Grief, friendship propel McGlinn’s ‘El Penco’
ANDREW S. HUGHES
South Bend Tribune
June 12, 2014
After she graduated from Indiana University Bloomington in 1993, Ann McGlinn worked for a year at a homeless shelter in the border town of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, the setting for the bulk of her debut novel, “El Penco.”
“This is based on my experience of living there in the early 1990s,” she says by telephone from her home in Chicago, where she is a class dean and teaches English at the Latin School. “It was right at the beginning of a lot of drug warfare, so it hadn’t taken hold yet, but there were bubblings of it. … It’s very much chaotic, with punctuations of beauty. It’s stark, chaotic and punctuated with moments of beauty and grandeur.”
Born and raised in South Bend, McGlinn graduated from St. Joseph’s High School in 1988 and earned a master’s of fine arts in poetry from the University of Montana a decade later.
“I don’t think I’d be writing fiction if I didn’t write poetry,” she says. “I’m interested in fiction, but I teach poetry and write it. It very much informs my sentence structure. This whole novel came out of an image I had. I write sentence-to-sentence, so I’m very attuned to the language.”
And it shows: McGlinn’s writing style recalls that of Graham Greene — literate but accessible with a discerning eye for detail and description that produces a vivid portrait of the sights, sounds and people of Juarez, a city that her brother Tom introduced her to when he was a professor of physics at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.
“He invited me on an alternative spring break,” she says. “We went to Juarez and did a week of volunteer work in a slum.”
Set in the early ’90s, “El Penco” tells the story of a 30-year-old artist who is orphaned by his mother’s death when he is 10 and his father’s subsequent abandonment. Neighbors finish raising him in his hometown of Los Ojos, N.M. — McGlinn spent two summers during college there, teaching during one and completing a book of photographs and poetry about the Chama Valley the second summer — and the northerner who buys his family’s home befriends him and gives him a substantial amount of money to fund Penco’s artistic pursuits. He moves to Juarez at 18 and spends the next 12 years painting and deflecting requests from his friends that he visit them in Los Ojos.
“It’s definitely a meditation on loss and friendship, but it’s also a meditation on what we think of as home and how we have to leave home to find it,” McGlinn says. “Penco leaves northern New Mexico, which is this stunning valley, and he has to go to this chaotic place before he can return. Even if he’s not going to stay (in Los Ojos), he’s progressed emotionally to the point where he can return.”
In writing “El Penco,” McGlinn says, she didn’t have any trouble writing from a male protagonist’s perspective — the narrator is an attached third person.
“I didn’t find it weird at all,” she says. “I have five brothers. I feel like I get males. I feel like I can create an authentic voice or character, I hope. I’ve spent a lot of time with men. When I was younger, I felt more attuned with how males think. Coming from a male-dominated family, it’s second nature.”
While living in New York City after graduate school, McGlinn began writing character sketches of people she knew in Juarez before choosing Penco as the protagonist for the novel she began writing about four months after Tom died in an avalanche in 1998 while climbing Mount Hood in Oregon.
“I think, in many ways, Penco, not that he is me, I think the issues he’s dealing with, grief and abandonment, resonated with me while I was going through it and writing the novel, having to find home again when one’s familial structure is completely altered,” she says. “It’s trying to find this place again knowing it won’t be the same.”
Throughout the novel, Penco works on a still-life that McGlinn makes clear he has attempted many times before.
“I think when we come out of grief, it is an act of creation,” she says. “When the novel ends, he has, in a sense, re-created his own self as a still-life. It’s only now that he can move forward.”