Stories That Outlive

Kathleen Alcalá's memoir proves that history goes beyond textbooks

It's a common precept that history is written by the conquerors; therefore, we neglect peoples and cultures that may once have thrived.

Kathleen Alcalá refuses to accept this precept as truth.

In her memoir, The Desert Remembers My Name, the Chicana writer explores her belief that storytelling re-creates the past. "By becoming a writer, you can rewrite history," she offers. Her essays leave no doubt that this bold statement is true.

Through a series of personal, poignant and powerful essays, Alcalá describes the ways in which the stories of marginalized cultures can elucidate long-hidden truths. One example is her personal exploration of her patriarchs as practicing Jews within a context of Mexican culture. While historians have almost unanimously ignored the segment of those practicing Judaism and living in Mexico in the early 19th century (and before), Alcalá labored over her grandfather's old journals and studied in libraries where large volumes have not been properly archived (and are rarely used) to find great pearls about the culture of Mexican Jews.

Alcalá shares stories of her own complex personal past to get at the larger ideas regarding writing. In one essay, "The Skeleton in the Closet," Alcalá writes, "I began writing fiction in order to explain the world to myself--there were too many fragmented or unfinished stories around me." She says that the role of the imagination is paramount, as it allows her to develop the narratives of the culturally marginalized to create a more "true" history--even though this process occurs through a fictional thread. Fiction becomes more real than the facts we read, because the fiction writer establishes real voices. Challenging traditional notions of regimented genres, Alcalá supports the power of fiction to reveal a more authentic history than textbooks, using a variety of tales from her own life and her findings as a researcher as evidence.

In another essay, "A Woman Called Concha," Alcalá argues for the essentiality of stories as they relate to our familial way of life: Without stories, families and cultures would be unable to survive. She writes, "By telling stories to our children, we give them language, and so a passport into the condition of human mortality. But also, a window onto the immortal, for stories will outlive all of us."

Part-Opata Indian, Alcalá is a writer capable of using the stories of her own life to help readers see the stories in theirs. The author of three previous novels, she has managed to create a memoir that is also a work of history. It's also an anthology of "how-to" essays for the aspiring writer--all the while serving as a tribute to her ancestors, her family and the culture from which her memory and her imagination spring.

Included in the volume are numerous stories of Alcalá's trips back to Mexico to research her family and the traditions practiced by her forbears. She recounts these trips--whether participating in the festivities of Dia de los Muertos or climbing the pyramid of Tepoztlán--with language that is precise, clear and impacting. Her journeys through the terrain of her own past become ours, too: Alcalá accomplishes the merging of author and audience through her tone of vulnerability. She is willing to share her journey as it happens without fanfare, without pretense and without the need for a right/wrong duality.

In one particularly poignant section, Alcalá discusses one of her favorite lines from Isaac Cardoso, a high-ranking official who left 17th-century Spain and spent his years in exile in order to live as a Jewish man: "He who scatters me will harvest me." In The Desert Remembers My Name, Alcalá proves that in writing our past--exploring the margins of our families, cultures and locales--we are able to harvest the truth within our lives. And this harvest is no less real because it may not exist in textbooks.