Kimberly Garza discusses bringing a community to life at the English Reading Series.
Most writers will tell you that it’s hard enough to write a lifelike character. But how about writing many characters in relation to each other—an interlocking web of complex, believable individuals?
At the October 21, 2022, English Reading Series, attendees were treated to a crash course in writing a community. The reading featured author Kimberly Garza, who read from and discussed her new novel The Last Karankawas, which centers on a community of Filipino and Mexican Americans over the course of several decades in a neighborhood in Galveston, Texas.
In between reading excerpts from the novel, Garza explained how The Last Karankawas uses a number of literary techniques to highlight the importance of people in the community while establishing the common threads between them. Rather than following a single narrative arc, the book is composed of a number of vignettes. “It’s really a book in many stories and many kinds of voices about belonging to a place and belonging to a people,” Garza said. The vignettes are connected by shared characters, but perspective and time shift over the course of the novel.
The first chapter in the book uses the first-person plural, taking the point of view of the community as they prepare for a traditional Filipino Catholic festival.
Garza read, “We stand on the concrete, ducking into the windows of one another’s parked cars to chat, or we sit inside with the AC blasting, or we lean against the walls and watch twilight draw shadows like a dark veil around the church.”
Subsequent chapters take different voices and perspectives as they focus on different characters. One recurring character throughout the book is Carly, whom the reader meets as a six-year-old in the first chapter but who progresses over the book into a rebellious teenager and then a young adult grappling with the effects of Hurricane Ike (which really struck Galveston in 2008).
These shifts in perspective allow Garza to explore how the community changes and adapts to change through the eyes of its individual members. Following the reading, she remarked, “I really cared about the idea of writing this from different perspectives. . . . The challenge became ‘how do I write each character’s voice?’ Whether it’s the first person, as some of these stories are; whether it’s third person; or whether it’s some combination.”
Garza also discussed the process of writing the book, which took a winding route from initial conception to publication.
“I wrote what would end up being the title story of this book not very long after Hurricane Ike made landfall and devastated Galveston,” she said.
The story was originally meant to be a standalone short work inspired by the hurricane, but when she returned to the story years later, she found that the characters “were still present and had things to say and had friends and neighbors who wanted their stories told, too.” So she began crafting a narrative around this community of characters and plotting their relationships, with Hurricane Ike serving as a sort of focal point for the narrative.
“That was the first time I really got to stick with these people over many years of their life,” Garza explained. She said it was challenging to flesh out the characters and plotline of The Last Karankawas, but the experience helped her learn more about her own community, the community she created in the story, and the writing process as a whole. “It taught me a lot about how to write a novel,” she concluded.