People First, Characters First: Talking with Manuel Muñoz

Kristin Seabolt

SB: So, I want to talk about The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue a little bit. I loved this book. I loved both The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue and What You See In the Dark, and I haven’t read Zigzagger yet, but it’s next. I actually lived in Fresno my first six years,  and I never thought I would ever read something and think, That is so the Valley. But your book does that. I was trying to pick apart why, because like I said, I never thought I’d feel that kind of connection because I was so young when I lived there. Of course there are a lot of reasons why, but I think your details are just so exact. Like the fan in the “Lindo y Querido” in Connie’s house that blows the curtains on the front door.  Or in “Señor X,” how Treviño keeps his house dark way after the sun goes down to save energy. Details like that all throughout that are just so Central Valley. I’m wondering as a writer, do those details just swarm around your head and when you’re writing they come out? Or do you purposely try to go back into the piece and put those in? Is this a conscious effort on your part, or is this your most natural, raw writing on the page?

No, I learned to do it. My favorite conversation is the Jeans for Less conversation. My mentor at Cornell was Helena Maria Viramontes. And you’ll see from Zigzagger - especially in the early stories - people don’t have names, they’re pronouns. Places are vague. And I thought I had a good reason, I still sort of think I had a good reason, for why I was doing that. I was self conscious of using the names that I grew up with. That’s why I hate the cover of The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue, because my name should tell you who I am. But they’ve got to put that papel picado on the left hand side. It’s sort like, put a cactus on it, you know? We’ve got to show you to remember who you are. And I’ve always hated that. So rather than put in a name like my mom’s name, Esmeralda, I avoided that. I’d just say the mom, the mother, the waitress. That’s why I’m always attracted to what that means, because it’s an identity that a name doesn’t give you. And Helena would take me to task on that all the time. She’d say, What are you trying to do? You strip your world of so much energy by doing that. Because you’re trusting me to come in because you think I know it. But what if they don’t know that world? What are they going to do? She said, Look if you have one of your characters walking down the street, I can’t let you get away with the department store. Because this person over here, when they see department store think Neiman Marcus. Me over here, when you say department store, I think of myself in East L.A. walking by the Jeans for Less. She said, Do you see the difference? And I thought, She’s right.

I kind of resisted but at the same time, if you choose details carefully, it ends up speaking tons. And that’s what I finally learned. If someone’s going to enter a room, take the time. You know what dark means in a house in summer time. You’ve got to keep that place cool as much as you can, but you have to describe it. Even today, when I was practicing what I might read tonight I ran across a phrase I kicked myself at - his bedroom closet. That’s the same thing. Because bedroom closet for most people means a door, but in the house I grew up in it was literally a hole in the wall. It’s just a hole you put stuff in, no curtain, nothing. It’s like an open pantry. I realized I didn’t describe it. I just assumed, it’s a shitty house so you know it has no door But you don’t. Only someone who grew up like me knows what that means. I feel like I failed, I didn’t give enough detail.

SB: You’re always reediting.

MM: Yeah.

SB: And when you describe these details you’re describing a whole lifestyle.

MM: That’s right. You can’t make the assumption that people know. My friends in New York still think I’m lying when I say I didn’t have a bed until I was in 7th grade. I slept on the living room floor. You roll up your blankets and you go off to school.

SB: Yeah, you have Arlene sleeping on the living room floor when she’s little.

MM: That’s me. You open one door from the kitchen and one door from the living room and that’s all there was.

SB: I already said you have a really lovely melancholy in some of your stories. Is this how the Valley is in your mind? Is it colored with these melancholy colors to you?

MM: Yeah it is. It’s me. A lot of it is me. It’s autobiography in an emotional sense. I can get into a character’s head when I feel a parallel to them. I’m not them but I can feel what they might go through. But a lot of my writing comes out of a guilt that I’ve escaped those circumstances. And when I keep coming back, because my entire family still lives there, it’s a reminder that I got out and they didn’t. But it’s also a reminder that I got out and some of my siblings are perfectly happy. But then I can turn to a cousin or to one of my brothers and I see at every instance there’s this whole world of feeling lost. I didn’t get a chance, things got messed up, still thinking about the thing that happened when they were 21 that ruined everything. How often that colors peoples lives.

I’m living in New York and people tell me this is the city of 10 million stories and it’s like, Well yeah that’s true but I’m always hearing about those stories and I’m never hearing about these people who have the exact same kinds of things. So I learned to just trust that. I know that on a greater scale, a national scale, people aren’t going to care. But I’ve got to keep writing about it. I don’t want to say no one else will, but very few of us are.

SB: Is your family in The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue? Their experiences? It sounds like they are in here, so how do they feel about that?

MM: The only story that is a direct parallel is the title story. My sister is in a wheelchair. It’s based on my sister. We were in the mall and she had a moment where she got really quiet while we were shopping. I asked, What’s wrong? Are you feeling ok? And she said, Yeah I’m fine. We got out to the car and I knew something was bothering her. I said, What happened? And she said, You didn’t see that little girl in there did you? The one that was staring at me. And I said, No. And she said, Her mom saw her staring at me and didn’t correct her and tell her it’s not polite to do that. So I asked her what bothered her about it and she said, She was looking at me like she was trying to figure out how not to get into a chair.

And that, to me, is storytelling. What happened to you, because if I figure out what happened to you then it won’t happen to me. It was the first time I ever had a real window into how my sister felt beyond the physical. It was too close though. I didn’t want to make it memoir. Change the gender and just think about it. You get the story about what happened, because that’s what everyone is curious about. It’s the same dynamic in What You See In the Dark. I’ve got to know what happened first before I’m ever going to have any empathy for you. It’s a false notion. I come from a place that no one is ever going to know. Then how are you ever going to understand me? It’s a huge paradox but it drives so many of these stories.

SB: How does your sister feel about it? Has she read it?

MM: It was the last story I wrote for this book. I finished it in December of 2005. I wrote it very quickly and very cleanly and she was the first person to see it. And I said, Before I do anything with this story, I want to know how you feel about it. And she loved it. So I felt like I got an ok from her and I started editing and tried to make it true.

You’re writing about this stuff that’s not written about a lot. And It seems like, in the book, it’s a culture where things don’t get pulled out and put in daylight very much. I wonder, you mentioned at first you didn’t want to put the name Esmeralda down, and I’m always curious about this. Do you identify yourself as the Mexican American writer versus just a writer. How do you feel about the differentiation? Do you think it’s important that you’re known as a Mexican American writer, to get that literary world on the scene? Or is there a problem in that calling it that separates it as well. How do you feel about that?

MM: I want it all. The term I like doesn’t get used - it’s Chicano. Chicano writer. To me that’s first. I put that before queer. Even queer, sometimes I don’t even use it because I feel not of that world. But Chicano I do, because the Chicano audience was the first audience that really supported me and said, Yes we’ve been needing these stories. But also, they were ready to critique me fairly. They took the stories on for their writing and not just their content. But you’ll notice, just studying the backs. Mexican American doesn’t get used on What You See In the Dark, American does. I think in Zigzagger Chicano literature gets used. And one of the blurbs talks about Latino fiction and Latino Verse is the imprint. And I’m fine with the terms being interchangeable, but I also understand the pressure that a publisher has by using a label, knowing that tacitly the publishing world at large - meaning reviewers and editors - aren’t quite ready to call me an American writer yet. That’s why when I got that “exploration of the dark side of the American dream” I was like, Nice. I’m kind of happy to see American written on there, because that’s what I am. But I just don’t get a chance to hang onto the label like everyone else does. I’m proud to be called a Chicano writer, that’s what I do call myself first. But I know what happens with the marketing. You sort of have to give up on that before you get into these unnecessary fights about papel picado. Because the cover of What You See In the Dark is a marker of a certain kind, but it’s also fitting the mood. It’s a Mexican movie poster, glamour, which I think works. Whereas the papel picado is just a thrown on symbol. You can argue it’s for design, but it’s a shitty design.
What You See in the Dark
SB: Do you see yourself writing about New York, about Arizona? Are there stories to you that are grounded there ever, or is the Valley where your stories reside?

MM: New York, probably not. Arizona maybe, because it’s troublesome to live there with the politics that are currently going on. But I recognize I have a really high hurtle to jump if I’m going to keep the Central Valley as the focus of my work. I really do feel that nationally our literature doesn’t care about it. But I don’t know if that should mean I give up on it and write a New York novel to get the attention, if I would get the attention. I feel my commitment has to be first and foremost to those people. I think with one book there’s a little bit of light shed, but it’s never enough. Living in Arizona proves that to me because you think things are calm, sort of tense in a way that the border can be tense, but then all of a sudden you see the anger that’s just boiling in people’s blood about my very presence in that city. So maybe I need to write about the Valley and keep insisting that this story is important and this place is important and people who live here are important. It becomes a mission that maybe other books don’t have, and I have to latch onto that, and make it my goal.

SB: So you have a mission in your writing, even though these don’t read like there are politics behind them. They’re very intimate people stories. But it sounds like, as well as writing your emotions and experiences into your stories, and what you’ve observed, you definitely have a mission in what you focus on.

MM: Yeah, especially to me, it’s people. Helena, my mentor, always told me, People first, characters first. If you don’t have that you don’t have a story. You have to believe those people and you have to do what you can to differentiate them from each other. That’s why I became more and more comfortable with letting people do terrible things, letting people think terrible, private thoughts, hating themselves, hating other people, their own family members. That was really liberating, and has become an easy entry to a story, if I can start there. Back to that first question you asked me, Teresa and that blue dress - who is she? Who? As soon as I start there, then I’m fine. I think I’m fine. But it’s tough. Right now I keep feeling like I have a moment of crisis going. I don’t know what to focus on next. My love really is the short story. But the novel is what brings you more attention and a greater readership and more interest. And I’m thinking I don’t quite know what to do yet. Pick my form - or what I hope is my form - or go after a novel. But maybe not do it in this way, take this much risk. What You See In the Dark was risky. We’ll see in the long run if it was worth it. I’m not sure bout it yet.

SB: Personally or how it is out there?

MM: How it is out there. I know I’ve confounded people. I know I have.

SB: But that’s good. You’re an artist.

MM: Well I’m trying to look at it that way. In the end, am I proud of the book? Yes. It’s the book that I wanted to be there, out in the world. But the bigger problem for me is knowing that there is a certain expectation for me, and in order for me to keep writing, I’m going to have to meet that expectation and not take a lot of risks. That’s really hard to say, it’s really hard to admit. But that’s my place as a writer in this country. People think of Chicano culture and Chicano literature as having just this scope, just those concerns. To break out of it means you’re doing it wrong.

SB: That’s a lot of pressure.

MM: It’s  hard. It can be really demoralizing. It can be infuriating. It can also be really inspiring. Because you get this attitude of, I’ll show them. But it’s confusing too.

SB: Do you see yourself as paving the way so that a Chicano writer 50 years from now won’t have as many expectations he has to stick with?

Yes I do. And the word yes was already on my tongue even before I could apologize for it, because it sounds egotistical. But what it is is that I was able to do these things because I had predecessors. And Chicano literature in terms of publishing history and its link to publishing history is really young, 40 plus odd years. We don’t have a nice substantial amount of literature out there. It’s enough that you can touch it and know the history of the people who wrote those early texts and what they had to go through. They showed me what to do, what not to do, things they’ve covered and hinted at that maybe I should cover. So that’s exactly what I’m doing now, because they told me that’s what I’m doing. They’re passing it. It’s like when I had that mentorship from Helena, You need to go out there and do that for the group that’s coming up after you. You cannot be shaky in your confidence. That’s why those predecessors, when they’re lauded for being really brave and really strong, those aren’t empty words. I never see any of those  people as being doubtful because I look at their work and I’m thinking, What was there to doubt? I just haven’t learned to do that for myself yet.
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