Research Notes · 10/31/2014

Unaccompanied Minors

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Alden Jones writes about Unaccompanied Minors from New American Press.

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Of the seven stories in my collection, Unaccompanied Minors, the one that readers and reviewers seem most curious about is “Sin Alley.” “Sin Alley” tells the story of Oscar, a Costa Rican University student and bartender, who meets a young prostitute named Martín in a park in San José, Costa Rica. Martín leads Oscar to a filthy crash pad in the city, managed by an older man who goes by the name of Cinderella. What is at first an exchange of money for sex becomes an obsession on Oscar’s part, and he winds up sacrificing his job, and other less quantifiable things, in order to win over Martín — who, despite having sex with men for money, identifies as 100% straight.

The first element of my research for “Sin Alley” was on the ground in Costa Rica, where I spent a year as a volunteer English teacher and have returned many times. The clinic I went to for my allergy shots and antibiotics was in the neighborhood known for transgender prostitutes. I lived in a small town two hours east of San José, and spent a lot of time waiting for the bus back to town on some shady city streets. When I came into San José on the bus, I hopped off near Parque Morazán, the park everyone warned me about — ¡No pase por Parque Morazán! — every time I left for San José. Though I never saw the inside of a brothel, I wasn’t shocked to learn, given the urban areas I roamed, that during the year I lived in Costa Rica, I passed by at least one on a regular basis.

I learned this from a book by Jacobo Schifter called Lila’s House: Male Prostitution in Latin America, which became the more specific source of research for “Sin Alley.” I discovered this book on a random Amazon search just after it was released in 1998. When I returned from my year teaching English in Costa Rica, I hunted, in vain, for any literary representation of Costa Rica that seemed familiar or even just interesting. Aside from a couple of lackluster literary anthologies, it was all guide books, birding manuals, eco-themed field guides, and how-to books for Americans planning to retire to Costa Rica. There were no novels set in Costa Rica and very few Costa Rican authors whose work had been translated into English. I could find plenty about how to travel there and enjoy the beaches of Costa Rica, but nothing about what it was actually like for the people who lived their lives there.

Then Lila’s House arrived in its plastic sheath, a hardcover printed by a press called Haworth, a gay press I was not yet familiar with. Though Lila’s House was purportedly about male prostitution in Latin America, the research was conducted exclusively in one house of prostitution in San José, Costa Rica. And it was fascinating.

Schifter, a Dutch anthropologist and activist, brought a team of interviewers into this house to conduct interviews with the sex workers, all underage boys, and the owner, Lila. The details of the house and how the house came to be — dogs chained in rooms they were never let out of; other dogs roaming around the premises and relieving themselves wherever and whenever they needed to; Lila himself, in his tattered silk robe, full of love and resentment for the kids he provided food and shelter for, wistful for the time he was a beautiful young boy himself; the nonchalant attitude towards sex with strangers, sexually transmitted diseases, and drug use — were compelling. But the most compelling thing about Lila’s House was something I found very familiar from my time in Costa Rica. It was the machismo. It was the ability of the men being interviewed to say one thing and do something that completely contradicted what they said.

Once, during my year living in Costa Rica, I accepted the invitation of the father of one of my elementary students to have a beer. As soon as we sat down and had our hands around the Imperial bottles, he stated, “I don’t drink alcohol or beer. I haven’t had a drink in three years.” And then he took a sip of his beer and waited for me to compliment him on his abstinence. In Lila’s House, as Schifter pointed out, with only one exception, the sex workers identified as straight, and loathed gay culture, especially anything “queenie,” anything that threatened a sense of masculinity. They fathered children purposefully when they were very young. They had girlfriends, most of whom did not know about their lives as prostitutes. Some of them were, indeed, straight and had sex with men because it could be extremely lucrative. Others flirted with the gay male interviewers, admitted to having sexual interactions with other boys when money was not involved, or were called out on inconsistencies between their statements and their actions by fellow sex workers.

I invented the character of Oscar, and helped him find his way to Cinderella’s house, which was based entirely on Lila’s house. The prostitutes were largely composites of some of the boys Schifter interviewed. I threw them all together and let them lie to each other. Or are they telling the truth? As the author of “Sin Alley,” I know when I think my characters are lying and when I think they are telling the truth. (And they are not all men. The female characters in “Sin Alley” have their own constructed realities.) The fun of writing “Sin Alley” was the battle I had with my characters — trying to get them to face the objective truth when they were wedded to their subjective one.

I could add something here about the authority I assume about the varieties of male privilege, including the privilege to decide what is true, across cultures. But you’re just going to have to trust I’ve done my research there.

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Alden Jones teaches in the Department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College, and has previously taught on Semester at Sea and in the PEN/New England Prison Writing Program. Her fiction has appeared in AGNI, the Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, The Smart Set, and The Best American Travel Writing, among numerous other journals and publications. She has been a Bread Loaf Scholar, a New York University Creative Writing Program Fellow, a resident at the Vermont Studio Center and the White Colony in Costa Rica, and the former director of the Excel/Cuba program in Havana. Jones is the author of the 2013 New American Fiction Prize-winning Unaccompanied Minors and The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia, named a Top 10 Travel Book by Publishers Weekly and a 2013 Huffington Post Best Book of the Year.