Friday, January 20, 2006

The Lucha Corpi Interview

Manuel Ramos

Lucha Corpi has published books of poetry, a "mainstream" novel, short stories, and several Chicana detective novels. Here's a selected bibliography:

Palabras de Mediodia/Noon Words (1980, 2001)
Delia's Song (1989)
Variociones Sobre una Tepsted/Variations on a Storm (1990)
Eulogy for a Brown Angel (1992)
Cactus Blood (1995)
Mascaras (1997)
Where Fireflies Dance/Ahi, Donde Bailen los Luciernagas (1997)
Black Widow's Wardrobe (1999)
Crimson Moon: A Brown Angel Mystery (2004)

Lucha has achieved critical acclaim for her work- National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Prize in Fiction, the Multicultural Publishers Exchange Book Award of Excellence in Adult Fiction, etc., as well as popular acceptance. She has been included in numerous anthologies and she is recognized as a leading poet who gave voice to a strong and independent Chicana perspective. Lucha is, of course, one of the founding figures in Chicana/o detective fiction and I think I'm safe in saying that Eulogy For A Brown Angel has achieved "classic" status. Her books are used widely on college campuses and she often is called on to speak and present her point of view at conferences, seminars, and classes devoted to literature of all kinds. For more information about Lucha and her work, visit the page devoted to her at Voices from the Gaps: Women Artists and Writers of Color.

We met years ago when I was fairly new to the publishing game and she immediately became a friend and ally. Whenever I get the opportunity to spend time with Lucha I am always struck by her overwhelming generosity and sincerity, and her deep commitment to writing. Recently, she graciously agreed to answer a few questions for the readers of La Bloga.
Once you accepted you were a writer, did your life change? If so, how? When did that happen?

Lucha: My life changed the moment I began to write poetry, sometime towards the end of 1969. I had moved to Berkeley, California from Mexico five years before. I had a two-year-old son and was going through a very painful divorce. Out of necessity and curiosity, I had learned English fast, enough to navigate cultural locks and canals to ensure my son’s and my survival. But I had no family in California and very few friends to confide in.

I turned to poetry then, mostly to make sense of my inner and outer worlds. I wrote “confessional” poetry for awhile. But then something interesting happened. When I wrote The Poems of Marina, I became aware that I had transcended my own personal experience and had moved onto another plane. It happened that I read those poems to a friend, who introduced me to Catherine Rodríguez-Nieto. Catherine and I became friends and collaborated on a translation of the poems into English for The Other Voice, an anthology of world women’s poems in translation, published by Norton.

Just before authorizing the publishing of the poems, I panicked. I almost withdrew the poems. Until that time, I had been a private person writing poetry. Once the poems were published, I would become a public person. Was I ready for the pressure, for people looking into my private affairs, for negative criticism both from critics and my own family? Did I have the kind of ego that could withstand all that and still continue writing? I faced my worst fears then decided to jump into the murky waters.

The criticism, positive and negative, came as expected. I was writing and publishing lyrical poetry at a time that “protest” poetry was considered the only kind of poetry worth labeling “Chicano,” when the Chicano, not Chicana, poet was the voice of the movement. I was writing in Spanish, for which there were but a few U.S. publishing venues. But I kept on writing, as it became clear to me that writing itself had become as vital for me as eating and breathing.

In the process of facing my fears, I became fearless. I wrote to please myself, to challenge myself. Since that time, I have never had a problem exploring new forms of expression, writing in English as in Spanish, going into “genre” writing with my mystery novels, always willing to meet the next challenge, to go anywhere I want through my writing.

Did it matter in the big scheme of things that you were acknowledged as a Chicana poet and novelist?

Lucha: I think it mattered, maybe still matters, to others, who seem to have a hard time categorizing or labeling my work. In over 35 years I’ve been writing, I’ve been asked many questions about my cultural and linguistic identification and the content in my work. Am I a Mexican or a Chicana poet? Should I be considered either? Am I being opportunistic by using as background for my novels events in the Chicano Civil Rights Movement? Shouldn’t I stick to writing only poetry in Spanish because that’s what I do well? Did I know that writing mystery novels—“genre”—would prevent me from ever again receiving recognition as a “literary” writer?

To be honest, I hear the questions but I don’t particularly care to explore the issues in them. I was, am and will continue to be a Chicana poet and fiction writer by choice, and beyond that and most importantly, because of the two cultures that have formed me, which are reflected in my work in one way or another.

Acknowledgement? To some degree or another, all writers who publish want recognition and acknowledgement. I’m not the exception. And I am forever grateful to everyone who has supported me in my literary endeavors. But I never lose track of the real reasons I write.

What is the one thing you want to accomplish as a writer that you haven’t pulled off yet?

Lucha: To write a good play and a Chicana sit-com.

If you had asked me this question before 1990, my answer would have been different. At the time, I was working towards fulfilling my dream of writing at least one mystery/detective novel featuring an amateur Chicana detective.

I must confess, however, that, buried deep in my black trunk, where I keep everything I’ve ever written, there is a very poorly written play. I don’t remember now when I wrote it. Perhaps I’ll dig it out and send it to the archives at U.C. Santa Barbara, where my papers are housed, just to show aspiring playwrights how not to do it.

Can you single out a person or event or situation that moved your writing forward, in terms of getting published or other recognition of your work? If so, what was it?
Lucha: I really can’t single out an event or situation. Fellowships from the NEA and the Oakland Cultural Arts Division, the PEN-Oakland Josephine Miles Award, the Irvine and Palabra Nueva Prizes and other teaching awards were all important. But more important are the people who validated my work by making me the recipient of those awards.

Writing is a solitary experience, one that, like digesting your food, cannot be done for you. But publishing and promoting the work once published takes more than one person. In that respect, I consider myself very fortunate to have many people to thank. I don’t think there is enough room here to acknowledge everyone, who in one way or another, has made a difference in my professional and personal life as a Chicana writer and poet.

What’s the difference in your approach, if any, to writing poetry as compared to writing fiction?

Lucha: Writing the monologues in Delia’s Song I became more aware of the poetic process. My own, as well. And I came to the conclusion that all of us think and feel poetically, that we all walk around with poems in our heads, constantly integrating and disintegrating. The poem takes substance and form from many incongruent elements at different levels of consciousness and sub-consciousness. But poetry is an elusive lover. It requires from us to stop and listen, acknowledge its presence by writing it down or truly memorizing it at the time it comes to us. If we don’t, it is gone and never comes back in the same form as we initially conceived it. That’s why in every room in my house there is always paper and pencil handy.

Writing narrative, on the other hand, is a process of organization. Unlike the poem, the story begins with a “What if…” question. Then reason takes over, and reason always wants to know who, when, where, how and why. Its aim is to organize and elaborate on the answers to those questions. So the narrative writer has to deal with character development, setting, plot—time, fragmented or linear, etc.

Beyond that, all I can add is that writing poetry is like having a love affair; writing fiction, especially novels, is like being married with children.

Do you intend to continue writing children’s books? If so, what can we look forward to?

Lucha: I just finished writing a story, The Triple Banana Split Boy. The title might change, but my computer requires a file name. TTBSB is the story of Enrique, a nine-almost-ten-year-old boy, who has a sweet tooth like you wouldn’t believe. His parents become concerned about his craving and eating sweets all the time. Dad forbids him to eat any sweets at all. Mom tries to find a way to help him curb his cravings so he can continue to enjoy sweets from time to time. It’s a sweet story, lots of fun to write. It’s loosely based on my son Arturo’s experience as a child and mine as his mother.

I emphasize the word loosely because my son--now an associate professor and researcher in Psycholinguistics and Neuropsychology--objects to the word factual when attributed to literature. Science deals with facts. I don’t particularly disagree with his views. Literature interprets facts and transcends them. Any self-respecting story-teller will not stick to facts only, not if he or she wants to tell a good tale. That’s why someone (I forget who) said that autobiography is the greatest work of fiction. Curiously enough, both researcher/scientist and fiction writer begin with the same question: What if…?

At any rate, I recently sent the English version of the story to Nick Kanellos at Arte Público Press for consideration. I plan to start work on the Spanish version as soon as I can take a break from Death at Solstice, my new Gloria Damasco adventure in California’s Gold Country.

Why do you write detective/crime fiction? And how did you come to writing in this genre?

Lucha: I’ll answer the second question first. I believe you’re familiar with my personal essay La página roja,which I read at the La Página Roja Chicano Detective Fiction Conference in Albuquerque some years ago. This essay is included in Uncommon Detectives, an anthology edited by Susan Stall in Chicago and scheduled for publication this year.

In that personal essay, I talk about how, as a young girl, I became fascinated with crime stories by reading “la página roja—the crime page” of the regional newspaper. I developed a liking for true crime, but more than that, the kind of crime behind which there was someone’s “intelligence” at work. At the time, I also learned about the system of law and how justice is not always its end result. Justice depends a great deal on who writes, interprets and enforces the law, and by who I mean those in power—a case of Pax Romana in the U.S. perhaps otherwise known as internal colonization. Take your pick.

“There is no justice in this world,” my grandmother used to say. What she said definitely impacted my very young mind at the time. So to answer your first question, I think that both my great love for the detective story and my strong desire to bring about justice, even if poetic, are the main reasons I write detective fiction.

Do you ever feel limited by the genre label on your work?

Lucha: I honestly don’t. If I ever feel limited by any label others impose on my work, I might as well stop writing. But now that my mortality looms closer, I’d like to explore other forms of expression. As I said earlier, I’d like to write one good play, a Chicana sit-com, finish my collection of personal essays, The Orphan and the Bookburner. I write lyrical poems and I would like to explore the narrative voice in poetry.

Maybe I won’t achieve all of my goals, though I’m a very determined person. Whatever happens, I won’t have any regrets. I don’t believe in regret, and fear for me is only a means to knowing, to understanding. But I certainly don’t intend to die saying, “I could have written.”

Is there a future for Chicana/o literature in the publishing world, or …?

Lucha: Funny you ask that. I will be attending the International Conference on Chicano Literature in Madrid this year. The conference organizers are asking presenters to focus on the future of Chicano literature in the new millennium. I’m preparing a paper on the future of the Chicana mystery/crime/detective novel.

Once Rolando [Hinojosa] (first of course), Rudy [Anaya], you and I opened the doors, many Chicanos and Latinos have begun writing and publishing mystery novels and/or stories, some published by major publishing houses. I think the future of Chicano detective fiction is already ensured. But what about the future of Chicana detective fiction?

For a long time, Carolina García-Aguilera, the author of the Lupe Solana series, and I were respectively the only Latina/Chicana writing detective fiction. With the publication of Desert Blood: The Ciudad Juárez Murders, Alicia Gaspar de Alba has joined the ranks. I recently had the opportunity of talking with her, and she tells me she has decided to write at least one other mystery novel. Although I haven’t read any of her novels yet, Michele Martínez, a lawyer in New York also has a series featuring Melanie Vargas, a lawyer as well.

Chicanas seem to be more tentative about writing mysteries than Chicanos. Why? I’ll make my findings available to you when I finish my research and write the paper. Then, perhaps, we can revisit the subject.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received, or you want to give to other writers?

Lucha: If you want to be a good writer and poet, read. That’s what someone once told me. It makes sense. As a teacher, I have learned my craft by observing other teachers then applying and reshaping what I’ve learned from them to fit the needs of my students. As a writer and poet, I have learned my craft by reading the work of other writers and poets, not just for pleasure, but also with a critical eye. It has helped me to develop my own criteria about my work, to be honest about my limitations, that is, to be humble enough to accept that I still have a lot to learn to be the best writer I can be.

I don’t know that I’ve learned enough about the craft to give expert advice. As a poet and writer, I ask of myself two, three essential things, that I continue to respect my art and craft by apprenticing when I don’t know how, that I remain open and faithful to the voices of my characters, who speak to me at times in English, at others in Spanish or in both, and that I allow them to be who they are, not who I want them to be.
Thank you, Lucha, for sharing your insights and experience with La Bloga. And great news that you have many writing projects coming out soon or in the works.



Gina MarySol Ruiz said...

What a wonderful interview! I've been sick and am now slowly catching up on my LaBloga reading (will be posting soon)and what great reading it is! Lucha Corpi is a fabulous writer and I look forward to reading more.

Anonymous said...

shes a wonderfull woman and a miss her a lot!!!

searching for information about my aunt lucha i found this blog with this excelent interview with her

and im so proud!!!

guillermo corpi
san luis potosi, mexico