Interview of Kathleen Alcalá by Xánath Caraza
Xánath Caraza (XC): Who is Kathleen Alcalá?
Kathleen Alcalá (KA): I tell people that I became a writer in order to explain the world to myself. I grew up surrounded by stories told by my aunts and uncles. This was their way of perpetuating the world they knew in the middle of a world they did not necessarily understand. Many of these stories were incomplete, told by inference, demanding imagination on the part of the listener. It became second nature for me to speculate on the meanings of these stories. Later, when I began to write, I could hear these voices in my head, telling the stories, and did research in books and my grandfather's papers to fill out the backgrounds and settings.
XC: As a child, who first introduced you to reading? Who guided you through your first readings?
KA: I was just describing that moment to someone. At about four, I noticed a photo in the local paper of a cat and a dog together. I wanted to know about them. My mother said they grew up together and were friends. I wanted to know how she knew that, and she pointed to the caption. By the time I started school, soon after, I could print my name and read a little bit. I have two sisters who are quite a bit older and were already in school, so everyone probably had a hand in it. It's been a love affair ever since. There is a photo somewhere of me checking Dr. Seuss books out from the Bookmobile that came to our rural community in the San Bernardino Mountains. I will credit Dr. Seuss for really teaching me how to read.
XC: How did you first become a writer?
KA: I tell my students that I have had many job titles, but was always a writer. I worked in politics and broadcasting, starting in college. I started writing for the school paper in high school, and later for the Stanford Daily, so while it was exciting to publish my first short story in my 20s, it was not a shock to my system.
I only wish I had gone to grad school a little sooner. It was eight years between undergrad and studying creative writing at the University of Washington. I am within a year in age of Ana Castillo, Sandra Cisneros, and Luis Alberto Urrea. I used to wonder how they knew they could be writers, who gave them "permission" at an early age. Eventually I realized that they gave themselves permission, and I am not sure what I was waiting for.
XC: Do you have any favorite paragraphs by other authors? Could you share some lines along with your reflection of what drew you toward that paragraph?
KA: There is a paragraph near the end of Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, that pulls the rest of the novel together, justifies its place in great literature. I often teach the last paragraph of "The Dead" by James Joyce. And there is a sort of "hinge" paragraph in "Axis," by Alice Munro that I have admired for a few years, and I finally found a way to mimic it in a story. But these are paragraphs I admire for craft. I read Perma Red, by Debra Magpie Earling (Bitterroot Salish) earlier this year, although it was published in 2002, and every paragraph is so gorgeous it takes my breath away. At the same time, it is a tragedy. Much of it describes the land, and the people on it. In this one, the main character is hiding from a policeman who is looking for her as a truant. She and Baptiste might or might not be magically cloaked from his sight:
From Perma Red, 2002, by Debra Magpie Earl, p 77-78:
Charlie's shadow darkened the spot where Louise sat with Baptiste. Louise was close enough to Charlie to touch his gun. She felt like a snake coiled and ready to strike. She could feel the heat of his leg, smell the singed heat of his wool slacks. She looked up, saw the wind stiffen the hair up from Charlie's forehead. Baptiste looked up too, Charlie was so close Louise could hear the tight squeak of his leather holster. She drew her knees tighter to her chest and heard the blood beating in her throat. Charlie shook his head and kicked at a rock beside her, his boot skimming her thigh. She felt laughter curdle her stomach. The idea that Charlie could not see them in the cover of the weeds began to fill Louise.
XC: What is a day of creative writing like for you?
KA: I am very undisciplined. But generally, if I have an idea for a story, I might jot down some notes wherever I am, often in the back of my pocket calendar. Later, I will write a very compressed first draft, perhaps five pages long for a story that will eventually be two or three times that length. It is all about unpacking the images, searching the words and my mind over and over again to find what it is I am trying to write, trying to discern what the characters are attempting to tell me. The process is very visual. I am watching a little movie in my head, and sometimes they are speaking Spanish, and I have to look up some of the words.
If I am not teaching or doing other work, I can write about one short story or the equivalent amount of a longer piece a month. Typically, it takes me about three years to write a book. It took me five years, plus a year of working with the University of Washington Press, to write my recent nonfiction book, The Deepest Roots: Finding Food and Community on a Pacific Northwest Island. But I also have drafts of a book-length translation and another work of fiction that have accumulated along the way.
XC: When do you know when a text is ready to be read?
KA: Most of my writing is competent; very good, but not brilliant. Once in awhile, I read something I'm working on and it gives me a tingly feeling, as though my bones have filled with bubbles and I am levitating. That is what I am looking for, writing that transports the reader above and beyond the usual. Like levitating, it is difficult to maintain for more than a few words or seconds. I know a story is finished when it has a full arc, i.e., a change in the main character that satisfies the reader, and language that elevates the story slightly above itself and takes us with it.
XC: Could you describe your activities as professor and writer?
KA: Over the years, I've decided that the best way for me to teach is to set out information and allow students to discover it for themselves. No force-feeding. If they feel as though they "discovered" a technique on their own, they will remember the process by which they encountered it, like following breadcrumbs, and approach it from the same direction in the future. A book I like about the creative process is "Yellow Woman and the Beauty of the Spirit," by Leslie Marmon Silko. It is a surprisingly gentle book, considering the emotional strength and even anger in some of her other works. By tracing her writing process, which includes painting and photography, we can follow the same path. I've also noticed that Latinx and Native American writers tend to be much more visual in their approach, and are often visual artists in addition to being writers. This is a good way to tap into those ideas floating just below the surface, like the plot Silko discovers by taking a series of photos of a dry arroyo.
Many of my students over the last few years have been teachers, so they are already disciplined and motivated, and don't expect the learning process to be easy. I encourage them to support each other, but also to trust themselves to make the final decision. Instilling self-confidence in writers might be the most important thing a writing program can do. Editors want to work with people who can present and defend their work in a professional manner. I have had the good fortune to work with editors such as Margarita Donnelly at Calyx Books, and Jay Schaefer at Chronicle Books, and learn from each of them.
XC: Could you comment on your life as a cultural activist?
KA: Most of my cultural activism has been channeled into my writing - documenting my family's background as hidden Jews, hidden Indians, refugees from the Mexican Revolution. One of the greatest ways to perpetuate inequality in a society is to deprive some of its members of a sense of cultural and personal identity. The more I learned about my family, the more I realized that we were not unique - there had to be others like us. And there are. People have responded to all of the books, because media is our mirror, and we are constantly looking to it to validate our existence. To be able to say "I am a member of the Opata Nation" feels a lot better than "My great-grandmother was a poor Indian woman raped by an Irishman." When we look at each other, it becomes clear that these stories are either side of the same coin: One is a story of shame, and one is a story of pride. If we claim the stories, we can follow Audrey Lorde's advice: “It is axiomatic that if we do not define ourselves for ourselves, we will be defined by others-for their use and to our detriment.”
I am also one of the founding members of Los Norteños, a Latinx writers group in the Seattle area, and of The Raven Chronicles, a magazine of multicultural art, literature, and the spoken word that has been publishing for close to twenty-five years. I have to say that all of these activities are self-serving. If it doesn't exist, make it so. More recently, The Deepest Roots is an exploration of our relationship with food on Bainbridge Island, and documents the ethnic and cultural backgrounds that each of us bring to the conversation. Many of the local tribes, including the Suquamish, within whose territory I live, are reviving their traditional foods and diets, realizing that our food is our medicine. This goes for me, too. I've had to revisit the whole idea of how I eat because of high cholesterol and metabolic syndrome. But food also carries the stories of politics and territories. The Japanese Americans here, mostly farmers, were the first sent to internment camps in California and Idaho. It's all about who has access to the land.
It is important that we speak up and make ourselves part of the international conversation on the environment. People of color suffer far more from the effects of environmental degradation than white people. We have every reason to assert our claims to land and territories, if only because we could not do any worse in managing them for the long run. This happens at the local level - cities, counties, and states place questionable industries and waste dumps where there is the least resistance or public comment. I'm not an expert on any of these things, but I try to be a visible presence by attending meetings and writing letters to the editors. Like a cat that turns sideways to look bigger in a fight, I try to appear to represent more than myself.
XC: What project/s are you working on at the moment that you would like to share?
KA: I have most of a manuscript that is either a collection of short stories or an episodic novel. About half of the chapters have been published as individual short stories. There is also a translation in the works. Like all of my books and projects, I have no idea what I am doing or who will publish them, but I will worry about that when I finish.
XC: What advice do you have for other writers?
KA: Be brave! Your work is probably better than you think. Send it out. Sometimes a kind editor will give you some good advice, and might even accept a later story or poem by you.
XC: What else would you like to share?
KA: When I published Spirits of the Ordinary, it received a lot of attention for its insights into the world of hidden Jews in Mexico. When I wrote The Flower in the Skull shortly after, there was almost no awareness of indigenous tribes that are not recognized, even by the tribes around them. I figured it would be an elegy, my personal tribute to my ancestors.
Then, someone wrote and said they were a descendant. Then another, and another. We started a chat group on Yahoo, Mexico.
Last year, after fifteen years, we met in person in Tucson and Nogales. It was amazing to meet other people with similar stories and legends. I think we even look similar, although we came from Washington, California, Baja, and Arizona. The group would like to gain recognition. We want to save the culture and language, and pass it on to future generations. This is a total long shot, but when you look at the hope and optimism in this photo, you see that all things are possible.
We meet again in March while I am there for the Tucson Festival of Books.