What an Author Looks Like: Brando Skyhorse
Every month for a year, a member of the Grub community will recommend a book they’ve loved by an author of color or another underrepresented author. We hope that by doing this we can contribute in our own small way to broadening the definition of what an author looks like. To find out why, check out our post, What Does an Author Look Like? On Race and Writing. In the second of the series, GrubStreet's Director of Programs and Marketing, Alison Murphy, recommends Brando Skyhorse.
In 2007, I lived in a tiny studio apartment at Jensen's Recreation Center, a historic landmark that stood sentry over the main drag of Echo Park, my East LA neighborhood. It was old and not at all well-kept, but its lighted 1930’s-era sign hovering over the mythical Sunset Boulevard stretch at night was enough to convince stupid twenty-somethings like me to pay $850 a month for the privilege of living there. There were three shootings within a two-block radius during my first month. My kitchen sink didn’t work and my shower didn't drain, but I ignored all of this—homicides and bad plumbing—because I loved my neighborhood. I loved waking up every morning to the sound of church bells that reliably rang seven minutes past the hour, loved eavesdropping on the gossip of Spanish-speaking ladies at the bus stop across the street, loved wandering over after the bars closed to the 24-7 taco truck behind the grocery store. I loved it all.
I did not understand the concept of gentrification then. I understood that I was one of a handful of white people who could afford to live in one of the small studio apartments alone, while most of my neighbors were Latino families of three or four. But I didn't understand what that meant. I did not understand by loving my neighborhood, I was part of the force that would irreparably change it. I moved out less than a year later because of a Biblical-level roach infestation. It did not occur to me, when moving out, that I was one of the building’s few occupants that could afford to leave. They re-listed my apartment for $1,000 a month. Today, it rents for $1,750.
I didn’t think of any of this then. I thought about it later, as I became more familiar with the ravages of gentrification and the social and political forces behind it. And I thought about it again when I read Brando Skyhorse's The Madonnas of Echo Park.
A novel told in linked short stories, Madonnas reads as a paean to the Echo Park of the ‘80s—after Latino families flooded its borders following their forcible eviction from Chavez Ravine to make way for Dodgers Stadium, before it followed in the gentrified footsteps of its older sister Silverlake to become another hipster haven.
In the last chapter of the novel, “La Luz y La Tierra,” Aurora Esperanza, the closest Madonnas comes to having a central character, revisits her old neighborhood and finds it familiar but changed. ”Bizarre 'gentrified' color schemes—pastel salmons and electric tangerines—coat the outlines of buildings whose shapes are recognizable," she explains, "but whose occupants and appearances are not.”
It occurred to me, while reading Madonnas, that this is a pretty good description of what it's like to read literature outside your own culture; to trace outlines of stories whose shapes are recognizable, but whose characters and details are not. Reading about this Echo Park—the one that belonged to Aurora and the other Madonnas, the one whose shape I know but whose inhabitants I recognize only glancingly—was a profound and profoundly unsettling experience. This Echo Park is made up of migrant workers, cleaning ladies, bus drivers, and former and current gang members, a population that is occasionally uncomfortable to behold, so closely does it adhere to our collective societal stereotypes. So closely, in fact, that one gets the feeling that this is intentional, that Skyhorse is teasing us, forcing us to confront the stereotypes we created.
In an interview with NPR, Skyhorse explained how his personal background informed his fascination with these characters. "What I was exposed to was the working class element of Echo Park that you don't see in books or movies because it's not as glamorous," he said. "I mean, who wants to read about someone who cleans houses all day? Well, that's, you know, interesting to me."
It’s interesting for the reader as well, which is entirely due to the excellence of Skyhorse’s writing. Each non-linear chapter has its own distinct voice and narrator, all of them loosely linked by the story of one of the titular Madonnas, a young girl whose life becomes defined by a bullet that nearly misses her. It's a rare example of a structure that so perfectly matches the story it frames that you can barely see the seams. The prose is by turns lyrically stunning and economically practical, depending on who is speaking. The almost ethereal lyricism of the prologues that open many of the book’s chapters—“we slipped into this country like thieves, onto a land that was once ours…”—fades into the quick, often brutal voice of its narrator. These elements combined animate Echo Park, making it a bigger, more complex entity than any of its individual characters.
And it's that entity that sticks with you. Every element of craft serves to highlight the setting of Echo Park. The constantly shifting structure mirrors the changing structure of the community. The shifting prose lends voice to the competing sounds of the neighborhood—the magic of teenage girl laughter over Madonna’s “Borderline” video, the jarring blare of bus horns, the brutality of bullets. The characters are like their namesake: constantly reinventing themselves, not out of restlessness or creativity, but out of the necessity of survival. All of it combines to paint a portrait of a place and time that is all the more affecting for the fact that we know that the damage is done—the characters are gone, driven out by increasing rents, and their neighborhood gone with them. Skyhorse's Echo Park is already a ghost town, painted over in pastel salmon and electric tangerine. Only the stories are left.
Now we want to hear from you: What are you reading? What should we be reading? Tweet your recommendations to @GrubWriters with #WhatAnAuthorLooksLike and every month, we’ll choose an entry to receive a copy of the book we’re writing about. Send your book reviews to [email protected] for a chance to have it published on the blog or in our weekly newsletter.
As Director of Online and Special Programs at GrubStreet, Alison Murphy works on developing new and innovative models for our online and intensive programs, as well as overseeing our consulting program. When not at Grub, Alison can usually be found at her laptop with her faithful basset hound Murray at her feet, writing about war and pop culture, or teaching creative writing to inmates in the prison system. A 2016 James Jones First Novel Fellow and graduate of the 2014-2015 Novel Incubator, Alison is hard at work revising her first novel. Her nonfiction can be found in The Wall Street Journal, Men's Journal, PsychologyToday.com, and elsewhere.See other articles by Alison Murphy