Daniel Alarcón was in a staff meeting at Columbia University, where he is an Assistant Professor in Broadcast Journalism, when friends started texting him congratulatory messages.
“I was totally surprised,” he says. “And I didn’t know what they were talking about.”
They were talking about Alarcón’s latest collection of short stories, The King Is Always Above the People, being longlisted for The National Book Award. This is just the latest accolade for one of the nation’s top young writers. Alarcón has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and was named one of America’s top young writers by both The New Yorker and Granta.
The stories in The King Is Always above the People, some of which have been published in magazines like McSweeney’s and The New Yorker, provide an overview of Alarcón’s preoccupations and concerns.
“You reread everything in the course of preparing the stories for publication, and you can sort of see your obsessions for the past few years,” Alarcón says. “It was interesting to look back and see what the connections were and how the same worries and concerns bubbled up over time.”
The first piece in the collection, “The Thousands,” gives the stories a kind of geographical home. The nameless characters descend on a piece of land and begin clearing it to build homes overnight. “It was a race, and we all knew it. The law was very clear: while these sorts of things were not technically legal, the government was not allowed to bulldoze homes.”
In the morning, the government comes with bulldozers but finds thousands of people standing next to their hastily constructed but solid homes. “...and so new maps were drawn, and on the empty space that had existed on the northeastern edge of the city, the cartographers now wrote The Thousands. And we liked the name because numbers are all we ever had.”
Alarcón describes “The Thousands” as “a sort of invocation or a preamble for the book” that provides a collective and defiant voice as people stake their claim and build their own community.
It’s clear that not every story in this collection is set in this neighborhood. ”The Ballad of Rocky Rontal” is about a former gang member’s quest for revenge and redemption in Los Angeles. Most stories are set in different, nameless cities that could be anywhere people try to carve lives out of an indifferent urban landscape.
“You can see for some characters The Thousands could be their spiritual home,” Alarcón says. “In a place like Lima there’s a neighborhood like The Thousands in every direction.”
The characters in Alarcón’s stories are in constant movement toward and away from their hometowns. They’re running away from their old lives and often find themselves in new situations that spark an even deeper desire to run. The main character in “The Provincials” returns to the town of his birth and finds it both shockingly simple and all too familiar. The nameless narrator of the title story leaves his home for the capital but eventually comes back only to leave again—all the while ambivalent about the suffering around him.
“The old line is that there’s only two plots: a stranger comes to town and a man goes on a trip,” Alarcón says. “The joke being that they’re the same plot but from different POVs. I think that’s partially true.”
Alarcón realizes that in his own life he’s lived both sides of this journey. “Movement is part of my life,” he says. “Perhaps the defining feature of my own personal history is my family left Peru in 1980. At that point my life follows a different trajectory. A lot of my adult life is about trying to understand the other timeline where I stayed and the implications of the timeline that I’m on.”
Although reducing Alarcón’s complex work to mere autobiography doesn’t do justice to the layers of each story. “There’s obviously characters whose external circumstances might match more neatly with mine, but who in their interiority might be totally different,” Alarcón says. “Basically, don’t look for autobiography in the most obvious of places.”
Despite the steady praise for Alarcón’s novels and short stories, he also stays on the move when it comes to genre and form. In 2012, Alarcón co-founded NPR’s Radio Ambulante, which uses long-form audio journalism to explore the Latin American world.
“I think it’s very exciting to try new things,” Alarcón says. “It’s really good to not know what you're doing. It can be so liberating. At Radio Ambulante I’ve learned how to structure stories and done well because no one told me I couldn’t do it. That’s been to my great advantage.”
Alarcón is also a dedicated teacher. “I love my students,” he says. “They’re almost without exception inspiring, and brilliant, and weird, which I mean as an absolute compliment.”
Teaching pushes Alarcón’s work and sense of craft in new directions. “They ask questions that force you to be sure you actually believe what you’re saying,” Alarcón says. “How do I codify what I know into something that’s usable and digestible for someone at a different stage in their development? Do I actually know this, or am I faking it?”
Alarcón has achieved mastery of a range of fields that would be impressive for someone decades older. When asked what drives him to keep producing, to keep exploring, and to keep trying new things he has a simple answer.
“I write not because of a political program or because I think the world would be a better place if I wrote. For me, I write what I’m curious about.”
Richard Z. Santos is a writer and teacher living in Austin. His work has appeared in the Morning News, the Rumpus, the Texas Observer, the San Antonio Express-News, and many others. He’s working on his first novel.