Monday, December 08, 2008

El Paso native's essays describe his struggle for understanding

Renaming the Earth: Personal Essays (University of Arizona Press, hardcover $34.95; paperback $17.95) by Ray Gonzalez

Book review by Daniel Olivas

In Ray Gonzalez's Renaming the Earth: Personal Essays (University of Arizona Press, hardcover $34.95; paperback $17.95), we are treated to the award-winning poet's exploration of his development as a writer. The essays are as lyrical as they are hard-headed.

For example, in "A Break with the Past," Gonzalez explores his relationship with the source of much of his writing:

"I drive around aimlessly in my hometown because my hometown is gone. El Paso is no longer the city I grew up in -- this statement is one of the most common and initial perceptions anyone who returns home usually has, whether is it expressed to others or left in the mind of the native who has been gone a long time."

It is his duty, as a writer, to capture his hometown in words, but he struggles mightily: "If I keep writing about the same things, over and over, what have I failed to say? What am I unable to approach about El Paso? What am I unable to escape?" Gonzalez cannot answer his own questions, but accepts this truth:

"My hometown is gone, and I wander through a different El Paso, loving it as I have never loved it before and wishing the ghosts of history could re-enact every lost detail I need for my writing."

At other times, Gonzalez presents the unvarnished reality of the business of poetry, or "po-bizz," as he dubs it. In "Get on the Poetry Bus," he recounts such Sisyphean attempts to promote poetry as doing public readings (where only one person comes to listen), writing innumerable blurbs for the backs of other poets' books, or slogging through slush piles of poems submitted to a literary journal or poetry contests.

It is only when he goes on retreat that he can get back to his calling:

"For five days in the summer, I am a writer again," he says. "Not only do I produce new poems and dozens of pages of prose, but I immerse myself in a deep isolation that during the week is sometimes hard to take."

In the title essay, Gonzalez scrutinizes his role as a person who uses words to "rename" his surroundings: "As a young man, I made the mistake of not renaming familiar territory in order to give it new life that would keep me going as a son of the desert and as a writer." In this way, he encapsulates the writer's ultimate goal and unremitting dilemma.

Indeed, Gonzalez conflates literary expression with his very identity as a "son of the desert."

In "How to Treat People Who Have Harmed You," Gonzalez sometimes sounds like an old-timer who cannot understand why young folks fail to appreciate his rock idols -- Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield. Yet in the same piece, Gonzalez revisits his difficult relationship with his father, who never seemed to "get" his son's literary talent and success. It takes a chance discussion with his uncle Joe to learn that his father is, in fact, proud of Gonzalez.

The eight essays that make up Renaming the Earth ebb and flow, touching on topics as diverse as childhood embarrassments, El Paso history, discrimination, desert heat, Minnesota winters, war and the immigration debate.

In all, Gonzalez brilliantly and with great passion renames the Earth not only for his benefit, but for ours, as well.

[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times]


Pasadena’s community-wide reading celebration is designed to broaden and deepen an appreciation of reading and literature. The project is also intended to engage the community in dialogue and seeks to bring the Pasadena community together by promoting tolerance and understanding about differing points of view.

The book selection for Pasadena’s seventh One City, One Story community reading celebration is Luis Alberto Urrea’s novel
The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

The novel tells the story of Teresita, a distant relative of Urrea, who comes to terms with her destiny with the power of faith. It is the tale of a father discovering what true love is and a daughter recognizing that sometimes true love requires t
rue sacrifice. It is full of cowboys and outlaws, Indian warriors, cantina beauties, silly men who drink too much and desert women who in their dreams travel to the seashore. Urrea completed two decades of research and writing for this fictional history.

Urrea was a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction and is member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame. He is a prolific and acclaimed writer who uses his dual-culture life experiences to explore themes of love, loss and triumph. The critically acclaimed author of 11 books, Urrea is an award-winning poet and essayist who has published extensively in all the major genres.

For more information, visit here. My interview with Urrea that first appeared on The Elegant Variation in 2005 has been reprinted here in honor of this occasion.


Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Reed Johnson tells us of the Latino Theatre Company’s yearly production of “La Virgen de Guadalupe, Dios Inantzin”:

The woman playing the world's most famous woman was fondly remembering Christmases past in Los Angeles. When she was a child, Suzanna Guzmán recalled, the windows of Bullock's and other now-defunct department stores dripped with seasonal decor, and the downtown atmosphere was "magical."

"It was like our New York," she said.

That's one reason why Guzmán, an East L.A. native and Los Angeles Opera mezzo-soprano, this year is participating again in what has become a new local holiday tradition, aimed primarily at the region's huge immigrant Latino population.

Last Thursday night, she and a cast and technical crew of 150 mostly amateur performers, plus a handful of professional actors, musicians and designers, gathered at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels for the seventh straight year's enactment of "La Virgen de Guadalupe, Dios Inantzin," a pageant with music produced by the L.A.-based Latino Theatre Company. An audience estimated at 2,500 attended the production.

Directed by UCLA drama professor and Latino Theatre Company Artistic Director Jose Luis Valenzuela, and performed in Spanish and the Aztec language of Nahuatl, the folkloric work dramatizes the story of how in 1531 the Virgin of Guadalupe (played by Guzmán) appeared four times to the Aztec Indian peasant Juan Diego, a Roman Catholic convert, in the hills above Mexico City.

For more information on performances and tickets, go to Latino Theater. To read Johnson's entire article, go here. [Photo credit: Ken Hively, Los Angeles Times.]

◙ That’s all for this week. So, in the meantime, enjoy the intervening posts from mis compadres y comadres here on La Bloga. And remember: ¡Lea un libro!


The Literary Jewels said...

A nice review! Thanks for sharing. I would surely love to read the book.

Daniel A. Olivas said...

Amritbar, thank you! So, you're in India...happy to see the Web bringing readers closer.

Anonymous said...

I'll be checking out the book too, thanks to your review!