Frederick Luis Aldama on Breaking Down Walls Through Narrative and Art
By Christina Miranda
Frederick Luis Aldama is the author of Long Stories Cut Short: Fictions from the Borderlands. He is also a Distinguished Professor of English at Ohio State University, and the founder and director of LASER—Latino and Latin American Space for Enrichment and Research—which is dedicated to mentoring Latinx students grade 9 through college. Professor Aldama brings a new form to Latin literature. I recently had the pleasure of meeting Frederick Luis Aldama at the 5th Annual San Antonio Book Festival as part of the promotion of his newly-released short story collection, and he was gracious enough to speak with me during a phone interview and go into detail about his first short story collection, which follows the publication of 30 academic books.
I just read your book; it’s fantastic. It doesn’t really follow the traditional narrative of a short story collection. You’ve written close to 30 academic books, although this is actually your first work of fiction. What made you want to do a short story collection to begin with?
I conceived of Long Stories Cut Short before I set pen to paper as an organic whole. So, actually the last story of the collection is the first story I wrote because I had already thought of it in this cryptic form. There’s the beginning, the middle, and the end, and I wanted to mention that because in that sense, what you’re picking up there is distinguished from other short story collections. So you’re reading the stories, and you can read them out of order of course, but maybe ideally reading them in order, what you do is you start to accumulate in your working memory stories that came earlier and they start to bleed into one another as you move from the beginning stages of life (infancy), to middle stages of life, and finally to our ends. So there’s a relationship between some of the stories that you read at the beginning and the stories you read at the end because I conceived of it as a whole. That’s the quick answer to that kind of question.
As you’ve mentioned I’ve published a whole bunch of books that try to understand how different narratives, whether it’s TV or film or novels or short fiction narratives—even poetry—work. At a certain point, I thought “Gosh, I’ve been not only writing books about this, to try to see if I could enrich our understanding of this stuff, and also teaching this, but also maybe I actually can do this.” And so it wasn’t much of a big leap for me, because I’ve been studying formally how narratives are constructed, how we create stories that have different audiences and minds, different emotional effects that maybe I could try my hand on. And that’s what I did.
Being an academic writer, how was your writing process different from what you usually do for non-fiction?
When you’re writing fiction, anything goes. Speaking of the beginning section of Long Stories Cut Short, there are several narratives that are told from the point of view of infants. And as an adult discarding all of my adultness, and finding a language that would kind of convey that purity of existence but would also have an unlimited capacity of imagination in the child. There’s a moment when a child says, “I can paint the room with the paintbrush on my butt.” This kind of moment is where creativity in fiction allows us to go in ways that are completely unlimited.
Now with academic work, of course I’m still exercising my imagination and hypothetical capacity, and then I’m going to the page exercising in showing people what kind of work has been done there, so in the end I’m still bound by fact. And fact is the sense that you can go and watch the movie that I’m talking about or you can go and read the novel or the short story or the poem that I’m talking about. And you yourself can agree or disagree with what I’ve written. With the fiction, the ideas of immersion, exploration, and a full opening of the windows and doors are open for you the reader to go and explore and be in a space that’s of your own making or your own co-creation with the fiction, but there are no limitations on it. There’s never anything that says your co-creation of my story is wrong.
The title of your collection is Long Stories Cut Short, and some of these stories are shorter than most short fictions—short shorts if you will—why cut these stories short to begin with
Great question. So the stories are implicitly and some very explicitly about varied experiences or persons that make up our Latino communities. Both the north side of the US border and the south: Latin America, Central America, and our movements within and across borders. Long Stories Cut Short was a very carefully picked title and it’s something that I had in mind even before I started the collection, because very often our stories, our experiences, our personhoods as Latinos in this country and hemispheric Americas are cut short, because here in the US, we see our communities living in areas where libraries have closed or they’ve never opened. Schools are stressed or over-stressed without resources to give new generations tools to go wherever they need to go not only with their imaginations, but also with their creativity whether it’s science or fiction-making or becoming a scholar like myself.
Long Stories Cut Short is really a comment on how we haven’t had access to the full range of possibilities for us to live the long stories. There’s a story [Learning to Teach] about learning to teach to read and write and then it ends with, “...and so they were killed.” That, of course, is something our Latino communities here in the US experience constantly, but the danger of actually learning and teaching these literacy skills that allow us to do all of these wonderful things, but also in our minds we travel across the border to Mexico and the disappearance of the 43 students from the very rural, poor part of Mexico who are going to college to learn to read and write and go back to their rural communities to teach their community the skills it takes to read and write and they were murdered, they were tortured, and they disappeared, these 43 students. A very small short shorty story like that can allow for that expansive movement across borders in our own mind.
Reading Planning to Teach I found that this section itself, and most of these stories, are not bittersweet but are actually in reverse order. First they’re sweet and then they become bitter. You being a professor of English, do you feel that any of these stories affect you on a personal note, and if so, which parts would those be, and how do they affect your writing in this collection?
So, of course, we’re born into the world and this sort of limitless, expansive possibility. Children, infants, anything goes. But then as we grow older, especially within our communities, there’s an increasing restriction on access to the kinds of things that will continually allow us to grow. Our bodies become more and more surveillanced and policed as we become adults. We experience the world in much more constrained and limited ways, and there’s a story, Cell 113, that in many ways, even though it’s a story of a young Latino who calls it a “dumbass mistake,” he’s put in jail and there’s this moment of him fearing that this dumbass mistake will result in the loss of his daughter in the sense that he won’t be able to be with her. In a night in jail, he is traumatized by the fact that he could spend the rest of his life without the everyday contact with his daughter.
That can happen to our young Latino men and our members of the community; male, female, women, mothers, children, it can happen in ways that increasingly put us in the sense of our lives being so fragile. The carpet can be pulled from underneath us as we grow older because the system in place becomes a system of policing our bodies and our movements and our being. So it might’ve been that you jaywalked, or you got in your car to go to work and your tail light was out and suddenly within an instant if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time because you’re a brown body, because you’re a body that has been marked, you could be thrown in jail. And this can happen to any of us.
You asked if this speaks personally to me, this all speaks personally to me in that even though I’m a professor, I have tenure, I’m a distinguished professor at Ohio State University. If I decide to go home a different way and something accidental happens, it’s not something that might lead to a fix-it-ticket, it could very potentially lead to incarceration. And I end the collection with a story about an abuela—all our grandmothers, or great-grandmothers, or mothers, fierce women who had to make all of these sacrifices for our new generation, for people like me and my daughter to have a little bit more space in order for us to realize our full potentiality. These fierce, strong women, if you look at some of the decisions they make they might seem weird—they might not seem like sacrifices—but then you understand within the context that they were actually making huge sacrifices for us.
Looking at the text itself, the collection doesn’t really follow a single formula, but instead flows fluidly from English to Spanish to illustrations. For some people, transitions between English and Spanish, they occur naturally, but it might be a little bit different for those who can’t speak Spanish or for those who can’t speak English. I feel like you wanted to have a flowing effect between the languages and the illustrations, but what effect did you want to emerge from people who might not understand either language?
In working closely with the publishers and their design team, I made it very clear that I did not want any walls between the languages. I did not want walls or any physical separations like a page break between the alphabetic text and the visuals. And part of it was that even if you were monolingual English or monolingual Spanish, I wanted it to be an expansive experience. I worked with these two young Chilean creators. I wanted someone from south of the border—deep south of the border, from Chile—to do the visuals in order for us to expand on the source, so they don’t actually illustrate the stories, their visuals allow us as readers to have an expansive, hemispheric imagining of what’s going on. Cell 113 is another example, in it you see a US Latino incarcerated in the alphabetic, but once you get to the visual, you’re actually firmly situated in Chile and the jails and the system of daily incarceration in Chile that has a deep long history of incarcerating innocent people just because they resisted or pushed against a government. So the story that’s alphabetic is suddenly this expansive possibility that’s taking us across the border into a deep history of Latin America.
And then you move into the Spanish, if you’re monolingual English my hope is that you’ll continue to read even the Spanish even if you don’t know it because the rhythms and the sounds will intensify and you’ll recognize some of the connections working with the English. Now, the same happens with the Spanish in reverse, and then of course if you’re bilingual you can move between the two in a way that I was talking about the visual expanding the story. The movement between the English and the Spanish becomes an expansion as well because the Spanish is not an exact replication of the English, so there are differences, and if you read them one after the other in this flow, you’ll actually experience a great expansion in where you can go with your imagination.
Looking at the illustrations themselves, which are just beautiful, it kind of looks like a comic book illustration. What decisions went into including illustrations between the English and Spanish portions?
To go back to one of your first questions, one of my great passions has been to systematize and make visual the significance of Latinx comic books in both the US and the Americas in general. Part of this comes out of my own deep engagement and passion for that narrative model. So when I approached the Chileans, I knew that they were comic book creators and that they would be creating visuals to expand our imagination in ways that were more akin to comic books then, say, the kinds of illustrations you would see in a children’s book. This was important to me because it’s another model for showing us the importance of visual narrative through the kind of distillation and reconstruction through visual means. Our stories and our lives don’t necessarily need to be always reading in alphabetic narrative but we can also have the immersion, and the experience, and the sense of being reflected and represented through visual narrative. And even though each one of those is tied to my story they also stand on their own two feet. They allow for readers to see themselves through the sort of instances of those flash comic book visuals that are being represented in the text.
The cover, I should say, it was a real gift. A friend of mine, Jaime Hernandez, gifted me his time and his talent to do the cover, and we worked together on it to capture the sense of us and our stories and our people, not just the long stories cut short, but the heroism, the super-heroic way in the infant that can read before she can speak, the abuelo, the abuela, all of the members of our community that are, in spite of everything, our superheroes. They fly out of this backdrop of the Americas because our connection as Latinos in the US is always a connection in and across borders.
Long Stories Cut Short: Fictions from the Borderlands is in bookstores now.