“Pleasure, Reward, Activism”: An Interview with Dagoberto Gilb

Interview conducted by Kimberly Garza

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 understan