Friday, March 13, 2009

Interview With Ralph E. Rodriguez - The Worthiness of Escapist Literature

Ralph E. Rodriguez is Associate Professor in the Department of American Civilization and at the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University. He is the author of Brown Gumshoes: Detective Fiction and the Search for Chicana/o Identity (University of Texas Press, 2005).

Brown Gumshoes is a rarity: a critical analysis of a type of literature usually labeled as genre fiction (and, therefore, “less deserving.”) I am aware of only one other academic book dealing specifically with Chicana/o crime fiction, Susan Baker Sotelo’s Chicano Detective Fiction: A Critical Study of Five Novelists (McFarland and Co., 2005.)

Professor Rodriguez also has published articles on a range of Latina/o authors, critical pedagogy, queer theory, detective fiction, and film. Latina/o literature and culture, graphic novels/comic books, queer theory, cultural theory, race, ethnicity, and feminism constitute his active research and teaching interests.


He has received teaching awards from the University of Texas and Penn State University. He is currently a member of the PMLA editorial board and a former member of the editorial board of Aztlán: A Journal of Chicana/o Studies. He regularly referees for a host of journals in American Studies, literary studies, and film studies.

Rodriguez wrote the Foreword to Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery, edited by Sarah Cortez and Liz Martínez, due from Arte Público Press at the end of March, 2009. In anticipation of the publication of this anthology, I asked Professor Rodriguez to share a few thoughts and comments with La Bloga about Latino crime fiction, a genre that apparently has caught and held his attention.
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How and why did you become interested in crime fiction (mysteries, detectives, thrillers?)

I have my 7th-grade English teacher to thank for my interest in mystery novels. He assigned Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. I honestly wasn’t interested in reading it at first, but my parents made sure I did my homework. Twenty pages in, I was hooked. Perhaps I should credit my parents as well. I loved the intrigue and puzzle aspect of the mystery novel.

Ah yes, Christie. Every few years I read And Then There Were None. It helps to get back to basics, especially when the creative well runs dry.

Isn't publishing in a crisis, economically and in terms of challenges for audience? If so, does Latino crime fiction have a future in publishing?

Yes, on the economic front, I think all businesses are in a crisis at the moment and are looking for ways to cut costs and make more money. The mystery genre strikes me as a business driven by niche markets. That is to say, not all mystery readers read all mysteries. They have their preferred sub-genres—hard-boiled, cozies, historical, police procedural, etc. In addition, many of these readers have authors they are committed to following as well, but that’s not so different from fiction sales in general. However, I’m not sure that Latina/o crime fiction has yet found its niche or fan base. I can’t say that with unqualified conviction because I don’t have the sales figures to back that statement up. Indeed, when I was working on Brown Gumshoes, I found that most publishers were reluctant to discuss sales figures. Nevertheless, I don’t think any of the Latina/o crime fiction books have sold, say, in the hundreds of thousands. Perhaps Rudolfo Anaya or Carolina García-Aguilera. In other words, they can’t guarantee the sales of, for example, a new James Patterson, J.A. Jance, or Kathy Reichs novel. Though one need not generate those sales figures at first, commercial publishers are going to be reluctant to continue with a series that seemingly isn’t producing readers. Thank goodness for independent presses like Alyson and Arte Público who get first-time writers in print and keep well-established ones there as well. I don’t want to be bleak about this. I think there are challenges for Latino crime fiction (as I think there are challenges for all fiction), but I believe there are great opportunities too. I know there must be literary agents out there just dying to receive a query letter about an exciting new Latino mystery series.

I know writers who are having a tough time continuing with their craft because of market conditions and publishing stress. Maybe more so for Latina and Latino writers who have tied themselves to a subgroup of literature such as mystery. As a follow-up to the preceding question, is there an audience for Latino mysteries among non-Latino readers?

I certainly hope there is, and I suspect that many non-Latino readers have already been reading Latino mysteries. I know they have been in my classes. But you raise a terrific point, Manuel. The viability of Latino fiction depends on both Latino and non-Latino readers buying these books. Writers have to have crossover appeal to succeed. The boom in African American detective fiction, which slightly preceded the rise in Latino mysteries, depended on crossover appeal. It’
s what made Walter Mosley such a household name. It also doesn’t hurt that he writes in a number of literary genres and thereby draws readers from other genres over to the mystery novel as well. I think the success of Rudolfo Anaya’s work in general, but particularly Bless Me, Ultima, suggests that folks are interested in topics that Latina/o authors are writing about. I would hate to think of these works of fiction as anthropological or sociological texts because they are works of the imagination and art, not ethnographic fieldwork, but I do know that some of the appeal of ethnic fiction is an interest in knowing what other folks are like.

To return to the matter of crossover appeal, think of the tremendous success of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn novels. So yes, I think there is a market for Latino mysteries among non-Latino readers.

I want to hasten to add that the success and continuation of Latino mysteries depends as well on a strong marketing campaign. Among Latino mystery writers there are no, what the industry calls, out-of-the-box bestsellers, and there probably won’t be until one of the major commercial publishers puts some serious marketing dollars behind a Latino mystery writer. I’m talking about the kind of marketing that would make it impossible for you to walk into a Borders or Barnes and Nobles without stumbling
upon a display of that author’s works or to open the New York Times Book Review without coming across an ad for that author. That kind of marketing will draw attention to the author, and then the book has to payoff. Readers have to feel excited about its contents. Then word of mouth and prominent reviews on the web and in more traditional venues can assist in selling the book.

Sounds like an Escher loop. The kind of marketing you describe is usually reserved for writers who already are best sellers; but I agree, such marketing probably has to happen for a Latino or Latina mystery writer to "hit."

Brown Gumshoes was published in 2005. In the four years since, what changes, if any, have taken place in Latino crime fiction -- new writers, new themes?

When one is working on a book, as you know, you follow everything being published that relates to your book. But afterwards, you sometimes need a break. So I have to confess that I haven’t been reading as many mysteries in the last few years, but it did worry me, until I read Hit List, that the production of Latino mysteries was slowing down if not coming
to a halt. Michael Nava stopped his Henry Rios series. Rudolfo Anaya finished his quartet of mysteries. What had felt like the emergence of a boom to me in Latino mysteries wasn’t exploding at the magnitude I anticipated. Yet this period of slow growth did witness the publication of many fine books as well, Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s Desert Blood, Lucha Corpi’s Crimson Moon, and Carolina García-Aguilera continued her Lupe Solano series, among others.

I am not certain I have detected new themes emerging. Perhaps it is too soon to see that. I always have the feeling it takes a decade or so worth of work to start noticing patterns and themes. Nevertheless, as Juan Flores and a number of other Latino Studies scholars have pointed out, the Latino population is more diverse and more widely dispersed throughout the United States than ever before. Indeed, that diversity and dispersal are what account for, in part, Marcos McPeek Villatoros’ Romila Chacón series, whose protagonist is a Salvadoran woman living in Tennessee.

We see the diversity of Latino experiences in Hit List as well. The range of voices in the volume will please a number of readers. There are voices new to the genre such as Bertha Jacobson, John Lantigua, and Steven Torres, among many others, whose stories contribute significantly to the growth of the Latino mystery. In addition to
these new writers, the volume also includes established figures like yourself, Carolina García-Aguilera, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, and Lucha Corpi. For me, it is always a treat to run across the new work of established authors you have come to consider your friends over the years because you have spent countless hours reading and re-reading their work. Sarah Cortez and Liz Martínez have assembled a wonderful collection of mystery fiction, and I thank them for that and for the opportunity to write the Foreword. It gave me first crack at reading what should be a wonderfully successful book.

I agree that Hit List sounds like a great collection. I eagerly anticipate the stories from some of the "friends," as you call them, such as Lucha Corpi, Rolando Hinojosa, Steven Torres, Mario Acevedo, Sergio Troncoso, etc., as well as the newer writers -- A. E. Roman, R. Narvaez, Carlos Hernandez, just to name a few more.

The late Max Martínez was a friend and I admired his work, especially his two crime novels, White Leg (1996) and Layover (1997), both published by Arte Público. Max didn't fit your approach in Brown Gumshoes, but I wonder if you have any thoughts about Max and his impact, if any, on Chicano crime fiction?

I enjoyed both of Max’s crime novels, but as I was focusing on detectives and mystery novels and he was writing novels where the focus was on the criminal, it went beyond the scope of my project to talk about him. The crime novel, with its focus on the crime and the criminal, has always constituted a small, but important, segment of the mystery genre. I read Max’s work in the tradition of Jim Thompson, one of the great names in mystery fiction, and I would recommend any fans of The Killer Inside Me to pick up White Leg and Layover. While I admire Max’s work, the crime novel hasn’t really taken off in Latino letters.

I have high hopes for the crime novel, a story told from the criminal point of view. In fact, if I may, I predict that eventually there will be a crime novel told from the perspective of an immigrant Latino or Latina, and it will rock the market. But then, I also predicted that Bush would lose in 2004 -- it seemed obvious.

Let's say that a few of La Bloga's readers have not read any Latino crime fiction or, worse, think they shouldn't waste their time with such lowbrow material. You've read all the stories in Hit List. Why should other people read it?


I think all fiction stands to broaden our cultural horizons. The art of fiction is the art of narrating life, taking a series of events and constellating them into a meaningful picture. This picture can reveal to us depth of character, moral conundrums, pressing political matters, and a host of emotional experiences. At its best, fiction helps us understand ourselves and others in ways we hadn’t imagined before. It opens up a world of imaginative possibilities. It can bring us to ecstatic highs and melancholic lows. It compels us to abandon any solipsistic understanding of the world that we might have by bringing us into the lives of characters whose experiences, values, and beliefs may widely diverge from our own. I don’t believe in drawing distinctions between high culture and low culture because I think all culture has the possibility of connecting with and transforming our lives. I think Hit List can affect readers just as well as any work of capital L “Literature.” The stories in the collection can entertain as well as give pause for thought. The two need not be mutually exclusive.

Moreover, I think we all lead such busy, hectic, and, let’s face it, sometimes boring lives that on occasion we want to escape into a compelling story, and I don’t think we should make value judgments about the worth of such escapes. If you are looking for such an escape, you can find it in the intrigue and suspense of the stories in Hit List. But the volume is also going to ask you to think about substantive matters as well, matters such as history, politics, the ethics of murder, and Latino identity formation. If you have shied away from mystery fiction in the past, dare to embrace it now.

One of the writers you studied in Brown Gumshoes was Lucha Corpi. Who are some of the other women writers in this genre and what are they doing with the mystery template?

Women writers have a long history in the genre and have long been some of its best practitioners. If you are asking about fundamental rewrites or major revolutions at the level of form, I’m not sure I have detected any since the feminist rewrite of the hard-boiled story that emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s. Maureen Reddy’s Sisters in Crime is a terrific study of feminism and the crime novel, as is Sally Munt’s Murder By the Book?, which also engagingly analyzes the lesbian mystery novel. As regards some of the novelists themselves, I enjoyed the way Barbara Neely used an African American domestic worker as her principal sleuth in her Blanche series. Lindsey Davis’s long-running Marcus Didio Falcus series set in ancient Rome will delight fans of the historical mystery, and I think Janet Evanovich is a comic genius. Well, I can’t possibly list all of the writers I enjoy and admire here, so I should stop before it appears I am attempting to make some definitive and exhaustive list of the women mystery writers who matter. I’m not. I just tossed out a few examples of works and writers I like.

The simple art of murder, Raymond Chandler wrote more than fifty years ago, really is not so simple, as any reader of Brown Gumshoes quickly learns. However, the murder mystery and detective tale have to be entertaining. At its heart, a plot about crime and criminals, cops and sleuths, must have a good story. I'm asking now for your personal opinion -- which writers, in any genre, tell the best stories? Who would you recommend as authors who grab readers quickly and hold them until the very end?

Oh gosh, Manuel, this is a wonderful and difficult question. Without trying to justify what novels grab me and why, I’ll just mention a few titles and authors. Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was one of the first novels I have read in a long while that I wanted to reread as soon as I finished it. Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home is perhaps one of the best graphic novels I have read in a while. Adrian Tomine’s Sleepwalk and Summer Blonde immediately come to mind. His characters are by no means loveable and may be too angsty for some, but he really is at the forefront of graphic novels. Along those lines, I think mystery readers and those interested in suspense will enjoy Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man. Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude tells a great story about music, race, friendship, and New York. John Connolly’s Book of Lost Things wouldn’t let go of me, nor would Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief and I Am the Messenger. I think the latter book has a lot to tell us about what it means to treat oneself and others well, without being preachy. I adore Haruki Murakami’s novels, and since I’m a runner, I couldn’t miss his What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I regularly reread Ana Castillo’s Sapogonia and May Sarton’s journals. Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak! and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies demonstrate their tremendous gifts as storytellers. Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series is a joy. Nick Hornby’s novels are poignant and playful, especially High Fidelity. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History grabs you and won’t let you go. Robertson Davies’s novels are full of wonder and surprise; Fifth Business is one of my favorites. David Sedaris endlessly entertains me while always striking a chord of deep emotional resonance. Paul Auster’s City of Glass is a wonderful reflection on the detective novel and the shaping force of language, as is Patrick Chamoiseau’s Solibo Magnificent. Paco Ignacio Taibo II is a master of the mystery novel, and Benjamin Alire Saenz’s House of Forgetting is a haunting psychological thriller. Zadie Smith’s On Beauty is a powerful tale about race, class, love, and cultural expectations. Okay, I should stop now. I fear this is getting too long. Readers of La Bloga who would like to know more may contact me at Ralph_Rodriguez@brown.edu

I'm sure some of our readers will take you up on your offer. That's quite an impressive list.

What are you working on now? What future projects are on your agenda?

Kind of you to ask. I have a few projects I am working on now. I am writing an essay on visual seduction and graphic novels, which will likely deal with one of my favorite graphic novelists, jason. That essay is related to a book I am writing now on pleasure and literary form tentatively entitled Please, Please Me. I am interested in how we think about, represent, and consume pleasure in literature. In other words, what is pleasing in literature and why? I want to know, moreover, how those pleasures vary among literary forms such as the mystery novel, the Latino novel, the young adult novel, the queer novel, and so forth. I am also working on two novels. I have a completed mystery novel entitled Bluesman: A Marco Fuentes Mystery sitting on my desk. In Bluesman, Marco Fuentes returns home to Seaside, Virginia from Austin, Texas. His father is undergoing his final chemotherapy treatment, and Marco wants to spend time with his family. While there, Marco’s long-time friend, Winston Jefferson, is shot to death while playing a blues concert in a small nightclub. Winston's mother hires Marco to investigate the murder. Feeling more and more like a Texan of late, Marco finds himself ill at ease in a place he once called home. The working-class neighborhood he grew up in has undergone substantial gentrification, while simultaneously breeding a growing cocaine trade. Marco has to wrestle with both of these developments, as well as his brother Vegas's connections to them, to solve the murder of Winston Jefferson. I need to give the manuscript one more read through and then query literary agents about getting it published. I have also recently started writing a novel that examines a series of overlapping friendships and romantic relationships among a cast of about ten principal characters. Each of the characters is, to varying degrees, trying to figure out the significance of what it means to share their lives with another person, what the role of friendship and romance is in their lives, and how to be open to the vagaries of sexuality. It’s written in a playful style meant to make the reader laugh and reflect on life.

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Muchisimas gracias, Ralph. You have given our readers much to consider, maybe even comment upon. I appreciate your time and thoughtfulness and your intellectual attention to a type of literature that I certainly enjoy and promote.

That's it for this week. Upcoming - an interview with one of the best-known and prolific contributors to Hit List. Plus, more news, views, and a review or two. Lucha Corpi's poetry set to music! A new movie
that tells "a haunting immigration tale about worker exploitation in a world of technology gone awry" is showcased at the XicanIndie Film Festival in April! More new books! Y mucho más.

Later.



3 comments:

Stephanie said...

This comment is actually a general one, but I thought I'd post it to this entry since it is your most recent one and I couldn't find another place to put it. I recently read over at Publish Chicago (www.publishchicago.com) that Sandra cisneros' book House on Mango Street was chosen for One Book, One Chicago, and it seemed like she had some interesting things to say about the Chicago Latino community. I was wondering what you all think about this, and if you've read her book, what do you think of it?

sandra said...

Tweeted the book. Good Luck!

André Luís Leite said...

mucho loco!!!