The writer Dagoberto Gilb is a believer in the literature of the American West and in the literature of the Latino United States. He’d prefer not to read any more novels that portray Latino people as stereotypical criminals and bumpkins. His own work — half a dozen books, including short story collections and novels — is a ferocious riposte to those writers and editors who perpetuate a one-dimensional vision of the Latino U.S.
Now Gilb is going to bat for Western and Latino lit in a new literary magazine called Huizache that he’s started with the help of the Centro Victoria for Mexican Literature, based at the South Texas campus of the University of Houston-Victoria. The first two issues featured an all-star literary cast, including Sandra Cisneros, Juan Felipe Herrera, Sherman Alexie and Gary Soto and art by Patssi Valdez.
In this email interview, Gilb speaks with characteristic candor about his new magazine, the “Junot-ization” of the Latino lit scene, and what he doesn’t like in Latino lit, including “do-gooder pedo,” by which he means work that patronizes Latino subjects.
Why have you decided to start a literary journal now, since supposedly printed words are dead?
Wow, you’re catching onto my most dazzling flaw in a first line of query! Dead lit, yes sir, that’s my baby mama. For lots of years in my life I didn’t know there was anything but. It was dead writers I loved to read. I couldn’t find American writers who lived wherever it was I was living (L.A. or El Paso). I’m so into it, I didn’t even realize I was writing in that non-contemporary vein of lit myself! So yeah, I still like work to be so out-of-it that it appears in these paper and bound dealios once called ‘magazines’ [mag-ah-ZYEEN]. Worse, I want for others what I have wrought unto myself — a home for those who love lit but come from unseen bad neighborhoods or maybe in the boonies or too close to a busy freeway or border, not in the mainstream suburbs or upper eastsides. A mag that puts us in the printed center. But hey, wait, soon we’re going online a little bit too.
Why call it Huizache? And why call it “the” Latino literary journal?
“Huizache” is a Nahuatl word meaning “a real lot of thorns.” It’s also a type of acacia tree native to Mexico and well known in Texas, less fondly to farmers in South and East Texas, where they have trouble ridding their fields of it, whereas to Chicanos, many know the tree blooming (yellow flowers) in the backyard of their childhood homes. I think the metaphorical usage, from this point, will be apparent to most readers. I want to add that in Texas huizache gets pronounced in a mandatory, reduced to two-syllables form required of all Mexican words. We at Huizache magazine insist on the actual three syllables within the word and do not think we are talking Spanish when we say huizache anymore than we are when saying taco.
As to the “the” in “the magazine of Latino literature.” Oralé and oh yeah, that’s right, that’s us! You tell me who else has done what we’ve done in two issues alone? And that’s so far. And we’re in Victoria, Texas. You go, Uh, where? And I go, See what I’m saying?! Just think, and just wait. It’s our Paris Review, that’s why, and we’ve only started.
One can’t help but notice that many if not most of your contributors are from the western side of the Mississippi River. Is cultivating that Southwestern Latino voice one of your missions?
The Southwest and Texas, yes, but as much so the West. There are so many magazines that “matter” on the East Coast already, it’d be hard for anyone to mention one that isn’t from there. Established media equalizes (roughly speaking) the nation’s Latino demographics into fourths (Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Mexican), despite the fact that Mexican Americans are around 75% of the whole. It’s interesting to me that President Obama, who’s from Hawaii and or Chicago, chose a Cuban American to represent Latinos in his second inauguration. Imagine the impact in the West had he chosen a MexAm (that’s my non-gendered shorthand), the only group overwhelmingly from the West.
As one of the handful of Latino literary voices of the Southwest who’s cracked New York publishing again and again, is New York publishing starting to get the difference, the diversity in Latino voices? Or do they still think a Dominican is telling the same story as a Texan?
No, New York understands this no better than Washington, D.C. How many Latinos are editors? Are any from western states or their universities, let alone MexAm? There is simply no awareness of the Chicano, a MexAm world in the East. Their perception is what’s been around for a century. Thus, the usual stories are promoted: the exotic, untamed, tequila’ed Mexico (“Under the Volcano,” or Kerouac & Burroughs adventure), or as Mexican nationals even if the setting’s in the U.S.; or how we just crossed the border (despite being here a couple hundred years now, and the curiously Spanish names of our mountains, rivers, and cities), Guadalupe-tattooed cholos in or out of prison (though, worst case number, 95% have non-gang lives).
Though this is a much larger discussion, it’s also true that we are responsible for showing the industry that there’s a market for complex stories from the real population of the West. In many respects, what I want Huizache to do is both external and internal: to raise the awareness (and market viability) not only for publishers, but to educate our own about our own beyond what’s marketed by East Coast publishing. As with real political changes in this country, we are only at the beginning of our artistic powers, stories, and verses, and we want to be able to promote it from within.
Well, moving across the Mississippi to the East Coast, in one of our emails back and forth you referred to the “Junot-ization” of the Latino lit scene. What did you mean by that? And how has Junot Diaz changed Latino and American lit?
I’ve known Junot for almost 20 years, since he was my little brother (way smarter than me!), when he was only a literary hip-hop star, not the massive planet he’s become. It’s not on him that all questions Latino are most definitively answered by him (has he been asked where the best Mexican restaurant in L.A. is?), as if his is our experience and history. The man is super-smart and talented and funny, but he’s from New Jersey and teaches at MIT. He’s into Dominican culture and supporting it. Unlike us, his local mag is a national one, the New Yorker. All good for him.
Putting aside the Latino part, there’s nothing extremely new when you look at it clearly: Even Kerouac and Ginsberg were from there. It’s like watching an old Western: We’re supposed to be thrilled the stagecoach finally got here with the soprano and grand piano from the classier East. It’s not on him that our own region fawns as though it’s the way of their literary dreams. They don’t realize that buying him — better said, only buying him — and not our own stories makes New York publishing believe it has it right. Ours don’t realize that buying, say, Huizache (or any other of “our” publications), making it half-profitable, would generate far more opportunity for their career possibilities, because editors would become aware of the huge market in the West that is about being here. I myself love international lit, but we need some “buy local” consciousness so all stories aren’t shipped in — so at least our young can learn that where they were born and raised doesn’t doom them to only watching the high lives of “Mad Men.”
And, finally, who are some of the new up-and-coming voices in the Southwest scene you’re excited about? Who are the ones you think are most underappreciated?
I am no Stalinist, no doctrinal mandates or purity tests. Maybe it’s only because I’ve been a man so long, with traditionally male work (in construction for a decade and a half) or jobs dominated by men (back when I was a janitor, for instance, or even now in universities), I find it very cool that I’m seeing women writers, like women vocalists, doing the least clichéd, most fascinating and fresh work. Me, I want punk, I want classical, so long as it’s obsessed with what it’s doing and good. I hate do-gooder pedo. I like skilled art that knows the smartest, that doesn’t try to dupe the stupid or naïve. Willful craft. I want quality from artists who don’t think they ever get it right but move on anyway.