Friday, January 12, 2018

SAVE THE DATE: Wednesday, February 28

University of Notre Dame’s
Institute for Latino Studies

are pleased to present

A reading and Q&A with award-winning poet

(photo credit: Anna Ruth Zamora)
author of:

 to learn more visit:

Zamora will be debuting new poems in association with:

to learn more visit:

join us: 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

7:30 PM
(doors open at 7:00 PM)

UC Washington Center
(multi-purpose room, 1st floor)
1608 Rhode Island Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20036

(between 17th and 16th NW
Farragut North Metro--red line)

free and open to the public
electronic RSVP required

[RSVP link forthcoming]

book sales and signing to follow

in collaboration with:



Sunday, December 24, 2017

Orlando and Other Stories: An interview with Norman Antonio Zelaya

Orlando and Other Stories

an interview with Norman Antonio Zelaya
conducted by Therese Marie Konopelski

Orlando and Other Stories is a collection that focuses on the life of a Nicaraguan special education teacher in the Mission District of San Francisco. In his daily life, “Tonio” encounters difficult subjects such as financial struggles, gentrification, and racism. Tonio is characterized by a giving heart and exhibits true compassion for the Mission District natives that Zelaya conjures. 

Tonio is also a very timely protagonist who juggles two jobs to make ends meet, is involved with a long term partner, Melly, and holds an outlook that prioritizes the collective. As a millennial myself, I enjoyed seeing how Tonio improved his interpersonal relationships. His interactions with a changing world (that mirrors our own) were an uplifting example of promoting social justice in our daily lives. This interview attempts to explore the creation of the colorful characters in Zelaya's Mission District and address the overall message of the work.

-Therese Konopelski, University of Notre Dame (class of 2020)

[Therese Konopelski]: In “Orlando and Other Stories” you cultivate the voice of “Tonio,” a young Latino San Francisco native who teaches special education. His narrative is written in first person, but the details and names used throughout the overall work seem to indicate his character is removed in some degree from your life, though modeled on your own experience. How did you create Tonio as a character, and to what degree could these stories be considered fiction?

[Norman Antonio Zelaya]: First, this is a complete work of fiction. It is what allows me to write about all my characters and keep them removed from my life. This also allows me to talk about the characters objectively, to discuss their development and the plot and setting in literary terms as opposed to openly discussing the gory details of my life. I have spent 30 years crafting a voice and a narrative device that suits the rhythms and sounds and movements of my home, the Mission in San Francisco. Tonio has finally grown up; the great majority of my unpublished work deals with being a young child or adolescent in the barrio. But given the current times and the changes that have come at light speed and unchecked, a mature, adult Tonio is the character I need to address the modern San Francisco and what it takes to survive today.

The other reason I believe Tonio seems removed to some degree from his own life is that he is also telling other people’s stories. He lives in the details of his various relationships: folks from the neighborhood, old friends, co-workers, his love interest Melly, neighbors. They are a part of his life experience and affect him on a daily basis. He must talk about them. That is not a choice.

 [TK]: In the story “Tommy on the Bus,” Tonio encounters a childhood friend who has experienced an entirely different life trajectory, though they both came from similar humble beginnings. In the following story “Next Time,” Tonio meets a druggie while stopping at the ATM. Both interactions are distinguished by a great deal of compassion, kindness, and respect from Tonio. Though very socially concerned, do you consider Tonio to be a gentrifier? Are these types of stories commonly experienced by those who grew up in the Mission District? What future do you see for the Mission District and its gentrification?

[NAZ]: Tonio is not a gentrifier. Twenty years ago an acquaintance said a similar thing to me. She said that I was a part of the gentrification because it began with the appearance of artists in the Mission. But she didn’t take into account that I had been in the neighborhood all my life. My presence didn’t change the complexion of the Mission; those first gentrifiers were mostly white artists. What I did as an occupation – broke ass poet and student – didn’t affect the economy of the neighborhood nor raise the rents. Tonio works two jobs, 7 days a week to make it in that apartment on Mission. If anything, he adds to the cultural flavor that brings folks to the Mission, unbeknownst to them. Now, that struggle is typical of any teacher working in the San Francisco public school system. Being from the barrio is what allows Tonio to be compassionate and act kindly and respectfully to the folks around him. The people who have just arrived to San Francisco walk from their homes to the bus or the train without giving folks like Tommy or that young woman a second thought. I argue that those people have more a right to the neighborhood because they are fixtures in the community. They have been here all along.

And by the way, they are human beings, too. Tonio acknowledges their humanity. Those are his folks.

[TK]: Of the seven stories comprising this work, one of them departs from Tonio’s perspective: Burn This Motherfucker To The Ground. We meet Domingo, a bright hard-working college student who waits tables. How do you believe this narrative connects to the overall story arc (if you intended it to) and what similarities do you see between Domingo and Tonio or Domingo and Rolando?

[NAZ]: The similarities I see between Domingo and Tonio are that they both love school and reading and studies. They both have made decisions about the passions in their lives and have acted on them. Unfortunately, Domingo has come along a little later than Tonio and has had to struggle earlier on in his trajectory. Tonio, being older and further along in his career, is better equipped to handle the tech driven economy of San Francisco. Tonio also benefited from a time where kids were encouraged to do what they liked. Now, it is all about code and everything else has less value, save the traditional money making occupations. Domingo voices that frustration that many people feel. The city seems to support certain people to make it and others to be left in a struggle that worsens each year.

[TK]: Tonio’s girlfriend Melly is what many would call a strong woman: passionate, intelligent, beautiful, and independent. Tonio and Melly complement each other in a domestic partnership that is characterized by mutual respect. Why do you believe Melly and Tonio managed to overcome their frictions?

[NAZ]: Mutual respect and understanding are important. Patience. Earlier on, I believe Melly was more of a free spirit and intent on indulging her impulses. I also believe Tonio may not have known how to be loose of his strong connections to home and his resistance to leave. They both recognized their personalities complemented each other – a playfulness, a ying and yang, Melly’s strong persona and Tonio’s ease around so much force of character. In the end, it was timing. Something of them remained dormant until the right time to awaken.

[TK]: Tonio seems to undertake a great deal of responsibility and stress teaching special education in San Francisco, as I am sure you do as well in your personal day-to-day life in the same position. How do you balance your writing and teaching career? How does your Nicaraguan-American background influence your writing?

[NAZ]: There is no balance between writing and life and a teaching career in Special Education. It consumed me. And the fact that I wasn’t earning enough to meet my needs meant I had to spend more time working and less writing. I spent vacation time writing. At some points in my journey, I have had to say fuck everybody – FUCK EVERYBODY – and got back to writing because that is who I am. I have held on to this dream to my own detriment; I have done serious harm to my personal life because I have insisted on continuing to write until I undeniably failed. Also, I don’t know what else I would do if I wasn’t teaching. Maybe the fact that I was intent on being a writer and publishing a book kept me from even looking at what I could possibly do. I am smart guy. I am sure I could do many things. But I never looked. I couldn’t bring myself to stop and check listings. It would have taken a tremendous and intense effort that I didn’t have in me.

My Nica background influences my vocabulary, the Spanish I use, the food I describe and my characters eat, the rhythm of my narrative, the voice of the characters from the neighborhood, the pride I have in knowing Nicaragua’s literary legacy beginning with the great poet and national hero, Rubén Darío to other poets and now someone like Francisco Aragon, whom I didn’t know and much less that he is Nicoya AND from San Francisco real close to where I grew up. All the relatives in my writing – abuelita, mother, brothers, sister, cousins, father – are nicaragüense. Nicaragua is in almost every word I write.

[TK]: Rolando exhibits a great deal of personal growth with the support of his loving uncle, Tonio: obtaining an academic scholarship to the University of San Francisco, exploring his roots in Nicaragua, and eventually coming out of the closet. Who or what was the inspiration for Rolando’s character; Rolando being an anagram of Orlando? What value do you see in mentorship and supportive role models for Latino youth?

[NAZ]: Rolando came out of my great desire to make a connection to the Latinx community of Orlando. I saw those faces and I said, ‘That is me. They are me.’ A boricua friend of mine also shared something about those folks perhaps being forgotten because of their caribeño names. I don’t want them to be forgotten. So, I wrote the story in honor and solidarity with all my folks across this country. Mentorship is critical. To a certain extent, I take the opportunity to make Tonio something of the person I would have liked to have been when I was younger. Someone better able to handle the challenges of life and not make as many mistakes. But that is impossible. We have to make those mistakes. In some conditions, we are bound to repeat mistakes.

[TK]: The last story, Orlando, gives the work its primary namesake. In its shocking conclusion, Rolando is killed in the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting. Within this work, of course, there are literally other stories, and other tragedies, like the harmless “Suspicious Man.”  However, it struck me that the many tragic mass shootings, hate crimes, and police brutalities in recent American history are also “Other Stories,” with other families, other uncles, and other nephews. How do these events inform the American identity, as they often target any type of “uncomfortable” otherness? As a writer pulling from these emotional and important subjects, how do you seek to impact your audience?

[NAZ]: The understanding has to be that these events do not target outsiders. They target us. Greg was someone who worked more than 20 years in the community. The victims of the Pulse Night Club were members of the community if not Americans. In certain situations, some people benefit from making the victims outsiders. It is easier to justify when they are not one of us. But I question how we identify outsiders by reminding folks to look at the people who walk the streets alongside us. That young woman [“Next Time”] has a history and story that ties her to the Mission much more so than anyone who has gotten here in the past 5 years.

As a writer, I will always connect myself to those folks waiting at the bus stop, in line at the grocery outlet, at the laundromat. I have always been among them. They have always been my people.


Norman Antonio Zelaya was born and raised in San Francisco, CA. he has published stories in ZYZZYVA, NY Tyrant, 14 Hills, Cipactli, Apogee Journal, among others, and he was a 2015 Zoetrope: All-Story finalist. He is a founding member of Los Delicados, and has performed extensively throughout the US with them. Zelaya has appeared on stage, in film and in the squared circle as luchador, Super Pulga. Currently, he lives and works in San Francisco's Mission District as a special education teacher. Orlando & Other Stories is his first published book. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

House Built on Ashes: An interview with José Antonio Rodríguez

House Built on Ashes

an interview with José Antonio Rodríguez
conducted by Therese Marie Konopelski

House Built on Ashes is an episodic memoir spanning the childhood and young adulthood of José Antonio Rodríguez.  From humble beginnings in a small town in Mexico to a future in suburban America, Antonio Rodríguez overcame many odds to reach graduate school. When José, as a doctoral student, hears his hometown has been overtaken by drug lords, he remembers his past in La Sierrita. Though steeped in realism, the work is reflective and expansive, giving the reader a broadened perspective of American society and immigrant families. The work is somewhat of a bildungsroman; José awakens to his surroundings, discovers his place in the world, and challenges it. In an exquisitely painful and beautiful manner, the youth finds himself, who “José” is, amidst the poorness, queerness, “otherness” that make him “different.” Young José’s conclusions emerge as shaping influences for himself and the reader as he struggles with various burdens.

Many family norms in my own life, and surely many other Hispanic children’s lives, are represented in this memoir. I also grew up hearing maxims to discourage greediness such as “No seas sinvergüenza” or “Se dice no gracias cuando te preguntan.” As a child of a Peruvian immigrant, observing the differences and similarities of our families gave me a greater understanding of my mother. Certain values, it seems, are universal in Hispanic culture especially those that dictate what is considered good manners. Personally, this work prompted me to question aspects of my upbringing that I had taken for granted. This interview attempts to investigate José as a protagonist and explore major themes of the memoir. We also discuss the adaptable nature of a memoir and Rodriguez as an author.

-Therese Konopelski, University of Notre Dame (class of 2020)

[Therese Konopelski]: Since you have published two poetry collections prior to this memoir, what do you think prompted you to write many of your formative childhood experiences in prose? Your poem “Between Snores and Polyester,” a tender scene between mother and child, has similar subject matter as the vignette “Dark Loud.” While writing the memoir, how did your creative process differ when you drew from memories that also inspired your poetry?

[José Antonio Rodríguez]: Because the poems felt focused on image and fragmented, I felt there was still more potential to the material, more to explore or to explore differently, with a narrator and a discernible narrative arc. The scope of the genres is also different. Where the poetry was centered on one overriding theme or idea, the prose was more expansive, which allowed for not only the expression of the experience but also something of the narrator’s thinking process, his tangling with experience and the formation of meaning around experience. I also felt that I could reach a larger audience through prose, because poetry in general doesn’t sell very well. So, it was several considerations, literary and material, that compelled me to explore similar subject matter in the form of memoir. About the creative process, I have to say the writing of the memoir, at least the first draft, felt less cerebral. The earliest draft was one long fit of inspiration.

[TK]: Your memories are recounted candidly and vividly, including both the joys and sufferings of each moment. How did you discern which experiences to include in your memoir? Because the first narratives are set at a very early age, were your earliest memories informed by how your family members remember your childhood? How have your relatives received your writing, considering much of it deals with private family matters?

[JAC]: The family members who’ve read it have been very supportive and kind in their assessment of my writing. It’s been lovely. Other than checking with family on a few dates, the text is all rooted in my memory. About what to include: in one sense, it was an organic process, certainly at the drafting stage when I was feeling my way through the story. I was crafting vignettes from most of my vivid memories without judging how they fit into the longer narrative. Later, once I had a draft and began to better articulate for myself the narrator’s journey, the conflict(s), and the antagonist(s), so to speak, the process of adding and removing became more deliberate and organized.  For example, several themes are explored in the work, such as home, individual agency and identity, and community and belonging, and my aim was to balance these themes throughout the work.

[TK]:  In the non-digital past, memoirs were mostly written by adults of an advanced age. Since then, the genre has expanded to include younger authors. As an LGBT Mexican immigrant and a former first-generation student, you have a very powerful life story that you have chosen to share in this work. Why did you choose to focus on your youth and young adulthood, excluding more recent experiences?

[JAC]: I didn’t choose to focus on my youth at first. The decision came as I was writing it out, and that last scene felt like a natural ending, not necessarily the ending of the entire story of my life but the ending of that story. As you know, memoir lends itself to exploring compartmentalized eras or aspects of a life. Mark Doty’s and Nick Flynn’s multiple memoirs come to mind, for example. The main reason for me was focus; I really wanted to focus on the narrator’s childhood because it was so rich and formative in all those beautiful and ugly and complicated ways. I know it may sound strange, but I also felt that if I kept writing about my later experiences, then the boy’s life, his immense pain and confusion and capacity for appreciating beauty, would not be given its due. I wanted to honor him.

[TK]: Each section is written in diction appropriate to the age and perspective of a young José. As a result, the work is accessible and meaningful to a variety of ages, though it deals with many mature themes. What impact do you hope your memoir will have on your audience, considering those of similar or dissimilar backgrounds as yourself and different age groups?

[JAC]: I’m excited at the idea of different age groups being able to appreciate the text. For those with similar backgrounds as mine, I’d like for them to see themselves in literature, in this art, to see themselves visible or represented in this way because I didn’t in my youth. For those with dissimilar backgrounds, I’d like for them to get a peek into an immigrant’s experience, a queer boy’s experience, a poor child’s experience interacting with the institutions of power that have immense influence over our lives. For every reader, I hope to defamiliarize many of the trappings of western society that we take for granted or assume are universal and, in so doing, highlight the immense complexity (and conflicts) of our formations as subjects and citizens of a nation state.

[TK]: Each story has thought-provoking endings that capture José’s feelings about each episode. Two favorites of mine were those of “Like a Boy” and “Matchstick Boy:” “In my chest, right beneath that bone in the middle, a little feeling of hardness settles like a small stone;” “whatever she says back to you can’t be worse than you keeping your words inside, than you saying nothing at all.” How did you choose which aspects informed the final lines of the narrative? In hindsight, what importance do you attach to formative thoughts such as these during your journey to adulthood?

[JAC]: Well, I’m a big fan of ambiguity because it highlights moments of uncertainty or doubt in the narrator’s mind, moments that I think are valuable and generative for all individuals. I feel that society keeps pushing us past these moments of uncertainty, keeps ushering us into answers and certainty because that’s supposed to communicate strength and resolve; so those endings are a bit of resistance against that push and a way of communicating this particular narrator’s every-present sense of conflict or uncertainty with the world around him. About their importance, I think many times those thoughts were brief and transitory because life was coming at the narrator from every direction, but they left a trace of potential or possibility, and that capacity to imagine other ways that one might confront a situation or react to it, is their greatest gift to the narrator. To me. It is a great irony that often that which estranges us from our environment allows for the possibility of better powers of observation, which is integral to writing. I was pushed to the margins or estranged from the environment in so many ways, that I was left observing the world rather than fully being in it.

[TK]: The memoir’s epigraph from “And the Earth Did Not Devour Him,” by Tomás Rivera, recounts a poor child’s admiration for his teacher; he offers one of his only buttons. “She didn’t know whether he did this to be helpful, to feel like he belonged or out of love for her.” Comparably, many of the vignettes involve a younger José yearning for love, affection, and belonging. Of Mr. Gonzalez, a teacher, he wonders “what it would be like to be his son, to do math with him always, eat hamburgers and fries with him, to come home to him.” (131) Why do you think poverty fostered the themes from the epigraph to occur in a José’s life? Are role models that inspire this type of admiration a positive or negative influence for a child? 

[JAC]: Poverty is damaging to the self both directly and indirectly. It deprives the person of a stable material existence, rendering life precarious, but it also does this to the person’s loved ones, the family, and so then crucial, formative relationships become adversely affected. So this is how you get a narrator who’s been neglected and who seeks out attention and affection at school with a fervor that can surprise the adults. Perhaps others will disagree because they’ve experienced poverty differently, but from what I’ve lived and witnessed, it affects all aspects of the individual. Role models that model healthy affection, attention, and love, are always positive. I was fortunate to have some great teachers.

[TK]: When José visits La Sierrita in the last story, “The Other Side,” he anticipates an Odyssean homecoming, during which his trials and accomplishments would be recognized. Instead, he finds a deserted scene. He proceeds to imagine the departed villagers in America and hopes “they find what they’re searching for on the other side” (186). Did you intend to have a character arc for José? He is mostly self-absorbed prior to this moment, preoccupied with his own advancement and difficulties. Do you feel José becomes more mature and is more likely to consider the feelings and interests of others now? What message does this contain for young people with similar upbringings?

[JAC]: It’s interesting that you see the narrator as self-absorbed. Maybe he is. Rather than self-absorbed, I’d call him extremely self-conscious and hyper-vigilant of himself, his behavior and his wants and desires, precisely because as a minority he finds himself in a mostly unwelcoming environment, an environment he’s always monitoring for his own sense of safety. His dreams of recognition are compensatory due to his incredible sense of inadequacy, but his mother’s comment of the other residents leaving to the U.S. situates his story under a wider lens. At that moment he begins to see how his story may be tied to so many others’ stories. I hope the message is that to truly understand the communal, or the other, one must first understand oneself.

[TK]: Hearing that your Mexican hometown was overtaken by drug cartels triggers the flashback within the narrative to your childhood. La Sierrita is personally very significant to you, but it holds many memories of oppressive heat, poverty, and hardship. What do you believe are the ramifications of promoting cultural assimilation, that American identity should come at the expense of Mexican identity? How do you think your writing, which conveys various aspects of growing up in Mexican and American cultures, encourages a healthier perspective of being Mexican-American?

[JAC]: I’m personally suspect of any over-investment in one’s nationality, whatever that may be, because it is ultimately a social construct that is always evolving. But in particular, this American nation is rooted in the concept of exceptionalism, the idea that America is special and unique among nations and therefore superior. This hierarchy is problematic for everyone for many reasons, but for immigrants it can manifest itself in shame in one’s national origin or past experiences because it becomes “inferior” or “backward”. This can also create a distance or conflict between generations, such as between my Americanized self and my Mexican parents, which in my case was painful and disorienting, though in my youth it was difficult to articulate or even recognize. This dissonance is not insignificant and is one of the issues I try to address in the memoir. I hope that my writing points to an embrace of hybridity and a suspicion of misguided notions of purity, whether it be about nationality or culture or sexuality or language.


José Antonio Rodríguez’s books include the memoir House Built on Ashes and the poetry collections The Shallow End of Sleep and Backlit Hour. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, POETRY, The New Republic, Luna Luna, RHINO, The Texas Observer, and elsewhere. He holds a Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing from Binghamton University and teaches in the M.F.A. program at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. Learn more at