Aaron Michael Morales was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, and is a graduate of Purdue University’s MFA program. He has taught Creative Writing, Latin American Literature, Contemporary Literature, and Rhetoric & Composition at a number of colleges, including Columbia College of Chicago, Richard J. Daley College, Robert Morris College, and Purdue University. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor of English at Indiana State University where he teaches Creative Writing and Contemporary Literature.
His fiction has appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Passages North, and MAKE Magazine, among other places. His first short collection of fiction, titled From Here You Can Almost See the End of the Desert, is the latest publication from Momotombo Press at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies. Morales is the author of one novel, Drowning Tucson, and is currently at work on his second novel, Eat Your Children.
Morales kindly agreed to sit down with La Bloga and answer a few questions about his new chapbook and writing in general:
OLIVAS: A strong thread of violence runs through the three stories in your chapbook, From Here You Can Almost See the End of the Desert, but the violence manifests itself in three different ways. Were you experimenting with violence as a theme?
MORALES: Certainly violence plays an important role in my writing, but it’s not violence for the sake of violence, or the ever-dreaded “glorification of violence” that gives violent art such a stigma in the eyes of people who don’t dig deeper than their visceral reaction to people hurting one another. Instead, what I seek to address are cycles of violence, as well as what is at the root of violence and humanity’s disturbing violent tendencies. Naturally, there are no easy answers to these questions, but I do think that understanding the motivation from each violent character or characters might help shed light on why some people turn to violence as a solution to problems beyond their control (or, worse, problems they can control). Of course, these stories actually deal more with the outcome of violence, or the lasting affect violence has on its victims and others directly affected by it. However, I attempt to allow the reader not only to experience violence alongside the victim(s), but also to begin to understand the psychology behind the characters inflicting violence. It’s easy enough to say, “violence is bad,” and leave it at that. It’s not so easy to try to get into the mind of a violent person and understand why he or she opts for violence in place of a more rational response. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of humans who lash out at others irrationally.
All the characters in these stories who have been hurt in one way or another are so influenced by the violence that they begin to identify themselves in relation to it—whether consciously or unconsciously. This is what I hope people take away from the stories. How our actions affect others, and how we shouldn’t internalize others’ actions toward us so much that we identify ourselves by them. That is the greatest danger of being in an environment where violence is commonplace.
I also grew up in a violent neighborhood in Tucson, Arizona, where violence was just a fact of life. And this leads to the other purpose of violence in my writing—a critique of the definitions of masculinity, especially the way in which violence and the ability to inflict violence are directly correlated with a man’s “manliness.” Where I lived—and of course there are tougher, poorer places—it was pretty much a rite of passage to be introduced to violence fairly early on. Guns weren’t as prevalent as they are now, but there were no shortage of stabbings, beatings, and deaths. Of course, when guns did enter the picture quickly—and I remember it getting exponentially worse after the movie Colors came out in the mid ‘80s, since all the gangsters needed to emulate the “real” gangs of L.A. to be legitimate—the violence escalated and there was a palpable fear in the city. It was honestly tangible. In every person’s eyes. Well, at least in the tougher neighborhoods. So, as I was saying, the whole thing in our neighborhood was that the toughest men were the manliest, and therefore reaped the rewards of being manly—respect, women, free reign to come and go and pick on whoever he pleased—and everyone knew these codes and adhered to them. As far as I know, this is very much still the standard. It’s just that the sheer quantity of weapons and the easy access to them has now leveled the playing field a bit. Where once you had to actually be tough and able to beat the hell out of someone for respect, you now just have to be crazy (foolish) enough to pick up a gun and pull the trigger. So, this is what these stories address, in a roundabout way that allows the readers to approach the subject and dwell on violence, its causes, and their own participation in these cycles and codes.
OLIVAS: All of your protagonists are physically abused in one way or another: one by a husband, one by a father, and the last by bigoted teenage boys. Why did you choose abuse as center of these protagonists' lives?
MORALES: Well, it just so happens that I have probably seen more abuse in my short lifetime than I can stomach. And it doesn’t seem to be letting up. But, as I said earlier, I’m not interested in showcasing abuse, per se, as much as trying to dig deeper and try to figure out the reasons why people abuse one another. Also, to illustrate the fallout from abuse—whether it is emotional, physical, spiritual, or whatever. So, if you observe the abused character in each story, you’ll see that all three react to the abuse in a different way. One succumbs to it and internalizes it to the point that he doesn’t realize he’s now an abuser. One takes drastic measure to avoid further abuse and seek a sort of revenge for it. And one goes in search of an escape from potential abusers. And so it becomes important for us as readers to look at these three lives and wonder what would’ve been had they not been subjected to the various abuses they suffered.
Still, abuse and violence aside, I’m also interested in cycles in general. Cycles of poverty, violence, drug abuse, racism, internal racism, sexual deviance, misogyny. All of these things intrigue me as a writer because from an objective perspective it would seem fairly simple to break, or break out of, any of these cycles. And yet, sometimes those most negatively affected by these cycles are the very same people who perpetuate them. It’s intriguing to me. But rather than just observe them—as with violence and abuse—I seek to understand them, from the perspective of those who are actually in a cycle and continuing it, and those who are affected by it.
OLIVAS: Are these stories the building blocks for a novel?
MORALES: Yes. They are selections from a much larger novel titled Drowning Tucson. Francisco Aragón, the editor for Momotombo Press, read the entire novel and culled these selections as a sampling of my fiction to aid in getting my work out to a larger audience. It’s safe to say that’s happening already, and I’m grateful for his help. But, back to the novel. It’s roughly 400 pages set in Tucson, Arizona in the late 1980s, at a time where culturally some dramatic shifts were occurring in inner-city neighborhoods like the one where the novel is set. Some of it was the shift of gang activity from what would today be considered pretty mild and even petty, to the more hardcore stuff that has inundated almost every larger city in the U.S. Growing up in that environment at the time of the shift, well, as I said before, I think I can nail it down to around the time the movie Colors came out, which was also when hip-hop and that whole lifestyle first began to go mainstream. Acts like N.W.A., Ice T, DJ Quick, Too Short, and many others paved the way for the dissemination of “gangsta” life in places that already had their own traditions of street warfare, etc. Anyway, the book is what I’d like to call “urban literary fiction,” as it is very serious writing, with very serious topics, but it doesn’t attempt to sugar coat or merely gloss over these lives during this time. It’s a desperate book set in a desperate place and time. And I tamper with some of the traditions of narration, especially by employing a sort of hyper-realism to the scenes that are both physically and emotionally overwhelming.
As for the content, it’s eleven separate chapters that each focus on one character, all of whose lives are inextricably interwoven, though most of the characters are entirely unaware of this fact. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t only a book about gangsters. In fact, the total page count they get is less than a quarter of the book, but that is the world this book is settled in. Still, the characters the novel focuses on are parents, lovers, lonely and lost people. They’re impoverished, desperate people who want what everyone wants in the US: an opportunity to pursue the American Dream. Other books that it could be compared to are Hubert Selby, Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, Carlos Fuentes’s The Crystal Frontier, and Stewart O’Nan’s Everyday People. There seems to be a great interest in this type of storytelling lately—with the success of movies like Crash, City of God, Babel, 21 Grams, and others—so I think the novel’s coming along at a nice time.
OLIVAS: Do you have a writing routine?
MORALES: Because I’m a creative writing professor, I’ll be honest, I don’t have nearly as much time to write as I did in grad school or earlier. Still, I make a concerted effort to sit down a bare minimum of two hours a day. When breaks come, then I try to work at a more extended schedule. It varies. Right now I’m trying to tie up the loose ends on my second novel, Eat Your Children, and I hope to have it finished by this summer.
As for other routines, I’d say I’m in the habit of creating these characters, getting the basics of their lives down on the page, and then I stop writing and let the characters marinate—if I can say that. Yeah. They marinate in my mind for a while, and then when it comes time to tell their stories, not just illustrate them as people, well that’s when I return to the page. After I determine who they are and what they do in a given situation. It’s kind of like dating or something. But they’re not real. I also read when I can’t write. Reading, to me, is writing. It’s just as important as writing every day, if not more so. I always tell my students (especially the ones who complain because we have to read in a writing class), “how can you be a chef if you don’t eat? If you don’t try to taste everything, you’ll never know what can be done.” The same goes for writing, or snowboarding, or filmmaking.
OLIVAS: What authors have influenced your writing?
MORALES: Too many to name. But I suspect readers familiar with some of my influences will enjoy my writing. I’d have to say the two most influential writers I’ve read have been Hubert Selby Jr. and Gabriel García Márquez. But who hasn’t been influenced by him? As for the brutally honest writing, the stuff almost too painful to read, it’s probably most affected by writers like Irvine Welsh, Harry Crews, Bret Easton Ellis, Leslie Marmon Silko, Scott Heim, and writers like that. The more emotional and intellectual writers I enjoy are people like Junot Diaz, Jonathan Franzen, William Faulkner, Don DeLillo, Javier Marías, Carlos Fuentes, Luis Alberto Urrea, Ken Kesey, Günter Grass, and I have a particular affinity toward contemporary Russian writers.
OLIVAS: What are the more common mistakes made by beginning writers?
MORALES: Not reading enough. And certainly misunderstanding the vastly important difference between revision and editing. Plus, it’s hard when you first start to remove something or start over. It’s like cutting off your arm or throwing your child out in the trash. That’s almost how it feels. It’s like, “I created that, so there can’t be anything wrong with it. It’s you who is wrong.” Then, the more they read, and the more honest and unflinching they become with their own writing, the easier it becomes to revise.
OLIVAS: Are you the first writer in your family?
MORALES: I don’t know. I think so. But rumor has it that there was a writer on my mother’s side, a great-uncle or great-great uncle, who wrote western novels. I feel like I’m telling my family’s stories though. While none of the stories I tell directly match any of my family members, certainly it’s a large enough family that I can extract characteristics and apply them to fictional characters. I think a lot of writers do that. It’s how we, say, understand how a middle-aged woman might respond to or see a situation, when we’re 20 years removed and the opposite sex. It’s what makes writing good.
My daughter dabbles a little. Maybe she’ll go on to do it for the rest of her life. You never know.
OLIVAS: Mil gracias for spending time with La Bloga.
◙ The Chicano Studies Research Center of UCLA has appointed Miguel Juárez as the Center’s new librarian on April 1. Juárez brings nine years of professional academic library and special collections experience to the CSRC. He was Hispanic Resources Librarian and Curator at Texas A&M University and a Fine Arts Librarian at the University of Arizona. He is a graduate of State University of New York at Buffalo, where he earned a Masters of Arts in library science. Juárez has an extensive knowledge of Chicana/o studies and an active commitment to research and curriculum development. Visit the library’s site to learn more about what it has to offer and how you can help keep it strong.
◙ Rigoberto González, writing for the El Paso Times yesterday, reviewed Patricia Quintana's new novel, Ghosts of El Grullo (University of New Mexico Press), which, he says, “offers a rich conversation between tradition and revolution in American culture.” Also, check out Rigoberto’s new weekly column at CRITICAL MASS, the NBCC blog which includes this interesting interview with Stella Pope Duarte, author most recently of If I Die in Juárez (University of Arizona Press).
◙ Acclaimed novelist Michael Nava tells us that he is on the board of directors of the GLBT Historical Society. Tomorrow, March 25, the Society is launching a literary series that Nava and another board member, Nic Weinstein, have organized called Passing on the Pen. It features different generations of GLBT writers reading and talking about their work and their lives. The opening session features two fantastic writers, Ann Bannon and Victor J. Banis, who are pioneers of gay and lesbian pulp fiction.
If you’re in San Francisco tomorrow, feel free to join them at 657 Mission St., Suite 300 (right around the corner from the Museum of Modern Art), from 6:30-8:30. Admission is free. Modern Times is providing books for sale if you want autographed copies. Please feel free to invite any friends of yours who might want to come. The series continues through December. They have a great line-up of writers including such well-known GLBT writers as Jewelle Gomez, Carla Trujillo, Dorothy Allison, Robert Gluck and Michael Nava himself. You can see check out the schedule at http://www.glbthistory.org/.
◙ Occidental College will be hosting two wonderful author events:
Date: Thursday, March 27, 2008
Time: 12:00 Noon
Location: Lower Herrick
Sponsor: Remsen Bird funds, the Education, ECLS, English Writing, Sociology, Spanish and French Literary Studies Departments.
Contact: Desiree Zamorano, email@example.com, phone: 323-259-2948.
Description: Dagoberto Gilb, the PEN/Hemingway Award winning author, will discuss his work and read from his recent novel The Flowers. His works will be available for purchase at the bookstore and the event.
Helena María Viramontes
Date: Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Time: 7:00 PM
Location: Johnson 200
Sponsor: Women's HERstory Month is sponsored by Remsen Bird, the Women's Center, Emmons Health and Counseling Center, the Intercultural community Center, and the International Programs Office.
Contact: Michelle Saldana, firstname.lastname@example.org
Description: In her recent novel, Their Dogs Came with Them, Helena María Viramontes offers a profoundly gritty portrait of everyday life in Los Angeles. In the barrio of East L.A., a group of unbreakable young women struggle to find their way through the turbulent urban landscape of the 1960s.
◙ The January 2008 issue of OCHO is guest edited by Francisco Aragón. The featured poets are Lisa Alvarado, Oscar Bermeo, Xochiquetzal Candelaria, Diana Marie Delgado, Jose B. Gonzalez, Octavio R. Gonzalez, Raina J. León, elena minor, John Murillo, Kristin Naca, Emily Pérez, Ruben Quesada, Peter Ramos, Carmen Gimenez Smith and Rich Villar. Cover design by April Carter-Grant. Artwork is by Didi Menendez. You may order OCHO on Amazon.com. Check it out!
◙ All done. So, until next Monday, enjoy the intervening posts from my compadres y comadres at La Bloga. ¡Lea un libro!