In case you missed it, the winner of the 2022 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers, “Homeboy” by Nancy Garcia, was published on Monday! First, read this unforgettable story, and then come back here and check out our interview with the winner!
Anyone who knows me knows I love the first-person direct address. The confessional tone, the urgency—as Chelsea Bieker points out in her introduction, too, the POV is working so well in “Homeboy.” How did you land on this approach for your story?
The first time I was introduced to this approach was when my writing teacher shared a second person POV piece by Junot Diaz called “How to Date a Brown Girl.” While writing “Homeboy,” the hardest element was nailing the structure. Earlier drafts were written in numbered lists; previous iterations even included alternate titles, such as “Quartet” and “This is How Our Story Ends.” Ultimately, I realized what would help me write this challenging story was feeling submersed in a comforting perspective. I am a letter writer and diarist. So, I imagined this piece as a missile from Cielo’s private dream space, and finally the story began to flow. Cielo began to share what she never had the guts to in real life.
In this piece, Cielo is spilling her heart out to Rafael after she’s said goodbye to him for good, though the mode of address is never made explicit. Do you find yourself wondering how Rafe might respond, if he had the opportunity? But maybe that’s work for another story!
I did wonder while writing this piece how Rafe may respond. What is at stake for him? How does he feel after Cielo strips their tenuous relationship to its core memories and shows it to the world? In a way, she’s saying: this is what happened. How dare you, I mattered, I was there all along, and why couldn’t we meet in the middle? Rafe does respond in a short story I’m actively editing called “Chiaroscuro.” It’s the last of a small compilation of stories I have about Cielo.
Something that stands out to me every time I read “Homeboy” is how introspective Cielo is, especially by the end of the story. There’s a great self-awareness here: “Maybe this is the story… of a perpetual cheater who can’t move on from that identity.” But even before this outright admission, you’ve managed to get us to root for Cielo and Rafael, who cannot seem to commit to each other or anyone else. I can’t imagine it’s an easy feat to walk that line. Was it hard for you to find the right balance between love and dishonesty?
I’ve always been drawn to doomed relationships. Cielo is an optimist, and Rafael can’t bring himself to throw her the smallest little wishbone. I’m interested in gray spaces, taboo subjects, in bringing them forward and illuminating them through the light of love. At the core of dishonesty is truth, and often a person who is deeply afraid and wanting. I can find empathy there. Although I would like to believe that Rafael is to blame and Cielo wasted her time, I know it isn’t true. Most people who have read this story many times have the same reaction: What does she see in him? It’s not what’s on the surface that leads to epic love stories. It’s something softer and more vulnerable. Perhaps they were never together in a traditional sense, but there was enduring love, even if Rafael and Cielo couldn’t be brave enough to name it. Painfully, I also wanted to show there is a life beyond claustrophobic little secret universes that many of us have experienced in our own lives.
In some ways, “Homeboy” reads like a love letter to Texas—are you from Texas yourself?
I am a native Tejana, born in Dallas, raised in a nearby suburb called McKinney. I have a love-hate relationship with Texas, one filled with shame and longing. I feel the magnetic pull daily. Texas and I are the worst of lovers—I threaten to leave, then come back invariably after I’m done wintering in New England. Texas guts me because that’s where my parents are. That’s where I endured heat waves and tornadoes and met the taco truck Jenny #5. In Pittsburgh, I was once curled up in a used bookstore with an old National Geographic. The centerspread was about Texas, and I saw a pull quote from a cowboy that ended in “by god, she’s beautiful.” I had tears hanging on my eyelashes, I had to wait ten minutes before I could stand up and endure Pittsburgh. Texas has so much sky, and like Cielo, I feel lost without it.
Perhaps this is too obvious, but Bryan Washington’s Lot comes to mind when I read this story. The Texas connection, the direct address, the heart-wrenching missed connection. Are you a Bryan Washington fan yourself? What other writers do you find yourself coming back to?
I am honored by the connection. I have never read Bryan Washington, but now I have something to look forward to. There are many pieces which inspired my journey, though the most explicit being Patricia Engel’s stunning collection, Vida. I feel as though she gave me permission to lean into hardship with humor. I was also deeply influenced by Dagaberto Gilb’s Woodcuts of Women. I’m a sucker for the deeply specific short story—over the years, I’ve returned to Carole Maso’s “The Changing Room,” Rebecca Lee’s “On the Banks of the Vistula,” “Bread” by Sandra Cisneros, and “The Fat Girl” by Andre Dubus. I think all of these pieces demonstrated to me what a story could do.
I’m going back to an old staple question of mine—if you had to pair this story with a song (or some other media), what would it be?
This is an easy one, because I have probably listened to this song hundreds of times in the seven years it took me to finish this story. The song is “Take Me to Church” by Hozier, and my favorite lyric is “I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies.”
Are we going to see Cielo and/or Rafael in any other stories?
Yes, I am working on the last piece in what I jokingly call my super sad love story collection. You see Rafael make a cameo there. I am challenging myself to end the piece on a note of joy, because I feel that happy endings are rare in literary fiction (at least in the works I gravitate towards).
What are you working on now?
I am wrapping up an epistolary writing project consisting of one hundred letters I wrote to my son. I also have nonfiction pieces in progress about tamales and Wal-Mart, and one fiction piece about a bruja. If I’m being honest, my core work right now is focused on cherishing my son, my husband who supports my creative practice, and my students at Smith College. They give me hope.
Interviewed by Cole Meyer