There's more than corn in Indiana (cont.)
Terra Haute, IN
My visit to Indiana State University's Department of English took place on Wednesday, March 4, with a reading at 3:30. This was an opportunity to meet with my new yet good friend Aaron Michael Morales. There was a good crowd, primarily undergraduate students. As I mentioned earlier, I never had a Latino/a English professor during my undergraduate years; and about the only time I ever have a chance to get together with them in my present life seems to be at the AWP Conference. It was good to see Aaron interacting with his writing students. I read from two sections of the novel, providing the audience with a sense of Ernest and Magdalene’s perspectives. The questions and answer period went well---in particular because the students had some insightful questions regarding character and my writing process. A discussion of fictional time was engaging as well. It is easy to express the importance of controlling time—that’s fundamental for writing fiction. But the question of stepping into the immediate moment-to-moment sensation of a fiction, discovering or choosing what moment is in the middle of things—well, that is not so easy. And then there is the question of how a writer turns—forms or translates—the mysterious dream in their mind into another dream that no matter when a reader picks up the book, even a 100 years later, they are utterly convinced by and transported into that dream. My sense of response is never to provide some exact answer. Rather, I try to provide metaphorical or imaginative possibilities, so students can go away and say, O, maybe I can begin to imagine my writing in this way. . . . Or: if I begin reading with a greater sense of detail and nuance, perhaps I’ll discover these things. . .
Quite a few students and faculty bought books, and so I had a chance to sign books and engage in more pleasant conversation. (There’s a nice write up of the event by a student and writer, Nick Hedrick, at the Indiana Statesman.)
Aaron Michael Morales is also a fiction writer, actually an accomplished fiction writer who is innovative in all the right ways—that is, he grounds his innovation deeply within a diverse tradition. Momotombo Press published Aaron’s chapbook of stories, From Here You Can Almost See the End of the Desert, with an introduction by Luis Alberto Urrea. Although our aesthetics seem different on the surface, we have many affinities. I’m looking forward to the publication of Aaron’s novel, Drowning Tucson, which will be released by Coffee House Press in 2010. Aaron took me out to dinner afterwards, and he chose my favorite kind of place: an old historic building, much wood and wear and tear, housing a brewpub. Good drinks and fine conversation was the tenor of the evening.
West Lafayette, IN
My visit to Purdue University was both an honor and a pleasure. When I began attending Purdue University in 1990’s, I arrived with two years of credit from a community college and the local university, Indiana University-South Bend (IUSB). In South Bend I had worked a 12 hour night swing-shift while attending classes, working on Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday one week, and the same the following week with the addition of Tuesday. I often walked around half asleep, and even though I was receiving decent grades, it was clear there was much more I could accomplish if I didn’t have to work. The woman who would become my wife, Jill, persuaded me to apply to Purdue, and fortunately I was accepted. I was only able to save $3,000 before the school year started, and as soon as I arrived I had to pay around $1,900 for tuition. I worried about money. I felt out of place as an older student, and although I was driven by a hunger to experience and learn, I still possessed the energy of work that didn’t seem to have a place at the university. But I read regularly, often, and voraciously; I continued to write: I wrote many, many poems, stories, and two novels.
The Department of English, the Creative Writing Program, and the Latino Cultural Center sponsored my reading that took place on Thursday, March 5, 2009. (The Latino Cultural Center included me in their Semana de La Raza events). The graduate student and fiction writer Dan Tyx introduced my reading with an intelligent, passionate, and generous reading of The Region of Lost Names. He began with a memory from my teacher, mentor, and friend, the fiction writer Patricia Henley. She recalled my reading and writing outside the Department of English, and how I carried a little red dictionary around with me to look up and learn words I didn’t know. Dan then found an insightful connection with my novel, focusing on a scene where Magdalene works with a red Webster’s dictionary. In all my years of working on this novel I didn’t consciously make that connection. And here I was back at Purdue with the dictionary back in my hotel room, in my luggage. I had to recognize Patricia Henley and Purdue for being such a positive force as I began my writing life. Before my reading, I shared those autobiographical elements about work and money when arriving at Purdue; I think it is important to consider the place from which one’s writing emerges, especially since many might assume I didn’t come from such a poor and simple and real milieu. Writing saved me in many ways, and I needed to begin the event with a sense of gratitude for that. It was an emotional beginning.
My sense is that the reading and the question and answer period that followed went quite well. Just before reading I decided to bring together two moments I had not read together before, and they seemed to offer a good portrait of Ernest and Magdalene, as well as dramatic themes at work in the novel. There were some excellent, fascinating questions raised about my writing process, and how the color blue and music are forces within my writing. One of the great compliments I received had to do with my responses not having an immediate kind of nuts and bolts response, nor focused primarily on craft or technique. Rather, my responses seem to arise out of an interaction with a dream space, and thus the responses arose more from an artistic process. One of the most important questions came from an undergraduate, who asked what inspired me to write my characters. There were many ways for me to approach this question, but I had to carefully consider how I don’t write “characters.” Instead, there are peoples who inspire me to write. A person like Boogaloo, for instance, who is a composite of many men I’ve encountered in my life, and who gave his life in work to a region that did not recognize his name, is a man I had to closely listen to, a man I had to see and feel and remember through the physical experiences and details of his life, a man who taught me, for example, how to hold and use a machete with beauty and grace and power, and so Boogaloo is man who inspires me to write. I’ve spent the last 12 years with the peoples in The Region of Lost Names. On my most worthless days, when it seemed no one cared for me, when I could have ended it all and I’m not sure many would have minded, Magdalene and Ernest were there for me, they were ready to listen and talk and feel. They cared. As long as I placed them in a particular, sensual place where they were engaged with the physical world, my life became all the more meaningful—and then all the more extraordinary and new. So they weren’t characters. They intimately inspired a region between the land and the sea where I could discover new names.
After the reading I signed books, and I had a chance to meet up with professors from my time at Purdue as well as undergraduate and graduate students, an old friend who was a fellow students during my MA time, and I had the wonderful opportunity to meet up with a former student of mine, who is now a Ph.D. candidate at Purdue. We left the Krannert Auditorium for a gathering at an Irish pub, where animated talk, drinks, and laughter took over the night. I remember a long discussion with a graduate student, James, about the Bay Area, and how we’ve both spent time in Point Reyes, making our way slowly up the northern California coast, and how the experience (there’s no other way to say it) borders on the religious. You are on a kind of unintentional pilgrimage, a journey of new discovery, and you encounter a diverse landscape (golden hills, the rolling pastures and thick woods, everywhere the smell of eucalyptus, the sea, the rainbow glint of broken abalone shells), and often you are shocked to realize how you are alone. There’s no one else on the road, on the trail, along the beach. In such a densely populated part of the world, there all alone, you can discover how we are meant to say close to the earth. There’s a deep song rising all around. And these are the kinds of experiences—I think we agreed—that are deeply ingrained in whatever we imagine and write.
The following day, Friday, March 6, there was a Q & A at 10:30am, so I tried not to stay out too late. I decided to read a small passage from The Region of Lost Names, basically an image, and use that as springboard for considering how my writing (characters and stories) don’t arise from an idea but a feeling, and then referred to a Lan Samantha Chang interview, “Breakouts and Breakthroughs,” published in Purdue’s Creative Writing Program’s Sycamore Review (21.2 [Winter/Spring 2009]: 94-105). I wanted to think about how certain emotional states and moments provide an energy that is, for me, much more powerful than an idea. We feel the power of these emotions and moments as we experience them from book to book, from a wide variety of literatures across the globe. So, for example, war, rites of passages, or first times are not primarily ideas—they are experiences, and they are not experienced as a whole narrative or story, but emotionally charged moments that fragment experience, then transform that experience, and then begin to move towards meaningful reflection, articulation, and form. That’s what I wanted to get to. I wanted to get to how deadly serious writing is. Even though you might live in a world that does everything it can to deny or kill your writing, the power of art, you can create a pocket of resistance to make your writing matter. And so the passage I read to begin the Q & A was one that Francisco referred to: the image of a man lying on the ground, drunk. I gave the real experience—the daemonic image that obsessively returns—of that image, how it is provides a mysterious yet necessary emotion and moment to write from. I considered in very similar terms to the moment I described in the interview with Francisco, how there was a real moment in my life that I can’t shake.
The Purdue Creative Writing Program felt small and excellent when I was there; it was the whole, fine world I knew. The Program has grown and flourished over the years, and I thank Porter Shreve, its Director, for making a special effort to have me inaugurate the return of alums to read. The students I met were inquisitive, smart, and they were seriously attentive to their writing. I’m sure the Creative Writing Program will continue to flourish with excellence.
There is, of course, more than corn in Indiana. There are fine people writing important stories, gathering together in community to honor stories that arise from the land, and with the folks at the Latino Studies Department and Letras Latinas at the University of Notre Dame, and the Latino Cultural Center at Purdue University, there is a growing archive of research, knowledge, and representations that help to make a sense of “home” possible and real for Latinos. Perhaps the trip to Indiana was a kind of homecoming. Perhaps not. Maybe just a new beginning. I’m fond of the possibilities found in Jan Carew’s profound “The Caribbean Writer and Exile,” which has influenced my memory and imagination, and I’m remembering specifically Carew writing, “The river can be the symbol of the exile journeying outwards or the exile coming home.”
Des Moines, IA