“Pleasure, Reward, Activism”: An Interview With Dagoberto Gilb
Dagoberto Gilb is the author of five books of fiction—The Magic of Blood, The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña, Woodcuts of Women, The Flowers, and Before the End, After the Beginning—and a collection of essays, Gritos, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has received the PEN/Hemingway Award, a Dobie Paisano Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Whiting Writers’ Award. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Ploughshares, Boston Review, Zyzzyva, and innumerable other places.
When describing Gilb, reviewers often mention the same things: that he was born in Los Angeles and has lived in places like El Paso and Austin, Texas. That he spent 16 years as a journeyman high-rise carpenter. That he frequently writes about working-class Mexican-Americans. That he is Mexican-American himself. This was my introduction to Gilb years ago, as an undergraduate, first reading The Magic of Blood. I was struck by his clean, graceful writing, his clear-eyed, honest examination of people and lives I recognized from my own experiences along the Texas-Mexico border. The characters in those stories can be both thoughtful and devoted, violent and petty. They are complicated. He refused—still refuses—to sentimentalize them.
Gilb currently sits on the faculty of University of Houston-Victoria, where he serves as executive director of CentroVictoria and the founding editor of the literary magazine Huizache. Last fall, he traveled to Denton to read as part of UNT’s Visiting Writers Series. During his talks here at UNT he was like his prose: sharp and poignant, funny and refreshingly blunt. I was fortunate to be able to ask him further questions over the winter break and get his insight on the common threads between fiction and nonfiction, his goals for Huizache, and how to talk about creative writing (hint: don’t call it creative writing).
Kimberly Garza: Are you working on anything new? How do you approach starting a new work, fitting writing within your busy schedule of CentroVictoria, Huizache, etc.?
Dagoberto Gilb: Yes but not talking about it much specifically beyond yes. Generally what’s hard for me are the interruptions. I love to be in the dream—the story—of what I’m working on and making that part of my daydreaming too. It’s not good for me when I have to wake up and get into someone else’s dream and or reality. Which is to say teaching, specifically creative writing teaching. I need life—I don’t need constant cloister, just a room when I’m at it—and I want to have contact outside because that’s where I learn and fill in. I didn’t come up, as a writer, as a student writing fiction for classes, all ideas from library books alone (not to say I don’t LOVE libraries). I had 16 adult work years (in the construction trades) and more years before that writing without supervision. Now that I’ve taught it for years, I know that best for me is to write nonfiction when I’m reading student prose (i.e. teaching classes).
Editing Huizache is pleasure, reward, activism. Just look at the mag, think on it for five minutes and you’ll see what it is doing for us and this country. If, that is, literature and art are important. I didn’t envision the bureaucratic BS of maintaining a mag. I never considered any of that, naively imagined people pounding at my door wanting to join in and me having to hold their energy and enthusiasm back.
KG: As a reader, I like when I can pick out patterns or common themes in a writer’s work—ideas or concerns the writer comes back to again and again. Do you have any recurring echoes in your fiction that you’re aware of? What do you think they are, and why do they interest you in a way that you turn back to them repeatedly?
DG: Not a good idea for a writer to write papers—maybe even graphs—about his own work’s themes. It’s supposed to be there in the art. I think it’s pretty clear I write for and about lesser, off-stage people, doing lesser, off-stage things, in places that are ignored and or dismissed or even worse. The common. In my case the common in my own region—America’s West, those people in it who for me is majority Chicano—and life experience, and the situations I consider…kind of pretentious of me (again, I’m the writer) to call them universal. Now that I write that, I want to adjust the error. Only universal to a certain kind of people who aren’t rich, whose aspirations and work are always greater than what limited opportunities are historically granted them. I mean, we’ve been here for 200 years and still have to explain why, and that we were born here, and family is here, and yeah we have family a few miles away in Mexico, while others do a few hundred more miles away east and north in Kansas or New Jersey or Kentucky. And so on.
KG: You mentioned when you were here in Denton that you could never be a journalist. But you’ve written a book of essays as well as fiction. After writing in both genres, do you think there are any limits or restrictions to being a fiction or nonfiction writer? What could you do in one genre that you couldn’t do in another?
DG: Lots to say here but I’ll make it simple. Essay writing is not journalism, journalism isn’t nonfiction. Not that they don’t have commonality, but their relationship parallels commercial fiction and literary fiction. What I’d say literary fiction has in common with nonfiction is a search for “the mystery.” By that I mean that strange sense that we are conscious, aware, and wow, what the f are we doing here on a planet and how did we get here and why do all human cultures talk about gods or God or the big There? Both tell and are obsessed with the truth, but fiction gets to it through imagination, dreaming, making up another storyworld to point at the hidden; nonfiction revels in the extraordinary sequence of real events, consequential details, unveiling experienced reality so that, when amazingly well-written, leaves a reader, as in all good art, in a gasp of understanding and being aware of here.
KG: At this point you’ve written several story collections and novels both. Does one process inform the other in any way? At what point do you approach an idea and realize that it’s a story or a novel, and how do you follow through with that realization?
DG: I don’t think the two are so alike. I know that’s unique, maybe mine alone. I think it’s wrong to consider “stories” as the diminutive “short,” that, as a writer grows up, the grown up table is presumed to be the novel (note that novels aren’t called “long stories”). I think shor
t fiction is much closer to poetry—maybe a narrative poetry—than a novel. Stories work more with image and mood and tone in ways that a novel cannot. Stories don’t have to be about any sort of plot to work. The form is about confinement, being tight, reducing the use of words—to minimize and pick exact words and phrases, preferably with beauty, carefully, using sentences and graphs in the same way that poets work in verse. Stories feature the smaller people (never really small) and the smaller miracles (never really small) of being alive on a planet spinning in what appears to be an infinite space.
KG: I’ve told you how I was introduced to your work with “The Death Mask of Pancho Villa,” but is there a particular piece of yours that you think exemplifies you as a writer? Or maybe one that you think doesn’t do so? (Is this like choosing which of your kids is most like you?)
DG: That’s one of those “Who is your favorite child?” questions. I will say there are stories I’ve written that, for me, seem to stand out as…I’m not sure what the word would be but that, on finishing, we’ll call them moments in my career or life or something like that. “Churchgoers,” “Look on the Bright Side,” “The Señora,” “Hueco,” “please, thank you,” “Hacia Teotitlán.”
KG: In a literary culture that seems to corral Latino writers in one big group, you’ve talked about the importance of Mexican-American writers in particular being visible, and how Huizache is part of an attempt to show the publishing world that we are here and we are writing great work. What do you think distinguishes MexAm writing from Dominican or Puerto Rican or Cuban or any other Latino writing?
DG: Quantity: MexAms, Chicanos, Chicanas, Chicanxs, are at least 66% of the Latino demographic. The other three that you mention are less than 10% each. It’s as though we are comparing the numbers from the three islands to Mexico. (In fact, in terms of political power and press, MexAms are last in power.) History: MexAms have been on this space of land that is the western United States long before it was annexed. Most of the West’s history and culture is Mexican history and culture—which is dismissed and ignored unless enchiladas are served. I’m not opposing the beautiful coalition we have with all Latinos, but we can’t always surrender to what the East Coast alone stupidly decides is U.S. history. Meanwhile, we can each be proud of who we each are and where we’re from—which is what all Latinos do except in textbooks and editorial offices that have no editors who know our different communities and histories.
KG: Do you have any advice for emerging creative writers or creative writers of color in particular?
DG: Ugh on the expression “creative writer.” Becoming a writer isn’t choosing a very particular college major, and that without a “creative” degree, you must not be “a writer.” Or wasn’t in the long, long ago past of a few decades ago. For example, I didn’t take any creative writing classes. I didn’t take one college English class past the freshman required ones (which, uhhh, maybe shows). Unless remedial English counts (I would suggest it is very valuable to many would-be writers!). My point is that a writer, unlike a doctor, doesn’t have to have perfect grades from high school on and get along and agree with all teachers to become a writer and particularly an important and valuable one. Art isn’t (shouldn’t be, isn’t always even if it seems so today) about pedigree but about story. It is about living a life and the material gathered in one (not only from research libraries). About listening to stories, telling stories well. It is absolutely required that a writer be smart, aiming to become wise—at least looking for that.
As to people from the dismissed and dark, non-tourist regions, sigh, that is truly another issue that is far more pernicious. It is of course about power, which here is money. Literature is not considered important by power, so it is run like an elite dance school. We need editors who are us. We need publishers who are us. We need readers who are us. Our readers need to BUY us. The more that we buy our own, the more that publishers will see a market of us, for us. I publish the literary magazine Huizache. You would not believe how many strong writers and poets we have—ones who won’t get published by the mainstream. But until a magazine such as Huizache SELLS big, book editors won’t see it or the work or its world or the market in it. And I say to those who have even been published by it, unless they are willing to buy it themselves (how many copies do you own?), why would a publisher spend money on them?