Monday, May 21, 2007

Viramontes looks to roots for setting of her gritty novel

Book Review/Author Profile

In 1985, Arte Público Press published Helena María Viramontes' first book, The Moths and Other Stories, which has become a classic in Chicano literature. Since then, her short stories have appeared in more than 80 anthologies.

Viramontes published the novel Under the Feet of Jesus (Plume Books) in 1995, about a makeshift family of migrant workers. It was met with great critical acclaim and now graces many high-school and college reading lists.

Now, fans of Viramontes' writing can delight in the publication of her new novel, Their Dogs Came With Them (Atria Books, $23 hardcover). It possesses Viramontes' trademark poetic grittiness, with well-drawn characters who almost leap from the page.

The novel is a heart-rending but hopeful portrait of lives that are rocked by the turmoil and violence of East Los Angeles during the 1960s.

Asked whether she saw some form of redemption arising from her mostly female protagonists' struggles with poverty, bigotry and governmental abuses, Viramontes responded with characteristic candor:

"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."

In many ways, this sentiment is emblematic of Viramontes' perception of writers and their role in society. She asserts that "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."

With respect to writers of color such as herself, Viramontes provocatively adds: "Because our communities are constantly bombarded with inhumane violence and racism, I think we writers write with greater urgency." She takes this role seriously: "The greatest compliment to a writer is if a reader is disturbed enough to begin questioning his/her own beliefs."

In choosing the setting and era for her new novel, Viramontes did not need to stray far from her roots. She was born in East Los Angeles into a large family that always extended to relatives and friends who had crossed the border from Mexico to California.

While attending Immaculate Heart College, she worked part time at the bookstore and library to help pay for her education. Viramontes eventually earned her master of fine arts degree from the University of California at Irvine.
She has gone on to win many awards, including the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, a Sundance Institute Fellowship, and the Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature.

Today, Viramontes is a teacher and mentor to many young writers. She is a professor of creative writing at Cornell University.

Despite well-deserved acclaim, Viramontes does not pretend that writing is easy. Their Dogs Came With Them was more than a decade in the making because teaching and life's other demands often devoured her attention.

When Viramontes could make time to return to her novel, she sometimes suffered from writer's block. But she did not give up:

"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."

Viramontes also observes: "Writing novels is certainly not for the fainthearted, and writing them on a university schedule can be brutally challenging."

We can be grateful for her perseverance. Their Dogs Came With Them establishes that Viramontes is simply one of our finest chroniclers of the ordinary but heroic ordeals of human life.

[This review/author profile first appeared in the El Paso Times.]

ALOUD at Central Library presents

Helena Maria Viramontes and Manuel Muñoz

Date : Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Where: Central Library, 630 W. Fifth Street, Los Angeles, CA
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Cost: Free but reservations requested

Event Description: "Telling Stories that Matter: A Conversation"

Two California-born writers—one from East L.A. and the other from the Central Valley—discuss their understanding of stories as a way to complicate our views of self, of morality, and of our relationships with the world around us.

Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., L.A., will have two readings of interest to readers of La Bloga:

Max Benavidez & Gronk - The author, Benevidez, and subject, the artist known as Gronk, will discuss and sign the book, Gronk (UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press). Saturday, May 26 at 5:00 p.m.

Myriam Gurba - The author will read and sign her new book, Dahlia Season (Manic D Press). Tuesday, May 22 at 7:30 p.m.

For information on either of these events, call: 323-660-1175.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for listing my reading for Dahlia Season...If you'd care for a review copy, please get in touch with me at! I'll be happy to send you one!