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 Tonio has finally grown up; the great majority of my unpublished work deals with being a young child or adolescent in the barrio.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. 

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