Friday, November 17, 2006


Manuel Ramos

Lorna Dee Cervantes
Call For Submissions
Mapping Nativity
The Cybills and Gina Marysol Ruiz


Creative writing teachers and critics like to talk about the "sense of place" evoked by an author. Certain names and locations immediately come to mind when that phrase is uttered. William Faulkner, of course, and Yoknapatawpha County; Rolando Hinojosa and Klail City; Rudolfo Anaya and rural New Mexico; Chester Himes and Harlem in the 1950s and 1960s. The great ones bring a reader into a world that exists only in the writer’s mind but for that reader the place is as real as the book in the reader’s hands. There is great satisfaction in recognizing the textures, colors, smells and sounds presented by a writer, even if I have never been to the particular place in the story, even if the place is wholly imaginary. I find comfort when words fix a location in my mind, when I accept that I have been transported from my La-Z-Boy to Faulkner’s deep south, or the trash-strewn alleys and side streets of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles.

A writer sooner or later will be asked about setting: how important is it, how does one go about establishing it, what are the basics?

I think some of the answers can be found in this paragraph from the story Chango, found in the collection entitled Brownsville, written by Oscar Casares (Little, Brown and Company, 2003):

"Most afternoons Bony sat on the tailgate of his dark blue troquita, the sound system cranked up to some Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd. He’d been listening to the same music since high school and said he would change if another band ever came out with anything better. That afternoon was different, though. He forgot about the music and sat in a lawn chair on the grass. The shade from the fresno tree covered most of the yard. The wind was blowing some, but it was a warm breeze that made him feel like he was sitting in a Laundromat waiting for his pants to dry. He stayed cool in his chanclas, baggy blue jean shorts, and San Antonio Spurs jersey. Across the street, a crow walked in circles in front of Mando Gomez’s house. Bony cracked open his first beer. The palm tree stood between him and the street. He liked being the only one who could see the monkey as people walked by that afternoon. He stared at the monkey and the monkey stared back at him."

And just like that we understand the type of place Brownsville is and, ever so more important, we are provided a few clues about Bony and Bony’s life. I have slipped into the "place" of this paragraph but I also am inside Bony’s head, aware of his anomie, and I await the full disclosure of the conflict subtly hinted at in the paragraph.

Place is nothing without people and Oscar Casares’s characters are complicated and layered and contradictory. Their stories are sometimes amusing, the people pitiful or admirable. These strong tales of human failure and victory pull the reader into the secrets and whispered gossip of Brownsville, enough so that a voyeuristic thrill rubs against the conscience.

Consider the story Charro. Marcelo hates his neighbor's dog, Charro. The damn thing keeps him up at night, craps in his yard, and generally interferes with what Marcelo considers his right to enjoy the peace and privacy of his own home. Marcelo's life is mundane to the point of dull. He works as a livestock inspector for the USDA--not much going on there. He takes his wife to visit her mother's grave and is filled with resentment. The mother-in-law hated Marcelo. He can't get any respect from the oblivious attendant at the self-service gas station. His boss chews him out for being late and Marcelo must meekly accept the lecture. You see what's happening here, right? What Marcelo can do is wage war against the dog. War with no quarter: poison, dognapping, abandonment more than twenty miles from the city. All fruitless. Charro is one tough cur. There is a twist in the plot, of course, and what started out as a peek at one man's ignoble attempts to maintain the vision he has of himself at the expense of an innocent pet becomes an incisive exploration of manhood and vanity. Eventually I felt something more than pity for Marcelo, lost in the shadow of his rough-and-tumble father, beaten by life's constant battles, and I sympathized with this resident of Brownsville who finally sees a truth about himself: "What would his father have done about the dog? Right or wrong, he always seemed sure of what he did. Marcelo tried to live his father's life, but now it felt as if he were standing in the middle of a river trying to stretch his arms and touch both sides. No matter what he did, he'd never reach far enough."

South Texas has a long and proud literary heritage that includes the aforementioned Hinojosa as well as the iconic Tomás Rivera. Casares is treading in deep water and one collection of short stories does not make a master. But the stories in Brownsville hold up well. They illuminate the Texas border lifestyle and culture through the eyes of the people who live there. They flow smoothly and a reader expects to run into the various characters in any of the stories -- they all fit so well together. It is obvious that Casares knows whose path he is following. Rivera's ... y no se lo trago la tierra ends with the young boy contemplating his recent past and the always expanding future from a perch in a tree. It is a beautiful ending to a beautiful book. At the end of Casares's Domingo, an old man sits in a tree:

"When he opened his eyes, he gazed out toward the horizon, farther than he had ever imagined he could. He looked across the river, past the nightclub lights on Obregón, past the shoeshine stands in Plaza Hidalgo, past the bus station where he caught his long ride home, past all the little towns and ranchitos on the way to Ciudad Victoria, past the Sierra Madre and the endless shrines for people who had died along the road, and even farther, past the loneliness of his little room next to the tire shop, past the reality that he would work the rest of his life and still die poor, and finally, past the years of sorrow he had spent remembering his little girl, past all this, until he clearly saw his wife and then his daughter, Sara, who was now a grown woman."

Oscar Casares has made all of us honorary residents of Brownsville.

A tip of La Bloga's sombrero to our hermana Lorna Dee Cervantes who will receive the Louis Reyes Rivera Lifetime Achievement Award on December 2 at Amherst College. The award is part of the 9th Annual Diaspora Poetry Concert. Roberto Marquez and Victor Hernandez Cruz also will be honored at the event. Get all the details over at Lorna Dee's place. And while you are there, read Nothing Lasts, a poem she presented at the opening of an exhibit of her late father's art. Sublime.

This announcement is all I know about the project:

Sunstone Press, an independent publisher in Santa Fe, NM is producing an anthology that will be edited by poet Gabriel Gomez. The anthology will feature Avant-Garde poetry and poetics by contemporary Latino/a writers. The tentative publication date is fall 2007. The anthology will first appear at a conference in Santa Fe, NM, scheduled for October 2007, and will be available nationwide thereafter. The ultimate goal is to encourage both readers and publishers to recognize the breadth of Latino/a writing and thus deepen the public's understanding of the Latino/a experience.

Guidelines: Please submit up to five poems. Manuscripts should not exceed 15 pages. Include a cover page with your name and contact information as well as the titles of your poems. Your name should not appear on the poems themselves. Writers are asked to submit only electronic versions of the poems. Send as MS Word attachments only. Both MAC and PC platforms are acceptable.

Submit work to Writers whose work is accepted for the anthology will be asked to write a poetics statement no longer than 750 words.

All manuscripts submitted by January 10, 2007 will be considered. Contributors will receive two copies of the book upon publication.

Meet the Collectors
Learn about the origins, materials, techniques, and inspiration of the collectors, as seen in over 135 miniature nativities, from 18 countries of the Américas in the current Museo de las Américas exhibition: Mapping Nativity.

Meet La Meta Lubchenco, Florence Hernández-Ramos (representing José de Jesús Hernández), and Laura Edmondson. November 18, 11am at the Museo.
Museo de las Américas 861 Santa Fe Drive Denver CO 80204 303.571.4401

My co-conspirator here on La Bloga wants everyone to know, and I am happy to help spread the word, that she is on the nominating committee of the Cybill's for Best Graphic Novel Young Adult. There are two categories, you can find out more here:



sonja said...

I just read Oscar Casares’s story in an anthology called Lengua Fresca: Latinos Writing on the Edge, by Ilan Stavans and Harold Augenbraum. It's an interesting collection of authors.

Manuel Ramos said...

Care to review Lengua Fresca? We are gluttons for guest contributors. You could expand on why the collection of authors is "interesting." What did you think of Casares's story?

sonja said...

When I finish the anthology, I'd be more than happy to contribute a review.

Even though it was a short story, Casares fleshed out his characters very well and succeeded in making the hard to believe believable - if that makes any sense!


Alisa Valdes said...

Casares rocks, man.

Thanks for the aweome post.