The Other Latin@: Writing Against a Singular Identity is an anthology of 20 essays that, according to its co-editor Blas Falconer, aims to counter a narrow perspective of Latino/a writers and honor their diversity. In his own essay, Falconer writes, "When Spanish enters the poem, it is often done because it is part of the memory, not because it is the language of the reader or of the audience."
This idea of how Spanish is mysteriously fused to the neurons of Latino writers resonated with me, and I wanted to hear more from Blas. He and co-editor Lorraine Lopez will present the book this Thursday, April 26, at noon, as part of the Books and Beyond series at the Library of Congress in partnership with Letras Latinas and the University of Arizona Press. At 6:30 p.m., both Falconer and Lopez will read selections from their own work. For details, visit here.
ET: What was the source of inspiration for this anthology, for the idea that Latino writers are more than a globbed together demographic or a brightly colored (I'm guessing red) wedge in a pie graph?
BF: The book began, in part, as a presentation on an AWP panel I wrote in 2008. The acquisitions editor from University of Arizona Press was in the audience and came up to me afterwards and suggested we do a whole book. I told her I was thinking the exact same thing. We wanted to open it up beyond the Latino identity that's been seen through a small lens.
The book also originated from the fact that I didn't really understand my own relationship to the Latino community or to Puerto Rico. I had traveled there a lot when I was younger, but after my grandmother passed away I stopped going. I also knew that there was this rich Puerto Rican community in New York that I didn't feel quite in sync with because I grew up in Northern Virginia, and there just weren't a lot of Puerto Ricans there. As a writer, I kept asking myself, ‘Am I Latino?’ ‘What does it mean to be Latino?’ I have a white father and a Latina mother, but I have an estranged relationship to Puerto Rico. What does this mean? Then I realized that I saw two of my dearest friends as Latinas - Lisa Chavez, a Chicana from Alaska, and Helena Mesa, who is Cuban and grew up in Pittsburgh - even though they too felt disconnected. I thought, ‘Let's explore this.’ I realized that many writers were challenging the term of Latino in various ways, and I thought reading about their experiences might be interesting.
Another source of inspiration is that sometimes I just don't want to write. I'm on empty. But I'm still fueled by great poetry or writing, so I want to be involved somehow. Editing kind of satisfies that need. Seeing how different people write, how their work or books come together. It's inspiring.
BF: The press asked me to widen the scope to include fiction writers, and I asked Lorraine Lopez to be my co-editor. We started thinking about the Latino experience and the Latino identity, and we wanted writers that subverted stereotypical topics -- food, grandmothers, estrangement and exile, urban life. We wanted to push beyond this and see what was next. (at right, Blas Falconer)
ET: What's funny is that all those topics are in the book!
BF: It's totally true. But Lisa Chavez, who's from Alaska, isn't writing about the expected Chicana experience. In his essay, Steven Cordova basically says, ‘I'm Latino, but I'm HIV positive and gay, and it doesn't mean I'm not Latino or addressing issues of otherness, but I'm doing that through this other aspect of my identity, through this other narrative.'
In terms of aesthetics, Carmen Gimenez Smith and Gabe Gomez call on Latino poets to explore what might be considered experimental methods of articulating the Latino experience, which often relies heavily on narrative. So those topics are there, but they’re approached in many different ways.
ET: As an editor, do you find it challenging to reject work?
BF: I do. To be honest, we did have to pass on a few essays because there were a couple of times where they were redundant in subject matter. Another one was more for an academic journal in terms of what the press wanted for our imagined reader. No one submitted a bad essay, but some of them just didn't fit. It was hard because we didn't invite anyone to submit that we didn't really admire as writers.
ET: The tone of the essays in this book varies widely: "Latina Enough," by Stephanie Elizondo Griest is witty as well as reflective. In "When We Were Spanish," your co-editor Lorraine Lopez offers a kind of personalized scholarship. Did you both deliberately attempt to include a gamut of styles or did it just turn out that way?
BF: It kind of did just turn out that way. We were interested in not only the ideas in the essays but also in their craft. And we weren't just asking anyone to contribute; we were asking writers. So we encouraged them to write in the manner they felt best addressed their subjects. Gina Franco's essay is much more lyric, for example. It's a stunning essay and very complex in the way she addresses issues of identity.. Some were more academic, such as Peter Ramos’ essay, which had more of a rooting in the American cannon, more of an academic slant. And that was good too.
ET: In "Coyotes," Alex Espinoza writes about speaking at community colleges and remembering how he also sat at a workshop, at University of California, Irvine, and at the same table as Gary Soto and Helena Viramontes. What is the role mentorship plays in understanding identity?
BF: In my own essay, I kind of address this. When I started reading Rane Arroyo and Judith Ortiz Cofer, I thought, ‘Oh these writers are like me in some way.’ But they were able to find their own voices and incorporate their cultural influences. They were doing what I wanted to do, and I saw them as legitimate Latino writers. It was a way in for me. I realized I am also a part of this community. In that sense I saw them as models.
When my first book came out, I felt an incredibly nurturing response from the Latino community that I had never expected. Even today, five years after my first book was published, I still feel welcome and there's no question I'm part of this community. It made me feel as if my own experience was legitimate, and it's resolved this kind of conflict of estrangement I've had. I’m grateful to the Latino community for embracing diversity within itself.
ET: How do you as a Puerto Rican and Latino poet feel or do not feel marginalized?
BF: You know, I don't feel marginalized. I feel like everyone has had that experience of being "the other." I don't care if you're a straight white man; you've felt that sense of otherness. I don't feel any more marginalized than other people do at different times in their lives. I don't think I'm going to be denied a job or not be published or be dismissed because I'm a Latino writer. I don't think I'm going to be ignored. Maybe it's a testament to the strides the Latino writing community has made in publishing. Of course, I've experienced bigotry in my life as a gay man and as a Latino, but I'm not looking over my shoulder or waiting for the next person to shut a door in my face. But other people have had, and still do have, that experience, and I know that it happens.
ET: You’re a pretty industrious guy. You have your second book of poems, The Foundling Wheel (Four Way Books), coming out this October, and I understand you are a fairly new father of two sons. Are your work and family ethic in any way related to your own Latino identity?
BF: I feel as if I'm very shaped by my parents, I suppose. My mom always said, ‘You're Latino. That means you have to dress better than everyone and work harder than everyone in order to be treated equally." I remember this moment that's very distinct in my mind. The neighbors had left their Christmas tree out by the curb and it had rolled into our yard. We were on our way out and she told me to get it and place it in our garbage. I kept telling her, "Who cares?" and "We’re running late," but she insisted.
She told me we were the only Puerto Ricans on the block and that if it rolled into someone else’s yard it would just be the wind, but if it rolled into ours it would be seen as if we didn’t take care of our property. There was this sense that we had to guard against other people's preconceived notions about us as Latinos. That meant working hard and getting great grades, even though I rebelled against the latter all the time.
I think in some ways her views were rooted in reality but also in paranoia. A lot of people just saw as the neighbors, not as the Puerto Rican neighbors. Then again, she has a very strong accent, and she grew up in a time of more bigotry. Maybe because of all of that, I feel as if I have to be really industrious. And of course, family is very important. But, to be honest with you, I don't know if my family and work ethic has anything to do with my Latino background. You don't want to just automatically say Latinos are industrious and nurturing because that could also create another kind of stereotype.
ET: Although that wouldn't be such a bad one to have.
ET: What would you tell a young poet who is not interested in identifying as Latino, someone who says, ‘I don’t want to be known as a Latino poet, but rather just as a poet’?
BF: I'd say okay - if that's what you want. If it would be problematic, that's fine. But I'm a Latino, I'm gay, I'm a father, I'm in the South. All of this shapes my aesthetics, so I don't see all of that as limiting. I don't know why someone would say that unless he thinks that being a Latino poet is less than being a poet.
There was a stigma once - I remember people saying that they would never want to be published by a Latino press because they would only be seen as a Latino poet. I would think to myself, ‘What do you mean by only?’ You're still a poet! People thought they would be perceived as being published only because they were Latinos and not because of the quality of their work. Would anyone say that Natasha Tretheway's first book was only published by Cave Canem because she was African American? I've found it immensely rewarding to be a part of the gay and Latino writing communities, and I'm also involved with poets who work outside of them. I read all kinds of other writers and I would hope they would give me a chance as well
ET: And what would you tell a young poet who wants to identify as Latino but isn’t sure what that means?
BF: I think that however you arrive at poetry, you need to embrace it. If it's through this identity, more power to you. The only thing that all Latinos have in common is a Latin American heritage. Otherwise, there is no definitive definition. As a Latino poet, I am working within a tradition. I once felt as if I didn't belong to it, but I see now that I do. What writer doesn't want to be part of a community of writers? I have found it to be a blessing.
Emma Trelles is the author of Tropicalia, (University of Notre Dame Press), winner of the 2010 Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize. She is also the author of the chapbook Little Spells (GOSS183), a recommended read by the Valparaiso Poetry Review and the Montserrat Review. She is the recipient of a Green Eyeshade award for art criticism and has been a featured author at the Miami Book Fair International and at the Palabra Pura reading series at the Guild Literary Complex in Chicago. She received her MFA in creative writing from Florida International University and lives with her husband in South Florida, where she works as an arts writer and a writing consultant for Nova Southeastern University. Visit her at www.emmatrelles.com and read her BAP blog posts here.