An Interview with Alberto RŪos.
By Lupe CŠrdenas and Justo Alarcůn.
Confluencia. 6:1. Fall 1990. 119ó.
This portion of the interview took place at my home in Chandler, Arizona, in 1989.† The questions posed were not published, but the answers make their query clear.
1. I was born in Nogales, Arizona, on September 18, 1952.
2. Though they were not in any sense pushy, they certainly created a home atmosphere full of books, and reading is the beginning for any writer. I particularly liked reading from the encyclopedia--something I donít know how my parents were able to afford.
3. When I was very young, as I said, I read a great deal from the World Book Encyclopedia. I also had a particular book of fairy tales and fables, which had a red cover but whose name I donít recall. I loved that book, and must have read it literally fifty times. My favorite story had a stock plot line, but I never forgot it: there were three sons of a poor farmer who were all clever and wanted to marry the kingís daughter. Each in turn tried his luck. The thing in this story is that the road to the kingís castle was made of gold--so, the eldest son walked to one side of the road so as not to muddy it, and the second son walked to the other side of the road so as to not scuff it, but the youngest son--who saw the princess at the wall of the castle, was so taken by her that all he could do was look at her--which meant that he walked right down the middle of the street of gold, and right into her arms.
I always worried that I would have been too much like the first two brothers. As I was a teenager, I read a great deal of science fiction, particularly people like Robert Heinlein. I was especially influenced by his book, Stranger in a Strange Land.
Even as I was reading books, however, I canít place enough emphasis on my love for comic books. They cast a mighty spell, and I will always be grateful to them. In the case of comic books, and science fiction, and fairy tales, I have often thought that they were my way of traveling, something our family could not afford to do very much of. Nogales was a small town, but these were all wondrous places. Reading was one way of getting out. It was a passive way, because I was not unhappy really, but it was a way out nonetheless.
4. I began writing in elementary school, I think. They were little things, but I remember doing them. Writing, in this sense, I mean to be things that one commits to the page without being asked or told to do so. Something you do on your own.
That also describes an act of privacy, and in that sense a great deal of writing is private. I remember writing in the backs of notebooks, writing for the sheer pleasure of writing, not knowing why, but feeling compelled. It was a mysterious feeling, like wanting to walk on railroad tracks as a kid.
I was certainly doing a great deal of writing by junior high school, so it was adolescence, about 12, 13, which was really what was happening; that it emerged as writing, as it has for many writers, is simply part of what defines me as a writer. Other kids worked on cars, or played piano, or started fires. I donít know what happened to them.
5. This is always difficult to answer, primarily because I think there are many answers to this. The easiest, and truest, answer, is that I never made the decision at all; I just always did write. I suppose I began to write for publication after I entered college and began to take creative writing courses. These courses didnít particularly make me write more, but they showed me a great deal about what can happen to the writing that one does.
6. I graduated from Nogales High School in 1970. I went straight to the University of Arizona in Tucson, where I received a B.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing in 1974. I received a second B.A., this one in Psychology, in 1975. I then attended law school at the U. of A. for about a year. I received an M.F.A. in Creative Writing in 1979.
7. Schooling had a great deal of influence regarding my decision to become a writer. First, as an undergraduate, the creative writing courses showed me that there was, in fact, such a thing as being a writer, such a job; no one in high school had ever told me about anything like that. However, after I received my first B.A., I thought I should find a job--but again, no one had ever told me how to find one. That is to say, I was not quite sure what someone with a B.A. in literature could actually do. So, I decided to go to law school, mostly because this sounded sensible and secure, and there was a history of law in my family.
I was too late to sign up, however, for the next year, so I got a second B.A., believing it would help my application to law school. I took the L.S.A.T., and was accepted. I did fine, which is to say I could certainly do the work. But that doesnít mean that I liked it.
I had a big decision to make, and I decided to q-q- q-quit law school, an action I was not comfortable with, as I had never quit anything up to now. But I left anyway, and felt bad for six, even seven minutes. What I found was not that I had quit law school, but that I had quit writing, and it was time to go back. I was accepted into the M.F.A. program, and this had a great impact on my writing, as it opened up, for real since I was a graduate student now, the world of form as well as content. The world of craft.
Content, as an aside, was an interesting problem, however, as it will always be. Graduate school gave me a taste of this early, however, as I was told on several occasions things like ďno one will understand a name like Rosete, everyone will say Rosette,Ē and that really what I was describing was, after all, so ďlimited audience.Ē These were obscene moments, and in many respects I left graduate school angry. This was not the worst way to leave, in that it gave me a good kind of fuel to keep me going through the early years; it was an ďoh yeah, cabrones, Iíll show youĒ kind of energy.
I still feel it sometimes, and itís one of the main reasons Iíve chosen to stay in Arizona. I donít finally think I had very many teachers who understood much of what I was doing, or who could help me with my unique needs. I want to be part of what changes that in this state. I want to talk loudly about ďlimited audiencesĒ and people named ďRosete.Ē
8. I began writing in English, and do so now. However, from time to time works emerge in Spanish, and I am always in awe of them. As I was growing up, and even now, much of my family could only speak Spanish, and this must be something of them. I respect this.
9. There is only a moral language, if I might use that term. At its most honest, the language any of us uses marks us, our place, and our time; in that sense, Chicano literature is unquestionably distinct. The Chicano experience, simply stated, is not the Anglo experience, nor anyone elseís for that matter. To capture the voice that echoes that experience by definition categorizes it as something unique.
There are so many Chicanos, however, and so many kinds of experience, that this voice varies, and is difficult to define. This does not mean that because this is a difficult task we should stop trying; I mean quite the opposite. One of the most amazing things we are coming to learn is just how large this language is.
Yes, certainly I am saying there is a Chicano voice in literature, but I say again it is a moral voice. It is many people speaking honestly from many places, and this is when it is at its best. I say moral in that it is best when it is true to this ideal in fact, not when it adheres to some kind of predictable dogma.
10. Yes, certainly. But I donít think one should try to mask or feel guilty about whatever language one grew up with--even if, and for Chicanos this is often a difficult issue--that language is English.
I certainly donít advocate here that everyone should learn or write English; I mean, simply, that we must look to the heart and write what is there, and then have the courage to let others do the same. We must not tell each other what to write.
11. I write to learn.
12. I would like to believe in the purity of saying ďI write to learn.Ē In fact, I am sure a hundred other factors come into play--as you say, for family, for job security, and so on. I try not to think about writing that way, though. I have never performed well as an occasional writer, that is, writing for some purpose. I suppose that is what turned me away from other kinds of writing, from journalism, for example, which has stories which must be described and deadlines in which to do so.
For me, finally, it is internal motivation. I believe I would write regardless of my circumstances.
13. Yes, but more as an observer than a participant.
14. Writing well, doing anything well, is always a political act--witness the ridding of intellectuals in various political takeovers: Pol Pot, many of the communist regimes, fascist states, and so on. Writing well is always dangerous, always political, regardless of content.
But I do not say ignore content. Yes, I believe I make political commentary in my work, even though I may be trying to avoid it. By avoidance one points out a thing quite well. Sometimes, however, my words are overt. I have written about various political acts. And I am glad to have written about them, but no one subject consumes me; so with my writing. It is always about many things.
15. I think the movement, as it came to Nogales, and as it probably came to many small towns like Nogales, was certainly something I was aware of, and read about, but I saw only limited evidence of. Nonetheless, it began to open an issue that we didnít even know could be opened up--it was that kind of feeling. We had always been told to do this or that because ďthatís the way it is.Ē The Movimiento, whatever we imagined it to be, and our imaginations made it a far more wonderful and powerful thing than it probably was, began to show us that ďthatís the way it isĒ was not an answer. Not even when our parents said it--this was the most difficult revelation.
The loudness of the Movimiento caused me early on in my writing to deal with loud issues, and I think that writing was facile and ineffective finally. I began to see that writing was different from shouting. In a curious way, thatís what the Movimiento did for my writing--taught me what not to do, but also that there was something worth doing. Many people threw the baby out with the bath water--if Chicano writing was not good, then the movement was not good. This was obviously wrong and part of the growing pains for Chicano artists of all kinds.
16. I think internal motivations were always stronger, and they are what kept me writing when all the rhetoric began to fall away.
These motivations are more subtle, and much harder to describe; thatís what makes them so important. If I see something, and it affects me, I eventually write something down concerning it. The process is as simple as that. Itís not forced, not something Iím required to do. I just want to do it.
What the internal motivations are is a mystery, in the best sense. I could say I write for family, for love, for many things, and Iím sure itís true--but the real answer is something more indefinable. What Iím saying is that this is the engine that keeps me going, but I donít know how an engine works.
17. I think something is at work in my words, yes.
18. I think the need to create, the need to say something, is strong, and would have surfaced no matter what. Where this surfacing might have occurred is difficult to say. Iíve been offered many jobs, in differing fields. For example, I was offered a job as an assistant administrator in a hospital when I was going through college; I worked there during my summers, filling in for everyone who went on vacation. In that way, I learned everything about how a hospital works, and with that sense of things I began to offer innovative solutions to various problems; this was not unlike the feeling of constructing a good piece of writing, a good poem.
Hospital administration, however, would not be my choice. I think, if I had to guess what I would have done, I would say something in music, or drama--any of the arts, really. Or else I would have found some other use for words, journalism or advertising.
19. Of course, and of course I canít. I remember hearing somewhere that the worst thing for a writer is to have your parents still be alive. That sounds awful, but itís really a statement about dealing with conscience in all its forms. I see so much early stuff, and I think I could have done it so much better, that all I can finally live with is to think that I must be getting better if I can see weaknesses in past work. My job then is to correct them, and build on the good.
I donít think there are any specific pieces of writing I would take back, though. I am, in a curious way, glad to be embarrassed by a little bit of my work. It is a humbling experience always, and something worth feeling.
20. The internal, clearly, as I have said. The external reasons always change, but the internal is steady.
21. I donít really think about this. Now that I have a son I think that I would like him, when he is older, to think that I am a great writer and for him to be proud of me, but beyond that, I really donít think about it.
22. I always ask this of my students, but only because I find it so difficult to answer for myself. Certainly a good marketing strategy is to know your consumer, but Iím afraid my reader and I are on more secret terms. I donít think I would recognize one in a crowd. But I know they are there.
23. Finally, I donít think so, beyond trying to make the piece of writing clear, with a strong narrative continuity. I think about the reader understanding what I have written, but I donít think about the reader in terms of content.
The fact is, as I write I often donít know where the writing is going. So, in that sense, I donít think about the reader nor do I think about myself or what I might want to say. I just try to let the writing come to some life of its own.
24. I think I would be lying to say that criticís reviews have no impact on me. But I think that is the key-- they have an impact on me, but not on my writing. Critics are after the fact, not before. I donít think about them at all, good or bad, when Iím working on something.
25. This probably is the job of the fabled critics. If I had to use one word to describe my work, especially the poetry, it would be ďstories,Ē and if I had to describe the content of my work it would be ďsecrets.Ē
26. Yes, I think so. I think my writing began that way, in the backs of notebooks with no hope whatsoever of an audience, and I could see it returning to something like that. I would not want that to happen, but I think it would. Audience, for me, is something that happens after the writing is finished.
27. I donít have any real answer to that, except in saying that I never write didactically. I write simply about moments in peopleís lives, I suppose. Itís never more dramatic than that, except that of course this is the essence of drama. But I would not use grand words like politics, love, and so on; these are all intermixed at any given moment.
28. No. The moment I start thinking about what I want my writing to do, I begin to interfere with it.
Ideally, of course, who would not say they wanted their writing to improve the human condition, to enlighten, to enchant. I would like these things to be part of my writing, but I donít go in with anything at all like that in mind.
Keep in mind I donít think this makes me a social coward or anything else. If I go into a piece of writing correctly, then all things will happen.
29. This goes back to the line about writers having their parents still be alive. I admit as a writer I am often facing what we might call ďmy parents,Ē and that I want to be a good boy. Still, what I want and what my writing wants are often at odds, so I blame the spirit of the typewriter.
I canít say everything should be allowed to be written, because in fact I would have trouble with works advocating, for example, racism, or sexual violence, or child abuse. And these works do get written.
Still, I donít know who should be the judge of what should and what should not be allowed. Ultimately, my best answer is to do right in my own work, and set a standard for myself which others might find attractive. I donít know what else to do.
30. Everydayness, ordinariness, the real, the regular, the pedestrian. It is the one great lesson so many great writers have tried to teach us. I think Chicano literature is still young, and one could not expect these things to be what charges the literature. But they are coming.
So much of Chicano literature wants to be about something. I am always reminded of Flaubertís desire--and the desire that was to foment the advent of modern literature--to write a great novel about nothing.
It is in some respects my notion that our great Chicano novel will be a good listener, not a talker. Iím not sure such a thing is possible in literature--Iím not even sure what it means--but I think therein lies part of our direction, an extension of Flaubertís remark.
31. Certainly the public attaches chains to the Chicano writer. I donít need to belabor all the examples of incidents I have gone through, and others, with regard to this ďtortilla requirement.Ē Our test as writers will be, probably, not to break the chains off, but to have the public itself remove them. And we can only do this by writing very, very well. The answer is not mysterious. And I donít mean to imply there should not be a great deal of chain-rattling. But finally we ourselves will be our own test. You canít make someone like your work by telling them they must.
32. Yes. This is a constant.
33. No, but common sense dictates that these things certainly make writing easier. I find myself trusting myself with regard to my writing, which is to say that I donít need to write everything down the moment I think of it. If the ideas, or the lines of a poem, are good, I will remember them. And so I probably do write when I have the necessary resources available.
On the other hand, I have a two year old son, who I take care of much of the week. This is not ideal for a writer, and yet I have written. It is, as I said, trusting in myself and having the sense to believe a good thing will not abandon me.
34. I donít write every day, or at least that is what I fool myself into believing. I write lines, words, paragraphs, whatever--always notes, always at random. Then, about once a week or every other week, I get this feeling. I sit down, I look over all these notes which I assemble in front of me, and then I begin to see something.
The human mind is forever remarkable. I always seem to find that I have been working on several things at once, that there was no real randomness in what I had been doing, and that things simply fit together. I am always surprised by this process, which has not yet let me down. In this way I donít particularly ever suffer from writersí block or similar maladies. I may work more slowly sometimes, but it is not from being stuck.
35. They are always in control. I find myself always editing for clarity, but it is a clarification of what they have brought to the page.
I donít mean to make this sound melodramatic. But it is like driving a car: push the gas and the car goes. I can vaguely explain the workings of a car, and I know that it would not have gone had I not pushed the gas, but still. . . it is a marvel, and I donít finally believe it is me making the car go.
36. To make something come to be where nothing like it was before defines creating, but the job of the creator is the pure audacity to believe that there is value in this job, even in the simple joining together of words. Pure audacity, or perhaps ego. The belief that what you say will have merit.
37. Pure fiction, I think, is very little in evidence in my work, except that it holds an incredibly important position: often it is the beginning of my piece. Thereafter, everything is perhaps half and half of the other two.
It would be wrong, however, to think that all my work is based on lies, as I donít believe we can lie, not artistically, not in the manner upon which I base my work. If one were to put the words ďwhat ifĒ at the beginning of all my works, this might clarify my intent. I think in that way there is almost something of the scientific method at work here, something of the philosophical paradigms. These have, ultimately, led to great truths.
38. Theme here is distinguished from form and content, in that it seems to be didactic intent. In this sense, given your question, I believe my work to reside almost entirely on the side of the artistic. By this I do not mean to say that my work is devoid of theme, as many of my characters are quite concerned with it; I would stress, however, the danger of confusing the author with his work. Simply because my character says something does not mean that I believe it myself.
39. So many factors come into play when one is writing, it is hard to say which side is providing them. As I am writing I always think I am in perfect conscious control; yet, every time I go back to reread a piece, I always find something new.
40. A little bit of both, some pieces wavering more to one side than the other. Let me answer it this way: for the most part, I donít see these creations as being me, but I donít know who else could have, or would have, written them.
41. I always feel I have gained something, always a feeling of strength, of amazement. I never feel like I have lost something. The thought has never even really occurred to me.
42. I would like to add, simply, that there are no particularly good rules for looking at any writerís work. Being a Chicano and growing up in Nogales, still living in Arizona--these things for me are freeing. They are not restrictions. I will always hope that they make my vision singular, but in the manner of binoculars: using two lenses to see something--anything--better.