Sunday, November 29, 2015

On Writing and Discovering the Secrets of the Universe: An Interview with Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Olga García Echeverría

If you haven't yet read Benjamin Alire Sáenz' YA novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, I highly recommend it. It's been one of my favorite reads of 2015.
Sáenz' YA novel is a story about two teenage Mexican-American boys, Aristotle and Dante, who are coming of age in the late 1980's and who embark on a friendship that propels them into a journey of self-discovery. What does it mean to be young, brown, and awakening to one's gayness? The question prompts a multiplicity (a universe, perhaps) of possible responses. The secrets Ari and Dante yearn to tap into appear at times to be "out there," somewhere in the abstract universe, viewed from the eye of a telescope, but they are really, as the narrative makes evident, residing inside the body.
The body in this book is brown. It's bilingual. It's in the process of awakening to desires that are pure yet too many times socially/culturally forbidden. Ari and Dante have to figure out how to navigate the internalized shame and silences around their sexualities, but they are not the only characters haunted by shame and silence. Ari's father, a Vietnam veteran, can't seem to talk about the survivor's guilt he carries. And no one in Ari's family wants to talk about the son/brother Bernardo, who is serving a life sentence in prison. The need to "come out" and grapple with truth is not only a necessity of the teenage protagonists in this book but also that of the middle-aged adults who surround them. 

There is much more to say about this book, but I don't want to spoil the plot and its many surprises. Plus, we are honored to have Sáenz with us today at La Bloga, so we'll let him share some of his insights on the novel.

Despite that fact that Benjamin Alire Sáenz drove from New Mexico to California for a family reunion this past week, a sack of dry chile colorado as his driving companion, and despite the fact that upon arrival to his brother's he rolled up his mangas and made a large batch of cuernitos, raw apple cake, and participated in a family tamalada (we know how much work that takes), he still managed to correspond with me via email and Facebook (con cariño y gusto) and answer all my interview questions. Thank you, Ben, for being so generous with your time and words.

Ben Laughing at My Interview Questions (foto pirated from FB)

Welcome to La Bloga, Ben. I never tire of asking authors this initial question. When did you first start writing and why?
I first started writing in junior high (it wasn’t middle school back then). I wrote some story about a cat who found its way back home. The teacher read the story out loud to the students which embarrassed the hell out of me. And then, when I was in the seventh grade, I wrote this speech because I decided to run for Vice-President of Lynn Jr. High. Good speech. I was elected—even when I ran against two of the most popular gringos in our school. I think it was then, I realized that words were really powerful. And maybe there was a little pandering to the Latino vote. We were, after all, the majority.

In high school, I had a teacher who liked to assign us to write stories. She told me I had talent. She also told me I used too many cuss words. The truth is I always felt more comfortable around words than I did around other people. I was something of a fraud. I was miserable in high school—but I don’t think anyone around me would have gotten that vibe from me. It seemed like I was a happy guy. I wasn’t. I had some serious acne going on and some guy called me pizza face once. Who could be happy? I was more or less waiting for my life to begin—and I sure as hell knew that high school was not where life began. I left for college and my acne cleared up and life did in fact begin.

Was reading an early influence as well?

This was the thing: I really liked to read. And I didn’t come from a reading family—and the neighborhood I grew up didn’t value books. I was suspect from the very beginning. That’s why I started smoking. It helped me to fit in. The interesting thing is that I wasn’t all that interested in fitting in. I wanted to be me. But I didn’t know how to go about being me. Not knowing how to be me, I think I read mostly to escape. And then I started running into books that threw me back into the world in a very fierce and beautiful way. So reading went from a place of escape to a place where I could meet the complicated, cruel, and confusing world I lived in. Eventually, I encountered pieces of myself that mattered. I have too many favorite books, but here are a few: A Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera, Absalom! Absolom! The Grapes of Wrath, Johnny Got His Gun, Great Expectations, The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby . . . okay, I’m going to stop. I won’t mention living writers but there are a lot of great living writers I admire. And I won’t even begin to mention poets. Oh, and my favorite Shakespeare play: A Winter’s Tale. It may be his most flawed play. But it’s so fucking beautiful.

Humor me, what’s your astrological sign?

I’m a Leo. I’m a Leo through and through. I am incredibly loyal. But when I’m hurt, when I’m really, really hurt, well, maybe you don’t want to be in the same room.

Some people know from very young ages that they're queer or sexually different from the "norm." For me, it wasn't like that. I often say I evolved into my queerness (very slowly actually) and in many ways I am still discovering it. Can you share a little about your own journey of self-discovery?

I wasn’t in touch with myself to understand my own sexuality—and wouldn’t be for years. That people know at a young age. I think that is truly great. And if that’s the way it is for some people, well, it saves them a lot of grief. I’ve always managed to take the long road towards anything that really matters. (I didn’t start writing seriously until I was thirty). I think, because of my abuse, I didn’t really want to think about the fact that I had a body. I had an uncanny ability to shut that part of me off. I could write a book about how I finally came to terms with my sexuality—but I won’t. The reflective life is one thing. There’s enough of me in my work already—especially in my poetry.

Oh, you know, I have this thing with “Queer.” Never liked the word. I know our peeps have reclaimed the word as a verbal sign of empowerment. But, well, I’m old school. And really, I’m not pretending to be a gentleman that I’m not. Never went for the gentleman scholar thing. But queer left a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe it’s a function of my generation. Joto leaves the same bad taste in my mouth. I’m not the least bit offended when younger gay writers use the word. They’re just not words that I often use in my vocabulary and I certainly don’t use those words in reference to me.

Your character Dante seems to know who he is and what he likes (kissing boys), whereas Ari exists in a bit of a neblina; he's in an in-between, feeling his way through a difficult yet transformative time in his life. Can you share the inspiration behind Ari and Dante? Are they completely made up?

Nothing is completely made up. Everything a writer places himself/herself on the page with every word s/he writes. This is inevitable. When I started writing Ari and Dante, I had gone through a very long and painful healing process. I wanted to write a book about a boy who discovered who he was. (I love writing YA books, by the way). And so, I started writing the book. There was no thought of a Dante in the beginning, but that character arrived in my head very soon. When I am writing a book, I don’t think about the fact that part of the impetus for writing it is that I’m healing myself. All I can think about is that I want to write a good book, a book where the characters are believable and that their actions are the plot. What happens in the books I write are always secondary to the characters I create.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Ari and Dante are both me. They are the young men that I wanted to be—and never was. When my comadre, Lynn, read the book, she said, “Awwww, Ben, you wrote a book as a gift to yourself.” She was right—only I didn’t know it at the time I was writing it. How beautiful it would have been for me if I had actually been one of these two characters. I suppose you could say that (at least in my YA books) I write boy characters that are more virtuous versions of me. They are not who I was. They are who I wished I had been. But, again, that’s a reflection after the fact. A therapist once told me I should re-read my own books. I didn’t take his advice. I mean, I have better things to do with my time than to re-read my own books.
Oh, now as I look back, I guess you could say I “came out” with the publication of Ari and Dante and Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. They both won Lambda’s. Isn’t that incredible?

I was interested in your depiction of the parents of both Aristole and Dante in your book because they surprised me in a positive way and they also seem to break a mold. Many times parents (especially Latino ones) are seen as having strong reactions towards gayness. This can sometimes be attributed to "traditional" values, religion, or just plain homophobia. Los padres Latinos, I can hear them saying, "Ni que lo mande Dios!" (My mother actually said this to me). They may guilt trip. They may pull out the, "¿Qué hice para merecer esto?" card. They may kick teens out. They may disown them. Can you share a little about your decision to make these parents different? They are incredibly understanding, loving, and gentle. They seem to have no issues with gayness at all.

Everything you say happens a lot. But it doesn’t happen all the time. And my experience has taught me that a lot of Mexican-American families adjust very, very quickly, no matter what their initial attitudes may have been. Latino’s are so often depicted as being incredibly homophobic—and I’m not going to minimize this bigotry within out community. That said, I think Mexican-Americans in particular understand (if it’s not articulated) the sufferings of discrimination and they are American enough (in the most open sense of American) that, at the very least, we should live and let live. I didn’t want to represent the parents in the expected way that the dominant culture thinks we behave. We are as diverse as any other people. (And on that topic, I didn’t want to represent Mexican-Americans as having only certain kinds of professions. Dante’s parents had totally white collar professions (a little like the author of the book). I’m not into performing my own ethnicity on the page. I don’t have to prove I’m the real thing. I am the real thing. I suppose I could drag out my street creds if I wanted to (Did I tell you I grew up using an outhouse?)—but I want turn myself or my characters into expected folkloric figures who work the fields and come home to home made tortillas (though that’s exactly how I grew up! But hey, I was also went to grad school at Stanford).
Back to the parents. The parents may have had issues, but the book is not told from their point of view. The story is told from Ari’s point of view. And what really matters is that his parent’s already knew what it was like to lose a son (to prison) and they were wise enough to understand that a son was a precious gift. They may not have wished this for their son—but they understood this thing called love. I have lived first-hand the love and acceptance of a family. My parents are dead, now, may they rest in peace. But my brothers and sisters and my nephews and nieces have no issues with me being gay. (My brothers and sisters, by the way are working class people, not college educated and incredibly open minded. Not necessarily what most people think of when they think of our people). We’re real. (Can I say, Fuck Donald Trump here?) Maybe not, I should exert some discipline.

Oh yes, Fuck Donald Trump sentiments are totally permissible here at any time. I think he embodies the true and full meaning of the word "Pendejo." But getting back to your book, it has received several important awards—Lambda Literary Award, Pura Belpré Narrative Medal for Latino Ficiton, Stonewall Book Award, and the Michael L. Printz Award. Felicidades! How do you feel about this?

Can I be a kid here for a moment? Are you kidding? Sweet! It’s really a beautiful thing.

And it has been translated into many languages. Can you help me out here. ¿Cuántas? ¿Cuáles?

The book has been translated into fourteen languages: Swedish, Polish, French, Portuguese (Brazil), Spanish (Spanish!), Hebrew, Italian, German, Czech, Hungarian, Korean, Thai, Turkish and Slovakian. I get fan male from kids about this book to this day and they say incredible things to me. Coming out if never easy and somehow, they tell me, I’ve lightened their journeys. But the most beautiful e-mails come from men who are older than me who tell me I’ve helped to heal the boys inside them that they still carry around. Okay, call me sentimental, but I cry when I read some of these e-mails. (Intellectuals have feelings too). I have the gift of tears. I get that from my mother.

You have published across genres--poetry, fiction, children's books, and now young adult. Do you have a preference?

Actually, poetry remains my favorite genre—though you wouldn’t necessary come to that conclusion from my literary output. (I just finished a new book of poems, by the way). Poetry is the closest I get to arriving at a pure emotionally disciplined and honest art. I’m very conscious of my craft when I write poetry and I love the experience of writing poetry. I never have believed in art for art’s sake—which doesn’t mean that I don’t love art. My house is full of books and art and photographs and Mexican folk art. But, art, to me, is essential to taming our (my) basest instincts. It’s important to be compassionate and kind and generous. It’s important to be forgiving. We have to nurture those beautiful instincts and we have to do that through discipline. For me, that discipline is writing and painting. Writing has changed me. Writing has made me a better man, a better human being. Writing has made me understand that I am part of a universe that is so much larger and vaster than any of us can imagine. Somehow, writing brings makes me aware of my smallness—and that’s a lovely thing. I do love writing fiction and short stories. And writing for young adults is a real challenge and it’s a wonderful thing to reach young people—they are after all, the future. In all of my writing, I try to infuse any sense of nostalgia (though I sometimes fail). Nostalgia makes for bad art and for bad politics. We should, at every turn, endeavor to create a more compassionate future. I know that my work can, at times, be very dark. But the darkness and confusion are not the point. I don’t like the aestheticization of (male) violence. Violence isn’t beautiful. And I don’t want to create an art that’s emotionally anorexic. But neither do I want to be an emotional exhibitionist.

The short answer to your question is that I just love to write. It’s painful work. Sometimes, it really hurts. So what.

What about the memoir genre? Is this something we can expect from you at some point?
No. To say I’ve had an interesting life would be something of an understatement. That said, the memoir is a dangerous genre. It necessitates that the author become the hero of his own narrative. Writers are self-involved already. No thanks. I’ll stick to poetry and fiction. I’m allowed to lie in those genres. And anyway, I’m not honest enough to write an honest memoir.

Photo by Danielle Levitt (from the Out website)
If you look back at your writing career, can you identify any critical shifts or experiences that helped foster your current success as a writer? Can you give us some tips or share some wisdom on keeping the fire burning and building a body of work?
No one is more surprised than me that I’ve become a successful writer. But how do you measure success, anyway? My favorite novel never got published. In fact, I have two unpublished novels. Both rejected by every major publishing houses in the country. (Beautiful rejection letters, by the way). Was I disappointed? I was devastated. What did I do? I kept writing. And what I also did—and what I have always done—is go my own way. I’ve done that in the way I live my life and I’ve done that in my writing. I’ve written through failure and I’ve written through success. Writing through success can be even more challenging than writing through failure. I’ve spent very little time pushing my work, very little time networking. I don’t like hustling. I’m too proud. (Yeah, I know, that’s a sin. But so is being gay). I have a lot of writer friends but I’ve come by those friendships honestly. I didn’t seek them out to further my career. They were just good people that I was attracted to. I won’t name names.

Publishing is punishing, punitive and unforgiving. I have no idea how I’ve survived. It makes me sad that the writing culture forces so many young and talented writers to spend so much time getting themselves “out there.” I never really had to do that. I just figured if I kept writing, I’d eventually write something that was worth publishing. I just write. I write and I write and I write. I get obsessed with a project and I do my damnedest to finish what I start. I commit myself to my writing projects and I see them through. I’m very hard on myself. I expect a great deal of myself. I don’t settle. I don’t write about easy things and I never take the easy way out. I’d rather write an imperfect interesting poem that says something than an easier “successful” poem. I’d rather create a flawed piece of art where I stretch myself than a perfect story where I’m not learning anything about myself or my art or the world around me.

I’m sixty-one years old. And I still feel like a young man. I nurture my curious mind. I take risks. I’ve learned that I don’t create merely to entertain and I don’t create to please anyone (which is not to say that it’s not a lovely thing to make other people happy). I’ve learned how to be vulnerable on the page. And, along the way, I’ve actually learned how to write.

I asked Lorna Dee Cervantes this same question when I interviewed her a couple of years ago. You are having a dinner party and can invite 5 writers/artists of your choosing (alive or deceased). Who do you invite and what do you feed them?
I love this question. I would invite Albert Einstein, Frida Kahlo, June Jordan, Karl Marx, Pablo Casals, James Baldwin, Pablo Neruda, Pablo Picasso, Susan B. Anthony and Denise Levertov. That’s ten. I know. I’m cheating. I don’t always like rules. It would be a long evening and I would serve Tortilla soup, but before that, I would serve elotes. We would all stand aroud (no sitting), peel back the husks of the elotes and season them with butter and powdered chile and it would be a little messy but I think these folks would enjoy a “little messy.” The main course would be a made-from-scratch mole, Mexican rice with carrots and peas, and black beans. Hand-made corn tortillas (I’d have to practice). And for dessert: home made sweet tamales: ingredients in the masa: pecans, raisins, cinnamon, pine nuts, brown sugar wrapped around a nice strong cheese. I’d pour cajeta over the warm tamale on each plate. (Can you tell I like to cook). After dinner, James and Denise and June and Neruda would read a poem or two. And then we’d listen to Casals play his cello and we would all cry. The sun would rise with all of us talking politics. I mean, a good political argument is better than a good wine. (Oh, and at dinner, I’d sit next to Einstein. I seriously need to learn something about physics. And I would have to sit across from Denise Levertov because I would give anything to look into her face again). God, doesn’t that sound incredible. It’s like intellectual pornography.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz is an author of poetry and prose for adults and teens. His books for adults have won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the American Book Award. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a Stonewall Book Award winner, a Pura Belpré Award winner, a Lambda Literary Award winner, a Printz Honor Book, and was a finalist for the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award. His first novel for teens, Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, was an ALA Top Ten Book for Young Adults and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His second book for teens, He Forgot to Say Goodbye, won the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children's Book Award, the Southwest Book Award, and was named a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age. He teaches creative writing at the University of Texas, El Paso.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Another La Bloga anniversary

Beginning our 12th year
Today marks La Bloga’s 11th anniversary. No presents, please, other than your continued literary contributions and feedback.

11 candles might be lit for the current, regular contributors of La Bloga. But don’t blow them all out at once. Instead, read a passage, article, story, poem or novel that each of them wrote. [Sorry for not featuring something on every bloguista.]

La Bloga's Em
There won’t be a party, since the contributors are scattered across Aztlán, something they describe in their cultural works. Old or younger, each contributor might at least be toasted with un Salud!

The faces of the contributors are featured on the masthead above, though they’re not named, nor linked to their websites. [fotos appear in the order each person joined up] But you can dig a little, into the right sidebar where all should be available.

El Ramos
Through 11 years, La Bloga has had its highs, lows, panic-attacks and recognition, mini-charlas and a couple of break-ups. But it’s always been bigger than any one of us, encompassing much of the length and breadth of Chicano/Latino lit and culture.

With an albeit misnamed thanksgiving day just passing, I’m grateful to have had the chance to play a small role in the Chicano literary website that became a Latino cultural website.

A fat candle should be lit for Michael Sedano, a.k.a. Em, who's operated as surgeon when necessary to keep the website alive. Just don't blow his candle out yet.

bloguista Olivas
And two brown candles should be lit for Manuel Ramos and Daniel Olives who literarily sustained La Bloga in its infancy, and continue to propel its growth.

At the same time, meeting some of its obligation to decolonize machismo, La Bloga now boasts roughly a 50% participation de embras literarias.

bloguista Melinda Palacio
Given recent events like the neo-fascist rise of Trumpisms, the #RedNBlackNBrownLivesMatter, the U.S.-created Syrian refugee crisis and yesterday’s shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood Center, La Bloga’s political orientation and articles find more reasons to raise its voice and provide analyses.

bloguista Lydia Gil
While publicizing and encouraging readers to seek out our cultural works, La Bloga has remained non-commercial, no ads marring our side-bars. We’ve all been involved for reasons sometimes romantic or dutiful.

So, before the commercial season takes hold, post something here or send a La Bloga contributor a message of your choice.

bloguista Amelia Montes
Should you forget to, no deben tener miedo—next week more La Bloga articles will appear under your tree or on your feed.

Feliz El Año Doce que sigue, y esperamos, muchos más,

Friday, November 27, 2015

Guest Opinion - Latina/o Literature and the Literary Establishment: A Study in White Privilege

The first time I read today's guest article I knew that it belonged on La Bloga. Michael Nava's perspective mirrors and expands on many of the positions taken by La Bloga's contributors over the years. In fact, it can be said that La Bloga was created as one response to the problems described by Nava that, unfortunately, continue to plague the Latina/o literary world. Thank you, Michael, for allowing us the opportunity to offer your analysis and observations to our readers.


Michael Nava is an attorney and writer. His debut novel, The Little Death (1986) introduced readers to Henry Rios, a gay Latino criminal defense lawyer. Six Rios novels followed — Goldenboy (1988), Howtown (1990), The Hidden Law (1992), The Death of Friends (1994), The Burning Plain (1996), and Rag and Bone (2000). The books were awarded a total of six Lambda Literary Awards and in 2000 Nava was given the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement in gay and lesbian literature. With Rag and Bone, Nava announced the end of his career as a mystery writer.

When Nava began a novel that would tell the story of the Mexican Revolution, the near-genocide of the Yaquis, and the rise of silent film, he quickly realized that the story was too big for a single book, so he conceived a series of novels called The Children of Eve. The first novel in that series is The City of Palaces (2014), which is set in Mexico City in the years before and at the beginning of the 1910 Mexican Revolution.

Nava has had a distinguished career as an appellate lawyer in the California court system. He has been a tireless advocate for greater diversity in the legal profession.

He currently is at work on the second book – as yet untitled – in The Children of Eve series.

The following essay is adapted from a keynote speech Nava delivered in San Antonio to a sectional meeting of the American Literature Association on the Latino/a literary landscape in February 2014.


My thesis is a simple one: the literary establishment rests on structures of white privilege — which in turn reflects white supremacist beliefs — and, accordingly, neglects, ignores and trivializes the work of Latino and Latina writers. In the process of doing so, the literary establishment is closing its doors to an enormous audience of potential readers — the growing Latino and Latina population. Like the Republican Party, the literary establishment seems willfully unable to understand and adapt to the dramatic on-going demographic shift that will, by 2043, see whites lose their majority status and Latinos become the largest population in a “majority/minority” America. Consequently, just as Republicans appear to be doomed to political irrelevance, the literary establishment seems intent on achieving cultural irrelevance.

Let me begin with some definitions. Latinos/as are not a monolithic group and neither are their writers. When I speak of Latino/a literature I am referring mainly to Latino/a writers descended from the immigrants of Latin American countries that are the most racially mixed, particularly Mexico. It is these communities — Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican and Central American — that, in this country, are the most impoverished and which suffer the greatest discrimination because, simply, they are visibly the most “non-white.” Also, because I am the grandson of Mexican immigrants and Mexicans comprise the largest group of immigrants to the United States from any country, I will be speaking in detail about Mexico and Mexican-Americans. By literary establishment, I refer to the New York publishing industry, the New York Times book review section and its echo chambers, libraries and MFA programs all of which, collectively, continue to exert enormous, if decreasing, influence on which writers and which books are published, reviewed, distributed and read.

Let me speak for a moment about race. Race is as much a fiction as national borders, but like national borders, people have come to believe that race is a real thing that demarcates human beings into specific categories and that one racial category -- the so-called white race – is intellectually, morally, and perhaps even physically superior to other races. This latter belief is the false but pernicious and persistent doctrine of white supremacy. Let me quote Samuel P. Huntington, the chairman of the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, who writes: “American was created by 17th-and 18th-century settlers who were overwhelmingly white, British, and Protestant.” According to Huntington, these Northern European immigrants created a culture whose key elements were “the English language; Christianity; religious commitment; English concepts of the rule of law . . . individualism, the work ethic, and the belief that humans have the ability and the duty to try to create a heaven on earth, a ‘city on a hill.’ ” There you have it; the archetypal white self-definition at its most self-congratulatory — fair-skinned, hard-working, God-fearing, Northern Europeans infused with a sense of fairness and self-reliance. This definition of white virtues can only exist in contrast to the perceived lack of these qualities in other races. Professor Joe Feagin writes: “The system of white-created racism divides human beings and separates those defined as the ‘superior race’ against those subordinated as the ‘inferior race.’” We have seen florid examples of this white supremacist doctrine in the recent statements of Donald Trump and in the positive response to those statements from a sizeable portion of the Republican Party.

The charge of racial inferiority against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans probably first originated in the nineteenth century doctrine of “manifest destiny” whereby the white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite set out to fulfill what they asserted was God’s plan for the United States to appropriate the North American continent to its greater glory. What was called in my grammar school history books the Mexican-American war is known in Mexico, more accurately, as the U.S. Invasion. Much like George Bush’s war against Iraq, the war against Mexico was invented on a pretext. Its purpose was to annex what were then the northern states of the Mexican Republic. As an editorial in the newspaper, El Republicano, thundered: “A government . . . that starts a war without a legitimate motive is responsible for all its evils and horrors. The bloodshed, the grief of families, the pillaging, the destruction . . . . Such is the case of the U.S. Government for having initiated the unjust war it is waging against us today.”

The shamelessness of the American invasion of a peaceable, non-threatening neighbor was justified in part by white supremacist beliefs in Mexican inferiority. For example, Stephen Austin, a founder of Texas, viewed Mexicans as a “mongrel Spanish-Indian and negro race,” while Senator John Calhoun worried that annexing Mexican territory would mean the incorporation of a “colored and mixed breed race” because “ours is a government of the white man,” and “in the whole history of man . . . there is no instance whatever of any civilized colored race, of any shade, being found equal to the establishment and maintenance of free government."

These beliefs in the racial inferiority of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans continue to this very moment and are, of course, most dramatically reflected in the xenophobia that surrounds undocumented Mexican immigrants. That xenophobia is clearly propelled by white supremacist beliefs expressed with only slightly more subtlety than they were in the nineteenth century. For example, in his book Alien Nation, Peter Brimelow writes that “the American nation has always had a specific ethnic core. And that core has been white.” He contrasts this with what he characterizes as the “alien” immigrants pouring in from Mexico. More to the point, a California legislator justified denying the children of undocumented immigrants public education because such immigrants “are perhaps on the lower scale of humanity.” I could go on but I think I’ve made my point: there remains a persistent belief among whites that Latino/as and, specifically, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are racially inferior.

Of course, individual whites will, with absolute conviction and in utter good faith, deny they entertain this belief and maintain, therefore, that they are not racist. They would be appalled to be grouped in with Trump and his followers. This is the sticking point in conversations about race between whites and Latino/as and other people of color. Most whites view racism as a matter of individual beliefs while most people of color see racism as the product of deeply held and persistent attitudes that infect the entire structure of American society whether or not individual whites consciously entertain those attitudes. But I would go farther and challenge whites who say they do not harbor racist beliefs to ask themselves, truthfully, what are the first images that spring to their minds when they think about Mexicans or Mexican-American?

Do they see someone like me, a Stanford-educated lawyer and published novelist, or do they see maids and gardeners speaking pidgin English or a cholo, tattooed gangbanger or perhaps small brown people picking tomatoes? I would put my money on the latter; for these stereotypes are so deeply ingrained in the culture that even those whites who sincerely believe they are without prejudice against Mexicans subscribe to these narrow and ultimately racist depictions. As Professor Feagin explains: “Throughout United States history, ordinary white Americans have usually learned their stereotype views of the racialized ‘other’ from those in authority, including parents, politicians, teachers, clergy, business leaders, and media authorities.” To judge people based on false and negative stereotypes whether individually or institutionally is racist whether you do it consciously or unconsciously. White racism is never that far below the surface, particularly among so-called progressive or liberals; witness the controversy over the confrontation between Black Lives Matter activists and the Sanders and Clinton campaigns.

And this brings me to my point about the racism of the literary establishment which, in turn, is based on the principal of white supremacy. This principle is expressed in various ways: by the racial composition of the literary establishment which is overwhelmingly white; the unspoken but very clear assumption that the experience of white, middle-class writers is universal while that of people of color is parochial and of limited interest to publishers, reviewers and readers; and attitudes that expose the establishment’s belief that Latino/as are constitutionally inferior to whites.

With respect to the first point, let me start with some statistics. The first come from The Culture and Commerce of Publishing in the 21st Century published in 2007 by the Stanford University Press. Looking at 2002 data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the authors found that 81.8% of people employed in book publishing were white and only 18.2% were people of color; of this number only 6.2% were Latino/as. The authors observed: “What is clear is that . . . minorities are underrepresented in the industry relative to their proportion of the population, which is 30.9%.” Moreover, “whites tend to be more represented in the higher-paying, decision-making categories, while minorities are proportionally more represented in the operative and laborer categories.”

The under-representation of people of color in editorial positions in publishing reflects, in part, the fact that entry level wages are so low. Thus, those entry level workers require family financial support that is simply unavailable to a Latina from a poor family who is the first in her family to graduate from college. The authors of the book quote the-then CEO of Henry Holt who said, “The system of assistant editors is a self-recruiting system for the cultural establishment of this country . . . . You can only get a job if your parents subsidize you or pay your rents.” Then, too, of course, publishing is an old-boy and old-girl system where contacts are crucial; the authors quote the director of a program at CUNY dedicated to bringing diversity to the industry who said, “it is hard to place interns because the business is so clubby . . . The children of editors and writers get most of the internships.”

The same situation prevails among librarians who are, of course, crucial to book sales. In a February 2013 editorial entitled Diversity Never Happens, the editor of the Library Journal wrote: “African-Americans and Hispanics are some of the strongest supporters of libraries, and yet they continue to be thinly represented among the ranks of librarians.” He noted that while data shows blacks and Latinos are more likely to use libraries on a monthly basis than whites, of the 118,666 credentialed librarians in the country, 6,160 are black and only 3,661 are Latino or, collectively, about 8 percent. “That number,” he wrote, “is lamentable,” and “hurts the profession and, more important, hurts our society.”

Now, let’s look at who gets reviewed. In a 2012 study of book reviews published by The New York Times in the preceding year, African-American author Roxanne Gay concluded that 90% of books reviewed in the Times in 2011 were written by white writers. Gay was attacked for her unscientific methodology even though she herself acknowledged that her data was incomplete but no one has seriously challenged her underlying conclusion: white writers are vastly over-represented both as reviewers and as the subject of book reviews in proportion to the percentage of whites in the population to the detriment of reviewers and writers of color.

It is interesting that except for librarians, evidently no other branch of the literary establishment keeps statistics about the diversity, or appalling lack of diversity, in its composition. I was unable to find any statistics about the racial make-up of literary agents except for an anecdotal study from the late 1990s in an article called Dearth of Hispanic Literary Agents Frustrates Writers by Ivan Diaz. Diaz reported that neither the literary agencies listed in the Literary Market Place nor the roster of agents in the Association of Authors’ Representatives listed a single Latino/a agent. I was also unable to find any statistics about the racial composition of students or faculty at the nation’s MFA programs in creative writing. This statistical silence is itself an indictment of the literary establishment which purports to be more than just a collection of affiliated professions but a cultural gatekeeper. Diversity is not, ultimately, simply about numbers but it begins with numbers. The failure of the literary establishment to submit to any kind of self-examination regarding its racial composition is, to my thinking, simply an aspect of its unwillingness to look at its own systemic racism and the effects of that racism on the larger culture.

Nonetheless, I say with complete confidence, that if such statistics were available about agents and MFA faculty and students they would demonstrate that those groups, like editors, librarians and writers who get reviewed in The New York Times, are overwhelmingly white.

The racial composition of the literary establishment has two profound consequences for Latino/a writers and other writers of color. The practical consequence is obvious: if virtually every agent, editor, book reviewer and librarian is a member of the white middle-class, then Latino/a writers are going to have a much harder time at getting representation, being published, reviewed and recommended because their experience will not resonate at a visceral level with these agents, editors, book reviewers and librarians. A secondary consequence is that, to the extent these white members of the literary establishment relate at all to the Latino/a experience, it will be to stereotypes. Thus, Latino/a writers who do not treat their material in stereotypical manners to which white people relate – for example, the big, happy Latino family saga or magic realism – will not find sympathetic readers in the white literary establishment. Laura Atkins, an editor of children’s books who worked at American and English publishing houses, touches on both these issues in her on-line essay: What’s the Story? Reflections on White Privilege in the Publication of Children’s Books. She notes that what drives the acquisition and publication of children’s book is the “perceived market requirements” that led publishers – even those who were ostensibly committed to multicultural children’s books – to alter texts “often by making them conform to a more general market: one which represents the dominant and traditional expectations of children’s literature.” She concludes: “The question here is not about particular racist individuals who work in the publishing industry, rather, this is an institutional problem. The way in which the acquisition, development, distribution and marketing of children’s books currently takes place is a system based on patterns so pervasive they seem to become natural, inevitable and justifiable. I would argue that most children’s publishing houses currently exist to serve the interests and the needs of the white majority culture.”

Although Atkins is writing about children’s publishers, I would argue that her observations are true of the publishing industry as a whole and of the other branches of the literary establishment. Indeed, the appeal to the perceived market is a frequent justification by white editors for rejecting works by writers of color.

My recent experience with my last novel The City of Palaces is not unusual. Now remember, I had published seven novels, the last five with New York houses, and my books had been widely reviewed and won awards. The City of Palaces is an historical novel set in Mexico City between 1895 and 1913, the years just before and at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. The central characters are a married Mexican couple as are all the important secondary characters. There are no Americans in the book except in cameos. The book traces a particularly complicated period of Mexican history, which saw the collapse of the 40-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, the election of the liberal president, Francisco Madero, and the army coup that deposed and killed him. It is, shall we say, extremely mexicano in theme, scope and message.

My former agent, a long-time respected figure in New York publishing circles, tried for a year to interest various New York editors in publishing the novel. Half of them did not bother to reply; the other half turned it down. They didn’t turn it down because it was poorly written or uninteresting. They turned it down because they could not imagine anyone who would want to read such a novel. Or, as one of them said in his rejection letter, “While the novel’s conceit is smart and Michael Nava is an insightful writer . . . I simply can’t say that I see the readership for this novel . . . ”

There are 33.7 million Latinos of Mexican descent living in the United States so I must assume that what this editor meant was that he couldn’t see a white readership for the novel. The view expressed by this editor, who undoubtedly and in good faith would reject the label of racist, is, nonetheless, racist. First, it reflects a view that Latinos do not constitute an audience for serious literature, which, in turn, is based on stereotypical and racist views of Latinos. Second, it does a grave disservice to white readers by assuming they would not be interested in works that do not cater to their immediate experience. My story had a happy ending: I was published by the University of Wisconsin Press, which has a deep and serious commitment to Latino/a literature. Moreover, the novel was a finalist for the 2014 Lambda Literary award for best gay novel and won the International Latino Literary award for best novel. But there must be many first time Latino/a writers who are simply unable to penetrate the systematic racism of the literary establishment and to get a fair hearing.

The white supremacist foundation of the literary establishment is also evident in the belief, unspoken but clearly pervasive, that the experience of the white, middle-class writer has universal significance while that of Latino/a and other writers of color does not. On this point, let me quote an interview that Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Junot Diaz gave a couple of years ago when he was asked the question, “Do you think you’ve gotten through and away from that marginalized ‘immigrant’ [writer] niche?” He said: “ I don’t think you transcend white supremacy. You don’t need to be a cultural anthropologist . . . to understand that systems of aesthetic evaluation are over inscribed by white supremacist ideologies. White supremacy does everything possible to erase its own . . . tiny minority status by attempting to argue that this is universal, that this is indispensable; when in fact it is just another minority literature.” He goes on: “What we are talking about is racialized privilege. The invisible hand of inequality, which turns the pages, which cranks the movies . . . mixes the ink. A writer like [Jonathan] Franzen, with each coming generation looks more and more . . . like exactly what he is . . . a white minority writer.”

Finally, the white literary establishment harbors attitudes towards and beliefs about the Latino/a community that seem superficially paradoxical but are, in fact, motivated by the same racist attitudes. The first is the one expressed by the editor who rejected The City of Palaces in the letter I quoted above: Latino/as don’t read, therefore, publishers assume that books with themes of interest to that community will inevitably fail. This in turn seems to be based on the notion that Latino/as are poorer and less well-educated than whites are. While it is true that many segments of the Latino/a community face economic challenges, it is not true that we are a simple race of maids and gardeners whose main entertainment is the telenovela. Among the millions of Latino/as there is an emerging middle class. Indeed, a 2013 study by the Pew Hispanic Center reports that 69% of Latino/a high school graduates in the class of 2012 enrolled in college, two percentage points higher than their white counterparts. As the first person from my family to attend college, I do not minimize the many financial, psychological and cultural challenges that lie ahead for these students, but this trend underscores the determination of the Latino/a community to achieve what used to be called the American Dream. Yet the literary establishment persists in its stereotypical beliefs that we are an uneducated people who do not read.

At the same time, publishers wring their hands about how to appeal to the Latino/a market. Often, the question becomes how to appeal to Spanish-speaking Latino/as using the Spanish-language media in the United States. But this itself reflects a profound ignorance of the Latino/a community. Although the retention of Spanish is a point of pride for millions of Latino families, the fact is that English is the main language for the Latino/a community. For example, a recent Pew Hispanic Center study revealed that 82% of Latino/a adults consume their news in English. Both these beliefs – Latino/as do not read, but if they do they read in Spanish – demonstrate the underlying racism of a literary establishment that cannot be bothered to examine its assumptions about the Latino/a community much less to bring them in line to the facts on the ground.

What should be the response of Latino/a writers and readers to the racism of the literary establishment? Well, one response is to keep calling it out, as I have tried to do here. The kind of flaccid liberalism that prevails in the precincts of that establishment does seem to respond to guilt. So, yes, we should shame them at every opportunity, hold them accountable for their choices and demand explanations. On the whole, while this might result in some expanded tokenism, I am pessimistic that the literary establishment can reform itself so that it starts to look like the emerging, multiracial culture. This is because real diversity requires an actual and meaningful surrender of privilege. One column of review space in the New York Times Book Review section devoted to a Latina writer is one less column available to a white male writer. It seems unlikely to me, when push comes to shove, that that’s going to happen.

What we Latino/a writers and readers need to do is to create an alternative literary establishment that brings together writers and readers. The outlines of this alternative establishment already exist, some in more embryonic form than others. There is a young generation of Latino and Latina scholars at the country’s colleges and universities who recognize in a visceral way the importance of Latina/o literature and who are and will produce important studies of that literature. There are on-line Latino/a writers groups and literary festivals that celebrate Latino/a literature. There are a handful of publishers like Arte Publico in Texas and academic presses like the University of Wisconsin Press that give Latino/a writers a place for their work in the face of indifference from the NY publishing industry.

I would also like to see the Latino/a equivalent of the Lambda Literary Foundation. The LLF nurtures, promotes and preserves LGBT literature in a number of concrete ways. It annually presents the Lambda Literary Awards; it sponsors an LGBT Emerging Writer retreat where young writers come to be taught and mentored by established writers; it publishes a monthly on-line magazine that comprehensively reviews LGBT writers; and its Writers in School program brings LGBT writers into the public schools. A similar Latino/a literary organization could become a clearing house for all the individual efforts that are now slowly creating our own literary establishment.

When I think of my Latino/a community I am always reminded of the passage from the Gospel of Mark where Jesus says: “Have you not read this Scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.’ ” We Latino/as are the stone this culture has, in so many ways, rejected but our time is coming, indeed in places like California and Texas, it is already here. We will be the cornerstone of a new and invigorated United States. And, as part of that new and invigorated country, and, notwithstanding our treatment by the literary establishment, we are and will continue to create a literature that reflects, celebrates and explores our culture and our history. It is a great honor to be a Latino or Latina writer at this moment in history; now let us go out and do our work.


Thanks again, Michael. 

I've said it before -- Latinas/os will save the U.S.

Happy Birthday, Feliz Cumpleaños to La Bloga.  A grand 11 years old on November 28.  ¡Ajua!

Also on Saturday, Nov. 28 - Indies First - part of Small Business Saturday. Support your independent bookstores wherever you are. I'll be at the Tattered Cover, Colfax store, Denver, Saturday morning as an "honorary bookseller." Drop by - promote literacy.


Thursday, November 26, 2015

Chicanonautica: Guajolete Con Go Go Gophers

I could just wish you a feliz Día de los Guajoletes and save myself a lot of work, but there are some important things that should be addressed about this pre-Black Friday kick-off to the winter seasonal capitalist consumer orgy. Something should be said about Native Americans and their part in the Thanksgiving mythos. And what about Chicanos? Latinos? And all the Nican Tlaca?

I mulled it over, then I was reminded of the Go Go Gophers.

Watch out, that theme song can be a real earworm.

The Go Go Gophers have been called racist and politically incorrect. But, cartoons from earlier decades were a lot worse.

An unpopular truth about cartooning is that it's all about stereotypes. That is, simplifications of our complex reality that allow us to learn to deal with it all. But then, the point is to learn to deal with it, after a while you are supposed to be able to look beyond the stereotypes and deal with reality. People and cultures outgrow stereotypes, hopefully.

Also, racist cartoons were considered “normal” in their time. They provide a documentation of ugly truths of the past. They should not be forgotten, and we need to be aware of them, otherwise we distort history. Do I have to repeat that cliché about how those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it?

And if you really want to blow minds, twist the stereotypes around until they become the opposite of they originally meant.

I consider the Go Go Gophers to be the most subversive Saturday morning cartoon of the 1960s. Really. 

Colonel Kit Coyote and Sergeant Okey Homa are out to drive Chief Running Board and Ruffled Feathers out of their homeland, though the theme song says “Colonel he vow they will soon disappear.” Ah, the old Vanishing Americans myth that our schools manage to transmit to most of our children! The Indians were in the way, then mysteriously -- and conveniently – disappeared.

But here in Arizona, I see Indians every day. Some of my fellow Americans wonder what happened to the Maya, and speculate about mystical teleportation while not realizing that Maya are vacuuming their floors and cutting their lawns. There are none so blind . . .

The last two Gopher Indians aren't about to cooperate in their disappearance. In the trickster tradition -- that has roots in Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the ancient mythologies of the world, including a powerful Native connection -- they thwart the Colonel's plans. Usually, Ruffled Feathers, finds out about the plans, tells them to Running Board in his oopa-doopa-doopa gibberish, Running Board translates for the audience, Ruffled Feathers oopa-doops his own plan, to which Running Board replies, “Oopy-doopy, you um genius!”

The social roles are reversed. The chief takes orders from the brave. And the guy who doesn't speak English is the smart one.

The results are slapstick mayhem. Also good advice for surviving oppression with guerrilla/trickster tactics. Though in real life you have to a lot sneakier.

I didn't find a Thanksgiving Go Go Gophers cartoon, but The Big Pow Wow can be considered an anti-Thanksgiving piece:

And Don't Fence Me In shows the folly of building the fence to keep the “aliens” out. Donald Trump and his fans should take note:

So, enjoy that guajolete, carnales!

And, P.S.: To Hell with the Puritan tradition!

Ernest Hogan's work has appeared in Amazing, Analog, and Aztlán, and has not been officially classified as a psychotropic drug – yet. Meanwhile, some of his cartoony drawings will be soon be on display at Harold Washington College in Chicago.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Rudolfo Anaya's The Farolitos of Christmas: With "Season of Renewal" and "A Child's Christmas in New Mexico, 1944"

By Rudolfo Anaya
Illustrated by Amy Córdova

  • Age Range: 9 - 13 years
  • Hardcover: 48 pages
  • Publisher: Museum of New Mexico Press (September 15, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0890136092
  • ISBN-13: 978-0890136096

This keepsake volume of Rudolfo Anaya's Christmas writings opens with the classic New Mexico Christmas story The Farolitos of Christmas, Anaya's heartwarming story of a beloved holiday tradition, of a promise, and of homecoming on Christmas Eve. This Christmas story by one of New Mexico's best-known authors (Bless Me, Ultima) has delighted children and adults since it was first published in 1987. "Season of Renewal," Anaya's narrative of Christmastime in his native state, first appeared thirty years ago in the Los Angeles Times and recounts timeless Hispanic and Native traditions that continue in New Mexico to this day including the reenactments of revered nativity stories, Los Pastores and Las Posadas. Finally, in "A Child's Christmas in New Mexico, 1944," Anaya presents us with a storied poem, in stunning verse, never before published. It is Christmas morning, he is a seven-year-old boy, and is running through the icy dawn to his neighbor's door to seek "mis Crismes," special treats. That night he and his family walk to midnight Mass where the church choir memorably sings "Las Mañanitas," a birthday song, to baby Jesus. But there is a bittersweet aspect to looking back on childhood's magic from an older man's vantage; the world has changed, the ways of elders are nearly lost, innocence has transitioned to experience. Rudolfo Anaya's Christmas collection is like a snow globe--shake it, then watch as the scene emerges through the orb revealing tradition, family, community, love. This gift from a master storyteller and New Mexico treasure is sure to be loved by children of all ages for decades to come.

Rudolfo Anaya is the widely acclaimed author of more than thirty books including novels, children's books, short stories, and essays that explore Hispanic life and culture in New Mexico and the Southwest. He is best known for Bless Me, Ultima, for which he won the Premio Quinto Sol Chicano literature award in 1971. This classic book was adapted into a feature film in 2013. In 1993 Alburquerque won the PEN Center USA award for fiction. In 2001 Anaya received the National Medal of Arts in Washington, DC. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico and is professor emeritus of English at the University of New Mexico where he taught for thirty years. Anaya's children's books include Roadrunner's Dance, Serafina's Stories, The Santero's Miracle, The First Tortilla, and How Hollyhocks Came to New Mexico. Other books: Tortuga, Cuentos (MNM Press 1980), Zia Summer, Rio Grande Fall, Shaman Winter, Jemez Spring, and The Old Man's Love Story.

Amy Córdova is a visual artist, educator, author, and a nationally recognized children's book illustrator. She has illustrated eighteen books for children, and written and illustrated two of her own titles. She has twice received the national Pura Belpré Award for Illustration from the American Library Association and REFORMA. A sense of place, traditional cultural values, and the presence of spirit in everyday life are the core foundation of Córdova's colorful and inspirational artistic vision. She lives in Santa Fe.