‘The Border Is Everywhere’: Luis Urrea on “The House of Broken Angels”

Do you have your free ticket to Seattle Reads yet? On Oct. 19-20, renowned Mexican-American author Luis Alberto Urrea will visit Seattle to share his bestselling novel “The House of Broken Angels.”

Urrea, who has been described as a “master storyteller with a rock and roll heart,” will appear at El Centro de la Raza’s Centilia Cultural Center at an event in Spanish (Oct. 19, 7 to 8 p.m.); the Library’s Lake City Branch (Oct. 20, 1 to 2 p.m.); and the Central Library’s Level 1 Microsoft Auditorium (Oct. 20, 7 to 8:30 p.m.). These will be the first in-person events for Seattle Reads, the Library’s citywide book group, in three years. Find all details and registration  links at www.spl.org/SeattleReads.

Urrea was kind enough to preview his talk in this Q&A. (Many thanks to Collection Services manager Elena Gutierrez and The Seattle Public Library Foundation board president Justo González for their help in developing these questions.)

The House of Broken Angels“The House of Broken Angels” is about the De La Cruz family and its dying patriarch Big Angel, who buries his mother and celebrates his last birthday in an epic family gathering.  Although published before COVID, it deals with COVID-era themes such as loss, grief and regret, with plenty of humanity and humor. Have readers made this connection? 

Absolutely. In fact, I would say this is the predominant theme when people contact me. They want to laugh or cry about family, especially those who are gone. I think COVID sharpened those emotions for a lot of readers.

What has surprised or intrigued you about readers’ responses to “The House of Broken Angels”? Have they changed since the book was published in 2018?   

Actually, yes the responses have changed since the book was published. I remember a public appearance that startled me when people complained about the Mexicanness of the story. My favorite quote: “The Mexicans in your book speak too much Spanish.” Now it strikes me as hilarious — that short-sightedness — because, of course, this book isn’t about “Mexicans” but about human beings who happen to be Mexican. Like all immigrants to this country, they are actually Americans with a certain music of their own. The older the book has gotten, and the younger the readers have gotten, the more the message of shared humanity has found traction.

The House of the Broken Angels outside the Lake City Branch
It’s all over the city. “The House of Broken Angels” outside the Lake City Branch, where Urrea will speak on Thursday, Oct. 20.

You’ve said that “The House of Broken Angels” was inspired by events in your own life. Did writing it help you process grief? What epiphanies did you have as a result of writing this novel?  

In spite of the novel’s wild comedy, it plunged me into a cleansing grief. It taught me how to mourn my brother, rather than simply feel numb and displaced by yet another Urrea death. The epiphany for me was about the true nature of love and the true nature of family. Readers have told me over and over that this was an Irish novel, a Scottish novel, an Italian novel, an African-American novel, an Asian novel and so on. I did not know that the specificity of my own need to tell about my own culture would find grace notes in every culture.

“The House of Broken Angels” was published during a time of particularly intense division for our country. How do we create space for empathy and love to crowd out fear and division?   

You, in your love, must be stronger, braver and fiercer that the puny idiots who live by hatred and division. Do not cower, step forward. There was an old quote of mine that someone made into a beautiful meme (without any input from me): “Saying I love you to each other is the entire point. Fill your pen with love or don’t bother picking it up.”  You can create a space for paranoia and hatred. Or you can create a space for your hope and your belief and do it by art. You already know what that space looks like: It is an aspen grove, it is an Alaskan mountain range, and every path is lit with signal fires.

You’ve often written about the border and its effect on people’s journeys. You’ve also referred to the border as a metaphor, a kind of liminal space. How does the border as a liminal space interact with your writing? 

Step on a subway. Tell me what person can you rush to, sit beside, lean against, put your head on their shoulder? You need to see that the border is EVERYWHERE. You need to stand on stage beside me and see it weaving through the audience. You need to go to the classrooms at any university or school and see that automatically white students gather in one corner, black students in another, young Muslim women in hijabs not attended by either group. The Latinx students come hang with me. What do I do? My job is to remind you that you are a human being and you can actually put some of your prejudice and fear over in that corner and try something new. Try thinking, just once, that “I am one of you and you are one of us.” There is no them, there is only us.

You’ve said you consider yourself a mystical writer. What role does storytelling in the Mexican/Spanish tradition play in “The House of Broken Angels”?

Well, you have to understand that although it is fiction, it is inspired by the same people swimming in my personal gene pool. We were raised by the same healers, seers, crackpots, occultists, and straight up liars, jokers, boasters and dreamers. We share the same blood and genes as Teresita aka “The Hummingbird’s Daughter.” I was raised with tales of hauntings, apparitions of ghosts, insane tall tales that enthralled all of us kids, horrifying heartbreaks, inexplicable wonders. You know, García Marquez didn’t think his work was all that fanciful. One thing you may not know about the Mexican side of my family is that they are also Irish and also Basque and some historians have traced us back to the Visigoths. What kind of stew is that? Now, let us mix in my mother’s British roots. If we don’t see, if not a mysticism, a certain narrative flow, we’re not looking carefully enough.

Finally, what have you been reading lately? 

Lately, I have been trying to earn my blessings by being of service. It was perhaps suicidal to chair the National Book Award in fiction last year and I am on several judging panels this year as well. The one I am most excited about is the inaugural Ursula Le Guin Literary Award but I am also trying to pay back dues to writers who have meant something to me. So I have re-read copious amounts of Rudolfo Anaya and Jim Harrison. I also read lots of poetry, I read truckloads of haiku, I comfort myself with Mary Oliver, I never veer far from William Stafford and you can’t ever find me without a rockin’ mystery book under my arm.

Details on Seattle Reads events

Urrea will appear at three Library events:

Find a copy of “The House of Broken Angels”

Copies of the book are available in the Library’s catalog in both English and Spanish. Limited copies will also be available for informal borrowing (meaning you don’t need to check out the copies) at most Library locations in English and Spanish.

Seattle Reads is presented in partnership with La Sala, El Centro de la Raza and Seattle Escribe, and is made possible by The Seattle Public Library Foundation and The Wallace Foundation. Additional support provided by media sponsor The Seattle Times and Back Bay Books.

For more information, visit www.spl.org/seattlereads, call the Library at 206-386-4636 or Ask Us.

–  Elisa M., Communications

Library Staff to Be Authorized to Voluntarily Administer Naloxone

Over the last few months, The Seattle Public Library has examined the legal and safety issues around allowing staff to administer naloxone (Narcan) to Library visitors who appear to be opioid overdose victims.

After a careful review process, which included updated guidance on liability from the City Attorney’s Office and an examination of other City departments’ practices, the Library has decided to allow trained staff volunteers to administer Library-supplied naloxone to patrons in need.

The medicine is not yet available. The Library has ordered naloxone doses, which will be placed in first aid kits for staff use only. The Library is also securing training sessions for staff who are interested in volunteering. We expect these steps to be completed in the next few months.

Because staff will only administer naloxone on a volunteer basis, the availability of the medicine at Library locations will be dependent on volunteer availability. In other words, there is no guarantee that a patron who overdoses on Library grounds will receive naloxone.

The Library will continue to rely on the expertise of the Seattle Fire Department as our primary means of addressing patron medical issues. The first step for a Library staff member will still be to call 911. Providing naloxone through staff volunteers will potentially offer an added layer of emergency assistance once that call has been placed.

Naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, is the prescription medication used to rapidly counteract opioid drug overdoses. It can be used in the absence of trained medical personnel to address an overdose situation. Additional legal analysis determined that Library employees are protected by  existing state law concerning its use.

The review was prompted in part by Library staff who expressed interest in having access to this tool to help patrons in emergency situations.

– Elisa M., Communications

11 New or Unexpected Things to Do at The Seattle Public Library This Fall

Library card

Did you know that September is Library Card Sign-Up Month? It’s a good reminder not just to get or renew your Library card (available in minutes at www.spl.org/Card), but also to brush up on all that a Library card enables you to do.

With that in mind, we put together this sampling of interesting and useful things to do through The Seattle Public Library this fall, many of which don’t even require a card. For much, much, much more, see our giant list of 50+ things to do through the Library, which we’ve just updated at www.spl.org/50things.

  1. Revisit the iconic Central Library. Now that the Central Library’s  public spaces
    Don’t miss a visit to the Central Library’s iconic Red Floor (Level 4) reopened to the public in July 2022.

    are reopened,  it’s a great time to visit: Walk the innovative nonfiction Book Spiral from Levels 6-9, visit the Reading Room on Level 10 and gawk at the views (the Spiral and Reading Room are open Tuesday-Thursday during open hours), find the hidden murals, book a music practice room on Level 9 (Library card needed), and browse with your kids in the light-filled Children’s Center. And don’t forget the Red Floor. on Level 4. Check out this self-guided tour to get started.

2. Get free Homework Help from a trained tutor. After a 2.5-year pandemic pause, the Library’s free, drop-in afterschool tutoring program (www.spl.org/HomeworkHelp) has restarted at six branches: The Columbia, Douglass-Truth, High Point, Lake City, NewHolly and Rainier Beach branches. It’s available for all students in grades K-12, and you don’t need a reservation or a Library card to participate. Check each branch’s schedule on the Homework Help page. (Tip: Virtual tutoring is also available daily at www.spl.org/VirtualTutoring.)

Scan EZ machine for faxing and scanning
A ScanEZ machine for faxing and scanning in the Central Library’s Mixing Chamber

3. Scan and fax for free. The Library offers free high-speed scanning and faxing through ScanEZ kiosks at 16 Library locations (described by one Library staffmember as “Best. Machine. Ever”). You can also print up to 10 black-and-white pages and 3 color pages per week for free (all Library locations have printers).

4. Learn to paint, draw and dance  from your home. The Library partners with Silver Kite to offer virtual arts classes in everything from beginning drawing to essay writing. Explore at www.spl.org/calendar. These classes are geared towards people who are 50 and over, but all are welcome.

The Read-Along collection at the Central Library’s Children’s Center

5. Borrow a picture book that does the reading for you. Here’s a gift for tired parents. You can now borrow from the Library’s new collection of “Read-Along” picture books, which come with an attached (and very compact) MP3 player on the inside front cover that reads the book aloud to your child in a way that allows them to follow along. The Read-Along collection includes 50 titles and 500 copies; look for them in any branch’s children’s section, or ask a staff member.

Jekeva Phillips
Jekeva Phillips brings the page to the stage with Bibliophilia! every night from Sept. 27 to 30.

6. Get inspired by a performance or author reading. The Library has relaunched in-person author events, with many terrific events planned for fall 2022, including Biliophilia! literary / improv festival this week, and three events with Seattle Reads author Jose Luis Urrea from Oct. 19-20. Many events are also now livestreamed to make them more accessible. Find details and how to register at www.spl.org/calendar.

Museum of History and Industry, from above
Museum of History and Industry, from above. Courtesy of MOHAI

7. Rediscover local museums by reserving a free Museum Pass through our reactivated program. Museum Pass includes 11 museums, from family favorites such as the Woodland Park Zoo, the Museum of Flight and Seattle Aquarium to MoPop, the Museum of History and Industry, the Seattle Art Museum and the Wing Luke Museum. Tip: New museum passes are available at noon every day.

8. Prepare for NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month (November) is just around the corner. Get a jumpstart on your writing goals with inspiring lectures from local writers on Seattle Writes – YouTube channel. Or join a Virtual Writes session with the Richard Hugo House, which happens twice monthly. (Go to www.spl.org/calendar to find the next session and note that you have to preregister with Hugo House to get the link to the class.)

A woman in a restaurant wearing a mask9. Get free business help. You might know that the Library’s Library to Business program has a robust set of free programs and services for entrepreneurs, small business owners and nonprofit leaders, such as one-on-one virtual consults. But did you know they also offer services such as free legal consults, networking events, credit workshops,  and bookkeeping basics? Explore all services at www.spl.org/Business, and find upcoming events on the Business calendar.

10. Learn a new skill. The Library is a one-stop-shop for learning a new skill, from language learning through Mango to Northstar’s Digital Literacy lessons. You can also request a customized lesson plan from Your Next Skill; become an Excel spreadsheet or Word guru with Microsoft Imagine Academy; find a course through Linked-In Learning and more.

11. Escape into another world. Who needs Disney Plus? Cozy up with movies and TV shows that you can stream movies for free through Kanopy, Hoopla and Access Video. Find a fun list of family-friendly streaming titles recommended by Library staff in this blog post.

Bonus: Ask us anything: If you need help with any of these resources or services, or have other questions, our staff can help you in multiple languages. Just call 206-386-4636 or contact Ask Us, the Library’s email and chat service. You can also ask for help at your local Seattle Public Library branch.

Again, you can find many more ideas at www.spl.org/50things, and share your favorite Library service or program in the comments!

How to get a card with The Seattle Public Library

If you don’t have a Library card, it’s easy to get one online or in person. Apply for a card in minutes through an application at spl.org/Card. We offer applications in Spanish, Vietnamese, Amharic, Somali and Chinese, as well as in English; and there is a children’s application as well.

A Library card from The Seattle Public Library is free for anyone who lives, works, owns property or goes to school in the Library’s service area, which includes Seattle, Bothell and most parts of King County, through our reciprocal use agreement with the King County Library System. Cardholders from several library systems in Washington may also qualify.

– Elisa M., Communications

Chatting About Book Bans With The Library’s Librarians

In recent years, school and public libraries around the nation have grappled with attempts by individuals and coordinated groups to restrict community access to certain book titles they find objectionable.

As Banned Books Week draws to a close, we had the opportunity to discuss censorship and intellectual freedom with our selection services librarians, the people responsible for developing and maintaining The Seattle Public Library’s collection of books and other materials.

The Library believes in an individual’s right to read and to access information. Every person has the right to decide what materials they chose to read, to explore new viewpoints, and to think for themselves. Parents and caregivers have the right to guide their children to materials that best serve the needs of their families. As such, the Library does not and will not remove, relocate, label, stigmatize or otherwise restrict access to books in its collection in response to complaints about their content.

Read more about how our Selection Librarians select and retire materials below.

Censorship is on the rise in the United States, with new book banning efforts being reported all the time. Have people been trying to ban books at The Seattle Public Library? If so, how does the Library respond?

Libraries nationwide are facing coordinated efforts to ban books, but we have not had the same experience at The Seattle Public Library. While the Library periodically receives comments from patrons who are concerned about a book in the collection or, more rarely, formal requests that a book be removed from the collection, these comments and requests come from patrons across the political and cultural spectrum.

We do not and will not remove or restrict access to the materials in our collection based on comments and requests like these. That would be contrary to everything public libraries stand for. It’s also important to note that the majority of people across the county oppose book bans, as found in a 2022 survey conducted on behalf of the American Library Association.

Our patrons often read and support books that are censored or banned in other areas of the country. For example, “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe has been challenged in a number of community libraries across the country. In Seattle, however, it is currently one of the most popular adult nonfiction books in our collection, and we have purchased additional copies this year to meet the demand.

Most recent efforts to ban books are centered on children’s literature. How does the Library determine which books should be in the children’s section? Why is it important that children, students and others have access to the books people are trying to ban?

Collections librarians develop and maintain the Library’s children’s collection to support the educational and recreational needs of children and their families, and to reflect the incredible diversity of perspectives and experiences in our community and the larger world.

Library collections evolve over time as new books are selected and existing books are removed (or “weeded”) according to the guidelines of our Selection and Withdrawal of Materials Policy and the goals outlined in our Collections Plan. When selecting or weeding books from any Library collection, we consider factors such as community interest, positive or negative reviews, timeliness, accuracy, historical significance, audience appropriateness, diversity of viewpoint and more.

As a government agency, The Seattle Public Library does not and should not remove or restrict access to books based on politics. It is not our role to decide what Seattle residents should be allowed to read, and, in fact, doing so would be a violation of Library policy, contrary to our professional values, and in conflict with the First Amendment.

Providing access to a full range of viewpoints makes it easier for the public to understand our world, critically evaluate beliefs, explore and discover new ideas and perspectives, engage with others, and participate meaningfully in civic life.

The same considerations apply to the use of Library meeting rooms, computers and other public services. When it comes to constitutionally protected speech, we don’t censor what people can say in our meeting rooms or view on our computers, even if some find that speech objectionable or offensive.

With many distinct viewpoints represented in our libraries, Library staff are mindful to foster safe and welcoming spaces for all who visit. Our Rules of Conduct discourage disruptive behaviors, harassment, intimidation and other unwanted conduct so that everyone has the opportunity to learn and grow at the Library.

How does the Library deal with the works of controversial authors?

The Seattle Public Library will always have controversial books on controversial topics by controversial authors, and will defend your right to read them. It is up to each person to decide whose work they will or will not read. We also uphold our patron’s right to privacy with their reading habits.

Has The Seattle Public Library ever removed books from its collection because of complaints from patrons or internal discussions?

The Library has not removed an item from the collection in response to complaints from patrons or staff. Years ago, we removed a children’s book of science experiments when it was brought to our attention that some of the instructions were potentially dangerous, but these instances are very rare. We remove items from the collection based on our regular collection review and weeding process.

In general, if a book in the collection is no longer being checked out, if it has become outdated or inaccurate, if it is in poor physical condition, or if it is taking space on the shelves that could be filled with another book that better serves the needs and interests of the community, then there are good reasons to weed it from the collection.

What are the main differences between public and school libraries?

Public libraries serve the general community with collections that cover a wide variety of subjects for all age levels. School libraries support the needs of the K-12 students, staff and curriculum at that particular school, and the collections within are shaped by teachers, teacher-librarians, school library media specialists and, to some extent, administrators and school boards. Resources and materials for school libraries are selected to support curricular and instructional needs, complement course work, and support reading.

While different in scope and scale, public libraries and school libraries complement one another and often work together toward the same goal of supporting community education and personal growth. A local example is The Seattle Public Library’s Library Link partnership with Seattle Public Schools, which provides instant access to all of our online resources and digital media for Seattle Public School students and staff using their student or staff ID.

What can we do to resist book banning efforts?

The best thing Seattleites can do is to read banned books! Frequently banned books can be found in our collections, and are often promoted by Library staff through book displays and book lists. Reading a banned book supports authors, libraries, and the fundamental right to read.

Those with concerns can also voice support to their elected representative for libraries, school libraries, library workers, intellectual freedom and the freedom to read. The American Library Association has more information and calls to action in their Unite Against Book Bans Toolkit.

Fall 2022 Events: Improv-Inspired Lit Fest, Business of Books, Seattle Reads and More

Like us, you have a lot going on this fall. But trust us: You will want to make room in your calendar for at least a few of these inspiring, thought-provoking, community-driven and entertaining events at the Library. (Note: This list covers September and October; stay tuned for November and December!)

All Library events are free and open to everyone. Most events require registration beforehand, which you can find at the link. Questions? Go to www.spl.org/Ask. Find more events at www.spl.org/Calendar.


Ghost BoysBanned: Censorship and Intellectual Freedom. Monday, Sept. 19, 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Online. Seattle-area writers Jewell Parker Rhodes (“Ghost Boys) and Jonathan Evison (“Lawn Boy”), along with librarians Soraya Silverman-Montero, of The Seattle Public Library, and Deb Sica, of Alameda County Library, discuss censorship and intellectual freedom as well as the challenges faced by librarians and schools. Presented with Folio Seattle.

The Business of Books, four-part series.  Thursday, Sept. 22, 6 to 7:30 p.m. Beacon Hill Branch. Want to start a book-related business but don’t know where to start? This four-part workshop series designed for BIPOC literary entrepreneurs kicks off with an overview of the industry by former Sasquatch Books publisher Gary Luke; and a roundtable discussion with publisher Christina Vega, author and festival founder Jeffrey Cheatham II, and longtime bookseller Karen Maeda Allman. Other workshop dates are Oct. 8, Nov. 12, and Dec. 6.

Jekeva Phillips of Bibliophilia
Jekeva Phillips, curator of Bibliophilia

Bibliophilia, a four-day festival. Tuesday to Friday, Sept. 27, 28, 29, 30. Microsoft Auditorium, Central Library. Guest curator Jekeva Phillips brings the page to the stage combining poetry and prose with improvisational theater. Themes include “Heathcliff Letters” (Sept. 27), “Bestsellers” (Sept. 28); “Vonnegut” (Sept. 29); and a “Quiz Show” finale (Sept. 30, with games, prize packages and live reading and performance).

Legendary ChildrenLegendary Children 2022Friday, Sept. 23, 8 to 11 p.m. Olympic Sculpture Park and online. The annual celebration of Queer and Trans Black Indigenous and People of Color (QTBIPOC) communities celebrates the amazing artistry of the Pacific Northwest’s house and ball culture, with live performances, an outdoor dance party, hot DJs, and premier drag royalty. This virtual event is trans-affirming, QTBIPOC-led and all ages. Partners include Seattle Art Museum, Office of Arts & Culture and Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas.

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinh
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinh

The Future is Disabled: Prophecies, Love Notes and Mourning Songs. Wednesday, Oct. 5 at 6 p.m. Online. Join us to celebrate the release of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinh’s follow-up essay collection that expands on her bestselling book, “Care Work,” centering and uplifting disability justice and care in the pandemic era.

Monthly Ladies Musical Club Concert. Wednesday, Oct. 12, noon. Central Library, Microsoft Auditorium. After a pandemic hiatus, the Ladies Musical Concerts returns! From October through May, the Ladies Musical Club offers free classical music concerts on the second Wednesday of the month at noon. Enjoy local musicians performing vocal and instrumental pieces in diverse musical styles and periods. Other dates: Nov. 9 and Dec. 14.

House of Broken Angels photoshootSeattle Reads “The House of Broken Angels.” Wednesday – Thursday, Oct. 19 – 20. Read this year’s Seattle Reads pick, “The House Broken Angels,” by Pulitzer Prize winning author Luis Alberto Urrea, and then hear Urrea discuss the book in person. In a Spanish-language event, he will appear at Centilia Cultural Center on Beacon Hill on Wednesday, Oct. 19 at 7 p.m. He will appear at the Lake City Branch on Thursday, Oct. 20 at 1 p.m.; and –the main event – on Thursday, Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. at the Central Library’s Microsoft Auditorium (with La Sala, Seattle Escribe and El Centro de la Raza). Find out more and download the discussion guide at www.spl.org/SeattleReads.

Many of these events are supported by The Seattle Public Library Foundation and the Gary and Connie Kunis Foundation.