October 18, 2019
Daniel Chacón and Tim Z. Hernandez, both University of Arizona Press authors with titles in the award-winning Camino del Sol series of Latinx poetry and literature, co-host the literary program Words on a Wire on El Paso’s NPR station KTEP. Chacón is a professor of creative writing at the University of Texas, El Paso. Kafka in a Skirt, is Chacón’s first book of short stories with the UA Press. Hernandez spends his time between Fresno and El Paso, where he’s an assistant professor in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Chacón and Hernandez interview writers and poets regularly for their Words on a Wire series. We thought it would be great to ask Hernandez to turn the interview table a bit. In this interview, Hernandez talks to Chacón about writing, identity, and life:
Hernandez: I’d like to start at the beginning. In one of the first stories that appears in this collection, “The Hidden Order of Things,” you state outright, “This is a work of Chicano Literature.” Why, in this post-millennial reality where it seems many writers of color are trying to steer clear of these labels, is this distinction important to you, and to this specific body of work?
Chacón: In the context of the story I don’t think I am either trying to avoid labels nor am I asserting one. Rather, I am admitting a reality, that no matter what I may want for my book, it will be read by some, perhaps by most, as Chicano and or Latinx literature. In fact, the publisher itself is a Latino literary series, and a very good one. A publisher I deeply respect. And many of the stories in Kafka are specific to the Latinx experience, like the “Fuck Shakespeare” story, or the story “Bien Chicano.” Not all the stories should be classified as Latinx literature, and that’s kind of the idea I’m making fun of. I tell the reader, if you’re reading this book because you’re interested in Chicano literature, then here’s the order you should read the stories. Then I give an alternative Table of Contents to the “official” one. I’m saying this is one of many possibilities on how to read the book.
I think as a Latinx writer, who started out as a Chicano writer, long before the term Latinx was used by anyone, I wanted nothing more than to be read by all people, but immediately my work was put in the category of Chicano literature, whether or not I liked it, whether or not I would’ve chose that label. And I think Latinos are often put in that position. In fact, my collection has been called “magical realism,” which is a term I don’t necessarily embrace, nor have I ever set out to write a magical realist story. However, because I am Latino, and because my work belongs in the category of Chicano literature, if something irrreal happens in my stories, if the reality that I present–and by the way, the reality I live on a daily basis does not parallel what most people think of as reality–because I’m Latino, it will be labeled magical realism.
The mystic writer Evelyn Underhill says “Reality is the illusion we share with our neighbors.” When something happens in my stories that is not concrete, linear reality, I don’t think it’s magical realism at all. I think it’s just another level of reality.
So in that story you’re referring to, “The Secret Order of Things,” I am giving readers suggestions on how to read the book, that is, what order to read the stories, depending on their interests. And I was trying to be funny by suggesting that if all they’re looking for is to read “Chicano literature,” after the list I give them, they don’t have to read the rest of the stories.
Hernandez: You’ve written a total of seven books. Each of them ranging in different topics, settings, characters and situations. Each of them also using a conceptual approach to narrative-making, i.e. loops, wormholes, unending rooms. Kafka in a Skirt is no exception, as it strings together seemingly disparate stories with a few common threads in mind. What is the fascination you have with these concepts? And how does this book differ from the previous books?
Chacón: I’m not sure it so much as a fascination as it is my reality, that things in my life loop back and forth from the past to the future to the present and even at times into a space-time that I’m not even sure exists in the visible universe.
For example, if I’m walking on the sidewalk and I see a paperclip, and I reach down to grab it, I am not only reaching down in that space-time, but I am also reaching down every single time I have reached down or will reach down, as well as reaching in my mind for imaginary paperclips in the stars. I am invoking the energy of every single time I have/or will have done it. And the source of that energy comes from a fundamental concept that I have about paperclips, how paperclips may hold together the pages of my life, and even though I mean that humorously, there was a time when I was obsessed with paperclips. Perhaps obsessed is too strong of a word, but I was very conscious of paperclips as metaphor. I would walk down the street and notice paperclips, whereas most people wouldn’t, as they would notice things that are filtered through their particular consciousness at that particular time. But each time I encountered a paperclip, it deepened other times I have discussed and or encountered paperclips.
One time at a book festival I was going to give a lecture on parallel universes, the multi-verse, and I had planned on talking about the archetype of paperclips and how it manifests itself in various levels of my sense of reality, and as I approached the building where I was going to give this talk, I opened the door and there on the threshold spread about were about 50 brand new, shiny paperclips. I’m not kidding.
Somehow, somebody had dropped paperclips right there at the entrance, so I scooped them up in my hands, and when I started my talk, I open my hands and I showed them the paper clips, and then I let them fall, sparkling all over the ground. When I explained what I was going to say about paperclips, some people couldn’t believe it. They thought I set it up. But that’s just the way reality is, images loop in and out and deepen the experience of life.
So how could it not be true with the fictional worlds that we create?
An image can come up in one story, and when that image comes up in another story, it releases the same energy, even if that other story is from an entirely different book. Every image is a wormhole. Wormholes take us to other space-times.
In several of my stories, a tubercular bookseller appears, like in the one called “The And Ne Forhtedon Na.” I don’t know why he continues to appear in my stories, but I know that the image of a bookseller who coughs all over his books is somehow part of the fabric of my reality.
Every collection I have written has a tubercular bookseller, even though the stories are vastly different, and the books different, and I believe each time he appears, he releases energy from the other times he appears, from other stories, from other books, and it creates or helps to contribute to an overall connection in the universe.
As for “how is this book different” from others, I think rather than it being different, it is more of a progression of the other books, a further development of the way I piece together lives.
I like to think that every book that I write, especially my collection of stories, I get better at it, as I begin to understand what it is I am capable of saying about reality.
Hernandez: The characters in your book are so “normal,” but also really strange in their normalness. I think of the character Bino in your story “F&$% Shakespeare,” who is clearly one example. There is also the vegan couple in “The Barbarians,” who are strange in their own way, because the girlfriend has this highly honed sense of smell and can detect meat odors from miles away. Do you set out to find the “strange” in the normal? Or how do these aspects emerge in your characters?
Chacón: At the risk of quoting The Doors, “people are strange.” I don’t care how normal they appear to the rest of us, people are weird.
Tim, you are a very accomplished man, a responsible father, but you’re weird. You have quirks that I’ve never seen in anybody else. I remember the late poet Andrés Montoya always exclaimed, at these immense moments of joy about surprises in life, God is weird! And what he meant by that, whether he would articulate it this way or not, is that at times life is so unexpectedly synchronous. You live everydayness and forgot to notice the amazing connectedness of reality. We live these patterns, and it seems like nothing’s going to change, and then suddenly, when we most need it, we find a check in the mail that we didn’t expect, for exactly the amount of money that we needed.
Reality is that way.
God is weird.
And people, metaphorically or literally depending on your perspective, are made in God’s image. And I think that when you have a character and you follow that character’s voice, her language, the weirdness comes out, because it’s what distinguishes them from anybody else. I don’t think you need to seek out weirdness in people, you just need to seek their inner voice, and that will lead you to a much more complex personality than most people might suspect.
But one thing I know for sure, when you are sitting around a table, say a department meeting, say–just as a random example–of the Creative Writing Dept at UTEP, everybody sitting at that table is weird!
But I don’t think of weird as something negative. I think of weird as a part of our personalities that make us unique.
Hernandez: I know you’ve been interested in Mysticism and angelic systems for some time now, and some of this informs parts of the writing throughout. My question is, How do you feel Mysticism has influenced your work? And, what first turned you on to this particular subject?
Chacón: Every first draft I write is the non-thinking draft.
I don’t seek to write about mysticism. I don’t seek to write about physics. I don’t seek to write about Latinx issues. I just follow the language, or the spirit of the character, and that leads me into the story. But yes, I have been studying mysticism for some time now. And perhaps it effects my writing in how it helps shape how I see reality.
One of the first concepts you will encounter in studying Kabbalah, and this is Kabbalah 101, is that what we experience on a day-to-day basis is only 1% of reality.
99% is beyond some sort of veil, and although most of us get a glimpse beyond that veil, very few can sustain that vision for long, and we return to the banality of everydayness.
One day you could be washing dishes and you look out the window and you see a tree blowing in the wind, a cat curled up on the grass, and you feel the warm, sudsy water on your hands and you feel connected to everything. You feel a surge of joy or gratitude, and all you’re doing is washing dishes. But the next day, you just have to wash the fricken dishes, and you hate it again. There is no joy.
I study mysticism to understand those higher levels of consciousness that we all experience at one time or another.
I study it because I’m intellectually curious about it. And I know it helps my brain, because studying any new subject creates new neurons.
But then, sometimes, when I’m following language into a story, some mystic concepts may appear, and sometimes I go into them, and other times I don’t, but they are available.
Hernandez: In your story, “The And Ne Forhtedon Na!” you make clear that the gift of desire is desire itself, not the attainment of what is desired. And I feel this can be said about the bulk of your stories in this collection. As a reader, there is a desire to find out where the story is going, because you imbue each story with so much mystery and intrigue, and yet, it really is about the desire itself, isn’t it? Why is this desire factor important to you, enough to base a collection of stories loosely on this concept?
Chacón: I have a simple equation for character-driven stories:
Basically it means that plot equals character over time, times yearning. Desire is what drives us.
Desire is what gets us up in the morning, that which keeps writers isolated in an empty room for hours and hours, days and years of our lives to write a novel.
Desire, without singularizing it to a particular want, is what makes us human.
On the level of mysticism, the “Source,” the divine, God before image, before we place it on a throne and slap a beard across its face, is pure energy. That energy is desire. I’m not talking about want. A lot of my characters want things, but beyond the want, is desire, that which makes them human and divine. Desire in us is the same thing that turns the seed into a tree. It makes us want to expand, to grow, to be better, to be the best human being we can be, the best fathers we can be, the best teachers, and of course the best writers.
Hernandez: What can we expect next from you? Will there be more short stories? A novel? Poetry?
Chacón: I’m working on two collections of stories right now, one more suitable for adults and another one, tentatively called Stories for Lucinda, which are stories that I tell my daughter, who at this time is six months old and has become the center of my creative being.