Closer Than Blood: Q&A with Rubén Degollado

We had a chance to speak with Rubén about his debut novel Throw. We asked him why he wrote the book, what his inspirations were, and to tell us more about the folk legend of La Llorona.

Why did you write this book?

I wanted a book that spoke to my experience as a young Latino and the experiences of my Latino students. The books I tried to give them were either inauthentic caricatures of Latinos or did not speak to the tough reality many of these students face on a daily basis. The one book they did relate to year after year was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I thought, what if I give them a modern Chicano Outsiders? What if I gave them a novel telling a completely different story about teens living on the fringes of acceptable society, but whose hopes, desires, and regrets were as relatable to my white students as they were to my Latino students? It was something I knew I had to write myself.

Is this book autobiographical?

The main part of the narrative is completely fiction. However, virtually all the back stories, the memories of the main character, Güero, are from my own experiences and a few are from some of my former students. I did have a student who tried to kill herself like Llorona, the female lead, by attempting to jump off of the stadium bleachers. Other scenes are from my life, like getting jumped by a gang of kids and fending them off, ultimately gaining their respect. Also, all of the characters are based on real kids from my youth and from my years as an educator. The visual appearances and personalities of the students have been mixed and matched, but they are all true to my life.

Why did you title the book Throw?

In Mexican Spanish slang, we have a term, “¡Te avientas!” Literally, it means “You throw,” but the connotation is that you do well at something, that you excel. In Latino gang culture, it has a few different meanings. When you “throw down” it means you fight. When you make gang signs with your hands, you “throw” for that gang and thus claim them as your identity. For the main character, Güero, one of the questions he has to answer for himself is which cultural definition he will embrace. Will he do well in life or will he fight and claim gang membership as his identity?

The folktale ghost, La Llorona, plays a role in this novel, as the female main character has taken on the name as her own. Why is this significant to the novel?

Where I am from, we all grow up hearing these stories, particularly the ones about La Llorona, The Weeping Woman. The legend, which goes all the way back to Spain and perhaps even further, tells us that a woman drowned her own children because a soldier she was in love with would not marry her because of them. She then commits suicide and is condemned to roam the earth, weeping and searching for the children she has lost. Karina “Llorona” adopts the name and persona of this ghost because she too feels damned and feels guilt for what she has done and for what has been done to her. For Karina, the name “Llorona” is a talisman protecting her from feeling or being hurt ever again. If she is a ghost, no one can touch her.

Family seems to play a large role in Mexican culture, yet the main character Güero’s family isn’t really seen until the epilogue in the novel. Why is this?

You have to understand Güero’s definition of family. He says it early on, referring to those in his circle as “people who are closer than blood to me.” Llorona, his friends Ángel and Smiley, are closer than his parents, closer than his extended family. Though Güero has both parents living at home, they are virtual strangers because neither of them understands the inner life of their son. Many teens, whether they are connected to gangs or not, feel a closer kinship with others their own age, and they become a sort of surrogate family, adopting an almost tribal identity defined by new names, common language, dress, social rules, and their own shared history. In the epilogue, having lost the identity he once had with his friends, he comes back to his extended family and reconnects with them.

The names of the characters in Throw seem to be important to their identity. What is the significance of names in the novel?

Güero’s family name is Cirilo, a name given to him by his mother, in honor of her brother named Cirilo who died in utero. This is how I got my name Rubén, as my mother named me after her baby brother who died the same way. I wanted to honor this uncle I never knew by giving my main character’s name the same back story. Many of the characters have two names as they have two competing identities, one from their birth family and one from their new family, their circle of friends. At the end of the novel, Llorona gives up the name of a ghost, calling herself by her birth name, Karina, as well as accepting a new name from heaven given to her through forgiveness.

Who is this book for, what kind of audience(s) will enjoy this book?

The complexity of some of the language, the themes of identity, coming-of-age, and the lesson of loss will appeal to the literary reader who enjoys the bildungsroman novel as they will see this done in a different light, happening over three days in the character’s life and in a culture they may not be familiar with. The fast-paced and inexorable narrative, the love story, the authenticity of the setting, dialogue, and characters will appeal to readers of young adult fiction wanting a book that doesn’t talk down to them or pretend that their lives are perfect and speaks to their universal experience.