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Author Brando Skyhorse Tackles Identity, Passing and Developing a Unique Writing Voice

First Posted: Jul 23, 2015 05:00 AM EDT
Brando Skyhorse

Photo : Brando Skyhorse

This article is part of "Palabras," the Latin Post Latino Author Series.   

Brando Skyhorse, author of acclaimed works "The Madonnas of Echo Park" and "Take This Man," has a great deal to say about passing, fiction and capturing one's own story. Armed with an original voice and a layered history involving the catch and release of identities, he has an interesting story to tell.

Echo Park, California isn't what it used to be, now that gentrification has a firming hold on it. Three decades ago, a resident or a visitor could be discerned by how quickly they sped through the area when leaving the nearby Dodgers Stadium. At the time, the demographic makeup was predominately Mexican and Vietnamese -- with the exception of Skyhorse, who alone was an American Indian, the apparent son of a political activist who'd been incarcerated for armed robbery, Paul Skyhorse Johnson.

However, in his teens, Skyhorse learned that his mother, a natural storyteller, had exaggerated many stories about his upbringing, including his racial/ethnic makeup. In reality, after Skyhorse's Mexican father abandoned him at 3 years old, his mother reinvented them as American Indians. His believed that he was American Indian until he realized flaws in the storytelling and demanded the truth. While she came clean, she insisted that they kept that secret, and he was made to lie to everyone he knew.

"I had to keep up this charade, and over the years, I developed a sense of 'Ohhh, I'm telling people a story.' I wasn't thinking of it as consciously lying. I thought of it as I'm creating this narrative for myself -- a narrative that, growing up in my house, made sense," Skyhorse told Latin Post. "Around the time I was 16 or 17, I had my first relationship. My girlfriend and I were together for a few weeks, and she said, 'When did you first know that you liked me?' She wanted a story; she wanted me to write it down. I thought, 'Oh my god, what a weird request.' But, I wrote the pages, and I gave it to her. She lifted it and saw that it was a stack. She said, 'Brando, this is over 80 pages. I just wanted the bit about me. I didn't want the whole story.' But, I told her I had to explain all of this stuff. She said, 'Maybe you can do this for a living,' and that stuck with me."

His high school girl, who he clearly thought he would marry, was the only personal who he confided in, telling her that he was really Mexican -- and she dumped him. Having been tormented and threatened by Mexican teens at her school, the young Vietnamese girl was apprehensive. Nonetheless, the two reconciled, but Skyhorse's mother's warning, "if you tell people who you really are no one will like you," was confirmed. This was a sentiment that his mother was unapologetic about; after all, that was the life that she was living herself.

"I think she really wanted to be someone other than who she was. I think she really saw being Latina as something shameful, as something broken, and I really don't understand that," said Skyhorse. "I sympathize with it, I empathize with it, I feel horrible about, but I think that my mom was this extraordinary person. She was always trying to convince people that she was something else. I think it's more sad than anything else, and I think there's a lot people out there who can relate."

Later, Skyhorse attended Stanford, where he took creative writing classes, and got hooked, which seem natural because he'd had a lot of practice storytelling. However, it wasn't the long-term narrative as an American Indian that compelled Skyhorse to write, but his grandmother, who always encouraged him toward reading.  

"I wish I could tell you there was a book that I read when I was really young, like 'The Chronicles of Narnia' or something, that inspired me, but I didn't read things like that. I think the inspiration for reading, which led to writing, was my grandmother. My grandmother was really was a mother figure to me, while my mother was like an older sister," said Skyhorse. "My grandmother was the one who cooked, cleaned, did all of the chores, did yard work, and went to the grocery store. She was awesome, a bad*ss and completely fearless. She took me to Hollywood to see movies and Disneyland on the bus because we didn't have a car. Who goes to Disneyland on a bus?"

"She was the one who taught me, 'this is the time you need to be reading.' We went to the library and we went to bookstores, because there was a difference between books that you borrow and books that you buy; that was a very important distinction for her. She said, 'These are the books that you borrow, and you have to take good care of them; and these are the books that you buy and you have to take really good care of them. You have to be conscientious because you only have a few dollars, so you better make your book purchases count.' So, I got into that habit of believing that stories that come from books were really important or really crucial."

Both of the author's writings -- the novel "The Madonnas of Echo Park" and memoir "Take This Man" -- were formed to address self-discovery. Skyhorse wanted to discover what his own story really was.

Throughout his college career and grad school, he wrote a long list of "off the wall stories in search of identity." He wanted to know what it meant to grow up in a predominately Latino and Vietnamese neighborhood, and what made someone different or special. He wrote these stories over and over again as he dug toward the root of what made him special, wondering if it was simply his name or something else.

Skyhorse writes about his atypical Mexican upbringing and written in an alternative life, illustrating what it would have been like had he "stayed Mexican." Through his books and other writing, he continuously strives to answer the questions: What kind of writer am I? What kind of person am I? What kind of Latino am I?

"Race, for me, is the issue. It has been, and I think it's always going to be. Race, ethnicity, class and the way in which, we, as a country, seem to categorize groups, and how those categories become barriers for. Those stories are always interesting and fascinating to me," said Skyhorse. "If you look at the themes of my novel and my memoir, race is at front and center. With 'Madonnas,' I'm looking at the community at large, and in the memoir I'm looking at myself. I'm holding myself accountable and to the same standards that I hold all of my other characters. There was a good period when I knew I was masquerading as something else, and I didn't really tell anybody, I didn't' really have that conversation."

Skyhorse insisted that the most important thing a writer can do is "be yourself." While he admitted that might sound trite or lame, he reminded that that advice comes from a person who spent many years living with a totally different identity.

"For years when I started out as a writer, I was trying to write stories that weren't an accurate reflection of the life that I lived, of who I was -- and as a result, I wasted a lot of people's time by writing these idealized versions of what I thought good writing or good fiction was supposed to be," said Skyhorse. "You read the stories in college, and you think, 'Oh, this is what a story is supposed to look like, this what it's supposed to read like, and I should do it like that,' but you can't do it like that because you're not that person. I can't write like Hemingway because I'm not Hemingway, I have to write like Brando Skyhorse. For anyone who's writing, I think it's important that they find people they like and admire and start to emulate them, because that's how you first learn, you learn by copying other people, but as soon as you can, be yourself."

Next for Skyhorse, he plans to put together anthology of writing centered on the topic of passing, collaborating with Lisa Page of George Washington University, whose grandmother was the woman to graduate from a Mississippi college by passing as white. He intends to explore the strange desire to become something else, and why the grass is always greener or "why the skin is always lighter or darker." Also, the author has plans to write another book, although won't likely be a memoir because "Take This Man" was an 18-year endeavor. 

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