Friday, June 18, 2010

Tim Z. Hernandez -- Juan Bruce-Novoa

Today's focus is Tim Hernandez, poet, performer, and novelist. Tim is the recipient of several awards including the American Book Award for his poetry collection Skin Tax, the Zora Neale Hurston Award, and the James Duval Phelan Award from the San Francisco Foundation. Tim's interview follows my review of his outstanding novel, Breathing, In Dust, now available through Texas Tech University Press. Tim is one of those "writers to watch."

We also note the recent passing of another "Old Lion" of Chicana/o Lit, Juan Bruce-Novoa.


Breathing, In Dust
Tim Z. Hernandez
Texas Tech University Press, 2010

I have been an avid reader for more than fifty years and yet I continue to be amazed by the power of the written word. I can still be overwhelmed by the well-crafted paragraph that deserves multiple readings; or by a patch of gritty dialog that echoes conversations I remember distinctly; or by a descriptive phrase that manages to convey place, emotion and character, all at the same time. Reading occupies my mind like few other experiences, and to this day I am grateful for the subtle encouragement from parents and grandparents to read and exercise my brain. My reading is made all the more enjoyable when I know that the writer only recently set off on her or his literary journey and so the expectations are high. The promise of future excellent reading has been renewed – the world is better.

Tim Z. Hernandez is the latest writer I have read whose promise is obvious, whose talent is rich, and whose honest and unflinching debut novel, Breathing, In Dust, deserves a wide-readership and critical attention.

Hernandez comes from the San Joaquin Valley of Central California. His book is set in a fictionalized reflection of that land. Say “San Joaquin Valley” and we may reference Fresno, may understand the Steinbeck connection, and we most likely accept the importance of agriculture to the image of the Valley, one of the “breadbaskets of America.” Those of us not from this Valley may imagine verdant, massive farms; a hazy summer country life; a small-town American ideal. But Hernandez reveals an unfamiliar, hidden Valley. The people of Catela, the primary setting for the book, are swimming against the stream, drowning in day-to-day survival struggles, and losing the battle. Tim Hernandez gives his readers the heart of the American dream suffering from a weak and erratic pulse.

The San Joaquin Valley is plagued with poverty. For example, according to a 2009 article in the Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal, written by Lloyd G. Carter, the Twentieth Congressional District, which includes a portion of the western San Joaquin Valley down through Kings and Kern counties, has the “dubious distinction of being the poorest of the 436 congressional districts in America. The region is rife with social problems ranging from high unemployment to gang and drug problems, high teen-pregnancy rates, an appalling high school dropout rate (25-35%), and other side effects of poverty.”

But, regardless of how compelling the statistics are, they do not tell the complete story. There is no humanity in the numbers. Revealing the humanity – the weaknesses and strengths, hopes and despair – is left to Tim Hernandez.

Breathing, In Dust focuses on Tlaloc, a teen-aged native of the Valley who witnesses and participates in the ebb and flow of life in Catela, a town on the verge of collapse from its own inertia. The book is a series of short stories that stand on their own, but together comprise a unique, satisfying whole. Tlaloc is the narrator, although he is not in every story, and he conveys Catela events in straightforward, sparse language, whether he is describing the life-risking adventure of “catching a train” engaged by bored and idle youth, or the bloody, cruel death of a pig at the hands of overeager and incompetent executioners. It is apparent that these and other similar scenes from the young man’s life will stay with him forever.

The people, too, will live with Tlaloc forever. These are the relatives and brothers-in-crime, girlfriends and enemies who participate in his coming-of-age and stimulate his imagination. The characters push and pull the reader. We pass through grief for the dying grandmother, pity for the abused wife, disgust for the wasted drug dealer, joy for unexpected love, and sorrow for neglected, already-lost children. We touch the bottom but never lose sight of the top.

Tlaloc is driven to express himself and eventually he turns to writing – to poetry to be more exact. When at last he is ready to publicly emerge as a poet, he undertakes a surrealistic journey to Los Angeles. This trip, filled with black humor and writer angst, almost caps off the book. But Tlaloc must return to the Valley one more time, after an absence of five years. He drops in on the bachelor party of an old friend, but all he can do is observe and second-guess his attendance at the drunken, chaotic celebration that he has clearly outgrown. This chapter ends with melancholy words that succinctly summarize Tlaloc’s final awareness:

“And then you get in your car and drive away. Wondering how long, or if, anyone will notice you’ve been missing.”

And isn’t that the way it is for most of us?

Breathing, In Dust is a fine example of extraordinary writing. As I said, the promise is high and the expectations are in place for more from Tim Z. Hernandez.


Tim Z. Hernandez

MR What was the impetus for Breathing, In Dust? Why did you decide to write this book as opposed to any other book you could have written?

TZH This region of California is where I grew up, where some of my fondest memories of childhood are rooted, and yet today these rural central valley communities—veritable campitos—are inundated with violence, drugs, poverty, hunger, and all other imaginable and unimaginable disparities under the hot sun. The stories initially began as a way for me to remind myself of the good times of my youth but the strangest thing happened along the way. After writing the initial draft one summer, I realized that they were not as sweet as my recollection of them. I put the stories aside for a year and by the time I returned to them so many more incidents [in the valley] happened in the interim that I was forced to look at the manuscript in a different way. I now saw them from a removed vantage point, and then I realized that beneath the cloak of California’s image, some seventy years after Steinbeck’s magnum opus about the atrocities of the living conditions of dust bowl migrants, the very same caliber of calamity was still playing out beneath the shadow of the nation’s breadbasket. And it is precisely this byproduct of the agricultural industry that remains overlooked. That people here still live hard and often impossible lives. People here are still starving. Killing one another. Cooking meth in abandoned grain silos. Selling drugs from the back door of business fronts. Doing just about anything to make it from one day to the next. In the end I thought this information and perspective was important enough to put out there.

MR At the center of your connected stories is Tlaloc, a young man in the midst of searing human drama played out in the small farming town of Catela. How much of Tim Z. Hernandez is found in Tlaloc? And how much of Tlaloc does Tim Z. Hernandez carry?

TZH It is definitely a semi-autobiographical story. Some of the stuff in there I can’t make up, it’s just too crazy on its own merit. What is fabricated are the threads that bind the whole thing together, that is, the timeline and some of the background. Of course the town of Catela itself is a composite of several valley towns; Dinuba, Cutler, Orosi, Visalia, and Fresno. As for how much of Tlaloc is in me…I can’t say for sure, but certainly some of his choices and experiences parallel my own. But in the end, Tlaloc is really a composite of various people I know, and knew, while growing up. My intention from the get go was to play with the border between what is real and what isn’t, thus the photos that appear in the book. I wanted the reader to get a very real sense of this place I was talking about and the people who inhabit it. I wanted the reader to feel as if they were taking a tour through the valley and the town of Catela, guided by the narration of a young boy who has his thumb on the hard pulse.

MR Some of the stories are unhesitatingly downers. Your characters include tweekers, domestic violence perps, a dying grandmother, a killer, an absent father, and a strung-out drug dealer. People are in crisis or at the end of their rope. Catela is in worse shape than its inhabitants. And yet, Tlaloc is a poet. A poet who has to risk his life to do his first reading, but still, a poet. Is poetry really salvation?

TZH For me language was my salvation, and still is in many ways. Through language I make sense of things, or learn to let go of things, or start a dialogue, or continue a conversation with myself or others. Poetry was the most accessible for me when I began because a poem is immediate and feels necessary when at its best. This is what makes writing so attractive to the narrator of the book, Tlaloc. And I imagine what makes poetry so accessible to young people everywhere. The immediacy of it. The charged impulse to put experiences to words to paper to audience.

MR I’ve heard you read a few times – blows me away every time. The writing in Breathing, In Dust, is lyrical, with a rhythm that is almost musical. Did any of your stories begin as poems? Was the transition from poet to fiction writer a difficult one, a natural development, something else?

TZH The stories did not begin as poems, however, what they did have in common with my own poetry is that some of them began as stories in the oral tradition. I would tell them to audiences before entering a poem, or vice-versa. At the end of the day I consider myself a storyteller. Some of it makes it onto paper and some doesn’t. So the transition from one genre to the other was not difficult in that it felt like a natural progression, not forced at all. When it comes to writing I am not a purist. I believe that all genres and even artistic mediums are at my disposal when conveying a story or idea, and I have no hesitation about crossing these borders if necessary.

MR How would you describe the current environment for writers like you? By that I mean, what’s happening in the publishing world for a young Latino poet or a first-time novelist? Are you encouraged, optimistic, cynical, burned-out?

TZH Since I am still very new to the “environment” of the publishing world I don’t have much to gauge the current situation by. However, I will say this. Since I published my first book of poems six years ago, I have already seen publishers grow more cautious and less willing to take risks with material. I imagine so many great books are probably falling to the wayside because they are “not marketable enough.” I mean even now it’s harder to get poetry published than it was just six years ago. But I’m definitely optimistic about it. Everything comes in waves. Recently we’ve seen a lot of upstart independent publishers taking on poetry where other houses have dropped it altogether. I think the key is that wherever we see a gap or void in the publishing industry it’s up to us to fill it. That is to start are our own publishing ventures and not wait for someone to come along and make things happen for us. I guess I’m a perpetual optimist with a touch of cynicism, but the only thing burned-out about me right now is probably my carpel tunnel.

MR What are you working on now? When can we expect another book from you?

TZH At the moment I’m excited about two projects I am actively working on. The closest to completion is a novel-in-verse for Young Adults. It’s an extreme love story that combines a sense of Autobiography of My Dead Brother meets Fight Club. I expect to have it completed by this summer and I’ll be shopping it around shortly thereafter.

The second project is a historical fiction novel that’s been in the works for two years now, most of which has been research and outlining. But I’m very excited about it and I’m taking all the time I need to get it right. As I am quickly learning it’s a crazy balance between getting enough facts so that the writing is authentic, and telling yourself enough is enough and sitting down to do the work. I wont give you the particulars but I will say this; the subject is about a woman who by her mere existence—and without knowing—made a significant contribution to what would become one of the greatest North American novels of the 20th century. Without her, it’s likely that the book may have never seen print. Did I mention she is a Latina?

MR Quite a cryptic ending to a great interview. Thanks, Tim - and good luck with all your literary endeavors.


Juan Bruce-Novoa

Juan Buce Novoa passed away on June 11. An internationally renowned critic, Bruce-Novoa's insights, analyzes, interviews, essays, and literary theories contributed greatly to academic acceptance of Chicana and Chicano Literature as they simultaneously preserved the history of the writers and the writing. Among his works are Chicano Authors: Inquiry by Interview; Chicano Poetry; Retrospace: Collected Essays on Chicano Literature; and a novel, Only the Good Times. Several writers, including me, owe him gratitude and acknowledgment for his support, especially at the beginning of their careers, because of his many years of involvement with the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize sponsored by the University of California at Irvine. He was a unique man and will be missed. There is more about Professor Bruce-Novoa, including comments from friends and colleagues, at this site.



1 comment:

msedano said...

QEPD Juan Bruce-Novoa.

The pig matanza story, if it's the one I heard many years ago at Tropico de Nopal, is stunning. Now I gotta get the book and see.