Saturday, July 29, 2017

Jon Marcantoni - On Point and On Target

Jonathan Marcantoni is committed to Latinx literature, showcasing writers and has a lot of strong, and some would say, controversial opinions. (Perfect for La Bloga, right?) He's a Puerto Rican transplant to the West - living in Colorado. He definitely is all about pushing the envelope on what's considered Latinx literature, and has a critique of Latinx writers and the marketplace. Take a closer look at what he thinks and why. 

Jonathan Marcantoni is a Puerto Rican novelist and publisher of the recently created La Casita Grande Editores, an imprint of Black Rose Writing, which specializes in Latino and Caribbean literature. His books “Traveler’s Rest,” “The Feast of San Sebastian,” and “Kings of 7th Avenue” deal with issues of racial politics and corruption in both the Puerto Rican diaspora and on the island. “Tristiana,” due out in 2017, will be his first Spanish-language novel. Marcantoni’s work has been featured in the magazines Warscapes, Across the Margin, Minor Literatures, PANK, The New Engagement, and the news outlet Latino Rebels. 

Talk about your journey as writer, and then as editor. Describe the joys and challenges of both.

Man, well, that's a long story that starts with being a little kid of about six years old, and taking my first acting classes, and around that time, my dad was getting me into books. He as a big sci fi and horror fan, especially Stephen King. And he saw I was really into making up stories and creating characters, so when I was eight, he got me a computer program for young writers, and this was the early 90s, so it was a very rudimentary program, like a picture book, almost, and I would write vampire stories and stories about gypsies and things like that. 

But the first real thing I wrote was a theatrical adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which my drama teacher let me put on with the class. I was eight, maybe nine. Which is to say, writing was always tied to the theatre, or at the very least, performance, and that had the biggest impact on me up to today. I found at an early age I could write skits and monologues very quickly. I never had the anxiety about producing things, it just flowed from me. 

And as a teenager, my friends and I started our own theatre group, called Orwell's (after a multi-purpose café in downtown Augusta, GA, where I spent much of my teenage years), and I wrote my first two full length plays with them. We also did crazy things like doing car chases in residential areas and fight scenes in abandoned buildings. Jesus, it's amazing we weren't arrested. 

Even though I had written short stories as well, and poetry--reading Langston Hughes made me want to be writer. Him and Toni Morrison, more than anyone else, the music of their language inspired me like few other things did. And then I discovered Hubert Selby Jr. and stream of consciousness and other types of avant garde literature, but I didn't see those influences until much later, around the time I read Marquez's Autumn of the Patriarch, which also employs stream of consciousness, that I saw that was the way I wanted to write, and that it could be accessible. 

I wanted to be an actor, then a film director, spending time at a film school in Atlanta for a brief period. I was kicked out, to be honest, and then I found myself working three jobs and barely keeping a roof over my head, and so I didn't have the time or ability to dedicate myself to theatre and film, which both required me to have financial support. My home life wasn't good, I was already living away from that mess, and did not want to return. But then I ended up selling three short scripts to an independent studio in Atlanta and since I could write at any time and it would not interfere with supporting myself financially, and I was actually getting paid, so I dedicated myself to writing.

I still want to return to the stage, and my next full length work will be a play. I'm also trying to get film projects off the ground. In a sense I feel like an outsider in the writing world. I see myself as a performer first and foremost, and most writers are these introverted types or socially awkward types that I have never had much in common with. The writing world bothers me. I feel academia has too much of an influence. Most young writers have been taught horrible things about storytelling, and so much of my work involves re-teaching them about how to tell stories. The adventurous, vagabond history of writers has been lost to a stuffy, pretentious, upper class egotist version of "the writer" that is reprehensible to me. 

No wonder reading books isn't as popular as it used to be. Most books would benefit the world more if they were wallpaper. The fact that I navigate through a world where I don't fit in outside of the most anarchist elements of it, is probably my biggest struggle. I wish I could say that getting published was the hardest thing for me, but it wasn't. I first was published when I was 22. I wrote my first book at 21. Even though it took six years for that book to be released, by the time I turned 30 I had three books out and had edited an international essay anthology and was Editor in Chief of a publishing house (Aignos). 

I have been extremely fortunate, and it came down to people skills. I entered the publishing world by being an editor, which was another thing I fell into because i could make money at it, and being an editor has opened more doors for me than being a writer ever has. And the honest truth as to why that is, is that to editors, writers are suspect as people. A lot of editors look at writers as unruly children, while the editors are adults. And sadly, a lot of writers go out of their way to prove what unstable, mean, egotistical people they can be.They aren't the majority, I'd say its maybe 15%, but that 15% ruins it for everyone else. So the editor is the adult. I got my agent by being an editor. I got my first three book deals by being an editor. I got LCG because of my work as an editor. Editors have more clout, plain and simple.

But there is a sort of isolation, the writing world is full of people who really just talk to you if they think they can get some sort of professional advantage. Deep friendships that go beyond the professional, are pretty rare. You discover, especially as a gate keeper (editor), that a lot of writers are really just looking out for themselves. It is an industry that breeds desperation and competition above all else. For that reason, I count more actors, comedians, and chefs as my friends than I do writers.   

LCGE has a sharp analysis of the Latinx, the publishing industry and the stereotypes encountered by Latinx writer. Expound on that and discuss how that influences what you write personally, what you look for in submissions.

What I look for in my own work and I look for in submissions are two different things. What I write about it is very personal, coming from my own journeys in mind and in life. I have a great interest in power dynamics, social issues, and metaphysical questions of reality and meaning. But more than that, its my kind of storytelling, and when I review the work of others, I want to get a sense of their influences and their personality. I don't want to represent writers who are like me, what is the fun in that? 

I resent the terms Latino and Latinx, to me they are just left wing fascism. A way for supposedly progressive people to hole each other up into yet another tribe and question each other's purity to the cause. And what is the cause? It is an academic exercise in becoming white, in carving our space for the American Dream, which is a negation of our actual ethnic histories (as well as a blatant quest for wealth, to shed the "poverty" of Latin America). There is the misconception, which some Latinos, like Maria Hinojosa, fight against and she actually did a great piece in LatinoUSA about Latino conservatives, which highlights that the assumption that all brown and black people are liberal is this fabrication created by white people, but which many young Latinos (because they are ignorant, and older Latinos haven't bothered to educate them) latch onto, and then there are those Latinos who embrace that assumption. Yet so many brown so-called progressives are incredibly conservative, its frightening. 

So that whole scene I think is BS, and I want nothing to do with it. Like I've told others before, I use the term Latino in our publishing house just so white people know not to submit books to us. And that is it. But my writing and the writing I look for are, again, two different things. I don't want to sign books like mine, but what I do want are books that transcend or don't even care about this arbitrary, fictional group known as Latinos. For myself, I am a Puerto Rican writer, and I write from that perspective. The Bolivian dream has not succeeded, as beautiful as it may be. Being Puerto Rican is distinct, and that is to be celebrated. The same goes for every other nationality and group. What I look for at LCG, above all else, is whether the story I am reading is (1) entertaining, (2) marketable beyond a narrow "Latino" audience, and (3) I can't shake after reading. What I want these Latino writers to see is that great storytelling, while it may have a distinct cultural viewpoint, it speaks to something human and profound that goes beyond any one group. And what I have discovered in this past year is how so many writers find that refreshing, to be freed from the shackles of this group they never asked to be a part of. 

Discuss the tension between culturally-specific writing and universality of theme and message. How do you think the white, affluent controllers of canon affect and/or distort this?

The tension is that many of these writers have already been educated in a system where the tastes of the predominant culture has already affected them deeply. Most people who get into writing young, were first exposed in schools, some class, or a teacher, and they more than likely were not trying to get the student to look at things outside of the status quo. 
But I just want to take a time out to say that this kind of thing isn't inherently malicious. I think the online world (which is NOT the real world) and academia can make this sort of exposure into something sinister, when it really isn't. As a community, we have to recognize that we have left our native lands and are now a part of a society where we are not the dominant culture. While that may be malicious to some, it is just the reality. We are in a white man's world, and while racists exist and while the pressures of an industry that is infused with racism and misogyny and ignorance is a very real thing, most people operate on a level where those nefarious qualities are never considered. The academic world that is so aware of these currents and behaviors makes it seems like people are aware of what they doing, but the reality is that the "microaggressions" and dominant culture are very much sub-conscious. 

The thing is, as much as we can bash on Hollywood stereotypes and publishing industry pigeon-holing, and the complaints are legitimate, at the end of the day, if we are exposed to one way of doing things, then that is what we will gravitate toward. The same is true the world over. So what happens to a lot of people is that they gravitate toward one type of storytelling and they are guided in that way, and as they get older and perhaps more aware of their ethnic history, they become a bit more activist and "edgy", and then they become super self-conscious about what they are writing and it hurts the writing itself. Because the writing becomes about scoring points, politically, socially, especially within their group or tribe, and it stops being about telling a good poem or a good story, which is above all else, what it should be. 

But aside from that, if we are trying to fit into any sort of canon, whether white or Latino or whatever else, then we are sacrificing a crucial part of ourselves. You may start out wanting to be like your influences, but to truly grow as an artist is to be create work that influences others. That is inherently your own. The problem is that most people, of any ethnic background, are not looking at storytelling through that lens. They want to be somebody else because that somebody else got published. That leads to a lot of derivative literature, which is a virus to writers and disservice to readers. So the tension is partly what the industry demands and partly what we convince ourselves we should be. If we give in to our insecurities, then we lose, period. What makes great literature is the inherent humanity of the stories we tell, that should be the guiding principle, and while the industry does not reward that as consistently as it should, the industry does have room for people whose skills are so great, they cannot be ignored, either by the independent or the mainstream communities.

Who are other writers/presses you think get it right. What compels you/attracts you to a writer and their work? How does the LCGE Lounge fit into that? 

There are a lot of presses do the good work, such as ATM Publishing, C&R Press, Black Rose Writing (our parent company), Broken River Books, Jade Publishing, and a lot of others. The internet has allowed a lot of terrible crap to be passed off as literature, but it has also allowed many lovers of literature to really support up and coming writers of true talent. 

What compels me to a manuscript is the same as if I were searching through a bookstore: writing that makes me stop in my tracks and forces me to pay attention to the words the writer shares with me. I could say its the writer's sense of place, their use of dialogue, their characters, or it could just be the atmosphere they evoke. Like all other arts, there is something to a good writer that is inherent and has nothing to do with training. I have been blown away by people with zero formal education, just because they have a raw sense of how to tell a story. Like I remind audiences when I do events, storytelling is an oral/performative medium, writing was created in order to account for inventories. Writing is actually a terrible way to tell a story. Stories are meant to be interactive and performative, which fantasy and sci-fi writers understand but hardly anybody else does. 

The LCG Lounge was created because I recognized the narrowness of our mission. Population wise, there just aren't a lot of Latinos and Caribeños. The Lounge allows writers from all backgrounds to participate in our experiment. And my philosophy is that if I encounter an amazing writer, I will write a letter of recommendation to another publisher so this talented person can get the exposure they deserve. The Lounge allows us to take a more humanistic approach to publishing rather than being bound to a single ethnic group. 

What would you describe as the internal challenges of identity Latinx writers face - Given the complex nexus of race, class and culture in our multinational make up, how would describe the forces of internalized oppression on the creative process? What would you say is the responsibility of the writer/artist?

Those are very distinct questions. The responsibility of the writer/artist is whatever they decide to take on. There is a real value to escapist art. There is also a real value to socially conscious art. And a single artist can combine those two things. The responsibility of art of self expression. In truly oppressive societies, the ability to merely be oneself is criminal, and in supposedly free societies, the ability to express your point of view is freedom. The United States allows a vast array of opinions, but the majority of those opinions do not equate into power.

The internet allows for such an avalanche of opinion that opinion becomes fruitless and empty. We can have all the opinions we want, but at the end of the day, those opinions change very little about the world around us, and internet bubbles or community bubbles exacerbate that sense of our actions being worthless. This is the age of true existentialism, even moreso than after World War One, our opinions don't only not matter, but that worthlessness is replicated endlessly through online prisms that make us feel important while nothing we say makes a difference.

I think one of the cruelest things we teach young writers is that their opinions matter beyond their own group of friends. Young writers are taught that their words are needed or essential ("the world needs your stories") but the reality is that the world could care less. The people who run the world pay absolutely zero mind about what some teenager in Nowhere, America thinks. 

Young writers should be taught to be true to their own self expression without thoughts of fame or world changing. To express your truth should be enough. Anything more will only lead to disappointment and depression. 

So responsibility does not extend beyond being true to yourself and helping others any way you can. 

As for internal and systemic challenges that Latino authors face--well, that has a lot to do with peer pressure. Latino writers are highly susceptible to expectations from the larger publishing industry and from their own communities. The biggest challenge to overcome is to understand your place in this big, complex world outside of what others may expect of you. A lot of what we do when we adhere to the "Latinx" framework of what the industry or our own communities expect from us is we sacrifice a part of our actual selves.

Intersectionality, as overused as that term is, is accurate in pointing out how multiple factors influence us. I have a black Puerto Rican mother and a European Puerto Rican father, both of whom loved Motown and equal parts white and black and Puerto Rican culture, and I grew up mostly in the U.S. and most of my friends growing up were black and black culture influenced me more than Puerto Rican culture for many years and movies and plays influenced me as much as books and music, man, music influenced me most of all. 

And I grew up in an abusive household and many of my relatives are racist and misogynist and the Catholic religion influenced me a great deal -- all those things and more a part of who I am, and the same long list of influences effect everyone else, and when you encounter the expectations of an industry which could care less about you, you are faced with the pressure of changing yourself to fit that industry. Peer pressure is real and nefarious.

So you have a choice--be yourself or be something you are only marginally relatable to. That is the question all minority artists have to ask, and the truth is that there is no right answer. There is only the answer that is right for you. But figuring that out, embracing who you are, is a process with no one right answer. And we ought to respect the place that any member of our community takes. Because the Latinx community is much a club and a cult as the status quo. Both have limitations and benefits, and if we are truly progressive and inclusive, we would respect whichever route a person takes instead of demanding purity to a cause that is not inherent from ourselves but rather adopted.

I notice that, to date, there are no women published by your press. Speak to that.

This is not something I am proud of, and the LCG Lounge has been where we have most attacked this issue. In 2018, we will have three female writers: Venus Morales, Sarah Rafael Garcia, and Elaine Vilar Madruga. We only publish 4 to 5 books a year, and this contributes to some imbalances, which I nonetheless fight against. 

Being a new imprint, we sought out books from  people we knew, initially, and the person who had a complete book was a man, Fernando Sdrigotti, same with the second author, A.B. Lugo, and when I decided to make our first Spanish book be one I wrote, well we suddenly had three books by men. As a new company, we had to go with what what we could get. There were a lot of female writers we had our eyes on, but they did not have complete manuscripts. A lot of this industry is timing, and one reason why the Lounge felt necessary was that being a new press, with a narrow focus, we really didn't have a lot of people to choose from. According to the CIA, nearly half a billion people speak Spanish, and the number of people of Latino descent is around 500 million, but the number of those people who are writers is far smaller, maybe 1 million, more than likely but less than that. 
And their works in progress are in varying degrees of completion.

Then the fact that immigration, spirituality, and self help books make up a large portion of what women write about (many times due to industry expectations), which are all books we won't accept, then we will have a deficit of women,

But even at Aignos, I encountered a massive gap between how many women would submit books and how many women wanted to be editors. I have always hired more female editors versus female writers. But that is where the role of an advocate comes into focus. The advocate should not just be a supporter, a cheerleader, a gate keeper. The role of an advocate, as a man, is that when I sign a women, I teach them how to to be an advocate for themselves and other women, so that they can become a gatekeeper, so that when they help another female, it isn't due to a man giving them a chance, but rather that a woman gives them a chance, and that woman teaches them the ropes of the industry so that the following generation knows mostly of women given them chances. My being an advocate means nothing if men maintain the power. It has to be passed on. But the problem arises when men do not educate those who come after them.  We are, for now, the gatekeepers, so change has to come from the way we see our role.

So I have signed women, and I pushed men into 2019 publication dates so I could make 2018 a majority female year. Through the Lounge, we have actually published more female works than male, and this may be that many females who contact us just don't have complete manuscripts, and it may be that we are pushing for women in a narrow demographic to write things they aren't used to.writing about it, and that takes education as well. If we are gatekeepers, we have to educate others how we got to our position and how they fan take on that position. But it takes time.  

Tristiana, your novel,  addresses the body politic, what shapes it, coerces it, corrupts it. What do you see as its relevance? Why this particular theme for you? 

I feel that power and how power adapts to situations forms the basis of all culture. Our species is made up of winners and losers, the defeated and the victorious, and while it is morally satisfying for  the defeated to decry the victorious, if the shoe was not on the other foot, would we not do the same? So much of progressive doctrine is based on a world where we have not died for our beliefs, or killed for our beliefs, our beliefs are toothless, and I want to remind readers that the evil we like to point out in others exists in us as well. I want my readers to understand that our moral superiority is largely a fiction, we are just recreating the world in the same image, just maybe with a leader of s darker pigment. That is not real change. I believe to understand that is the lesson we have most overlooked in our community. 

How does the current situation in Puerto Rico influence you personally and creatively? 

The evolving and historical situation between the US and Puerto Rico effects me in terms of relatives and my personal feelings about what is happening on the island. That is a situation that worries me a great deal. I grew up in Puerto Rico as much as I did in the United States. The two were always present.

Creatively, the whole situation inspires me on a human level. What has happened in PR is not different from many other places in the world. So it inspires me how humanity is so different yet so much the same. We like to think there is a lot that separates us, but humans react to bad situations is largely the same ways. The whole scenario helps me see how we are connected. I feel that, and this also comes from my university studies of Greek theatre, we have not evolved a great deal over the last 10,000 years. We largely fight over the same things, and while Latino and Native activists like to blame everything on Europeans, the same patterns of oppression have been present in all people, the world over, as long as we can document. 

The whole situation makes me feel that there ar ebigger questions to ask than identity, or race, or tribe. Tradition is a prison, so why focus my creative energies on it. I should push myself beyond what is expected of me, and I push those I mentor to embrace the same mindset.

What is something not in the official bio? I am a strange mix of nerd and athlete. I love running and I love shows like Doctor Who and Star Trek. I am a foodie and a traveler, and it irks me to be placed into any sort of group.

LCG Press, an imprint of Black Rose Writing, a publishing house geared toward new and inventive Latino and Caribbean literature. 

We want genre books, literary fiction, avant garde poetry and narrative. 

We want to get away from traditional Latino subjects to instead promote literature that is universal and speaks to issues across cultures and ethnicities. 

We also seek to change the dynamic between publisher and author, where we place greater emphasis on professional development as well as creative development, enabling our authors to have the confidence and resources to reach a wider audience.

Tristiana: An imaginary corner of Latin America. A beautiful and violent land, where a group of men and women debate within the comfort of the world of ideas until they are confronted by the cruel reality of political violence. Revolutionaries who remind us of past figures (those who failed and those who succeeded). Colonial shadows hang over the proceedings. Enemies from within, ever-ready to hand over their people for a fist full of cash. The epic tale of these Tristianos, displayed in paintings and murals - whose lines reach out toward a past of struggle and dreams of a liberated future."

"I want the reader to question the nature of civilization and whether it truly protects us from natural forces or from ourselves. I want the reader to consider concepts like feminism and militarism and social justice and ask themselves whether we really want a different kind of world, or if we just want a world where us and our friends are in charge. Are we transforming power, or merely continuing the power dynamics we have always known?" - Jon Marcantoni

Join author Jonathan Marcantoni in the National Hispanic Cultural Center Library in Albuquerque, August 5th from 2 to 4 pm for an interactive reading event, drawing from the material in his books “Kings of 7th Avenue” and “Tristiana”. 



At the National Poetry Slam, 70-80 nationally ranked teams converge bring thousands of participants, fans and volunteers to one city for a week of celebration, competition, and powerful voices. Each team will compete at least twice; scores are calculated across the tournament, and at the end of the third night Semi-Finals and Group Piece Finals are known. 

After four Semi-Finals bouts, the winner of each moves to Finals, from which the champions are chosen. The prize for winning is giant sword-through-a-stack-of-books trophy along with a cash award. And more importantly, bragging rights.

I would be remiss if I didn't list the team that's competing from Albuquerque. (where I now hang my hat)

Marcial Delgado
Eva Marisol Crespin
Matthew Brown
Damien Flores
Mercedez Holtry

Coached by former Poet Laureate of Albuquerque - Jessica Helen Lopez

Now Available at
All Access Festival Passes – $75 
Save $10 with special early bird pricing when you purchase an all access Festival Pass before July 1st !

Semi- and Group Piece Finals – $25 (Early Bird)
17% savings with advance ticket purchase of Semi-Finals and Group Piece Finals. This offer will not be available at the door.

Semi-Final Bouts – $15 (a la carte)

Group Piece Finals – $15 (a la carte)cash award.

1 comment:

sramosobriant said...

This interview spoke to me in all its rawness, eloquence, and even speculation not just on writing, but on culture. On point questions and honest, straight-forward answers. Kudos to the interviewer and total hope for La Casita Grande. No controversy for me.