Why I Write Simply
When I started writing fiction, which was late in life for a writer, as a grad student, I wanted to get away from the meaningless abstractions of philosophical seminars. This linguistic pretension removed me from my community, from my father and mother, from my abuelita. The first story I wrote, “The Abuelita,” was specifically for readers to remember who my abuelita had been, and to criticize my study of Heidegger and Nietzsche at Yale, for its isolation, for its anti-humanity.
For in classrooms within the Gothic fortress of Yale’s Old Campus (and I suspect at many of the seminars in academies across the country), a human being is a mind, first and foremost. But in Ysleta, my home less than a mile from the Mexican-American border, the human being was, and is, feet. Feet in pain. Callused hands. Adobe houses built by those hands and feet. La gente humilde of Ysleta.
At Yale I was reacting against the elitism of the academy, an elitism that is hard to overcome when you can immerse yourself in books and forget the workers who make that world possible. I was also reacting against myself. I loved reading German and Greek philosophers. They did provide unique, unconventional insights into the human being. I had become an Ivy Leaguer in many ways. I was torn, between the people I loved at home and the ideas I devoured away from home.
I also noticed that many of the practitioners of academic fancy language, as I’ll call it, were individuals who treated people poorly. Their education and facility with argument and power encouraged lying, deception, and manipulation. The nature of truth, the pursuit of abstraction in universities, was a passive aggressive violence.
Eliminate your opponent, not by killing him, but by warping arguments to win at any cost, by murdering his mind. The nature of truth was hate. When you view human beings as abstractions, then it is easy to abuse those abstractions without guilt. Judging a person as a category is the root of racism; it is the root of cruelty. Moreover, writing about the world of people is an exercise in abstraction, and explains my deep ambivalence about being a writer.
Too often my writer friends forget themselves in their world of words. So I took a different tack with my fiction. I wanted to write so my father and mother could understand me. I was writing for them, and to give voice to those from Ysleta. I wrote simply. I also wrote prose obsessed with details, personal stories, to give meat to those understanding my community outside the mainstream. I used myself as an example to provide a meaningful character struggling with complex issues, within the murk between right and wrong.
Yet I also wanted to explore the ideas from Yale, and beyond, which I thought were worthwhile, so I wrote philosophical stories questioning the basis of morality. I wrote stories that asked whether murder was always wrong, or belief in god always holy, or success the root of moral failure. Most importantly, I believed the people of Ysleta had a lot to teach the people at Yale about being good human beings. I still believe that.
But this effort to be clear and direct about difficult questions has sometimes condemned me in academic circles or among those who prize the beauty of language above all. I am also condemned by those who never think beyond the obvious and popular, because I write philosophical stories. You will never find my fiction at Costco. I am in between. Trying to write to be understood by those who matter to me, yet also trying to push my mind with ideas beyond the everyday. It’s a borderland I inhabit. Not quite here nor there. On good days I feel I am a bridge. On bad days I just feel alone.
Initially, I would say: "Oh, you're not alone, compay..." But the truth be told, I have had those bad days, many more than I would like. We do swim upstream most of our days as worker/writers, writer/workers, some of us hoping to land in the academy as well as on the bookshelves.
We embrace "popular" writing when the academics and the intelligensia clamor for something else -- a style, themes and messages set in canon stone by the rich, by mostly white men. This makes us the infinitely fascinating, unemployable, exotic "other" -- desirable as a passing instructional fling, questionable as to "who exactly are we are" as undergrads and even more rare, as grad students. We sometimes appear, almost as a hiccup, or better perhaps, a conflicted apology to the past when we are hired as faculty.
When I was a grad student in my 40's at an East Coast art school, I confounded my teachers and fellow students when when pressed about what "school" was I a part. I categorized myself as a "naive/outsider" writer/artist. It was the only category available that held simple, clean, direct work that fed my soul. Mind you, their eyes glazed over when I said I was only borrowing those terms for their convenience --- that everyday people making art was hardly naive, just unpretentious.
"Outside" presumes an "inside" born on the backs of working people and people of color. It was an "inside" where I was never invited, could not see myself inhabiting. My writing too, is plain, plain and simple, plain for all to see, and I am plainly someone who wants to be read by as many people who want to meet me in that way.
As to who you honor in writing, I remember many years ago, before a fundraiser for a project, I was sitting in a bar, waiting for the event venue to open. The waitress was a woman, like women I had known my whole life -- Mejicana, India, working hard and still happy to talk with this customer with a lapful of books to sell.
While I was waiting for my friends, I gave her a copy The Housekeeper's Diary, full of poems about my work as a maid. Later, as I was leaving, she tapped me on the shoulder and gave me a neatly folded napkin. On it was written: "Gracias, por las poemas y la historia de mi vida."
I'll be buried with that napkin.