Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Review: A Crown for Gumecindo. Guest Interview: Thelma Reyna With Graciela Limón

Review: A Crown for Gumecindo.
Michael Sedano

Laurie Ann Guerrero. A Crown for Gumecindo. San Antonio: Aztlán Libre Press, 2015.
ISBN: 9780989778220 0989778223

There’s a special bond between a grandparent and a child that comes with an inverse joy. The elder gets to see the child grow into adulthood—there is no greater joy than seeing the child of one’s child born, grow from infancy to toddler to schoolkid, eventually into adulthood. The baby doesn’t see grampa as old but as grampa; wise, kind, indulgent, nurturing, “the best grandpa.” At some point in the grown nieta’s nieto's life, however, youth acknowledges with distress a parent’s age, the grandparent’s the more so.

Grandparents die, leaving a painful absence along with a lifetime of cherished memories. As fiercely as each loves the other, the finality of death and the progress of growth mean fading memory, replaced love, and renewed life’s cycle—the child becomes a parent, then a grandparent. Per omnia saecula saeculorum.

This collection battles that cyle. Letting go, refusing to let go, acknowledging absence. These strategies are the heart of Laurie Ann Guerrero’s fiercely contested battle with the painful fact of her grandfather’s death, memorialized in her breathtaking collection A Crown for Gumecindo.

Fifteen poems—the poet calls them ‘sonnets’—link to each other in  phrases that look back at the same time as they look onward, like memory and inheritance. The future builds on the past while the past maintains the integrity of its former existence. For Guerrero, concatenation refuses to relinquish her living grandfather even as each poem marks her passage away from his life leading into her journey of puro memory; that’s all that remains of his wisdom and that special relationship of a little girl to her grandfather. Puro memory and these fifteen poems.

If I were a poet, a collection like A Crown for Gumecindo is what I would want to bequeath my granddaughter to have from my time with her. Read this in memory of me.

Reviewing poetry is among the critic’s most difficult assignments when every piece in a collection has greatness. A Crown For Gumecindo, thus, is nearly impossible for a critic’s comprehension. One immediately sees that with the second and first poems, “Where the Dead Come to Speak” and “Love is Our Mother.” Because Guerrero repeats the final phrase of the first in the opening line of the next, no one poem genuinely stands alone as a singular expression. The fifteenth refers to the fourteenth refers to the thirteenth refers to the twelfth refers to the eleventh all the way to the first. And that first begins in ellipsis, an epigram by Valerie Martinez, “in this way / could she”.

A Crown for Gumecindo is a spellbinding collection that rises to moments of such sublimity that certain thoughts free the reader from page-bound thrall. In the second piece, for example, a reader comes to a screeching halt at the past-in-present expression, “he makes me choose / which of us will die by the hand of the other / and which of us will carry the dead home:” The poem is a way of casting off memory while enshrining its ongoing vitality.

In A Crown For Gumecindo are fifteen eulogies, each a reminder of Western traditions of saying good-bye. Saying good-bye is a kind of killing while safeguarding the dead for the living. For the artist, eulogy becomes a method of compartmentalizing, installing memory onto the page, prostheses for ineluctably absent love. There’s Catullus' farewell to his brother, ave atque vale, hail and farewell; Auden’s eulogy to Yeats, “Earth, receive an honoured guest: William Yeats is laid to rest”, Guerrero’s lament, “We can’t / run the numbers, argue, make your mother’s bread / if you are always going to be dead.”

Resignation; you are always going to be dead. But Gumecindo, and Laurie Ann as she was in sorrow, will always be here on these wondrously evocative pages. “I’ve buried everything I’ve ever loved: You are always going to be dead.” These are poems that demand you read them again and again.

But I have at least one complaint. I am old, and my eyes are always going to be less than what they were. Aztlán Libre Press has laid out the text with ample white space, centered on the page. The powerful illustrations, created by Maceo Montoya, inspired by each poem, have their own page, masterfully evoking the accompanying sonnet. It’s a wonderful book. With all that real estate, I wish the design had used a 14- or 18-point type! As this press increases its offerings—A Crown For Gumecindo is Aztlán Libre’s first hard cover volume—I trust the press will have a bit more consideration for its readers.

Make that two. English majors will suspend their aesthetic immersion to count lines and look for rhyme schemes and other prosody. “Sonnet” is the culprit here. Guerrero knows the rules and chooses to break them at will. At times she intersperses lines from her journal and other meditations—per the dust cover; one doesn't know that otherwise. These add dimension and depth to the poetry irrespective of form, and send a reader to Tim Z. Hernández’ “Foreword” where he notes “the sonnet is typically comprised of fourteen lines, lends itself as an ideal medium for the subject at hand. There is something mythical at work here. . . . fourteen has a mythological association with death and reincarnation . . . . a returning, if you will, where fourteen poems gain momentum toward one final, fifteenth poem”. I would have been pleased not to think of that formalism and simply allowed form as it occurs, and divagation from it, to carry me spellbound onto the next and the next and the next and into that cycle.

Something there is that loves a monarchy. That’s a metaphor I find disquieting, being the scion of orange pickers, campesinos, peons and Junipero Serra’s slaves. Yet, there’s a sense about the crowned that fits the motive of this collection: Gumecindo is dead. Long live Gumecindo.

Order copies from the publisher, or via your local independent bookseller.

The Intriguing Life of Ximena Godoy: Interview with Graciela Limón
By Thelma T. Reyna

You have a long, distinguished background in scholarly writing, earning a Ph.D. from UCLA and teaching at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. You’re now focused on creative fiction. What was the major challenge you faced in transitioning from scholarly writing to fiction?

How to handle “freedom.” What I mean is, in writing critically, there are guidelines and rules that must be followed at all times, whereas in creative writing, inspiration is the guiding light. It was this freedom from form that I most felt as a challenge. Strange, isn’t it? In the beginning, I found myself always compelled to make certain that what I wrote was precise, completely researched instead of motivated by feeling or sentiment. In a word, I found that freedom daunting and a little intimidating. Later on, I loved it!

Both your academic and fictional writing spotlight your issues of interest: cultural identity, feminism, and social justice. How is tackling those issues via fiction different from addressing those topics academically?

Now that I write creatively, those issues you cite become humanized; they take on the form of personal stories, and they many times even become human beings. Now my issues leave behind numbers and facts to take on the identity of flawed, weak, but unforgettable people with names and faces.

Do your three dominant issues dovetail in today’s society, and, if so, how so? In your new novel?

I’ve written and published nine novels, and each time I’ve found it difficult not to bring forth the issues that most concern me, whether it be class struggles, women’s issues, cultural and trans-border experiences. And sincerely, I feel comfortable delving into these issues over and over again because I see their relevance to our society today. How do these concerns appear in my new novel, The Intriguing Life of Ximena Godoy? Here again I focus on the issue of the Latina, and how my protagonist breaks with the rules of convention and tradition that govern women in our culture. Oh, it doesn’t come free to her, as she pays a high price for her emancipation. However, Ximena Godoy makes her choices, and she is what she is.

Your new novel is set in the first half of the 1900’s in Mexico and the U.S. and details the traditional gender constraints faced by Ximena; her rebellion against this; and her choices as she navigates life on her own terms. How does she embody feminism in ways that resonate with today’s woman?

I believe that Ximena Godoy reflects many Latinas of our times in that she pursues her goals and ambitions while rejecting the rules set up for her by society. Does she do this to a flaw? Perhaps. The issue, however, is that she lives and loves on her terms, not by those established by a faceless society. It can be said, therefore, that although Ximena Godoy inhabited the first half of the 20th century, her life story resonates with the second part of the century, and indeed reaches powerfully into our current years.

Today’s younger women reportedly balk at calling themselves “feminists.” What’s different from the feminism of the “women’s liberation” pioneers 50+ years ago, and what women advocates value today? What’s the same?

Honestly, I have difficulty differentiating between the two terms: Women’s Lib and Today’s Advocates. However, I can cite one difference: I see today’s young Latinas as mostly well-educated and therefore more articulate, and they have a clearer vision. What I see as similar is that, essentially, we all are united by one force: To achieve what is good and best for women. I firmly believe that if as women we remember that we must respect what other women aspire to, how they express themselves, and how they go about achieving those goals, then this is to be Free. And to be Free is to be fulfilled and complete. Whatever label any woman chooses to adhere to, I’ll support her because I know that at heart, we’re on the same path.

"I find readers aren’t interested for the most part in our issues, unless we as authors concentrate on what I call the folkloric aspect of the Latino experience."

As a highly educated Latina author who has won prestigious literary honors—such as the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award, the Luis Leal Literary Award/UC Santa Barbara, and the Gustavus Myers Book Award—how do you perceive the publishing landscape today for American Latino/a authors?

Thank you for your wonderful words. You honor me. Then to your question: In many ways, I see the
Graciela Limón
publishing landscape as much improved from, say, 20 years ago when few Latina/o authors were even published. That has changed somewhat in that now there is a distinct interest on the part of publishers to publish our work. On the other hand, I find – or think I find – a very thin interest in our writings on the part of the readership. I find readers aren’t interested for the most part in our (Latino) issues, unless we as authors concentrate on what I call the “folkloric” aspect of the Latino experience. Even worse, there seems to me to be a negative curiosity regarding the underbelly of our culture. What I mean by this is, that unless a book deals with stereotypes (gangsters, convicts, drug addicts, prostitutes, and other dark figures), the reader turns away from the page. Yes, the landscape has improved, but we have a long way yet to go.

Since your first book publications in 1993—In Search of Bernabé (1993) and The Memories of Ana Calderón (1994)—has the world of book publication changed in any way for Latino/a authors in the U.S.?

As I suggest above, the main difference in publication is the expanded number of titles by Latina/o authors now available by publishers. The improvement has thus been one of exposure and a widened landscape.

How has your writing evolved since 1994? Have your dominant themes or literary interests and goals changed, and, if so, how?

I see my writing as evolved (and evolving) in many aspects, mostly in character development. I’ve always been fearful of falling into the trap of perpetuating stereotypes because it’s so easy to do just that. I’ve tried very hard all along to smash the expected molds, both female and males. Naturally, being a woman, my focus has always been on my female characters, hoping not to “neglect” the males. It’s difficult not to fall into the stereotype trap here because our culture almost encourages it. It’s undeniable that among us live the Dominant Machos and the Submissive Females. However, I’ve tried to conquer that reality by working with it, yet not dehumanizing those characters, thus keeping them from being stereotypes. Oh, it’s a tightrope! It’s very difficult! However, this is where I believe my writing has evolved, and continues to evolve, hopefully for the better.

You studied, taught, and wrote about Latin American and Chicano literature throughout your academic career. What are the most prominent bonds among all these Hispanic literary traditions?

What a wonderful question! Latin American and Chicana/o literature are bonded one to the other by several unbreakable ties. Those literatures have in common, first of all language that acts as a nexus. Although that language (Spanish/Portuguese/African tongues) is modified and colored by different accents and expressions in Latin America, as well as enriched by an added layer of English for us authors on this side of the border – we have retained that linguistic tone and rhythm that sets our literature apart and binds us to one other. A second connection, just as important as language – in my opinion – is our mysticism, which is a hybrid of Catholicism and Pre-Columbian beliefs. What a rich spiritual mix underpins all that literature that has come about on both sides of the border! And yet another tie, probably the most important, and connected to that hybrid mysticism, is our mestizo background. The stupendous mix of races that defines our literatures cements both expressions.

"I really think that we, on this side of the border, tend to be more direct and frank; perhaps some of us might be considered more audacious and blunt."

Where do these literatures diverge in their focus and method?

I believe that our focus changes with respect to social issues. We Chicana/o authors are naturally drawn to concentrate on the challenges and issues that confront our society, which in turn are different from those that our Latin American colleagues face. I really think that we, on this side of the border, tend to be more direct and frank; perhaps some of us might be considered more audacious and blunt. And I believe this comes to us as a result of being brought up in the U.S., where we’re taught to be outspoken. Where a Latin American author circumvents or evades, a Chicana/o aims straight at the heart of the issue without mincing words.

What are some of the main challenges facing Latina/o authors going forward? Latinos are projected to become the largest “ethnic group” in the U.S. within a few decades. How might this affect the American literary landscape?

I believe that the main challenge facing U.S. Latina/o authors is to always keep in mind that our mission is to be the voice of our particular society. Where there’s injustice, privation, or any other roadblock, it’s up to us the authors to shine a light on those issues, with the intention of being part of the solution. We must remember that we are, and will always be, a part of that “ethnic group,” not mere bystanders, and that because we have been given the power of the word, it’s our responsibility to use it wisely and always for the advance of our group. It’s a tough calling, but it is what it is! Thank you, Thelma, for giving me the opportunity of responding to your insightful and stimulating questions.

Graciela Limón. The Intriguing Life of Ximena Godoy. Virginia Beach VA: Café Con Leche (Koehler), 2015.  ISBN:  978-1-63393-000-1  Ebook  978-1-63393-001-8

Thelma T. Reyna, Ph.D., is the national award-winning author of four books: a short story collection, two poetry chapbooks, and a full-length collection of poetry. A Poet Laureate, she is the also editor of the newly-released Altadena Poetry Review: Anthology 2015.

Hot Town, Summer In The City

Book Club News
Stanford Latina Latino Alumns Select A Pair of Véa's Novels For September Junta

Héctor Tobar and members of Southern California Stanford Latina Latino Alumni Book Club
The Southern California Stanford Latina Latino Alumni Book Club met in Monrovia recently, discussing Héctor Tobar's Deep Down Dark. The menu of cosimiento, known also as casuela and cocido de res, originated in the text, augmented with empanadas (pollo and res), and dulces Chilenas.

Often joined by the author, Tobar did not attend this spirited discussion. The Club hosted him for its discussion of The Barbarian Nurseries. A visitor from Antofagasta, a northern Chile mining town, added insight as well as the pastries and empanadas. The club welcomes visitors and Stanford alumni.

Next session is scheduled for Sunday, September 20. Two novels by Alfredo Véa are on the agenda: La Maravilla and  Gods Go Begging.

Click here for details.


juan tejeda said...

gracias, for the great review, carnal sedano. just wanted to mention that laurie ann guerrero is currently the san antonio poet laureate, and recently she was named the texas poet laureate for 2016. southside san anto homegirl makes us proud. juan

Mayra Calvani said...

Wonderful interview, Thelma! Keep up the great work!

Mayra Calvani

Unknown said...

My compliments to you Thelma. Thank you for being such a tireless promoter and advocate of literary works penned by the Latino authors.

Warm Regards,
Leticia Gomez/Publisher
Cafe con Leche Books