Friday, October 27, 2017

Oakland: Corpi. Véa. American Book Awards.

This past week Flo and I stayed in a friends' house in Oakland, land of the (soon-to-be) Las Vegas Raiders (although I was told the smart money is on the team never moving) and Corazon del Pueblo (click here) a definite stop for anyone looking for authentic Día de Muertos cositas, which is a constant with Flo.  The massive northern California fires were almost under control so we did not have to endure the dangerous smoke that the Bay Area had suffered for weeks.  The weather was unseasonably warm (but in these days of climate change does "unseasonable" really make sense in a weather context?)  and the comfortable house, filled with great music, books and art, surrounded by verdant plants and trees, was perfect for writing, reading and napping in the sun.  We had a great stay.  Thank you Jackie and Ginny.

I've always appreciated Oakland.  The contrasts can be harsh, the scenery magnificent, and the people surly or gracious.  In other words, like most big cities in these disUnited States, Oakland presents a disquieting view of urban America in the Twenty-first Century, extremely rich and extremely poor, progressive and backwards, tolerant and racist.  A bountiful menu for a hungry writer requiring creative nourishment.  Standing on a corner in the East Oakland barrio, I felt like a R. Crumb comic had come to life in front of my eyes.  In another time I might have shouted "Keep on truckin'" to the gente (brown, black and white) rushing to get on with their lives.  But I'm older than that now.

The best part of the visit was hanging out with old friends, including two of my favorite writer pals who live in Oakland:  Lucha Corpi and Alfredo Véa.

We've been friends with Lucha and her husband Carlos for decades, since the days when we gathered with other Chicana/o crime fiction writers like Max Martínez and Rolando Hinojosa and talked about organizing a major conference of mystery writers of color who were blowing up the genre -- because that's the way we talked back then.

Lucha and Carlos gave us a guided tour of Oakland that included historical trivia and personal anecdotes.  We learned much about Oakland from Lucha and Carlos.

I was very pleased to hear Lucha talk about her latest writing project:  a "hybrid" that deals with her concept of "instant memory" that will have poems, stories and memoir.  I related completely to her observation that sometimes it was difficult to continue with the work because of the nagging possibility that the next book might be the last one and, as she said, "why rush it?"  Man, I get that.  These days, the world rushes by with ruthless efficiency.  From one birthday to the next, from one Trump idiocy to the next, from one doctor visit to the next.  What if my next book is the last one I'll be able to finish?  Why rush it, indeed.

By coincidence, our visit coincided with the annual presentation of the American Book Awards (ABA) by the Before Columbus Foundation.  Even better, Alfredo Véa was one of the recipients. 

Unlike many other literary prizes, the ABA acknowledge writing as a political act.  The Foundation describes the awards with these words:  

"The American Book Awards Program respects and honors excellence in American literature without restriction or bias with regard to race, sex, creed, cultural origin, size of press or ad budget, or even genre. There [are] no requirements, restrictions, limitations, or second places. There [are] no categories (i.e., no 'best' novel or only one 'best' of anything). The winners [are not] selected by any set quota for diversity (nor are 'mainstream white anglo male' authors ... excluded), because diversity happens naturally. Finally, there [are] no losers, only winners. The only criteria [is] outstanding contribution to American literature in the opinion of the judges."

We've known Alfredo Véa since the publication of his first incredible novel, La Maravilla (1994).  His latest, The Mexican Flyboy (2016), has been universally praised, including by reviewers here on La Bloga.  Click here, or here.  The ABA ceremony program describes the book with these words:

"Crossing genres and blending comedy with tragedy, Alfredo Véa imagines a world where we can rewrite our pasts and heal the wounds inflicted by history. Inviting comparisons to the work of James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges, Junot Díaz and Michael Chabon, this powerful book is like nothing else you have ever read."

Each author spoke for a few minutes and, as readers of La Bloga might assume, certain messages were repeated in different forms:  art as resistance, struggle as a way of life, historical events that resonate with today's charged atmosphere, standing up for what is right.  

A quote from Véa's impromptu acceptance speech:

"Dissent is the only way forward for us.  It's always been that way.  Dissent in art. ... Jazz is the answer.  Poetry is the answer.  Reading is the answer.  Writing is the answer.  ... If it doesn't rankle, we're not going to learn anything."

After the ceremony we broke bread with Alfredo and his family and a few friends. Again I was happy to hear the writer talk about his next project, something that he started while writing The Mexican Flyboy and which, again, sounds amazing. 

But that wasn't all. He's thinking about a sci-fi novel, and he wonders why there are no movies made of the books he likes (and I wonder why his books aren't movies yet), and he dotes on his nine-year old daughter and he knows all the good restaurants and he exhibits Mexican masks and he is angry about why people don't understand that you can't know the history of the U.S. unless you know the history of slavery. He's a criminal defense attorney and he talks to law school classes about the real story of the U.S. Constitution, but he also sings along with his daughter to a CD of the Everly Brothers, both at the top of their lungs. Needless to say, our time with Alfredo Véa was special, yes sir.

2017 American Book Award Winners

The 2017 American Book Award Winners

Rabia Chaudry  Adnan's Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial  (St. Martin's Press)

Flores A. Forbes  Invisible Men: A Contemporary Slave Narrative in 
the Era of Mass Incarceration
(Skyhorse Publishing)
Yaa Gyasi  Homegoing

Holly Hughes  Passings (Expedition Press)

Randa Jarrar  Him, Me, Muhammad Ali (Sarabande Books)

Bernice L. McFadden  The Book of Harlan (Akashic Books)

Brian D. McInnes  Sounding Thunder: The Stories of Francis Pegahmagabow  (Michigan State University Press)

Patrick Phillips  Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America  (W. W. Norton & Company)

Vaughn Rasberry  Race and the Totalitarian Century: Geopolitics in  the Black Literary Imagination (Harvard University Press)
Marc Anthony Richardson  Year of the Rat
(Fiction Collective Two)
Shawna Yang Ryan  Green Island

Ruth Sergel  See You in the Streets: Art, Action, and Remembering the  Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (University of Iowa Press)

Solmaz Sharif  Look (Graywolf Press)

Adam Soldofsky  Memory Foam (Disorder Press)
Alfredo Véa  The Mexican Flyboy
(University of Oklahoma Press)
Dean Wong  Seeing the Light: Four Decades in Chinatown
(Chin Music Press)

Lifetime Achievement: Nancy Mercado

Editor/Publisher Award: Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics  Document Initiative, Ammiel Alcalay, General Editor



Manuel Ramos is the author of several novels, short stories, poems, and non-fiction books and articles. His collection of short stories, The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories, was a finalist for the 2016 Colorado Book Award. My Bad: A Mile High Noir was published by Arte Público Press in 2016 and was a finalist for the Shamus Award in the Original Paperback category sponsored by the Private Eye Writers of America.

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