Interview by Daniel A. Olivas
Alejandro Morales, the son of Mexican immigrants, was born in Montebello, California, and grew up in Simons, the company town of the Simons Brick Yard #3, bordering Montebello. He earned his B.A. from California State University, Los Angeles, and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers University. Morales is currently a professor in the Department of Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine. Morales, as a novelist and professor, was awarded the Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature in 2007 from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Morales is the author of many novels and story collections including Caras Viejas y Vino Nuevo (1975), The Brick People (1988), The Rag Doll Plagues (1992), and River of Angels (2014).
Morales’s position as a seminal figure within Chicano letters is secure as eloquently detailed by Marc García-Martínez in last year’s TheFlesh-and-Blood Aesthetics of Alejandro Morales: Disease, Sex, and Figuration published by San Diego State University Press.
Morales’s most recent book is the story collection Little Nation published by Arte Público Press. Keeping with his aesthetic, Morales’s latest stories are unflinching and honest, a kind of tough-love literature that forces the reader to confront society’s—and our perhaps our own—demons. But he never forgets the importance of telling compelling stories, something Morales does so brilliantly here.
This collection was first published in Spanish ten years ago and was translated into English by Professor Adam Spires. Was this a difficult process?
A point of clarification, the first story “Quetzali” was originally written in English. The other four were originally written and published in Spanish. I have never translated any of my books or stories. If I were to translate my work I would probably rewrite the novel or short story. Translation is an art form. I prefer someone else to translate.
Little Nation was translated by Professor Adam Spires who has written articles and comparative studies about my writing. He writes and speaks fluently in English, Spanish and French. When Professor Spires agreed to translate Little Nation, I was very pleased and confident that he would produce a superb translation. The process went smoothly. Professor Spires wrote the first draft and sent it to me. I read the manuscript and sent it to my personal editor, Carol Penn. We went back and forth making suggestions until finally we felt the translation was ready to send to Dr. Nicolas Kanellos, Director of Arte Público Press, who read the manuscript and accepted the collection for publication. The book then went to the press’s editor who made a few changes and at last we had the final manuscript for publication.
Professor Spires wrote a superb introduction that I insisted be included in the publication. I am quite happy with the translation and the way the book finally came out. The book motivated me to write more short stories and I plan to have another collection of stories soon.
One of my favorite stories in the collection is also one of the most disturbing (“Prickles”) concerning an artist with a physical deformity who becomes famous from his paintings of the Virgin of Guadalupe—but so much more happens between the artist and his paintings. Could you talk a little about this story and what inspired you to write it?
The story is about a woman who lives with an abusive man. After years of being together they have a baby. They name the boy David. She is a talented quilter and embroiderer who makes beautiful quilts and embroidered pillows, tablecloths and tapestries. She teaches her son her talents and as he gets older begins to produce magnificent works of art. Her husband makes a lot of money selling all that his wife and son produce. Finally she throws him out and he never comes back.
When David is about twelve years old he develops a disease that causes tumors to protrude from his bones. The tumors grow out in different parts of the body, including the face and eventually cause painful deformities. At school during a time when David’s face was covered with tumors, a bully taunted and knocked him down calling him La Penca, Cara de Penca or Cactus Face, or Prickles. Notwithstanding his physical condition, David became a brilliant and famous painter.
I believe his inspiration were two women: Melissa a girl he met at college whom he loved but could never have her as a lover, and the Virgin of Guadalupe who in his loneliness and yearning, he learned to love and paint her in the traditional way. However there came a night, when unintentionally he painted the Virgin in a unique and controversial manner. In the morning David was marveled by the painting but kept the process of his creation a secret. From that moment on, he signed all his paintings with the nickname of La Penca that the schoolyard bully gave him years ago. These paintings became the most popular and the most expensive in his gallery. David believed that the Virgin guided him in how to paint her. To David, the Virgin meant unconditional love. David’s relation with the Virgin was inspired by Yolanda Lopez’s images of the Virgin of Guadalupe and in particular the controversial digital print of “Our Lady” by Alma Lopez.