Authors / Debut Authors / Fiction / Interviews

Storytelling and Public Health: Q & A with Alejandro Varela

by Alice Stephens

In Alejandro Varela’s debut novel, The Town of Babylon, Andrés, a public health professor, returns to his suburban hometown to look after his ailing father. Making a last-minute decision to go to his high school reunion, he becomes reacquainted with his first love, Jeremy. Though both men are in relationships, they begin an affair, forcing Andrés to confront his past as a closeted gay teen and one of the few people of color in his neighborhood. In encounters with important figures from his youth, Andrés considers the sacrifices his Colombian- and Salvadorian-immigrant parents made for an American life for their children, scrutinizes the sociology of his suburb, confronts a homophobic nemesis, memorializes his brother who died at an early age from a heart attack, and ponders his future with his partner, Marco. Deftly weaving together first- and third-character viewpoints and the past with the present, Varela provides a rich, complex portrait of growing up an outsider in one’s own hometown.

Alice Stephens: The title of the book is The Town of Babylon, but the town’s name is never referenced in the text, and the location of the town is never clarified. Why?

Alejandro Varela: Originally, the reference to Babylon was biblical, the story of Babel. I imagined the town in the novel being populated by people who share a geographical space but who don’t truly commune with one another. A people who began as one human race, speaking one language, but because of their greed and aspirations were punished by their god.

The Rastafarian belief of Babylon as a capitalist construct instrumental in the oppression of humanity is also applicable because of how suburbs have been used to segregate and to promote economic achievement unevenly, that is, white people were given support by the government to relocate to the suburbs, while people of color, in particular Black and brown people, were denied access through redlining and other tools of political chicanery.

To further complicate the title’s origins, I grew up in an unincorporated suburban village within the Township of Babylon, which undoubtedly informed my writing. The personal connection, however, was meant to be insider knowledge, but right off the bat, people equated the title with the Long Island town. So much for anonymity.

Within the book, I didn’t name the town or situate it geographically because I didn’t want this to be a story about Long Island. I wished for it to communicate a universal experience. The suburban-urban divide isn’t specific to New York or to the East Coast.

AS: Enrique changes his name to Henry, and Andrés to Andy, and then attempts to go back to Andrés when he returns to his hometown after a long absence. What is the significance in those name changes?

AV: Enrique and Andrés grew up in a community where they were outsiders, ethnically, racially, and economically. They Americanized their names to fit in, to avoid the moments of misunderstanding and ridicule that, at any time, are a nuisance but that are especially damaging for the adolescent psyche. I imagined Andy’s shift back to Andrés was born from his experiences outside of the town and an appreciation for his culture, for his parents, and as a rebuke of the oppressive systems that force people to assimilate when integration is a perfectly feasible alternative. It was his way of saying, as long as I’m here, you’ll have to accept me as I am.

AS: Both Andrés and his best friend from high school, Simone, are queer people of color, but their lives take very different paths, Andrés as a successful professional and Simone as a patient in a mental institution. Could you talk more about that?

AV: Simone’s parents are upper-middle-class professionals forced into a segregated working-class community and an underfunded school district. Andrés’s (mestizo Latin American) parents finished high school and were barely making ends meet but were somehow on the same playing field as Simone’s (Black) parents. I wanted to highlight how discrimination in this country is first and foremost about skin color and race. No matter how hard Black people work, no matter if they’ve been here for centuries, they will always face more discrimination and brutality than their white counterparts, but also their non-white, non-Black counterparts, that is, other racial and ethnic minorities. This isn’t to compare forms or targets of oppression, but the health and economic outcomes bear out this phenomenon of hierarchical discrimination.

AS: According to your bio, you studied public health, and I can see that reflected in the care with which you describe and characterize the residents of Babylon, as well as the skillful way you weave current events into the narrative. How did you come to fiction writing? What are the parallels that you see between writing fiction and public health?

AV: While I was in graduate school, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was learning something that everyone should be privy to. Epidemiology and health behavior theories, for example, could be taught in high school and be required college courses. Studying public health helped me to see our society’s failings clearly, and more importantly, it helped me to see the paths for improving it. It’s a field of study that merges well the sociological and biological, the qualitative and quantitative. If it were better incorporated into mainstream education, we’d better understand one another, and we’d be less likely to fall into the political traps set to divide us.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgBefore I switched to writing fiction, I taught grad school, and I regularly assigned op-ed writing in my policy advocacy course. At some point, it occurred to me that I had never written an op-ed, and that maybe I had no business teaching that particular skill. After I published a couple, I became more aware of how ubiquitous and ephemeral they were. The New York Times alone publishes several a day. How is the reader meant to retain anything? Every week, someone was communicating their research or experience for improving societal health. And yet, I wasn’t seeing much movement on the upstream issues and interventions being proposed. I started to wonder if there were other ways to advocate.

At the same time, I was teaching an undergrad film class (Public Health in Film) where we’d watch narrative films (and some documentaries) and examine their public health themes: Do the Right Thing, Salt of the Earth, Pariah, Harlan County USA, etc.

When I wrote my first short story (in The Southampton Review), I was blatantly using fiction as a conduit for public health advocacy.

In my mind, public health and fiction share a desire to elicit reactions. In the case of the former, it’s often about affecting health behavior change. The latter is typically about entertaining. When done well, both examine experiences in order to better understand human motivations and actions, as well as the systems that dictate our decision-making. In fact, many public health campaigns have depended on storytelling to raise awareness, to advocate for policy change, and to promote health behavior change.

AS: Thank you for writing honestly and explicitly about gay men sex, something I rarely encounter in literary fiction. Can you talk about your publication process, and if you faced any resistance to your depiction of homosexuality?

AV: I didn’t encounter any explicit pushback to sexual content in the book but, of course, it crossed my mind. I worried it might trigger some implicit biases from readers. The feedback, however, has been good on that front. I had another concern about the sex scenes, specifically the flashback ones between Jeremy and Andrés, when they were 17. I feared someone might feel this was untoward, but again, I’ve not heard anything to that effect. Besides, adolescents have sex with each other. It’s a part of life.

But now that you’ve brought up the idea of resistance to my work… I have noticed that most of the criticism has come from readers that feel scolded or preached to. I knew as I was writing this book that my narrator would have a professorial, neurotic, and, at times, insufferable quality. It was meant to be his defining characteristic. Many readers seem to enjoy that. I’m curious, however, about how criticism might be different if Andrés were white, or if I were. I believe there’s something jarring about a marginalized voice (in this case queer and Latine) pointing out the flaws of our society. There’s an almost How dare you? reaction to it. In my own life, I’ve encountered this sort of stay in your lane pushback from people. I could be wrong, but I have wondered if the expository and critical voice would have been appreciated more widely if it had come from a white person.

AS: What is next for you?

AV: I recently submitted a manuscript of short stories to my publisher (Astra House), which is set to be published in April 2023. The collection is titled The People Who Report More Stress. It follows protagonists who have a lot in common with Andrés, but the milieu is different. If Babylon is about not being able to go home, the new book is about being ill at ease in the place where you’ve landed. It’s about the difficulties of class jumping. Expect the same style of interiority, but now in a middle-class setting.

I’ve also begun planning for the third book, a shorter novel about the local political machinations of a Brooklyn-like place. It draws inspiration from the incisive, caustic, and humorous work of Jamaica Kincaid and Thomas Bernhard. I’ve been reading W.G. Sebald and Raquel Gutierrez too. I’m curious to see how that finds itself into the writing. 

Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People, editor of Bloom, a book reviewer, co-founder of the Adoptee Literary Festival, and columnist for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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