Dispatch From the Texas Book Festival: Conversations With Featured Latinx Authors

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By Christina Miranda

Last weekend, the Texas State Capitol opened its doors to the 2017 Texas Book Festival. Kicking off the weekend, Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Pierce Bush discussed their new book about their childhood and growing up in the White House. Over the course of the next two days, hundreds of writers gave panels on their new and upcoming works, including former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather, and America’s dad, Tom Hanks. Outside in the streets of 12th and Congress, tents lined the pavement welcoming readers into food and book panels, music at the Antone’s tent, and readings for children of all ages. Around those tents, lines of children patiently waited to get their books signed by their beloved authors, assuring attendees that books aren’t dying.

At the ¡Ahora si! tent, groups of folklórico dancers stood swaying their vibrant skirts and white lace dresses waiting to perform. For many of the Latinx writers in attendance, that vibrancy and celebratory atmosphere couldn’t be more appropriate. Among the events, several authors took the time to speak to us about the importance of reading and the positive effect that sharing experiences and looking deep into other cultures has on countless readers of all ages.

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Joel Salcido: The Spirit of Tequila (Trinity University Press)

What inspired you to create a collection about tequila?

Really this book is a product of my ignorance. The vehicle to discovery became the camera, because that’s the best thing that I best communicate with. About five years ago, I was invited to this tequila tasting. It was a private tasting, which I didn’t know, so at the head of the table conducting the tasting was the master distiller for Don Julio, but I didn’t know this, so we started drinking and eating. So on the third shot he starts talking about bull fighting, and I’m going, well, I’m not an aficionado, I grew up with it, but I’ve got an ongoing series that I’ve been committed with for the past 15 years, it’s a personal project on the brave bulls of Spain. And I said it’s a really difficult subject to photograph, and it’s mainly for museums. So then he says, well you need to come to my best friend’s ganaderia. And right as I’m about to accept that invitation, it just occurred to me: what the hell do I know about tequila? You know, you grow up with it, I’m Mexican, and you drink it, and in that moment, I ask myself, what do I know? Then I realized that I was incredibly ignorant. I have a vague idea, but I really don’t know. Then I told him “Before I go to this granjaderia, why don’t I just go to your distillery?” And me, this is just saying it blindly, and he said, “Yeah, come on over.” And then from there, it just took off.

What surprised you the most about the process?

The agave harvesting is for jimadores who are extremely skilled at that. It’s incredibly laborious, very hard labor, and the men who handle that are real men. I’m a mini version of whatever they are because they are very hard working, very tough men. And that’s the one part about the industry that really surprised me, is how difficult it is to harvest and to make tequila, ‘cause that’s a lot of work. One of the things that I came back with from that is now every time I drink tequila, I appreciate it at that level, because now I understand how much labor goes into it. And my respect to those men who are out there doing it. Especially me as a Mexican, me as a person who came from poverty. I understand that. I connect to all that, so I’m very sensitive to all that.

How did the visit bring you back to your childhood?

I was really at a point where I wanted to rediscover and reconnect with the Mexico of my childhood. What happens when you spend too much time in the states, or when you don’t leave the states, you become kind of homogenized – you start becoming Americanized. Then once in awhile you have these endearing memories of what it was; I grew up in Juárez and we travelled in Mexico and so forth. You have these memories of flavors, and colors, and landscape that you miss. There was that underlying opportunity to revisit and I was very curious to see if everything I left in my childhood still existed. And to my surprise, you dig into the smaller town and still those traditions are rooted, and that was really enriching. I was there during the celebration of La Virgen de Guadalupe during that week, so the town was in a festive mood. The whole neighborhood would be open to the public, so they would invite you to coffee or whatever they had to offer into their home, into their living room. And I thought that was beautiful.

How do you like your tequila?

Well, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve kind of settled into two to three brands. There’s plenty of good stuff out there, but I pretty much just drink it neat. Nothing on it, perfectly at room temperature, and I just sip, and enjoy. I think that’s the only way, in my mind, to truly appreciate the depth of the soil, of the landscape, that you can appreciate at any depth. I’ve learned to appreciate it a hell of a lot more than when I started this.

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Carina Chocano: You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages (Mariner Books)

You mostly write for major magazines. What made you want to write a book of essays and a closer look into your personal life?

I have been lucky in being able to make a living as a writer from a very young age, and part of that was just sort of being at the right place at the right time. Given the moment that I entered the media, it was a great time, but it was also the beginning of the end. In order to justify my salary, you had to have a pretty specific thing you did, and so for me, that quickly became pop culture and criticism. But still, my real interest was always writing about the world, and my thoughts and my feelings through pop culture. I always preferred writing about television to writing about film because television, you always get to pick and choose what you write, and so there’s just too much to ever  presume that you’re going to cover everything. And it’s also just fast paced, there’s much more of it, much more of this enormous universe.

At what point did you realize that the issue of women being oversexualized and objectified reached a tipping point where you wanted to write a book about it? What was the breaking point?

I always felt it. It was always what interested me in pop culture. I was never interested in talking about set design or the acting as its own thing. But in 2007, I felt that I’ve been working as a film critic for a few years and I felt like the way women are portrayed in movies is just awful and I felt bad. As someone who was spending a lot of time in a movie theater, I was consuming this stuff, I felt like I was being poisoned, I felt like a lab rat being fed toxic doses of this, and it’s affecting me. I feel like it’s my job to comment and to find ways to do that in a way that’s going to be subtle, and funny, and charming, and acceptable, and not stir the pot too much cause I’m aware that if I come out too strongly, I will be beaten back too hard. And one of the strongest moments for me is when Knocked Up came out, and I really hated it: I was surprised I hated it. I kind of expected to like it. And then Katherine Heigl mentioned in a Vanity Fair interview that she thought it was sexist and it ruined her career. And she was branded as crazy and difficult. I remember feeling a lot of empathy for that, because those were the same reasons that I felt afraid. And I wasn’t crazy to feel afraid. These things do happen to people. That’s when I decided that I really wanted to write the book.

You work in pop culture, and you discuss the difficulties in working in that type of industry that’s male dominated and the sexism that comes with it. Following the Harvey Weinstein scandal, do you think that there’s a chance that sexism is to eventually be eliminated, or do you think that women are going to have a harder time?

It’s always very difficult, and it hasn’t just been Hollywood in the past few weeks, a lot of people in media like major publications have come out. It’s very heartening. I believe that it won’t go back. It’s incredible that it’s sustained itself as long as it has. How is it possible that it’s sustained itself? And part of the reason that it’s allowed itself to be this way is because it’s kept up separated and silent. However, there’s still that power structure. The less power you have, the trickier it is. And the trick is believability, because I think a lot of times men didn’t believe it. I feel more of a shift in that. There’s less arguing about the existence of this stuff. It’s more of an eye-opening experience for people.

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José Antonio Rodríguez: House Built on Ashes: A Memoir (University of Oklahoma Press)

For being a poet, this book tends to lean more towards prose. What prompted you to have this kind of book be your memoir?

I was a graduate student when I first started working on it. And it wasn’t so much a deliberate decision, it just kind of happened that way. I was writing poetry at the same time I was writing the memoir, but I was inspired. I read The House on Mango Street and it gave me this feverish inspiration, and I wrote for like three days non-stop. I wrote about 50 or 70 pages of the memoir, and then I set a goal of writing X number of pages per day over the next three months. That’s kind of how it happened – quite fast even for a first draft. I think I was at a place where, as a graduate student, I’d been doing a lot of exploring and taking great classes, reading great texts, cultural theory and literary theory, gave me a new window into my experiences. And so I think the meaning-making part began to take shape where I could begin to see a narrative.

Some of these memories are tough to take in. How was the experience of revisiting your memories? Did you learn anything from remembering compared to what you knew only as a child?

It was a challenging experience, that’s for sure. There were moments where I had to walk away from the laptop because it was just sort of overwhelming. I was surprised by one: how much I remembered. Looking back on it, I knew that my past was a difficult one, and my adolescence particularly, and painful in a lot of ways, a very marginalized figure in my own life. And as a queer person, as a marginalized figure even within my family, even at home I didn’t feel fully at home, which is supposed to be your safe space when school isn’t a welcoming environment. In a lot of ways, I think recalling that un-homed quality, sort of symbolically homeless was interesting to realize. But also,  the narrator’s life kind of aligned with the issues happening in America today through the post-colonial world we find ourselves in, and the obsession with borders and boundaries. And the narrator’s constantly finding himself on the wrong side of the boundary – on the undesirable side being a Spanish speaker in an English-speaking country, being queer, being poor, being an immigrant, and somehow internalizing the fact that he had to hide that at school. He didn’t want the world to know.

You bring up the topic of the difficulty of achieving the American dream. Do you foresee the American dream potentially becoming perfect, or is it forever imperfect?

I think it’s flawed from the beginning, the idea of a perfect American dream, because it’s rooted in a mythologized idea of America. I don’t think there’s anything unique about thinking, “I want to have a life better than my parents did.” Because it begins with this sort of mythologized idea, I think there’s a flaw there that’s hard to correct unless we completely reimagine it as being more inclusive and as not being tied exclusively to material success.

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Olga Campos-Benz: It’s News to Me (CreateSpace Independent Publishing)

You’ve been a journalist for over 30 years. What interested you in writing fiction?

It’s as simple as the love of reading. And gravitating towards the genre that I love the most, which is contemporary fiction set in places that we know, I like it with a little edge. So I thought, well that’s perfect, that’s what I should write. Because that’s the world I’ve lived in, the world of broadcast journalism that I’ve experienced. In doing so it was also an opportunity to untie those binds as a journalist being driven by facts and accuracy. All that is out the window, it was a freeing experience to be able to determine the destiny of my characters and make their decisions. And I think that that part of it is what readers enjoy because there isn’t a market, or town, or community where the citizens aren’t somehow connected to their community through the local TV. And that makes you wonder, “Well, what’s their life like?” My book gives them insight into what that life is like through the eyes of a Latina character.

When writing this book, what did you find the most freeing when writing about broadcast journalism compared to having to follow a certain decorum in real life?

To be able to take what I wanted to and create a Latina character who’s bold and is strong enough in her decisions, in her moral guidelines, and her upbringing in her family and heritage to make the decisions that are right for her and really buck the system. That is not so easy for us to do in real life, but the freedom of fiction allowed me to do that through my man character, Marissa. I had no problem taking her and dropping her right into the world that I know and letting her go free like I would have wanted to as a real person and was unable to. There’s too many restrictions in the corporate real world of broadcast journalism. You have to follow the status quo, it’s moved by ratings and revenue, not by doing necessarily what’s right for your viewers. This book allowed me the freedom to do that.

Your book features a lead Latina journalist, which resonates deeply in the Latinx community. How would you hope that this book affects those outside of the Latinx or journalist community?

It’s already what I’m hearing traveling the states and talking to groups. What I’m hearing is people are responding in two ways: they have a renewed sense of what these up and coming reporters are facing in their challenges in staying true to their morals, values, and decisions that impact their professional lives, and they’ve got to do the job that’s given to them. Sometimes it’s hard to do both, and so my readers now have a renewed respect for what they’re going through, and a renewed respect for the Latinos who are coming up like my main character, she’s the daughter of immigrants. We’re in an age where people just tend to scoff at immigrants without knowing what their backstory is. It was not my intention when I started writing this book six years ago, but it ended up being a result that turned into a timely one to tell the story of an immigrant offspring, who’s here, who’s making her way and being successful. Here she is figuring it all out in a way that she can be proud of herself and who her parents were. And I want readers to take that away, because those are the immigrant young adults who are contributing, whether the children of immigrants or children who have been brought over as young kids, either way they have a right to build their own life, their own identity here on their own merit, and this nation, it’s our responsibility to give them a chance to do that. We’re failing right now, but hopefully the tide is turning.

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Christine Granados: Fight Like a Man and Other Stories We Tell Our Children (University of New Mexico Press)

You’ve been a journalist for numerous news sources such as The El Paso Times and the Austin American-Statesman. What interested you in writing fiction?

I always wanted to write a book. Always. But I didn’t know how, I didn’t have the education or the knowledge. I went into journalism thinking, “Hey, that’s pretty close.” And I saw bylines with Mexican last names, and went, “Hey, I can do that. Other Mexicans are doing it, I can do it.” I guess what turned the tables for me was when I did an interview with Dagoberto Gilb for Magic of Blood, and he raised a family in El Paso, and he was a carpenter and worked in high-rise construction, but he was writing stories unlike Sandra Cisneros and Rudolfo Anaya, who were writing great stories about Latinos. but stories that I didn’t really identify with – they weren’t about urban living, they weren’t about the working class – but Dagoberto Gilb’s work, they were about El Paso, and some of the best descriptions about El Paso I’ve ever read. And that was the impetus that got me thinking toward, “Well, maybe I can write this stuff about El Paso.”

After being away from El Paso for so long and then writing about it, was there anything about it that you didn’t realize until revisiting it?

No, I’m pretty realistic because I’m a journalist, I’m not nostalgic or anything, and so I see people’s flaws and their good points. That may be where I differ from other Chicanos and Chicano writers in that I like to write full characters, and I like to write about flaws as well as the good in our community, because we need stories about well-rounded people. All the people that I know and you know are flawed individuals, but they’re also good people. And I think too much of Chicano literature relies too heavily on nostalgia, and the goodness of Mexicanos or the peasant they’re writing about.

This book resonates deeply with the Mexican-American community, especially along the border. How do think this book will impact those outside of those communities?

This is going to sound really callous, but I don’t care about the larger community. I’m writing for my community, I made that decision really early on. And I made it in graduate school, Tim O’Brien, he was a great professor, really tactical. He’s the who told me you need to decide who you’re writing for, who’s your audience, because we were talking about the Spanglish that I used. How accessible do you want to make it? And I said I’m writing for my mom and my sister, and this is my community, this is the future, so I’m writing for the future. I’m writing because we are the future. I’m writing for my community, and don’t really care about the larger community. If they want to come in and understand that’s great.

Barbara Gonzalez Cigarroa for A Mexican Dream and Other Compositions (Texas Christian University Press)

You are an immigration attorney, what interested you in writing a book?

This book was actually a calling for me. I grew up in Laredo with a family I was so blessed with. And decisions that were made over a century ago during the Mexican Revolution still guide us today,guide me and other members of my family, and it’s not only the decision my great- grandmother made when she was found widowed with five children to raise, and decided to open her home as a boarding house for students of the university in Mexico City, but her sense of the power of an education in making sure that her children became professionals like their father. She’s the one that worked to allow that to happen. She was a seamstress, she would make chocolates, tamales. The decisions like that influenced me when I was going through struggles of parenting and living far from extended family, having to rely on myself pretty much to advance my children’s education forward. It’s formative decisions made by elders that was in my heart and I wanted to distill what I think are universal teachings from the past, and safeguard them, so that’s when I decided to write it down.

When researching about your family, was there anything that you discovered that surprised you or that you’d never expected to be in your family?

Finding a student writing about Papá, who was a professor of law in Durango was so surprising in how this student said that Angel was predicting the Mexican Revolution. Or finding out about what Judge Raymond meant for the border, and getting the voter block, which was the Mexican-American vote from Laredo all the way up to El Paso. That was astounding. Just making those connections.

In your book, instead of talking about your ancestors, you talk to them. Why did you choose to write this book in the second person?

It was because I wanted to present the compositions as living memories, especially in the Partita section, to be in conversation. Writing is about speaking. To be in conversation with my elders, some whom I’ve never met, and to be open to discernment, and my life especially since 2007, I’ve raised my children. It’s very contemplative. In prayer, how do we speak? Directly. And so this was like speaking directly, engaging in discernment, and seeing how those lives guided me in what I wanted to say about them in informing them what are lives are like now. It was being in conversation, because conversation is vital. It’s what inspires you when you hear the spoken word. It’s an art that is being lost with all the technology, but the art of conversation is connecting. It’s making their memories alive, I wanted to resurrect them, and also to connect the reader: Dear reader. And I wanted to do that parenthetically. It’s to involve you in my living memories of my family, because I don’t think time is linear. I think you can go in many directions with time. My intention was to make those memories come alive.

After describing that, this book doesn’t even really qualify as a book. It’s sort of a living thing. What would you like to call it?

What it is, is organized by compositions. Compositions being textural, musical, partita, that’s variations of the same thing. A rondo, two harmonies that play off each other. Études, studies to perfect a particular technique in piano. And coda, a piece very different from the rest. I organized the compositions because by musical composition, we grew up with music in my family. So many of us learned the piano or another instrument. I did it as a way of uniting what are very different lives. From my perspective, I wanted to bring out living memories of individuals who are very different. How to unite all of these different individuals into what I wanted to distill. Our decisions that guided me, and continue to instruct me. In practicing immigration, anyone that practices immigration hears stories constantly of the displaced, of the people yearning for home, of people yearning for a place, either wanting to track something that will give them security, or to keep something that they want. It’s the same yearning of people and a place. How did they do it? These families that I’m referring to were displaced for different reasons, and navigated contradictions and homesickness. Their dreams of the future and visions of what they wanted are in the message to my children. Abuelito is talking to us directly and is talking to those yet to be born. He said you can lose everything, but you can never lose an education. What he experienced, that’s what he knew, and that’s what he wanted people to know for generations to come. And that’s what this particular family I was blessed with has safeguarded – and it’s not just one generation, it’s the next generation. It’s the service to community. It’s reading and having open minds, and being inclusive. It’s all of that that I wanted to express, because I have been blessed with those universal lessons.