"Chicano writers from El Paso are the most progressive, open-minded, far-reaching, and inclusive writers of them all."

Octavio Romano

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Guillermo Reyes Interview: author of "Madre and I: A Memoir of Our Immigrant Lives"

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Guillermo Reyes is one of the top Latino playwrights in the United States today. But life has been an revolving door of immigration, confusion, anger, Augusto Pinochet, and much more for this Chilean nateive. 

He is the writer of several plays including "Chilean Holiday," "Men on the Verge of a His-Panic Breakdown," "Deporting the Divas," "Miss Consuelo," "Allende by Pinochet," "The West Hollywood Affair," "The Seductions of Johnny Diego" and others.

He attended UCLA and later received his Masters Degree in Playwriting from University of California, San Diego (UCSD). He's currently Associate Professor of Theater at Arizona State University in Tempe and head of the playwriting program

Reyes' play Madison, won first prize in the Premiere Stages New Play Development award and was produced at Premiere Stages in Union, NJ in July 2008.

The author of the recent memoir, Madre and I: A Memior of our Immigrant Lives (Univesity of Wisconsin Press, May 2010), Reyes agreed to an interview with Pluma Fronteriza.

Madre and I: A Memoir of Our Immigrant Lives (Writing in Latinidad)

1. Raymundo Eli Rojas: Guillermo, Pluma Fronteriza has a a ton veteranos familiar with both Latino(a) and Chicana(o) writers. But we also have many novices, not the nuns (well maybe some), but I'm talking about people just gaining interest in Raza literature. 

For those who are unfamiliar with you and our writing and works, can you tell us a little about yourself: Where were you born and raised?

Guillermo Reyes: I was born in Chile, raised in Santiago for the first nine years of my life, but then my mother and I immigrated to the United States, landing in the Washington D.C. area, and then moving way across the country till we settled in Los Angeles, CA. 

That’s partly what the play is about, the long process of acculturation, learning English, and becoming “American” though in Chile we were taught we were all “Americans,” and that America was a continent.

In the U.S., that term got a bit twisted. We were suddenly non-Americans. It was certainly one of the struggles. We didn’t know we were “Hispanic” either because in Chile, we were taught we had declared independence from the Spaniards.

Imagine U.S. Americans calling themselves “English” because they spoke English. Here in the Southwest, we’ve seen the phenomenon that some people still call us “Spanish.” That’s bizarre, so the word Hispanic also seems odd to me. One gets tired of labels after a while.

  1. RR: Tell us about how you got into playwriting?

GR: It wasn’t just playwriting I got into. I considered myself an aspiring writer from very young. I wrote stories, novels, non-fiction essays, and plays and screenplays. I wanted to do it all. 

Playwriting became a primary activity after a while at UCLA because the playwriting classes were open for enrollment while the fiction class was reserved for majors first, and screenwriting seemed forever booked.

I get the feeling I would have become another type of writer if “murder mystery writing” had been available. Since I wanted to write everything in sight, I went with what appeared to be open and just plain accessible.

Let me in, I cried, and playwriting did. 

But then I did get hooked on the process of working with actors and directors. Both Tim Robbins and Daphne Zuniga were in my class back at UCLA. I sort of had a crush on them both….(I’m answering question number 11 a bit too early.)

  1. RR: Guillermo, I've met many playwrights in my time, but about ten years ago a met a young man who was working on being a play producer. This is another side of theater I think our raza can go into. Can you describe what a producer is, as you have worked with many?

GR: A play producer gets the talent together, pays the bills, rents the space, makes sure the flyer goes out, along with the press release, and ensures that people show up. The producer is the person who makes it happen. If you feel you have that sort of talent, what in Spanish we’d call the busybody “metiche” role, then that’s what you should be doing. 

You’re like a comadre who makes sure you gossip your way through the room and get everybody enthusiastic about being there and being seen. We need more Latino “metiches” in the theatre. Maybe more Latino plays might get produced.

  1. RR: Can you tell us a little of your education as a playwright? Who did you study under, your sensay, mentors? Did someone kill your master and you're out for revenge?

GR: I’m not out for revenge. My rude awakening was more about Chile and the human rights situation there in the 1970s. The Pinochet dictatorship is the only thing I felt “vengeful” about and I wrote about that in several early plays. 

My education was a bit rough in that I think most American kids in beginning playwriting classes want to write about mom and dad and growing up in the suburbs. 

I was writing pretty nasty plays about South American dictators and torture, and I get the sense that most Americans think you’re weird when you write about that. 

I still feel a sense of discomfort in even talking about that because most people seem to want “entertainment values” in everything you write. Nothing can be controversial or unsettling.

I worked with various playwriting professors: Carol Sorgenfrei and Gary Gardner at UCLA and the guest director Oscar Saul (who adapted “Streetcar Named Desire” for the screen.) 

At UCSD where I got my masters, I studied with Adele Shank and Allan Havis. They were all supportive people, but I get the sense that my odd South American personality threw them off a bit. I didn’t feel particularly understood --- but I blamed General Pinochet for that, not my teachers.

Pinche Pinochet

  1. RR: What texts do you use in your classes?

GR: Various texts, depending on the class. I like The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler in particular because he identifies the mythological context of storytelling which is applicable to all narrative, not just to screenplays or plays, but in fiction as well. 

He adapts many of his ideas from the writings of Joseph Campbell and I believe we writers have a lot to learn from ancient storytelling traditions that distill everything to the basics of symbolism, heroes and warriors, which ring true in any narrative.

  1. RR: What is the latest of your plays to be produced?

GR: This Way to your Ritual Lobotomy” was just performed in Los Angeles. It’s a monologue play performed quite brilliantly by actor Felix Pire who plays a variety of characters living in some mythical future in which Little Elian Gonzalez has grown up to become dictator of Cuba and founder of the new religion of Infantilism which reduces everyone to the mind frame of a child through a ritual lobotomy. Sounds dark? It’s meant as comedy, with a sharp social edge.

  1. RR: What do you have in the works?

GR: I’m working on a novel called “Fabrizio,” a dark comedy of Hollywood dreams in which a young Chilean actor (of Italian descent actually) becomes a heartthrob, seduces people and gets his way while harboring a secret or two about his privileged background and as a member of the upper class elite that perpetrated dictatorship in Chile. 

As an actor, he hides, you might say, everything about himself including his sexuality, and his highly conflicted past, with the help of a stepfather who knows how to hide his own private longings as well. It’s all about shadowy figures, American success, and the ability to sell oneself as a product. But even scarier, it’s about being untrue to yourself, even in private.

  1. RR: Let's talk about your book. What can you tell us about Madre and I: A Memoir of Our Immigrant Lives?
GR: It’s a truthful portrait of immigrating into the United States with a lively mother who harbors a “Maria Von Trapp” complex of caring for children, singing, and being a nanny day and night, which is what my mother becomes later in life, an actual day care provider and caretaker to a dozen children. My mother’s bright, cheerful character contrasts to a more brooding personality in me as I grow up in the American competitive world of Hollywood.

  1. RR: How long did it take you to bust this book out?

GR: Maybe two years of actual on-going writing and rewriting, with another year of editing, but I wrote the first essay in the book in the early 90s, let it lie there for years until my mother contracted cancer in 2001, and I began to think about the book again.

It wasn’t until 2006 that I finally picked it up and started writing for real. A good draft was done in late 2007, but I spent 2008 rewriting, then 2009 editing when the publisher, University of Wisconsin Press, decided to publish it, and it came out at last in spring 2010.

  1. RR: Instead of just a memoir, your book, as the title suggests, tells a lot about your mom?

GR: As some of the answers above reveal, yes, this book is in part about my mother as well as myself. It’s a sort of Angela’s Ashes with a South American twist. It reveals what I know of my family background, and a history of illegitimacy going back to my great-grandmother. The play starts with that, the definition of illegitimate and the state of mind in which I grew up.

  1. RR: I saw Booklist say “Add his coming-of-age as a homosexual during the height of the ultraconservative Reagan administration, and the odds of Reyes forging a productive and rewarding life seem insurmountable.” Does your book describe this? Can you say a little about this with out spoiling the reading of your book?

GR: The book says plenty about this and other personal family secrets and my own. From Angela’s Ashes, we go to Running with Scissors. They’re both very different types of memoirs, but sexuality does add a certain discomfort for some people like myself who’ve grown up in a Catholic home ready to avoid discussing sexuality.

I revealed, in part, what an aunt told me after my mother died, that my mother married a man before I was born but the marriage had to be annulled because she couldn’t bring herself to have sex with her own husband.

The issue of sexual repression is so strong in my family, followed by irrepressible passions that result in illegitimate children, that it’s probably worthy of a book in and of itself. As for myself, yes, I reveal what I know of myself and sexual identity, and about early lovers, without using real names, and I invoke the family tradition of repression, followed by self indulgence.
I don’t promise a steamy pot boiler, but a few personal revelations might add up to heat or something.

  1. RR: Last year, Josefina Lopez made a leap into the world of the novel with Hungry Woman in Paris, and in Madre and I, instead of a play, you write a memoir? Why did you choose this genre?

GR: Talk about Josefina, she and I were writing up a storm at UCSD where she went briefly as an undergrad. But as I’ve said above, I never thought of myself as only a playwright, but a writer. I want it all – all the genres at one time. Yes, I’ve written some 30 plays and one memoir, and now one novel (but I’ve also written several dozen of short stories, some of them published as well.) So I don’t consider my playwriting to be an exclusive form. Writing allows you to explore all the possibilities, not just one.

  1. RR: What differences did you find in writing a memoir and a play?

GR: The play’s more confined to a specific event. It’s like a chapter in the book of life. The memoir allows you to embrace as much as you can fit into a book. There’s simply more space to reveal various chapters in your life. The memoir could comprise about ten different plays.

  1. RR: Can you give us a name of one Latino(a) or Chicano(a) writer, poet, or playwright we should be paying attention?

GR: Quiara Alegria Hudes co-wrote the Broadway hit, “In the Heights,” and other more personal statements in plays such as “26 Miles.” I’d keep an eye on her. She’s already got a Tony. Go for the Oscar, Quiara, I say.

  1. RR: This question always hurts because I use to consider myself young (a month or two ago I heard a radio stations way “oldies from the 90s”), but can you give us a name of an up-and-coming Latino(a) or Chicano(a) playwright and a name of one veterano?

GR: I actually watched the VHS-1 retrospective on the Zeros. They were looking back on those fabulous zeros! It’s hard to keep up with a new generation of writers….I still haven’t finished reading the classics, and I never will.

For instance, the late Roberto Bolaño. He gains his fame posthumously so we all have to catch up with his work. I’ve only gotten through half of one of his novels, The Savage Detectives. He‘s an audacious writer, but I have trouble finishing. He suffers from the One Hundred years of Solitude complex. It’s a great start, but his effects exhaust you half way through.

As for playwrights….nobody’s paying attention to us playwrights so thank you for asking. A veterano is Luis Valdez, the founder of Chicano Theater, and author of “Zoot Suit.”

A recent Latino playwright whose work I enjoyed was Carlos Murillo who wrote “Dark Play,” and like the title suggests, it’s a dark comedy about a young man who becomes obsessed with internet relationships and develops a persona to deceive others.

  1. RR: One non-Latino(a) or Chicano(a)?

GR: I enjoyed the musical adaptation of “Spring Awakening,” which I saw on Broadway, a rock ‘n roll version of a 19th Century play by the German playwright Frank Wedekind. The adaptation was done brilliantly by Duncan Sheik (music) and Steven Sater (book and lyrics.) They can rock my world.

  1. RR: If you watch TV what are you watching on TV nowadays and what is the last movie you saw?

GR: I used to subscribe to HBO where I followed “Sex and the City,” “Six Feet Under,” and “The Sopranos,” but I let go of HBO and my life is all emptiness now. Well, not that empty. I get “Mad Men” as episodes through Netflix. That is probably one of the best-written shows on TV right now, and for sheer fun, “Glee” brings out the Karaoke child in me.

As for movies, I must admit I watched, “The Divorcee,” with Norma Shearer, best actress Oscar winner for 1929-30, an early talkie film that has the glamorous movie star playing a beautiful upper class woman who – gasp! – gets a divorce and has a fabulous time, prompting the censors from the Hays Code office to complain about Hollywood decadence. I’m doing heavy research on Oscar (Academy Awards) history because I intend to teach the first class on the Oscars here at Arizona State University in fall 2011.

At the Cineplex, I saw “La Mission” with Benjamin Bratt playing the Chicano father in the Mission District of San Francisco, whose son comes out as gay. A Latino father sitting in front of me walked out when he realized that’s what the film was about.

The film was terrific, but I often wonder about how slow social progress is. That one man walking out ruined my enjoyment of the film. I take things like that personally for the same reason that, here in Phoenix, I saw a trailer of the film, “Bajo La Misma Luna” starring Kate del Castillo, and some members of the audience booed loudly because they realized it was about illegal immigration.

Even going to the cineplex in Arizona isn’t safe. Pendejos all of them.


Pluma invites you to be a guest blogger. Book reviews, play reviews, chisme, espejos and more are wanted. Any reviews of new books for retrospective books like our "Zero" series of book reviews on Chicano(a) titles published in 1970, 80, and 90. Email us at rayerojas@gmail.com

The link we share with you today is: Was ever a women in this humor wooed?

Your calo juarense for today is: con miguelito
                                 - conmigo. "Ven con miguelito."
                                   With me. Ven con miguelito: "Come with me."
                                        --- Glosario del Calo de Cd. Juarez, Ricardo Aguilar Melantzon

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