Sunday, May 11, 2014

Of Book Burning, Wild Nightmares, Love Lost and Found -- An Interview with Lucha Corpi

Primero:  Feliz Dia de la Madre!  Wishing everyone a lovely Mother's Day. And to Lucha Corpi, mamá de su hijo, Arturo, y tambien de "la página roja," -- gracias por estar con La Bloga hoy!

Born in Jáltipan, Veracruz, México, Lucha Corpi was nineteen when she came to Berkeley, California in 1964.  De Mexicana a Chicana, Lucha Corpi has established herself as an important Chicana novelist, poet, essayist, children’s author. She is the author of two collections of poetry: Palabras de mediodía/Noon Words and Variaciones sobre una tempestad/Variations on a Storm (Spanish with English translations by Catherine Rodríguez Nieto), two bilingual children’s books: Where Fireflies Dance/Ahí, donde bailan las luciérnagas and The Triple Banana Split Boy/El niño goloso

She is also the author of six novels, four of which feature Chicana detective Gloria Damasco: Eulogy for a Brown Angel, Cactus Blood, Black Widow’s Wardrobe, and Death at Solstice.  Her new book, Confessions of a Book Burner: Personal Essays and Stories  is a departure from fiction and poetry (Arte Publico Press, April 2014). Lucha invites us into her intimate world of life and writing.

Corpi has been the recipient of numerous awards and citations, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry, an Oakland Cultural Arts fellowship in fiction, the PEN-Oakland Josephine Miles Award and the Multicultural Publishers Exchange Literary Award for fiction, and two International Latino Book Awards for her mystery fiction. Until 2005, she was a tenured teacher in the Oakland Public Schools Neighborhood Centers.

Amelia Montes:  Gracias for being with us today on La Bloga, Lucha!  Your book, Confessions of a Book Burner: Personal Essays and Stories covers so many topics about Chicana identity, culture, the creative process, race, immigration, loss and heartache in a woman’s life.  Had you been writing these pieces for a while?  How did the idea of putting these essays and stories together in one book come about? 

Lucha Corpi:  Over the years, I have often sprinkled my readings and presentations with personal anecdotes. “El cafecito es más sabroso platicadito.” Most audiences have enjoyed the stories. The essays “Epiphany: The Third Gift,” “Four, Free and Invisible,” and “La Página Roja” started as childhood and family oral stories, and I finally wrote them down. I wrote some of the other stories in essays between the novels in the Gloria Damasco crime fiction series. After Death at Solstice was out, I needed a break from writing fiction. 

Lucha Corpi's son, Arturo, and her grandchildren, Kiara, Niko, and Kami
By then, my goal was to write all these personal and familial stories so my grandchildren, Kiara, Nikolas and Kamille, would have access to the family history and Mexican culture that had shaped their father--my son Arturo--their paternal grandfather, and myself.

Lucha Corpi's son Arturo with his wife, Naomi
As a writer, I wasn’t satisfied with just the telling of the story. It didn’t provide the connections to the larger themes in my bicultural world, as an immigrant to the U.S. It was important for my grandchildren to have that perspective. So memories and stories wrap around the theme, and the narrative then meanders or flows steadily through my life in four very distinct communities: my childhood in my hometown Jáltipan, adolescence in San Luis Potosí, youth in Berkeley, California and adulthood in Oakland, California. Soon, I had a first draft of about one-third of the essays. I still didn’t think of this project as a book, until my good friend and publisher, Nicolás Kanellos and I coincided at a conference in Toledo, Spain, where he was receiving a Luis Leal Lifetime Achievement Award, and I was a keynote speaker. My talk was based almost entirely on the first of the essays in Confessions:  “Remembrance, Poetry and Storytelling,” with sprinkles from other essays. Nick was interested in seeing the manuscript. I said it was only a rough first draft of a third of the manuscript. He said okay. Three months later I sent him the complete manuscript. And we took it from there.

Two years later, here is the book, for your pleasure: Confessions of a Book Burner: Personal Essays and Stories.

Amelia Montes: And how very fortunate we all are, Lucha!  In the essay, “Epiphany: The Third Gift,” you write: “It wasn’t unusual for Mexican fathers, almost regardless of class, to deny their daughters the advantages of formal schooling on the false premise that as women they would always be supported and protected by their husbands, and in the worst case, by their brothers. Besides, even if a woman learned a profession, she would not be able to make a career of it, because she would end up staying at home to take care of the family.”  Do you feel this is still the case in Mexico and of immigrant families here in the United States?

Lucha Corpi with her brother, Victor Miguel (Mexico)
Lucha Corpi:  In Mexico, since primary school is compulsory, most boys and girls get the equivalent of six years of formal schooling. High school is still regarded as a luxury the majority of large low income families can’t afford for either girls or boys. It isn’t so much the cost, since it is free. The family counts on the income the children generate to make ends meet. If the family can afford a higher education for their children, no question about it, young sons are given the opportunity first.  Girls who have a primary education have access only to low-paying jobs, and at some point, they begin to see marriage as a way out of poverty, which, we know well, isn’t always the answer. Young women in middle-class families have better opportunities to finish at least high school. More frequently now, parents encourage their daughters to pursue a higher education degree. And the number of women with higher degrees has increased. Pursuing a career, however, is still a constant balancing act for most professional women, even when they can hire someone to help at home. The overall well-being of their families rests on their shoulders. Should family needs require it, however, they are expected to put aside their dreams of a career for a “greater good.”

Immigrant families in the U.S., even when they have green cards, face problems that seem insurmountable at times, i.e. learning English and navigating a different cultural system, yet still providing for the family.  To start with, the children learn English faster and the parents rely on them for translation, interpretation of cultural practices, and guidance. The roles are reversed, and the children, in a way, become the authority in the family. That alone upsets the Mexican family dynamics with terrible consequences in some cases. The families that can make this situation work function as a unit again. For the most part, boys and girls thrive and are encouraged to do well in high school and seek higher education degrees. There has been a tremendous increase of young Chicanas gaining admission into colleges and universities since the 60s and 70s, for sure. And that is always good news.

Amelia Montes:  In the book, you describe how you skipped first grade, mainly because you had followed your older brother to school at 4 years of age—and they let you in! How do you feel now about children who are obviously gifted, and whose parents might want them to skip grades as your parents had you do?  Do you think it’s a good idea?  Our school system is obviously very rigid.  How could it change?

Lucha Corpi:  I wasn’t particularly gifted, but it was obvious to the adults around me that I had developed some coping mechanisms on my own to withstand the rigors of a structured educational system at that early age and do well. Perhaps I enjoyed school and excelled because I wasn’t pressured to compete, not even after I became a “legal” student. I think my parents would not have insisted on my skipping a grade if I hadn’t been psychologically ready for such a change.

You are right in pointing out that the public school system is rigid. Its policy of social promotions based on age rather than scholastic achievement isn’t doing much good to the individual student. Teachers are caught in the middle of a conflict, especially because they feel powerless to change the educational policies made into law by legislators, who have not set foot in an elementary/high school classroom, let alone as students, for a long time, and have no idea what classroom instruction and testing truly require. But they make the rules.
Children's book by Lucha Corpi
Nowadays, some parents want their child held back to repeat a grade because they feel he or she isn’t ready for promotion to the next grade. These parents have to do battle with a public educational system geared toward moving students along to graduation non-stop. Sometimes, being the oldest student in his or her class might provide a child with self-assurance, which would then translate into better academic performance. Conversely, the trend among many middle-and upper-class parents is to push their children to excel from preschool all the way to high school. The tots must attend the best preschools where there is actually a school curriculum that rivals that of a first grader! In many cases, they are sent home with worksheets that take up their play time and other extra-curricular activities. These parents focus on gaining a competitive academic edge for their child, for the time when he or she must compete for admission into a college or university.  One good thing about these opposite points of view is that people are talking about these educational trends and, perhaps, this dialogue will bring about some badly needed changes in the school system. 

Amelia Montes:  Your work in Mystery/Crime fiction has been so important to Chicana literature.  You write in “La Pagina Roja,”  . . . “the writing of crime fiction, when one respects one’s art, is as legitimate as any other kind of writing; that exposing the machinations of a ‘justice system’ which more often than not stacks the deck against women, especially women of color . . . is also a way to obtaining justice for those who won’t or can’t speak for themselves.”  Do you feel that Chicanas are finally joining you in writing mysteries?  Is there more legitimacy today?  
Edited by Sarah Cortez
Lucha Corpi:  There are many more Chicanas and Latinas writing mysteries or crime fiction now, including some writers of young adult mystery stories. In the Arte Público Press anthologies, YOU DON’T HAVE A CLUE: Latino Mystery Stories for Teens and HIT LIST: The Best of Latino Mystery, edited by Sarah Cortez, who is also one of the writers, there are eight Chicana and Latina mystery writers, and I know of two more who are now published mystery novelists. Perhaps some are writing mysteries but haven’t sought publication of their work. I hope so. Since I wrote “La Página Roja” our numbers have at least doubled. But the Chicano crime fiction writers still outnumber us 2 to 1. We Chicanas will catch up. No literary bullets or bullies can stop us now!!

Amelia Montes:  You talk about migration, immigration, dreams (Morpheus!) and sharing these dreams with UC Berkeley professor, Norma Alarcón, who helped you see the importance of your dreams.  Are you still in touch with Dr. Alarcón and with your dreams?

Lucha Corpi:  Norma and I have been very good friends since the eighties. In some ways, because I was a teacher in the Oakland Public Schools, and not connected with the—and her—academic world on a daily basis, our friendship grew out of other interests we have in common.  My first husband was an intellectual, who lived in a world of ideas, and conversations with him were at times challenging for me. But there were common threads that made it easier for me to understand his point of view, and for him to enjoy a fresher, intuitive, but always intelligent perspective from me. I actually came to enjoy those conversations, as I do my conversations with Norma. We have never had any trouble discussing topics or exchanging ideas along those lines. But there is much more that we have in common: literature, poetry, music, our love for crime fiction, the mantic arts and the world of dreams, to name a few. We are good traveling companions and we don’t judge each other. When we talk, mostly on the phone, at least twice a month, we laugh a lot, especially when we share with one another her dreams and my nightmares.  

Amelia Montes:  The cover of the book is also fabulous.  Who is the artist and did you have any say in this cover?

Lucha Corpi:  The cover art is a print titled “The Burning Heart,” by Oakland visual artist Patricia Rodríguez. She is a fabulous artist, whose art has been internationally recognized, particularly her mural arts and box ofrendas. But she has so much more to be recognized for as she has also written essays on various art topics, published in many literary and academic anthologies.

Patricia Rodriguez
Patricia and I met in the early 70s. She was one of the pioneers in the Mujeres Muralistas art movement in the Bay Area and, particularly, in the Mission area of San Francisco. For a while, the Mujeres Muralistas and Chicana poets used to get together. We talked about projects, read poetry, checked one another’s works and, of course, discussed the Chicana movement in many areas of endeavor. Patricia and I have been good friends since that time, but sometimes to earn a living she has had to commute to or live in other places for weeks or months at a time. Right now, she lives in Oakland but is teaching a workshop on mural arts for young Chicanas in San Juan Bautista, a kind of commitment very close to her heart. Since she started her career as a muralist and visual artist in The Mission, she has also  been committed to working with young Chicanas so they may find the creative power in themselves, and in turn use it as a means and medium to define who and what they are, to explore their own identities. But San Juan Bautista is a two-hour commute in good traffic. Because she lives in Oakland, she has to commute during the week. But since we both live in the same city, I get to see her and what she’s working on more often. I fell in love with “The Burning Heart” the moment I saw it. Arte Público usually gets in touch with me for suggestions about cover art. I usually leave those decisions to them. I’m pretty happy with their choices. But this time I immediately thought about “The Burning Heart.” I sent the image to Nick Kanellos, together with other images of hearts among Patricia’s works. Nick chose “The Burning Heart” as well. I love my book, and I thank Patricia for the gift of her art and her friendship!

Amelia Montes:  In the essay, “Colorlines,” you tell us a humorous story which involves the actor, Edward James Olmos, and yet it also weaves in a very interesting narrative regarding skin color.  In our Chicana and Chicano community (and this also happens in the African American community) we still struggle with skin color, whether someone is “guera” or “morena.”  Your piece is like a mini “coming of age” regarding the acceptance of what you look like.  Do you think this is still a problem?  What can individuals and communities do to help children grow up to love their skin color, whatever it happens to be—and not judge others?

Lucha Corpi:  As I wrote in the first essay in the collection, colors are among the earliest memories we humans have, and in some very odd ways, at times, they determine our predilections; at others, they feed our subliminal fears; quite often, they determine or dictate our biases. Since we rely so much on our eyes for survival at night, for example, when we feel the most vulnerable, the colors associated with night—the skins of darkness, so to speak—often trigger in most of us the instinct for survival. Transfer that to a social or school culture that emphasizes the importance of a lighter color of skin over a darker one, or the other way around, and our children find themselves in a racial mire without the tools and materials to wade out of it. But it is not up to the children to find a way out. Most children in a playground tend to get along, unless there are issues of over-aggressiveness on the part of one group or another. I always remember my father’s lessons: The education of a child begins with the education of the parents, in particular the mother. We must take the initiative to have these kinds of conversations among the adults and to overcome our fears by exploring them in ourselves first. I’m glad I mustered up the courage to write the “Colorlines” essay.
Lucha Corpi's niece, Frieda, with her husband Craig Howard,
and grandnephew/nieto Quincy E. Howard
Amelia Montes:  Yes, skin color is a subject that has been and continues to be so important to our gente. Is there something else you’d like to say about the “Colorlines” section (or if you want to say that you still hope Edward James Olmos will read your books AND send you a kiss!)  Orale!

Lucha Corpi:  You’re making me laugh, querida Amelia! Gracias! But no, I have no expectations of being kissed (on the cheek, of course) via either letter, on the phone, by e-mail, Facebook message, or Twitter tweet, or in person. No expectations along any lines, color or literary! Maybe he’ll find out about Confessions and read the essay. I hope his ego can hold up as he realizes that my inquiry has more to do with how I viewed myself before and after the incident. His behavior facilitated a conversation with myself about color that was long overdue. Tan Tan!!

Amelia Montes: Do you still travel often to Mexico and do you also write there or do you keep to the writing of your work in the U.S.?

Lucha Corpi:  I travel to Mexico as often as I can. I enjoy the company of my brothers and my sister, and their families. I usually do a lot of reading, in Spanish, in Mexico, and only jot down lines of poetry or reflections from time to time on a small notebook I always have with me. I own only a flip cell phone, which I carry with me only when I’m out of the house, mostly for emergencies. I don’t own a laptop, a smart phone or tablet. When I travel anywhere, I want to enjoy the place, the people, smell the aromas and taste the food, have a sense of place as I blend as much as I can into the environment. I am addicted to writing now. If I have a computer or tablet with me, I’ll find myself most of the time in my hotel room pounding the keys. I’m idiosyncratic that way.

Lucha Corpi and her husband, Carlos Medina Gonzales
Amelia Montes:  What is your writing schedule like?  For example:  do you write every morning?  There’s a section in the book where you recount a difficult period (the divorce) and you were writing a poem a day.  You wrote that writing a poem every day saved you.  Please tell us more about this.

Lucha Corpi:  When I was a full time teacher, the only time I had the peace of mind and quiet to write was from 5 to 7 a.m. In truth, that was the only time I could write because I was at work from 8:15 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m. Now that I’m retired, I don’t have to get up at 5 a.m. to write. But if I’m working on a short story or a novel I still do it early in the morning.  However, each kind of writing has its own particular time. For example, I tried writing personal essays or poetry in the morning and it just didn’t feel right. I produced little and kept finding excuses to walk upstairs, have coffee, and work on a crossword puzzle. The best time for me to write poetry is near midnight, and I love listening to instrumental music then. The best time for me to write a personal essay is early evening and I must listen to jazz. Why? I’m idiosyncratic that way! One thing is a constant, though. Whether I produce or not, I sit down to write every day.

Amelia Montes:  Muchisimas gracias for taking time with La Bloga, Lucha  We are wishing you much success with Confessions of a Book Burner: Personal Essays and Stories.    

Lucha Corpi:  It’s been my pleasure, querida Amelia. Mil gracias. Dear La Bloga readers, I can promise you only one thing: If you decide to get and read Confessions of a Book Burner: Personal Essays and Stories, you won’t be bored! Gracias, y abrazos calurosos a todos y todas.

Lucha Corpi speaking to UCLA students in the Chicano Research Center, June 4, 2013


msedano said...

wonderfully informative and personal interview with one of my favorite writers. the familia fotos add a warm note on this mothers day. happy mothers day lucha!

Anonymous said...

Gracias, Michael. Amelia--Professor Montes gave me some very good complex questions, and I simply had to live up to them--the trademark of a good teacher. See you on Facebook, dear Michael. Abrazo.

Olga Garcia Echeverria said...

Gracias Amelia and Lucha. Great interview. I first read Lucha Corpi in college when I was 18. She was one of the first Chicanas I ever read and it was so empowering. Looking forward to reading Confessions of a Book Burner. Love the pictures of Corpi at the end of the blog. She looks radiant, dynamic, and llena de buena-vibra. Felicidades Lucha, y feliz Día de Las Madres.

Anonymous said...

Gracias, Olga, for your comment and for your support, which made my Mother's Day more enjoyable. Besitos.