‘The blurring of the then and the now’

An author returns West, looking for unexpected intersections.

 

Harrison Fletcher talks with students at Collegiate School in Richmond, Virginia. Fletcher spent four years teaching in the East and has recently started teaching at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Collegiate School

Harrison Candelaria Fletcher sat across from me in a cafe near Colorado State University, nursing an English brown ale. He said he knew how to critique art, so I pointed to a painting on the wall. “It’s clearly impressionistic. It’s busy. It’s a city,” he said, adding, “How you describe something is how you feel about it. It’s like, if you’re in a bad mood, and you’re describing this room, you’re going to pick out the shadows, where if you’re in a good mood, you’re going to describe the light. You can’t really help but imbue your emotion in whatever you’re describing.”

Fletcher started writing after studying journalism and political science at University of New Mexico. He reported in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Cruces, learning the building blocks of storytelling and the beats nobody wanted, like late night crime and city politics. He wrote profiles and columns for the Orange County Register, and later reported for the Denver alt-weekly, Westword.

But in 2003, Fletcher found himself wanting to write more about his own experience. He completed a master’s program in creative writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and spent four years teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University, honing memoirist essays. He arrived in Fort Collins only recently, as a new assistant professor of creative non-fiction writing at CSU, and with the publication of his second memoir this year, Fletcher senses his life has come full circle. He has returned West, living and working among artists again, who stretch his conceptions of the world like his mother and uncle once did. “He’s a wonderful storyteller, and his heritage definitely comes through in the rhythm, the lyricism,” said his former editor at Westword, Patricia Calhoun. 

Fletcher grew up with five siblings in a small house behind a pinball arcade in the North Valley of 1970s Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was raised by his mother and uncle, both visual artists, who used to share the dining room table for workspace. His mother, Renee Candelaria, was a dissident of sorts, protesting the Vietnam War and the development of lands she considered sacred. Rather than taking the kids to summer camp or swim lessons, she would load them into a peacock green 1967 Mercury Comet for odysseys to graveyards and ghost towns and other lesser-appreciated locations of the Southwest.

“She would ask me to look at things differently. ‘What do you see?’ It’s like a piece of barbed wire. She would ask me to interpret it - doesn't that look like a river, doesn't that look like a worm? She kind of made the place magical,” he said.

The quirky imagination his mother fostered in Fletcher is often noted by book reviewers. He was haled in Latino literary circles for his emotional, ethereal memoir Descanso For My Father (2012), which tells the story of Fletcher’s quest to learn about his father, a Scotsman from Arkansas who was 29 years older than his mother and died before Fletcher turned two. Fletcher struggled to make his father more than “a silver-haired snapshot, a tarnished ashtray, a broken sword, and a jumble of anecdotes doled out by my mother,” who was something of a soothsayer and a gatekeeper for family history. She became the subject of Fletcher’s second memoir, Presentimiento: A Life in Dreams (2016), a kind of travel story about Fletcher’s return home to Albuquerque, where his mother, in her eighties, collects relics – a wooden pew bench, a Christmas posole spoon, a jumbled backyard of Southwestern antiques. The objects are visual anchors to Fletcher’s stories. “I’m intrigued with memory. I’ve always been drawn to the past. My mother gave that to me - the love of stories, images, symbols, dreams, objects, the blurring of the then and the now.” 

Fletcher embraces the idea of being mixed race and has an eye for finding subtly hilarious paradoxes in racial identities, as in his essay “White”. His wife, who is a light-skinned Latina, cooks authentic enchiladas, whereas her sister, who is darker and mocks his family’s whiteness, makes enchiladas with Campbell’s soup and displays smiley, Ethan Allen photos all over her house. He seems to enjoy confounding peoples’ preconceptions: “People see my name. Then they see me, and I look the way I do, and they’re not sure what to think.”

To me, he looks a bit like a private eye – with an overcoat and leather briefcase. He could blend into many social circles, which seems to befit an intellectual positioning himself to write about America’s racial complexity. He tells me he’s “searching for intersections” for his next book: the intersections of culture or status or progress – of life in the West. Such paradoxes drive Fletcher’s curiosity these days.   “I write about identity. Identity of this place, the West, what are we becoming, myself. There’s a lot of fault lines in the West. Land is a big one. Culture. Gentrification. There's a lot of choices,” he says. “Do we want to save what we want to be? What are we going to sacrifice to bring money in?”