Helena María Viramontes is the author of The Moths and Other Stories; Under the Feet of Jesus, a novel; and the co-editor, with Maria Herrera Sobek, of two collections: Chicana (W)rites: On Word and Film and Chicana Creativity and Criticism. Her latest novel, Their Dogs Came With Them, will be published by Atria Books this week.
Viramontes was born in East Los Angeles into an already large family that always extended itself to relatives and friends who had crossed the border from Mexico to California. After graduating from James A. Garfield High School, she attended Immaculate Heart College, and worked part time at the bookstore and library to help pay for her education. Viramontes took a job as a bottler at the Pabst Blue Ribbon Brewery while taking graduate classes at California State University, Los Angeles. She received first prize for her fiction in the college’s Statement literary magazine.
A few years later, Viramontes won First Prize in UC-Irvine's Chicano Literary Fiction Competition. She then entered the Graduate Writing program at UCI, but left in 1981 and began to place her stories in small magazines such as Maize, and in anthologies, among them the influential Cuentos: Stories by Latinas, published by Kitchen Table Press.
A community organizer, Viramontes became co-coordinator of the Los Angeles Latino Writers Association and literary editor of XhistmeArte Magazine for many years. In the late 1980s, Viramontes helped found the Southern California Latino Writers and Filmmakers. In collaboration with feminist scholar Maria Herrera Sobek, Viramontes organized three major conferences at UCI resulting in two anthologies: Chicana Creativity and Criticism-Charting New Frontiers in American Literature, published by the University of New Mexico Press, and Chicana Writes: On Word and Film published by Third Woman Press. One of her short stories will appear in Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature, forthcoming from Bilingual Press.
In 1985, Arte Público Press published Viramontes’ first book, The Moths and Other Stories. Since then, her short stories have appeared in more than eighty anthologies. Viramontes completed her MFA under the guidance of Thomas Keneally in 1994. The following year her novel, Under the Feet of Jesus, about a makeshift family of migrant workers, was published to critical acclaim. Now, it is widely taught in high school and college classrooms.
Viramontes’ most recent work, Their Dogs Came With Them, is a heartrending but hopeful portrait of Chicana lives that are rocked by the turmoil and violence of East Los Angeles during the 1960s.
The recipient of numerous awards including the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, a Sundance Institute Fellowship, and the Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature, Viramontes is a teacher and mentor to countless young writers and is currently Professor of Creative Writing in the Department of English at Cornell University.
Viramontes kindly agreed to take some time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions about her new novel, the writing process and other interesting topics.
DANIEL OLIVAS: Why did you set your novel in East Los Angeles circa 1960 to 1970?
HELENA MARÍA VIRAMONTES: I set the novel in this decade because of the radical changes happening within the nation and within the community. The discontent with the Vietnam war, the rising power of the disenfranchised and the growing political consciousness planted by Civil rights, Chicano, and feminist movements all contributed to a chaotic questioning, a disruption of thinking and living. Business was no longer “as usual.” Though these were violent and exciting times, there were many who weren’t touched by these movements, left out. As the Grandmother Zumaya said of her daughter “whose dreams would be as big as revolutions that did not include you,” this is how I felt about several characters. However, Ermila symbolizes for me, a young woman whose feminist consciousness is growing, and who begins to ask “what’s wrong with this picture?” She arrives at this question by reading the changes in her community and within herself, and though she doesn’t understand, she has a natural intelligence and a moral understanding to begin to realize injustices.
I also thought it interesting to begin the novel with the coming of the freeways. I do remember a time when there weren’t any freeways, and then I do remember the neighborhood, whole city blocks abandoned, then chewed up, our neighbors disappeared. It devastated, amputated East L.A. from the rest of the city. The bulldozers resembled the conqueror’s ships coming to colonize a second time and I felt a real desire to portray the lives of those who disappeared.
OLIVAS: The four female protagonists (Turtle, Ana, Ermila and Tranquilina) appear to struggle with different aspects of human identity. Did you intend these girls/women to represent some kind of archetypal facets of what it meant to be Chicanas in East Los Angeles during the 1960s?
VIRAMONTES: As for the four female characters, I’ll leave it to the critics as to whether these women are archetypal. However, during the process of writing the novel, I realized that that the characters began to resemble elements. Turtle, fire; Tranquilina, earth; Ermila, wind; Ana, water. But I’m not quite sure how effective or how successful I was. Of course, I didn’t plan it that way. Like the mysteries of faith, they slowly began to show themselves as such, and I followed. And yes, these were Chicanas of the sixties. Miraculous, tough caretakers, but survivors of great moral strength. Without them, who gives birth to belief?
OLIVAS: The lives of your characters are filled with hardship and violence. Do you see some form of redemption arising from their ordeals?
VIRAMONTES: If I didn’t want to recognize the redemption of their everyday ordeals, why write about them in the first place? I marvel, truly marvel, at the everyday, ordinary ordeals of human life and I want to give justice to an existence that very few people or readers acknowledge. For example, my brother, who lived with Parkinson's for almost thirty years, is such a hero worthy of attention. Though the illness was to rob him of his independence, my brother Serafin never allowed the humiliation of the disease to remove the dignity by which he chose to live. He painted intense self-portraits, then turned around and painted garden benches, learned calligraphy, nourished beautiful gardens, painted delicate Chinese symbols. He stumbled and bruised and broke bones, but became a collector of baseball cards, coins, stamps. He clenched with pain, but was the chronicler, archivist, and organizer of photographs and a recorder of birthdays. He trembled continuously, but molded ceramic bowls, created ceramic flowers, designed wooden angels, sewed buttoned dolls and through it all, his sense of humor remained intact. My brother defied his body constantly by becoming constantly busy. In other words, it simply is amazing to me to see people rise to the potential of their grace in order to survive. I try to honor these unnamed heroes always. I know plenty. We need to acknowledge them, honor them, learn from them in order to live our own lives in a state of grace. To learn hope and the possibility of human will. All this, the whole tortilla, is redemptive.
OLIVAS: How does Vietnam play a role in your characters’ lives? Do you see any similarity with the current war in Iraq?
VIRAMONTES: The short of it is yes. I began the novel, sketching it when the first Iraqi war began, then put down the novel to begin Under the Feet of Jesus. And then resumed the novel in 1996 and wrote. But then 9/11 altered our lives forever. The rhetoric of hatred, the chaotic politics mixing with mass hysteria and ultra patriotism was everywhere. A transformation of language began taking place- words were being reduced to essentialist notions, completely violating my sensibility as a writer and as a human being. Flannery O’Connor once said that writers have to read life “in a way that includes the most possibilities—like the medieval commentators on scripture, who found three kinds of meaning in the literal level of the sacred text,” and yet we were asked to forgo meaning, bury possibilities, see the world in the most restricted and oppositional way.
I felt I had to get my faith in the written word back ASAP for my sanity sake. I began to see faith in the written word as a political practice. Because fiction for me is scripture. I had to trust its power to transform chaos into order, aggression into peace, hopelessness into hope. I began to appreciate the capacity of words, their inherent and open meanings, the way I posed to stretch them, invited the reader to participate not as a passive receiver, but contributor of meanings. I began to feel the sacredness of the written word all over again. Though I wrote of the 60s and 70s, now the characters had more agency then ever. They became full characters to me, lovely creatures that no longer haunted me, but lived with me in guarded agreement. I was no longer intimidated by the scope of the novel, and as for the language, I knew, knew, that the magic of flight lay in the language without forgetting once that I am a realist and hope has nothing to do with magic.
OLIVAS: You were the recipient of the 2006 Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature, given annually by the University of California (Santa Barbara), the Santa Barbara Book & Author Festival and Santa Barbara City College. What is the significance of winning this award?
VIRAMONTES: The significance for me in winning the 2006 Luis Leal Award was twofold. Firstly, I was greatly honored by UCSB Chicano/Latina faculty, the Santa Barbara Book festival, and Santa Barbara City College committee members that chose me for their annual award. Luis Leal is our national treasure and I feel greatly inspired by his lifetime of work in Chicano/a studies. Secondly, all the young Chicanas who came to the event brought me to tears. They looked so very proud and I came to understand how truly special this honor was, not just for me, but for all those mujeres in the audience.
OLIVAS: Do you believe that writers have any responsibilities to their readers? Do writers-of-color have responsibilities that other writers do not?
VIRAMONTES: All serious writers have the responsibility to try and disrupt patterns of thought and behavior that damage the integrity of life. That’s why most writers do their best work while living on the fringes of a society. We can have a better view from there. But I think writers of color are no different than both Palestine writers and Israeli writers who try and capture a community under siege. Because our communities are constantly bombarded with inhumane violence and racism, I think we writers write with greater urgency. I also think we try to provide fictive conditions by which readers will begin a conversation with themselves and the text. The greatest compliment to a writer is if a reader is disturbed enough to begin questioning his/her own beliefs.
OLIVAS: How long did it take you to write this novel? What was your writing process like?
VIRAMONTES: Not an easy question to answer. I began sketching it in 1991, then dropped it to pay full attention to my novel, Under the Feet of Jesus. Then picked up the draft again in 1996. But teaching full time, university obligations, traveling, and mothering kept me incredibly busy. Consequently my writing schedule followed the university seasons: I wrote winter break through early March until my time slowly diminished from weekends to hours to none altogether. Then I had to contain my frustration and sanity until the summer and then write until late September when my time slowly would wither again and on and on it went, year after year.
I do not recommend writing a novel in this way, and it’s no wonder that fiction writers in the academy actually become less productive. Writers of novels need to sustain a whole world in their head. We sleep and eat and love with the novel percolating constantly and its continuous dream is determined by continuity of time. When a writer is forced to halt the writing altogether for several months, it becomes time-consuming, frustrating and difficult to resume the threads of the story without first working your head into it once again, be reintroduced into your dream, and precious time is spent on slowly re-submerging yourself back into the story. This seemed to be happening every few months. Writing novels is certainly not for the fainthearted and writing them on a university schedule can be brutally challenging. On writing days, I paced up and down in my office staring at the computer, other times I thought if I moved my computer set up (which I did- from my study for a few years, then into the dining room for a few years- then finally the kitchen- that is until we moved to another house) that these physical movements might help in overcoming my overwhelming insecurities.
Unlike the process of writing Under the Feet of Jesus, this novel was so very different, pulling from me rather than filling me, wrenching from me rather than relieving me. And yet, the only thread of hope I had was in trusting my imagination. I knew I had to give in fully in order to let it guide me. The list of characters kept increasing and with this increase, the stories multiplied like freeway interchanges. Having this Eureka moment, I realized that the structure of the novel began to resemble the freeway intersections. I had used something very similar to this in my short story “The Cariboo Café.” The intersection structure had always been in the drafts of the “Dogs” novel, but never as strongly until I recognized it. Years later I recognized this same structure in the movie “Amores Perros” and (I admit that it seems easier to pull off these story intersections visually, then to do so using words). And like the freeways upheld by pillars, I realized I had four pillars in four characters of which most other characters orbited around.
On days when the mind and the page went blank, I just kept my fingers close to the keyboard, walking distance close, just in case something would happen. I had to pay close attention. I reminded myself that a novel begins by one word following another. One sentence followed by another. One paragraph followed by another; that discipline, soldier-like discipline was absolutely necessary- as Flannery O’Connor once said, “If there’s a great idea somewhere out there, it knows where to find me- between 9-12 at my desk;” By working on sentences one at a time, I realized I wouldn’t be so intimidated by the scope of the novel. I finally completed the full novel on May 31, 2004.
OLIVAS: What books are you currently reading?
VIRAMONTES: I am currently reading H.G. Carrillo’s brilliant short story “Pornografia,” just received the galleys of Manuel Munoz’s new collection of stories The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue and I just finished Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Alex Espinoza’s Still Water Saints is waiting for me. For bedtime reading, I’m 150 pages into Bird and Sherwin’s biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
OLIVAS: Any observations about teaching?
VIRAMONTES: What Gabriel García Márquez has taught me when I studied with him at the Sundance Institute: Story has no limit.