Monday, June 30, 2008

Chicano Lawyers Who Write

An essay by Daniel Olivas

[This piece originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of California Lawyer magazine, which is published by the Daily Journal Corp.]

We in the legal profession have grown accustomed to the idea of lawyers who also write fiction or poetry. Poet-lawyers such as Wallace Stevens and Archibald MacLeish often come to mind. And there’s this fellow named John Grisham who seems to have caught on. Indeed, at least one law journal, Legal Studies Forum (edited by James R. Elkins, a professor at West Virginia University College of Law), is dedicated to publishing poems, short stories, and literary analysis by attorneys. So, when I started writing fiction and poetry ten years ago while working full time as a government attorney, I realized I was not alone.

But I am not just a lawyer who writes. I am a Chicano lawyer who writes. Though my activities in the legal profession sometimes make their way into my creative writing, my fiction and poetry are chiefly grounded in and informed by my experiences growing up in a predominantly Mexican American, working-class neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of reading the work of others who share both my professional and cultural touchstones.

In 1998, when I started writing, I was deeply influenced by Yxta Maya Murray’s 1997 novel Locas (Grove/Atlantic Press), centered on two young Chicanas living in the gang-ravaged Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park. Murray, a 1993 graduate of Stanford Law School and a professor at Loyola Law School in L.A., began writing after her clerkship with U.S. District Court Judge Harry L. Hupp.

“I had always wanted to be a writer,” says Murray, “but it was only when I began working on drug, racketeering, and bank-robbery cases that I got the mojo for a novel. I was spurred into action by witnessing so many men of color get sentenced to jail.”

Murray, who considers herself a mixed-race Chicana (her mother is from Mexico and her father from Canada), has published four more novels since Locas, including The King’s Gold (HarperCollins, 2008). “In my first two novels, I deal with urban populations; in my last three, I’ve dealt with the question of colonialism, both historically and contemporarily,” observes Murray. “I’ve become fascinated with the collision of [indigenous] American and European cultures in the 16th century, and how the conquest can be felt by our community today.”

Similarly, novelist Michael Nava has explored this “collision” between cultures, but with the added dimension of being a gay man in modern America. Nava, whose ethnic heritage is Mexican, Yaqui, and Cajun, graduated from Stanford Law School in 1981 and now serves as a staff attorney for California Supreme Court Associate Justice Carlos R. Moreno. In 1986 Nava published the first of seven mystery novels, The Little Death (Alyson), in which he introduced readers to Henry Rios, a gay Chicano criminal-defense lawyer. Rios confronts contemporary issues of bigotry and the ravages of AIDS as he solves gruesome murders and other crimes. Widely recognized as a groundbreaking novelist, Nava’s writing was analyzed through an in-depth interview in Spilling the Beans in Chicanolandia: Conversations with Writers and Artists (University of Texas Press, 2006) by Frederick Luis Aldama, an English professor at Ohio State University.

“It never occurred to me that the character in my books, Henry Rios, would be other than Latino or gay,” asserts Nava. “In the beginning, I was more interested in his experience as a gay man, but in the later books I made a conscious effort to explore his relationship (complex and difficult though it is) to his ethnicity, primarily through his relationship to his family.” Nava adds: “As a lawyer, I am a gay Latino in an overwhelmingly white and straight profession.”

Interestingly, while Murray and Nava have explored ethnicity and culture through fiction, Nicolás C. Vaca has confronted such issues primarily in his well-regarded and controversial nonfiction book The Presumed Alliance: The Unspoken Conflict Between Latinos and Blacks and What It Means for America (HarperCollins, 2004). Vaca has also written in a fictional style about his former immigration law practice. Many lawyers know Vaca from his nonfiction short stories that have appeared in this magazine during the past decade, including “El Borrachito” (April 2007), and “Burnt Beans” (October 2005). Over the years, I’ve enjoyed Vaca’s short stories and appreciate his poignant writing about Chicano and Mexican lives.

A graduate of Harvard Law School and a partner in the San Jose office of Garcia, Calderón & Ruíz, Vaca became a lawyer “to have an impact on society.” But he started writing creatively as an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley, when he took a course on Russian literature and read Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Ivan Oblomov, and others. Chekhov particularly impressed Vaca because of his “lack of idealization of the peasant class, in that he wrote about them with all their imperfections.”

“In one of my midterm examinations,” remembers Vaca, “I took liberty with one of the questions and answered it by trying to emulate Chekhov’s writing. The professor, a Russian émigré, wrote some very nice things about my answer, and that inspired me to try to actually write short stories.”

Murray, Nava, and Vaca have advice for lawyers who want to become writers: “A page a day,” counsels Murray. Nava advises, “Find a writing group to encourage you, and keep the creative side of your brain active.” And Vaca offers tough love: “Writers write. In other words, do not call yourself a writer if you do not write on a daily basis.”

Julia Sylva seems to have internalized these admonitions. A former partner at such law firms as Ochoa & Sillas and Frandzel & Share in Los Angeles, Sylva now runs her own practice in L.A. Though she has published many articles on such legal topics as the Brown Act, redevelopment law, and public finance, Sylva also “finds time to write creatively as an extracurricular activity — a challenging task for a working mom.”

“I am currently drafting my memoirs,” says Sylva, whose résumé includes a four-year term on the city council of Hawaiian Gardens (1976-80) in the southeast part of Los Angeles County. Through election by her colleagues, she simultaneously served two consecutive one-year terms as mayor of the town when she was in her early twenties. Then in 1979, at age 23, Sylva began attending Loyola Law School. She did not run for reelection to the city council because the dean gave her a choice: continue her legal studies on a scholarship, or seek a second term on the council. Sylva chose law over politics: “I believe I made the right choice,” she says.

Aside from writing her memoirs, Sylva also has aspirations of publishing a cookbook on Mexican and Jewish cuisine, to be entitled Kosher Tamales. “It will include my mother’s childhood recipes,” she says, “and recipes we have jointly created since I converted to Judaism.”

What kind of reaction should Sylva expect from her colleagues when she publishes her first book? If it’s anything similar to what Nava experienced, Sylva may be pleasantly surprised. “Many of my lawyer friends through the years have been frustrated writers themselves,” says Nava. “So they have been keenly interested in how I managed to do both.” Murray says Loyola Law School, where she has been teaching for 13 years, is “beyond supportive” of her writing. Conversely, Vaca wryly notes: “Most [lawyers] are only mildly impressed that I am a published writer.”

But I dare say these lawyers do not write to impress their fellow attorneys. Rather, each is driven to explore through prose the intricacies, conflicts, and richness of their cultural experiences. For that, we as readers can count ourselves lucky.

◙ READING ALERT: Award-winning writer and performer Monica Palacios reads and signs “The Dress Was Way Too Itchy,” a short story from the anthology, Fifteen Candles (HarperCollins). Question and answer to follow with Sara Guerrero, Artistic Director of Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble. Tuesday, July 1st at 6:30 p.m. at Libreria Martinez, 1110 N. Main St., Santa Ana, CA 92701. Phone: 714-973-7900. For more information, visit the bookstore’s events page.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

James McBride: listening for buffalo

Tonight I had the honor of hearing best-selling author James McBride speak at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Though I had fully intended to write a piece about what it has been like to be a part of the birth of the college, that will have to wait for next week as I was so deeply affected by what Mr. McBride shared with us that I felt the need to write about it.

The event was scheduled to be a reading, but other than the first sentence of his best-selling memoir, The Color of Water, he didn’t actually read. Rather it became more of an informal talk about his writing process, his philosophies on life, and his advice to the group of MFA writing students. He began, not surprisingly, with what it was like for him and his brother Hunter to arrive that afternoon, two tall handsome black men on motorcycles in overly white Vermont. As mis hermanas and colleagues Lisa Alvarado and Jane Alberdeston Coralin can tell you from personal experience, this is not always an easy experience, and yet the McBrides seemed to find working class people to connect with. The woman and her son raising money for the boy scouts by selling bologna sandwiches at the rest stop on interstate 89, the laundry attendant with bad teeth in downtown Montpelier who flirted with them.

I guess we all have fantasies of what a famous writer’s life might be like. Reading The Color of Water changed my life in many ways as I too write about being half one culture and half another. I have followed his career and was somewhat intimated by the fact that he was also a professional jazz musician (just how much talent can one man have? ) and plays with Stephen King’s band The Rock Bottom Remainders. That he just finished working with Spike Lee on a film of his first novel. But the man who stood before us was a guy. Okay, so a good-looking, successful and overly talented guy, but just a guy nonetheless. One who did his laundry in a public laundromat and looks for stories by riding on a New York City bus. One who is more comfortable in the kitchen with the cooks and dishwashers than in a room full of writers and academics. He talked about how rather than identifying himself as a black writer he preferred to think he writes about the commonality of all people, and though I think many writers would like to think they do too, he actually lives it. The reality of his life was better than my fantasy: he is proof that you can be famous and still be real.

As I listened I was reminded of a prestigious writers’ residency that Lisa and I were accepted to a few years ago. We were part of a group that included successful and well-respected writers from all over the world. During the day we would all peck away at our work in our hives and gather for dinner in the main house at night. Night after night the dining room would be filled with discussion of some obscure Russian filmmaker or German poet, the strains of intellectual conversation hovering above the room with the scent of brandy, but Lisa and I would gravitate towards the kitchen to talk with the local woman who did the cooking. We would sit and watch her work a knife like a Stradivarius, the bright colors of fresh summer vegetables flashing beneath the quick moving steel edge. We talked of our mothers and what cooking meant to us growing up, what it meant to us now. About our children and our husbands. About life. Like James McBride, we found that the story was not in the salon, but rather in the heat of the kitchen or the angry guy in the laundromat, or perhaps with the woman who sat across from you on the number ten bus, cradling a grungy baby doll in her wool-covered arms.

But mostly what I learned from James McBride had to do with fearlessness. This was a man who doesn’t care what critics think of his work, who, when he finishes a book, promotes it and then moves on, never looking back. He doesn’t fear rejection and never checks his books’ rankings on His advice to his audience was to fail, and fail often. That we should remember that the only ones who succeed in the business of writing are those that quell their fear. That like the Native Americans, we should put our ears to the ground and listen for buffalo. Sometimes we get lucky and we hear hoof beats. All we have to do then is pick up our pens.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Bits and Links


Sad news that Jerry A. Rodriguez, 46, author of The Devil's Mambo (2007) and Revenge Tango (2008), both published by Kensington, died of cancer on June 22. Jerry's first novel, The Devil's Mambo, got a lot of good press and the much-anticipated follow-up was released in May. Jerry's books feature ex-NYPD Homicide Detective Nicholas Esperanza, a man of the streets who hit the lottery and seemed to have it made until he decided that he couldn't give up the detective's life, and he tangled with Mistress Devona Love. Although I never met Jerry, we communicated a few times and I've read enough about him to believe that he was an impressive individual. There's a nice story about Jerry at the N.Y. Daily News by Carlos Rodriguez Martorell. Jerry was one of the featured writers in another recent N.Y. Daily News story entitled The Puerto Rican Murder Club. Writer Ivan Sanchez also pays tribute to Rodriguez on his blog at this link. Rest in Peace.


The San Antonio Current features a story about Ramon Hernandez, an extraordinary collector. The story by Kiko Martinez says: "Over the last 30 years, Hernandez has transformed himself into a human encyclopedia of Latino music knowledge. In the early 1960s, he began collecting literature, periodicals, recordings, photographs, and other memorabilia on Latinos in the music industry, from the crooners of the ’40s to the rock ’n’ rollers of the ’50s to anyone who has ever been associated with Tejano, conjunto, and música ranchera." Hernandez's collection is housed in his two-bedroom apartment on San Anto's southwest side. Next time I'm down there I'll have to check on whether Mr. Hernandez is offering tours of his amazing collection. Find out more by clicking here.


More sad news. We need George Carlin, and it seems it's always "now more than ever." Ruth Jordan writes about her lifelong admiration for the comedian over at the Central Crime Zone. "For those of us who had our eyes opened by this man and used his comedy as a bell weather for formulating our own ideas about the world around us, it’s impossible to think of him as gone. Because he’s part of us. And for now we swear a little and mourn a lot." Give it a click.


The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans, Carmen Tafolla
Wings Press (May, 2008)

The publisher says, "The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans, is a feast of 16 stories that skillfully combine the spiritual mission of a magical tortilla with that of a heart-transplant-bedside marriage, and the blessing of a handful of dirt with that of a cross-dressing street person. Spiced with the specific flavors of a bilingual, bicultural South Texas, it faces hypocrisy, institutional pomposity, prejudice, and modern myopias head-on with a fresh humor and a depth of human understanding that sharpen the reader's comprehension of self, culture, and the human spirit."

You can learn more about Carmen Tafolla here.

Hidden in Havana, José Latour
St. Martin's Minotaur (March, 2008)

I missed this one when it came out, but here's a blurb that caught my eye:

"In Cuba, deceit is routine, paranoia is reasonable, and everything banned thrives out of sight.

"Elena Miranda, a special-needs teacher, has no idea what lies behind the wall in her bathroom, nor that a ruthless Vietnam vet has come to Havana to retrieve it for his employer. The beautiful woman posing as the American vet’s wife is actually with him for only one reason: Her Spanish is fluent, his is nonexistent.

"What they are there to do is neither an easy nor a pleasant task. Another man is also after what is behind that wall, and other problems complicate the job. Shortly after the Americans arrive, Elena’s brother is murdered, and a Havana cop is assigned to the crime. Calmly but relentlessly, Captain Felix Trujillo begins to work on the murder and discovers that the dead man was hardly an upstanding citizen. He does find clues he can use, especially when he becomes aware that he is following not one but a trail of corpses.

"Hidden in Havana is a shocking story of betrayal and cunning, where the hunters become hunted, the best-laid plans are derailed by greed and virtue, and getting valuable treasure is far less important than getting out of Cuba alive."


Thursday, June 26, 2008

De Chicago, Nueva York, y Califas

A program for the entire family, free of charge!

View Latino Films outdoors courtesy of ILCC and its sponsors: Verizon Wireless, La Raza, Chicago Latino Network and American Family Insurance.

El Sueño del Paraiso/The Dream of Paradise (Colombia)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Mozart Park
2036 N. Avers St.
Chicago, IL

Isabel Sarmiento, the daughter of a landholder in Colombia Yauca Valley, engineers the immigration of Japanese families to hers and her father's hacienda. It is a glimpse of paradise for hardworking, dedicated immigrants. World War II, fought in faraway lands, will impact this dream, as Germans, Japanese and Italians are detained and taken to special residential camps. Isabel and the love or her life, Yuzo, will have to live through much hardship and sorrow.

Designer James De Colón and Creative Director Wayne Reddrick Grand Opening of new fashion salon

Designer James De Colón and Creative Director Wayne Reddrick cordially invite you to attend the Grand Opening of their new fashion salon in the historic Chicago Arts District.

Thursday, June 26, 2008
6:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
De Colón
1829 S. Halsted
Chicago, IL

Cocktails and hors d'oeuvres served. RSVP:

The Erie Associates Board - An Evening at Goose Island Brewery

Velkomen! Willkommen! Laskavo prosimo! Bienvenidos!

Over the last 138 years, these are just some of the different ways that people have been welcomed to Erie Neighborhood House. Erie has assisted thousands of immigrants who have come to Chicago by providing a community center, educational programs and resources that help them connect with their new home. Today, the population Erie serves is primarily Latino, and each year, Erie provides services for over 5,000 low income individuals and families.

Proceeds from the event will support Erie's programs. One of the vital programs at Erie House is the Citizenship Program, which assists Legal Permanent Residents who want to become United States Citizens achieve that dream. Erie hosts citizenship workshops and provides one-on-one tutoring for students preparing for their citizenship exam. Erie needs volunteers to help at workshops and prepare students for their citizenship exams. If you want to learn more about our Citizenship program, click here.

In July 2007, the application fee to apply for United States Citizenship increased by 70% from $400 to $675. That $275 increase has made it impossible for many people to submit their citizenship applications. Right now, Erie has 50 individuals and families waiting to apply for U.S. Citizenship only because they cannot afford the application fee.

We need your support to help these people achieve their dream of becoming U.S. citizens. Come on June 26th to learn more!

Thursday, June 26, 2008
6:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Goose Island Brewery
1800 W. Fulton St.
Chicago, IL

$25 by June 25th, $30 at the door.


The World Wide Word Radio Network

To listen to any of the shows click below Listen live or later Feel free to download any of our archived shows Call in number (718) 508-9717

Listen to Easy Speak With Doug Knott as he speaks with former Poet Laureate of the United States (1997-2000). Robert Pinsky, Author of Gulf Music link below

Listen to
THE MOE GREEN POETRY HOUR With Rafael F. J. Alvarado (aka Moe Green) & Kate Durbin as they listen to the poetry of Lisa Alvarado

Listen to
For The Love Of Poetry Hosted by Cassandra Love Talking to Naomi Shihab Nye

* * * MEDIA ALERT * * *

Ten Monologues Open the Box of Queer Latino Identities

Sister Outsider Entertainment
(Producers: Julia Carias, Elisha Miranda, Sofia Quintero & Alexander Ramirez)


PANDORA'S is a multimedia theater production featuring monologues and documentary shorts which sheds light on the Latin@ queer (LGBTQI) experience.

Written by
Sandra Alvarez, Janis Astor del Valle, Tina Bartolome, Julia Carias, Jasmine Colon, Fernanda Coppel, Deyanira Garcia, Aurora Guerrero, Elisha Miranda, Desi Moreno-Penson, Lissette J. Norman & Sofia Quintero.

Claudia Acosta, Dominique Andriese, Janis Astor del Valle, Desiree Cobb, Sherette Gregg, Carina Gregorio, Julia Ahumada Grob, Daphne Lopez, Desi Moreno-Penson & Karen J. Robles.

Sofia Quintero

Short Films Director
Aurora Guerrero of Womyn Image Makers

Artistic Director/Theater Director
Elisha Miranda

WHO: SISTER OUTSIDER aims to create commercially viable, and culturally relevant content across a range of media platforms including print, internet, theater, film and television that appeals to a multicultural audience

WHAT: Pandora's ten diverse monologues, seven short films woven together with music to represent different queer identities from diverse ethnic and identity backgrounds (bisexual, transgender, lesbian, questioning, homeless, immigrant, etc.) Its debut marks a breakthrough in visibility and expression in the Latin@ queer community.

WHEN: July 2nd- July 6th, 2008

Evening Shows
Wednesday, July 2nd - Friday, July 5th at 7:30pm
Saturday, July 6th at 8pm

Matinee Shows
Saturday, July 5th at 2pm
Sunday, July 6th at 2pm

WHERE: Theater Row
410 West 42ndStreet
New York City

To buy tickets please visit or Use code: POST to receive a 10% discount.

WHY: During the show, an Ending Homo-Hatred Outreach Toolkit will be distributed to audience members. The Toolkit will contain strategies and resources for combating internal and external homophobia, such as a directory of organizations that conduct outreach and education on issues of sexuality.

HOW: The commissioned writers and diverse cast use music, videos and theater to narrate the experience of the Latino/a queer community.

Press Contact: Melissa Quinones,, 917-853-2052

Sister Outsider Entertainment
55 West 116th Street, Suite 350
New York, New York 10026
646.688.0865 Tel. 646-514.3503

Lisa Alvarado

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Pura Belpré Medal Award Celebración

Sunday, June 29, 2008

01:30 pm - 03:30 pm

HILTON HOTEL, CaliforniaPavillion C
777 Convention Way
Anaheim, CA

Pura Belpré Medal Award Celebración, HILTON Hotel, California, Pavillion C

Join ALSC and REFORMA in a splendid Celebración to honor the 2008 Pura Belpré medal winners and honorees as they receive their awards and deliver their acceptance speeches Sunday, June 29th at 1:30 p.m.

There will be a performance by local children, book signing by the winning authors and illustrators, door prizes, light refreshments, y mucho mas!

Speakers: Mario Ascencio, President, REFORMA; Jane B. Marino, President, ALSC; Jean Hatfield, Chair, 2008 Pura Belpre Award Committee.

Celebremos with

Margarita Engle, Medal winner for text- The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano.

Yuyi Morales, Medal winter for illustration- Los Gatos Black on Halloween.

Carmen T. Bernier-Grand - Honor for text- Frida: ¡Viva la vida! Long Live Life!

Carmen Agra Deedy - Honor for text- Martina the Beautiful Cockroach: A Cuban Folktale.

Marisa Montes - Honor for text- Los Gatos Black on Halloween.

Raúl Colón - Honor for illustration- My Name is Gabito: The Life of Gabriel García Márquez/Me llamo Gabito: la vida de Gabriel García Márquez.

New Mexico Book Awards Winners and More Writing Tips


Contact: Paul Rhetts 505/344-9382


The Main Rio Rancho Library at Loma Colorado will feature winners from the 2007 New Mexico Book Awards. Authors scheduled to attend include:

Abe Pena
Best Book on Hispanic Subject
Memories of Cibola

Antonio Garcez
Best Book, Other Nonfiction
New Mexico Ghost Stories

Cindy Bellinger
Best Self-help/Best Gardening
Journaling for Women/Waterwise Garden Care: Your Practical Guide

Cynthia Davis
Best Book, Other Fiction
Rahab's Redemption

Don Bullis
Best Book on New Mexico
New Mexico: A Biographical Dictionary

Jan Zimmerman
Best Business Book
Web Marketing for Dummies

John Taylor
Best Religious Book
Dejad a los Niños

Nick Buffington
Best Novel – adventure or drama
Apache Casino

Robert Powers
Best New Mexico History Book
Peopling of Bandelier

Susan Miller
Best Novel – mystery

Michelle Holland
Best Poetry
The Sound a Raven Makes

Rene Colato Lainez
Best Childrens Book
Playing Loteria

Glenys Carl
Best Biography/Best First Book
Hold My Hand

L. Greer Price
Best Travel Book
High Plains of Northeastern New Mexico

Ana Baca
Best Novel, Historical Fiction
Mama Fela's Girls

The event will take place from 6:30pm - 8:30pm and is free and open to the public.

The Round Robin style will enable the public to meet with authors, have them sign books, and check out authors that they are not familiar with reading.

The 2008 New Mexico Book Awards is ending July 1, 2008, and winners will be announced November 21, 2008.

For more information call the Library or 344-9382.

More Writing Tips

A Writing Tip from Charlesbridge Editor Randi Rivers

One way out of the slush pile is to meet people in the business. There's no better way to do that than by attending conferences. Conferences usually offer a chance to have your manuscript critiqued. Take advantage of this service. It's one way of making a contact.

If critique sessions aren't offered, then there's usually a meet-and-greet. Granted everyone will be seeking out the editor, but even if you don't get to talk, listen. Find out what types of stories an editor is interested in. Don't be pushy, however, and don't force a submission on the editor. Instead, get to know the editor as a person. Building a rapport with someone is a valuable resource.

In the early 1990s, Randi Rivers worked for a magazine publisher based in the Los Angeles area. While in L.A., she coauthored the play Heart of the Matter, which was later produced by the Dunwoody Stage Door Players in Atlanta, Georgia. After returning to Massachusetts, she joined Charlesbridge Publishing. Currently an editor, Randi acquires and edits eight to ten children's books per year.


A Writing Tip from Young Adult Novelist Rich Wallace

Coming up with a basic plot is nothing too remarkable. What makes the story worth reading is the characters. So where do they come from?

For me, it's always been from within myself. I write primarily about teenage boys, so I need to reconnect with myself at that age. But even if I were writing about a talking bear or an animated steam shovel, I'd still want to infuse that character with my own angst or joy or confusion or anger—something I know because I've experienced it.

I have a few tactics for reconnecting with my teenage self. Most of us have a point in our childhood that still holds fairly intense emotions—probably a time of real turmoil and life changes. When you focus on that point—writing from the viewpoint of a character at that age—you might find that your stories have greater emotional resonance.

Rich Wallace is the author of four acclaimed novels for young adults: Playing Without the Ball, Wrestling Sturbridge, Shots on Goal, and Restless. He has also authored a short-story collection called Losing Is Not an Option, and a series of sports novels for middle-grade readers called Winning Season. His columns, profiles, and other features have been published in Highlights, Track and Field News, Runner's World, and other publications. Rich is a former senior editor at Highlights. His fifth and most recent YA novel, One Good Punch (Knopf), was released in October 2007.


These tips come from general sessions given at the Highlights Foundation Writers Workshop at Chautauqua. Find out more at

The Highlights Foundation
814 Court Street
Honesdale, PA 18431
Phone: (570) 253-1192

saludos René Colato Laínez

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Trinidad Noir, Cheech & Chon

Review: Trinidad Noir
Trinidad Noir
edited by Lisa Allen-Agostini & Jeanne Mason
NY: Akashic Books, 2008.
ISBN-13: 978-1-933354-55-2

Michael Sedano

Trinidad is an island entire of itself, and, together with Tobago and 21 other Caribbean islands, makes up the nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Googling the country uncovers a wealth of detail about its mineral and natural wealth, its lively music and colorful festivals, its potential as a tourist destination. Then, at the bottom of a page billing itself as the “definitive guide”, comes a sober reminder to the would-be traveler:

Trinidad has a crime problem: armed robberies, car thefts, kidnappings and murders are depressingly common. To minimise the risk of trouble, common-sense precautions need to be taken.

Such a prominent warning might be enough to persuade a traveler to put off a visit to T&T until some future date, but the would-be traveler need not avoid the island entirely. There is no frigate like a book, no? The armchair traveler/reader can get a gritty taste of Trinidad in Akashic Books’ 340 page noir anthology dedicated to Trinidadian writers, Trinidad Noir.

Eighteen stories, most of them completely enjoyable, make up the collection. For a United States reader, the cultural milieu will be the most striking character of the work, followed by the patois of its characters. Crime, murder, mayhem, and irony, will be in abundance, since these form the heart and soul of noir fiction. The challenge for the anthologist is to provide fresh work and clever twists, and, failing that, unique settings.

Editors Lisa Allen-Agostini & Jeanne Mason give the anthology a light-hearted sensibility in its opening two stories, Lisa Allen-Agostini’s “Pot Luck”, and Kevin Baldeosingh’s, “The Rape.” Both stories feature working-class folks who get caught up in events.

In the first story, an unemployed rasta fellow stumbles across a marijuana plantation, which he steals, smokes, shares, and sells. The plot grows complicated when he sells a goodly supply to a local dealer’s worthless brother. That the brother has stolen the pot thief’s girlfriend makes for an amusing dissonance, but one that turns deadly.

In the second story, two women feel the pressure of a crime wave of kidnaps and rapes that seems headed toward their end of the island. As their stress grows, a jogger makes a daily appearance that captures the women’s attention. The author allows readers to suspect the runner could be a rapist casing his victims, or he could simply be an attractive male. The women, “for health reasons”, take up jogging themselves.

The writer gives a deft touch to the women’s light-hearted pursuit of the unknown jogger. When a hit-run driver leaves the jogger unconscious, crumpled in an out of the way cane field, the bolder of the two women sees her opportunity and mounts the priapic victim. Convincing her lonely friend to avail herself of the man’s availability, the story’s title comes alive in a masterstroke of irony when the unconscious stranger comes out of it with the reluctantly persuaded woman astride the mysterious “dougla” (halfbreed) stranger.

The two leading stories are well chosen for their imaginativeness and colorful events. The sixteen remaining stories provide similar or smaller pleasures. Writing dialect poses a challenge to chicana chicano writers that appears as puro Spanish, the occasional code-switch, and only rarely a phonetic representation that may or may not require a splanation. Trinidad Noir’s narratives—with one glaring exception—present fluid standard grammar. Characters speak similarly, with a liberal though not overdone dose of dialect, such as this conversation in Darby Maloney’s “The Best Laid Plans”:

“I hope yuh not lying to me.”
“Of course not,” Honesto said quickly.
Maybe too quickly, Andre thought. “Because I really counting on that money,” he continued slowly. “Where Mary working they closing down by the end of the month, and I have to keep up the installment on this car.” He paused. “And yuh know long time we putting off Brandon operation.”

Readers with a descriptive linguistics bent will enjoy seeing the grammar and phonetics of island speech, and will find nothing unintelligible. Except one unreadable story. Writers make a horrible mess of a text when they attempt to capture the actual sound of dialect. Fortunately, only Robert Antoni has been foolish enough to attempt it. He fails miserably, producing a story so unreadable I suspect most readers will give the epistolary “How to Make Photocopies in the Trinidad & Tobago National Archives” a page--maybe a paragraph--or two before abandoning the effort:

“now as i have lil chance 2 catch me breath & cool down some after all dem boisterous carryings-ons of las night, of which i can only admit shameful 2 have play my own part in dem, my womanly desires catchin de best a me unawares much as i fight dem down, cause lord only know dis pussy aint get a good airing-out like dat in many a long day, & now it finish at last wid all dat amount a pulsatin & twitchin-up so sweet & i could collec meself little bit & sit down cool & calm & quiet enough dis morning 2 write u out dis email”

Racial and ethnic tensions and identity issues provide ongoing stress for many characters. These come from skin color and interactions among East Asian/Indian, black, and anglo peoples. There’s a clear sense of inclusion-exclusion in the various personae, but spoken without strident political protest. The jogging women, for example, are interested that their target is “dougla” or mixed. That’s the way things are, seems to be the prevailing attitude of the writers and their characters. Rarely do the writers convey a movimiento-type sensibility and characters express only a minor outraged sense of injustice. Rare is the writer with a moral axe to grind, as in Tiphanie Yanique’s coming of age and getting your just desserts story, “Gita Pinky Manachandi.” Mostly what we get in Trinidad Noir is plain old fun, mostly familiar situations in an unusual setting.

That this Trinidad anthology is a bit run-of-the-mill with the occasional gem is completely acceptable, given the larger picture of what the publisher is bringing to market. Akashic Books is gathering a wonderful collection in its noir series. Already in the series have been twenty-three cities including Baltimore, Bronx, Brooklyn, Havana, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto. Upcoming are at least thirteen more including Barcelona, Delhi, Istanbul, Lagos, Mexico City, as well as Phoenix and Portland. This speaks well for the genre, as well as the publisher. Who gets it in the end is the real winner, and this is readers who enjoy the irony, chagrin, schadenfruende, and juicy crimes that hallmark the noir body of work.

Cheech Marin and Chon Noriega: A Conversation at LACMA
Actor, comedian, art collector Cheech Marin joined the chair of UCLA's Chicano Studies program, Chon Noriega, in an hour-long colloquy at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Marin's collection fills several gallery rooms with breathtaking work, principally paintings. The collection is reproduced in book form, Chicano Visions: Painters on the Verge.

It was a highly entertaining and illuminating hour. Marin speaks of his collection as representing a Chicano School of art, distinguished by subject matter, professional execution, and characteristic use of color. Linked above are several pages about the collection, including Marin's essay on the Chicano School.

Noriega kept the hour focused on Marin's collector persona, thus did not address the second "chicano" show running at LACMA, the Noriega et al-curated Phantom Sightings: Art after the Chicano Movement. La Bloga alluded to the collection in an earlier post.

What an interesting contrast. In Marin's collection, nearly every wall holds masterpiece after masterpiece. Obviously some are more powerful than others, but almost every single canvas kicks you in the gut with its expressive power and sheer beauty.

Phantom Sightings is exactly the opposite. Wall after wall of dreary stuff. A few imaginative pieces like a deconstructed sarape here, there an artifact of a performance piece satirizing street people's beggarly signs that makes everyone stop and laugh. Many well-executed but uninteresting photos.

The show celebrates a couple of absochingaolutely breathtaking artists--Julio Cesar Morales' immigrants; one disguised as piñata another upholstered into an auto seat. There are too few of Shizu Saldamando's striking portraits. But the high quality work scattered here and there is overpowered by work of such creative poverty that a great benefit emerges from the Phantom Sightings show. So often writers and painters decry their categorization as a "chicana chicano" artist, lamenting they cannot be considered merely "artists." Phantom Sightings proves the old adage, "be careful what you ask for, you might just get it." The majority of work in the Phantom Sightings show is "just art."

There's June's final Tuesday. Good health to all, and, as it's a vain hope to wish you eternal youth, here's to growth and maturation.


La Bloga encourages your comments and responses to the above, or anything you read at La Bloga. To share your comment, click on the Comment counter below and type away. La Bloga welcomes guest columnists. When you have your own review of a title or event, las blogueras los blogueros invite you to have your say! Haz clicquear here to let us know.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Spotlight on Aurora Anaya-Cerda and La Casa Azúl Bookstore

Aurora Anaya-Cerda is an active member of the East Harlem community as a participant and supporter of cultural and educational events. A graduate of UCLA, Anaya-Cerda has a double Bachelor's degree in History and Chicana/o Studies and a minor in Education. She was awarded the Juanita Centeno Leadership Award and the UCLA Women for Change Leadership Award, both for outstanding dedication and service to her community. Anaya-Cerda recently received a scholarship from the New Start Fund, awarded to women entrepreneurs in New York City.

Anaya-Cerda is also the founder of La Casa Azúl Bookstore which will be an independent bookstore/café offering books in English and Spanish. The bookstore will offer a wide range of books and music from the United States, México, Latin America and the Caribbean. The store's mission is to provide the community with contemporary bilingual literature, featuring works by Latino authors. Anaya-Cerda currently sells books on-line; the storefront will open later this year. Visit the website to sign up for the monthly newsletter. You may also visit the bookstore’s MySpace page to learn more.

The idea to open a bookstore/café came from Anaya-Cerda's passion for literature, art, and community activism. One of the goals of La Casa Azúl Bookstore is to bring community awareness and political consciousness on issues that affect East Harlem residents. Anaya-Cerda sees La Casa Azúl Bookstore as a place where she can combine all three passions and provide a great space to read and sip on delicious hot chocolate.

Some of Anaya-Cerda's favorite books are: The Alchemist, Rain of Gold, The House on Mango Street and Bless Me, Ultima. She's a collector of bilingual children's books and “is an avid reader of all things Frida!”

◙ Poet Lizz Huerta is blogging again here. Aside from being a poet, Lizz considers herself “smart-ass, reader, observer of ridiculous and fascinating things.” Here’s one of Lizz’s poems which she kindly agreed to share with La Bloga’s readers:

musings with stella

observe the confused raspberry of your skin, darker than most,
not so long ago you were erupting islands of fire, burning cities

of sugar and gold, mouth of another paladin perched
over your raucous fruit, pages ready to slip away into another’s.

when the rest of the world believed the world was flat, we knew,
you and I, that this old ball was as sloped as a pear,

we’ve been there, from floating Ixchel seas and primordial
monoliths of stone to our own personal altars of fossil and a little

of some man’s sea, though our voodoo didn’t work as well,
did it mama? we’d best leave the sacred to the sacred

and get back to ours as usual; keep your thing fresh, I’ll swoop in
from behind for the sacrifice while his mouth is busy with you.

◙ Announcing the inaugural issue of the ACENTOS REVIEW, a new journal of writing by Latino and Latina authors. It is online here. Seven poets and one visual artist grace the June 2008 issue: Ray Gonzalez, Rachel McKibbens, Sheila Maldonado, Christina Olivares, Jose Olivarez, Mundo Rivera and Griselda Suarez. I note that ACENTOS REVIEW is accepting submissions of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, reviews, interviews, and translation for the Latino Heritage Month issue (September 2008). See the submission guidelines for further details. ACENTOS REVIEW welcomes your comments andqueries:

◙ La Bloga recently reported on the demise of Tu Ciudad magazine. For me, the news is still sinking in…It is such a shame that this beautiful, exciting and vibrant publication did not survive the marketplace. Agustin Gurza offers this background in his Saturday Los Angeles Times column.

◙ All done. So, until next Monday, enjoy the intervening posts from my compadres y comadres at La Bloga. ¡Lea un libro!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Paradoxes of Mexico City - Sat. readings in L.A.

Authors David Lida and Sam Quiñones at the Mexican Cultural Institute LOS ANGELES, CA – American-born, Mexico City-based author David Lida will present his newest book First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century at the Mexican Cultural Institute’s Art Gallery on Saturday, June 21 at 5 pm. [125 Paseo de la Plaza, Olvera Street, Los Angeles] He will be in conversation with Sam Quiñones, noted author of nonfiction books about Mexico and a writer for the Los Angeles Times. David Lida’s book is an entertaining guide, displaying both intimate familiarity with the city and an outsider's eye for its quirks and weirdness. In the book, Lida profiles its various neighborhoods, from Santa Fe to Condesa, its street markets and food stalls, festive cantinas and desperate pulquerías. He examines the inhabitants’ mania for wrestling matches and saint worship, their distinctive vernacular and the culture’s deeply ingrained machismo.

Sam Quiñones has published two books about Mexico: True Tales from Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino and the Bronx, a collection of non-fiction stories about contemporary Mexico that grew from his reporting on the country. It has been used in more than 150 university classes at 75 universities in 26 states. In 2007, he published Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration.

Both authors will read from sections of their respective books, engage in conversation about their experiences and take questions from the attendees. Books will be available for sale and signing.

The author presentation is co-sponsored by the Cervantes Center of Arts & Letters, a non-profit corporation established in 2002, with the purpose of organizing quality events of a cultural and educational nature, free of cost for the Los Angeles community and environs, fostering appreciation of culture and creativity in all its diversity. This is done through lectures, festivals, concerts, film-screenings, book presentations and exhibits.

The Mexican Cultural Institute, located at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, is the premier venue for the expression of traditional and contemporary art and culture from the Mexican, Mexican American and Chicano perspective. The Institute is committed to providing education, disseminating information, and serving as a valuable resource for the world community, with an active emphasis on serving the residents of Los Angeles and its environs.

Contact and RSVP: (310) 754-6250

Friday, June 20, 2008


For La Bloga's discerning readers, here are publishers' blurbs for new crime fiction that you might enjoy.

David Bajo. The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri (Viking, June 19, 2008). For most of his adult life, the mathematician Philip Mazyrk has carried on a love affair with Irma Arcuri. Now Irma has vanished and left Philip her entire library of 351 books. Buried in the text of this library lay the secrets of Irma’s disappearance. Philip reads the novels an begins to sense a more profound and troubling design at work. As clues, warnings, and implications both inside and outside the library mount, Philip begins to realize that he too is trapped in a narrative. Who is Irma Arcuri? What is really buried in the library? And, most important, whose story is this?

Emilio Calderón. The Creator’s Map (Penguin, July 17, 2008) Malaga’s Calderón, winner of Spain’s Fernando Lara prize, gets his first English translation for his first adult novel. Although told in Rome, 1952, when the beheading of a prince initiates the mailing of a startling letter, it harks back to 1937, the turbulent days of the Spanish Civil War and Mussolini when the Spanish Academy in Rome was so busted it sold off its assets including some rare books. One turns out to mention a map, one of 12 sacred objects that legend holds confer enormous power. It is purchased by Prince Junio Vivarini, a Fascist/Nazi sympathizer, whom the beautiful Academy librarian Montserrat and architecture student José Maria Hurtado meet via the rare bookseller. Could the map be hidden in the Vatican Library? With its raft of further secrets and questions, the narrative spins out romance, espionage, mystery, a gorgeous portrait of Rome, and some serious questions about the role of the Vatican with Nazis.

Alicia Giménez-Bartlett, Jonathan Dunne (translator). Death Rites (Europa, June 20, 2008). Inspector Delicado has been chained to a tiresome desk job in the documentation department of the Barcelona police force for months. But things are about to change. The department is short-handed and there’s a serial rapist on the loose. Delicado is partnered with the portly and impossibly compliant Sergeant Fermín Garzón with orders to solve the case before it succeeds in ruining the good name of the Barcelona police force. However, the only lead they have is the rapist’s mysterious signature: a circular mark of unknown origins he leaves on his victims’ forearms. No witnesses, no other leads, and no help from the victims themselves. This is the third in this series.

Yxta Maya Murray. The Queen Jade (HarperCollins, June 3, 2008). In the aftermath of 1998 Hurricane Mitch, a mine of blue jade is uncovered in Guatemala, accelerating a centuries-long hunt for the Queen Jade and prompting Lola Sanchez, whose archaeologist mother has gone missing, to solve the mystery surrounding the legendary stone. This is a trade paperback edition of the 2005 hardback.

Leonardo Padura. Havana Gold (Bitter Lemon, June 1, 2008). Twenty-four year old Lissette Delgado was beaten, raped, and then strangled with a towel. Marijuana is found in her apartment and her wardrobe is suspiciously beyond the means of a high school teacher. Lieutenant Conde is pressured by “the highest authority” to conclude this investigation quickly when chance leads him into the arms of a beautiful redhead, a saxophone player who shares his love for jazz and Japanese fighting fish. This is the second in this series.

Ian Vasquez. In The Heat (Minotaur, June, 2008). Boxer Miles Young thinks he’s got one more shot in him before it’s time to hang up the gloves for good. He may be the only one who thinks so. The truth is, he enjoys the recognition his career has brought him at home, in the small Latin American country of Belize, and he’s worried about how he’ll support his daughter once it’s over. So when his promoter comes to him with a proposition that includes one last big fight, he listens.

Isabelle Gilmore wants Miles to find her daughter, who’s run off with some of her mother’s money and her no-good boyfriend. Isabelle’s afraid Rian’s going to marry the kid, the only son of corrupt ex-police chief Marlon Tablada, and she wants Rian - and the money - found. In return, Miles gets put on a fight card with a $30,000 payday.

He’s reluctant, but Isabelle thinks a hometown hero can get people to talk in ways a private investigator can’t. Trouble is, before he can find Rian, he learns that there’s much more to Isabelle, her daughter, and Marlon than Isabelle let on.

New Art

Art at Our Doorstep: San Antonio Writers and Artists
Edited by Nan Cuba and Riley Robertson
Trinity University Press, April, 2008

Art at Our Doorstep: San Antonio Writers and Artists pays tribute to the city's vibrant creative community. A gathering of literary and visual art, the book features poetry, fiction, and nonfiction from the city's writers, as well as images of painting, sculpture, photography, and installations from the city's artists. All gathered here are closely associated with the city or have been in years past, and together they represent San Antonio's inimitable local culture with style, intelligence, and affection. Collected in one place for the first time, the works of San Antonio's writers and artists are interspersed, resulting in a book of unusual appeal. Ranging from the abstract to the highly narrative, from the surreal to the hyper real, and from the everyday to the sublime, the art is arresting and the texts equally powerful. This elegant anthology features National Endowment for the Arts fellows, National Book Award finalists, Fulbright fellows, Artpace San Antonio artists-in-residence, best-selling authors, and critically acclaimed artists. Writers and artists in the collection include: Josephine Niggli, Carmen Tafolla, Bryce Milligan, Oscar Casares, Trinidad Sanchez, Jr., Cruz Ortiz, RikyArmendariz, Norma Elia Cantú.