The Desert Nights, Rising Stars
Writers Conference

Picture of Derek Palacio

Derek Palacio

Desert Nights Rising Stars Writers Conference Faculty, 2018

Derek Palacio is a Delbanco Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Michigan, as well as a faculty member of the Institute of American Indian Arts MFA program. He is the author of the novella How to Shake the Other Man and the novel The Mortifications. With Claire Vaye Watkins, he co-directs the Mojave School, a free creative writing workshop for rural Nevada teens.

Selected Media

"Fragments of Memory: An Interview with Derek Palacio." Sampsonia Way (Mar 22, 2017).

"Q: Why Cuba, and why estranged patriarchs? To what extent did your family’s experience inform The Mortifications?

A: My father was born in Cuba in 1950 and he left in 1956 when he was about five years old and moved to Miami.  They were from the eastern side of the island, where a lot of turmoil was happening and so they decided it would be best to leave before the regime changed. So I grew up hearing stories about Cuba, and getting fragments of my father’s memory because he was so young he doesn’t really remember it specifically. But he does have these little snippets, and hearing some of those snippets sort of stoked a curiosity in my mind about Cuba and about my Cuban heritage. While in grad school, I started to write about it and explore it more, and I invented this novel. 

The estrangement is probably coming from having to read."

"A Powerful Story of Cuban Exiles Has Classical Overtones." Dinaw Mengestu, The New York Times (Nov 1, 2016). See also a video of Derek reading from the novel from the Indian American Institute of Arts.

"Palacio’s characters, unlike those in most contemporary stories of migration, do find their way home. They stagger back to Cuba one by one, and it’s here that the novel makes the most of Palacio’s extraordinary ambition. Cuba, both before and after the fall of the Soviet Union, was not only a place haunting the characters, but also an animating force. It’s only fitting, then, that it is in Cuba that Ulises, Soledad, Isabel, Willems and even Uxbal, the absent father who haunts them all, become more than the sum of their individual parts. They are not saved or redeemed by loss, by love, or by faith. They are, however, bound to something greater than themselves through tragedy, and it’s in the depiction of that glorious tragedy, and all the love and devotion that come with it, that Palacio’s novel becomes more than just epic. It becomes extraordinary."

"Sugarcane." Derek Palacio, The Kenyon Review 34.2 (Spring 2012). Provided courtesy of JSTOR. See also a critical analysis of scene construction from Great Writers Steal.

"Armando should never have taken on the body, but the food lines were long, and despite being the twon doctor, he was not privileged beyond the standard cup of sugar every Saturday."

"Postcards to a Younger, Much Better Novelist: Derek Palacio shares early correspondence with his wife, Claire Vaye Watkins." Derek Palacio, Lit Hub (Oct 17, 2016).

"In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke—before commenting a word on the young man’s work—tells Franz Xaver Kappus, “You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you—no one.” First things first: we’re all alone.

The first two years of our courtship, Claire and I lived in Columbus, Ohio. She was finishing her MFA work and then writing her first novel while on a generous fellowship from the university. I was just starting my master’s degree. But then, during the spring of 2011, she got her first tenure-track job at a small university in central Pennsylvania. By midsummer, she had packed up and moved, and our relationship was suddenly long-distance."


"Originalism's Constitutional Imaginary." Derek Palacio, Guernica (Feb 14, 2017).

"Eight hours before Gorsuch’s nomination was announced, I was in a classroom at the University of Michigan, leading my creative writing workshop through a discussion of The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Mind, a collection of essays edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap. We were delving into the guiding analysis of the book’s introduction, penned by Rankine and Loffreda. Among their many insights is the notion that “we are all… the bearers of unwanted and often shunned memory, of a history whose infiltrations are at times so stealthy we can pretend otherwise.” In other words, the historical biases of American culture—racial in this context, but easily encompassing gender, sexuality, and class as well—continue to exist within us and within our minds, because we are a product of that history. Consequently, it is a mistake, Rankine and Loffreda claim, to act “as if the imagination is… not created by the same web of history and culture that made ‘me.’” They argue that we cannot separate our minds from the world in which they are trained to think, so the creative writing we do—the products of our imaginations—can carry in it and reflect those inherited biases."