Monday, May 17, 2010

An interview with Manuel Luis Martinez, author of the novel, “Day of the Dead”

Manuel Luis Martinez is a native Texan currently living in Columbus, Ohio. He serves as an associate professor of twentieth century American literature, American studies, Chicano/Latino studies, and creative writing, and is the current Director of Undergraduate Studies at Ohio State University. He began his education at St. Mary's University, San Antonio (BA, 1988), completed a Master of Arts in Creative Writing at the Ohio State University in 1989, and earned a doctorate from Stanford University in 1997.

His first novel, Crossing, was published in October of 1998 by Bilingual Press and has been translated into Spanish for publication in Spain by Limes Press. It was chosen as one of ten outstanding books by a writer of color published in 1998 by PEN American Center in New York. His second novel, Drift, was published by Picador USA in 2003 and was chosen as one of the best books of 2004 by the American Library Association. It has also been published in Australia and anthologized several times. Martinez's book on postwar American dissent and its literature, Countering the Counterculture: Rereading American Dissent From Jack Kerouac to Tomas Rivera, was published in 2004 by the University of Wisconsin Press. Martinez has been a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune for which he writes book reviews and literary essays and has received several fellowships and grants for his artistic work and his scholarship including the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Mellon Foundation, and the MacDowell Artists Colony.

Martinez’s latest novel, Day of the Dead, was published in the winter by Floricanto Press. Set in Mexico during the Revolution, the novel tells the story of Berto Morales whose life changes forever when his pregnant wife is raped and murdered, just another victim of the bloody war. We follow Morales as he sets out to find his wife’s murderers. But his journey transforms him and his view of the world. This is a harrowing novel, filled with both terror and hope. Martinez kindly agreed to answer a few questions about Day of the Dead.

DANIEL OLIVAS: Day of the Dead is markedly different from your previous two novels which dealt with contemporary characters and conflicts. Why did you decide to do a historical novel? Did you confront any special obstacles or issues by setting your novel during the Mexican Revolution?

MANUEL LUIS MARTINEZ: I set out to do something different with this book. My work is dialogue heavy in that I'm most interested in voices and stories told by real characters, but I wanted to write something that was in the mode of classical Latin American literature and so I knew that Day of the Dead, set in the turn of the century, would give me the opportunity to stretch a bit with my prose. The reason I set Day of the Dead during the Mexican Revolution was because I wanted, partially, to reflect on the morass that is the US involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, but I didn't want to write directly about the conflict. At the same time, Berto's story had been something I wanted to write for twenty years, but I hadn't gotten to it because I knew I needed to spend more time in Mexico and to educate myself a great deal on Mexican history and politics before I could start. My anger and frustration with George Bush's wars gave me the motivation to begin the novel.

DO: The violence depicted in the novel is graphic, though never unrelated to the narrative. Did you base some of the more horrific battle scenes on actual events?

MLM: Yes, I have never experienced combat, but the accounts of battles and the methods used for information extraction, torture, and the massacres of Mexican citizens are all there in the annals of the Mexican Revolution. I stayed close to the actual accounts of the battle for Torreon. It was a horrific war aimed largely at terrifying innocent people. The Mexican Revolution seemed to me to be a perfect correlate to the civil war that broke out in Iraq after the U.S. upended the power structure: thousands upon thousands of people caught up in violence they had nothing to do with. Part of the reason I spend so much time on the violence is because it is the center of all war and too many of us don't understand this. We're protected in the U.S. from the realities of war. I didn't want to look away.

DO: Your protagonist, Berto Morales, has lost everything to the Revolution. Through his eyes, the Revolution offers no clear cut delineation between heroes and villains. Do you think that such ambiguity is simply part of any war, or do you think that the Revolution offered more gray area than other conflicts?

MLM: I think that history shows that most starters of wars have no idea how awful a price war exacts. People get caught up in nationalist fervors, or they begin to believe the propaganda that war is justified, that it will be quick and decisive, a thing of "shock and awe" that somehow rights great wrongs. So I do think it is a general aspect of war, but in Berto's case, I wanted to bring this principle down to the individual level. Here is a man with a "just cause." He has been greatly wronged, and he has a clear-cut enemy, a ghost of a man with whom he can imbue absolute evil. Once he steps into the breach, however, he finds that evil and good, guilt and innocence are never easy to decipher. The moral ground is always shifting and once one discovers that, the reason for war becomes almost impossible to grasp. It's a painful realization that is often learned too late to make much of a difference.

DO: Mil gracias for spending time with La Bloga.

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