49 Writers Interview: Tanyo Ravicz, A Man of His Village

Tanyo Ravicz’s A Man of His Village remains the most original and gripping work of fiction set in Alaska that I have ever read.” Following this compelling endorsement by Mike Dunham of the Anchorage Daily News, we asked 49 Writers volunteer Jen Walker to read the book and interview the author for us.

Born in Mexico City, Ravicz grew up in Los Angeles. After working as an editorial assistant at The Paris Review and graduating from Harvard University, Ravicz made his way to Alaska, where he stayed fifteen years, working as a firefighter, a day laborer, a cannery hand and a schoolteacher. He homesteaded land on Kodiak Island, where he returns every summer from California.

As the title of your book implies, A Man of His Village is about the main character coming to understand and define his role in his childhood village in Mexico. In the modern US, the concept of “village” can seem outdated, yet in Alaska the term is very applicable (with the exception of a very few of our cities). How much did your time in Alaska influence the idea of “village,” which is so central to your book?

I was certainly conscious of the vitality of Alaskan village life as I described the life of a distant village in Mexico. For Mexican Indians the village is very important, as it is for many Alaska Natives. The village means relationships, identity, a home ground—these are points an Alaska Native might relate to.

There’s also the experience of leaving the shelter of the village and finding oneself not entirely prepared for the challenges of urban national life. This has been true for many Mixtec Indians as it is for Florentino and Feliciana in the novel. So yes, despite the quaint, nostalgic connotations the word “village” might have for urbanites, I was comfortable using the word realistically, and its currency in Alaska helped with that. A village isn’t one big cozy happy family where people always agree on things and mind their own business. Florentino loves his village, but he’s ambivalent. He finds a lot of pettiness and rivalry and squalor at home.

Old-style New England villages and pre-war Eastern European villages were probably the same in this regard. I think “village” is an archetype that we all intuitively “get,” so although I was aware of certain north-south echoes and indigenous parallels, I didn’t deliberately draw them out. I knew the “village” string might vibrate louder for Alaskan readers.

The main character, Florentino, is in search of something throughout the book. At times he thinks it’s money, or an elusive fruit or fungus, but his search ultimately leads him to Alaska. What is it, do you think, that allowed Alaska to be such a perfect setting for a character to search for himself and be pushed to his extremes?

Alaska is the place where freedom and determinism meet head on. It seems to me that the poles of human nature, the animal pole and the existential pole, are especially apparent in Alaska, where the rules are few, but they’re fateful. There is freedom and there is danger. An individual is small and vulnerable, but also potentially heroic.

Alaska’s hugeness and the extremes of climate and geography, social relations and institutions appear more fragile if not more artificial. In A Man of His Village the social structures fall away, and Florentino is forced to wonder where his humanity lies. How did he get here beyond the reach of civilization? How is his present hell a result of his choices? Has he embraced responsibility as ardently as he embraced the opportunity that drew him to Alaska?

For a character lost in the wilderness, like Florentino, one of the traumatic tests—one of the most illuminating—is the failure of deeply held expectations. Alaska is proverbial in this regard, isn’t it, in puncturing our vanities? From boom to bust, Alaska lures and disappoints, builds up and destroys. Florentino has no early exposure to the romance of Alaska, but even for him the place resonates with promise—he recalls hearing about the high wages paid during the 1989 oil spill cleanup. Now he gets a chance to pursue this fantastic bonanza of wild mushrooms.

Ever since he crossed the border into the U.S., he’s been drawn north by such promises. Now he can’t go farther. In Alaska he is back at the threshold where the first migrants entered North America.

You write about your main character with unflinching honesty: you allow your readers to see into every nook and cranny, and we walk away intrigued and liking the man despite his faults. How are you able to create characters with such depth and true-to life human frailties?

I don’t have specific techniques for characterization. I try to stay alert for the dramatic opportunities in a story. There are a lot of forces impacting Florentino, going straight to his heart, and he has qualities that make him a force in his own right, so there will be collisions that reveal him to us.

Florentino fascinated me and I occasionally thought of myself as his psychobiographer. Not to reduce him to a set of explanations, but to suggest a totality. I’m interested to hear that you found him to have depth. One of the few things a literary agent said that actually bothered me was that Florentino is “too simple.” She didn’t explain, but she may have meant he doesn’t have sophisticated thoughts, that he’s not complex in the way of an educated character who has profound thoughts.

Florentino is not a postmodern devouring himself intellectually. He has something to do. Genuine action is demanded of him, action with fateful consequences. He battles enemies I can only respect him for battling—poverty, hunger, ignorance, prejudice. Although I don’t envy his life, I consider it heroic, and heroes, as we know, aren’t perfect.

This book gave me food for thought for many days after I read it. How do you go about creating such a rich, complex, and thought-provoking work? How did the story come to you, and how did you go about writing it?

A 1992 article in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner gave me the idea for A Man of His Village. Some undocumented Guatemalans, hired to pick morel mushrooms at Hess Creek north of Fairbanks, were abandoned after the mushroom harvest failed. The Alaskan circumstances were remarkable enough, but to think these workers had journeyed all the way from Guatemala! How did they end up in Alaska? It had the makings of a good story touching on certain hard realities of our world.

Out of the mountains of Mexico comes this lovesick farm boy, Florentino, whose circumstances and ambitions drive him across the border into the U.S. and entangle him in a series of enormities . . . I first wrote it as a novella set in Alaska. Then it became a long novel as I developed incidents and characters from Florentino’s past as a villager and migrant farm worker. Finally I cut a lot of stuff out and wove the story as tight as I could.

A sense of responsibility motivated me to get the book out no matter what, even when it had become apparent I would have to print it myself. It helps to have a feeling that you’re the only one who can write it. For me, strands of personal knowledge and experience converged in it—a connection with Mexico and with the Mixtecs; roots in California, with its abundance of farms and its history of immigration and farm labor struggles; and my life in Alaska, where I had picked morel mushrooms in Tok and worked as a wildland firefighter.

You return to your homestead on Kodiak Island every year. What keeps you coming back, and how does your time there influence your writing?

I love Kodiak. Much of the long early version of A Man of His Village was written when I spent lots of solitary time there. Once the homestead cabin was built, I could run a laptop computer off a couple of golf cart batteries. But I have to say writing was never a priority in Kodiak and homesteading has not primarily been about writing.

Homesteading happened as a balance to my writing life, emotionally and philosophically, and I suppose going back to Kodiak renews the balance. I’ve spent time in Kodiak every year since 1996 and I’d like to spend more time there than I do. I know a small part of the island very well and am always joyful to be back. To live intimately with the land is one of the greatest joys I can name—on a par with the highest forms of love.

It’s still about the animals, the beauty, the silence, the sea, the bounty of the world, and the largesse of existence. It’s about enormous freedom. I suppose it’s also about the self that is alive to all of this.

2 thoughts on “49 Writers Interview: Tanyo Ravicz, A Man of His Village”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Wow — this was a great interview/post about a book I hadn't read about (except for the brief and intriguing mention by Mike Dunham). Thanks so much for visiting with us, Tanyo, and thanks for helping us get to know the author, Jen!

  2. This sounds like an awesome book, on several different levels. Thanks for sharing it with us. Is it available in Anchorage?

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