Naming Stars: An Interview with Andrés N. Ordorica
- By J Brooke
As someone who has dealt with immense loss and lives with long-term grief, I cannot say I relish books exploring the topic. Five years after losing our twenty-four-year-old trans son, I am less triggered by storylines dealing with dying young, than I am bored by them. My grief, the steady rhythmic bassline of my days, thankfully offers no surprises; the gray ache never evaporates, but it also rarely spikes. Articles, poems, and books abound painting bright lights extinguished prematurely. And while often beautiful examples of writing, these works do little to color in my gray. Those living with grief probably know what I’m referring to—those who don’t, consider yourselves lucky. Reading How We Named the Stars, Andrés N. Ordorica’s debut novel, offers a different foray. There are two deaths of two young men (this is not a spoiler, both deaths exist on the first page of the story) and yet the novel is most significantly about moving forward, particularly when one hasn’t yet garnered the tools to do so. To say the book contains a love story is understatement; it contains multiple love stories. There is romantic love, familial love, platonic love, and most significantly self-love. Throughout Ordorica’s explorations of these loves runs the thread of radical acceptance, and most striking to me, is that acceptance experienced through a queer lens. So, while I might have focused an interview with the author on any number of the fresh outlooks he proffers the reader within this extraordinary work, I found myself most pulled towards this unusual perspective.
J Brooke: What made you choose Chihuahua as the place that the protagonist Daniel’s family hails from? I ask this because Chihuahua takes on a place of significance beyond a birthplace when Daniel returns there to live for the summer.
Andrés N. Ordorica: Thank you for that question. Daniel was not born in Chihuahua, but it is a place in México that holds such significance for him as this is the city his parents, grandparents, and ancestors hail from. For me, I was interested in exploring the sense of having connections to a place that is not fully one's own. This of course, was drawn from my own experience of having deep rooted connections to the state of Chihuahua on my maternal side, but like Daniel being born American but constantly reminded that he is (I am) Mexican and has this deeper history to a country across the border. It presented a great situation for Daniel to unearth family truths, and personal histories, while mending a broken heart in the aftermath of his relationship ending with Sam. Also, I think it allowed me to portray a part of México not often seen in literature.
JB: That’s so true, about Chihuahua not being widely portrayed in literature! It’s odd because it’s the largest and richest state in Mexico—however the city of Chihuahua (the state’s capital) is a fairly small city. I’m wondering if you used these identities of the locale (small and not widely notable city, within a large and thriving state) as an echo of some of the messaging or characters you write?
AO: You’re so right. It is such a large part of México and it is so diverse in terms of topography and history. So many important battles of the Mexican Civil war occurred there, and of course as a border state, especially with a city like Juarez, it has a darker history with the cartel. But for the city of Chihuahua, I liked the idea of moving slightly bigger in terms of experience and how place shapes us. Daniel is from a small, made-up town in northern California, Ithaca to him is huge by comparison. In term time, Ithaca almost triples in population, and for Daniel this adds a level of anonymity and possibility, and then he gets a summer in Chihuahua, a city of over a million. For a small-town boy, this is like a mecca of sorts, as I believe often urban spaces can be for queer people, especially in the spring of their queer awakening.
JB: How much research was necessary to place that part of the story in Chihuahua? Did you travel there for this project, or had you spent time there previously?
AO: Like I said, my family on my mother’s side hails from Chihuahua, and so it is a place that has always existed in my life, if not on the periphery. I have only been once when I was twelve, which is where I drew from in my own story. Daniel tells Diego that he had not been back to Chihuahua since the age of twelve, and again it was a means of adding a bit of myself to the story. A lot of the research was desk research in terms of naming flora and fauna, the ecologies, and the actual layout of the city. But beyond that my family, both my mother and maternal aunt and cousin, added a lot of important insights through passing down family lore and amazing family photos from the 1950s to 1990s which allowed me to imbue a sense of familial truth into the narrative. My family regularly goes back, and my mother visited twice during the writing of my novel, so that also allowed me to ask questions that feed into the second half of the novel.
JB: The openness of the people Daniel encounters while in Chihuahua is striking. They are not merely embracing of Daniel, a sudden outsider, but also seemingly extremely open to his queerness. With so much homophobia worldwide, particularly within populations steeped in history and tradition, what were you seeking to put forward by writing an environment seemingly accepting of queerness?
AO: I can’t say it was necessarily calculated. I wasn’t attempting to write a Mexican-American version of Heartstoppers or Schitt’s Creek as moving or necessary as those worlds are for their readers and viewers.
JB: I love that qualifier! But really from the moment Daniel arrives in Chihuahua, everyone is super accepting. The welcome party introduces him to Diego, and Abuelo Omar, whom we assume knows that Diego is queer and suspects that Daniel is too, encourages them to go out together.
AO: I think Abuelo Omar is a deeply perceptive person, as someone who lost a son in the prime of his life, he would have to be deeply in tune with people. He alludes to this later on to Daniel, explaining why he chose to leave México for the United States, needing to be there for his wife and daughter in their mourning. I don’t want to give too much more away, but there is that pivotal scene in which Abuelo Omar tells Daniel the moment he noticed the extreme similarity in character between his son and grandson, and so perhaps, he does pick up on Diego, or he just wants his grandson to have a bit of his own experience while in the motherland, and Diego is a great conduit for getting Daniel away from his very big, but loving family.
But to your early point about the openness Daniel experiences in Chihuahua, it was just something that came naturally in terms of the sort of story I wanted to craft. I like focusing intensely on individual characters, and I wanted to really create a narrative that allows a character in the “growing pains” of early adulthood to unfurl from his chrysalis. Surrounding him with characters that could aid that unfurling just felt right.
JB: Can you talk about the character of Diego? A successful local businessman in Chihuahua who not only lives out loud but owns and runs a queer bar. Again, I found this unexpected as both a queer person who has travelled (although not to Chihuahua) and as a reader.
AO: I think Diego presents an interesting example of when class allows one to “pass” or move through life with little issue. In my mind, Diego is a very charismatic, very articulate, and traditionally handsome man that represents a very upper-class version of México. I saw him as someone who was allowed to just get on with life because his family has money, and comes from money, and for me that was a really interesting character to write towards. That was not the world my family, on either side, comes from but it is one in older life I met through other Mexicans in university or grad school, and that really fascinated me. I think there is a history of class and queerness being intertwined and allowing a character, if not being fully accepted, at least to live their life. I had been reading a lot of Edmund White and Christopher Isherwood at the time who so often have these incredible characters who move throughout Europe on their travels, meeting men, and drinking in bars arm in arm with lovers, and often it is their money that allows judgmental onlookers to turn a blind eye. Diego, towards the end of his relationship with Daniel, is very aware of what people think of him, and worries greatly about his reputation, so I don’t think it is smooth sailing for him. Again, money and class complicate how his sexuality is perceived and accepted or not accepted. But it was another facet in Daniel’s unfurling that showed him a possibility of how life could be.
JB: Diego is the first potential love interest for Daniel following his break-up with Sam—I thought it was interesting how Daniel went from one affluent extremely popular man to another perhaps even more affluent and popular man—the glaring difference being perhaps that Sam was deeply closeted, and Diego is entirely “out” . . . was this juxtaposition intentional in terms of Daniel’s exposure and process of unfurling?
AO: I think yes and no. In the longer version of the novel, rumor has it that I tipped over the 115,000-word mark, Daniel does, in a way, interrogate himself about falling into a pattern, even if the pattern is only two men deep. But, in terms of what is presented in the final version of the book, I think I liked the idea of creating a situation in which Daniel is, for lack of a better phrase, ascending in the world. He is the son of Mexican immigrants, he is a first-generation college student, he is American. His decision to move to Ithaca opens up a world for him and so that change in his being made sense to continue exploring while in Chihuahua, and therefore, having a character like Diego made sense to further tease that out.
JB: Daniel’s Abuelo Omar, whom he considers his “third parent” is entirely embracing of Daniel’s sexuality as well as that of his deceased son’s (Tio Daniel). Tio Daniel’s best friend growing up, Luis, is another example of someone from Chihuahua being entirely accepting of his best friend’s sexuality—in the 1980’s. What were your goals depicting so much lovely queer acceptance?
AO: I think if anything in my novel was politically motivated, it was the portrayal of these men. I think so often for Latinx/Hispanic/Mexican American men and those from the Latin American diaspora are chained to this notion of machismo. Now ‘machismo’ is so very real, so very toxic and one of the systemic issues that leads to violence against women and queer and Trans people. It is a truth that cannot be ignored and one that must be eradicated at all levels of society. But for me, growing up, it was rarely men that ever were homophobic to me or around me. Often, it was religious, traditional women that said things around me or alluded to homosexuality as sinful, and so it was important to portray Luis, Tío Daniel, and Abuelo Omar with a different kind of masculinity because I had witnessed men, often Mexican men, as being more accepting, if not at least ambivalent about sexual differences.
JB: That’s so well-said! Yes, it was the absence of toxic masculinity which was incredibly striking.
AO: I think also there is a wealth of queer literature that portrays the darker authentic queer experience of many, but I did not want this novel to be steeped in trauma. It is already such a story rooted in loss, I needed to allow Daniel some light and kindness in his life and these three men afforded me the means to do so. I will say toxic masculinity still very much exists in the world of this book, as we see with what takes places in the first half in the diner scene with Daniel, Sam, Rob (Daniel’s best friend), and Rob’s boyfriend, Shane.
JB: Perhaps I ask the following question particularly as a queer reader: For the expanse of the book, we know that Daniel’s uncle (his mother’s brother), whom Daniel is named after, died in the early 90’s—motivating Daniel’s parents and grandfather to emigrate to the U.S. The cause of Tio Daniel’s death is not disclosed until the final chapters of the book. Ultimately, the reader finds out the cause of death was an innocent accident. Is this suspension meant to let readers wonder earlier if he was a victim of the AIDS epidemic or succumbed to a different death, such as a hate crime, relating to his having been queer?
AO: I can’t say Tío Daniel’s death was written in a way to cause suspense. It was just how the story unfolded. I wanted his death to be another example how in life so much loss is random, and not calculated, unfairly unavoidable. Like Sam’s death, Tío Daniel’s death is one that happens to a young man in his prime on the cusp of his life’s journey. Having Daniel confront the cruelty of that kind of loss felt important because it was a similar experience I went through, so it was one I had the ability to color with truth.
JB: If it’s comfortable for you, can you speak a bit about that? About the loss you drew on to create this work?
AO: I think I want to always be very careful with how I discuss it, because the person who inspired it was a real person with a real life that extends beyond the time we had together. I will say though so much of what happens to Daniel was drawn from that chapter of my life. My dear friend S, passed away at the end of our sophomore year of college. S was my first friend I met at my new high school when we were just fourteen and was foundational in helping me make a new start at a critical time in my life. In the midst of college finals, S tried to reach out to me to catch up over MSN messenger, but I was just about to head to the campus library to work on a final paper. I told her, “I miss you and can’t wait to catch up when we are back home.” That was the last time we ever spoke. The emails from Sam that Daniel’s misses in México were an attempt to capture that painful realization that we never know when the last time we will speak to someone will be, and how very random and how very cruel that can be. I have carried so much of that regret for over a decade, and finally writing this story was a way of trying to honor friendship and life as best as I could.
In many ways, through my poetry and prose, choosing to write continuously about love and loss mirrors what I tried to do in creating an ending in which Daniel would be fully motivated to move through the rest of his life with hunger and purpose, to live on behalf of these two young men whose stories did not get to finish how they wanted. I choose to write to that pain as a means of allowing others a small salve in their grief process, and sometimes storytelling is one of the best tools for that.
JB: I think you do that expertly—the reader is very much left with the hope that both Tio Daniel and Sam, the young men who did not get to live the rest of their lives, somehow live on through Daniel . . . He seems determined to carry them both with him into the future. It’s an extremely optimistic ending in this way. Is that what you are hoping readers take away from this?
AO: I would say yes. I wanted the novel to end in a place of hope, because for so much of the story I believe, like me, the reader is rooting for Sam and Daniel, even when by page three they understand that Sam is dead. So, I felt after taking the reader through such a harrowing final fifty pages, I needed to give them some small indication that Daniel will be okay, that he will survive this. And I do really believe he will, and I just have such love for him and for where life will take him and what he might get up to in the future.
ANDRÉS N. ORDORICA is a queer Latinx writer based in Edinburgh. Drawing on his family’s immigrant history and third culture upbringing, his writing maps the journey of diaspora and unpacks what it means to be from ni de aquí, ni de allá (neither here, nor there). He is the author of the poetry collection At Least This I Know and novel How We Named the Stars. He has been shortlisted for the Morley Lit Prize, the Mo Siewcharran Prize and the Saltire Society’s Poetry Book of The Year. In 2024, he was selected as one of The Observer’s 10 Best Debut Novelists.
J BROOKE (They/e) won Columbia Journal’s 2020 Special Issue Nonfiction Award for their autobiographical essay, “HYBRID”. Their poetry and prose (largely about gender and family) appears in The Rumpus, Electric Lit, The Normal School, Harvard Review, The Sun Magazine, and elsewhere. Brooke was Nonfiction Editor of the Stonecoast Review while receiving an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine. Brooke is 2023/24 guest faculty at Stonecoast MFA and resides with their spouse Beatrice on land stolen from the Hammonasset People.