Saturday, June 30, 2007

Interview with Author Ellen Levine About Authenticity

René Colato Laínez

Ellen Levine is the author of several picture books including I HATE ENGLISH!, HENRY’S FREEDOM BOX, and IF YOUR NAME WAS CHANGED AT ELLIS ISLAND.

What does a picture book need to have in order to be multicultural?

Multiculturalism is by the cleanest definition the recognition of multiple cultures/ethnicities/races in a society. This, to my way of thinking, can only be a good thing: first, it recognizes reality; second, it reminds the dominant culture's institutions to work to reflect that reality.

When the term multiculturalism is invoked here (USA) about a piece of literature, it usually refers to a book centered around a world and characters who are not of the dominant white protestant world, although white protestants can certainly be part of the story. Although I haven't thought a great deal about this, I'd say off the top of my head that such a book generally has a viewpoint character who's not of the dominant culture/ethnicity/ race of the country in which the book is published. I'd be careful how much further I'd go in defining the category.

The problems arise to my way of thinking when rules are set forth and arbitrary standards mandated. Have you looked at Hazel Rochman's book AGAINST BORDERS: PROMOTING BOOKS FOR A MULTICULTURAL WORLD? In her introduction she writes about moving "beyond political correctness" both because it's stifling in itself and because it often provokes a backlash of reactionaries. Usually I myself avoid the term "political correctness" because it is used most often as a weapon by the right wing to stifle discussion. Call something "pc" and we all smile uncomfortably and don't discuss the substantive issues. But I acknowledge there are legitimate issues to discuss -- who can write about what. Actually for me, there's not much discussion when the question is phrased that way.

Can an author write books outside his/ her culture?

My answer is anyone can write anything. And we all reserve the right to critique a work based not on the skin color or ethnic origin of the author, but on the accuracy, power, and beauty of the story.

What do these authors need to do in order to write an authentic multicultural picture book?

Most important, and this applies to whoever writes the book: the same criteria exist that make any book good (or by contrast, unsuccessful or poor)-- no stereotypes and no socio-political-cultural errors. My point is if you think about it, we use these criteria even when we don't call a book "multicultural." To be sure, these criteria do take on meaning contoured in slightly different ways when we talk about nondominant cultures. Prejudice is often deeply embedded in socially-accepted images that are really reflections of the dominant culture's values and not accurate reflections of the culture portrayed. And so we get "lazy" Blacks or "chattering" and "noisy" Hispanics, or "stingy" and "inscrutable" Asians, etc. The reverse danger is that we romanticize or sentimentalize and keep "pure" and make "perfect" our minority protagonists and their stories. Both are to my way of thinking equally unacceptable.

We're often quick to question the motivation of the writer who's not a member of the group depicted if he or she has written of the characters with open eyes, that is, the ugly along with the beautiful. We should demand the same (rounded characters, real stories) of writers who are of the group they're writing about. The imperative is for accuracy, and this applies to fiction or nonfiction. There are many Hispanic, Black, Asian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, etc., sub-societies. No one person ever can speak for all. If writers are of the group they're writing about, then they start out with some bona fides, but they must recognize that notwithstanding their "insiderness," they still can't automatically count on being accurate, i.e., there are too many variations in any large social/ethnic/racial group.

If writers are not of the group they're writing about, they must have explored it deeply enough to reflect and reproduce it with accuracy and understanding. I don't know about the market in general; I tend to think about books one at a time, so I'm not much good to you there.

What inspired you to write I HATE ENGLISH!?

I can tell you a few things about I HATE ENGLISH! I spent several years working first on a television documentary about Chinatown in New York (we covered a little of San Francisco, but were really focused on NYC) and then tutoring Chinese immigrant kids at a Chinese community center. I even served a term on the board of the organization. I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours with Chinese immigrant young people, tutoring, counseling, sharing cups of tea and coffee, celebrating triumphs, sharing sadness, etc. When years later I sat down to write I HATE ENGLISH!, I was able to travel back in my mind and heart to those days.

And here's an interesting twist. The publisher decided to run the manuscript by a Chinese-American editor on staff. Her comments, as I told my editor, made little or no sense. And this wasn't surprising. She was born here to upper middle class parents and lived in that world, not the world of Chinatown with its immigrants and first generation kids. And so she didn't know the world I was writing about, even though she was of Asian background and I wasn't.

Another story: a Danish-born American I know (caucasian) wrote a children's book about the Hopi Indians. The first fan letter she got was from a Hopi couple who loved her book and, as they said in their letter, assumed she was Hopi. What she was in fact was a good researcher and writer.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Holy Water, Desert Blood, Alcalá and Arellano

Manuel Ramos

University of Arizona Press, September 2007

The University of Arizona Press has announced that it will make available again Pat Mora's celebration of the spirit of women, Agua Santa/Holy Water. As the New York Times noted when the book was first released (1995), "[These] poems are proudly bilingual, an eloquent answer to purists who refuse to see language as something that lives and changes." Texas Books in Review said that these poems "celebrate women, women who are immediate and eternal, serious and humorous, sacred and profane. But always sensual."

Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders Alicia Gaspar de Alba
Arte Público Press, August 2007

Meanwhile, Arte Público announces that the acclaimed mystery novel about the series of murders of young girls around Ciudad Juárez will be released in paperback later this year. This novel won the 2005 Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Mystery and the 2006 International Latino Book Award for Best Mystery Novel. "Gaspar de Alba not only crafts a suspenseful plot but tackles prejudice in many of its ugly forms: against gays, against Hispanics, against the poor. An in-your-face, no-holds barred story full of brutality, graphic violence, and ultimately, redemption." Booklist

My bloga comrade Gina Ruiz recently passed on this announcement:
Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska won the biennial Romulo Gallegos literature prize for a Spanish-language novel for El Tren Pasa Primero (The Train Passes First) (Alfaguara, 2005), which the AP says "tells the story of a railroad worker who becomes immersed in the struggle for labor rights in Mexico." The prize honors the best Spanish-language novel. (Among recent winners, Roberto Bolaño took the prize in 1999.)


Esteemed Chicana writer and gifted storyteller Kathleen Alcalá will discuss and sign her new book The Desert Remembers My Name: On Family and Writing (University of Arizona Press) at the Colfax Avenue Tattered Cover Book Store. "This book is a gem. I am blown away by it. Its essays are original - incredibly, refreshingly original. It is not only a personal journey, it is also a historically significant journey for writers, for Chicanas/os, women, men, and all people interested in the power of what connects us all as humans." -Emmy Pérez, author of Solstice.

"Alcalá displays an intellectual curiosity that has led her to think and write creatively about less personal matters. Her essay on the Opata peoples of Mexico is fascinating, and in another essay, she masterfully blends the harrowing experience of Andrea Yates, who drowned her five young children, with the mythic stories of Mexican folklore." - Publishers Weekly
July 10, 2007 7:30 PM

Gustavo Arellano's ¡Ask a Mexican! column won the 2006 Association of Alternative Newsweeklies award for the best column in a large circulation weekly. Arellano will read from and sign his new book ¡Ask a Mexican! (Scribner). Arellano explores the clichés of lowriders, busboys, and housekeepers; drunks and scoundrels; heroes and celebrities; and most important, millions upon millions of law-abiding, patriotic American citizens and their undocumented cousins who represent some $600 billion in economic power. July 11, 2007 7:30 PM- Historic LoDo

Believe it or not, that's all I got this week. The blogueros and blogueras have been writing and posting at a hot and heavy pace, all excellent, so you don't want to miss any of the great stuff coming up in the next several days.


Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Flower in Her Heart: Jane Alberdeston Coralin

Jane Alberdeston Coralin is a Puerto Rican poet whose work has been published in literary magazines and poetry anthologies throughout the U.S. and Canada. An alumna of Cave Canem, a writers' organization for poets of African descent, Jane has performed her work in arts events and mentored writer's workshops in schools throughout the East Coast. Her poetry collections, Waters of My Thirst and The AfroTaina Dreams, are still in circulation. She is currently working on a poetry manuscript called Songs of a Daughter's Make Believe. She just completed her doctoral studies in English at Binghamton University in NY.

My blessing in knowing her is I have come in contact with poetry of heartbreaking beauty, but in addition, she is another co-author of Sister Chicas. Her Taina is self aware, whip smart and a deep dreamer, just like Jane herself.


Describe your odyssey in becoming a writer. How does Latin and female identity influence your work? What would you say are your major influences, both personally and in a literary sense?

It's wonderful how you begin with the word "odyssey"; most of the time it's felt like I've been on Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" crab boat, rolling on the waves wishing for a full net. It's a type of wishing that happens with me too, a wishing for what I think is the right word, the best image, the loud line that will carry the story forward.

I am the cliche: the writer that started way-back, fourteen and pimply and unpopular. I had one friend, also a closet writer. We started writing Harlequinesque romances together. Lots of boys and horses. Only later, at eighteen, depressed and lonely in Long Island, far away from my mami and her Puerto Rico, did I learn to write truly, as in about my life, the things I understood and knew. And I could only get to that point through the vehicle of poetry. But I was a language novice; though I viscerally understood poetry's power, I hadn't yet grasped all the tools, the glorious avenues that poetry drives.

So, again, I floated on the waters, till I arrived in Washington DC and was warmly welcomed by the poetry community. I started reading at a dive called 15 Minutes on 15th Steet NW DC. A long Amtrak train ride waited me at the end of that night, but I knew it was the only way I could get to know people and kill the shy girl within. Monday nights I was there, sipping back Sprites with lime, scratching through wrinkles sheets of poem, waiting to be called on stage. Later, I found my community at It's Your Mug, a poetry cafe in Georgetown on P Street NW in the 90's. Imagine a room so filled with people it was warm in the winter, as if a hearth were burning in the corner. But there was so fire except for the flames coming out of some of the most political and dramatic poetry in the city. And the poets got me - they got my images, they got my song - they appreciated my life living on the fence, on the cusp of self: Americanness, blackness and Puerto Ricanness. I didn't see myself as a prism, but as a broken thing.

This was my new story to tell; not because it was hip or cool in 1995 to Latina in DC. This was my story to tell because I'd come to a point where my Latinaness and Blackness were speaking to each other. Narratives in my family long buried were suddenly crawling their way up and out of me. I heard my grandmother in Julia de Burgos's "Rio Grande de Loiza". Poems from Martin Espada, Marjorie Agosin, Judith Ortiz Cofer, and others were guides for me to move into the cave where the stories hide.

You were an established poet for quite a while before you stated writing fiction? Is the creative process different for you when you work in different genres? How so?

Oh, I was always a fiction writer; I think I stored the fiction away for awhile, boxed it up in cardboard boxes. I was afraid. Fear's so powerful, it struck my down for awhile. The poems were easier to admit were mine. Even that took years. It took for a very long time to say I was a writer, so your question throws me off the fence a bit. I kept poetry and fiction in very different camps: poetry to the far left, fiction over the hill and through the woods. I couldn't imagine their sharing space in my head at the same time. That would have meant I had grown as a writer! We can't have any of that.

Talking about fear, it was excruciating for me to imagine people would care about what I had to say. Shy for most of my life, I used poetry as the vehicle to talk. The poem would say everything I needed it to say and it would also silence what needed silencing. It's still very difficult for me to speak up, to say what I want, what I don't want or feel comfortable with. It's a constant battle for me: performing poetry became a stage where I could practice being heard. When I read a poem (mine or another's), I am amazed by how I feel as if the woman talking were from Mars or Pluto, blue with ice. So, if by established, you mean comfortable, I'd have to say NO. I'm never comfortable. But I'm still working - there's so much I still need to learn and try. I'm always oscillating between jumping off the cliff and never writing again or loving the process so much I'd marry it, as my 11 year old nephew would say.

Part of what keeps me going is the challenge: I become so enamoured of other writers' works: Edwige Danticat, Lucille Clifton, ZZ Packer, Zora Neal Hurston, my fellow artists and friends. Right now I am reading Kiran Desai and it was enough to strike me dumb for a bit. I couldn't think of creating for a couple of weeks. And then... something, as usual, popped in my head, deep in it, like a blooming cereus in the desert night. And then all was/is well. I feel/felt right with the world. Stumbling this practiced way is the only way I have of staying in love with process, thickening with it.

What's coming down the pike? For the past three or so years, I've worked to meld poetry and fiction, to blur the lines. I believe muddling the genres can help you strengthen the muscles for both. For example, in my own work, my dialogue in fiction stopped being stale and my poem-spaces have grown. I tell my students to listen in elevators, on the street, in restaurants. People don't know they way they speak is poetry. I use this exercise myself, fixing my ears to this magic has helped me hone in on my own work and shape it. I listen more to people, especially children. Their sounds and word choices, image constructions are so musical and poem-perfect. Children carry in their little mouths the very best metaphors. They have an intricate relationship with the power of image. They aren't held back by what keeps us, even writers, from say what needs to be said. They aren't full of the flowery language, yet they are such glorious gardens.

What would you describe as your major themes?

Do you have enough room? My poems explored my race and nationality; they interrogated my father and his abandoning my family; they looked at migration and the grasp of one's culture over assimilation. In one of the poems I sent you, "Smoke", I was dealing with the idea of my father's depression, something I had never in my youth or early adulthood even thought to explore. But being able to look back with twenty-thirty sight, I can deconstruct my memories, see my father staring out a lot, having several afternoon drinks till he fell to sleep at night, bark at us though we'd done nothing to inspire ire. His beer-thick fog of unhappiness started to speak up, some fifteen years after he'd left us. It started to speak up in poems, interrupt rooms of poems, move through my writing like a bull in a porcelain shop. I could not ignore its chatter, its rumble. It's this way with most of my work, the stories too. Characters (whether in a stanza or paragraph) just won't leave me alone. The only way I have of shaking them off my back is to pay attention. Close. Jot down what the monsters say when they say it. Then I'm free. Somewhat.

Right now I'm interested in discussing womanist themes and spirituality. The women's voices tapping on my head like clockwork hammers come from the abused, stolen, disregarded. The spiritual element comes from our response, the way we use our stories to protect each other, to protect our children. I've been exploring this in my critical studies, but like everything in my life, the academic has arced into my creative work. And that has awoken memories of my Abuelita's storytelling. Or maybe the stories are the reason behind my academic studies? We all have "talking" memories; if not from an Abuela, then an Abuelo, or a Tia or Uncle or a Madrina sitting the kitchen, the porch, the stoop, or garden. Have you read Judith Ortiz Cofer's memoir Silent Dancing? When I read it, I was convinced she was talking about my Abuela Juanita. I could have leaned in and touched my own grandmother between those pages. I don't have many pictures in my head from when I was young. I wish I'd listen more, listened closer. A lot of what's inside my throbbing cerebrum is part photo-memory, adopted copies of those yellowing Kodak snapshots. One is clear: I was twelve and on my first period and it was my grandmother, sitting queen-like in the dining room, telling me how to stay away from boys. All that story wrapped up in her own carefully detailed narrative and the threads of a Bible story, full of suspense and worry, a story to scare the adventure out of a girl. I can see her now, her honey-glow skin, gold rimmed glasses, a black woman with a roman nose - the only thing she had left of her mother who died roasting coffee beans in a ramshackle house in Anasco, Puerto Rico.

Though for the past two years I fought against the confessional or personal narrative in my poems and looked at the universal, I have learned from the literary great Audre Lorde that those dichotomies come together beautifully in the end. I don't fight the onslaught anymore. And there is an onslaught: I have the good fortune to have my mother with me; she, the last repository of all the lost tales, and I are working to piece my grandparents' stories together. Why? I want my nephew to have this history, a history which has been part of my construction and is part of his.

Is there a particular spiritual practice that informs your work? If so, can your share its importance?

I don't generally speak about my spiritual choices, but I will say that my writing is a spiritual process. Years ago, in Mexico City, I became friends with a devotee of a Hindu guru named Satya Sai Baba. My friend made annual pilgrimages to Calcutta and then returned from her retreats full of stories. Her eyes would glass over as she talked about lingams and divine ash and the Ganges sitting behind her in the sun like a forever ribbon of silvery skin. Her breath even smelled of incense, her hands at her heart as she spoke. She was contagious. I could not go to India but I had India in her. And felt God in that exchange. This is to say that I do my best to find God in everything and that I attempt to take, not only into my work, but into my everyday.

It's not so easy; I fail often, so I meditate. I have always been struck by how the creative experience is so closely related to meditation. If I am doing it right and am immersed soulfully in the act of creating, whether it be a drawing, a poem, or a story, I lose the busy, noisy, encumbered world around me. It is as if the walls fall away. And yet, I also become full of the world: the world that suffers, that is joyous, that breathes and dies. I feel open to energies not readily available in the hustle of a normal day. I am raw and vulnerable, but not vulnerable to danger, but open to love, immeasurable. I struggle to maintain that level of "meditation" when I write, even when I am uninspired. Inspiration is everywhere. I remind my students of this, while reminding myself.

I feel most animal when I write or draw. It is not art at that moment, not full of the pretense and arrogance that divides the creation from the world. In that moment, there's something metal in my mouth and I am full of air, as if I were a helium balloon. That is the texture of the experience. It is harder to explain the emotion behind it. Can I say I feel connected to the Divine?

What would you describe as your core strengths as a writer....where would you like to see yourself grow?

I enjoy the way I fall in love with the playfulness of language. My grandmother died when I was twenty-one. I had pretty much grown up with her, so when she died, I lost a limb, a living and loving part of my life. I had a hard time understanding that loss and stopped taking care of myself, grew angry with the world. But while sunk deep into depression, eating potato chips and watching soaps all day, I did write. Cringing angry poems crouching in the dark. Horror stories full of dead people. I experimented with electricity, making words into lightning rods burning up the page. It was the most creative period of my life -- so far. My mother worried - I must have looked a little scary; so she enrolled me back in college. I was exceedingly proud of the first paper I wrote for my composition class. My professor was cute. People talked to me. Life was getting better. Then -- my essay slipped from my teacher's hands into mine, like a grenade, a fat shame bomb. He'd written in red screaming pen, wide across the page like a banner: TOO FLOWERY. I was crushed. My writing life, my life, was over. I dragged myself to his office, blubbering, eyes swollen, embarrassed. Luckily, he wasn't there. It took two classtimes for me to summon up the courage to tell him what I felt without breaking apart at the seams. In the end, his response was that I was a good writer and just needed to practice. From there on in, that's what I've been doing: practicing.

I do my best to stretch the arms of words, to double, triple, quadruple their meanings and possibilities. I do tend to get away from myself (admittedly, even here). It takes several revision sessions to rein myself back in. This year I 'm going to work on a graphic novel project. This project will force me to control my elaborate, curlique way of expanding text. I will need, unlike my responses to your questions, to keep the **** short. And yet there's something very Juanita (and a little like my mother) that lets me ride the tangent wave that leads me to story. I'm going to go with it - it's worked for me so far.

We collaborated in writing Sister Chicas... how would you describe the impact in crafting a novel in that way?

The impact has been indescribable. I namely became friends with two talented writers. I learned from Ann Cardinal how to make a character pop through their language. Where my characters have the poet-voice in them, obscure, quiet, a little consumed, hers explode! They take on the page like war - they are full of talk and dragon. I love her gorgeous way of making her characters stand out: veined, real, blood people. From you, Lisa, I watched scenes unroll. You write like film. My eyes can follow and swallow each moment as if I were living it myself. Also, I learned to appreciate the art of editing, your precision and care. Thanks to our connecting, I finished with my adolescence! I still can't believe it was one phone call that brought Taina, Graciel and Leni out from the wood. This can only be exemplary of how the universe brings us to certain situations and places so that we'll learn. It is the Divine at work. From girl to woman, I believe I grew into a careful writer, watching around bends and corners for missteps in continuity. Like Taina, I learned to walk in heels. I couldn't have gained that experience anywhere, except through the pearl of our collaboration.

Years ago, a poet friend talked to me about credos. I didn't have one. It was the Sister Chicas project that helped me earn a credo, a belief in what I mean when I say I'm a writer. I learned more about myself in that encounter, in that sharing, than I ever had before: the dangers between what is friendship and business. I learned about responsibility to another and loyalty to one's art, to one's message.

How would you describe your ties to family and place as it relates to your creative life?

My family, living and dead, is extremely important to me, first as person who needs love and validation. Secondly, as a writer, they provide for me a vast landscape of memory. You got a truck load of those earlier in this interview. Though some places of that valley that is the past are unreachable, it is my family that reminds me that I am part of that story. Even those who've gone (whether by choice or not) are a section of the weave of that fabric. There is nothing I can extract or throw away. Even the ties broken by my father are vital to who I am and what I tell. His absence, though no longer painful, is still part of my experience as a woman. I no longer live on the island I write about. Does that mean I am disassociated from the oily mangroves or the cliffsides dipping into the ocean or the lovely stuck roasting pigs lining the dusty highways? I am only slightly bereft; my heart and mind make up what is not there. Memory is such a spirit that it is voice and it is blood. I can call it Latina, like I can name it African diaspora, like I can say it's female. But truly what I am is a construction of stories: island, mainland, back street, city, country, suburb, military base, coffin, nursery. I am part of that language, that text.

Where do you see yourself in ten years, personally and creatively?

I believe that wherever I am creatively is where I'll be personally. I recently received my doctoral degree in English literature from Binghamton University. When people ask me what I took from the experience, there is only one thought bursting in my mind: I spent five years writing. I woke thinking of what I wrote before sleep. I went to sleep thinking of what I wrote during lunch. Or thinking of what my students wrote. Or what they wanted to write. I have been very fortunate to have been given the time, the funds, the fellowship and the space. Who else can say that? Whatever I do, whether it involves driving a cab (which I would be horrible at) or teaching in a classroom, I hope I continue exploring those disconsolate, buzzing, ecstatic voices within, bubbling at my seams, ready to spread their words.

What's something not in the official bio?

I got MAD Nintendo skills. Well, not really. Recently, I beat my brilliant and talented nephew at a game and not being techinically-inclined in any way or fashion, it felt pretty good. I was never really sporty either - though I had the Adidas with the side green stripe and the Members Only jacket (are there still members or have they been excommunicated?) I was so bad at sports that I became a cheerleader. Shy girl - a cheeerleader - a really bad cheerleader. After a cheer, I usually ended up facing the wrong way. I never really got the hang of the round-the-world thing, one time landing a foot in a pothole and chipping a bone in my ankle; another time, slipping into an ant hill. The ants weren't thrilled, believe me. I guess it was another reason, other than being clinically poor at Mathematics, I became a writer. I think I made the right choice.


River Silk: A Song for Maria

She was mined from the mouths of worms, centuries gathered,

then crated cross oceans to Paterson, that bustling city where she plaited

her mother's hair, and her father's skin shone between the shadows

of the Royal Machine Shop. In her bobby socks and poodle skirts,

she was just a young girl reeling in the dream of cornsilk.

All she knew breathed in Paterson's gills,

the worlds between PS 18 and the 17th Street

kitchen, Meyers Brothers and the pulp of rotting

marigolds on neighbor's stoops.

She grew to understand power plants and fish weirs,

a city's promises and the legs of a father's labor.

She read a rivertown's desire, once prehistoric and big as God,

now skeletal, its ribs surrounding a whole city of dollar stores.

Long gone are the ship odors of jasmine. Now it's the pulse of car horns

and chickenwire that greet her, the tricks of a church spires' reach,

the wintergreen songs of silk wrapped around women's throats.

But still she tells the world of Paterson's sweetwaters,

new immigrants of alcapurrias, their children that rise then fall and rise again,

and those with faces like her Papa's.

On the days she is not boro or back bay or northwest bend,

the hours she is the quiet New Jersey drought, she stays put,

near home, weaving ribbons. She is the lips of the Passaic, weaving through iron,

stone to lowland swamp, but words are not all she looms in that bustling city.

Find her in drainage ditches, in the wet tongues of Clifton's suburban curbsides,

near Spruce Street or Ward, floating down Pennington Park, a lined paper boat,

winding, climbing, navigating the dead to safety. I swear that if you lose her,

all you have to do is knock on leaning oaks, or smoke out of a cave.

Her words wings in the underworld that is the gut. If you look close,

it is love's fibers she threads, wide and emergent with all her strokes,

dancing in rooms reserved for slowness.

Kneel, go ahead, just kneel

to the ground, listen close to the Passaic passing by

on the errand of her heart.



Your father turns the rib-eye on the grill. In a few days he'll leave home

for field duty. You watch him get lost in the puff of new smoke.

It is like flipping a record over after the last song:

He slips his fingers on the vinyl, scratched and worn,

skating the dark circle. He does not know

his wife will thin the night and the linoleum

in a slow dance made for two.

In a weekend ritual, he bends over those old album covers:

Cash, Waylon, Campbell, their liquor red-eye and his.

Their superstar cowboy brims, your daddy’s boonie hat,

their throats cut with gold and diamonds,

around your father’s neck a noose dragging a dog-tag.

"… cow-boy, dun-dun", your father sings,

the chorus of fallen leaves crackling in the drainage ditch.

You wave away smoke to get a good look at him.

He smiles and you worry when he does it with all his teeth exposed.

It’s the kind of grin reserved for beer and barbecue and Sundays.

You try to sing along too to something rhinestone

but you get the words wrong. Your Papi lights up,

a tobacco puff blows your way, fragrant like cinnamon.

He does not look at you; instead, he looks around

at everything he’ll never own, though he signed for it.

Daughters and scraps of credit and memory. Children,

cornhusks blocking out his sky. Five mouths and a broken dial

on the pawn shop Sanyo. All he gets now is snow

in someone’s coal miner daughter.

Give him room, a cloud of smoke whispers, tells you to go away,

let your Papi do his thing. The smoke collars him, turns his hair white.

There’s a devil in the next track. You know what comes next.

He’s listening for clues, even in the scratches.

He is far gone, already turned to a secret B side, tuned to a twang

you cannot hear, blue forest floors in his eyes,

all the backcountry of his mind. The ditches he’ll dig,

holes he’ll slip into. You’ll always wonder

if all the voices that called were in his mother’s tongue

or if they carried all the dusts of Clarksville.

Finney, Nikki, ed. The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, Univ. of Georgia Press, 2007


Papi and his Chrysler Cordoba

In his eyes, you could see a salesman's bounty.

Every time Papi looked at his Cordoba

you knew he knew it was not meant to be a family car

but a car for the left lane, with the window down,

with dashboard dice over the grey plush exterior winking back

at the ladies passing, peering in, as if they couldn't get enough of

My Papi, who always waited until it was the hottest hour of Saturday

to wash his Mami. He made it a holy act, a Sabbath ritual, a cup of overflowing

burgundy, felpa and Turtle wax, so shiny, it reflected back his face in the sun.

This was how he relaxed, never asking for help, all puffed up,

shirt front wet with the whipping hose, suds in his lashes,

as if a rainbow had kissed his eyes. Proud Papi

of the Chrysler Cordoba with the silver and gold siderails,

and the Chrysler insignia bent sideways on the hood from the time

he hit the bicyclist who looked the other way.

It never mattered to him that his back bent the same,

a brace to hold a slipped disc, incurred falling off an assault tank

the way Icarus thudded back to earth,

all melted wax and white feathers, body broken like a pigeon's heart.

Papi's too was like that, maroon and mystical, like the surface of

a summertime lake, sparkling with the loosed oil of drowned cars.


In ending this article, I have to say a few words about Jane's poetry. There is such longing, such braiding to familia, even if the price is heartache. There is too, a sense of heroism, of dignity in the face of loss, and a profound sense of ordinary beauty in both the construction of her work and the lyrical images that are shot through it.

Lisa Alvarado

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Sacred Games Revisited, One Bit

Two Bits

Michael Sedano

A friend called me up to complain after last week's review of Vikram Chandra’s novel, Sacred Games. "So it's a thriller, a detective story, running 900 pages long, and all La Bloga can say is it’s puro fun?"

First off, I reclamared him back. Why didn't you post your complaint so other gente could take a crack at it? Maybe they agreed and you coulda been the first on the bandwagon? Or maybe, just maybe, they woulda agreed that a short piece on a long novel is appropriate and based on what else they'd heard about the novel, they would give it a shot.

However, I plead guilty to the brother's complaint. For one thing, it’s the truth. The novel is fun. But there are so many considerations to so hefty a work. For instance, on the writer side, imagine what you would do with the freedom to spin a yarn in every direction the story took you? For the reader, imagine a highly textured plot mixing gangsters, cops, crime victims, petty criminals, nuclear terrorism, ethnic and class divisions, movies, extortion, friendship, solitude, tasty Indian snacks, sex. Set the novel in India, in Bombay / Mumbai to add a generous helping of the exotic, write in elegant English but use code-switching liberally to heighten the local color, and you have a fun read.

Then again, because Sacred Games is a story of detection and suspense, I have to avoid giving away surprises and tricks, thus the short shrift given the plot summary.

I was hooked from the first page, a tale of cruelty mixed with humor as a dog name Fluffy is tossed out a high rise window.

A white Pomeranian named Fluffy flew out of a fifth-floor window in Panna, which was a brand-new building with the painter's scaffolding still around it. Fluffy screamed in her little lap-dog voice all the way down, like a little white kettle losing steam, bounced off the bonnet of a Cielo, and skidded to a halt near the rank of schoolgirls waiting for the St Mary's Convent bus. ( More from Chapter 1 at the link in the title or click here.)

Chandra wastes nothing. This could have been merely a way to introduce Sartaj and Katekar, and so it appears until the writer brings back the story after foregrounding other matters. One of these dog tosser characters will play a central role in one of the book’s two main plot lines, the biography of the policeman Sartaj Singh. The second plot, the thriller involving international intrigue and the mafia don Ganesh Gaitonde, will be told in first person. The criminal’s voice will lull some readers into sympathy for the devil, which is part of the fun, so go with it.

Ethnic and political division fills the book. Chandar builds incidents out of the history of Hindu v. Muslim v. Sikh v. a host of ethnic and class names you need the glossary to unravel—or not. Add nationalism v. multiculturalism v. religious fundamentalism, murder, brutality, and depravity and there’s something for every adult reader in the novel. Aside from the novelty of setting, younger readers won't get much from the novel.

Coincidence and inevitability are concepts the novel plays a lot with. For example, there’s a story of a cop doing a door to door search for a ruffian. He corners the man, who slices the cop’s throat. The cop’s partner shoots the fleeing blade in the back. Hundreds of pages later, we meet a village boy enduring scorn from all quarters against his dogged pursuit of schooling. He reads borrowed textbooks by streetlight, begs money to survive, is constantly starving. He comes to support himself through petty crime. One day he abandons his gang and disappears to Mumbai. Years go by. One night he is pursued by police. He is cornered. In desperation he flicks out his knife at the cop from the first story.

It’s connections like these that give so much texture to the novel that lead me to the claim of it being pure fun. So that's a more detailed look at a fine summer novel.

And now for something completely different...

I had a call recently from an anthologist whose collection will be coming to press soon. He asked artists I know if they would be willing to donate their work for the cover. Several artists generously responded with offers of some fine, outstanding museum quality work.

Why would they be so ready to give away their stuff, I ask them? Aren't they always broke and needing money to buy supplies or gas or maybe a new shirt? Giving away your stuff is why you're poor, eses. Oh well, they also are good at heart and understand the anthologist's need for charity. Bull roar.

And to the anthologist, I asked, isn't there more than a modicum of the sin vergüenza in asking artists to give something for a book that will have a price tag on it? I think the publisher should come up with a few hundred bucks for art work. Or the anthologist could fork over some cash. Consider the few measly bucks paid for the art a part of the cost of publication.

Extra bit for horticulturists
Have a look at a noxious weed that I find stupendously beautiful. This is my Fuller's Teasel page at Read! Raza.

That's the news from the Eastside of LA, ok, from Pasadena, the East north.

See you next week. Read! Raza. And remember, La Bloga welcomes guest columnists and comments on the day's column or something you consider appropriate.


Monday, June 25, 2007


Book Review

By Daniel A. Olivas

Writers Workshop in a Book: The Squaw Valley Community of Writers on the Art of Fiction

Edited by Alan Cheuse and Lisa Alvarez

Chronicle Books
219 pp. (paperback), $14.95

Though scores of summer writing conferences have been established throughout the last several decades, one of the oldest and most respected is the Squaw Valley Community of Writers in Northern California. Founded in 1969 by novelists Blair Fuller and Oakley Hall, the Community has sponsored workshops in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenwriting, playwriting, and nature writing. For almost forty years, published authors have dispensed hard-earned knowledge about the craft to conference attendees who harbor the dream of someday seeing their names emblazoned across the covers of bestselling novels or story collections.

For the first time, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers shares the wisdom of some of its contemporary staff members. Edited by Lisa Alvarez and Alan Cheuse with an introduction from Richard Ford, Writers Workshop in a Book (Chronicle Books) includes essays on many aspects of fiction writing from eighteen well-published authors. Regardless of whether reading this book will inspire a beginning writer to commence or finish a full-length manuscript, it is a fine and truly entertaining addition to the ever-growing bookshelf of “how to” tomes.

In the first essay, “How to Write a Novel,” Diane Johnson informs us that “most people in their lives think at one time or another of writing” a novel. Indeed, she read somewhere that “90 percent of college-educated women, at one stage or another of their lives, actually begin one.” Of course, very few actually get around to writing a novel because there are many obstacles including the fact that “it’s an awful lot of work.” But if you are willing to put in the time, Johnson offers very practical threshold decisions you must make before moving forward: “First you have to plan it. What will happen in it? Who will tell it?” Johnson identifies and explains the “[s]mall and large choices” you must make as you plot out your novel. Her advice is sound, honest, to the point, and decidedly unromantic.

Alan Cheuse’s piece is as wonderfully audacious as its title promises: “’Here’s Lookin’ at You, Kid’: A Brief History of Point of View.” Cheuse notes that with movies, there is essentially one point of view which “employ[s] the simple equation of camera lens and eye of the audience member, or the so-called God-like point of view.” Literature, of course, has offered through the millennia many more options for POV. In examining the history of the point of view in literature, Cheuse begins with ancient Greek epic and then moves to biblical authors and then Chaucer, Dante, Herodotus, Cervantes, up through the ages to such writers as Joyce, García Márquez, Rhys and Atwood. All the while, Cheuse dissects how these authors used POV in their works and cautions that “[m]ost new writers slip and slide between third-person subjective and the general…” This essay is quite a heady (and fun) ride.

Some of the essays consist of war stories which are entertaining but also offer their own lessons. For example, Amy Tan recounts in “Angst and the Second Book” how after the publication of her wildly successful first novel, she was confronted with the similarly wildly high expectations for her, as yet, unwritten next novel. One writer told her that the second effort was “doomed no matter what you do.” Why? Critics will complain that “it is too much like the first,” and readers will complain “that it is too different.” Tan’s battles with self doubt and doomsayers are comforting in some ways because she lets us know that bestselling authors must do what beginning writers do: persevere despite the multitude of reasons to give up and move to something more practical.

The essays run from the basics to the spiritual. Sands Hall and Al Young dig into the nitty-gritty of scene construction, dialogue, theme, voice and language. Anne Lamott and Louis B. Jones plumb the mysteries of writing. Other pieces recount the rather odd convergence of circumstances that resulted in the writing of a first novel (Michael Chabon), or the fear of finishing a novel (Mark Childress). These and the other essays make one realize that such a book could not be dedicated to other professional pursuits such as the law or operating a chain of restaurants. Creating fiction is, indeed, a singular way of life.

Though one of the editors of Writers Workshop in a Book is Latina, there is not one essay by a Latino writer. But this likely will change in future editions based on the upcoming Squaw Valley faculty members and guest speakers that include Dagoberto Gilb, Michael Jaime-Becerra and Alex Espinoza. Such authors could delve into their use of "code switching" (moving from English to another language and back again) in a way that allows their characters to ring true while not leaving behind those readers who do not speak Spanish. Also missing is any meaningful discussion of the publishing industry's often ham-handed approach to writers of color. Despite these omissions, Cheuse and Alvarez have brought together fascinating, instructive and meaningful advice from some of our finest contemporary writers.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Interview with publisher Kent Brown About Authenticity

René Colato Laínez

Kent Brown is the publisher of Boyds Mills Press and Highlights for Children Magazine.

What does a manuscript need to have in order to be multicultural?

My belief is that depiction of events, traits of persons, customs, which reflect a culture make a book multicultural. So, a book about baseball, where the kid has a minority name, unless there is some substantial culture learned by the reader, is just a book about baseball.

For example, I did a book with Laurence Pringle called Octopus Hug. In it, a father plays special games with his kids, including one that is a big pile-up on the floor, the octopus hug. So far there is only suburban US culture depicted. The illustrator chose to depict an African American family. The book got special use because it was a book depicting a father taking an active role with his children, and many members of the African American community praised the book as an important work to the African American community. Was this book multicultural? I don't know. I don’t think is was in the sense that it depicted any cultural flavor; it did, however, "teach" that suburban families might all have the same routines and fun, regardless of ethnic background, which is likely true (more of a statement about economic class than ethnicity).

Of all those manuscripts that you receive in a daily basis how many are real multicultural or have the potential to be multicultural?

Ah, if Octopus Hug is multicultural just because of the artwork, then a high fraction of the fiction we receive could be multicultural.In my definition, less than 5% of submissions reflect some multicultural claim. I believe that some fraction could be made multicultural by superficial editing, such as the use of ethnic groups in the artwork. Again, not sure how to count them.

A thought: we do books that have kids in wheelchairs, completely incidental to the story. So these books are not about a physical disability, but they tend to reinforce the normalness of seeing disabled persons, and show that they are a regular part of society. That is a desirable thing with respect to multicultural topics: that we see, incidentally, a mix of ethnic groups, cultural artifacts, ethnic observances, etc. But those incidental pieces, while working toward better acceptance of differences and a celebration of our diversity, do not themselves constitute multicultural.

What is lacking in these stories?

What is lacking in a great many stories presented as multicultural is a perspective that lets the reader know more of unique cultural or accurate historical viewpoints.

Are they full of stereotypes or misconceptions?

Well, the bad ones are. And there are some instances where an accurate depiction, however accurate, may reinforce stereotypes.
Two examples:

I receive awful lot of stories about Mexican culture that has kids whacking a Piñata. Nothing wrong with this artifact of Mexican holiday celebration, but having stories about piñatas, over and over, as if that the only thing we might identify with Mexican tradition, subtly reinforces that Mexicans are a people who spend their time whacking piñatas.

Another common example: Chinese New Year. We did this in Highlights magazine. Has the advantage of being attractive to illustrate, picking the parade in San Francisco. Surely that is a part of Chinese (on Chinese-American culture and tradition). But its portrayal has the tendency over time to "teach" that Chinese people are people of big parades and big dragons.

Can an author write books outside his/ her culture?

Can a Euro-American capture the emotion of emigrating from Central America across mountains and rivers? Can you make it up? Not without understanding its relevance in American culture, the experience as shared by many living in the US, and the likely high emotional stake in the whole process.
Can someone read about it enough to capture all the flavors? Probably. Do they usually? No. Can men write about the emotional lives of women? Some can. But it takes insight, extensive research, and pure effort.
So now lets take the other side of the coin.

I did a book by a suburban white middle class woman. She illustrated a book set in Jamaica. Was it accurate? Was it appropriate? Yes, because this woman had a passion for Jamaican culture; lived there seven years, and had a post-graduate degree in cultural ethnology.

She went on to illustrate a book set in Nigeria. She had not been there. But she got books from the British Museum of the period. She studied the look of the landscape. She did research into the trees and plants of the area the book was set. She got a cultural anthropologist at Harvard to review her sketches, and presented them as well for comment to the Nigerian born author. Could and African American yuppie, born in Westchester County, NY, going to Ivy League schools, and generally having no interest in Nigerian culture, done better?

My example is art. You asked about writing. Yes, I think anyone can write about a specific culture. But it does not happen authentically very often. The people most passionate and steeped in a culture are typically the best to write about it. Most of those examples are members of the culture.

What do these authors need to do in order to write an authentic multicultural picture book?

Passion, anyone can do it. But those who care are most likely to get it. With the passion is an intense knowledge. Mostly such passion and knowledge exists in a within the ethnic group members. But I think it’s not exclusive.

I never lived the life depicted in What Jamie Saw, by Carolyn Coman, for a magnificent example. I doubt Carolyn lived exactly that life. But she knows it. She nails it cold. We are there, and it is believable.

Virginia Ewer Wolfe nails down the character and thoughts of a young woman living near poverty, though she has not lived that way. Somehow she has studied it, not just imagined; living as a youngster on an apple ranch with connected labor housing, watching her mother stitch up a worker on Saturday night at the kitchen table, gave her some credential, not quite living it, but clearly pretty important in her development.

Muchas gracias Kent

Friday, June 22, 2007


Manuel Ramos

On June 28, 1997, a group of Cuban and Argentinian forensic experts discovered a communal grave at Vallegrande, Bolivia, that contained the remains of Ernesto Che Guevara and six other bodies. The charismatic revolutionary was murdered in the jungles of Bolivia in 1967 at the age of 39, yet he already was a revered symbol for the rebellious youth that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. I remember a time when almost every UMAS or MEChA office in Colorado had the famous Che poster hanging on the wall. I'm sure that was one of the most popular posters throughout Aztlán.

Here are reviews of two books about Che that have been around for a while. They present down-to-earth perspectives about the man and his times from his closest friends and comrades, and from Che himself.

Ernesto Che Guevara
Verso, 1996; Ocean Press, 2003

In January, 1952, Che Guevara was a 24 year old medical student–-out of work, eager to find adventure and on the threshold of making decisions that would, eventually, alter not only his own life but also a good chunk of the history of the world. Almost on a whim, the young Argentinian decided to accompany a friend, another medical student named Alberto Granado, on a trek through South America on an ancient Norton motorcycle that they had nicknamed La Poderosa. Over the course of the next six months, as the two young men traveled from Argentina to Venezuela, Che Guevara kept travel diaries that chronicled his amazing journey. Those journals have been published as The Motorcycle Diaries.

During the course of their travels, Big Che and Little Che, as the two were known during the trip, encountered one colorful character after another. The travelers were often destitute and hungry, and forced to use their considerable charm or wit to obtain a place to rest or an evening meal. They fought, fell in love a number of times and, just as often, fell off the motorcycle. They were drenched in rain storms, cooked under the brilliant sun and suffered from bouts of strange illnesses. They met and interacted with native Indians, copper miners, lepers, police, tourists, and scam artists. Unexpectedly, the book is laced with a fine, sarcastic humor and a bookish student’s eye for detail.

For example, Che describes the Peruvian city of Cuzco in these rather poetic terms:

The only word to sum up Cuzco adequately is evocative. An impalpable dust of other ages covers it streets, rising in clouds like a muddy lake when you disturb the bottom. But there are two or three different Cuzcos, or rather, two or three ways in which the city can be evoked. [There]... is the Cuzco whose plaintive voice is heard in the fortress destroyed by the stupidity of illiterate Spanish conquistadores, in the violated, ruined temples, in the looted palaces, in the brutalized Indians. This Cuzco invites you to turn warrior, and, club in hand, defend freedom and the life of the Inca....And yet there is another Cuzco, a vibrant city which bears witness to the formidable courage of the soldiers who conquered this region in the name of Spain, expressed in their monuments, the museums and libraries, in the decoration of its churches and the distinctive features of the white leaders who still take pride in the Conquest. This Cuzco invites you to don armour .... Each of these Cuzcos can be admired on its own ....

Che’s motorcycle odyssey occurred seven years before the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. Obviously, the trip was an important, life-changing experience for the man whose smiling visage became an icon for the armed struggles of the oppressed peoples of the Third World. From Che’s own words we come to know him as charming, and a very human young man who already has fashioned a solidarity with the poor. But the book is not a political polemic, nor does it artificially elevate the man and contribute to the cult of personality that exists for many romantic, revolutionary figures. Che in The Motorcycle Diaries is on the brink of discovering his true self, and we are lucky to be an observer of that process.

Francis Giacobetti
Assouline, 1997

Che’s Compañeros is a collection of photographs and interviews of men and women who fought and worked with Che Guevara. Given the subject matter, this book is not your usual coffee table conversation piece. There is no doubt that this book is intended to perpetuate the heroic image of Che and the Cuban revolutionaries.

Francis Giacobetti is a photographer who spent half-hour photographic sessions with twenty-one of Che’s compañeros. The photos were taken in 1997 in the lobby of the National Hotel in Havana. The subjects were asked to bring to the sessions an old photograph of Che and these, too, are reproduced in the book. Mauricio Vicent, Havana journalist, preserved the remarks of the different men and women and these have been published with the photos. As Vicent says in his introduction, many of the subjects “disclosed previously unknown episodes in the life of Che and anecdotes about him, making this book an exceptional document.”

I agree that this is an exceptional book. Giacobetti’s full page, full color, lightly tinted portraits are dramatic and engrossing. There is something special, almost classic, in the eyes, the wrinkles around the eyes or the smiles of these people who made history with Che. These portraits are contrasted with the cracked or faded black-and-whites provided by the subjects themselves, which show Che in the middle of the revolution, trying to organize the socialist state. They are unique.

The interviews tend to reveal the sentimental memories that friends have of someone they loved but who has been taken from them. For example, there are several pages of details provide by Aleida March, Che’s second and last wife, who had never given an interview and who had not spoken in public about the details of her life with Che. She was with him in the mountains and marched victoriously with the revolutionaries into Havana. In the midst of her remembrances, the editors have placed a striking photograph of the young Aleida, rifle slung over her shoulder, grinning broadly after a successful battle as she walks alongside Che, who, by the way, is busy perusing a book. She divulges that Che left her a one-hour cassette with a recording of his voice on which he recited their favorite poems of Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, Nicolas Guillen, and other poets.

Of course, there is a portrait of Fidel Castro, but he is the one subject who did not provide an interview for the book. There are quotes from Castro and his memories culled from other interviews are included. We learn that Che and Fidel met in 1955 in Mexico and that their first conversation lasted eight hours. We also learn the genesis of the nickname “Che” and the admission by Castro that frequently he dreams that he is talking with Che.

Che’s Compañeros is infused with words and pictures of courage, sacrifice and idealism. Giacobetti eloquently predicted the long lasting importance of this book with this observation: “As they talked about him for hours on end and studied his image in the pictures they produced from their pockets, he returned from the dust and became living flesh, sitting at the end of my bed, drinking rum and chomping on his cigar ... . Like them, I felt his presence, handsome as a god, with his large floppy beret. His eyes began to shine. We laughed, we hugged each other, and [we] began to cry. ... Thanks to them, I rubbed shoulders with him.”


Thursday, June 21, 2007

Words That Flow Like Water: Ann Hagman Cardinal

Ann Hagman Cardinal is a freelance writer, novelist, columnist, as well as the National Marketing Director for Union Institute & University. Ann has a B.A. in Latino Studies from Norwich University and an M.A. in sociology and creative writing from Vermont College of UI&U. She is currently working on her MFA in Writing from Vermont College as well. Her column, Café Con Lupe, appears in the state-wide publication Vermont Woman. She just completed her second novel entitled La Mongosta & The Pirate and is hard at work on her third. She lives in Vermont with her husband Doug and son, Carlos. She is also the author of The Gift of the Cuentista, a breakout novel of depth, of roots, of Puerto Rican identity and and family. It is also the story of one's girl's odyssey to adulthood and the meaning of a very special gift of sight.

Ann is a sister of my heart, and she's also one of the Sister Chicas trio of authors. Leni was written by Ann as wry, tough/tender, with a soul deep as a hidden aquifer. This too, is Ann.


Describe your journey in becoming a writer. How is it integrated with your identity as a woman, as a Latina? Can you talk about your major influences, both personally and in a literary sense?

I never imagined I would be a writer until I returned to college as an adult student. Even then, if I hadn’t have been at a non-traditional program where I was exposed to other students doing different kinds of studies I’m not sure I ever would have become one. I met some wonderful writers who encouraged me, and after a year of insisting, “I’m not a writer!” I got the bug. But it was inspired by my desire to pass on elements of my Puerto Rican heritage and mother’s family to my son, Carlos. He never got to meet his abuela, so it is a way to put him in touch with her. And it’s helped me identify with those roots as well.

The cuentistas in my family, the storytellers that came before were my first influences. After that I was completely enthralled by Isabel Allende with her lyrical and beautifully written novels with their powerful political subtext. Also, Julia Alvarez is a wonderful writer, and I like that she publishes in different genres: novels, memoir, poetry, children’s literature. And Judith Ortiz Cofer, I was so taken with Silent Dancing, I didn’t realize it was a young adult book until after I read it. She has just the kind of clean but elegant prose I admire.

What differences do you experience as a novelist vs. writing as essayist/columnist/journalist? What parts of yourself take the foreground...the background when you work in different genres?

Good question. Well, as a novelist the answer depends on which novel I’m working on. I write literary fiction, but I love to write genre as well, horror, romance. These work different muscles than their literary sibling. The literary fiction is more taxing, pulling from a deeper place, while writing genre for me is pure joy.

As a columnist/journalist I feel like I am more of a sociological observer, mining stories and ideas from every day life. With my column Café Con Lupe, I like to talk about things that resonate with people on a universal level. Not each column reaches everybody, but when I get feedback from someone who says, “Your story made me think of the time my own mother…” I love that! That means I’m reaching people, and really, that’s why I write.

What would you describe as your major themes?

Issues of outsiderness. As a light-skinned half Puerto Rican I never felt totally at home in either world, and I’m amazed at how many people feel this way for different reasons. As I titled my most recent short story, I feel like a “Fish Out of Agua.” In addition, I often write about children who lose their parents at a young age. Having gone through that I know that this is a loss only someone who has experienced can understand. It defines you as a child and as an adult. Also, I love to write about la isla. That island and my family there are so damn important to me; they offer me a way to keep in touch with my mother.

What do you feel are your strengths as a writer....where would you like to see yourself grow?

I’m a very visual learner, so I see things clearly in my mind as I write them. I’ve been told that adds visual texture to my writing. I also love to write dialogue, and I listen intently to the way people talk and attempt to capture that.

As for growth, I’ve learned so much over the last two years of my MFA program, I think my brain is full! But there are so many ways I would like to grow. I’ve been trying to tackle short stories this last semester, and that is going to be a lifelong challenge as I find it a difficult form.

We collaborated in writing Sister Chicas... how would you describe the impact in crafting a novel in that way?

In past interviews I called it miraculous, and that has only become truer with time. To be able to learn from each other, and grow as a writer because of my connection to you two made it a transformative experience. And it continues to amaze me that we were able to do it, no egos in the way, supporting each other with love and sisterhood. Miraculous.

You've made a choice to live in VT as a NYC transplant....How has that choice affected you life? Your writing?

It’s funny, I didn’t really identify with my Latina side until I moved here and the culture was no longer readily available. In NYC, I could walk down the street and hear Boricua Spanish, smell tostones frying from an open window, hear merengue pulsing from a car window. But in Vermont I have to actively seek out other Latinos. That has made for some incredible connections, including meeting you and Jane! I’m also not sure I would have become a writer in NYC, it was finding a progressive education program that opened me up.

I love it here. My mother used to say it reminded her of Puerto Rico in the 30s with its rolling green hills, slow pace, and warm people. It’s a great place to raise a child.

You're a wife and a parent; in what ways do you feel those roles intersect with your life as a writer?

I think it is impossible to separate them out. I learned when I went to a writer’s residency last year, and my son broke his arm and I couldn’t be there, that I write better having him and my husband near me. I need to know they are safe and well to create. My son is the reason I write, really. My column deals a lot with my marriage and certainly parenthood. In that venue I aspire to be the modern Latina Erma Bombeck. Life is so bizarre and humorous, and we all need our diversions. Her writing and viewpoint made day to day life lighter.

Where do you see yourself in ten years, personally and creatively?

Still writing novels, and maybe with enough financial stability that I can do it more than on the fly. My goal is to not have to fit my writing in between everything else. To make it a main course and not just a side dish of my life. By then my son will be at college, and I hope to have a condo in Luquillo so my husband and I can go down there for a couple of months each winter. Though I love Vermont, the 40 below zero thing kind of sucks.

What's something not in the official bio?

I love tattoos. My sister was a tattoo artist and is getting me back into them in my middle age. They ain’t what they used to be and I just wrote a piece for AARP Magazine about the trend of getting tattooed after 50. Life is too short to not be inked.


An excerpt from The Gift of the Cuentista:

My mother's Uncle Javier lived next door, and I would spend each visit running back and forth between the houses with my Puerto Rican cousins, skinning my knees and pulling my second language out from under the cedar blocks of winter storage in New Jersey, where the only Spanish I heard was at the local bodega where Mom bought her guava paste. After a few days of shyness, I would begin to feel comfortable with the other children, following along where they led, playing the games they played.

But among them I always knew I was different: larger, pastier, louder. I longed to be like them, switching so easily from elegant Español to an English that was more grammatical than my own. I watched their lithe bodies move easily among the adults, answering questions about school with enthusiasm, joining the conversations about art, culture and history. I sat on the periphery of these gatherings feeling thick-tongued and unable to speak in either language, watching the adults throw their heads back in laughter over something my cousin Maria had said. I looked at my play clothes that had seemed fine alongside the neighborhood kids in New Jersey, but on the island felt shoddy and mismatched; at my un-groomed hair, too short and boyish.

When my visits expanded to the entire summer, I learned to adjust to my life on the island, and then back again when I returned to our cold suburban home. Sometimes, on the flight home in late August, I would think about how I seemed to be most comfortable there, among the clouds high above the Atlantic Ocean, halfway between the two places.

My cousins did their best to make me feel welcome on their island. They were, quite honestly, much nicer children than I was. They were always polite, always thoughtful, and I would try to emulate them after I left each year, but this unnatural decorum would usually only last a week…maybe two. They were all about my age, and together we ran through Javier's one-story, concrete house at top speed, sliding over the slick, tiled floors, as adult reprimands in rapid-fire Spanish trailed after us like a kite tail. We had to pass through the last room, a bedroom, before we broke free of the building and barreled into the back courtyard, scattering chickens and dust in every direction.

The first time I encountered one of the room's inhabitants, I stopped short at the threshold, staring at the unexpected occupant on the shadowed bed. My cousins collided into me from behind, and seeing my apprehension they said, “Don't worry about her, prima,” as they pushed around me and pulled at my arms, taunting me to follow them through the darkened room. “She can’t hear you. Vamos!”

I could smell the room before I entered it. Medicinal. Antiseptic. Stale. I pulled free of my cousins, my feet rooted to the doorsill, hearing their jeering voices fade as they scampered out into the daylight. I looked down at the scrubbed white Formica floor, the gray and blue dots forming moving patterns if you stared at them long enough. Tía Lourdes made sure the room was spotless. She had been a nurse, and so the care of the infirm family members often fell to her. The lights were low, the bright afternoon glare permitted entry only through the wooden louvers that covered the windows, a narrow stream of sunshine spilling through the partially open back door, still swinging from my cousin Carlos’ escape.

A large wooden crucifix was the only decoration on the white stucco walls, the graphic dying figure of Jesus a ghastly contrast to the room’s sterility. Because of the near darkness, it was at least ten degrees cooler than anywhere else in the house. And there she was. An ancient female relative—my cousins couldn’t even tell me whose—or the shell of one, lying on the bed to the left of the door, connected to a maze of medical tubes like the tentacles of a pale jellyfish. I could feel a current of anxiety running through my limbs. After a time, I decided I would steal quietly but quickly through the room, not looking over at the bed. I made it halfway across when a crackly voice emerged from the still, waxen figure under the white chenille bedspread.

“¡Ay Virgen! ¡Madre de Dios!” she yelled. I jumped and tore into the backyard, temporarily blinded by the summer sun, but grateful to be free. I avoided the room for the rest of that visit. Not because I thought I would disturb her—she was completely unaware of the youthful activity around her—but because I felt a reverence in the presence of one whom my cousin Inez told me was so near death. But also a fascination. I would occasionally peer through the slatted windows from the safety of the concrete courtyard, the sun on the back of my head reminding me that I was still outside the room, away from her spell.

But she was just the first: every year from then on there seemed to be a new old lady lying sentry in the rear chamber. To my cousins, these women barely existed. Each day they screeched through the room, bellowing to each other along the way. But it was easy for them. They didn’t have to worry about the old woman coming back to them after death: that honor was reserved for me.


Some last thoughts: In Gift of the Cuentista, Ann paints a picture of a young girl's struggle to know herself, to know her family, to be comfortable in her skin literally and figuratively that burns itself into the mind's eye. In this passage alone, we taste, see and smell this small universe in which someone looks for home and begins to see out what a long, long, trip it truly is.

Lisa Alvarado

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Palabra Pura: Another Take

Last night, I had the pleasure to attend Palabra Pura's reading featuring Sandy Florian and Raúl Niño. Once again, over a pre-reading dinner (presided over by the Guild's Executive Director Ellen Placey Wadey, board members and poets Mike Puican and Mary Hawley, and the MC, poet and diosa Johanny Vasquez) I was able to have a far ranging, relaxed discussion with Sandy about her work. She's a master of prose poetry that is haunting, complex, dream-like, and we all got the scoop that the next day she was to fly out the very next day to prepare for a residency in France.

We were joined by Raúl at the California Clipper and I have to say being in the audience was a singular treat. I was part of a crowd in a full room of rapt listeners, including a young Latino who read a new piece in the open mic section, who was encouraged by Ellen after the reading to come back again.

The pairing of Florian's layered, imagistic writing about the everyday and the divine and Nino's clean, spare etchings of private moments reverberated in my mind even on the train into work today.....That, compays, is why poetry is food for the soul at the deepest least for this writer, and I suspect, many of Bloga's readers.

Lisa Alvarado

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Review: Vikram Chandra Sacred Games

NY: Harper Collins, 2007. ISBN: 9780002008518

Michael Sedano

When is a not Chicano novel a chicano novel in disguise? When you're reading Sacred Games. OK, Vikram Chandra doesn't claim to be a chicano, and the city of Bombay is a long ways from your eastside chicanada. Nonetheless, the novel’s landscape of undocumented and falsely documented immigrants worried about their status, characters worrying that their spoken English isn't good enough, and masses of brown skins everywhere creates a comfortable familiarity that speeds a reader's adaptation to the foreignness of India.

Sacred Games is a magnum opus, 900 plus pages, that weaves deep into its Bombay culture. Chandra’s rich, fluid English prose code switches readily into native terms when that is the right word. Thankfully, Chandra hasn’t taken the trouble to italicize most foreignisms, reserving that irritating typography to some, but not all, phonetically rendered expressions that remain untranslated in all their glory or unknown meaning. Obviously many of these foreign expressions are cusswords or colloquialisms that defy translations, others are song lyrics from Indian movies or television programs. The writer develops a rhythm, the page a comforting feel in the reader's grasp. To interrupt that with typography would be the worst form of cultural pendejismo.

The novel is puro fun. It comes with an engaging story of good, intrepid cops (even if they do solicit bribes) at various stages of difficult careers. Organized crime, political corruption, pimping and prostitution, good guys and bad guys getting killed. Readers familiar with chicano writing will enjoy the cultural parallels between Chandra’s India and the more familiar US setting. Although there is a glossary at the end, I urge readers to let the code-switching take the story along on its face.

A lot of the fun comes from having virtually unlimited space to tell the story. Vikram Chandra doesn’t constrain his story to a single central figure, the honest cop and his partner, nor a single villain, the legendary criminal Ganesh Gaitonde, who dies early in the book. The reader is treated to a sweeping exploration of the criminal’s life. One of the good guys is killed and we explore the aftermath. More tangential characters come in for extensive development, allowing side stories to blossom, connections made, parallels developed. For example, there are three mentor stories; the cop, the crook, and the intelligence officer. It’s a perfect way to balance out the story and make telling points about being successful, solitude, values, and growing older.

Extended character and family history can take a slow plot and make it lugubrious. Not in this novel. Despite the rich cast of characters and the Indian vocabulary code-switched with beautiful ease, the story moves quickly, the reader driven along by all the stories to see how they coalesce, what tiny detail will become the clue that closes down an investigation.

Sacred Games is perfect bound. This means Harper Collins had the pages made up in 16- or 32-page sigs, then stitched and glued into its stiff cloth cover. The volume has a heft to it, and when turning pages the stitching helps the pages make a warm sound as they rub against one another conforming to the avid reader’s eager page turning. How better can it get, an excellent story, well-drawn characters, a fascinating insight to a foreign culture, and a comforting tactile experience? If you haven’t read Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games yet, don't wait for the paperback. Find out from this hard cover gem, enjoy.

from "The Guild" and Daniel Olivas
Readings & Events
Sandy Florian and Raul Nino

(Mailing list information, including unsubscription instructions, is located at the end of this message.)

THIS Wednesday, June 20
Doors open at 8:00 PM. Reading begins at 8:30 PM.
California Clipper, 1002 N. California (California at Augusta).
Free admission. 21 and over show (id required)

Sandy Florian was born in New York and raised in Latin America. She is of Colombian and Puerto Rican descent. She holds an MFA from Brown University's Creative Writing Program in Fiction. At Brown, she was the recipient for the Francis Mason Harris Award for best book-length manuscript written by a woman. She was also the recipient of the New Voices Sudden Fiction Prize in Cambridge. She is currently pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at the University of Denver. Her work appears in the following journals: Indiana Review, Bombay Gin, Shampoo, La Petite Zine, Washington Square Review, 14 Hills, elimae, New Orleans Review, eratio, Tarpaulin Sky, Gargoyle, 42 Opus, Copper Nickel, Upstairs at Duroc, Word For/Word, Segue, Versal, Horse Less Review, Identity Theory, The Encyclopedia Project, Elixir, dANDelion, The Brooklyn Rail, and others. Visit her blog at

With Breathing Light (1991) the Chicago Chicano poet Raúl Niño positioned himself as a writer committed to exploring individual and cultural, as opposed to social and political, concerns. Perhaps the least public and least extroverted of the Mexican poets one could call "Chicano" in Chicago--a group that includes Chicano poets writing mainly in English, recent emigrants from Mexico, and, above all, the self-named Generacion mojada, or "Wetback Generation," writing in Spanish--he represents an important dimension of contemporary Chicago and national Chicano writing as it has developed from its more militant roots and uses in the 1960s.

Please join on Wednesday to hear the work of these two wonderful poets.

Have a great week,
The Guild

Independence Day coming around the corner gente. A blockbuster novel like this one is an ideal way to spend a lazy weekend holiday. If you’ve read this one, or there’s another title you know La Bloga readers should hear about, share it with us! La Bloga welcomes guest columnists. Submitting your work is easy. Post a comment, email a La Bloga Bloguera or Bloguero, or click here.

See you next week.