A Normal Interview with Daniel Chacón
By Monique Quintana
Emerging from the anything-but-normal landscape of Fresno, California, Daniel Chacón writes from an imagination steeped in family, death, wormholes, Paris, and the sacredness of syntax. The author of Chicano Chicanery, Unending Rooms: Stories, Hotel Juarez: Stories, Rooms and Loops, and the novel, And the Shadows Took Him, Chacón’s fiction resists the narrative arc in favor of form that’s conducive to the artist’s impulse, the yearning of characters, and the cyclical nature of writing itself. His newest novel, The Cholo Tree, will be released in 2017.
On April 11, Normal Senior Associate Fiction Editor, Monique Quintana met with Chacón in Fresno’s Tower District to talk about his continuous book, among other things.
Monique Quintana: I’d like to talk about the concept of story and how it has evolved in your experience. This semester, I assigned my beginning fiction writing class to read your short story collection Unending Rooms, and several of my students told me that the book overturned their expectations of what a story could be. They felt liberated. Can you talk about what your expectations of a story were growing up, and how those expectations have changed?
Daniel Chacón: Like a lot of writers, I went into writing stories without any sense of craft. I was going on the impulse, the knack. Bernard Malamud says we write because we’re good at it, and I think that’s true—people who write and have that impulse and give up everything to get an MFA and study writing are probably good at it. I had no sense of craft at first, but I knew what I liked, and I knew how to follow language and a character’s need into a story. My first workshop professors said I was being experimental, but I didn’t know I was being experimental. Then I went to the University of Oregon for my MFA, and I studied under one of the greatest writing teachers I ever had. His name was Ehud Havazelet, and he taught us form. He wrote on the board, “Form is necessity in a work of art.” Of course, I rejected it because it was craft, because I was a Chicano and we didn’t need form; we didn’t need craft. We just needed expression.
When I graduated with my MFA, I saw how ridiculous I was being to reject the concept of craft, so I dedicated myself to studying form for about five or six years, and I got to understand what form is. Form is not formula; form is not structure. “Form is necessity in a work of art,” means, to me, that a story should contain all the elements necessary for the ultimate impact, and that all the elements should be so intertwined that if you pulled one aspect out of the story, the whole thing would collapse. This helped a lot because I was writing a lot of character-based stories.
If you look at my first book, Chicano Chicanery, most of the stories are very character based. There was still some weirdness going on because I can’t help but contain the way I see reality, which isn’t necessarily linear or material; but nonetheless, they were the kind of stories you would see in mainstream literary journals, characters with an ambiguous ending. But once I understood what form meant, and once I understood how to enter into a story – which I do through language and I do through syntax – once I got to that point where I understood form – and I don’t think you could ever say that you’re a master at form, but that you’re going towards mastery of form – I started to write stories that were influenced by form and the way I hear character. They just started coming out that way.
I didn’t set out to write experimental stories. I always tried to write a conventional story. But if I was going to be honest with the language, and I was going to be honest with the character, they just kind of went where they did. If you look at Unending Rooms, people would say to me, “You’re writing experimentally, you’re writing theme-based stories,” but they’re really not. I’m following language. If you’re authentic with your own language and your own syntax, it leads you to a direction where you see how reality functions.
I remember in the first workshop I taught, all the young nineteen-year-old males were writing stories with imagery that was male-centered, often centered in their libido, and it’s not they were setting out to write that story, but that’s what was on their mind. That was their reality. They were always thinking about that. I think that you don’t have to assert a political agenda, or a philosophical agenda, or a theme. If you follow language, if you study craft and form, it becomes intuitive after awhile. If you study Kung Fu, you have to learn a lot of forms, and it seems weird and unnecessary, but once you practice those forms over and over again, when you’re walking down the street and somebody taps you, you just get into the stance—what you’ve studied has become instinctual. So it’s a combination of studying form and staying instinctual to the voice and the syntax.
MQ: I found it interesting when you recalled how you were initially resistant to form because of your because of your Chicanismo. I found the way you use form to be very Chicano.
DC: I don’t set out to write Chicano literature, but I can’t separate my writing from my Chicanismo. I can’t separate my culture; I can’t separate my experience from the way I see the world and the way I admire stories. I used to read a lot of Malamud and Flannery O’Connor, but when I got my hands on Cortizar, when I got my hands on Borges—the Latin American writers, I loved the way they told a story, because I was already doing that unconsciously in my writing. It’s a different way of seeing the world.
When Cisneros came out with her novel, Carmelo, she used a lot of footnotes. When people asked her about her experimentation, she said she wasn’t being experimental, she was just being Mexican. I really think there are cultural differences to how we see reality. Ultimately, I think when we create a landscape, whether it’s fiction or poetic, we’re creating a reality. For me, reality is not really that linear. People might think I’m weird if I were to explain some of the things I’ve seen and some of the things that have happened to me. They would say, yeah, that can’t happen, but that’s just the way life is for me. I think a lot of it had to do with growing up in a Mexican family. I had grandparents that were from Mexico and didn’t embrace the narrative traditions of the mainstream.
MQ: The concept of rooms is pervasive in your fiction, especially in Unending Rooms: Stories and also in Hotel Juarez: Stories, Rooms, and Loops. Is there ever any space that is sacred for you, where you feel the need to write it as close to reality possible? You’ve written about Fresno, Paris, El Paso, Juarez—is there any space, landmark, relic, that you feel you have to capture truthfully, or does it all become fiction?
DC: I think what’s sacred is syntax. If I begin to enter into a landscape, and that landscape presents itself in a particular way based on the syntax and the characters’ yearning, I find it a reality that may not be your neighbor’s reality. There’s a quote by the poet Evelyn Underhill. She says that reality is entering into the illusions of your neighbors. So if I’m following into a story, and I enter a landscape that most people wouldn’t consider real, I don’t think that’s necessarily a reason for me to stop. But if enter into a story and suddenly the syntax stops, and it seems forced, and I begin to assert myself too strongly into the story, and it fights the language, then I know I’m not being authentic, and I stop.
Fighting with ego is different than fighting with duende. Borges said that fighting with duende is when you don’t want to let certain things into you work because it doesn’t fit your preconceived image of it. I keep going back to a quote by Borges: “If a writer achieves what he set out to achieve, it’s really not worth much.” So, I have to be true to the language and the character, and inevitably how I see reality. I think the only sacred space is not in time space, but in language, in rhythm.
MQ: I just realized that I’ve been trying to write stories about Fresno-specific places, like the Rotary Playland or Pizza and Pipes. I think it comes from a desire to retain those places in my memory. I find that when I try to capture every minute detail, I feel stifled.
DC: I think what’s happening when we experience that as writers is that we’re entering the story image first. We have a lot of poets on my “Words on a Wire” radio show. I mostly interview poets because I want to learn from poets. One of the questions I frequently ask them is how they enter into a poem. Almost all of the beginning poets say image and almost all of the more experienced poets say syntax. When we enter with an image, its just like we’re entering with an idea, because an image in not disconnected from a meaning for us.
I used to go to Rotary Playland in Fresno a lot as a kid. If I set out to describe it, then I’m saying I want to write about an idea, something that is meaningful to me, and I think that’s what kills a story, when we try to write ideas. However, if I’m writing a story about a little boy in Fresno, growing up in the 1970s, and I follow desire and I follow syntax, it might inevitably end up at Rotary Playland. As you follow language and image authentically, then the images come out. Even if you’re struck by an image, you’re probably simultaneously struck by some sort of syntactical, rhythmical expression of that. You’re really entering with sound. I think the more you study your craft, the more inseparable your syntax becomes from your imagery. We love entering into a landscape as readers and writers and the only key to that landscape is language.
I’ve been reading about the brain and how the whole frontal cortex of the brain was created for us to move along the landscape—that’s also where we create poetry. There’s a connection between movement and poetry. Poetry isn’t static; it’s all about movement. There’s a squirt fish that moves in the water, but eventually finds a home and stays there for the rest of its life, and it starts to eat its own brain. What a lovely metaphor. The movement of poetry and the movement of fiction are like walking into a landscape. As the poet Billy Collins would say, we enter into landscape through language, it’s the only key, it’s the only wormhole into the parallel universe of the poetical landscape, of the fictional landscape.
MQ: Since we’re speaking of writing as a transient act, do you see your projects as separate entities, or does one project birth another?
DC: I really believe that I haven’t written a single book yet. I’m still writing it, and I don’t think the book will be written until I die. I called my third collection Hotel Juarez: Stories, Rooms, and Loops. One of the things that loops means to me is that images come back, and although there may not be a thematic connection, there is a release of energy. If you bring up an image in one story, and then it comes back in another story, in essence, you’re releasing energy from one story to another. These loops are like wormholes. You’re going from one time space to another, and if you’re aware of that, then you can manipulate the energy in such a way that it is in dialogue with the earlier use of that image. If you use it several times in different works, the image becomes more powerful, and it releases even more energy. Even if the reader isn’t aware that you’re doing it, the fact is that the image is vibrating with energy from these other stories makes it a more powerful image.
In my first book, there’s an image of a tubercular bookseller and he’s trying to convince another character, who’s walking around Mexico City very alienated, to buy a book. That tubercular book sales man has probably showed up three or four times in my work, not intentionally, but because that image probably carries for me some kind of meaning, so he keeps showing up, even though he’s a different character. He showed up in Poland one time and again in my story, “Page 55.” That’s a loop.
It has been said that people write the same story over and over again, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I would say that a person is developing artistically and developing as a human being at the same time, because ultimately, there’s no separation between the two. Our obsessions might change. I used to be obsessed with things like time travel, and now my obsession is the brain. Even though our obsessions change, we want there to be development.
MQ: This winter I visited Paris and London for the first time, and I was blown away by how differently race and ethnicity work in those places. It made me think about your stories and also Garcia Marquez’s 1992 short story collection Strange Pilgrims. He was writing about Latin Americans travelling through Europe. I think your work complicates this concept because you’re writing about Chicano-identified characters travelling through Europe. Can you speak about your own experience in Europe and how it informs how you craft characters?
DC: Going to Europe was very similar to the first time I went to Mexico City. The first time I went there, it became exceedingly clear that I was a U.S. citizen, that I was a pocho, even though I identified as Mexican and Chicano. It was an interesting experience for me because it added a complexity to my identity. I wasn’t going home, like I thought I was. I was going into a land where I was a foreigner. I remember, in Chapultepec Park, there was a clown that was doing a sort of stand up comedy, and I walked up to the circle to watch, and the first thing he said was, “Hello, gringo!” in a U.S. accent, and all the Mexicans started laughing, and I wondered how they knew. That was a very othering experience for me, but ultimately a very positive one.
When I went to Paris for the first time, two things happened. If I claimed to be Mexican, people believed me. I could be a Mexican there, and I could speak Spanish there, and they wouldn’t recognize my gringo accent. That was really liberating. One time I spent three months there during the height of anti-Americanism because the “great” president George Bush. There was all the tension between the U.S. and France—people in the U.S. wanted to call French fries “freedom fries” and such. All the White people from the United States that would go to France would say they were Canadian, even though everyone knew they were lying. I would claim to be from Mexico. When I was interacting with the French, I would always speak to them in French and Spanish until they asked me if I spoke English. I would always assert my Mexicanidad. It really made me feel at home in Paris, because Mexicans were so much more accepted there than people from the United States. There is a Latin American community there.
The only people that didn’t buy my accent were the Mexicans. I would tell them I was Chicano and they were OK with that. It allowed me to negotiate Paris in a way I couldn’t have if I was puro gringo. I got to hang out with the Arab men that were hanging out in the Plaza. I would buy from them, and we would exchange numbers. They were very nice to me, and I felt very much at home in their community. However, I also can’t escape my Americanness. So I had multiple identities. It alienated me in a positive way. I was living in a particular way, a way that was more complex than just being a tourist. Anytime you’re pushed away, you’re othered, it allows you to observe a culture in a way that you couldn’t if you were fully a part of it.
I think every writer has had that experience where they’re with their family, and they feel like they’re fully a part of it, but then something happens where there’s a shift of perspective, and suddenly they’re observing their family and they don’t feel a part of the family, and then they write about it. I think the more you’re othered, the more you’re able to see multiple realities simultaneously.
MQ: Connected to the idea of “the other,” I appreciate how your characters don’t fit into the binaries of “likable” and “unlikable” characters. I don’t think fiction could exist without the misfit characters.
DC: To have a fleshed-out character, they can’t be fully evil. I’ll use driving as a metaphor. If we’re driving, and some asshole pulls in front of us, and we’re honking our horn, and we want them to die, we’re essentially wishing death on ourselves because we’ve all done the same thing. People do shitty things. One of the weaknesses of the human brain is how we attribute consciousness to other beings, and in that attribution, we give look at them through a singular perspective. It justifies the way we judge. We can’t do that in fiction, unless we’re really using characters as a theme, as a symbol. We have to attribute a consciousness to them that is more complex.
MQ: In putting your collections together, was there ever any piece that you were particularly devastated about excluding?
DC: I have no trouble killing my babies. In fact, I like it. I learned a long time ago not to be in love with anything I write. Even if it’s really wonderful writing, who cares? I will kill as many babies as I need to make the book better. I will cut off fingers; I will cut off toes.
MQ: [Laughs.] What happens to these pieces? Do they go off into the ether? Are they get used in another project?
DC: When you’re working on a book for several years, you don’t always have distance. So you don’t always know what to cut off, what to kill. The makes me think of the character, Victor, from the “Je Suis Chicano” section of Hotel Juarez. I was working on a novel for ten years, and I got to the point where I didn’t believe in it. I thought it was the worst thing I had ever written. I got the idea to mix it all up and tell it as flash fiction. I took two stories from it. One became the “Je Suis Chicano” section of Hotel Juarez and the other became “Cherry Auction,” a piece in the same book, where a Chicano artist learns that he has talent.
So the other day, about a month ago, I woke up at 3 a.m. and I had a heavy heart. I wanted to be promoted to full professor, but I’ve only had two books since I’ve gotten tenure. I’ve been working on a collection of poems, but I don’t feel it’s ready yet. I still want a lot more time to learn more about poetry. I just wished I had a book. I fell back asleep, got up at about 7 a.m., and I went to my desk to write for a day, to work on my poems. As I’m going through my list of documents, I see this document called, The Last Chicano Novel. I thought, what the hell is this? I opened it up, and it was the novel that I had been working on for years before I cut it up into pieces. I had no idea that I saved it. I thought I had killed it. There were parts of it in Hotel Juarez, but there it was, in its entirety. Three hundred and fifty pages. I read it that morning and I thought, damn, this is good! I thought it was horrible when I was writing it, because I didn’t have that distance. But that morning, I knew it was ready to send out. I took two days to edit it, and then I contacted the publishers of Hotel Juarez because they did a great job with that book. I sent it to them, and two days later they emailed me and said that they loved it and wanted to publish it. A day later, I got a contract. So, from the time I woke up at 3 a.m. wanting a book, a week later, I had a contract for a book that I didn’t even know that I had.
MQ: So that book is The Cholo Tree? When is that book coming out?
DC: Yes, it comes out in 2017. The main character is Victor, a Chicano artist from Fresno who learns that he has talent and ultimately goes to Paris.
MQ: So, Victor is a loop?
DC: If you look at all the details, you can’t say it’s the same guy, but really it’s the same guy. I don’t think that material reality is as important as energy. So, I don’t care if there are contradictions because it’s the story that matters. I’ll just be like Whitman and say I contradict myself.
MQ: Besides compiling your own books, you’ve done the same for other writers. You’ve been putting together Andrés Montoya’s posthumous collection, A Jury of Trees. Can you speak to a moment in that experience that particularly resonates with you as an artist?
DC: When I first got the manuscripts, there was a stack about a foot high, all kinds of notes. They were hard to go through because everything was handwritten. There was one complete manuscript and I thought, maybe I should publish this, but then I found other poems, so I decided to take the completed manuscript and make it one of the sections of the book. I found these poems that he had written in the hospital when he was dying, and they were amazing. They were Rumi-like. They were beautiful, mystical poems from a man who knew he was dying and felt closer to his deity, closer to his source. When he was dying, he was so full of joy. When people came to visit him in the hospital to cheer him on, they would leave cheered on by him. The poems he wrote then are so beautiful. I transcribed them and put them in the collection. To me, they are the essence of his spirit, and now I can’t imagine the collection without those poems.
MQ: I’ve always been drawn to writing that celebrates joy and death simultaneously.
DC: There’s a mystic Sufi poet named Rabi’a. She had a mystical experience where she came into her source, her god. She has a poem where she says, “One day he did not leave/after kissing/me.” It’s so beautiful because the speaker was used to all the men in her life just leaving. It’s so beautiful. I find Andres’ poems from when he was dying to be at this level. I’m having trouble with my own poetry, and I’ve realized that I should be writing as if I were already dead, as opposed to poetry I just want people to read. Andres was writing poetry as if he was already dead. It’s some of his most beautiful work, and it wouldn’t have been possible if he weren’t thinking about death.
MQ: What keeps you writing?
DC: What else is there? When the disciples were following Jesus and others started to abandon him, he turned to those remaining and he said, Are you going to abandon me too? And Peter said, What else is there? I love that answer. What else would I do? You’re it! That’s the way I feel about writing. What else am I going to do? I’ve got to do something.
Daniel Chacón is the author of four books of fiction, including Unending Rooms and, Hotel Juárez: Stories, Rooms and Loops. He won an American Book Award, the Pen Oakland, and the Hudson Prize. His novel, The Cholo Tree, is forthcoming in 2017. He is cohost of the literary radio show and podcast, Words on a Wire.
Monique Quintana is an M.F.A. Fiction candidate and president of the Chicano Writers and Artists Association (CWAA) at California State University, Fresno. She is working on her first novel, Chola Mona Lisa.