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Exploring typecast writers

Times Staff Writer

Literary radio host Michael Silverblatt was partway through a recent dual interview with authors Sandra Cisneros and Nina Marie Martinez when Martinez mentioned that she occasionally feels guilty admitting her current favorite writers are “all white males” like Thomas Pynchon.

“Sometimes, I feel like I should be reading other women of color and, of course, I do read women of color,” Martinez told Silverblatt. “But it’s good to get the chance to say there’s a whole broad spectrum out there that goes into the work.”

The moment was a rumination on the role of expectation and identity in literature. Martinez is of mixed heritage -- a German American mother and Mexican American father -- and although her debut novel "¡Caramba!” deals with Latino characters and culture, it also explores the universal desire for community and connectedness.

Because Martinez placed one of her characters in purgatory, “people took that as magical realism” in the Latino literary tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But she intended it as a metaphor for the estrangement one feels moving into a new culture.

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“If a white person wrote about fantastical things, I don’t know what they’d call it, but they don’t call it magical realism,” Martinez said earlier this week in a telephone interview from her home in Santa Cruz. “That’s one of the expectations that people brought to this book.”

That role of identity in literature is the focus of a 10-part series on Silverblatt’s “Bookworm” show, airing at 2:30 p.m. Thursdays on KCRW-FM and syndicated nationally. The ninth installment runs Thursday; all the half-hour segments can be downloaded from the station’s website after they air.

The series is an ambitious effort to engage some of the nation’s leading writers -- and a few emerging writers like Martinez and David Mitchell, author of “Cloud Atlas” -- in a far-ranging discussion of the nature of self in literature, both as a catalyst for the author and as a motivation for the reader. It encompasses interviews with 28 writers, including Toni Morrison, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and Susan Sontag, as well as Edward P. Jones, Maxine Hong Kingston, Camille Paglia and Maya Angelou, with whom the series concludes Aug. 4.

The programs are vintage Silverblatt, whose low-key but intensely informed approach to interviewing often leads writers to on-air revelations about their own work.

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“I’m as interested as he is in how I’m going to answer his questions,” Angelou said by cellphone Wednesday as she traveled from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Atlanta. “I know more about what I think after I’ve been interviewed.”

Silverblatt named the series “Escaping the Cage: Identity, Multiculturalism and Writing,” playing off Angelou’s autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which, in turn, was named for her poem about the human desire to make one’s voice heard even when shackled. Silverblatt inverted the concept: Writers of defined backgrounds -- such as ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation -- can become imprisoned by it, he believes, an effect of everything from publishers’ marketing strategies to the editing decisions of anthologists.

“The cage became the cage of ethnicity,” Silverblatt said. “People were being asked to see literature as entirely a matter of identity.... People were not being allowed to be writers. They were being turned into spokespeople.”

Cisneros, speaking from her home in San Antonio, said she embraces that role uneasily and tries to answer readers’ questions “as one person in that community, not to speak for my colleagues. I try to be as honest as I can.

“On the one hand, I don’t intend to be an ambassador, but if we don’t speak of these issues, who will?” said Cisneros, a former teacher who grew up in Chicago. “We are an alternative voice, and that’s a privilege.”

Silverblatt sought no conclusions in the project. Instead, he has created a verbal collage of viewpoints that offers insights into the thoughts of writers -- and a point of departure for other discussions, such as John Banville’s comments (to be aired Thursday) that he believes there is no such thing as human identity.

“When I look inside myself, I don’t find a John Banville,” the Irish author told Silverblatt on the program. “I increasingly have come to the conclusion that there is no self. There is an infinite succession of selves.”

Banville described his writing as “post-humanist,” reflecting his belief that “this great, beautiful, tender experiment” of human society is not the “center of the universe,” a conceit based in religious belief.

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“We are simply the most successful virus this world has ever seen,” Banville said. “And I suspect that a bigger and better virus will do us better in the end.”

The point seems a digression from Silverblatt’s theme of exploring self but actually reinforces the host’s belief that while we individually might assume we understand the concept of identity, the definition differs by writer.

“I didn’t want to impose a structure on it,” Silverblatt said. “I just wanted to have a series of free-form conversations. I wanted people really to hear that as much as we want to believe that identify means one thing, that as the show starts to unfold you hear, in fact, that everyone has a different point of view about it.”

Key, he said, is the general desire by authors to not be classified by the obvious marketing hooks of ethnicity and gender. Although the search for voices from the different cultures that make up modern American society might open doors, Silverblatt said, oftentimes those doors lead to closets.

Writers’ audiences become constrained by their perceptions that the author’s vision is limited to a component culture, when in reality they are trying to touch on universal truths.

“Although that naming helped at first, it was preventing them from being called ‘a great American writer,’ ” Silverblatt said. He cited a Morrison anecdote about repeatedly being asked, despite international acclaim and a Nobel prize, when she would write a novel about whites, “as if a novel won’t be important until it’s about the dominant culture.”

Angelou, though, believes the quest to illuminate truth supersedes whatever mantle the reader places on the writer. In the end, the writer is a spokesperson for one -- the writer.

“The important thing is to try to find the truth,” she said. “And to have enough courage to say it and enough art to say it well.”

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