suddenly I was the best selling author in my kitchen,” Urrea said.
As for Flannery O’Connor, Urrea didn’t start reading her until he was teaching her. But he knew O’Connor’s characters before that, some of them at least. He noted that his mother faced some of the same struggles as the proper Southern ladies of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge”.
Urrea has become a leading voice on issues regarding immigration from Mexico, but he spoke relatively little on the political dimensions.
But I did write the following quote in my notes: “The Mexican border is a great metaphor for the borders that separate us all.”
Ultimately, the incredibly warm and engaging talk was about how we can all turn life’s obstacles — especially those we face as children — into advantages that can enrich our adult selves.
The entirety of Urrea’s presentation was also a great example of how listeners can discover universality in specificity. It’s something I try, often in vain, to convey to my writing students.
Trinity Church once again proved itself a perfect venue for literary talks like this one. The Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home has hosted a number of other speakers there with the enthusiastic cooperation of pastor Enoch Hendry, including Flannery O’Connor biographer Brad Gooch and our previous Ursrey speakers: Michael Cunningham, Allan Gurganus, and Jaimy Gordon.
Here are a few more images from Tuesday’s event, which included book sales and signing: