Review: Juan Blea. Journey to Aztlán. Parker CO: Outskirts Press, 2014.
With a title like Journey to Aztlán, no one reasonably expects the book to fulfill the title’s self-help promise and cultural mystery. Journey to Aztlán is not for nationalists looking for fantasy history, nor poets researching visions and philosophies of our separate Eden.
In this self-disclosing memoir, Juan Blea takes readers along on his journey to aware, self-sustaining sobriety, which he calls, Aztlán, or choosing life.
Journey to Aztlán accounts one man’s conquest of crippling depression and drug addiction. For Blea, expression is therapy, for certain readers likewise. For that audience, Journey to Aztlán offers a therapeutic, inspirational narrative of use in forming one's own narrative.
Structurally and stylistically, Journey to Aztlán is an easy, quick read. Blea begins in February 2000 in crisis, then flashes back to July 1977 and launches the story of the boy who lived to this moment. Each chapter moves the story forward, skipping months, or years, cataloging provocative, interesting incidents in Juan’s life, from how he abandons suicide that February to teaching, and writing books for people afflicted like Blea, in 2011.
Presented as a patient's autobiography, the novelist in Blea lets his creative juices flow in the description and selection of key events and people. Keeping the narrative interesting, selected chapters change voice from first person to third. The tactic shows off Blea’s considerable skills in the third person. More importantly, third person allows him to tell and explain matters succinctly that escape tidy first-person illustrations.
Cultural nationalists will hate the Aztlánish elements of the narrative. At a point in life when Blea thinks himself an expert on chicanidad, especially Aztlán, a wise Japanese scholar sets him straight in a nearly “you see, grasshopper?” scenario. Humbled, Blea vows to abandon his tolerance for “good enough.” He vows to hold higher expectations of his students, and himself. A focused pursuit ever on goal is another name for Aztlán.
The simplicity of the argument strikes Blea as noteworthy so he recreates a story involving a tough group counseling session that rejects his--the counselor's--magic formula to “choose life" which is how the therapist translates Aztlán for these clients.
It’s a familiar lesson couched in intercultural terms. Behavior, not commitment, defines value. Blea realizes he can’t go after Aztlán in a half-assed manner. He insists his clients can’t go after their goals half-assed and, like Blea, turn to the pen to write it down and work it out. In the book, Blea makes believers of them.
Creative nonfiction is fun to read up to that point the writer makes a message or moral. This is Journey to Aztlán’s narrative flaw, fortunately it's at the end and the reader makes accounts, doesn't leave too disappointed.
Blea doesn’t have a satisfying conclusion to the book. The story is ongoing so there's no ending there. But ending the book escapes Blea. The final paragraphs find him wandering around a message until he runs out of equivocations and stops.
What else could he do? Growing conscienticized to living with a concept that “Aztlán is within everyone” defies narrative's capacities and reader expectations. It's an insight best suited to poetry.
Contact the publisher’s website here for ordering details.
Marketing Your Work
Reviewed in La Bloga-Tuesday
Note: Self-published writers have equal opportunity to be considered for a review by La Bloga-Tuesday. La Bloga is a team of eleven writers, each of whom follows her or his own practice. This is Michael Sedano’s.
Among the pleasures of doing criticism are the regular letters from self-published literary workers wanting a review in La Bloga. It’s encouraging learning how many writers in Aztlán are being productive, finishing manuscripts in a broadening range of genres, looking for an audience.
It’s a unique privilege to read new voices, even if some don’t make much of an impression. It's good knowing we are out there. The gems, those are worth reading through handsful of pulp, and ill-edited work to find the gems and semi-precious treasures la cultura churns out.
For the most part, La Bloga-Tuesday reviews work from independent, university, commercial publishers by established or notable emerging authors. Owing to marketing power and prowess, their product is what I read mostly. Así es.
I report on books I enjoy, that have value for a readership. Some come to me off the library’s new book shelf, others recommended by readers, and accidents. I came across Juan Blea’s 2007 novel, Butterfly Warrior, serendipitously. I liked it enough to share in a La Bloga Review. I later ran into Juan at a National Latino Writers Conference and we chatted.
Juan sent me a press kit early this year, offering his new work after seven years. It was an ideal entrée to get Journey to Aztlán into the stack of to-be-reads and possible reviews.
For writers coming in cold, there are sure-fire ways to be left out. For example, I get inquiries similar in entirety to these:
“Dear La Bloga: Please send me a mailing address so I can send you a review copy of my novel. Signed,…”
“Dear La Bloga, I would like you to review my latest novel. It’s a 60s based unbelievable novel somewhere between Naked Lunch and Wuthering Heights. Signed…”
I look at hapless efforts like those, disappointed at the lack of respect shown the writer’s art. Like reading one’s work aloud, respecting the labor of creation demands an effective presentation of one’s work to a public.
Debut novelists seeking a review from any genre-appropriate reviewer need to make a credible and competitive presentation to earn consideration. The work of writing a book ends when the work of marketing the book begins. They are both sides of a one-sided coin.
Respecting one’s time energy emotion poured into finishing the manuscript demands spending more time labor emotion putting together a marketing campaign.
At minimum, bring the book to market with a press kit prepared with all the professionalism you and collaborators can muster. Your press kit doesn’t sell the book, it sells the would-be critic on ordering and reading the book.
The competition does it. Every successful book gets to market as the result of a marketing plan. Self-published authors are no different except they have a bigger hill to climb: no track record, no corporate money, no sales history. Y que?
Send a press kit like the pros do. There’s a fifty-fifty chance you get a reply. If you ask wrong, or not at all, it’s a hundred percent chance of No. When you ask again, take the second "No."
Just because you do everything right doesn’t mean it’s going to work. Think of the odds your novel faces from big-time competition and dozens of self-published authors with slick press kits. That’s why you have a competitive press kit!
There’s no limit on the number of winners. Give yourself that fifty-fifty chance of being one.
On a Personal Note
August 31, 1968 was one of those penetrating heat hot summer days in Los Angeles. The bride and groom kneeled for what seemed hours as the Monsignor droned on about marriage like a barbeque, the coals grow hotter, then cool, then the coals grow hotter.
That 23-year old groom turns 69 on his 46th anniversary next Sunday. I'm still having the time of my life.