Friday, November 13, 2015

La Bloga Interview: Carlos Nicolás Flores

Sex As A Political Condition

Oil Painting of Carlos Nicolás Flores by Mauro C. Martínez

A native of El Paso, Carlos Nicolás Flores is a winner of the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize and author of a young adult novel, Our House on Hueco (Texas Tech University Press, 2006). As director of the Teatro Chicano de Laredo and a former director of the South Texas Writing Project, he has long been engaged in the promotion of new writers and writing about the Mexican-American experience. He teaches English at Laredo Community College in Laredo, Texas.

Flores published his novel, Sex As A Political Condition, earlier this year.  I met him at the Texas Book Festival where his ambitious and even outrageous work first caught my attention. The Texas Observer called the book, "a hokey, jokey, postmodern romp that combines all the conventions of action-adventure movies with a kitschy take on Latin American politics."  Carlos kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the book and his writing.

Ramos: For La Bloga's readers who may not be familiar with your book: In a hundred words or less, how would you describe your novel, Sex as a Political Condition?

Sex as a Political Condition is a Chicano satire of the 1980’s cultural wars, set in a fictitious Texas-Mexico border town named Escandon, Texas, near the end of the Cold War. Its protagonist, Honoré del Castillo, an ex-narcotraficante, finds himself indebted to a Vietnam veteran-turned-revolutionary, Trotsky, who has saved him from certain death at the hands of a rival gang member. As a result, Honoré gets involved with a convoy of trucks and buses carrying humanitarian aid to the beleaguered Sandinistas in Nicaragua and is soon caught between the demands of his world view and Trotsky’s idealism.

Ramos: Your hero, or antihero maybe(?), del Castillo, wants to do the right thing but he's prone to diversions and distractions. Some would say he succumbs to the least common denominator, others might think of him as a latter-day Don Quixote. How much of your character reflects on you, the author -- or should the art be separated from the artist?

Flores: It’s impossible to separate art from the artist, but the greater the distance between the artist and a fully realized work of art the better for the artistic integrity of both. Inversely, the greater the distance between the artist and his art, the greater is his disclosure behind the mask of fiction. In fiction, the best writers lie in order to tell the truth. As Ken Kesey said of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, my novel is fiction, but it is all true.

Let me attempt to distinguish. My young adult novel Our House on Hueco is autobiographical; Sex as a Political Condition is not. Yet both are informed by my life on the Mexican-American border. For example, I am not nor ever have been a narcotraficante, but I have known and read about narcotraficantes.

Hero or anti-hero? Because Honoré almost—I might add—succumbs to “the least common denominator”—specifically, sex—he is a latter-day Quixote, who, by the way, when compared to such epic heroes as Achilles, Odysseus, or Aeneas is the anti-hero par excellence. But the sex isn’t the only distraction. As long as Honoré minds his own business and keeps his mouth shut and his mind closed, he, like most men, is a good guy. But the minute he joins Trotsky’s crusade for peace and justice in Latin America, he finds himself confronting a million windmills, beginning with his dear wife, Maruca.

Hence, “heroism” itself is a target of the satire. Is heroism, it asks, even possible today? According to whose agenda in a time of shifting paradigms? Sex as a Political Condition is a story about some highly flawed men taking up “arms against a sea of woes and by opposing end them” but failing. Some would argue that’s the only heroism possible today. The vast majority of men and women do not embark on such a journey. The few that do pay a heavy price. Just visit the graveyards left by the failed revolutions in Latin America.

The topic is developed at length in the chapters entitled “The Tin Men” and “Death of the Tin Men,” written in the shadow cast by T.S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfredo Prufrock” and “The Hollow Men.”

Another Chicano I must not forget to mention is Ron Arias. His magnificent novel, The Road to Tamazunchale, inspired my characters’ heroic journey throughout Mexico and Guatemala.

Ramos: Esteemed writer and critic Ilan Stavans provided a blurb for your book's cover. Among other things he said, "this is a riotous narrative, one in which we are all turned into stereotypes and reality is a store of tourist souvenirs." That's a great statement -- or is it? What do you think his remark about stereotypes means?

Flores: Stavans and I have not discussed this matter, so I don’t know how much he understands that his collection of essays, The Riddle of Cantinflas, provided the theoretical framework for my use of stereotypes. In that collection he introduces the idea that Latin-American culture—and I paraphrase loosely—is kitsch. As a result, it’s impossible to be original, asserts Trotsky in the novel, while reminding us that we must not be Manichean in our perception of reality, another idea whose roots are to be found in Stavans’s essays.

Luis Valdez’s Los Vendidos was another model. Set in Honest Sancho's Used Mexican Lot and Mexican Curio Shop, the play lampoons the stereotyping of Latinos in Southern California. In my novel Honoré del Castillo works at a Mexican curio shop owned by his mother, where he sells relics of Mexico’s past.

The decision to exploit stereotypes to the max comes from one of my former students—a middle-aged gay Mexican immigrant from Mexico City—who, in explaining himself one day after class, quipped, “I’m nothing. I’m just Mexican curios.”

Equally pertinent is that stereotyping—of Chicanos, Latinos, Anglos, blacks, women, and men—is not going away any time soon. Hollywood is rife with it. So is the mainstream media.Why? Because genuine open discourse seems to be impossible. Limited, fixed concepts of people and things abound. McWorld has reduced us to stereotypes, not I.

Ramos: Humor is difficult to write, in my opinion. Do you agree? How much of the humor in the book was planned by you, and how much came about organically, appearing "after the fact," so to speak.

Flores: An interesting question. The short answer is “both.” Upon reflection, however, I see that the roots of the “humor” date back to my reading of Oscar Zeta Acosta and later Charles Bukowski. Both Stavans and Tim Z. Hernandez have pointed out the inter-textuality between Sex as a Political Condition and The Revolt of the Cockroach People.

While both Acosta and Bukowski are wildly irreverent, Bukowski’s novels exerted the most influence. From the outset, I asked myself, “In an era of dramatically declining readership and widespread apathy, how do you write a book that demands attention? How you get the average person, not just the literati or academicians, to read about issues pertinent to the Mexican-American border or the struggle for peace and justice in Latin America? How does Hollywood do it?” The answers were to be found on the billboards of our post-modern reality.

A literary novel disguised as pulp fiction demanded sex and rock’n’ roll, bullshit, bathroom humor, more sex, a fuck-you attitude, political incorrectness, mayhem galore, outrage, etc. Maybe a whole generation of readers and non-readers needed a beating before they would pay attention. Didn’t, for instance, Flannery O’Connor say that one must shout at the hard-of-hearing? Hence, the rhetorical antinomy was in the planning from the beginning: serious issues packaged in black humor. Some reviewers—all female—have gotten hung up on the bathroom humor—which, I admit, necessitates an “acquired taste” to appreciate—but ultimately it is the expression, however distasteful and outrageous, of a greater outrage.

Then there is Mexican humor. Whether in the form of slang or sexist jokes, it provided the soil for its cultivation. The characters themselves and the situations in which they find themselves were another important factor.

A word of caution to the squeamish. An Amazon reviewer calls the novel “outlandish, outrageous, and on-target.” Then he advises that it will be a “terrific read” if you “check in your outrage at the door.”

Ramos: Sex as a Political Condition obviously is a political novel. It also is satirical and has its fair share of action, violence even. In addition, the story is epic, a broad and sweeping view of a particular time and place. Is that what you intended when you began writing the book? How long did it take to write?

Flores: In 1995, my wife, a colleague, and I participated in the West Texas Writing Project’s Summer Institute at the University of Texas in El Paso, where we were training to be directors of a similar project in Laredo. Since I had already been working on Friend of a Minor Poet, I had no intention of writing a new piece until Dr. Evelyn Posey, the Director, insisted.

In the meantime, my wife, my colleague Lucinda, and I got into a squabble about some feminist issues. Since I had just returned from a trip earlier in the year to El Salvador, I was reading Roque Dalton. One evening his poem “Toward a Greater Love” provided me with a vision of a new story that would serve as a rejoinder to my wife and Lucinda’s arguments, and so I began writing what turned out to be the book’s first chapter by the same title, “Sex as a Political Condition.”

The story was a hit at the Institute. Then I shelved it and returned to Friend of a Minor Poet. In 2000, I presented the story again at a workshop led by Cristina García of Dreaming in Cuban in Havana, Cuba. Again, it was a hit. At the hotel one day, I began working on the second chapter, “The Tin Men.” Upon returning to Laredo with a vision for the entire manuscript, I began writing the novel in earnest. In 2002, I submitted the manuscript to the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize contest and placed third.

After assessing the manuscript, I determined that it was far from finished. Instead I set out to write a less ambitious book, Our House on Hueco, published in 2006. After recovering from the year-long daze of having published a book, I returned to Sex as a Political Condition. Huge gaps in the narrative required trips throughout Mexico and Guatemala. I did not need to visit Nicaragua since I had already been there. I estimate that writing of the final draft required about five years of intensive work.

Did I plan its epic scope? No.

Ramos: You're a first-time novelist (excluding your young adult novel), and you have been promoting your book with speaking and signing events such as the Texas Book Festival, as well as a blog tour. Overall, how would you describe the experience? Surprising, as expected, disappointed?

Flores: It’s interesting that you and some reviewers see me as “a first-time novelist,” because I don’t. Our House on Hueco was my real debut as novelist, and before that I spent some ten years writing Friend of a Minor Poet, a failure because it was neither a novel nor a collection of short stories nor a memoir or autobiography. You could say it was my “MFA dissertation,” even though I never participated in an MFA program. Some stories such as “Smeltertown” and “Cantina del Gusanito” have been published and won awards. And before that was my master’s thesis, A Ganglion of Seeds and Other Stories.

Meanwhile, the promotion of my new book has been “surprising, expected, and disappointing” in equal parts. For instance, this is the second time I participate in the Texas Book Festival, and I did a book tour when Our House on Hueco came out. But—quite frankly—anything that takes time away from my morning writing sessions or weekend research jaunts is worrisome. The demand to promote one’s work via social media has been daunting, but I am doing the best I can.

Do you intend to write another novel? What are your current writing projects?

Flores: My mind is full of material that needs to be written, but I doubt if I’ll get around to doing so because of time constraints. But I am going to try. As a result, I have undertaken a new project— mastering the novella—with hope of developing greater fluency in plotting and speed in drafting.
The short story is simply too limited a canvas for some of these projects. On the other hand, a full-length novel requires extensive planning, great reserves of energy, and a considerable investment of time. Roberto Bolaño, whose two novellas Distant Star and By Night in Chile are among his best works, has provided excellent models to follow. Already I am beginning to see that much can be accomplished in the shorter form.

By the end of December, I expect to have finished drafting a novella of 100 pages or more, which I began in August. Tentatively entitled Two Characters in Search of El Wannabe, its central theme is the challenge of “evil” posed by the cartel wars in Mexico to an aspiring young Chicano writer. Two others are in the works. Hopefully, when and if I retire from teaching, I’ll be able to return to the full-length novel.

Finally, thank you for your interest and support of my work. Meeting you and your wife was a special highlight of the Texas Book Festival. And good luck with your own work.

Ramos: Thank you, Carlos. Very interesting and provocative answers -- much food for thought. I think many writers can relate to your observations about being a Chicano writer in today's millennial world.

We -- myself and La Bloga's readers -- appreciate your time and thoughtfulness. Best of luck with the book and all your future projects. And, yes, the Texas Book Festival was a great time -- good thing neither of us fell in the pool or off the roof.