"He carried his son to the picture on the upper half of the hardware store calender hanging on the refrigerator. 'See those're clouds in the sky, above the mountains.' The boy, interested, put a small finger onto the cloudy blue sky and smiled at Tucker. 'yea, that's it! Clouds and sky!' He embraced the naked boy encouragingly and led him over to the window above the sink, 'Now look here,' he said, pointing above the Franklin Mountains. 'Can you see real clouds and real sky out there?' The boy looked off with him, and Tucker was sure he saw and understood. He stood there with the boy in his arms and lost himself in a fantasy he believed his some was lost too."
- "The Desperado," Winners on the Passline
by Dagoberto Gilb
by Dagoberto Gilb
Interview with the formidable
We thank Dago for this interview in anticipation of his return visit to El Chuco. Gilb will speak/read tomorrow, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 5:30 p.m. at UT El Paso in the Tomás Rivera Conference Center, Student Union Building East, Room 308. Sponsored by Friends of the UTEP Library. Contact: (915) 833-3549.
Raymundo Eli Rojas (RR): Dago, you are set to visit El Paso Oct. 6. Whenever you return to El Paso, is there something you “have to do” or “have to go”?
Dagoberto Gilb: McKelligon Canyon. I worked there, in those mountains, in the late 70s. Weird job. Quiet and timeless cuña of nature, accessible but faraway, peaceful and dangerous both, always there to remind where and what El Paso is. I also like to walk the track at Austin High. Used to run, the bleachers too, but now a gimpy walk is equally satisfying (almost). I love it when they’re practicing football or playing soccer.
RR: What does you current position at Centro Victoria entail?
Dago: I’m the writer-in-residence at the University of Houston-Victoria, a full professor. I’m also the executive director of Centro Victoria, its Center for Mexican American Literature and Culture, which Macarena Hernández and I created. I think the mission statement at the website (an under-construction one, on the verge of being uploaded — any minute better!) says what it is: www.centrovictoria.net
RR: This comment from some critics baffles me, but some critiques have said there are no Chicano(a) characters in your works. Obviously, their comment is short-sighted or they have not read much of your work. But have you heard this comment and what is your response?
Dago: There are people who have a very narrow view of literature and an equally narrow view of the Chicano community and I trouble their vision. For them literature is supposed to be about certain themes, certain people, and what they don’t think matches their vision, they don’t read. It took me ten years to finally understand why a certain few of these would say, derisively (too big a word for them, I say derisively), that I was like Hemingway — you know, that macho. What else could it mean? True, I am a guy. Sorry. Not at all like Hemingway in money, for sure (his dad a doctor, and he stayed in Europe at 18 or was it 21, and rico rico so on). It was especially odd because, one, I didn’t write like Hemingway in the slightest, and, two, I didn’t respond well to the very little of him I had actually ever read. Then I figured it out: I’d won the PEN/Hemingway Award (for The Magic of Blood), which is our country’s prize for a first book of fiction — not for men only. Because it has Hemingway’s name in it, and especially since the first time they hear of it is with my name attached, many dummies who don’t know national prizes from slam contests think I must believe in and be heir to whatever IS Hemingway’s life. Really naive. They pretend to be involved with literature, and they criticize literature, yet people like that are so out of touch with reality — several realities – that you have to wonder if they really do read what the rest of us would call literature at all.
Reminds me also of so many years ago when a dude said he didn’t see raza politics in The Magic of Blood — this like a week before I was going to a national labor organizers meeting where I would be featured with Pete Seeger. I don’t know what politics he wanted, but union is the most dangerous political activity a working person can commit. I was a union carpenter and the unions were proud because an actual worker published a book — nothing like it since the 1930s. Which also reminds me of a reading I did years ago at the Folger-Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., with Julia Alvarez. Enviably, her family came to the gala there, her dad a retired medical doctor, her mom, in a mink, then president of the OAS. I felt embarrassed for being so poor. But the Carpenter’s Union had bought 25 seats and brought 20 Latino carpenters to support me — mi familia.
I grew up in racist LA, had a million jobs and not all in the trades, I’ve been down and out…I have been dealing with horribly biased — bigoted — people since I can remember, of all sorts. Only since I began writing did I encounter the kind of prejudice of those interested in writing and writers who are so naïve about non-university occupations, about hourly wage jobs, a life that doesn’t reward an academic career progression. Incredibly naïve. And they think if you’re not in that world that you must be lesser, or stupid, or a grunting macho. Those people ignore how 95% (probably a low-guess number) of people, our very own especially, live. So they don’t recognize that they’re only talking about 5% (to be generous) of a community they claim to represent, and probably not even 1% of good literature.
But WHATEVER, art IS politics, and those who are too shy or modest or artistically strange or so strange that it is only art for them, they should be praised, encouraged, and supported, too. Not everything has to be this very self-conscious, self-congratulatory, jargonized politics. Let’s not become Stalinists.
RR: It 25 years since your first book, Winners on the Passline. When you look back, how do you view that book?
It was the first book for Cinco Puntos Press (so their story more), which has come a long, big way since those days when both Bobby Byrd and I were beginning these exploits of ours. I had won a California literary prize, and Bobby decided to start his and Lee’s press on the heels of that. For me, too, it was a small beginning publication (chapbook size), but it was most fun when -- there was no sales team then -- it was placed in a bookstore window of the then brand new Book Soup in Los Angeles (one of two stores I’d taken it to months earlier). I had worked the high-rise building next to it, and I was standing there one day, talking happily to a laborer (a Chicano I worked with — carpenters, like me, had been gone for almost a year) who was jack-hammering some cement not a foot from the window with Winners on the Pass Line right there. I wanted so much to take a picture, but since I never told anyone I was a writer then, and didn’t have a camera anyway, only the memory.
RR: I've read stories and interviews with/on you and I find a lot of perseverance and struggle in getting published in the elite magazines (like your recent simultaneous publications in The New Yorker and Harpers): In those 25 years, how have you dealt with rejection and what advice do you give to other writers?
Dago: It’s hard to get in those magazines, so I have been fortunate to be in a few times. I did because I won those lit prizes — and then came Grove Press, and blah blah. Some fortune, and some…well, those tontos think I’m talented también. Rejection? Shit, man, my own mom liked to smack me, so you think I couldn’t over it?? I had published 35 stories, a dozen years, before I got The Magic of Blood. Advice: Get tough, get better, work hard.
It is NOT fair, we do not all come into the game equally, particularly if you are Mexican American and or don’t come from money. And it IS getting harder and harder in these nasty, bizarre times as more power re-concentrates in New York City and the Northeast. Chicanos, two thirds of the Latino demographic, are completely unknown there. They think we are ONLY recent immigrants, that THAT is our only story. Advice: Bear down, get tougher, be better. Work harder.
RR: What is “Made in Texas”?
Tell your neighborhood high schools to incorporate this! From the Centro Victoria website tab: Made in Texas is a teacher’s guide. Our goal is to mainstream literature by Mexican American writers and poets to students in Texas. Our intention is to offer teachers — primarily of high school English but also middle school English as well as History and Social Studies — six weeks of lesson planning and material, an entire thirty-day unit's worth, that will make their job easier and their students more connected to one of the most important classes in their education.
RR: Without spoiling them, can you give us any preview of books in the works or soon to be published?
Dago: I have a collection of stories coming out next year with Grove Press.
RR: What did this last decade bring to Chicano(a) Literature?
Dago: Lots of slashes — which you’ve made parentheses instead. (Hey look y watcha, I did what is SO said about me, that I am/don’t say what is/I’m supposed to!). Come on, admit it, it’s tiresome, right? It’s like Sunday school rules AND YOU HAVE TO BE GOOD. (Do not laugh.) (Even smile.) As if we aren’t, but woe/whoa to the he/she who doesn’t! It’s because of the Spaniards that did this to the idioma/lengua. You wonder how the mexicanos/as and/or mexicanas/os deal with these issues.
Mango Street still remains our one and only. But there has also been books by my former students from Texas State — Diana López, Oscar Casares, Christine Granados. In LA there has been Michael Jaime Becerra, Alex Espinoza, Yxta Maya Murrray.
RR: Can you give us a name of one Chicano(a) writer, poet, or playwright whom we should be paying attention?
Dago: Bad me, I will pick two: For the (o) I pick a Corpus Christi native, Rene Perez, whose first collection of short fiction should be out I hope next year with the University of Arizona Press. (He’s a recent former student of mine, I say proudly.) For the (a) I pick Sheryl Luna, who I understand will also have a poetry collection out, too.
RR: Can you give us a name of a veterana(o) we should be paying attention to?
Dago: There is a veteran(o) — Iraq — who is working now as a jet mechanic in Tucson—Matt Mendez is from El Paso (Austin High, same time as my sons!), a good man, and he is writing and publishing stories. I hope he’s next. But I do know the real meaning of your question, and I also know — because the last question was (o)/(a) and this one is (a)/(o), the pre-assigned doubt and fear clearly is that, since I will have probably picked a man above, here, jeez, will I please not be offensive and pick a woman this time?!….I also really know what you meant when you say name a “veteran(a)” writer. Well, interesting, because the one I like is Angela de Hoyos, who frankly, excuse me, I don’t and did not need any prodding to mention. Like haiku. Hers is good.
RR: If you watch TV what are you watching on TV nowadays and what is the last movie you saw?
Dago: I like TV. Political talk too much. I read a lot of bad writing by people who clearly should watch television and find out how much smarter it is than their drudgery. I like Judge Judy and Joe Brown. But that’s because I like to fall asleep when they’re on. I like “Bored to Death.” I just saw my first episode of “Eastbound and Down,” which was funny and odd too (Southern white ballplayer in a border town). Haven’t watched enough of either. I like Turner Classics. Last I remember loving was “Splendor in the Grass.”
RR: Is there a website you'd like to share with our readers.
Dago: I am too lame at this. I do plan to have a website…eventually. Meanwhile, just the www.dagobertogilb.com that Grove keeps for me. I don’t have Facebook either, though someone is trying to do something, I dunno. There’s this one with more current info on me, and it plugs and name drops, too, and isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?:
I love what you’re doing for Chuco, Ray! I don’t read the blogs so much, but I love the mag you are putting out — for everyone in the Southwest or who wants to read about it. Everyone should see it.
RR: Thank you Dago.
RR: Thank you Dago.