NOVEMBER 13, 2020
TWELVE YEARS AGO, for a California Lawyer Magazine article, I interviewed several Chicanx attorneys who were also writers. At the time, I had written four books and edited an anthology, all while juggling not only parenthood but also a very busy law practice as an attorney with the California Department of Justice, where I still work today.
One of the attorney-writers I interviewed for that piece was Yxta Maya Murray, a 1993 graduate of Stanford Law School and a professor at Loyola Law School, who began writing after completing her federal judicial clerkship. As I noted then, when I started writing fiction in 1998, I was deeply influenced by Murray’s 1997 novel Locas, which centered on two young Chicanas living in a gang-ravaged Los Angeles neighborhood. That novel confirmed two things for me. First, stories about the Chicanx experience in Los Angeles — my hometown — should be told and shared. Second, it is possible to juggle a very busy and fulfilling schedule as a practicing attorney with the demands of the writer’s life.
Since then, Murray has continued to teach law and write. Not only has she established herself as a law professor and a novelist, but she is also an art critic, a playwright, and a short story writer. She has won a Whiting Award, an Art Writer’s Grant, and has been named a fellow at the Huntington Library for her work on radionuclide contamination in Simi Valley, California.
Murray’s most recent book is the story collection, The World Doesn’t Work That Way, but It Could (published in August by the University of Nevada Press). The stories were tailor-made for someone like me: as a Chicanx lawyer-writer who has been appalled by the direction of our country, especially under the Trump regime, these tales struck a chord in a way not many other books have in recent memory. Murray’s stories are chilling, well-crafted firecrackers that illuminate as much as they startle. With this collection, she affirms short fiction’s power both to entertain and to tackle big issues.
DANIEL A. OLIVAS: Most of the stories in your collection begin with one or more quotes from recent news reports on such subjects as California wildfires, climate change, Donald Trump deriding Mexican immigrants, to name a few. You also include additional sources at the end of your book, such as news articles, case law, and other matters, along with links. Did these sources serve as inspiration for your stories — ripped-from-the-headlines writing prompts, if you will — or did you find them later, after writing the stories?
YXTA MAYA MURRAY: I began writing The World Doesn’t Work That Way, but It Could because I became fixated on Scott Pruitt, the former head of the EPA who resigned under pressure in July 2018. Amid the fear and chaos generated by Trump’s white supremacist rhetoric, anti-BLM jeremiads, the anti-Muslim travel ban, the rollbacks on transgender protection, and the constant call for “the wall,” I needed a place to concentrate my fear and outrage. Pruitt’s astonishing merger of environmental protection rollbacks and kleptomania offered a space where I could begin sifting through the evidence and try to come up with an ordered list of government offenses. I zeroed in on Pruitt’s simultaneous reversal of an Obama-era EPA decision to ban Dow Chemical’s dangerous pesticide, chlorpyrifos, and his bizarre descent into grabbiness, like ordering expensive silver fountain pens, leasing a condominium at low rents from a lobbyist, installing a $43,000 soundproof phone booth — the list goes on.
I am a law professor, and I thought at first that I would write a law review article on Pruitt’s significance for administrative law. However, my fiction gene kicked in and I began to think about what a Latina EPA lawyer would do if tasked to write the April 5, 2017, order denying the Pesticide Action Network North America and the Natural Resources Defense Council’s petition seeking a chlorpyrifos ban. Chlorpyrifos exposure creates a risk of neurological damage and carcinoma, and the risk is most heavily borne by farmworkers who apply the chemical; it also can have severe effects on fetuses. I wound up writing a story about the slow moral and psychological corrosion of agency lawyers who have taken jobs with the government in order to help people but then get caught up in the web of Trump’s destruction. I finished the story during a residency at Wyoming’s Ucross colony last June, and I spent the rest of my time there repeating the practice — researching cataclysms in law and policy and then writing stories about their effects on the ground.
In several of your stories (such as “Option 3” and “Zero Tolerance”), you introduce somewhat ordinary, even benign people playing a role in developing and implementing inhumane or otherwise destructive government programs as part of their workaday drudgery, while also juggling rather mundane personal lives. Can you talk a little about how you decided to approach such issues as the federal government’s immigration policies through the lives of non-politicians?
As I’ve indicated, the collection turned out to focus on stories of people who are trying to do the right thing, or who think they are good people, or who think they are at least of average morality, but then find themselves implementing Trump’s policies or just making wrong choices in Trump’s zero-sum world. I wanted to think about the effects of events like the child separation policy or environmental rollbacks on “regular people” — both the victims of the protocols as well as the lawyers and agents who find themselves pushing these policies or having an even more hands-on role in implementing racist and shocking laws.
I wound up writing a trio of stories about “Option 3,” which was the name for the child separation policy. The narrative begins with a lawyer drafting the rule in response to DHS’s September 24, 2018, call for family separation at the border. I wrote about the process of composing such a toxic document in the midst of all of the general stupidities and frustrations that can accompany contemporary law practice — struggling with technology, dealing with your boss, speed-reading piles of cases and intricate codes and commentaries, work-life balance, child care, and so on. The story is about a guy writing the policy while dealing with his children’s meltdowns and getting pizza for his family — it’s a mod take on the banality of evil. The narrative then progresses to a fictional deposition of a woman who separates a Guatemalan refugee from her baby at the Dilley, Texas, detention facility. She refuses to admit that what she’s done is wrong, but there are moments when her composure is shattered and she loses her grounding. I then move to 30 years in the future, telling the story of the child who was separated from her mother and wound up getting transferred to a Chicago shelter run by Heartland Alliance and put with a foster family who was nice to her. The woman still feels guilt at not wanting to be reunited with her traumatized mother, and all these years later has problems with anxiety and depression, which she tries to exorcise with drinking and seductive behavior.
“The Overton Window” is a dystopian tale of the “school choice” movement taken to its logical conclusion. What inspired you to create a world several decades from now with respect to this particular topic?
The question that we are all facing right now is: “Where is this going?” Is this just a bad swing of the pendulum and Biden’s going to be elected and we’re all going to wake up to normalcy? I think that it is very reasonable to fear that the answer to that question is no, and we have to take action to prevent it. In “The Overton Window,” I deal with this concept issue by borrowing from economic theory — or popular economics, I can’t tell which: The Overton Window is a metaphor about which political ideas we can talk about openly, and which ideas are verboten and will be shut down immediately as crankery or worse. The question is how wide is the window?
What we’ve seen since Trump was elected is that the window has been swung all the way open and then the whole side of the house crashed to the ground. The worst ideas are now permissible to say out loud, and there will be an avid audience for them. I tell a story about what could happen if the current political moment’s insanity — urgings to vote twice, defunding of public schools, the rise of privatized prisons — is not overtaken by the calls for and awakenings to racial justice that have occurred since Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery were murdered. The story is a retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, set in the Department of Education. It focuses on a policy wunderkind who sets out to remake the school system along the nightmarish lines of Betsy DeVos’s worst inclinations and the most febrile neoliberal fantasies of former Judge Richard Posner (who once co-wrote a Swiftian article entitled “The Economics of the Baby Shortage”).
Daniel Olivas, a second-generation Angeleno, is the author of nine books including, most recently, The King of Lighting Fixtures: Stories (University of Arizona Press), and Crossing the Border: Collected Poems (Pact Press). He is the editor of the anthology Latinos in Lotusland (Bilingual Press), and co-editor of The Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles (Tía Chucha Press).