Interview With Daniel Chacón
"Chacon, winner of the 2007 Hudson Prize for Unending Rooms, returns with a collection of short fiction concerned with American and Mexican relations in which a world of race and identity politics emerges. Linked but never repetitive, these beautiful stories are fresh, with just enough Borges-ian magic to make them feel extraordinary. The specter of Juarez's problems is at the forefront, and Chacon references everything from fascist dictators to Harold and the Purple Crayon. Some characters spill into other stories, others vanish without resolution. A library in Birds becomes the entire world for a couple that doesn't know each other's names, and Joseph, a recurring figure, buys a book of poetry to take on the feminine voice as protection in Juarez, where drug dealers, as in the story 14, appear in the guise of old men interested in tortas. The young girl in Tasty Chicken is afraid that glitter will infect her, while in Sabado Gigante, Bruno, despite his large size, is more interested in playing with dolls than playing sports. From drug trafficking to murdered and missing women, Chacon addresses major issues without feeling preachy or heavy-handed. The stories are rooms, images that you can walk into, taking the reader to wherever Chacon wants him to go."
Or this from Booklist:
"A master of narrative brevity, Chacón collects several short fictions, from stand-alone koans to connected vignettes, under the apt subtitle, Stories, Rooms and Loops. As in the refractive labyrinths of Borges, Chacón creates parallel characters and perpendicular plots, ensnared in hidden dimensions, twisted and curled up like water snakes, according to one narrator. Chacón’s many storytellers weave tales of sexual tension and disorientation that play with ethnic and national identities. A young man born in the U.S. to Mexican parents tries to convince a woman in Paris that he’s anything but American but admits to the reader, I wasn’t sure she would understand what it meant to be a Chicano. I wasn’t sure I understood. Another set of linked passages enters the infamous city of Juárez, plagued by ultraviolent homicide and savage drug trafficking. While Chacón spares us the gyring viscera of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (2008), Mexico’s unsolved murders haunt a long sequence in which an English instructor risks a visit across the border. Throughout, Chacón’s prose moves swiftly, doubles back, and echoes itself with tessellated, Alhambra-like layering."
Daniel kindly agreed to share a few thoughts with La Bloga's readers.His comments touch on a wide variety of topics including: how writers can't help but influence one another, the shortcomings of some of the Chicano Movement dogma, the magic of imagination, how a writer can be political without any political intent, and many more. Enjoy.
MANUEL RAMOS: Both of the quoted reviews compare you to Jorge Luis Borges - quite an accomplishment. Would you say that he is an influence on your work? If so, where did that come from? And, again if so, did you incorporate Borges consciously in these short pieces or did you not realize what happened until you finished? If there's nothing close to Borges in your work, in your opinion, why do you think the reviewers referenced him when they talked about you?
DANIEL CHACON: I think everybody is influenced by Borges, even if they're not aware of it, because he was influenced by Shakespeare, by Schopenhauer, by Robert Louis Stevenson, by Baudelaire, by Poe, Victoria Ocampo, Bioy Casares, by all these writers and others influenced other writers that we have read, Julio Cortázar, Amy Hemphill, Toni Morrison, Dorianne Laux. One cannot help escape the influence of Borges or many other writers for that matter.
My first encounter with Borges was when I was active in the Chicano Movement at Fresno State. We had a list of writers we should hate, not a literal list, but an emotional list, a de facto list of writers who might be Latino or Latin American or Chicano, but because they were saying things that we found to be an abomination to the values and policies of the movement, we rejected them. We rejected Richard Rodriguez because of his politics, even though his language betrayed a young man with a developing consciousness and lovely esthetic, not an ideologue bent on upholding conservative values, like Disnesh D’Souza.
It's funny how in the early history of our literature we were more than willing to put up with misogynist male writing, as long as it somehow adhered to the articulated sentiment of the Chicano Movement, but we found it hard to forgive the brilliance and genius of a gay Chicano from Sacramento.
Still, when I was a young man, more in love with rhetoric than love, Borges was on that imaginary list of writers we should reject as Chicano activists, mostly because of his silence during the dirty little wars in Argentina. It is said that he used to walk through Buenos Aires without even the slightest sense of danger, so protected was he, while many others, especially if they represented views left of center, we're disappearing and being tortured and murdered, even if they were nuns.
So my initial introduction to Borges was very negative. I had no desire to read him. The first time I picked up one of his works, I was immediately bored.
But for some reason, I kept going back into him, and one day I saw him as a little boy sitting on an overstuffed armchair, reading a book, Kipling, or Robert Louis Stevenson.
I saw him reading that book, even though it wasn’t an image in the story I was reading. Somehow the language of the story led my imagination into a landscape that allowed me to imagine that little boy, Georgie, sitting on an armchair reading a book.
Ever since then, I understood how to enter into the work of Borges: like a child, wonder and imagination first.
The imagination of Borges does not belong to the man who used to walk Buenos Aires anymore than Shakespeare’s memory belongs to the body that used to house that upstart crow. Imagination belongs to anyone with the ability to dream, Einstein, Rilke, Neruda, my seven-year old nephew.
When I enter into a room, that is, another stanza of a story that I am telling, I often find myself in realities that are non-material, that some might attribute to Kabbalah, or science fiction, or quantum mechanics, or Poe, a world that is often anti-intuitive and full of amazing phenomenon.
Do I often run into Borges? Of course he’s there, along with a bunch of other people.
Still, I have affection for him, maybe because I saw him as a little boy sitting in that armchair reading a book, while other boys were outside playing games, pretending to be Guachos, pretending to have knife fights with pieces of stick. Sometimes they really hurt each other, as kids will, sometimes drawing blood, and meanwhile little Georgie is entering into an entirely different landscape, a parallel universe, where he prefers to play.
MR: The many "rooms" in your literary hotel are occupied by a wide and intriguing cast - but also by worrisome themes that include the Juárez murders, Chicano identity, and puzzles about the masculine and feminine. In the face of what is a complex but highly entertaining book, I'll ask two basic questions - what were you trying to accomplish with this work, and do you think you met your goal?
DC: I am trying to accomplish good writing. I’m trying to create a landscape, or a giant house. I want to invite people with imaginations to come inside and take a look around.
I want them to see the paintings on the wall, use the furniture, make themselves at home. I want them to take off their shoes and walk barefoot on the wooden floors, maybe follow a hallway, go through a few doors, walk through the house and suddenly, we realize we looped around, and we bump into earlier versions of ourselves going the opposite direction.
I had no political or ideological agenda when I wrote this.
When I was a new Chicano writer, my political agenda was all that mattered, and I considered other elements of craft as bourgeois tools to control our public discourse. I now have more faith in language. If you follow, like a child, the rhythm and the music of language, it can lead you into parallel universes.
Most theoretical physicists agree there is a multiverse, an infinite number of parallel universes. There are so many of them that our imagination is not capable of reaching them all. Another way of saying that is: we cannot think of anything without it existing somewhere, in some universe.
So when we create stories, when we create novels and when we invite people into our imaginary houses to look around our rooms, we are showing them a real place, something that comes from a real place, language.
For a writer, what does language do but musically express that which is fundamental to our selves?
And if our selves see the world in such a way that we believe in justice, we believe in speaking for the oppressed, of spreading love -not war, if our political and social values are fundamental to who we are, we cannot prevent them from coming out in our work. We do not need to assert a politics. If the politics are true to how we believe reality to be, the politics will be there, with or without our intent.
MR: Can you talk about the mechanics of producing a collection like Hotel Juárez? How long did it take you to complete this work? Did you focus on this only while you were working on it, or did you write something, set it aside, then go back to it? Did you work on other things while you also worked on Hotel Juárez? Is this how you do all of your writing?
DC: I told myself I would never start a sentence in an interview with “I'm not the kind of writer who…”
But I must say, I'm not the kind of writer who comes out with a book every year. At least not yet I'm not, but who knows what the future holds? I seem to come out with a book every five years And almost every book that I have written so far has taken me around five years to write.
Hotel Juárez had many different drafts, and different titles, but it wasn't until I walked by a hotel in Juárez and snapped that picture that you see on the cover of the book that I realized what the collection wanted to be, how it wanted to be shaped, how it wanted to unfold.
It's a hotel. The entire collection is in five parts, and each of them represent a different part of an Escher-like house, a giant hotel with many windows and many doors and many staircases. It is a place of the imagination, so it is not subject to material reality or the laws of classical mechanics.
The stories are connected not through the material world, but through (for a lack of a better word), wormholes, which are minute images, tiny little things that for some reason arrest the rhythm and the momentum of a narrative.
I sense that the form of the book had been taking shape without my recognition of it, but when I imagined that hotel, I knew immediately what the last story had to be.
It’s the title story, Hotel Juárez, and although it has many different titles in that section, the fact is, it's just a long story told in flash fiction. Perhaps that story can be found in all other parts of the book, maybe not imagistically, but through wormholes of the imagination.
That may not make sense, but fiction writers, like poets, don't need to make sense.
MR: What's next for you in terms of writing? What are you working on now? What would you like to accomplish in the next five years, as far as writing is concerned?
DC: I'm currently working on a book of poems. I already have the first draft, and I’m revising. It’s my first book of poems.
When I first started writing, with other Chicano writers at Fresno State, like Andrés Montoya, I was writing poetry. When we started the Chicano Writers Artists Association, we would have weekly poetry readings, and that’s all we read. Somewhere along the line (I don't remember how, it could've been a comment someone made, something like, “Your poetry isn't that good, but your fiction is”) I decided that I wasn’t a poet.
I'm beginning to think I was wrong. In the next five years, I would like to write poetry.
I also want to be able to take walks with my friends and my dog, and I want to be able to look out my window, and no matter what it looks out onto, I want to be awed at how beautiful it is.
MR: Muchisimas gracias, Daniel. It's been a pleasure talking with you. I've read Hotel Juárez and I agree with the reviews - it's a wonderful book, full of imagination, insight, and humanity. I recommend it highly.
Daniel Chacón is author of Hotel Juárez: Stories, Rooms, and Loops (2013). His collection of short stories, Unending Rooms, won the 2008 Hudson Prize. He also has a novel, and the shadows took him, and another collection of stories called Chicano Chicanery. His fiction has appeared in the anthologies Latino Boom; Latino Sudden Fiction; Lengua Fresca: Latinos Writing on the Edge; Caliente: The Best Erotic Writing in Latin American Fiction; and Best of the West 2009: New Stories from the West Side of the Missouri. He co-edited The Last Supper of Chicano Heroes: The Selected Work of José Anontio Burciaga. He is also editor of Colón-ization: The Posthmous Poems of Andrés Montoya, forthcoming in 2014 from Bilingual Press and The Institute for Latino Studies at Notre Dame.
Chacón is recipient of The Hudson Prize, a Chris Isherwood Foundation Grant, The American Book Award, and the Peter and Jean de Main Emerging Writers Award, among others. He has a literary radio show called Words on a Wire (KTEP.org) which he co-hosts with Benjamin Alire Sánez.
He is also a photographer/blogger, and his work can be seen at www.soychaconblogspot.com.
Remembering Cecilia Burciaga
La Bloga friend and renowned writer Gloria Velásquez recently sent La Bloga two poems she wrote in memory of her friend, mentor and teacher Cecilia Burciaga.
Burciaga died on March 25, 2013. Here are a few lines from an article about her published at MercuryNews:
"Cecilia Burciaga, a former administrator at Stanford University and California State University Monterey Bay and nationally respected leader in civil rights and higher education, died Monday in Menlo Park after a seven-month battle with cancer. She was 67.
Revered as a relentless crusader for Latino causes, Burciaga also served under two U.S. presidents, first as commissioner for the National Advisory on Women under President Jimmy Carter and then as a member of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans under President Bill Clinton.
In 2010 she appeared on Latina Magazine's Pride of the Century list as one of the Top 50 Latina Women of
Her late husband, Jose Antonio "Tony" Burciaga, was an accomplished Chicano artist, poet and writer who explored issues of Chicano identity and American society. He died of cancer in October 1996."
|Gloria Velásquez and Cecilia Burciaga|
Cecilia Burciaga was my first and most important mentor when I arrived at Stanford and the poem, "Cecilia," emphasizes what she meant to this young Xicanita when she arrived a Stanford. I used to visit Cecilia a lot in her office, she made me feel welcomed, so losing her was monumental for me personally. I wrote that first poem when I was at the Tucson Festival of Books and knew she was leaving us.
The second poem, "Hasta siempre," captures the loss for Xicanisma and all Xicanas, but especially for us Xicanas Xingonas (there is an actual website and both Cecilia and I are on it as well as others), the legacy she leaves behind. I wrote this poem while in Johnstown on the day when I found out she had passed. Also, Jose Antonio and I were dear friends/camaradas, so I feel blessed to have known them both, to have them both shape/influence my Xicana identity.
for Rebeca y Toño
Mujer de tanto valor,
you gave me your heart
esos días en Estanford.
Tú y Antonio,
sharing your home
with all the Xicanada.
I was a young Xicanita then,
scared to be tan lejos del campo
entre tantos burgueses
and there you were in your office
listening to my fears,
telling me I belonged,
wiping away mis lágrimas
con tu Adelita strength.
Mujer de tanto valor.
You made me believe,
Sí, tú, Cecilia,
Y hoy te lo agradezco tanto
for I know who I am because of you,
Sí, tú, Cecilia,
Tú y tu grandeza.
Gloria L. Velásquez
Written en Tucson while on a gig
March 10, 2013
para Rebeca y Toño
Un día triste for Xicanas Xingonas
ya se fue nuestra jefa
ya se fue nuestra Juana Gallo
dejando su legado en mi corazón
Xicana Power to the Max
She taught me my Xingona-ness
aquellos días en Estanford
nuestra Adelita Cecilia
que no se rajaba ni se dejaba
daring to take on Ivy League Patrones
a puros chingazos
inmortalizada ahora en Casa Zapata
en Antonio’s Last Supper of Chicano Heroes.
Hasta pronto querida amiga
Hasta pronto Comandanta
“Aquí se queda la clara
la entrañable transparencia
de tu querida presencia
Cecilia Preciado Burciaga…”
Gloria L. Velásquez
Written en Colorado while on a gig
March 25, 2013
Desperado On The Screen And A Reading/Signing Event
My son, Diego, produced the video for the book - I think it is excellent. I will read from and sign copies of Desperado: A Mile High Noir on April 27 at 2:00 PM at the Broadway Book Mall, 200 South Broadway, Denver. Hope to see some of you there.
That's it for this week -