Maria Venegas’s debut book, Bulletproof Vest: The Ballad of an Outlaw and His Daughter, is a stunning mash-up of genres and themes—part personal memoir, part non-fiction account of a father’s violent life as a gun-slinging, death-cheating outlaw, part examination of family and class. There are shoot-outs, bull thieves, and wrecked cars, but also tender renderings of rape, abortion, and the creative awakening of a young woman. I recently spoke to Venegas, who was born in Mexico, raised in Chicago’s suburbs, and has lived in New York for the past 13 years, about the process of putting the book—and her family’s past—in order.
Rebecca Traister: Let’s talk about genre. The names and events you recount in the book are real, but you’re often laying out scenes from the perspective of your father, or describing gun fights from the 1850s, in vivid literary detail. Is the book fictionalized?
Maria Venegas: My goal was to write non-fiction that would read like a novel. I didn’t want to write a straightforward first-person expository narrative; I would’ve gotten bored. Obviously I didn’t witness the scenes before I was born, but stories were told to me, especially the stories about my father. The stories my father told me gave me the skeleton, and I added the meat to the bones. [The book’s opening scene puts] the reader in the truck with my father just before he was ambushed while driving down a Mexican road. But I’ve driven down that road several times; I know it really well. There’s always an animal decomposing by the side of the road, and bugs hitting windshield, so I superimposed those details onto his story.
That’s what made it more exciting for me as the writer, but it felt important to retell these tales as my father relayed them to me, staying as close as possible to what he said. Whatever we tell ourselves and our friends become our history, even if it’s not all completely factual. For example, the story my father told several times, about how he shot a man for the first time when he was 12: I knew from my father that two men pulled their guns and exchanged words and that a bullet went into the forehead of a white mare, out his ear and into the arm of my father’s brother, Antonio. That was such a specific, vivid detail, and exactly as my father described it. But it was fun for me to come up with the dialogue around it. I later learned that he was not actually 12 years old when this happened, he was 15 or 16. So I wrote it as he always told it—that he was 12—but then later in the book I let the reader know that he was actually older.
RT: How do you think your father would feel about you writing about him?
MV: Telling me stories was his way of explaining why he had lived such a violent and self-destructive life. He wanted to be remembered and wanted to have a corrido [a narrative, musical ballad] written about him—to the extent that he had actually written his own! When I told him that I’d written a story about him in Granta [in 2009], about how he’d shot and killed a neighbor, it silenced him a bit, but I think he was wondering if the authorities were going to come and arrest him. Later, I learned, he brought it to a local tavern and had a woman translate it for him. I kind of wish he was around to see the book; I think he’d be very proud of it.
RT: I noticed that the single chapter in the book that you write in the second person—directed to a younger version of yourself—is about your experience of being raped and then having an abortion just after having been accepted to college. Why did you make that stylistic choice?
MV: That was a difficult chapter for me to write. I don’t think I had ever dealt with the emotional repercussions of [the rape]. For a long time, when I thought about it, I blamed myself: If I hadn’t been drinking so much, if I hadn’t passed out on that couch. … It was a very painful memory to re-live. Then it was difficult to relive the abortion, the feeling that the life I had dreamt up for myself was suddenly going to elude me. … Because [of a delay in gathering enough money to pay for the procedure that pushed Venegas to her second trimester], I thought I might not be able to get the abortion. It was so difficult that when I finally did get in to see the doctor and he explained that I might hemorrhage and die, I was okay with that. That’s what I felt: I would have rather gone under and never come back than to be forced to go through with this pregnancy. Writing in the second person enabled me to distance myself a little bit from it; it distanced the whole thing for me just enough so that I could write about it. But often I’ll be listening to the news or read something about rape or abortion, and the issues are usually being discussed by balding men and politicians who have no first-hand experience, no idea what it’s like.
RT: I was struck by how freely you admit your immense relief at having had an abortion—not regret or sadness. And that you make it clear that the life that was at stake was your own.
MV: That’s often the part of the conversation you don’t ever hear about. You don’t ever hear what it’s like for the woman. It felt at that point like I had worked so hard—I had just received my acceptance letter to my first-choice college; in my mind, I had all these plans and dreams and life and that suddenly seemed to be evaporating. If I had had the baby, I would have been another pregnant teenager; who’s to say what would have happened, but I might not have gone to college. You’re right. It was a huge relief to wake up and think “Wow, my life has been given back to me.”
RT: Did everyone in your family know all these stories, or will they learn them from the book?
MV: I don’t think anything about my father is going to come as a shock to my family. As for the rape and the abortion, only one sister knew about that, nobody else in my family. My mother knows now. I had brought it up with her because I didn’t want to hurt her. It was in the past, and she’s a born-again Christian, so I knew that I couldn’t go to her. But I sent an early draft to my niece in Guadalajara so she could look at the Spanish for me. She read the book, and of course told her mother, my older sister, who told my mom. But to this day we haven’t had a conversation about it. When I see her want to sit down and talk to her about it.
RT: So she still hasn’t read the book herself?
MV: She doesn’t read English. She did read the Granta piece; that was translated into Spanish two years after it was published and they sent me a copy when my mother happened to be visiting. As she was reading it, I heard her giggling, then cracking up and I asked her what was so funny. She looked at me and said “You wrote that I came out of bedroom with my bra-strap hanging halfway down! Oh my god, you can’t get anything past kids! You think they’re not paying attention but they’re like little tape recorders; they pick up on everything!”
RT: Despite your father’s conviction that violence and strength are male traits—he tells you that because of your “nerves of steel” you should have been born a man—it was actually a legacy passed on to him by his mother, who’d lost a thumb in a gun fight, and his mother’s mother, who once crushed a man’s skull with a rock.
MV: It’s kind of wild: The history of violence was passed on to him through the maternal side. Whenever my father told the story of how his mother first handed him a gun and instructed him to get revenge, he’d always say “Imagine, my own mother!”
But really, it’s very heartbreaking. He took those lessons and passed them on to us. For me, anyway, it took a while to be able to say “Wait a minute; there are other ways to resolve conflict than to resort to violence.” But he took the lessons from his mother quite literally; he never had the capacity to save himself from that mentality, which is sad. My father very much identified with a culture of violence and prided himself on being the man that everybody in the town feared. So he had to go on being that person and because of that, he ended up living a very isolated life.
RT: You inherited your father’s toughness, yet your mother was always urging you to cook and clean so you might find a husband!
MV: It was annoying to grow up with that double standard: You’re a woman so you need to learn to cook and clean. My mother used to say that my brother should get the education simply because he was the man. I don’t hold these things against her; she was trying to do her best with what she knew, and but it did cause this rebellion within me: I’m never gonna be anyone’s wife; I want to work and make my own money and pay my own bills.
What’s funny is that my mother’s mother, who’s so sweet and is probably 95 years old, once said to me, “You really should just have a baby, even if you don’t marry the man. Some men stay, but most leave and it’s women who end up raising the kids anyway, so forget marriage.” I thought that was very radical advice coming from my 95-year-old grandmother, born and raised in rural Mexico as a Catholic, widowed when she was 30 years old with six kids.
RT: There’s been lots of discussion of the ways in which women writers are pigeonholed within publishing, but less talk about how race and ethnicity play into how writers are received and marketed. Do you feel like you’ve been pigeonholed as a Latina author?
MV: I don’t. Or maybe I wont let myself be pigeonholed as a Latina. But the questions even around whether or not to call the book a memoir came down to how I don’t want to be a memoirist because I know it’s “Oh, here’s another woman writing her memoirs.” That idea bugged me.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Image via shutterstock.