Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sarah Cortez: The Interview

by Amelia M.L. Montes (

The “spotlight” was on Sarah Cortez October 22nd when La Bloga writer, Daniel Olivas featured her new book, Walking Home:  Growing Up Hispanic in Houston.  Today I am treating you, dear Bloga readers, to an interview with Sarah on Walking Home.

Sarah Cortez
The design cover of Walking Home:  Growing Up Hispanic in Houston is a stained glass Madonna and child. Most people are familiar with stained glass: small pieces of glass arranged in colors creating a pattern, a picture, encased in strips of lead. The Madonna, with stars and celestial bodies behind her and the child, is serene here.  Yet the term “stained” is interesting because glass that was once transparent and clear is now contaminated with color, sullied even, in order to create this beautiful and sacred image. 

In this mixed-genre memoir, each story begins unsullied—clear:  the narrator describes life as society directs it should be with a happy marriage, a promise of many children, a good life.  Cortez takes the “societal canvas” (what women and men are told they must do, act, produce, etc.) and she then layers the canvas with individual experiences (like bits of glass) which tell very different stories:  “an odd dancing heart,” “unsaid goodbyes,” “never-delivered hellos.”  These are vignettes told in narrative form and poetry that individualize what it meant for one U.S. Latina to grow up in Houston. 

Sarah Cortez reading from Walking Home:  Growing Up Hispanic in Houston
Sarah Cortez, a member of the Texas Institute of Letters and fifth-generation Texan, has numerous poems anthologized here and in Europe.  Winner of the PEN Texas Literary Award in poetry, her debut collection is entitled How to Undress a Cop.  An award-winning anthologist of five volumes, her most recent is You Don’t Have a Clue:  Latino Mystery Stories for Teens which was short-listed for the International Latino Book Awards.  Her poem, “The Secret,” was short-listed for the 2011 annual contest of Rattle. 

--an International Latino Book Award finalist
Today I include an interview with Sarah Cortez.  I thank Sarah for taking the time to answer these questions for La Bloga:

Montes:  At the beginning of Walking Home: Growing Up Hispanic in Houston, you invite the reader to “step up to the stained-glass window.”  You write:  “Here, trapped in the hues and slivers, are the unlived dreams of my family—mother, father, me.”  What do you mean by ‘unlived’—it’s a very provocative word to use because it then troubles whether this is memoir or creative non-fiction. 

Cortez:  As a reader and writer of memoir for many years and as a teacher of memoir for over a decade, I have thought long and hard about the boundaries and definitions surrounding memoir.  There is the post-modernist's stance that "everything is fiction"; there is the stance of certain (now-disgraced) writers that says "I'll lie about whatever I choose to lie about and then call it 'memoir.’”  I don't agree with either of these extreme positions.

Memoir is a form of creative nonfiction called the personal essay.  But it has its own parameters that do not involve the unacknowledged creation of fiction.  In fiction, the contract between the writer and the reader says that what is written on the page is only limited by the writer's imagination.  In memoir, the contract between the writer and reader is that what is written on the page happened to the best recollection of the writer, and if imaginative space (e.g. dreams, hopes, imaginings) is utilized, then it is acknowledged. 
Sarah Cortez

What I have tried to do in this book is claim the unlived dreams of myself and my parents.  However, I have been careful to keep the reader "in the know."

Perhaps, this is a good place to mention that all the details surrounding each dream -- especially in the maternal grandparents' household  and hometown are historically accurate.

Montes:  You use first person, second person, and you begin with third person.  Why did you decide to avoid a traditional narrator?  

Cortez:  I avoided a traditional first-person narrator, as is common in memoir, because I wished to place the reader inside the head of more than myself.  I also wished to shrink the space between the reader and other important characters, such as my mother and my father.  The only craft decision that would impart this crucial intimacy with more than one character was multiple perspectives and multiple voices, which I hoped would serve to connect the reader with the many facets of each of several characters.

Montes:  Section One is done so well in that you give the reader a possible expectation first with naming this section "white" (purity, innocence) and then the story deftly defies such possible plots.  Many of the sections are like this.  Tell us how you crafted these pieces.

Cortez:  I'm not quite sure what to say here.  I spent months, if not years, thinking about how to structure these pieces.  When I sat down to write them, the fruit of those years of pondering led me to utilize colors, almost as frontispieces, for the vignettes.  In a way, the colors are the distillations of the prose pieces.

Montes:  Section one is narration and Section two is poetry.  Were these separate manuscripts at one point?  How did you decide to organize these sections and why place the narration first and poetry second? 

Cortez:  I wrote the poetry section first but realized that trying to sell a book of poetry of largely happy experiences would be impossible.  The literary world, for better or for worse, is in love with high-level drama and unhappiness.  I seached for what I could do to write the complexity under the happiness.  After all, most humans have to make it through sorrow and tragedy many times in their lives.  The subtext of their happiness is the sorrow.

Montes:  I see a theme in this book regarding the "gaze."  There are all kinds of "viewings" or "seeing" throughout the book. In the beginning you invite the reader to "look closely."  Later, in the piece "Cobalt Blue," the first person narrator says:  "At the funeral home I will not watch my youngest brother disintegrate" . . . "I will not watch bent and sad friends" (11).  Further on you have a piece entitled "The Looking" and in Section Two the poem "Delivery" describes the milkman "seeing" things which prompts the narrator to feel "violated."  How do you see "the gaze" in your book? 

Cortez:  I haven't consciously thought about this dynamic, although it is a fascinating observation that you are making.  What I did think about very consciously was how gazing through stained glass distorts what is on the other side.  I wanted the reader to consider in a deep, deep way how those of us in my family made it through difficulties and sadnesses to reach our peace and joy.

Montes:  Who did you write this book for and how did you come upon the title of your book? 

Cortez:  I'd like to think that I wrote this book for everyone.  After all, literature is one of the ways we can form connections with people who are supposedly "unlike" us.  There is a beautiful anecdote related by Amy Tan about being in Mississippi and having people so relate to her family members that they tell her how her family is "just like my family."  It's those human bonds that great writing (and who knows if my memoir is that or not) can remind us of as we read.  In terms of the title, I was in love with the idea of "Walking Home" probably because that is what I did every day after school growing up, i.e. I walked home.  It became a metaphor for what we yearn to do, but can never really do, as the last poem in the volume says.  By the way, I've had people in the audience during readings burst into tears when I read that last poem.

Montes:  What writers do you feel are doing similar types of books like this one.  What are you doing differently/similarly?  

Cortez:  I don't know any other memoir writers who have even attempted what I am doing in this book.  A few have tried mixed-genre memoirs, but the only apparent dynamic that orders the pieces is chronology of time sequencing.  To me, this is unsophisticated and ultimately unsatisfying to the reader.

Montes:  What writers have influenced your work?

Cortez:  I began my writing career as a literary short story writer, then segued into literary poetry.  I've since developed a specialty in crime fiction and memoir.  I've been published in all these genres as well as in academic venues and journalistic venues.  All this is to say that the influences on my writing are varied. :) Some of my favourite writers are John Donne, Shakepeare, Ovid, Sappho, Homer.  A more contemporary favourite is Megan Abbott, the reigning princess of noir crime writing.  She is an incredible craftswoman and plots with the best of them.  I adore every aspect of her writing.  Her exquisite focus and pacing.  Tone and mood.  Characterization.  Vocabulary.  She's a heck of a writer.  edgy yet sophisticated and subtle.

Montes:  Do you have a writing routine?  What is it like?  How did your routine allow you to finish Walking Home?  

Cortez:  I don't have a specific writing routine.  I teach so many classes and edit manuscripts for clients all over the world.  I fit in my own writing after I take care of my clients!!  (And I love working with other writers!)

Montes:  Is there something you would like to add?  

Cortez:  I would like to encourage every single reader you have to believe in him/herself enough to do something creative that is outside of their present daily routine.  It could be gardening, or playing a musical instrument, or sewing, or writing, or baking.  If you believe in yourself plus get some education (whether through reading, workshops, seminars, etc.) in your creative pursuit, you will thrive in spirit.  This is very important and often people don't believe in themselves enough to pursue a creative endeavor.  I built my writing/editing career over 26 years.  During most of those years, I only had 15 or 20 minutes a day (or less) to devote to writing or revising.  But I did it slowly, bit by bit.  It has not been easy but it is tremendously rewarding: I have three publishers and by this time next year I'll have nine books out.

Muchisimas gracias Sarah for taking the time to speak to La Bloga today!  For more information, check out Sarah Cortez’s website:  CLICK HERE! 

Sarah Cortez

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