Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Exclusive: an interview with José B. González

One my tasks as director of Letras Latinas is commissioning content for this space. Every now and then, I manage to hit what I’ll call a curatorial sweet spot, like this:

Javier Zamora interviews José B. González

From the title, Toys Made of Rock, there is a clear obsession with rocks/stones/tombstones etc. Also, the work that goes into the shaping these “toys;” be them literal toys, themes, or people. Coped with this obsession is the tool that is part of the “carving,” the “shaping:” hands. Hands and fingers hold pens, steal, fight, work, cut, write, etc. As Rhina P. Espaillat put it in the introduction, “people who survive among rocks can acquire the stubborn endurance of their surroundings and go on to succeed.” My question is what does the physical work of writing discover/reveal about the writer? Where do these obsessions come from?  

When I think of my childhood, I think of a roughness and hardness that was there but that I couldn’t entirely comprehend as a child. Rocks, stones and tombstones were part of that experience, and as a writer, my challenge was to provide that perspective through a child’s eyes, to make the reader feel that roughness while showing that a child couldn’t quite see all its complexities. My other challenge was to demonstrate how that perspective changed—how a child learns about murders in a war-torn country and about the role of the U.S. in El Salvador’s Civil War and how reading nontraditional histories would help him see the world in a new light or more accurately, a new darkness. We know what such knowledge might do intellectually, but I also wanted to show what it does emotionally. Does it harden the child, for example?

Hands are a way to tell the world about the sacrifices that we, or those before of us, have made. My father’s case is a good example of that. Like my mother, he was done with school by second grade. He used his hands as a way to make and sell soap and collect change. Later, he used them to sweep while working as a school janitor. By the end of his life, his fingers had become clubbed as a result of lung cancer. Hands tell stories and mark us. In my case, I’ve been fortunate enough, as a result of my father and my mother’s sacrifices, to be able to use my hands to write and to flip pages.

There is pain in these poems, but there’s also play, the title also points at the obvious metaphor that these individual poems are the toys the poet speaks of. I believe the last poem is an ars poetica at that playfulness.

Also, the ending of “The Thanksgiving of No Mas:” “job after job, jab after jab,” is brilliant and shows the playfulness of this collection, enacting the phonetics of English speakers that are immigrants. Pronouncing “job” as “jab” but also, you make it a metaphor.

You hint at your predecessors, but could you point to a lineage or particular poet that influenced your playfulness with sound and your playfulness with structure? And why is this important for you?

I was influenced heavily by Langston Hughes. He had a way of taking on these heavy subjects and presenting them in a way that was serious yet somewhat playful. And I think the way he accomplished this is by having a good ear for music. There is a be-bop in his poetry that keeps the momentum of stanzas moving forward. Whether it’s “Theme for English B,” where one can hear the rhythm of a young man’s thoughts on writing, or “Mother to Son,” where the thumping on stairs can be heard loudly and clearly, Hughes’ playful, musical style has the effect of making the content more serious and more relatable. We are able to get a deeper look at the struggle of a student writing an essay about himself and we understand how the stairs are tantalizing and frustrating to the mother.  And just as Hughes was influenced by the African-American music of his era, I was influenced by the musical sounds of English and Spanish words—and mispronunciations as well as by rap, R&B, and Latin music. There is a beautiful rhythm to all of them, even in the mispronunciations, and when they come together, it’s the best of all musical worlds. I also grew up listening to the likes of  Toña la Negra and artists whose work made you want to sing, laugh, and cry at the same time. Along with Hughes, these artists taught me about a musical truth that can exist lyrically in poetry. 

Speaking of influences, you speak a lot about the classroom and stealing from Shakespeare. Though I appreciated that you do not incorporate epigraphs at all in this book, so as not to give those authors a higher pedestal. Instead, you complicate the narrative, by showing us what lies on the other side of stealing from books. I particularly loved the juxtaposition “In the Art of Flipping,” between stealing words in the classroom and you offer the counter to that, outside the classroom, literal stealing that cost a human life.

In poems like “The Art of Flipping,” if there were a singular message, I believe it is that reading/writing kept you from the streets. I see that you’ve toured giving speeches all over the US, what has been the lesson you’ve learned from your students? And given the current state of public education, what do you say to a student who doesn’t have the resources or the teachers to inspire them, similar to you? Do you see these situations changing?

Yes—even in this day and age, it seems that when young, Latino students overcome obstacles, it’s not because they were expected to, but because they had to scrap their way to get to where they are. Like they had to steal. I do see the situation changing, but only as a result of internal revolutions. Too often, feel-good stories about Latinos and Latinas beating the odds are specifically about one or two individuals from a particular school. They are rarely, if ever, about a group of students who were part of a system that was designed to ensure success. Jaime Escalante institutionalized success and they made a movie about him and created a postal stamp in his honor.

What can be done to ensure that flashes of individual success are replaced with streams of institutional success that involves all groups? I think the list of ways that education can be improved is endless, but I’m convinced that a change in curriculum would go a long way toward leveling achievement fields. I’d love to see more and more groups hold administrators and teachers accountable for excluding literature by Latinos. I wrote a piece years ago in Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education about the hypocrisy of institutions that celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month but don’t do much to improve the conditions of Latino students and don’t do much else to diversify their curriculum. And that’s still true today. I love being able to speak across the country in hopes of inspiring students, but I also hope that administrators are inspired as well. To students who are in situations in which they are told that there no resources, I say, “Don’t accept that answer. Don’t let them steal from you.”

“Sociology 101” gets at the marginalization of immigrants in academia. The third and fourth sections gets at the heart of this, be it in elementary school or college, there are obstacles you’ve seen first hand. Another poem that gets at the heart of this is “Autobrownography of a New England Latino.” I want to specifically highlight the following passage:

“I wanted very badly for my students to recognize / my brown and say if he’s at Brown and he’s brown, / there’s hope for us young browns, but they just / thought I was Brown University brown, not inner-/ city brown…” 68

I laughed at this passage because for the longest time I wanted to go to Brown because I was brown. This poem is playful, but in the playfulness there lies a seriousness. In here, and in this poem, you get at the distance that occurs when we (immigrants) leave our adopted neighborhoods in this country for the university. It’s a double distancing, 1, from homeland 2. from adopted homeà which creates a distancing through education. A paradox you get at in your 3rd and 4th sections. Could you expand on these thoughts, on the distancing experienced by education?

Yes—in my first drafts of “Autobrownogaphy,” I focused exclusively on my education. My goal was to write a poem about some of the constant challenges I faced as a student, but then the more I wrote, the more apparent it became that some of what I experienced as a student carried over into my career in education.  When we think of gangs, we picture these turf wars, and academia is full of these wars. The process of promoting, tenuring, and even hiring is too often about determining whether individuals are worthy of wearing insiders’ colors. And when outsiders’ areas of study are about marginalized groups that most faculty and administrators know too little about, they are bound to be distanced. How many public school and higher education faculty, for example, know the very basic difference between U.S. Latino authors and Latin American authors?  How many know the basics of U.S. Latino history? How many even know the name, Cesar Chavez? Not enough. Yet, faculty and administrators make important, institutional decisions on the future of faculty of color on a daily basis, choosing to exclude and keep talented people out of their academic gangs, denying them well-deserved jobs, tenure or promotions. The more we are willing to acknowledge that the distance exists, the more we can better understand the challenges Latino and Latina faculty members face, the more likely we are to shorten that distance and bring them closer to positions of power and influence.

Your dedication at the beginning of the book stands out, especially now, in this current moment in history. Since you and I immigrated to this country from EL Salvador, the number of children fleeing, the number of families separated by immigration, has increased in unimaginable numbers compared to when we were children. What do you hope your book can do? Who is your audience? What would you tell a child in El Salvador who is separated by immigration?

I really hope that the book can offer hope and inspiration to students who face obstacles and ostracism and that it can also get educators thinking of how they can be influential in a positive way. When my parents first came to the U.S., they left my sister and me in El Salvador to live with our grandmother.  First my father came, then my mother. I was too young to have a full memory of my father leaving, but I remember that when my mother left, I was stunned. It was one of the worst days of my life.  I think about that now as a parent—what kind of fortitude would it take to leave my children behind? And I get a better sense of the sacrifices they made. As you say, the immigration patterns have changed. And now more and more families are being separated not only when parents leave, but also when children come to the U.S. on their own. And to top it off, if they make it here, these children face unprecedented levels of antagonism. I certainly didn’t experience such a horrible situation, but I do hope that by reading my book, audiences can get a better sense of what that separation and immigration process can be like. And after they read my book, I hope that they can be moved to action and make sure that immigration doesn’t have to end tragically. To that child whose family’s desperation has resulted in being alone, I’d say, there is strength in your family’s journey, and though it may not seem like it at times, that strength will shape you into someone whose life will ultimately be changed for the better.

You begin with children and end the book with the following three words:

“immigration, isolation, desolation.”

Are these themes that you see evolve from the act of immigrating?  In Leisy J. Abrego’s book, Sacrificing Families: Navigating Laws, Labor, and Love Across Borders, this seems to also be the thesis: that immigrating forever separates families. Is your book a reflection of that reality? How can you complicate or back that narrative?

Absolutely. The political imagination has made immigration synonymous with criminality, and perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, given that in a weak economy, pointing the finger at immigrants is nothing new. Yet, somewhere along the line, isolation and desolation have been ignored. Too many have forgotten or chosen to ignore the fact that when families are separated, there is bound to be traumatizing pain. As a result, stories about immigrants overcoming that isolation and desolation are even more rare. When we consider that each immigrant journey is unique, and that each experience of isolation and desolation is different, we see how much is missing in the “immigrant narrative.” That’s why books like Abrego’s are so important, especially since they break down and deconstruct identities and experiences.  My book does cover these themes, but at the same time, I dream of how incredible it would be if narratives about immigration were also a way to learn about inspiration? And to that end, I hope my book can accomplish that.

Finally, the book is filled with historical events that mark the passage of time. What surprised me was that you dive deeper than say “the Salvadoran civil war,” but instead focus on soccer games, hurricanes, boxing fights, family history. What role do the small pop-cultural events have in your formation, in your personal history? Why did these moments capture you so much?

Sports, music and TV were important parts of my family’s life. My father was a huge boxing fan. It didn’t matter whether they were heavyweight championship matches or no-name bouts, he watched them all. I think that as a child, I saw some of the parallels in boxers’ struggles and my family’s. In “The Thanksgiving of No Mas” I bring up the time when Roberto Duran put his hands up in the air and gave up in his fight against Sugar Ray Leonard. I remember my father being devastated. Alexis Arguello, another great fighter would go on to lose against Aaron Pryor. These Central American fighters’ wins were a source of pride for my father, but when they lost, it was like a reminder of the sad state of Central America’s affairs. But I also tried to use these references as a way to highlight the point that life went on. Even as I got beat up by bullies while playing sports, for example, there were horrors exponentially worse taking place in El Salvador. Pop culture was an escape and a reminder of what we had and what we didn’t have.


José B. González, Ph.D., is the author of the International Latino Book Award Finalist, Toys Made of Rock. His poetry has appeared in numerous journals including, Callaloo, Calabash, and the Quercus Review and in collections such as Theatre Under My Skin: Contemporary Salvadoran Poetry. He was born in San Salvador, El Salvador, and immigrated to New London, Connecticut at the age of eight. A Fulbright Scholar and a nationally known speaker, he has presented at various colleges such as Harvard, Rutgers, Cornell and the University of Florida; countries including Mexico, Spain, and El Salvador; and institutions such as the Smithsonian Museum of African Art and the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. He has been a contributor to National Public Radio and has been featured in the nationally syndicated show, American Latino TV, as well as Univision. His awards include AAHHE Latino Faculty of the Year, CT NAME Multicultural Faculty of the Year, and NEATE Poet of the Year. An alumnus of the Macondo Writers Workshop, he is a professor of English at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, CT, where he teaches creative writing, Latino literature, and composition courses.

Javier Zamora was born in El Salvador and migrated to the United States when he was nine. He is a 2016-2018 Wallace Stegner Fellow and holds fellowships from CantoMundo, Colgate University, MacDowell, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Yaddo. The recipient of the 2016 Barnes and Nobel Writer for Writer’s Award, his poems appear or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, and elsewhere. He is also a recipient of the 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. His first poetry collection, Unaccompanied, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in 2017.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

An Interview with Carla Trujillo

In this story Carla Trujillo takes us to the small city of Santa Fe, where a group of unlikely characters find themselves trying to save their beloved neighborhood. Lead by the unofficial leader of the community, Pepa Romero, a local healer, several characters embark on a journey filled with a lot humor, and wisdom, but also calling upon supernatural occurrences in order to maintain what they have. Dog town, a small, but important home to a forgotten people on the outskirts of Santa Fe has failed to pass the test of time and can no longer keep up with the tourist and artsy trends of Santa Fe that threaten their existence.
            It is a collision of two worlds, one new and one old. Pepa and the rest of the cast resort to all means in order to preserve what they believe is rightly theirs. Fighting against an all powerful mayor and a motivated young entrepreneur, this books takes dissects the life of different characters, but also brings to life the immense passions that all of these people have for the place they call home. Nevertheless, Dog town and the lives of all the characters will change forever.
Roberto Cruz ('17)

1.    Your book, Faith and Fat Chances, brings forth a clash of two worlds, the new and the old. The people and tradition of Dogtown fight to maintain their livelihood a midst a plan of “renovation” that seems to have no space for them. Do you believe that progress can be inclusive of everyone? Or do you believe that progress too often comes at the expense of tradition?

Progress has become an increasingly complicated word, especially today with the gentrification of old neighborhoods and the pushing out of people (usually poorer) from their homes to other locales. I live in Berkeley, CA and have seen this issue in the Bay Area for many years. I have mixed feelings about this, since you want to see the neighborhood improve, especially for those that have been neglected, but not at the expense of the people who have been living there for many years. It would be great to find a way help people keep their homes so they wouldn’t have to leave.

In the case of Faith and Fat Chances, the people who live in Dogtown have been overlooked for many years. Gilbert Cordova wants to come in and raze this section of town to follow his dream. He thinks if he gives people what he thinks is a fair financial offer, they’ll move on to a better place. Since Santa Fe, like many other expensive towns, has no other economically feasible options for the displaced Dogtowners, they would have to relocate to other towns and cities. So it really isn’t a question of preserving tradition. It’s more a question of hanging on to a place people can still afford.

2.    The character Gilbert was born and raised in Dogtown, but does not seem to have consideration for any of the people living there as he tries to build his winery. His argument is that overall, it will improve the town. Was this attitude meant to be a reflection of the sort of disconnect that the old world and new word face as they both try to impose their way of life?

Gilbert believes he is helping the town of Santa Fe in many ways, and by providing jobs to a few workers, thinks he’s “giving back” to the community. I think, since Gilbert wants to come back “home” he can’t look at other options. He doesn’t seem to care what impact he’s imposing on the people of Dogtown, and that includes his own sister.

3.    Pepa seems to be the unspoken leader of the community. Specifically, her vocation of being a healer seemed to give her a large influence and credibility within the community that is unparalleled. Did you intend for her job as a healer to sort of represent the old ways of the community.

Pepa is a very non-traditional healer. Not only does she smoke, cuss, and drink, she’s also a business woman. She knows traditional ways of healing, yet has studied more contemporary methods. Pepa personifies a mixture of the old and the new, at least as it relates to healing, yet those who only honor Western medicine might think of her as hopelessly archaic.

Yet Pepa is a leader in the community because she’s lived in it for many years, has healed countless people, and has a long history of speaking up against unjust practices. She speaks the truth, especially about our country’s history of exploitation of the land and people in New Mexico. In a way, Pepa is still connected to the ancestors and to the spirit of this land. She is very special and I believe the community of Dogtown sees it!

4.    This story could be told between two characters, mainly Pepa and Gilbert. However you chose to incorporate a different amount of characters, from scientist, to a priest. What type of dimension did you intend to add to the book by developing these different characters simultaneously?

This is a story that goes far beyond what happens to Pepa and Gilbert. The other main characters, Gilbert’s sister and her girlfriend, the priest, the nuclear scientist, the mayor, and the acolyte reflect the complexities involved when a developer seeks to disrupt a community. I felt I couldn’t tell this story without bringing their voices to the forefront, too.

5.    Going off of the last question, you chose to not only incorporate different characters, but they are characters that seem to be the minority within this particular community, a white man, a lesbian couple, a priest who is doubtful of his beliefs and vocation. How did you attempt to balance the book between all of these personalities and the actual problem they faced?

In addition to Pepa Romero, who anchors the story, the novel needed other voices to represent the community impacted by the proposed development and the key players who seek to destroy it. Delving into the hearts and minds of several different characters was challenging because I needed to fully embrace each person’s complexity and visualize who they were, what they cared about, and how they moved through the world. I didn’t consciously decide to create “minority” characters, I simply thought that most communities that have large numbers of people of color also have a plethora of personalities.

6.    I think like many people, we tend to be shaped not only by the cultural landscape in which we grow up in, but also our physical surroundings. In your book, the city of Santa Fe itself plays a major role in the story and the resolution. How closely did you intend for the physical environment to be a manifestation of the present situation?

I am originally from a small town in Northern New Mexico and went to Santa Fe often. When I’d speak to non-New Mexicans about Santa Fe I’d often encounter revered tones of wonder. I too, think the town is beautiful and love it dearly. But it’s a different place now than it was years ago and many people can no longer afford to live there. This, of course is happening in other places across our country, especially here in the Bay Area. Somehow I felt Santa Fe exemplified what happens when places become so special only the rich can actually live there. 
I also didn’t plan to write this kind of story, but I think it exemplifies some of the things I care about. Still, I couldn’t help injecting humor into the narrative and had a great time writing it. I do hope readers will be entertained by characters, the humor, the subtext of spirituality, and of course, what happens! 

Carla Trujillo was born to a working class family in New Mexico and grew up in Northern California. Her extended family and roots are New Mexican. She received her B.S. degree in Human Development from UC Davis, and her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Educational Psychology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is the editor of two anthologies, Living Chicana Theory (Third Woman Press), and Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About (Third Woman Press), winner of a Lambda Book Award and the Out/Write Vanguard Award. Her first novel, What Night Brings (Curbstone Press 2003), won the Miguel Marmol prize focusing on human rights. What Night Brings also won the Paterson Fiction Prize, the Latino Literary Foundation Book Award, Bronze Medal from Foreword Magazine, Honorable Mention for the Gustavus Meyers Books Award, and was a LAMBDA Book Award finalist. Her latest novel, Faith and Fat Chances (Curbstone Books/Northwestern University Press 2015), was a finalist for the PEN-Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.  Carla has also written various articles on identity, race, gender, and higher education, worked as the Assistant Dean for Graduate Diversity at U.C. Berkeley, and lectured at Berkeley, Mills College, and S.F. State University. She has also taught fiction for the Sandra Cisneros Macondo Writers Program and the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Emerging Writers Retreat.