Stephen D. Gutierrez is the author of the recently-published The Mexican Man in His Backyard, Stories and Essays (Roan Press). This completes his trilogy of autobiographical and varied short stories he calls My Three-Volume BOXED Set. Elements (FC2), which won the Nilon Award from FC2, and Live from Fresno y Los (Bear Star Press), winner of an American Book Award, make up the rest of it. He has published both fiction and creative nonfiction in many magazines, anthologies and newspapers, including, most recently, New California Writing 2013 (Heyday Books), Catamaran Literary Reader, and Alaska Quarterly Review. He is at work on a new collection of stories based on his alter ego Walter C. Ramirez. Gutierrez has also written plays that have been performed in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Buffalo, New York. “Game Day” was the winner of the Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition in the One-Act Category. He teaches fiction writing at California State University East Bay.
DANIEL OLIVAS: With The Mexican Man in His Backyard, you complete a trilogy of books that focus on the people of Fresno and Los Angeles. Did you have a particular goal in writing these three books?
STEPHEN GUTIERREZ: Not really. Only to put together some pieces that I believed in and that hung together. They wouldn’t die. I wanted them out there in book form. Of course, the fancier answer would be more complicated and involved and literary, so let me at least try to be more sophisticated: I wished to compile a cogent narrative using unorthodox and orthodox techniques that captured the times and places of my life, and, by extension, I hope, something about the spirit and flavor of my generation of Mexican Americans. I wished for certain pieces to live – embellishing my first answer – a little longer than their lifespans in the magazines they first appeared in. I desired this because they seemed healthy compared to the rest out there, the noted and honored and drooled over. ”The fine, the great.” Well, there’s not really much that is great out there, the accolades aside. But I sound really pissy and envious there, and I am, everybody is. I wanted to write and publish My Three-Volume BOXED Set because there’s some crazy shit in there like nobody else’s. ”Yup, I gotta’ keep on and get this out there.” I kept repeating this kind of encouragement to myself: ”I too belong in the library being filled by my generation of American writers. I got to keep plugging away and working because there aren’t enough Gutierrez’ in the stacks. I got to leave something behind that says I lived.”
DO: Your stories and essays drill down on what some might call those small, everyday events that make up most of our lives. Yet out of these events (that are simultaneously humorous and heartbreaking), your characters often grow or come to some kind of understanding about themselves or the world around them. What keeps you, as a writer, within the bounds of ordinary lives as opposed to grander events and themes?
SG: Small things in life are what tear me apart as opposed to the great doings in the world at any given time. Let me admit an awful truth: I don’t really care about Ukraine right now, or Syria, or any given situation that people mumble in sympathy about. At least, I don’t really feel that turmoil and pain those people must be experiencing, so I couldn’t possibly imagine writing about these great events with any authority or passion or concern. Granted, you might not be talking about political events or extraordinary occurrences in the world at all, but about the enduring themes we all live through or learn about: love, aging, death, etc. My answer then is not surprising. All these truths can best be approached by the way they most often present themselves, at least to me. They enter stealthily, in subtle movements and gestures that signal more about the unfathomable mysteries they contain than the bald fact of their existence. Death in a coffin is nothing. Terror exposed in the eyes of a grandmother who isn’t ready to go yet but denies fear of death, is everything. I could go on and on. Life is symbolic, and is revealing its great messages in coded moments incessantly, continually. I like to think my antennae are up in the everyday world and foggy in the grand sphere of the cosmos. I don’t get God. I get a burnt tortilla on the worst day of your life being the end of it all.
DO: One of my favorite pieces in your new collection is “La Muerte Hace Tortillas” probably because it touches on that treacherous terrain of the father-son relationship. Can you talk a little about how that story came about?
SG: It is autobiographical. My dad was afflicted with a terrible disease early on, its aggravating symptoms appearing from the time I was born to his wretched, painful, god-awful demise in a convalescent room bed eighteen years later. A terrible end, just terrible. He was embarrassing to me much of the time, and I was ashamed of him. That is, I lived in fear of being embarrassed by him, so existed in an unseen shroud of shame. It still covers me partly, but this answer has enabled me to slip out from under it again, as I am able to do with greater frequency, so thank you for that. My dad was a hardworking, honorable man with a certain nobility to him because of what he suffered and endured with grace and courage, all for his family. But the rough times I speak of in that piece were rough. Certain days seemed like gifts from the gods – God! did I mention God before? – and this piece honors one of those days, exploring those tensions that rip the narrator apart usually but disappear in the fact of love and joy here – of a perfect day, when Death and Sickness and Despair do make tortillas, and tortillas are life. A crazy Chicano activist threw the finger at us and I had to throw the finger back at him is another answer.