Monday, May 01, 2017

Interview of Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez

Interview of Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez by Xánath Caraza

Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez
Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez is an unrepentant border crosser, ex-dj, writer, painter, and academic. An Associate Professor of Creative Writing and Hispanic Southwest Literatures and Cultures in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of New Mexico, he is currently a Fulbright Senior Lecturer in the Department of American Cultures and Literatures at Hacettepe University in Ankara, Turkey. He has also taught and lectured at universities across the United States and in Spain. A member of the research group UC-Mexicanistas. Author of four collections of short stories, Algún día te cuento las cosas que he visto (2012), Luego el silencio (2014), One Day I’ll Tell You the Things I’ve Seen (2015), and En el Lost y Found (2016). His literary work has been published in anthologies in Spain, Italy, Latin America and the United States, including Malos elementos. Relatos sobre la corrupción social (2012); En la frontera: i migliori raconti della letteratura chicana (2008); Pequeñas resistencias 4 (2005); Se habla español (2000); and Líneas aéreas (1998).  His stories have also appeared in literary journals including Make Literary Magazine, Etiqueta Negra, Los noveles, Paralelo Sur, Revista 0, Camino Real, and Ventana abierta. His academic work focuses on US Latino cultural expression, and US/Mexico border cultures. He has presented at international conferences in Turkey, Spain, Colombia, Peru, the United States, Mexico, the Netherlands and Norway. He is currently working on a collection of short stories set in Turkey, Mexico, Spain, and the United States.

Who is Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez? 

I often say that I am an Unrepentant Border Crosser, or a Peripatetic Pocho, a Transterritorialized Travieso, or Mr Lost in Lengua. As a writer, I define myself through the language in which I choose to express myself, usually Spanglish. My parents crossed la frontera a few months before I was born, and we ended up in small, rural, town in northern California. It was a town of about 5,000 people, in the central valley north of Sacramento. There was a large Mexicano population that worked in agriculture —primarily olives, oranges, and peaches— and so I spent my first years living in Spanish. I often say that those were the years when I was growing up a Mexican in northern California. When I started school, I learned English and became a Mexican-American, speaking English at school and Español at home. I also started mixing the two, but that was another reality of being a part of the mexicano community in Califas. Mezclábamos las lenguas because our vidas were mezcladas.

As a child, who guided you through your first readings? 

I learned to read when I was in first grade. Up until then, I was pretty much a travieso, but as soon as written language was unlocked for me, I took to it quickly and began to spend a lot of time in my school library. The school librarian was very supportive, and she began to give me books that the library was going to throw out. At home, my interests were comic books, and at school I read everything I could about dinosaurs. I would read to my mother at night, she was also super supportive of my reading habits. I had this dream of being an archaeologist, before that I wanted to be an astronaut, and before that, a fireman. But those were my sueños, my chamaco reality was a bit distinto: there were times when we would go out to pick olives in the orchards, or work in the orange groves. Also, my home life wasn’t always that pleasant as there was a lot of violence in my home. Then, when I was thirteen, my parents got divorced and soon after that, my sister, two years younger than me, and the sibling I was closest to, got cancer. If we had a precarious economic situation then, it went over a cliff following the divorce and the cancer. As my mother couldn’t keep us all together —she had five children ranging in age from 13 to 1— she had to divide us amongst the family. Being the oldest, I was the last to find a place to land. So while my mother worked in Silicon Valley and cared for my sister undergoing cancer treatments at Stanford Children’s Hospital, I was often locked away in the only apartment she could find, a building that didn’t allow children. On the weekends, I would sleep in a cot in the hospital by my sister in the cancer ward. It was bien trágico. That was why reading was so important to me, I could live another life in books, I could travel, I could escape, I could go on aventuras and I could even leave la tierra and visit other planetas. The stuff I was reading, mainly science fiction and fantasy —Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy blew my mind— but I was also reading horror, primarily Stephen King. After our return from Cancer Planet, when my mom was able to bring most of her kids back together under one roof, I fell for John Irving —his books of life in New England seemed to me like magical realism, no one lived like that, I believed— and then Kurt Vonnegut. In my first year of college I discovered Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.

How did you first become a writer? 

I think that I’ve always been a writer of sorts, though I came about it in a roundabout way —tal vez more than Unrepentant Border Crosser, soy un Bato Tergiversado, but then again, that’s the best way to cross a border, right? Por la tangente? Before I learned to read, I used to look at comic books, Spider Man, Kalimán, the Fantastic Four. Though I couldn’t read them, I invented the stories as I saw them on the page. Here’s a confession I’ve never told anyone: earlier I said that I wanted to be a fireman, and that’s sort of true. What I wanted was to be somebody like the Human Torch, who I called the “Fire Man”.  Of course, when I was a chavalito, I couldn’t go around telling mi familia that I wanted to fly around covered in flames and saving gente. They were already convinced that I was a weird kid who would never amount to much. It was easier to say that I wanted to be a fireman.

En fin, I first started inventing stories through comic books and the Sunday comics in the newspaper. But I didn’t realize that I was on my way to becoming a writer. Rather, as my interest in comic books grew, I wanted to be a comic book artist. As a kid, I drew a lot, and fortunately I had a mother who supported this artistic streak in me. When I went from comic books to science fiction and fantasy, I expressed myself through art, drawing lots and lots of pictures. In college, I went into Fine Arts. Painting was my medium. The other constant in my life, aside from drawing and painting, was music. I cannot play a musical instrument, nor can I hold a tune. However, I love listening to music. I became a dj at my campus punk rock radio station. If I wasn’t in the painting studio, I was at the radio station. It was in my sophomore year of college that I took a creative writing class and began to write stories. My stories were about young punk rockers who watched too much TV, read too many comic books, and went to concerts. People like me.

When I was 21, I lived in Mexico City for a year and I began to read a lot more in Spanish, especially the work of Juan Rulfo and Juan José Arreola. From Rulfo, I got a love for sparse narration with an air of mystery, of potential tragedy, and sadness. From Arreola, I got a love for compact stories. For me, writing is all about editing, reducing, constantly reducing a story as much as possible. My first story written in Spanish, I wrote for a class at the university where I was studying. I remember the professor liking it a lot, but as I wrote it long hand, I lost the story a long time ago. However, that story was reconstructed in my cuento, “Algún día te cuento las cosas que he visto” that I later self-translated and included in my first story collection in English, One Day I’ll Tell You the Things I’ve Seen (UNM Press, 2015).

When I returned from México in late 1988, I discovered that the types of stories I was interested in were not considered “Chicano” at the time. I remember going to the library and to the bookstore to see what Chicanas and Chicanos were writing at the time, and I realized that my cuentos did not follow in the two primary temas at that time: I didn’t write about working en los files, nor did I write about barrio life. I admire both types of stories, but they couldn’t be mine because they were not my experiences. And after being told a number of times that my stories were good, but not “Chicano,” I stopped writing. Only later did I discover writers and artists who had similar interests to mine, I’m thinking of gente like los bros Hernández and their Love and Rockets series, of punk bands like the Bags and the Zeros, of the work of Lalo Alcaraz and Pocho Magazine, and the films and videos of Jim Mendiola. But at the time, in the late 80’s, growing up in el norte de Califas, I had no other contemporary role models to turn to. I had Latin American writers, like Rulfo, Arreola, Gustavo Saínz, Manuel Puig, José Agustín, and Elena Garro, and what they were doing was important for my formation as a writer.

All of that to say, though I was a writer from way back, I stopped while I was in graduate school because I told myself that I was going to be un académico. I decided to deny being un escritor. But this too was silly, because once a writer, always one, no? When I began to write again, I did it in Spanish.

Escribir en Español desde los Estados Unidos me parece una tarea importantísima because we need to recognize que el Español de los USA is a valid one. It is necessary, and it is urgent, to demonstrate que los idiomas que llevamos forman parte integra de nuestra identidad. My first internationally published story, I owe to Rolando Hinojosa-Smith who recommended me to an editor in Spain, Eduardo Becerra, who was putting together an anthology of stories from the Spanish speaking Americas. He also wanted to include the United States. After working with Rolando on the story, “Ella está allí,” I sent it out for consideration. A few months later, I was told that it was going to be included. At first, I didn’t think much about it, I was still in “I’m an académico not an escritor” phase, but after I got invited for the book presentation in Madrid, and I received a copy of who was included in the anthology, I got very, very nervous. The writers, all from my generation, born after 1960, were all rising stars in their respective countries. I was also currently studying many of them; in particular, Edmundo Paz Soldán and Alberto Fuguet. Fuguet was one of the first writers I met when I got to Madrid, and he sought me out because he had read my story and loved it. He wanted to read more. Both he and Paz Soldán pushed me towards continuing to write about Chicano life in Spanish, because they felt it was also important to the Latin American experience. A year later, they invited me to participate in an anthology that they edited, Se habla español: vida Latina in USA. My story, “Esperando en el Lost and Found,” I later reedited for my most recent collection of cuentos, En el Lost N Found (Suburbano ediciones, 2016). Those first stories started my second life as a writer, and moved me from being a scholar who secretly writes creatively to a creative writer who also does scholarly work.

Do you have any favorite short story by other authors? 

Uy, so many. I can think of stories by Rulfo (“Luvina”), Amparo Dávila (“El huésped”), Donald Barthelme (“Chablis”), Helena María Viramontes (“The Cariboo Café”), Alberto Fuguet (“Road Story”), Alice Munro (“The Bear Came Over the Mountain”), and Junot Díaz (“The Sun, The Moon, The Stars”), but I’ll just respond with “Bien Pretty” by Sandra Cisneros.

“Bien Pretty” is probably my favorite short story of hers. I love the way she writes sentences, their rhythm, their longing. “¡Ay! To make love in Spanish, in a manner as intricate and devout as la Alhambra. To have a lover sing mi vida, mi preciosa, mi chiquitita, and whisper things in that language crooned to babies, that language murmured by grandmothers, those words that smelled like your house, like flour tortillas, and the inside of your daddy’s hat, like everyone talking in the kitchen at the same time, or sleeping with the windows open, like sneaking cashews from the crumpled quarter-pound bag Mama always hid in her lingerie drawer after she went shopping with Daddy at the Sears.” I love the way she personalizes Spanish, the way the language is not simply something spoken, but something also sensed, felt, experienced: language is an affective object. The other aspects of the story that I always highlight in my classes are the differences between the Chicano/a communities across the southwest. Her narrator, Lupe, is a California Chicana from San Francisco, who moves to San Antonio, Texas. And that is a huge move. For me, it hits home when she writes about Lupe’s sense of displacement when she first arrives to Texas, much like my own sense of feeling lost in place when I moved from California to Texas after finishing grad school.

What is a day of creative writing like for you? 

I’m currently living in Turkey on a Fulbright, and I’m teaching in the Department of American Cultures and Literatures at Hacettepe University in Ankara. From Monday through Wednesday, I’m on campus all day, teaching and meeting with students. During the semester, my writing time is cut down dramatically due to teaching and grading. However, I’ve always been a writer who writes in short bursts. I often carry a notebook where I’m jotting down ideas or fragments of stories. When I have time, I start to collect the fragments and put them together like a rompecabezas that I also start to stitch together. Once I have the story shaped, I often walk around with it in my head, going over the rhythm and the flow. My aim is to write as if the reader was listening to a story. I want the language to flow, to capture an oral story as much as possible. A couple of my favorite writers who capture this feeling of orality are Rolando Hinojosa-Smith —especially in Estampas del valle— Norma E. Cantú —Canícula is marvelous in this regard, and Junot Díaz.

After I’ve talked through the story, and written it down to how I think I want it to go, I then start rewriting it. I edit and edit until I can get a story as compact as I need it for it to still work. Even after publication, I still tinker with my cuentos. And, if I’m doing a self-translation, I find myself changing the original in many ways to the point where I have to go back to make those changes in the other version. My story, “Algún día te cuento las cosas que he visto” has undergone a number of changes, and that’s probably the story that has been most edited as it moved from Spanish to English to Spanglish.

I wish I could say that I was a writer with a strict work ethic, that I write from 6-10 am, or from 10 pm to 2 am. But I’ve never been that way, rather, as a story is forming, I write in fragments. When I feel I have enough fragmentos, I block off half a day to write the first version. Then I go for walks and return to the computer every so often to continue working. It’s a strange process, and I don’t really recommend it.

That said, when I do have the time to devote myself to writing, usually in the summers or over holidays, I still write in fragments as I spend most of my time reading.

I’ve been asked how do I choose to write either in Spanish or in English, and for me, I don’t view it as a choice. El cuento me sale como me sale, si me sale in English, I start there, if it comes out en Español, lo comienzo así. Now, there have been times cuando I’ve hit a wall writing en un idioma, then I try to tackle el problema by going at it through my other tongue. One of the beauties of writing both in Spanish and in English is that I feel that I have two —possible three, with Spanglish— toolboxes at my disposal for crafting stories.

When do you know when a text is ready to be read?  

Once I can read it without stumbling. My ideal would be to do what Luis Alberto Urrea does when he reads live; he reads from memory. It is amazing to see him do that. I hope to get there some time.

Could you describe your activities as writer and professor?

As a professor, for me it’s important for the students to understand why they read what they read, how a particular work affects them. I want them to reflect upon a work, and in the process, have them reflect upon their own lives. As a writer, I want to create a bond with a reader, start a dialog that will, hopefully, lead into a greater understanding of each other.
Could you comment on your life as a cultural activist? 

My work, in general, is all about border crossing. My stories are often, at their base, about that. What is the ultimate border? The border between you and me. To see another without judgements, to face another honestly, is difficult. We erect borders in our minds, we are colonized by narratives. What does it mean to be completely honest with a partner? How do we decolonize love?  What I hope to do is to break down those barriers, cross those borders.

As communities of color, we are often judged by negative narrations, we are considered criminals, rapists, we are told that we don’t belong, that we don’t have a history, that we are unwelcome. Žižek has a quote that I often use, “the enemy is the one whose story we don’t know.” When we allow a story to be placed upon us, when we are Othered by a system of power, we can then be viewed as an enemy, as unwanted, as a force that must be eliminated. What I try to do, in telling stories, in teaching the works that I do, in giving talks and readings, is to counter those stories said about our community. And I try to counter with our own stories. Mine es una comunidad unida por relatos, enhebrada a través de la distancia y bordada por la historia, we should remember this. I believe this is what we should all be doing, we should all be resisting a power that would try to make us unwelcome. We are here, and we belong.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

Currently I’m working on a new collection of stories about family, relationships, and travel. All the stories revolve around a brother dealing with death of his younger sister, raising her son, and trying to make sense of his history of failed relationships. Some of the stories are set in Turkey, a country that I’ve been visiting for more than a decade, and a country for which I feel a close tie. Living here since August, 2016, has helped me understand issues of language and feelings of displacement.

What advice do you have for other writers?

Read. Read as much as you can. Then read some more. Read. Read todo lo que puedan. Repeat.

Also, if you have another language at your disposal, don’t be afraid to use it. I often ask my classes why they are taking Spanish.  The responses I get are always along the lines of “it’s useful for my career,” “I want to be a bilingual teacher,” I’m going to need it to work with the community I’m helping.” And these are all razones válidas. Pero, I always tell them, ¿why not think of el español as una lengua para crear arte? We have una tradición literaria riquísima, let’s add the Spanish of the US to it. Es necesario demostrar que nuestro español es también válido y que aunque a veces we may say strange things because of our influencia del inglés, we are demonstrating la realidad of las lenguas en contacto. We are crossing border linguistically, and we need to support that. To briefly cite a wonderful poem by Tino Villanueva, “speak, Chicano, speak!” That is what we have to do as writers, speak. And read. Read todo.

What else would you like to share?

There is so much to share, but I think que ya me he pasado demasiado. Thank you for these questions.

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