Monday’s post from Daniel Olivas…
Alex Espinoza was born in Tijuana, Mexico, the youngest of eleven children; his family came originally from Michoacan. He grew up in the city of La Puente, just outside of Los Angeles. Espinoza attended San Bernardino Valley College before transferring to the University of California-Riverside, where he earned his BA in Creative Writing. He went on to receive his MFA from UC-Irvine, where he was the editor of the university’s literary magazine Faultline. Espinoza has worked as a gardener, an egg candler, a teacher, and a salesman and retail manager, selling everything from used appliances to furniture and custom-framed art to rock T-shirts and body jewelry. Starting in fall 2007, Espinoza will be an Assistant Professor of English at California State University, Fresno.
Still Water Saints (Random House) is Espinoza’s first novel. His essays have appeared in the New York Times Magazine and Salon. Additional essays appeared under the title "Jesus Stole my Bike," volume 30 of the historic Chicano Chapbook Series.
Espinoza was kind enough to answer a few questions for La Bloga.
DANIEL OLIVAS: Your novel consists of interlocking short stories all revolving around Perla Portillo, the proprietor of Botánica Oshún. How did you come to this structure? Did you try other structures?
ALEX ESPINOZA: The final form was the end of a long slow evolution. The first version – my undergraduate thesis when I was working with Susan Straight at UC-Riverside – was, to borrow a term from Ursula Le Guin, a “story suite”, a cluster of stories sharing some location or character or thematic link. In my case, the center was the botánica. But in that early version, Perla was a just a catalyst, not a character. And it stayed that way as I continued working on stories in grad school.
But then a funny thing happened – I looked at the various stories, and while they were interwoven, with characters and locations from one story showing up in others, I saw that Perla remained a cipher. She behaved and spoke differently in each appearance. I needed to figure out who she was. So I wrote the framing narrative with Perla to give a deeper look at her than the customers’ individual stories allowed me to do. It also knit the “story suite” together. It was also at this point that I introduced the alternating voices, mixing a third person account of a day in Perla’s life followed by a first person account from one of her customers.
Initially, the action of Perla’s story took place over the course of one particularly horrendous week in her life. In the (nearly) final manuscript, I decompressed things further, gave Perla (and, I hope, my readers) some breathing room, and spread her narrative out over a year; it was also at this point I introduced Rodrigo, the teenaged boy she struggles to help through the course of the novel. I settled on saints’ days as a device to give the whole a structure, and to play around with various calendars – the sacred calendar, the secular calendar, the seasonal calendar. But the connection of the saint’s day to each first person chapter that follows is not strictly temporal; some of their stories take place before Perla’s year, others during it.
As to what the final book is – Novel? Short story collection? Novel in stories? Something else? I’ll leave that for academics or Phil from marketing to sort out.
OLIVAS: Though your novel is not one based in the tradition of what some call magical realism, there are, nonetheless, many spiritual aspects to the characters’ lives. Were you trying to express a particular religious viewpoint in your novel?
ESPINOZA: No, not at all. In fact, I think botánicas themselves are hard to pin down to one viewpoint, at least out here in California. Botánicas are rooted Caribbean and Afro-Latino faiths, such as Lukumi (or Santeria), and I wanted to respect that. The name of the botánica in the book, Botánica Oshún, derives from one of the Orishas (roughly speaking, spirits or divinities) of Lukumi; she’s associated with fresh water, with love, with beauty. She’s sort of the Lukumi Aphrodite. In Santeria, she’s syncretized or identified most frequently with the Virgin of Cobre, patroness of Cuba.
The West Coast version of a botánica is, I think – and I am generalizing here – different from that on the East Coast. Ours include stronger Mexican elements, including curanderismo, Mexican herbal remedies, and Mexican folk saints like Juan Soldado, Nino Fidencio, Don Pedro Jaramillo, and la Santa Muerte. Given our location on the Pacific Rim, some borrow elements from various Asian religions. Plus, they’ve borrowed such things as crystals and a reverence for Native American or pseudo-Native American imagery from "New Age” culture (which may be a very Californian contribution to botánicas). Some sell vitamins and supplements. And I’ve also seen botánicas selling Mickey Mouse statues, SpongeBob Squarepants piñatas, thrift store clothing. One near my house shared space with a tile and flooring supply store for a while.
That said, I was raised Catholic – I’m a failed altar boy – and Catholic doctrine and catechism definitely inform elements of the book; the reading from Habakkuk in the novel is the doctrinally assigned reading for Mass on that date, for example. I regret that I wasn’t able to explore the Pentecostal element in Latino culture, though I plan to tackle that at some point.
As far as the magic goes, I was very conscious of the traditions of magical realism in Latin American literature, as well the tradition of the curandero figure in Chicano lit in such key works as Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima. I deliberately played against those tropes, in part because it felt like that was something that was somehow expected for me to do: to write about magic, to have miracles, people turning into possums, rivers rolling backwards. I wanted to demystify something too easily written off as “magic” or “superstition," which is why I tried to ground Perla’s story in the mundane world of retail.
More than magic, I kept being drawn to questions of faith – what it means to believe. I think many of the masters of American literature – Hawthorne, O’Connor, Morrison – have dealt heavily with issues of religion and faith. The way we believe, why we believe, or how we express what we believe is constantly changing, and this is something that the hybrid culture of the botánica lends itself to examining.
OLIVAS: Your novel came out with a simultaneous Spanish-language edition. Who did the translation and what was your role in that process?
ESPINOZA: The translation was done by Liliana Valenzuela, who has translated Sandra Cisneros (Woman Hollering Creek, Caramelo), Denise Chavez (Last of the Menu Girls), and Julia Alvarez (Before We were Free), among others. She’s from Mexico City, but now lives in Austin, Texas. I met her at Sandra Cisneros’ Macondo Workshop one summer and was lucky enough to have her say “Yes” when I asked her to do my translation. She’s fantastic, a joy to work with.
It worked something like this: Lilliana went through and translated it sentence by sentence. Once she’d worked through it and was left with just the passages or words she had questions about (which had to do with the more “vernacular” or slangy parts of the book, regionalisms, etc), that’s when I stepped in. I think we worked together most closely, exchanged the most emails and phone calls, over two first person sections: Shawn, the speed addict, and Azucar, the drag queen. There were a lot of discussions about American slang, California Spanish vs Texas Spanish vs. Mexican Spanish, and Spanglish. In some places, like “Asi Like Magic," Azucar’s story, where the central character uses a lot of Spanish and Spanglish, Liliana translated some of those terms into English, so that phrases in English were embedded in the larger Spanish text. When it came to proofing the Spanish, I looked it over, but I trusted Liliana’s literary Spanish far more than mine. I was really impressed by how she was able to maintain the rhythms and beats of my writing in her translation, for which I’m incredibly grateful.
We just did a reading together a couple of moths ago at BookPeople in Austin. We swapped off, reading English and Spanish. Liliana’s an amazing performer; for a taste of what she’s like when she reads, you can listen to her on the recording of La casa en Mango Street. I really had to rise to the occasion, reading with her. But I think all my subsequent readings have been better as a result. I’d do another reading with Liliana in a heartbeat.
OLIVAS: Have you known a Perla-like person?
ESPINOZA: No. None of my characters are directly based on anyone. While I researched botanicas, visited a lot of them, talked to family members and friends who had been to them. But ultimately, she’s my own creation.
OLIVAS: What special issues or concerns, if any, do you see Latino/a authors facing today?
ESPINOZA: Do you have a few hours?
It’s an exciting time to be a Latino writer in the U.S. I think we’re really starting to break into the mainstream and being taken more and more seriously as literary writers. The week my book was reviewed in the Los Angeles Times, for example, it shared a two-page spread with Daniel Alarcón’s Lost City Radio. And our books were not reviewed by other Latinos, which often seems to have been the case in the past, that Latino books were assigned to Latino reviewers.
Besides the two of us, the last several years have introduced readers to such disparate voices as Michael Jaime-Becerra, Manuel Muñoz, Daniel Alarcón, Christina Granados, Salvador Plascencia, and H.G. Carrillo. And I’m thrilled also that this year, Helena Viramontes’ long-anticipated second novel has arrived, and Dagoberto Gilb has another novel on the way.
That said, I do think there are still plenty of special concerns Latino/a authors today face. Again, I’m speaking largely of “literary fiction,” because this is what I write and know. I think one of the biggest challenges is finding readers. It’s certainly not a problem unique to Latino authors: book review coverage in print continues to dwindle and independent bookstores continue to close. But at the same time, we’ve seen rapid changes in the last decade as the big publishers have created imprints for Latino books or stepped up efforts to publish and distribute Latino authors. There’s also been more effort to produce Spanish translations.
The trick, though, is getting these American Latino writers into the hands of American readers, Latino and non-Latino alike. Publishing, like most industries, still seems to be sorting a lot out when it comes both to promoting Latino writers and to marketing to Latino audiences. Navigating the strange and hybrid world of multiple languages, ethnicities and origins, of multiple geographies – it’s a challenge. Think about it on the simplest level: in terms of publicity, there are (1) the media in general; (2) the Spanish-language media (when dealing with a work that gets translated); and (3) the English-language Latino-oriented media. Random House actually assigned me two publicists, one for English, one for Spanish. But that third field – the Tu Ciudad and Latina magazines, the SiTVs, the Latino radio shows – that’s the slippery in-between zone. And it’s a media market that’s growing just as coverage of books in general is declining in a lot of places.
Also, despite our growing presence in the US in general and in American publishing, it seems there’s still a narrowish view of what Latinos here in the U.S. are. Thinking especially of Mexican-Americans and Chicanos, there are certain expectations of what we should be writing about, certain notions of who we are. The three big territories that spring to mind include (a) The world of urban poverty, inner cities, the “barrio,” and gangs; (b) The world of migrant work and rural poverty; (c) The world of magic, “magical realism,” and folklore.
But we also need to explore new territories as our experiences and our realities change. So we’re moving into the suburbs, and we’re writing about it. And we’re moving into new careers – doctors, lawyers, professors, scientists – and we’re writing about it. And we’re moving into new parts of the U.S., and we’re writing about it. I’m looking forward to reading the exciting new Latino voices that we’re going to see in the next decade or two coming out of the American South, for example, where the Latino population is rapidly growing.
Note that I’m loath when talking about tropes and traditions to use the word stereotype. It seems like it gets thrown around too easily as a shorthand criticism, particularly used by Latinos critiquing the work of Latinos. Once, in a workshop made up mainly of Mexican-American writers, for example, I was told that Juan’s Elvis-obsessed mother was a “stereotype.” I wasn’t sure what this meant. Should I have made her obsessed with Herman’s Hermits or Nirvana or Angela Lansbury instead? Stereotypes are tricky. Some critics would have you believe it’s best not even to approach them. But I’ll ask what I’ve asked before of those who say “Chicano writers need to stop writing about X, or Y, or Z?”: Can someone please tell me what I can write about? Should I turn to writing Chica Lit, or is that now a stereotype, too? Maybe I can do “Latino vampires.” No, wait, that’s been done. How about “Vampire chicas… in space…who solve crimes!” Sorry if I sound a little irked, but here’s the thing: if we go out of our way to avoid them and not write about things or people deemed stereotypes, I think we’re actually guilty of giving those stereotypes power.
We also face the continuing desire for the exotic in publishing. Of late, this seems to involve works that are set outside the US. I saw Daniel Alarcón a few weeks ago talking about how many great contemporary Latin American writers aren’t being translated into English. Other than, say, Alberto Fuguet, where are the Crack and McOndo writers, for example? The American publishing industry (again, at least of late, and I’m generalizing) seems to rely on writers living in America writing in English to open windows on these worlds outside the United States. And I think this is true, too, of the recent surge of writers working in the US writing in English about Africa or Asia.
This puts Chicano writers (as well as, for example, Puerto Rican-, Cuban-, and Dominican-American writers who write about life in the U.S.) in an odd position of being neither fish nor fowl. We’re not writing about “over there.” We’re writing about here, about American lives. We’re “naturalized” and part of the landscape here, and yet we’re still not fully understood or embraced by the mainstream. Obviously there are plenty of interesting stories here at home as well as those abroad. And I think there is a mainstream taste for Latino culture: what is that statistic, that salsa is the best-selling condiment in the US? But, to use another barometer of popular taste, consider this: when Oprah finally picked a Latino writer for her book club, despite the fact that’s she’s based in Chicago, the city with the second highest Mexican-American population (after L.A.), she picked Gabriel García Márquez. And, so we continue to see books by Latino authors with palm trees on the front, described with words like fiery or tropical or magical. And, yes, I’ll be honest: I’m sure the perception that my book deals with magic, with miracles, has benefited me.
Anyway, in sum, it seems to me that publishing and readers want the new thing – the literally “novel”, whether in terms of voice or theme or setting or structure. But they also want the comfortable, the familiar. And writers, too, face the constant tension between cutting through the brush, striking out in new directions, exploring uncharted territories, and respecting and building on literary tradition, entering into a dialogue with other writers. But it’s this very tension between the familiar and the novel, though, that I think makes great literature.
Finally, I think there’s a lot we still need to do to build and strengthen our communities of writers, of readers, of centers for books and literacy and culture. My wish list would include an organization to support and promote Latino writers along the lines of the Hurston-Wright Foundation (and groups like Con Tinta and the Macondo Workshop are definitely stepping into that void) and a coalition of Latino and Spanish-language bookstores (along the lines of the various regional booksellers associations of the ABA).
I’m hoping to be able to use my new academic position as something of a bully pulpit to help bring some of this about.
OLIVAS: Who are your literary influences?
ESPINOZA: I’m not sure how much I can truly call them influences, but writers I admire and turn to again and again include Jessica Hagedorn, Willa Cather, John Steinbeck, Juan Rulfo, Mario Vargas Llosa, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Italo Calvino.
Of the Chicano writers, I owe an enormous debt to the trailblazers – the Tomas Riveras, the Rudolfo Anayas. And, more recently, writers like Gary Soto, Sandra Cisneros, Helena Viramontes, and Dagoberto Gilb. The sort of successes that writers like me are having today and the attention we are receiving is because of them. And the fact that mainstream publishers are publishing us today owes so much to the small presses – Arte Público Press, Bilingual Press, the university presses. It’s easy to forget that The House on Mango Street was first published by Arte Público, years before Vintage picked it up. And my own first published work was in Gary Soto’s Chicano Chapbook Series.
OLIVAS: Who are your mentors?
ESPINOZA: My teachers, first and foremost. Most especially Susan Straight at Riverside. Susan’s still one of my most trusted readers, the person who I’m most likely to send my work to first. We write about similar geographies and similar people, although with very different perspectives. Then Geoffrey Wolff and Michelle Latiolais at Irvine. I was able to do an independent study with Geoffrey about memoir, which had a huge impact on my writing, both fiction and non-fiction. At Irvine, I also got to work briefly with Mike Davis, who had a similar impact on my approach to writing about place. And, outside of the workshop, Dagoberto Gilb and Sandra Cisneros, both of whom have been hugely supportive.
OLIVAS: Has becoming a published author altered your view of literature?
ESPINOZA: Of literature, no. Of publishing, yes. No matter how much I read about what the process would be like, nothing quite prepared me for the roller coaster. No, make that a marathon!
OLIVAS: What is the function or purpose of fiction, in your opinion?
ESPINOZA: I think fiction has multiple purposes. One is purely aesthetic and artistic, dealing with the use of language, of narrative structures. But I think fiction can also have a documentary or social purpose. The trick is not to let an agenda override the story. Fiction is not a manifesto or a treatise or a how-to manual. In short, the power of fiction lies in two things: what we tell, and how we tell it. The best fiction shines a light, asks questions, but doesn’t posit solutions.