I’ve been living in the Bay for almost two years now and have not had a chance to visit Modern Times Bookstore. So when I heard that Dagoberto Gilb was going to be reading there, I thought it was high time to correct that oversight.
First off, Modern Times is all you could want from a bookstore: high ceilings, plenty of space, a kick ass poetry section, and a nice area for readings. They also contribute 10% of event sales to local community groups, a great way to get local folks more involved in contemporary local lit. (Tonight’s 10% went to HOMEY (Homies Organizing The Mission To Empower Youth).)
From the Gilb talked about some of the issues that came up in the publication of the new book and that even an established writer, like himself, still has to deal with old stereotypes when it comes to getting literary work out into the world. “We have more trouble than others, it seems.”
Even the title of the book was a source of contention since it was originally titled “Los Flores,” a play on how American landmarks, towns and structures incorrectly borrow from the Spanish. All this is explained on page 19 of the book. Gilb jokingly tried to add to that disclaimer to the cover image that initially was to include a Flamenco dancer, a Spaniard cultural image as opposed to a Mexican one. (These misrepresentations are nothing new to Latinos who don’t fit into Anglo stereotypes.)
Reading from “The Flowers” opening, Gilb introduces us to a 15 year old who is testing the borders of his neighborhood and his identity. Our protagonist breaks into his neighbor’s homes, not to steal but to watch how other people live. He goes in and walks through their lives, still very unsure where his own will lead. Soon enough, the police get involved. Not for any crime our 15 year old may have actually committed, but instead busting him for laughing at a farting cop.
Gilb is an awesome reader who lets the fiction text do the work of setting up theme and atmosphere in out surroundings, then adding just enough personality to the dialogue.
During the Q&A session Gilb answered questions regarding the Spanglish in the novel (“I use the community’s language and place it in a context that allows the meaning to be acquired quickly.”), how long it took him to write the novel (“I wrote the opening five years ago but that is the conceptual age of the novel.”) and why he chose a teenager’s voice.
This last question set off an interesting response about how ‘young adult’ is the genre most literary agents are pushing their clients to write since it is a profitable genre. However, Gilb wonders about the underlying racism in this push. Are agents and intellectuals gravitating toward ‘young adult’ writing in order to lower the author’s scope to fit a less mature (read: dumber) image of Latinos?
If the protagonist is a young adult, then is that a young adult book? Is Melville’s “Billy Budd” taught as a young adult book? Is Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” a book for children?
Professor Murguía took it one step further and asked the audience, “If publishers are asking Latino writers for ‘young adult’ books, is it because they believe our community only has a young adult reading level?”
Gilb himself wondered if this means that Latinos are viewed as eternal adolescents with the dominant Anglo culture as the adults in the equation?
I asked Gilb if he ever considered self-publishing his work as a means to sidestep these racist overtones in publishing. He thought that self-publishing might be more the domain of poets but not novelists.
The night closed with a reading from “Gritos” and the short story Pride. Set in El Paso, it speaks to the nobilities shared among Mexicans and Mexican-Americans as they live their lives day-by-day with joy and honor.
“Pride is working a job as if it were as important as art or war”
A great reading, informative Q&A, and excellent prose that challenges Anglo stereotypes while pushing Latino writers to get more noteworthy literature into the canon of American letters means that I am definitely looking forward to reading “The Flowers.”