Feminism, Ethnicity, and Identity
An Interview with Helena Marìa Viramontes. Sunday, April 4, 2010 -- by Jose Jesus Romero
JOSE JESUS ROMERO: Thank you very much for doing this interview, Ms. Viramontes. In 1977, your short story "Requiem for the Poor" won first prize in a contest sponsored by Cal State L.A.'s Statement magazine. Would you share how that experience contributed to your growth as an artist?
HELENA MARIA VIRAMONTES: Oh, absolutely. I think of how important it was to see my name in print. It was my first story, done totally blind, without even a creative writing class in fiction to help me. Seeing it in print and then getting the $25 first prize was a big deal to me because I took it home and my mother saw that I could actually earn money from being published, that I could earn money from writing. She didn't understand the mental labor that I was experiencing, and a lot of my family didn't understand, because we were all physical laborers.
We picked grapes; we went to work; we cleaned houses and did things physically. So for me to come back from college and to sit down and read or sit down and study was something that was not understood. And so when my mother caught me journaling, and I gave her the $25 check, she was amazed. $25 in 1977 was like twenty-five hundred dollars today. It was a lot of money. She left the room and then returned with a cup of coffee for me, and that was a big moment in my life because that's when I realized maybe I can do this. With my mother's support, even if I failed it wouldn't matter. You know, working on Statement too, I met all these wonderful people. You create your own little family, your literary family, people who yourre in contact with for a long, long, time. And it's nice to look back and see that. I'm sure that you feel that way too, Jose, working with Statement magazine, you feel like you're on a mission. You feel like there's something very important that you're doing. That's the way we felt.
ROMERO: What other early experiences were important influences to you?
VIRAMONTES: Oh, there were all sorts. The reality of stories was something I was very fascinated with and people were constantly telling stories at our house about things that happened to them or whatever. That was very important to me, listening to them and being fascinated. Secondly, getting a library card to the public library was absolutely essential for me because I came from a bookless home. We take for granted that we just have all these books. But we didn't grow up with books, we really didn't, and if we don't have readers as family members there's not going to be books in the house. There'll be more videos and DVDs than there will be books if you don''t read. My parents did not read, and it was my older brothers and sisters who went to school and then came home and slowly started bringing them. That's when I became fascinated by even the texture of the book, and then the encyclopedias and the Bible; those were two major influences because that's all there was at the house. But once I got the library card I could go to the library and where there was a space to just read. It's like Starbucks, a haven for the coffee drinkers, these oases that we have, like Zen gardens the Japanese design so you can sit and meditate. That's what the public library was for me. So those were major influences. That and just chisme. Hanging around with adults you hear a lot of stories: people who crossed the border at night; people who swam the Rio Grande; people who, fascinating to me, were almost adventure stories, you know, and they were here, living it to tell it. There was my father with all of his family from Mexico, and my mother who didn't have that much family as my grandmother was an orphan. My grandfather I don't know too much about other than his being born in Guanajuato and then moving at the age of seventeen to San Diego studying to be a priest. He came up and got a sponsor, but when he got here the sponsor had died, so he was left alone with no money to go back to Mexico. He started working in the fields, and that's where he met my grandmother. All that studying went out the window once he got married. He was a very interesting guy. I have some copies of his handwriting where he wrote poems, like my father, who would write sonnets. My father loved singing and would make lyrics up. I have a feeling these were also of influence, somehow, listening to the musicality of language. It's all these different forces that you have no idea about that seem to, if you're open to them, have an impact on you.
ROMERO: In your writing you address social injustice and individual suffering. Do you find literature to have a healing quality?
VIRAMONTES: I think literature has a very transformative effect. Good literature, I think, really challenges your ethics. It challenges your values and makes you think about why you act in certain ways. It's great for prompting discussions about certain social issues and, in that way, the transformation takes place. With good literature usually that transformation is more healing than not. But, again, it's only if you see it. Some people read for escapism, but other people that have a mind to want to ask bigger questions. This is why I like to read literature that really challenges me because it makes me grow as a human being. It makes me stretch my heart a little bit, because then I begin to question certain things like why is it that I love, for example, this gang member Turtle in Their Dogs Came with Them when she does some despicable things? So then it is that we can do that, we can love these people who do despicable things. That question in itself really makes you think about your own life and the values that you place on let's say criminality, and on the way social factors influence that criminology, you see? So then you see them not as a criminal but as a human being who has been influenced by forces sometimes beyond their control. And so they're not just evil bad people. And in that way you yourself are transformed to see the bigger issues in the world as something a lot more complex than people who are just screwed up or do evil things.
ROMERO: Do you believe a writer's cultural ethnicity is crucial in the development of his or her voice?
VIRAMONTES: For mine it was certainly essential. As a Chicana-Mexicana, I was listening to people from across the border who stayed with us, so one tradition of immigration was very closely connected to me. The fact that my family lived so close to Mexico, my father's relatives, was also a factor. I grew up in the 1970s, an incredible decade of political activism where you had all these movements challenging the law, challenging social statuses, challenging basic beliefs that people had had instilled since the 1800s. So for me that was also incredibly exciting; it was deeply influential. I had to make a choice about whether I was going to roll up my sleeves and work in the community or write, and about which one would be more effective. Sometimes I still ask, I still wonder about that, but I picked writing. Writing was my way because at least it got my characters outside of the community for others to see and love as I love them. So, yes. But there's this new generation that's talking about post-race. Good luck! That's all I can say. The fact is the world is not perfect. So even though we think of ourselves as post-race, other people don't. When you walk down the street they're going to see you as white; they're going to see you as brown. So if you think of yourself as having no race, somebody's going to tag you with one, in any event, whether you like it or not. So for me, it's a matter of self-identity. I do my own tagging, I tell myself what I call myself, and I can also correct you when you're misinformed. But it's only because I know who I am. So race is a big issue. Some people may not think so, but that's their prerogative. I still think it's a big issue.
ROMERO: Do you think that people who identify extensively with their ethnicity in writing stand in danger of alienating certain audiences?
VIRAMONTES: Absolutely not. I think that's a big crock to tell you the truth. ["Ethnic"] literature is pigeon-holed as maybe of non-interest to other readers because it's not culturally relevant and yet we read Joyce Carol Oates and we read John Updike. John Cheever, one of the great short story writers, literally said: "I write about the middle-class suburbs of Westchester." That's near White Plains in New York. That is all he wrote about. Now you look at me; I'm not a white middle-class man from the Westchester suburbs, but I love his stories. You see what I mean? This is what kills me. But it's not just the publishing world; it's also the readers. They see the name. I know I've gotten a bigger readership partly because I'm a woman. My work is taught in women's classes. The fact is that people see a name and will say, hmm . Very few Chicana/o writers have gotten this mass appeal outside of our community. Sandra Cisneros is one of them. The House on Mango Street has sold over two million copies. But, by and large, the answer is no. I don't care. My interest is writing a good sentence, writing a good character, writing the best that I could. Each time I write a word it's the best word that I could pick. So that's what I'm concerned about, and that's it. To think about your audience so early in the drafts of a novel is to stifle yourself, I think. Given that, to sell a book, for example, in all reality, requires that you identify an audience. I think this was the primary difficulty of why I had trouble selling the Dogs book because it didn't have really big marketable value. At the same time, over fifty thousand copies of Under the Feet of Jesus had been sold. So there was an audience there, but it didn't matter. It wasn't until an African-American editor bought the book from Simon and Shuster, and put it out. She didn't change a thing. She asked me one question and I said no, and that was that. And she respected me whole-heartedly. She respected the book whole-heartedly, which I have to say. Anyway, I think specificity is what makes good writing. So if you're a Chicana writing about Chicana characters, you've got to be specific. Ultimately, the writing itself and the story will transcend. That doesn't mean you have to sell out your characters or your culture, not at all.
ROMERO: You just mentioned specificity as a way of transcending whatever limitations might be in the text, but the senses are also important?
VIRAMONTES: Oh, absolutely. I think they are the only things that are "universal," if you can call anything "universal," a word I hate. The thing of it is we all share senses. So if you write, write engaging at least three, maybe five, of those senses. I always say we have five senses, but I believe people sometimes have a sixth or seventh sense. I think what happens is that the writing becomes more alert because you become more alert giving muscle to the sentences, to the words. Janet Burroway says it best when she says musicians have instruments, either the voice, trumpet, or whatever, and have notes, written notes; painters have canvases, they have brushes, color, they have the visual; but writers, all we have are words. That's it, and those words have to work towards being visual, towards being auditory. We have to work very, very hard to get close to the intimacy of the reader. And the only way to do that is through the senses. She also says something very interesting, which I love: you have the five senses and the easiest sense for the beginning writer to begin with is what they see; then, next would be what they hear; third is maybe what they smell; the fourth, maybe, what they touch; and the fifth one is what they taste. Now, if you look at them, the first one, seeing, well that's the most distant of senses. It's far, you can see as far as the mountains, so that's pretty distant. The second is smelling. You have to be closer, but you can be still far away, as a skunk two blocks down, you can smell while you're driving by. So with these two senses, we have distant observations. And with hearing, well, we can hear sonic booms really far away. But with touching you have to be really close. So writers very rarely use the sense of touching. The thing is that to touch, you have to be pretty close. To touch you, I have to be pretty close to touch you. If I want to touch that bus, well, I have to go and touch it, you know? And the most intimate sense is taste because it has to be in your mouth. So if we use those two last senses more, taste and touch, and employ these other three, which we do almost automatically, believe me our writing will be very muscular, very strong. There's no way that other people cannot connect. You see, then, the senses are what you have to work on as a beginning writer.
ROMERO: Are you working on a new novel?
VIRAMONTES: Yes. It's called the Cemetery Boys and it deals with six boys who grew up across from the Calvary Cemetery, and my plan is to follow them. They're born in 1945, which was a pivotal time in global history because that's when the atomic bombs were dropped. It changed the weaponry we use and our consciousness of mass destruction. I'm trying desperately to write in the plural on the history of these boys up until high school when they have the most perfect night of their lives. And this is the night of this dance where they all meet and it's just something very simple. They don't know it will be the time of their lives. Then I jump to 2005. It's just a weird text. I'm writing these guys out. I'm trying to find the right voice. That's been difficult. I tell myself if I work one day at a time, that's one day closer to ending the novel. But I don't want it to be another novel that's going to cost me close to seventeen years to write. I want to get it done in at least four or five years. I need to incorporate the Zoot Suit riots. I need to incorporate those intersections of race that I am very interested in, because that's what Los Angeles was in the war time years. Now you don't see it as much, the diversity. But in the wartime, there were mixtures of Mexican and Jewish, Jewish and Japanese, and there was a mixture of all of those with the black community in Central Avenue. I mean, it must have been some really exciting, wonderful times, you know? So I want to write about that; though I haven't figured it out, and I'm still doing a lot of research on that. If I had a year off from teaching and could work four or five hours a day on just the writing, I think I could get it done. At least on what my vision is, but I'm working full time. So, it's hard. But, hey, we all have it hard.
ROMERO: How much of a story requires planning beforehand and how much comes from the actual writing process? Does it depend on the story?
VIRAMONTES: That's a good question. Each story, just like with each novel, has a different process to it. Either it's a sensation, an image, or it's a fascination with a particular story that I want to write. But the thing is that it really has to do with the process. You have to sit down and do it. And you never know. I'm always open to what's going to happen with the mystery of the creative writing process. I describe writing a novel like going into a haunted mansion. You go into a haunted mansion. It has to be at midnight. Your batteries in your flashlight are dying out, so you're shaking it, trying to get some light in there. And all that time you're hearing doors slamming and you're hearing voices and you have no idea where they are. All you can do in this haunted house at midnight is try to investigate the total time in total terror. You're petrified, but your curiosity has the better of you. That's what writing a novel is like for me. I have to keep looking and looking and looking at these rooms to see who those voices are, to see what's making that noise, and not only how those noises are being made but why. And that's how the conjuring begins with the stories. So there's a sub-conscious process that occurs that's just marvelous. To be able to tap into those deeper realms of your psyche and not have any idea what's going to happen next until--boom! It's there and it's on the page.
ROMERO: Well, my next question was about your thoughts on "white flight" and "gentrification,Â" sociological trends, but I also was thinking about how in Dogs, how you're talking about the freeways coming through East L.A., but then there's a city just down from East L.A. that the freeway was supposed to go through, South Pasadena, which resisted and fought it, and rather loudly wants to proclaim its importance as a community. East L.A. didn't have the same organization or the money to put up the same fight. I guess I'm curious about how ethnicities develop in communities?
VIRAMONTES: I've talked to some people about what exactly is happening here in Los Angeles because there is certainly gentrification going on, or else the Metro would not have been built all the way to Atlantic. You know, every historian who has worked with East L.A. history will tell you it is a portion of the forgotten city. It was just one of these barrios that a lot of people didn't pay attention to. The only time, of course, that they did was when building the freeways or burying their dead because that's where a lot of cemeteries were. And gang violence. Those are the three major things that make people pay attention, at least during the 1960s and 70s. Now, I don't know. Look at us, we are segregated. Very much so, and it wasn't always like that. As I said, I'm very interested in bringing back that history when it wasn't segregated to show that there was such a time. And what exactly happened? I'm not sure, because I'm not a historian, and I'm not a sociologist. But since I lived here during that time, I saw the trends, I could feel them. The first time that I ever saw the sign "East Los Angeles" on the freeway I was very happy that we finally got identified. You know how these counties, pueblos, unincorporated cities blend. East L.A. was an incredibly important area for me. There's so much history because of my grandparents and my parents. My brother was telling me that from my mother's house to where we grew up, where my mother lived and died, is exactly a seventeen minute walk. This was my mother's world. This was my world. This was the world of my family at the turn of the century. East Los Angeles, they never moved out. This is where they lived. You know, I've got to honor that; there's a lot of families I'm sure like that here. The roots are so deep and people don't acknowledge them. So I just feel that I have to do this for my family.
ROMERO: Do you think that young women today face many of the same social obstacles as those of your generation?
VIRAMNONTES: Without a doubt. I think there's a little bit more laxity. When I travel the country in my speaking engagements I always have the opportunity to talk to high school students. Here at Garfield in L.A. there was a high school student who asked me if I could call her father. She wanted to take AP Math, but she would have to stay after school and he wouldn't let her. And that broke my heart. That was last April. We were talking earlier about parents' understanding of what the university is, what the university does. A lot of parents still don't understand. How could they? They're limited in their understanding, so they really don't see the value of it. The only way to give value to it for them is to see it as money in some way which isn't always easy. Right now, even with the Master's it's difficult finding a job at this point in time. But even with Ph.D.s right now people are scrambling. But that isn't always going to be the case. And jobs will come for those who are educated enough to take them. And most of the time education will determine where you live, what you will drive, what kind of health insurance you'll get. And so that does pay off.
ROMERO: What advice would you give to an aspiring young artist stuck between the sexist culture of her ignorant father's homeland and the less vigorous patriarchy of the United States?
VIRAMONTES: (laughs) Well, already that question recognizes two major obstacles, so as long as the recognition is there, you know the obstacles that you have to fight over. There is no better revenge than a good sentence. Language is incredibly powerful if you know how to use it, if you know how to stretch it, if you know how to tell a story by it, if you know how to make it transform. It is a remarkable tool for social change, a remarkable tool. So, I think you have understand that you have these two huge obstacles, and already that shows you're not accepting of them, that you want to change them. And you do it through the word. There's a number of things the aspiring writer can do: one, do a lot of reading; two, get your ass in the chair and write--do it with the seriousness of practicing a religious practice; three, don't think that you have something to say, let the writing tell you what you're going to say. Let the writing reveal to you what you want to say. Those are the three things that I would say. And sustained patience with yourself, with your mind, with your imagination, with your creative process, is important. But my experience is that my intuition and my imagination pay off in some way. There's always something that happens on the page that I'm amazed about. And that is the real magic of writing.
Helena MarÃa Viramontes is the author of the novels Their Dogs Came with Them and Under the Feet of Jesus as well as The Moths and Other Stories. Her story "Requiem for the Poor" appeared in Statement magazine in 1976. Named a USA Ford Fellow in Literature for 2007 by United States Artists, she has also received the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, a Sundance Institute Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and the Luis Leal Award.
In the 1980s, Viramontes became co-coordinator of the Los Angeles Latino Writers Association and literary editor of XhistmeArte Magazine. Later in the decade, Viramontes helped found Southern California Latino Writers and Filmmakers. In collaboration with feminist scholar Maria Herrera Sobek, Viramontes organized three major conferences at UC-Irvine, resulting in two anthologies: Chicana Creativity and Criticism-Charting New Frontiers in American Literature (1988) and Chicana Writes: On Word and Film (1993).
Viramontes' work has been included in nearly every anthology of American literature published in the last ten years, including, most recently, The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. A teacher and mentor to countless young writers, Viramontes is currently Professor of Creative Writing in the Department of English at Cornell University.
Jose Romero received his M.A. in English Literature from Cal. State L.A. and is a Statement staff member. He is currently working on a novel. "I am a flower that ponders its fragrance wafting like a spell and fading."