Kimberly Garza explores modern, diverse Texas in her debut work of fiction, The Last Karankawas. Garza, who has a doctorate from the University of North Texas and teaches at UT-San Antonio, brings together a large cast of ordinary Texans whose lives revolve around Galveston. We talked to her about assimilation, Hurricane Ike and the tragedy in Uvalde, where she grew up. The book will be released Aug. 9.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The book has characters with roots in Mexico, the Philippines and Vietnam, among other places. Do you think most outsiders understand the diversity of Texas?
I think for outsiders, it’s easy to think of Mexico when you think of Texas — so much of our history and culture is bound up with theirs. But I’ve met many people who are shocked to learn that Texas has an incredibly varied population with immigrants from around the world. When I lived in Houston, I loved wandering around the Galleria listening to all the languages spoken around me: Greek, Hindi, Spanish, Korean. I suspect Texas’ diversity is something not a lot of people know — including many Texans — and to me, it’s one of the richest things about us.
What’s the inspiration for the title?
One of the central characters in the book, Magdalena, believes strongly that she and her granddaughter are descendants of the Karankawa, an indigenous group who once thrived on the Texas coast. Many people in the book believe that the Karankawas have died out or disappeared — it’s something that I remember being taught myself in middle-school Texas history.
But Magdalena has been told her whole life that she is of Karankawa descent, and she believes it despite her granddaughter’s reluctance, despite any written record, any specific evidence. Many of the characters grapple with this idea of history — when your history is muddled, by legend or oppression or migration or time, how do you figure out where you belong? The title is meant to be more of a question, or maybe to have an asterisk next to it.
Many of the characters feel an urge to move on from a place they’ve always known, and others can’t resist the lure of home. You’re a native Texan — where do you fit in that dynamic?
I’m a little of both — on any given day, I’m one or the other. The notion of home resonates deeply with me. I come from two parents who had strong senses of place wrapped up in their identities. My dad’s family is Tejano, with roots in South Texas since before it was Texas. My mother was a Filipina immigrant, and she forged a new life here that she was proud of, even as she carried the Philippines with her as much as she could. They both had traveled far from home over their lives before settling in Uvalde, and they taught me how to appreciate where I come from even as I embrace other places.
The allure of the unknown is hard to resist. I think many of my characters know that and long to move through the world solo, blazing paths just for themselves far away from anything familiar. Part of me longs for that, too. I joke with my family that I’ve tried since I was 18 to leave this state, but Texas won’t let me. But it’s that sense of belonging — of being part of a place and a group of people who understand you, speak your language, accept you as one of them. That’s hard to resist, and it’s hard to leave behind.
Ofelia de los Santos leaves behind her practice of traditional folk healing, her identity as a curandero, when she marries. Do you see the things lost through assimilation as a major theme of your book?
Absolutely. Assimilation is a huge question for me. It’s something I’ve considered ever since watching my mother adjust to life as an American and a Texan, as someone who often looked and sounded completely different from the people around her. I can remember many instances where she dressed a certain way, tried to look and speak certain ways, simply because she wanted to stand out a little less.
Ofelia loves her husband, and his fear of her curanderismo — an integral part of who she is — makes her leave that behind. Only after he’s gone does she realize how much of herself was dismissed. When you just want to be accepted, how much gets lost or tossed aside? These are things my characters, and many people I know — myself included — are constantly questioning.
The descriptions of Hurricane Ike, which hit the Texas Gulf Coast in 2008, are visceral and unsettling. How did you research those sections?
When Ike hit, I was living in Dallas, and my family in Galveston and the Bay Area evacuated to come stay with us. So we were together as we watched the news reports of the devastation and called to check on friends and neighbors. A few months later, I went back to the island to visit for myself and saw the lingering damage, the dead trees, the water marks and stains in my aunt’s house, the piles of trash and debris all along the roads. So I had a good sense of the aftermath.
But to write the heart of the storm itself I looked for as many accounts as possible — I relied on local papers like the Galveston Daily News and major Texas outlets like the Houston Chronicle and The Dallas Morning News, just for on-the-ground information and interviews with survivors and first responders. I watched news footage, too — videos taken during the storm and after. And at a certain point, I used my own creative invention, too, imagining what it might have been like. I wanted it to be accurate, of course, but most important, I wanted it to feel real and visceral. Since I wasn’t actually there, that was always going to take some creative license.
You grew up in Uvalde, where 21 people were killed in a school shooting on May 24. It must have been surreal to see the world’s attention riveted on someplace so important to you. What do you wish everyone knew about the town where you were raised?
There aren’t really words to describe how shattering something like this is — and especially how surreal when it happens to your home, when outlets from around the world are showing the buildings and streets you grew up with and naming people you’ve known all your life. Three months ago, I would’ve had to describe where Uvalde was even to fellow Texans. Now I’m in the Philippines, and my cousins tell me they’ve seen Uvalde on the news.
I hope people know that Uvalde is more than just this tragedy. We straddle the river country and the South Texas rangelands. We’re home to farmers and doctors and teachers and Anglos and Chicanos and recent immigrants and families who have been in the area for generations. We are as diverse as any other part of Texas and as complicated. At the end of the day, I think those of us from there are proud of Uvalde, and we care deeply about each other and what happens to it. These are incredibly difficult days and they’ll be difficult for a long time, but we are more than this.
What’s next for you?
I’m at work on my second novel, a new one separate from The Last Karankawas. The novel centers on two American sisters who reconnect with their estranged family in the Philippines after they inherit some ancestral land there and have to decide its fate. I’ll always be writing about those identity questions, about family and belonging. I’m actually in the Philippines right now with some of my own family, researching and exploring places that I plan to write. And eating all the food I can, of course!
The Last Karankawas
By Kimberly Garza
(Henry Holt and Co., 288 pages, $26.99)