The writer, poet and essayist Juvenal Acosta grew up in Mexico City—or, to be precise, on its northern fringe, in the 50s suburban experiment called Satellite City, a massive collection of cul de sacs, strip malls, and single family homes. As a teenage poet, he used to drive late night laps to the heart of the big D.F., where he was invited to join a cultish group of writers who called themselves the “infrarealists” and included Roberto Bolaño, among others. Instead, a few years later, he immigrated to the U.S., finding his way to San Francisco where his first work was in construction.
Today, two decades after he first arrived in the United States, he is the author of three novels including The Tattoo Hunter and The Violence of Velvet; Chair of the Writing and Literature department at California College of the Arts; and editor of contemporary Mexican poetry anthologies published by City Lights Books. He has also published journalism, book reviews, and three books in collaboration with artists, entitled Paper of Live Flesh, Tango of the Scar, and Tauromaquia, a mixed-media essay on bullfighting.
ERIC B. MARTIN: You have a unique position, in many ways, as a Mexican living the U.S., with a PhD in Literature, a coveted academic job, novels in print in both English and Spanish. Where do you see yourself in the 21st century spectrum?
JUVENAL ACOSTA: I’m in a position of privilege at this point in my life. I’m a member of the American middle class, I have a teaching job that I like, an academic background. At the same time, in the eyes of this society, I am a Mexican, and that gives me a point of view that I can’t put aside very easily. I wouldn’t trade it. But I need to figure out what I’m going to do with it. People will always think of me as a Mexican writer.
MARTIN: Are you?
ACOSTA: After I wrote three novels in the U.S that somehow deal with my life here, it became evident to me that even though I was writing in Spanish I was not writing quote “Mexican” novels. That I was doing something else. Yes, I’m still a Mexican writer, but these are American novels as well, that happen to be written in a language that is not English.
What I know is that I’m not writing what people are writing in Mexico. And I’m not writing what people are writing in the U.S. So I think this is a unique opportunity to do something that’s original and fresh. And I don’t know if it’s always good, but it doesn’t look like anything else that I’ve seen.
MARTIN: How could you describe that progression in your work? You started out as a poet.
ACOSTA: I am still injecting poetry into my fiction books, but I have no interest in publishing poetry anymore. I immerse myself in a particular form and explore it. In that way, I have moved from the philosophical novel, to the sort of thriller-like novel in my second, to a satirical novel in my third, now I would like to do something different.
MARTIN: What led you to the novel as a form?
ACOSTA: The novel is a very good vehicle for exploring ideas. Unfortunately, there are a lot of writers who believe that the fact they are addressing ideas can be interpreted as a sort of betrayal of storytelling. And I don’t think that there needs to be a conflict of interest. I love the detective novel, and I have noticed that many crime writers are dealing with philosophical issues as well, but they are just not telling you what they are doing.
My first novel deals a lot with the anguish of sex, death, the tension of desire. You have a lot of that in a good mystery novel. Take James Cain, in the Postman Always Rings Twice. That is a great influence on my writing, because he is dealing with the relationship between good and evil, loyalty, faithfulness, betrayal and so on, only he does it without the pretension of ideas.
MARTIN: In terms of the noir tradition as an influence on your work, does that also apply to film?
ACOSTA: The influence of film in my work is very big. When I sit down to write a story, I am almost seeing it the way I see one of my favorite filmmakers’ work. I would love to be able to write a novel that reads and provides the reader the same kind of experience he gets when he sees a film by Kieslowski, or to give the reader an experience equivalent to watching a film by Emilio Fernandez or Louis Malle.
One of the things about film noir, in particular, is the really intimate relationship between place and character. Film noir is all about the look, it’s not about the story. Light and darkness. How the spectator reacts to that particular environment. Film teaches you economy of language. You cannot spend too much time on something that is not relevant.
MARTIN: Mexican filmmakers seem to have a vision that people are responding to right now. And yet, unlike writers, no one seems to expect them to tell only “Mexican” stories. Why do you think?
ACOSTA: I think Hollywood is more sophisticated than the publishing world, which really wants an author to be “Mexican” or “Latin American”. I had that experience when my novel was rejected by a U.S. press because they didn’t think it was Mexican enough.
MARTIN: What did that mean?
ACOSTA: You know, they probably wanted me to explore the barrio. Everyone puts down Hollywood but they in a way are giving us a great lesson in dealing with these filmmakers as filmmakers and not Mexicans. What does it mean to be a Mexican writer, a Guatemalan, or a South African writer?
The era of identity driven writing is hopefully coming to an end. Women needed to address some issues, Blacks needed to address other issues, Latin Americans needed to deal with their own set of images. Yet, it’s never been like that, historically—if you look at great writers from other cultures, they just dealt with life, with the issues that are pertinent to life itself, and not some particular national or ethnic identity. I mean, you don’t read Tolstoy because he’s Russian. He just happens to be Russian.
Yet we write books that are profoundly Russian or profoundly Mexican. Rulfo is Rulfo because he is Mexican. Borges is Borges because he is Argentinian. But that need not be the criteria for reading a short story or a novel.
MARTIN: What is the criteria? Why would anyone read another novel rather than a memoir, non-fiction, or watch a movie, or go online, etc.?
ACOSTA: We complain a lot about people not reading, but I don’t think this has ever been a world where readers are the majority. I actually feel quite optimistic about the connection we have with books in general. I think that people read a lot. Even if we complain that people don’t read the right books or they are very interested only in genre fiction, well, the fact is that Oprah Winfrey chose Cormac McCarthy as her book of the month, and now thousands of housewives in the suburbs are reading Cormac McCarthy for the first time. So I’m hopeful. The whole Harry Potter phenomenon is great. I haven’t read any of the books but maybe I should. Hopefully I can learn something from J.K. Rowling. That wouldn’t hurt.
[La Bloga thanks Eric B. Martin for this interview with Juvenal Acosta. Martin’s most recent book is The Virgin's Guide to Mexico: A Novel (McAdam Cage).]