Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Interview With Author Carmen Tafolla

René Colato Laínez

Hola Carmen, thank you for this interview for La Bloga.
Who inspired you to write?
My mother was a person with very little formal education, but a great ear for a story, and a great memory for people's stories. My grandmother was a storyteller, as were several aunts. And SO, it turns out were my GREAT-grandparents. Listening to the stories of my familia and my barrio was where I first learned to love the art of storytelling, and to respect the power of a story... orally, with all the magic of unwritten centuries behind me... Stories get more powerful when they are refined through the telling, generation after generation....

I was very, very young when I began to dream of writing stories down, preserving them, polishing them. They were our history, and they were our alma.

-As a child what was your favorite book?

We didn't have a lot of books at home, a Spanish-language Bible, a hymnal, a book about medicine (I thought! It was called La Santa Doctrina, so I figured it had to do with Doctors and Medicine...) But when I was about 5, my parents started one of these a dollar-a-month Childcraft Series offers, and the first volume was "Childhood Verses, Rhymes, and Fables." I can STILL see those pages and remember the stories! So, between that and the Old Testament and the leyendas told orally, I had plenty of exciting stories to start off with. When I was 10, the city finally put a library on the "West Side" (the Mexican side) of town, and then my Mom would walk me weekly to check out five books, the maximum they'd let me check out at a time. I never discovered Dr. Seuss or Madeleine L'Engle or Garcia Marquez or Winnie the Pooh till I was in college! And then I fell in love with books all over again.

-Tell us about your new books.

I have two children's books and one adult book out this year.

What Can You DO with a Rebozo? (Tricycle, 2008) is a colorful, imaginative picture book beautifully illustrated by Amy Cordova and targeted at children under 6. It celebrates an icon of Mexican culture through the eyes of a little girl who sees its versatility, but invents some uses of her own! I want to show little girls (and boys!) that they can use one thing for many purposes, and that sometimes the funn---iest games come from using our own imagination!

Then, That's Not Fair: Emma Tenayuca's Struggle for Justice, co-authored with Emma's niece, Sharyll Teneyuca, is a picture book biography for children 6 and up, based on the courageous Latina civil rights leader from the 1930s, who at the age of 22, organized and led 12,000 pecan shellers in a strike that represents the first successful mass action in the Mexican-American struggle for political and economic justice. Our adult biography on Emma is nearing completion, but this children's book is the first book ever published on her, and it is a really beautiful volume by Wings Press, illustrated by Terry Ybanez and designed as a tribute to those brave pecan shellers who were starving to death and still had the courage to hope for a better world for their children. Even the endpapers are pecan-colored!

And, just last month, Wings released a collection of my short stories, which I just presented at The International Conference on the Short Story in English, held in June in Cork , Ireland . The title The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans, a feast of short fiction, kind of says it all – it’s about the holy and the miraculous, as well as about the mundane, most common, underappreciated blessings, like a pot of hot, homemade beans.

- Where did you get the idea for What Can You Do With A Rebozo? Do you have many rebozos at home?

Rebozos are one of my most useful clothing items. I live in San Antonio, where the weather might be 100 degrees and sweltering one minute, then walk into an air-conditioned building and just freeze till you're blue. Or it might drop 40 degrees in three hours. I also travel a lot, so a rebozo is a very useful and versatile item to help me deal instantly with weather changes and different levels of formality. It has served me as a coat, a muffler,a fan, a head scarf, PLUS, it rolls up into a tiny corner of the briefcase! I have three BIG boot boxes at home, each with a different range of colors!

In 1992, 500 years after America discovered Columbus lost on a beach, my publisher was looking for art for the front cover of my upcoming poetry book, Sonnets to Human Beings. I recommended Cata Garate, who had a whole series of oil paintings of women in rebozos. When the book came out, Sally Andrade was so stunned by the cover she asked if U.T. El Paso could exhibit Cata's whole series together with poems of mine. We did, but then one thing led to another and soon, Cata and I were at work on a coffee table book combining art, poetry, and the story behind this universal symbol of Mexican womanhood. That book will be out soon from Wings. But the idea of the rebozo's versatility soon had me "cooking on" a children's picture book and developing a spunky little Chicanita protagonist, 4 years old, who could come up with crazy, imaginative uses for her Mom's rebozo! What Can You DO with a Rebozo? just came out of Tricycle this spring, sparked a series, and the follow-up book What Can You DO with a Paleta?, is due out from Tricycle Press in Spring of 09.

- The Holy Tortilla and a Pots of Beans is full of culture and magical realism and each story tells a message. What was the selection process for the stories included in the book?

In this very blase, over sophisticated, materialistic world, where emotions are corny, human decency is looked down on as "political correctness", and everything is assessed in "measurable" terms, I wanted an emphasis on those things that lie BENEATH the skin, and outside the realm of the price tag. I wanted to select stories that filled that dimension between the stark simplicity of the Holiest things we encounter to the absolute magic of the everyday objects around us. That's why the title is not just "The Holy Tortilla" (too pious and above us) but also includes a normal, everyday Pot of Beans...

If the stories can help elevate to the holy the simple, daily values, customs, strength and beauty of nuestra gente, then I'll have done justice to the people, the everyday readers to whom this book is dedicated.

-You write for many genres. What is the difference between writing for children and for adults?

Actually, children are more demanding readers. Adults will kind of assume that SOME place in the book, there'll be something good that they might appreciate or learn from. But children-- if you lose them on even ONE page, they want to get up and go do something else. So, writing for children demands distilling every word, polishing every action, eliminating ALL excess baggage. It's almost harder than writing poetry!! But the reward-- is in the power and authenticity of what's left. If you reach children, (and I expect good children's lit to be timeless, so I want to reach children now and three generations from now), then you've hit something authentic.

- What is your message for inspiring writers?

A very long time ago (I must have been 10 or 12 years old) someone told me that to get a PhD, you had to write a book called a dissertation, and it had to be on a topic NO ONE had ever written on before. I immediately felt impatience and despair, and thought that if I didn’t hurry up and get grown up fast, like tomorrow, all the topics would be used up and there wouldn't be anything left to write about! For a long while, I thought that was true, lamented the fact that by the time I grew up, all the good storylines would be taken, all the topics explored, all the interesting devices invented already. Boy, was I naive!

Now, I tell young writers, there is NO ONE on the face of the earth who can see the world in quite the same way you do, nor who has had quite the same combination of experiences and emotions. You are unique, your voice is a necessary part of the puzzle, without which we are deprived of the full richness of the human experience. So don't worry about how you compare to others, don't follow anyone else's example, nor anyone else's rules, invent your own rules, and then master them! It is the essence of art, to reach deep into what comes from your own soul, and then turn yourself over to it, follow, explore that path. Learn from others, but also learn from that quiet voice whispering to you, that knows when you have not quite written it as well as you know it could be written. Write who you are, but trust yourself, and your art, to grow beyond your own boundaries.
For more about Carmen, visit her website

Meet Carmen This Sunday

The Museo Alameda
Tricycle Press
and MANA de San Antonio
invite you to join them in

“What Can You DO with a Rebozo??”

The Museo Alameda invites the public to a Family Day!
Children’s Costume Contest and Book Party
for Carmen Tafolla’s latest children’s book,


Beautifully illustrated by award-winning artist Amy Cordova, this picture book aimed at 3-5 year-olds, celebrates the versatility and practicality of this icon of Mexican womanhood, and encourages young children to explore the delightful territories of their own imagination.

Sunday, August 3, 2008
12-4 pm

101 S Santa Rosa Ave
San Antonio, TX 78207
(210) 223-5820

Hands-on activities for Children, 12-1, and 1:30-4:00
1:00 Program:
*Foklórico dances by the famous Champion family dancers *a storytelling session by award-winning author Carmen Tafolla
*a fun demonstration by San Antonio’s Hermanitas, showing styles for the elegant, practical, and fun-costuming uses of rebozos, for adults and children

*Children’s Costume Pageant & Contest (age 10 and under) with prizes for
-The Most Creative Use of a Rebozo,
-The Silliest Use of a Rebozo,
-The Most Adventurous Use of a Rebozo,
-the Most Colorful Use of a Rebozo
-the Most Elegant Use of a Rebozo
-the Scariest Use of a Rebozo

Costume Contest award-winners will each be given a free copy of the beautiful hard-cover book. One lucky family will receive the Grand door prize of a four-book collection of books by Carmen Tafolla, including her brand new collection of short stories, The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans.

1:45 Presentation of Contest Awards
2- 4 Booksigning by Carmen Tafolla

All exhibits open to the public.

Books by Carmen Tafolla available in the Museo Gift Shop

Macondo Libre

If you missed last night La Palabra Eléctrica, come tonight for another great Macondo night, La Palabra Tremenda. In the tradition of Mexican Lucha Libre where good conquers evil, our writers fight for political and social issues. In Macondo Libre, writers will showcase fighting moves that will take your breath away!

Don’t miss the ultimate challenge, la Palabra Peligrosa, a literary fundraising event where nationally acclaimed poets and writers wrestle the truth out of the official story and reclaim it with a night of powerful readings and music. This dramatic lucha poetry slam will include performances by the poet Ai; poet, writer and NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu, Sandra Cisneros and musical performances by the father/son team George/Aaron Prado, the Krayolas and other special guests. All proceeds from the event will benefit Our Lady of the Lake University and the Macondo Foundation. At last, the word wrestlers are here. ¡Que viva Macondo Libre!

La Palabra Tremenda
Featuring: Macondo Writers and Special Community Guests
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
San Antonio, Texas
Our Lady of the Lake University
Providence Hall, West Social Room [PWSR]–the Red Room–at OLLU at 7 p.m. Admission: Free

Carolina de Robertis
Ignacio Ramos Magaloni
Tatiana de la Tierra
Amelia ML Montes
Angie Chau
Ben V. Olguín
Erin Bad Hand
ire'ne lara silva
Leslie Larson
Lorraine M. Lopez
(15 minute intermission - The Krayolas)
Maria Limon
Miryam Bujanda
Pat Alderete
René Colato Laínez
Rosalind Bell
Trey Moore
Wendy Call

La Palabra Peligrosa
Featuring: the poet Ai, Andrei Codrescu and Sandra Cisneros
Friday, Aug. 1, 2008
San Antonio, Texas
Our Lady of the Lake University
OLLU at Thiry Auditorium 8:30 p.m.
Admission: $25 Donation per ticket at the door

Macondo Foundation
The Macondo Foundation is a not-for-profit organization that organizes and hosts an annual workshop for professional writers. It originally began as a writing workshop around the kitchen table of poet and writer Sandra Cisneros in 1998. Since then the workshop rapidly grew from 15 participants to more than 120 participants in less than nine years. The foundation also has a writer in residency program and continues to grow in its outreach to writers. As an association of socially-engaged writers united to advance creativity, foster generosity, and honor community, the Macondo Foundation attracts generous and compassionate writers who view their work and talents as part of a larger task of community-building and non-violent social change.

For more information about the Macondo Foundation check our web site

Los esperamos

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