Monday, November 05, 2007

SPOTLIGHT ON HIMILCE NOVAS

Himilce Novas is the author of numerous works of fiction and non-fiction. Her fiction includes Mangos, Bananas and Coconuts: A Cuban Love Story (Arte Público Press, 1996; Riverhead / Penguin, 1997 paperback), and Princess Papaya (Arte Público Press, 2005). Among her works of non-fiction are the popular Everything You Need to Know About Latino History (Plume / Penguin 1994; 1997; 2003; 2008); Latin American Cooking Across the USA (Knopf, 1997); Buena Mesa (Knopf, 1997); Latino Art and Culture in the United States (The National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1996); Everything You Need to Know about Asian American History (Plume / Penguin, 1996; 2003 ); The Hispanic 100: A Ranking of the Latino Men and Women Who Have Most Influenced American Thought and Culture (Citadel Press, 1995); and Remembering Selena: A Tribute in Pictures and Words / Recordando a Selena: Un tributo en palabras y fotos (St. Martin's Press, 1995).

Novas has been a fiction editor of the MultiCultural Review for the past year and mostly reviews Latino and GLTB themed books. Novas has taught literature and writing as visiting author at various colleges and universities, among them the University of California at Santa Barbara, Wellesley College, Clark University and Tulane University, and continues to speak on Latino history and culture at colleges across the country. She spans both coasts and currently resides in the West.

Because the new edition of Everything You Need to Know About Latino History is being released this month, I wanted to chat with Novas about the book. She kindly agreed.

DANIEL OLIVAS: How did you come up with the idea to write the first edition of Everything You Need to Know About Latino History?

HIMILCE NOVAS: When I was in high school, in New York City, I bemoaned the fact that we learned about Anglo American history almost exclusively (with European history thrown in around the edges as direct lineage, of course) but were taught nothing of Latino contributions or how we are part and parcel of American history, culture and society. Somewhere around age 16, I told myself that some day I would do something to remedy that egregious omission (not to mention disrespect, discrimination and disservice to Americans as a whole), although I didn’t know what, precisely, I would do about it at the time. I was always one for tilting at windmills and dreaming big.

Years passed, and I became a journalist (magazine and newspaper editor and writer), and an editor for major publishing houses in NYC, including Doubleday & Co and Scholastic and others. I also wrote plays and worked in experimental Off Broadway companies such as The Open Theater. I also had some of my plays published and produced in NYC (one by Joseph Papp, founder of The Public Theater and major theater producer). Then, circa 1994, I decided to devote most of my time writing my own fiction and non-fiction from home. I began thinking along the lines of making a contribution where I could make the most good. I also thought that writing a non-fiction book would help underwrite my fiction writing which is often a more gut-wrenching and slower process (slower to yield living wage income as well). In weighing the possibilities, I addressed the old tried and true: “Find a need and fill it.” I realized that the “need” in publishing at that time was for a ready history of Latinos in a way that was accessible to all and yet comprehensive, deceptively erudite, and contemporary—a book that would cover both past and present living history and would place Latinos within the context and content of American life, which is where we belong and always have been, though our lives and contributions have been marginalized.

The idea of Everything You Need to Know About Latino History dawned on me like pure inspiration. I had been a fan of Merv Griffin’s TV program, Jeopardy!, which I still watch, so I suppose, subconsciously, that gave me the idea of doing it in a question and answer format that readers could handle “cafeteria style” rather than a book they had to read chronologically beginning to end. At first, my agent shopped it around and the answer that came back was that “such a book is not needed.” Ha!! So, we persevered and finally met a wonderful, progressive editor at Plume/Penguin who immediately saw the need and market for such a book. Thankfully, the first edition caught on immediately.

Before long, I was being interviewed by NY and national TV, radio and print media. Even the New York Public Library recommended the book as one of the “must read” books. Soon, it was embraced by hundreds of other libraries, museums, institutions, teachers, students and ordinary citizens who were either Latino or understood that here was a whole history they needed to find out about—and wanted to. Among the fruitage that came as a result of the: The National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian subsequently asked me to write a multimedia program on Latino Art based on the Museum’s collection as a natural extension of the book (click here). Also, several top United States corporations have made and continue to make the book required reading for their employees. It is also part of many a high school and college curriculum (a few college courses use it as the main textbook for certain courses). As a result of this Latino History journey, I have met many inspiring Latinos and lovers of Latino culture in my travels, and have made Latino studies part of my life-long learning…for me, it’s the gift that keeps on giving…

OLIVAS: How often do you update it? How do you decide what to include in it?

NOVAS: We try to update every four years or sooner. What gets included has to do with everything that’s happened in current Latino social, cultural and political life that’s made history since the last edition. Space is always at a premium, since I have to keep it down to a certain number of negotiable pages. Thus, not everything that I’d like included makes it in, but certainly the most important events (i.e., the nomination of an Attorney General that happens to be Latino; a new novel by a Latina that hits the best seller list; the immigration legislation issues, including backlash and discrimination, and so on).

This new edition (2008) is the fattest edition yet. The growth in Latino presence and contribution has been remarkable in the last few years, and my task was to make the book reflect that. These are very promising and yet challenging times for the Latino community in our country. On the one hand, we are experiencing unprecedented, bald faced, heinous discrimination and in many ways, even persecution. On the other hand, our numbers, presence, contribution and importance as part of the American fabric has never been more felt nor more powerful. It’s a true contradiction but the future is ours to lose. From my perspective, it is a bright and powerful future indeed that awaits our progeny. I remember when I was barely in my twenties and a member of NY NOW, I helped organize the First Women’s March down Fifth Avenue, when Fifth Avenue was still a two-way street. In the middle of the march, a woman who appeared to be in her eighties, jumped the sidelines and came to me (I guess I was the one within view of her at that instant), and said, “Thank you, thank you for marching for my granddaughters and great granddaughters. That’s who you’re doing it for.” I think that each of us making some contribution and celebrating and sharing Latino history, life and multicultural culture is also doing it for those future granddaughters--and grandsons—that woman had in mind.

OLIVAS: What's the best part of writing the book?

NOVAS: Learning so many things about our own history as a people that I never quite knew and also being able to set the record straight and correct harmful myths and outright lies about Latinos. Setting the record straight. Having our say. Having a voice for the millions who haven’t had a voice and still don’t. In the words of Don Quixote, I would say it amounts to having the duty (and privilege) to “deshacer entuertos,” and shine the light of truth and justice where it’s needed. Only, in my case, it’s no longer tilting at windmills but spinning with them and enjoying the process.

OLIVAS: What has been the response from readers?

NOVAS: The book, in its various editions, has been a consistent robust seller for over 10 years. I guess it is considered a classic in its genre. It certainly spearheaded a whole trend and even genre. I get incredible letters from Latinos and non-Latinos alike, thanking me for enlarging the tent of their understanding and, in the case of Latinos, for helping them feel included and with an important place at the American table. Many Latinos have written me saying they were embarrassed to admit that before reading my book, they could not even answer anyone who asked them to explain things like “where does the term Mexican stand off comes from?” I tell them not to be embarrassed. After all, that’s what happens when a person’s history is deleted right in front of them. It happened to African Americans too, of course, and much has been done to correct that as well. And to Asian Americans…and to many other hyphenated Americans. In that sense, I see my book as empowering for Latinos because knowledge about oneself is power.

OLIVAS: What are you working on now?

NOVAS: I’m working on a novel that happens mostly in Arizona and California, with NY flashbacks (the three pivotal places where I’ve spent my years, not counting my early childhood years in Cuba). It's a kind of literary thriller but not a whodunit per se in any way. It's a first person narrative and the two main characters are Latino lesbians (but it is not a lesbian genre novel at all; the main characters just happens to be gay. They also happen to be Mexican Americans and other Latino blends but that is not the theme, though of course what one is always impacts on what happens to you, and on one’s whole weltanschauung).

The actual writing is slow going because it’s rather intricate and I’m sailing in unchartered territory that needs daily discovery and revision. But I show up for life and writing on a daily basis, even when I don’t feel like it. Aside from that, I’m lecturing and holding workshops for writers’ and students and several other groups when called upon from time to time. I love doing that and I’m always eager to lecture and run motivational workshops. I find these extremely nurturing and, really, I get back as much as I give. I’m also thinking about new forms of cooking and how we treat and think about food. Some time ago, I wrote a cookbook for the Knopf Cooks American series with my partner, Rosemary Silva. We did it first in English and then translated it ourselves for the Spanish language edition (Latin American Cooking Across the USA; La Buena Mesa), and now I’m thinking about a new kind of cultural cookbook that would be practical and yet a radical departure. But maybe not a book at all. Maybe a Web venue.

I am also involved in GLTB rights, working in some small way towards Equal Marriage, which is what we call “same-sex marriage.” And, alas, in Women’s Rights work and very much hoping and praying for a new progressive, liberal and inclusive administration and a permanent end to the present catastrophic war. Comprehension, which means both understanding and inclusiveness, is sorely needed in these present times. Loving one another is really the bugle call for humanity’s survival and progress. There is much work before us…I have this quote from Mary Baker Eddy on my study wall, and look at it several times a day: “Devotion of thought to an honest achievement makes that achievement possible.”

OLIVAS: Mil gracias for spending time with La Bloga.

◙ COMIDA COVERED AT OUR FAVORITE MAGAZINE: If you’re feeling hungry and are desperately seeking a new place to eat, then you must pick up the November issue of Tu Ciudad, on newsstands now. The cover story, “Tastes of the City,” lets you in on 25 Latino dishes, desserts, and discoveries in Southern California. That’s in addition to Tu Ciudad’s usual restaurant listings. Plus go to here to find a larger, searchable database of Latino restaurants. I also note that Tu Cuidad has a cool and informed team of bloggers: Rhea Cortado on Beauty and Fashion; Dennis Romero on Music; and Manny Gonzalez on Viewpoint. Hey, I think this blogging thing just might catch on.

◙ POETRY READING: Poet Javier O. Huerta reads and discusses Some Clarifications y otros poemas (Arte Público Press):

WHERE: Revolution Books, 2425 Channing Way, Berkeley, CA
WHEN: Thursday, November 8
TIME: 7 p.m.

Read a recent review of Huerta’s book here.

◙ AUTHOR APPEARANCE: The Library Foundation of Los Angeles (in association with the Los Angeles Public Library) presents ALOUD at Central Library: Lectures, Readings, Performances & Discussions. Reservations strongly recommended. Visit here or call (213) 228-7025.

Gregory Rodriguez, author of Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans & Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America (Knopf), in conversation with Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR correspondent.

WHERE: Central Library - Mark Taper Auditorium, Fifth & Flower Streets, Downtown Los Angeles
WHEN: Tuesday, November 13, 7 p.m.
COST: Free
PARKING: 524 S. Flower St. Garage; $1 until 8:45 p.m. with Los Angeles Public Library card validation

The iconoclastic Los Angeles Times columnist discusses how the mestizo legacy of Mexican-Americans, the largest immigrant group in the country's history, will forever change how Americans think about race and ethnicity.

◙ IN NEED OF LIBROS: Casa Esperanza in Panorama City is looking for donations of books for high school age children. If you wish to donate books, please send directly to:

CASA ESPERANZA
14705 Blythe Street
Panorama City, CA 91402

◙ HEY, WE INTERVIEWED HIM, TOO: Over at Boldtype, Junot Díaz is interviewed. Check it out! If you missed our guest interview with him (conducted by Gregg Barrios), visit here. Compare and contrast. Is Díaz being consistent? Did he promise tax cuts for the middle class on La Bloga but then does he promise to treat all Americans the same over at Boldtype? Oh, wait a minute. Díaz isn't running for president. This long campaign season is getting to me. Never mind. Just enjoy reading the interviews and buy Díaz's new novel.

◙ Open House at the CSRC!

Commemorating the 38th Anniversary of the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA

WHEN: Wednesday, November 7, 2007
TIME: 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.
WHERE: CSRC Library, 144 Haines Hall

Guest speakers throughout the evening!

Haines North Patio – Eat & drink refreshments from Casablanca Restaurant

Room 144 – Art work by Ramses Noriega and Sergio Hernandez

Room 180 – CSRC books, journals, DVDs, t-shirts and mugs on sale

The event will include a discussion by Acting Dean Reynaldo Macias on Chicano History, a mural painted in 1970 for the CSRC’s former home in Campbell Hall. The large mural measured 12’ x 22’ and was painted on nine panels. It was taken down when the CSRC was moved from Campbell Hall to Haines Hall and has been stored since 1991. It is an important example of Chicano muralism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, particularly since few Chicano murals were painted at universities. The muralists were Saul Solache, Ramses Noriega, Eduardo Carillo, and Sergio Hernandez. Two of the artists remain, Noriega and Hernandez, and their art will be on display during the open house.

Campus parking available for $8 in Lots 2 and 3.

Visit the CSRC’s website for more information.

◙ All done. So, until next Monday, enjoy the intervening posts from my compadres y comadres at La Bloga. ¡Lea un libro! --Daniel Olivas

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Manny gonzales the kid that everyone forgot in the CA prison system can be inserted into a Google search for the most interesting human interest story to hit CA.

Sarah Right said...

Manny Gonzales the kid that everyone forgot in the CA prison system can be inserted into a Google search for the most interesting human interest story to hit CA.

Lisa Alvarado said...

Once again, you shoot and you score! Himlice is someone who certainly deserves more attention...And you always provide a panorama of what's compelling, what's worthy of a closer read and who's someone we should spend time getting to know.....

Lisa

Bill Hart said...

I enjoyed reading the Manny Gonzales issues!I just hope he gets a fair trial the next time!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading "Latino History" and I would like to invite Himlice Novas to my University in Philadelphia. How can I reach Senora Novas?
Rita
rjm33@psu.edu

Rita Mejias said...

How can I reach Himilce Novas?