Thursday, January 03, 2008

Ulises Silva, Tragical Mirth, and Pushing the Envelope

I recently posted an article about a piece of speculative fiction, Solstice. It's a novel that's sharp-edged, haunting, and has some kick ass-heroines.

The following is a conversation with Ulises Silva, its author, and the founder of an independent press, Tragical Mirth Publishing.

(If you missed my piece, you can read it here.)

1. Tell me about the genesis of Tragical Mirth Publishing. Do you see
yourself as a niche publisher? If so, what do you feel are the strengths of that? The downside?

Tragical Mirth Publishing
is the independent publishing house I
established in order to self-publish Solstice in 2007. I took the dreaded self-publishing route primarily for creative control.

After all, one of
the earlier comments I got on an earlier draft of Solstice was that the characters’ names (i.e., Itztli, Jai Lin) were too difficult and different for most audiences, and that I should change them. I think that’s what I feared the most about going through a traditional publisher—that they’d want to change the characters’ ethnicities and names in order to make them more commercially appealing. That would have defeated the purpose of writing this story. So I took the chance and created Tragical Mirth to self-publish, and it’s a gamble that’s surprisingly paid off. Despite it being a self-published book, Solstice received positive reviews in Booklist, Library Journal, SciFiNow magazine, and now here at La Bloga. I see TMP as a niche publisher in the sense that I want to focus on giving authors of color an entry into the crowded literary marketplace. While I’mnot yet ready to publish other writers, I do hope to eventually start working with authors of color and let them tell the stories they want to tell.

I want them to see TMP as an alternative to the big publishers that
seem naturally inclined toward labeling anything written by us as Urban Fiction or what have you. I think that focus on letting writers of colors tell the kinds of stories they want to tell is our greatest strength. Hopefully, down the line, TMP will be a very viable publisher with a full roster of good and promising writers of color. The downside, of course, is that TMP is an independent publisher, and not currently set up to publish anything. And, assuming I can ever get to the point where I can publish other people’s works, writers will still need to temper their expectations. I doubt we’ll ever be about giving someone a $10,000 advance and promise to get their book into every top review magazine and best-selling list. But if a writer is willing to work with us and be willing to take some of the risks with us, then hopefully we can accomplish something special. And considering the unexpected success of Solstice, I truly believe we can achieve anything.

2. Your novel is a piece of speculative fiction. How does that sync up with popular ideas of 'Latino/Chicano' fiction?

A lot of ‘Latino/Chicano’ fiction is based on telling stories from our
historically marginalized point of view. We tell stories that, while familiar to Latinos, might seem alien to most everyone else. They’re stories about growing up as hyphenated Americans, about Latino/Chicano political activism, about all our experiences on the fringes of mainstream American consciousness.

They’re about telling the stories no one else can
or cares to tell. Solstice, although grounded in speculative fiction, is deeply influenced by this aspect of Latino/Chicano writing. The notion that Scribes can use the English written word to literally manipulate reality is based on my belief that mainstream media has the power to invent our reality and historical awareness (or, in some cases, efface it altogether).

So it’s no
coincidence that the Editors tasked with watching over these Scribes are all people of color, people who operate in the shadows and whose native languages serve as a defense against Scribes. Solstice’s protagonist, Io, is a Mexican-Japanese anti-heroine. She’s the best of The Editors, but she moonlights as a vigilante, and her mantra is that only cruelty can destroy cruelty.

But she’s haunted by the loss in
her life, including the loss of her parents and her own normalcy. She carries a reminder of this loss with her—a copy of Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street given to her by her mother as a reminder of “where she came from.” Although her character is adrift at the start of the story—caught between two distinct ethnic identities, occupying the fringes of common law, trapped in the purgatory that is her own aimless vigilantism—it’s her mother’s book that keeps her oriented, even if she doesn’t know it.

And, of course, there’s Nadie, the novel’s antagonist. She’s the Scribe who decides that humanity is irreparably corrupt and destructive and must therefore be exterminated. But she wants the world to know why it’s being destroyed, which is why she sets out to tell a story—in her own unique way—that recounts history’s many unpunished crimes, including the horrors of colonialism. It’s one of the book’s ironies that this young girl whose name means "no one" is the one who brings these crimes to light and issues her final judgment.

3. In Solstice, you create a world similar to Dick's Blade Runner. Talk
about that as a landscape for your characters, and the decision to pit Scribes and Editors against each other as the central theme.

The story is set in an alternate near future where the U.S.’ power and
influence have eroded following three catastrophic military ventures (there are vague references throughout to Iraq, Iran, and Taiwan). I wanted the story’s landscape to present an uncanny glimpse into a foreseeable future, where government corruption has gone unchecked thanks to stolen elections, interest groups, and widespread apathy. Part of this landscape, of course, are Scribes, people with the power to make whatever story they write come true. Scribes are meant to reflect the notion that the written word, in the hands of certain people, can create reality. We see it in history books, of course. How many of us have heard that it was Mexico that provoked the war of 1846 -- a war Americans call the Mexican War and that Mexicans call La Invasion Norteamericana?

consider this also: If we think on the ways mainstream media helped the current administration launch its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and how they invented for all of us the reality of Iraq’s nuclear stockpiles and willingness to use them against us, then we can see that the written word really does have power. It’s no coincidence that I make references throughout to a Scribe named Don Poinsettia, a Scribe Io takes down with the help of a Chinese Scribe, Xiu Mei Xiang. Poinsettia is a Murdoch/Rove figure who’s used his powers and his MIX media empire for personal gain.

The suggestion is that he
single-handedly brought about the U.S.’ downfall. I actually plan a prequel to Solstice that will focus on him and Io’s attempt to hunt him down. She’s the top Editor, after all. Editors are, in essence, a representation of post-colonial theory. So much of what Latinos and other writers of color do is write the stories that colonial and mainstream texts have skipped or effaced. I wanted the Editors—all people of color whose native languages serve as a defense against a Scribe’s powers—to represent that ongoing struggle.

4. Solstice is populated by strong female characters, outside the 'norm.'
Can you share what motivated you and what you hope you engender in the reader with that choice?

It really began with my mother, a strong Mexican woman who never backs
down from any fight, and who always taught me to respect women’s rights and equalities.

From a very early age, she let me see the inherent
ludicrousness of the machismo that was (and perhaps still is) rampant in Mexico and Latin America. I remember seeing Aliens for the first time, and seeing the Ripley and Vazquez characters in action, and being totally awestruck by them.

I think
that was the first time that I saw a female character that kicked butt with the best male characters, and the first time I started to ask myself why we didn’t see more characters like them in movies. We’ve all seen male action heroes, but not nearly enough female ones, at least not many that weren’t just Barbies with guns (e.g., Lara Croft). I’ve always believed that, as a writer, you should embrace the control the written word offers you. As writers, we can tell whatever stories we want with whatever characters we want. That’s why, when it came time to start writing my stories, I always featured a strong female lead, because those were the kinds that I always appreciated the most.

With Solstice, I saw an opportunity to create Io, a heroine who’s very
strong, very independent, and not just a sexualized, hot-blooded LatinAsian woman bowing down to stereotypes. I wanted her to have real layers, real depth, and real flaws. And despite her troubled beginning (she really is a monster at first), I wanted readers to sympathize with her plight, and appreciate her eventual redemption. Maybe more importantly, I wanted people to read her and the rest of the characters, and say to themselves, “why aren’t there more characters like these in books and film?” I wanted to give Latino/a and Asian audiences a set of strong central characters they could appreciate and even embrace. And I wanted to show other audiences that a Latina/Asian woman could have other roles than the ones people are used to seeing them in.

5. What are the themes you find yourself returning to? What's their
significance personally and creatively.

Creatively, I’m fascinated with end-of-the-world scenarios, maybe too much
for my own good. I guess, growing up in the 80s and thinking that the Emergency Broadcast Network was going to come on at any moment, I thought the end of the world could really happen. So I migrated to these kinds of stories. I was always fascinated with the human response to apocalypse, and especially how the media would react and spin stories if an end-of-the-world scenario began to unfold. That’s why there are many instances in Solstice where Io and her companions are listening to the radio or watching TV; they’re forced to watch the horrors of Nadie’s actions through the filters of network news and talk shows. Personally, I’m just as adamant about writing stories featuring people that look and act like us. Growing up, I didn’t see a whole lot of Latino/a protagonists that were strong or three-dimensional or even law-abiding.

So it’s important to me, as a Latino writer, to create
characters we can relate to. Because I genuinely feel that our people, especially our younger audiences, still don’t have a whole lot of positive portrayals in mainstream media to inspire them. There aren’t enough characters like us out there that make us think we can be heroes or awe-inspiring or even strong. I’m just one person, but I make it a point to always feature strong, central Latino/a characters in all my fiction. With Solstice, it’s Io.

With my next novel, Inventing Vazquez, it’s a
Chicana named Liliana Vazquez. With my next speculative fiction novel, The Mourning Syndrome, it’ll be a Chicana writer named Clara Solis. That will always be my goal: to have real characters that we, as Latino/as, can readily identify with, and maybe even be inspired by.

6. Share with Bloga readers where you hope to take them with Inventing Vazquez.

From the writer that brought you Solstice, a dark, apocalyptic novel,
comes…a light-hearted comedic satire. That’s going to be a nightmare to try and market, but… In any event, Inventing Vazquez is my new novel (with a release date sometime late 2008 or early 2009) that takes
on an issue
very important to me: the (mis)portrayal of Latino/as in American cinema. Like I said before, I don’t think our people have a lot of positive examples to look up to in film. Most of the time, we’re portrayed as gang members, or domestic servants, or crime victims. And even when films do cast Latino/as, half the time they play non-Latino roles. It’s like America Ferrerra said in Ugly Betty: "Mexicans don’t have action heroes. All we have is a fast little rodent."

So Inventing Vazquez is my little
critique of the whole industry. (As an aside, even the title of the book is in reference to the Vazquez character from Aliens. Yes, the same one I mentioned earlier. I eventually learned that the actress wasn’t even Latina; it was a non-Latina actress with brown contact lenses, bronzed skin, and a fake accent. I was so discouraged, because for so long, I’d really liked that character and what I thought she represented.)

The story centers around Liliana Vazquez, a mousy Chicana who’s hired by a
major film studio to serve as a “Hispanic Sensitivity Issues Consultant” following the widespread outrage among Latino/as over a recent film. She’s hired to read scripts and alert the studio if she thinks it’s going to offend Latino/a viewers, but she comes to realize that the position is a token one. She, like the Asian Sensitivity Issues Consultant and the Arab Sensitivity Issues Consultant (a Sikh man), is just a PR gimmick.

although she starts off as soft-spoken and mousy (she’s ashamed of her voice because it’s so girly despite her being 29), she has to find her voice—literally and figuratively. The story is about her finding a way to make her voice heard among people who don’t want to hear it. It’s a comedic satire, so I hope to make audiences laugh. But I also hope to get people to think about the issues I raise. Because although the films mentioned in the book are loosely based on real-life films (e.g., “Empire of Blood” instead of “Apocalypto”), some of them should resonate with the audience (i.e., “yeah, I can see them making a movie like that”) despite being so off-the-wall silly (like one film, “Latin Lover,” about a guy that gets women to fall for him when he bites into a magical habañero pepper).

7. Where would you like to see Tragical Mirth in ten years? Where would you like to see yourself?

Ideally, I’d like Tragical Mirth Publishing to have a full roster of
writers of color, and a full line of good books that tell good stories about us. And I’d like to be able to work with writers, and give them the kind of encouragement and feedback they’ll need to keep writing. Because I genuinely believe that people of color, especially Latino/as, need to write more, and we need to start creating the kinds of stories and characters that mainstream media won’t. So hopefully, with enough lucky bounces and maybe some more commercial success with Solstice and my future novels, I can work toward this.

As for myself, writing is what I love, so I plan to keep writing. I always
said that to simply publish Solstice and present it to my family as mygift to them (because nothing says “I love you, mom, dad, and brother” like a novel about the end of the world) was my only goal; anything after that would be gravy. So I’m just enjoying the ride, and embracing the joy that is writing fiction. Hopefully, in 10 years, I will have published a few more: Inventing Vazquez, The Mourning Syndrome, a sequel to Solstice, and maybe one or two more. And I genuinely hope that, by then, the kinds of characters I like to feature won’t be ‘outside the norm’ anymore.

8. Tell us something not in the official bio.

Some things that may or may not be true about me:

  • I stay up until 2 a.m. every night writing, drawing, or watching horror films. This despite the fact that I have to be at work at 8:30 a.m. I started my writing ‘career’ in earnest with an Anime fanfic entitled, Nightmares in the Apocalypse, which was so horrid and badly written but nonetheless made me somewhat popular among a small group of teenage readers.
  • I can make a mean guacamole.
  • I write music on the side, and play bass guitar, electric guitar, and drums. All at once. Really.
  • I’ve been in a punk band, am currently in a blues band, and am now trying to form an indie rock band.
  • I draw pictures of my main characters to get a sense of who they are and what they look like. And all these pictures are done in Anime style.
  • I don’t do windows.
  • Having grown up in NYC, I naturally root for the Detroit Tigers, the Arizona Cardinals, the Miami Dolphins, and the Buffalo Sabres.
  • I hate powdered laundry detergent.
  • Having grown up in NYC, the city I most want to live in is San Francisco, or Chicago, or Toronto. Which is why I’m in Michigan.
  • Being Mexican-American, naturally, my favorite kind of music is indie rock and Japanese rock.
  • I was actually a terrible grad student, probably because I spent all my time writing instead of studying.
  • Being Mexican-American, my favorite film of all time, naturally, is Lost in Translation.

Tragical Mirth Publications --

Solstice --

Lisa Alvarado

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