Recently, Ashley McCaffrey, a student in Alex Espinoza's (author of Still Water Saints) "Chicanismo" class at California State University, Fresno during the Spring 2010 semester, interviewed me for a class project. Due to the very intelligent and poignant questions I was asked as well as the current debate on cultural studies in Arizona and the recent push for a "new" curriculum in Texas, I felt it was appropriate to share this interview on Letras Latinas Blog.
McCaffrey: In class we talked a lot about the concept of identity and how important of a theme that is within Chicano literature. How would you identify yourself? Do you consider yourself a Chicano/a poet or writer?
Medrano:Though I was born and raised here, in Fresno, and my family are peramently part of this valley fabric, I called myself Mexican. In Mexico, obviously this identity wouldn't fly, after all my parents were raised on Motown and The Beatles, but they were raised on mariachi and cumbias as well. It wasn't until college when I first started calling myself Chicano. I took chicano studies classes and became an activist in Mecha and The Brown Berets(the second incarnation) and began identifying closer to my indigenous roots. Then, sometime around 97' I fell for poetry. So, 13 years of poetry I've been writing, and I think now, I'm starting to adopt more the idea of a writer. Of course I'm a writer; I write poems, stories, prose poems, essays. But now, I'm starting to feel more comfortable as a writer. As far as identity goes, I'm so comfortbable at being Chicano, at thinking progressively, I no longer feel like I have to aspire to be that, like when I first started college.
McCaffrey: We read many different works in our class such as Ron Arias, Marisela Norte and John Phillip Santos. Have any Chicano/a writers inspired you? What other authors do you look up to?
Medrano: Chican@ literature was central to my beginnings as a writer. I used to think being a raza writer meant had to romanticize the cholo or write about the Aztecs, or try to model Corky Gonzalez's Yo Soy Joaquin. Then the late poet Andres Montoya introduced me to Luis Omar Salinas, and his writing did it for me. Salinas, who left us in 2008, wrote about everything: love, madness, despair, justice; everything I was in love with at the time, and still am. I'm also a student of Juan Felipe Herrera whose writings and commitment to fleshing out the best of his students is very admirable. Other writers/poets I have an affinity for among contmporary poets/writers include Dorianne Laux, Charles Simic, Lydia Davis, Lorna Dee Cervantes, and countless others. I always come back to James Wright, Allen Ginsburg, Wislawa Zymborska, Anna Swir...too many to name!
McCaffrey: What styles of writing interest you?
Medrano: In graduate school Ray Gonzalez introduced me to the prose poem. Over the past six years my writings have leaned more and more towards the hybrid poem and I'm starting to feel more at ease with both poetry and fiction. I'm completing a prose poem/flash fiction manuscript and felt that I've actually established more care in these prose poems than in my poetry, that is, I'm spending more time with each individual piece. I hope to finish the novel I've been working on, (off and on since 2009) which is about a second generation Chicano movement activist becoming disenfranchised w/ the civil rights organizations he belongs to.
McCaffrey: In your writing do you feel you fit into Chicano literary cannon or do try to break outside of that mold?
Medrano: That's a very good question. Prior to my mfa experience in Minnesota, I did not want be identified as a Chicano writer, instead, I purposely tried to resist familiar Chicano literary motifs. However, living in the upper Midwest, in a writing program which was dominated by caucasian females, I quickly realized, not only how culturally different I was, but also, how much more male I did not want to admit to be. I was still part of the minority and majority culture and didn't know it. I had to just shut up and write and not think about those things.
McCaffrey: How did you begin doing poetry slams? Why do you like participating in them? What are some of the most memorable moments that you have had during these slams?
Medrano: Actually I like attending slams more than participating in them. I've been in, no more than five, since I first started performing at the Fresno open mics and elsewhere. Personally, it feels a little game-showesque...in other words,the energy is amped up, maybe too much? There is a history of me cracking in that competitive pressure. Go figure...I send my work out for publication!
McCaffrey: In class we talked a lot about how the need to diversify the literary cannon in high schools and colleges. What do you think about this and how do you think it might be accomplished?
Medrano: I think cultural studies courses are at heart in this debate: right now there are people who actually believe a diverse curriculum, such as Chicano Studies actually fosters racism. Actually these people who are anti-cultural studies courses are the same people who do not want a diverse literary canon. It's really about people of the majority culture who are more interested in stomping out our dreams to write good literature, theater, art, etc. So many of our writers who are recognized in this "canon", i.e. Gary Soto, Sandra Cisneros, etc. would not have the readership they have been afforded because of cultural studies courses.
McCaffrey: What do you hope to see for Chicano literature in the future?
Medrano: Well, given the recent immigration and cultural studies debates in Arizona, if this trend of hatred continues to influence other states in doing the same, then we better write like our lives depend on it, something we've always done. We're not going anywhere!
Ashley McCaffrey is an undergraduate student at Calfiornia State University, Fresno in Fresno, CA.
Michael Luis Medrano is the author of Born in the Cavity of Sunsets (Bilngual Press). He teaches English and writes in Fresno, CA.