The outsider’s story

Michael Spurgeon


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At American River College, Michael Spurgeon works as a respected English professor. He also sits on the board of the Albert and Elaine Borchard Foundation, helped found the local youth literacy program 916 Ink, and believes that “every college graduate should be issued a passport and strongly encouraged to live abroad.” In 1993, a younger Spurgeon quit his “well-paying but miserable” job in San Francisco and headed to Mexico with a childhood friend to become a writer—because Mexico was closer than Chile. The pair landed in San Cristóbal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas, where Spurgeon would soon have a front-row seat to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation's uprising, led by Subcomandante Marcos in protest of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Now that event has found its way into his debut novel, Let the Water Hold Me Down (Ad Lumen Press, $17). Spurgeon talked to SN&R about that story, the Zapatistas' legacy and the importance of empowering kids to tell their own histories.

Where were you when the uprising began?

When the actual war started across the street from my house, I was back in the States for the Christmas holiday. Then, on January 1, [1994], I was at a friend's house watching a bowl game, and my mom called and said to switch to CNN, “There's something going on in that town you live in.” I saw an image of the town and of the apartment I lived in.

What do you think led to the Zapatistas’ actions?

Chiapas has the largest number of natural resources in the country and the most poverty. Mexico has a complicated relationship with its indigenous population. There is a long history of racism toward, and colonization of, the indigenous people in Mexico. The reforms promised by the Mexican revolution never really took hold in Chiapas. That's really what the Zapatistas were fighting against. The other thing that they were fighting against was NAFTA, [which] sounded a death knell for the indigenous people and their way of life.

Were the Zapatistas correct in their belief that NAFTA would adversely affect the indigenous population?

Globalization and free trade are complex issues. Certainly the Zapatistas were correct that NAFTA would adversely affect the indigenous in the short term. The long term is harder to determine. In general, I think the Zapatistas were correct in seeing NAFTA as being about commerce at the expense of people.

How do you, an outsider, tell this story?

I wanted to tell this story of what happened in Mexico, and it had to be in first person, and it had to be [told from the perspective of a] gringo. I didn't feel that I had the right to write it in any other voice. I felt that writing something about class struggle in Mexico, since I was outside of that, the narrator had to be outside of that. I didn't want to take anything away from the people who were in the struggle.

What part of the book is your experience?

I did get hired as a bouncer and subsequently as a bartender. The city is the city. I tried to really create the atmosphere and the time of that place. I met my wife there, and so, I would say that I give part of our love story to the central character, but everything else is invented. I am certainly not the central character.

Would you have preferred to have gone to Chile?

In hindsight, definitely not. My whole adult life was shaped by that trip. At the time, it wouldn't have mattered, as I knew little about both countries.

What motivated you to write Let the Water Hold Me Down?

[Marcos'] revolutionary address was given across from my apartment. I felt stuck in the middle of somebody else's war, yet I appreciated the causes the Zapatistas were fighting for: land, medical assistance, education. That event, the leader, caused me to realize that as individuals we have a moral obligation to try and make things better for other people. [That idea] was central to my motivation for writing the book.

How have you put that idea in motion?

One example is I'm co-founder and board trustee of 916 Ink.

Why 916 Ink?

Literacy is a big deal. … Over 70 percent of inmates in America's prisons can't read at a fourth-grade level. We say we're turning children into published authors, but I believe that by empowering kids to tell their own stories, they will become interested in reading. … There's no such thing as a writer who isn't also a reader.