In Tears of the Trufflepig, Fernando Flores’ debut novel, a food shortage has killed a fifth of the global population, extinct animals have been brought back to life through a process known as “filtering,” Mexican cartels have stopped trading drugs in favor of the extinct and exotic animal trade, scientists are kidnapped and forced to work until they break, the Trufflepig (a creature that’s a mix of lizard, pig, and eagle) steps out of myth and into reality, a lost tribe of Indigenous people reemerge from the desert after centuries, there are two walls separating the United States and Mexico (with a third on the way), the main character eats dodo gizzards, giant Olmec heads are stolen from across Mexico, and then things get really weird.

Not that Flores is quite ready to claim the mantle of “weird” fiction. In fact, he’s unsure about any label: weird, speculative, border writer, Mexican American writer. When talking about his craft, Flores sounds less like a writer and more like an explorer charting an unknown land.

“I didn’t set out to write a book like this; it’s just the way it happened,” Flores says. “I’m still learning about the book myself. I don’t know. I’m still wondering what kind of writer I am.”

Born in Reynosa, Mexico, but raised in South Texas, Flores has crafted a beautiful and daring exploration of a region that usually only gets mentioned in relation to immigration or drug trafficking.

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The main character, Esteban Bellacosa, lives in the fictional border town of MacArthur, Texas. He’s both happily lonely and, at the same time, haunted by the loss of his wife and daughter in the food crisis. Esteban scouts construction equipment for clients who don’t want to pay for new machines, but he’s soon pulled into a mystery involving illegal dinners of filtered animals. At the same time, Esteban’s brother has been kidnapped by cartels who started an illicit trade in shrunken heads. The plot gets more and more cosmic, but at its heart lies Esteban’s grief and his attempt to make peace with his estranged brother.

Flores describes the border landscape with epic yet loving language. For example, toward the beginning of the novel, Esteban visits a shack that might just be where he was born:

He walked out of the threshold as if emerging from quicksand and smoked the rest of the Herzegovina Flor by his old Jeep, admiring the cavity structure on the dry, barren farmland. The sky was different than it appeared from inside, giving the impression time had never changed in the shack, and the rooms where we are born keep giving birth to us forever. The sun was rising. It was a roosterless dawn, in the part of South Texas where no beast yawned.

The political parallels between the world of Trufflepig and our own are plain to see. The rich are hoarding more and more wealth and resources, immigrants have been dehumanized to the point where any citizen can detain or kill a border crosser, and ecological disaster is oncoming. Yet Flores didn’t want to write a novel set here, today. Instead, as he says, he wanted to write “South Texas through the looking glass.”

“There are lots of things going on in the world I couldn’t write about directly,” Flores says. “I can’t say I’m going to write about immigration, or racism, or this and that. I couldn’t do it, even though I know those things are in the book. If I would have done it directly, I would have failed miserably.”

From his novel to his short stories, Flores’ work explores a complex borderland and the lives of complex people: Indigenous, American, Mexican, Texan, and everything in between. Some will call Flores a “Mexican writer” or a “speculative writer” or whichever category they want to stuff him into. Flores, for his part, doesn’t particularly care.

Flores “Even if I deny those terms people are still going to call me whatever. So am I going to fight it, or am I going to be like ‘OK’ and brush it off?” Flores asks.

To Flores, getting to the heart of his characters is more important than figuring out how to label himself. With each project—and he has several in the works that he also can’t quite describe—he’s learning more and more. “Why write something if I’m not challenging myself or even my idea of what literature is? Or my own abilities?” Flores says. “Why write another book in this world unless you’re really engaging with yourself or literature itself or the unknown?”

Flores is a cartographer of a land of his own design; the rest of us are just along for the journey.

Richard Z. Santos is a writer and teacher living in Austin. He has written two novels and his work is widely published.