In your book, You Must Fight Them, the first story deals with a character’s desire to attain something, but he lacks the conviction to go through with the challenge he faces. Was this story intended to sort of set the theme for the other short stories in your book?
At first, the novella You Must Fight Them stood on its own, but I figured it would be hard to get a novella published so I decided to pair it with stories I’d been working on over the years. It wasn’t until I brought the novella and stories together that I saw that there were similar currents running throughout. The narrators all face predicaments that upend their lives – their sense of who they are, their convictions – and in their desire to explain, to rationalize, they always reveal more than they realize. The question, for me then, was why do these characters, all male and Latino, who at first seem so self-assured, become so easily unmoored? It was pointed out to me later just how applicable the novella’s title is to every story: each character must fight “them.” What that “them” looks like differs, but the fight is inescapable.
What was your intention in writing a book of short stories as opposed to writing one long story? At first, it seems like You Must Fight Them: a novella will be the entirety of the book, why the change just as the stories are hitting their defining point?
As I mentioned, the novella and stories were separate. I’m not much of a short story writer, meaning the ideas I have usually seem to require fleshing out over hundreds of pages. I’ve always been drawn to the long haul. I have less patience now, but when I first started reading as a writer (or thinking of myself as a writer) I loved the 19th century Russian novels – War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov – and I still think back with nostalgia to the weeks I spent living inside those worlds. But I also feel strongly that content drives form, and that some ideas work as short stories, others as novels, and other ideas fall somewhere in between. The story for You Must Fight Them came to me while hanging out with friends in Woodland. They were talking about how they had gone to high school with a beautiful girl whose three cholo brothers required you to fight them if you wanted to date her. One of my friends had actually fought the brothers, dated the girl for a while, and that was that. Everyone laughed at the memory, but then they shrugged it off. I was flabbergasted. What world was I living in? It seemed like something out of a Greek play. The story stuck with me and eventually it morphed into wondering what would happen if I found myself – or someone like me, complete with a moral and physical aversion to violence – in a similar predicament. Would I be able to fight the brothers? So to answer your question of why it ends where it does: the story, to my mind, was less about the relationship and more about the looming physical confrontation and all that it represents in the narrator’s life.
I want to highlight a specific component of this collection of stories. In particular the first and second stories touch upon this idea of balancing two different worlds. What was your approach at incorporating this element into the book?
Balancing different worlds is the story of my life. It informs my identity as a Chicano, which to me, is a term that encapsulates multiple and intersecting understandings of oneself. Some of it has to do with my own ethnic identity: my dad is Chicano, my mother is Jewish. Some of it is geography: I grew up in a small California town in the middle of fields and then went off to Ivy League schools. I’ve always felt like a country kid, an outsider, an interloper, and yet I’m not. I belong to these different worlds, and I have benefited from that belonging. I can’t pretend otherwise. So how do I manage being both an insider and outsider simultaneously? The answer is with difficulty and not without contradictions. For me, these stories speak to the almost schizophrenic confusion that results from this balancing act. If your pose is always changing, then how do you determine which is the most authentic? The reality is that our identities are not fixed, but that’s easier to say than to internalize.
The second story dealing with the professor and his defiant student Rodrigo brings up a conflict of “Machismo.” Rodrigo seems to question his legitimacy as someone who truly experienced a tough upbringing, on the contrary he had a lot of privilege. What is your personal take on this issue? Do you believe that having a privileged upbringing and opportunities takes away from this “machismo” that someone can have?
Not at all. In each of the stories we encounter sensitive men from different walks of life who have trouble articulating just what it is that afflicts them. This difficulty is in part a result of certain expectations that they have of what it means to be a man and their failure to live up to that definition. But the story “A Brief Explanation” has less to do with machismo and more to do with identity politics. The professor feels that in order to be viewed as an “authentic” Latino he must present himself as having lived a life more difficult than the privileged one he grew up in. I see this tendency all the time, a certain jockeying for working-class cred – Who grew up in more trying circumstances? Who had to overcome more obstacles? – as a way of proving your Chicanismo. This mindset is problematic. Yes, as a community we continue to struggle in very real ways, but we do a disservice to that struggle if the only path to address it is by pretending that we’re all the same, having lived through similarly oppressive circumstances. And I want to say that I’m guilty of this, too. In the 7th grade I wrote an essay expressing a wish that my mother wasn’t white. It was published in the school paper. My poor mom, I don’t think she’s gotten over it. I may have just wanted my Spanish to be better, but I was also trying to fit into a certain mold of what it meant to be Chicano. I was twelve, I can be forgiven, but to this day there are times when I find myself susceptible to that same pressure.
Something common amongst all of your stories, in particular Cesar Trejo’s knuckles, emphasize the point of following up on something. The character has this lasting desire to follow up on the punched wall, ultimately finding out about Cesar’s tragic end. Do you believe that it is always worth following up on something? Even though the outcome can be very uncertain?
I believe it is the artist’s task to follow up on something especially if you’re unsure of the outcome. Pursuing uncertainty makes for good plot development, but it also shapes the emotional core of a story. Author and protagonist alike must ask: why does this haunt me? Of all the many mysteries and uncertainties of life, why is it this one I can’t let go? In the case of “Cesar Trejo’s Knuckles,” I first wrote the story entirely focused on Cesar Trejo, a soldier who returns from Iraq, suffers from depression, and then takes his own life. I was unsatisfied with it, though, and set the story aside. Later, I was in the restroom at my neighborhood bar and I noticed numerous holes that had been punched in the wall, and for some reason it affected me deeply. The character Cesar Trejo had also been caught punching a hole in the bathroom wall. I realized then that I didn’t know anything about a soldier coming home from Iraq or PTSD. What I did know was what I saw right before me: busted drywall. The story’s core wasn’t about an Iraq veteran at all, it was about being trapped, it was about pent up anger and moments of uncontrollable rage, and it was also why I couldn’t help but see the holes as representative of a larger condition.
I have also read another one of your books, The Deportation of Wopper Barraza. Something that I believe bridges these two books are the connections between two cultures and worlds. What is your intention with this component? Is this intentional?
As I said above, living between worlds is something I constantly grapple with, and I see this as a good thing. I live a richer existence because of it. My work moves between different spheres of Mexican American life, and I do so because this fluidity reflects my day-to-day reality. The characters in the novella and short stories range from cholos, field laborers, cannery workers, and first and second-generation immigrants to privileged academics, artists, writers, and even a politician. As divergent as their paths appear, those same paths repeatedly intersect, and I want to explore those intersections, not necessarily because I as an artist want to bring these worlds together, but because the connections already exist.