Tuesday, February 2, 2016

An Interview with Kirstin Valdez Quade

An Interview with Kirstin Valdez Quade
Conducted by Roberto Cruz

     Night at the Fiestas is a book that takes us to a New Mexico that is home to different sets of experiences. This book brings to life the struggle of different characters that are fighting to survive the current state of their lives. It is a collection of stories that not only narrates these different lives but reflects on deeper issues of faith, spirituality and internal conflict.

     Each story is different from the other, but reveal similar urgency and despair. Whether it is the story of the character Maria veraciously being consumed by the preference of her own parents for her cousin Nemencia, or the quest of man looking to redeem himself at the expense of his relationship with his own daughter. The story of a young woman faced with hearing the confession of her own priest and his past. These stories hit upon some of the internal conflicts characters are forced to face as they try to stay true to themselves even when everything they know crumbles.
   Quade is able to give life to every aspect of the characters life in a very particular way. Ultimately, Quade’s characters save themselves from the tortures of their own lives through their process of coming of age. Elements like these best serve to give a balance to their lives and reveal some of the interesting elements this book touches upon.   

-Roberto Cruz ('17)

     How much of a role does the setting play in your stories? New Mexico seems to be highly emphasized throughout the series of short stories.

The landscape of New Mexico is deeply important to my fiction—and to me. My family has been there for hundreds of years. It’s place with a long and complicated history and is home to several cultural traditions—Native American, Spanish and Latino, Anglo. It’s interesting terrain for fiction because it’s so culturally vibrant and because of its history of conflict.

We left New Mexico when I was a child. My father is a geochemist and his fieldwork took us all over the Southwest and overseas. Throughout all those moves, though, we always went back to Santa Fe, where my grandparents still live. It was the place that felt most like home to me, yet, because I had left, it became suffused with my longing to return. Much of my writing has been about trying to understand this place that has such a hold on me.

         Does the order of the stories follow any specific path? Was there any sort of overall story you hoped to tell as the book went on?

When I first conceived of my collection, I thought a lot about Wallace Stevens’s poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”; I wanted my collection to be comprised of stories that were varied in style, tone, time period, and point-of-view character, that all examined the inhabitants and landscape of northern New Mexico. I thought “Nemecia,” and “The Manzanos” would be fitting bookends because they take place in the same small town and are both told from the point of view of first person narrators. In ordering the other eight stories, I tried to balance tone and subject matter.

       The first story “Nemecia” was a very powerful story. Was there a particular reason you began with that story?

Thank you for saying it’s powerful. “Nemecia” is the oldest story in the collection, and it is the one story in the book that has its seed in an actual event from my family’s history. When my godmother was a young child, she watched as her father, in a drunken rage, killed his father-in-law with an iron poker and put his wife in a coma. For the rest of her life my godmother never spoke of the episode, and I only learned the story after her death. I was stunned that this person I’d loved and thought I’d known had experienced such a trauma, and I initially began writing to fill in the gaps in the story, to try to understand my godmother’s experience. As I wrote, I discovered I was less interested in the crime itself than in the repercussions of that violence, in how that violence, despite being shrouded in secrecy, continues to wound.

The character Nemecia isn’t my godmother, who was generous and vivacious and full of family loyalty. Even if I start with a character or situation that resembles something actual, in the course of exploring the story and trying to make the story work, fiction always takes over.

          Each short story develops every character in great depth; how much of this comes from your personal connections to people in your life? Were any of these stories inspired by events that transpired in your own life? If so, what aspects of your life can we see included in any of the short stories?

The job of the short story is to delve deeply into character—and certainly that’s what keeps the process of writing interesting and fun for me. I start a story because I’m curious about a character and want to discover more about his or her motivations. All of the characters are fictional—even if, in a few cases, they share some traits with real people in my life. And in trying to imagine the experience of someone else, I invariably put myself into the characters. It’s truer to say that each of my characters—whether an angry young man or a traumatized child or a WASPy retiree—is in some way a part of me.
          The last story sort of gives some closure to the book as a whole. How did you decide to make this the last story?

I’m glad you think “The Manzanos” gives the book closure—that was certainly my intention. It is tonally distinct from the other stories in the collection: more lyrical and elegiac, its structure is more of a collage than a traditional, chronological narrative.

“The Manzanos” is set in Cuipas, in the same tiny town where “Nemecia” is set, but it takes place nearly eighty years later, when many of the inhabitants of Cuipas have died or moved away, when the town itself is crumbling. The story is about loss and the attempt to preserve a history that can never be retrieved.  

Kirstin Valdez Quade is the author of Night at the Fiestas, which was a New York Times Notable Book and won the John Leonard Prize from the National Book Critics Circle, as well as a “5 Under 35” award from the National Book Foundation. She is the recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and the Narrative Prize. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Best American Short StoriesThe O. Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere. She was a Wallace Stegner at Stanford University, where she also taught as a Jones Lecturer. She’s been on the faculty in the M.F.A. programs at University of Michigan and Warren Wilson, and, beginning in 2016, will be an assistant professor at Princeton University. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Letras Latinas re-connects with Louis Villalba

One of the things I admire about how our current Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, is conceptualizing his first term--particularly through his project, La Casa de Colores--is how he is underscoring a kind of democratization of our voices. (Click HERE to access, La Casa de Colores.) The philosophy, as I see it, of his project up at the Library of Congress' website, is that every citizen's voice matters, each capable of enriching us, regardless of where a voice has its point of entry--whether a book published in New York, a posh "literary" publisher in Minneapolis, a micro-press in San Antonio or on the U.S./Mexico border, or the website of the Library of Congress. In other words, to quote a Maria Melendez Kelson poem (I'm paraphrasing here): "Fuck pedigrees."

What I mean is: the pedigrees of publishing. In the wake of Francisco X. Alarcon's death, I've been thinking about this more. His New and Selected Poems, From the Other Side of Night, was published in 2002 with University of Arizona Press. His latest two books, Canto hondo/Deep Song,  and the forthcoming Poetry of Resistence: Voices for Social Justice, an anthology he co-edited, is with Arizona, as well. 

I don't know if he aspired to publish with New York houses, or an Independent publisher with, perhaps, more "pedigree"---it was never anything we spoke about. One of his best selling books, his collection of homoerotic sonnets,  De amor oscuro/Of Dark Love, was published by a micro-press in Santa Cruz, CA called Moving Parts Press.

Why am I bringing this up? Because I'm reminded of the ethos of the hardest working writer I know, Louis Villalba. I wrote about him in a blog post in June of 2014 to preface an interview with him about his first book, a collection of pieces about his native Cádiz in Spain. Click HERE to access that post and interview and more information about him.

Last year, he put out into the world his first novel, The Stranger's Enigma, of which the Kirkus Reviews said: 

"A provocative character study...Villalba has a vivid imagination." 

Letras Latinas associate Roberto Cruz ('17) once again does the honors of interviewing Villalba about this latest effort.

Letras Latinas Blog interviews Louis Villalba

Throughout your novel, The Stranger's Enigma, there is a consistent battle between the real world and the dream world, eventually resulting in an overlap between both worlds. Blurring the lines between fantasy and reality is a characteristic of surrealism, so I was wondering if the inspiration behind this novel came from this literary movement and some of it's prominent figures, or if it came from somewhere else?

With regard to the use of fantasy, the most influential author is Gabriel García Márquez. Otherwise, I cannot think of any other book similar to The Stranger’s Enigma. This is an experimental novel based on actual dreams. The dreams have been somewhat modified and adapted to fit a fictional plot.  In this novel, the reader takes a trip into the deep layers of the human mind where only dreams can transport them. The result is not different from an abstract painter’s attempt to draw a person’s character in a portrait.

In the real world, Daniel's mother and Marlene try to dictate Daniel's actions and 'teach' him what is right and what is wrong. In the dream world, characters such as Sonie live freely and happily where norms of "right" and "wrong" are not at odds, but coexist peacefully. Could Daniel's mother and Marlene be representative of society, consistently attempting to draw a line between right and wrong, black and white? perhaps when these lines should not exist? Overall, do you think these social norms actually take away from our happiness?

I believe most of us are born with some basic idea of what is right and wrong. Daniel’s mother represents society. She is the primary person who has reinforced and modified his innate concept. There are other influences in his life such as his profession and Marlene.  To live in a society, the individual must sacrifice—compromise— certain freedoms so that he or she can get a number of benefits in return.  The trade off has been advantageous for the human race. It has improved our happiness. Yet, we must always be on the lookout so that we don’t relinquish more freedoms than we need to.

Speaking of Sonie, at the end of the novel, Daniel says that Sonie is a better man than himself. What is your definition of a "better man"? Do you think this concept is universal (i.e. he must possess a specific list of qualities), or is it subjective according to each person?

I believe that, at birth, we harbored a human template with its own set of virtues and weaknesses. As we grow up, we willingly or inadvertently shed innate virtues and acquire new vices. A “better man” is the one who keeps most of the virtues, sheds almost all the weaknesses, and doesn’t learn new vices. The definition of a “better man” varies from individual to individual because we all come from different human templates, and each has its own array of qualities and weaknesses.

Daniel spends the entire novel searching for the secret of eternal bliss. In the end, he discovers the secret, but remains in anguish over his inability to find Julie. So, could this conflict represent the disconnect between knowing and understanding? Could it be possible for Daniel to truly know the secret of eternal bliss without experiencing it with Julie? In essence, can someone know what it takes to be happy, without ever fully understanding it?

Dr. Daniel Brandon searches for the secret of eternal bliss without realizing he is looking for Sonie’s bliss, not his. Everyone enjoys a different source of utmost happiness. We cannot understand bliss. We can only rationalize why it occurs or what it might take to achieve it. But joy is an emotion; it can only be felt. In life, we just hope that what we predict will make us happy will end up doing so. As my novel points out, our path to bliss—regardless of the nature— is paved with our own personal growth. 

In Freud's work, he emphasizes the subconscious needs and drives that fuel human behavior. I found it interesting that you touch upon this idea in your novel. At one point, Julie hides from Daniel out of anger because he intended to cheat on her with another woman. Sonie later tells Daniel that, in the dream world, initial intentions are all that matter, whether they are conscious or subconscious. Can you talk about how you incorporated Freud into your work? and how he became such a large influence in this novel?

Freud becomes an important character in this novel. His presence allows Daniel to discuss his dreams and their interpretation. Daniel considers him his mentor, but his famous colleague ends up becoming his friend, someone he can discuss thoughts that he cannot share with his mother or his wife. Daniel’s interpretation of his own dreams often clashes with Freud’s.
As a protagonist, Freud enriches the novel because he touches every aspect of the fascinating world of dreams. In the end, Daniel and Freud disagree about the essential meaning of dreams.  But their sometimes heated arguments shed light on the nature of the human being—why we have become what we are. I incorporated Freud into my work, because I considered his book, Interpretation of Dreams the most important reference in the study of the dream world. 

If you would indulge me, your academic record is nothing short of impressive. Certified in neurology and neurophysiology as well as published over 70 papers, I must ask: how did you begin writing? Did you have a goal to be a published writer or did this come later on? What was the process like, switching from writing strictly academic papers to writing intricate fictional novels?

A series of paranormal events occurred in my practice that challenged the basic neurological concepts of life and death.  I wanted to tell the story in my own words so that the public could sense and experience what I had felt. Yet, I lacked the knowledge and ability to do so.  Writing literary work has little or nothing in common with writing scientific papers. So, fourteen years ago, I found myself reading and studying classic literature in detail. I enjoyed it so much that it became my passion.    

You've published two books now. So I'm wondering, do you have any projects for the future? Would you consider moving into poetry, or other forms of literature? Overall, can we expect to see another novel on the horizon?

I am a storyteller. My works have been a source of personal pride. In the future, I hope I will reach a larger audience because my stories always carry a message to the readers. I need to improve my prose and raise my writing to a higher level of sophistication.  My next novel is already written. It just needs editing prior to the publication. Two non-fiction works are in the pipeline. I am also writing a collection of short stories about immigrants from Latin America.