Friday, June 22, 2012

Great Writers

Sylvia Beach Hotel
After a three year adventure in an MFA program, I finally finished and graduated with a degree that says I'm qualified to write.  Probably, more accurately, qualified to teach.  I think the majority of MFA graduates end up teaching or maybe working at a publishing house in all sorts of positions, I don't know.  I'm not sure how many actually go to write.

I'm sitting now, at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Oregon.  I came here 23 years ago with my then boyfriend who proposed to me in the library of this "writers" bed and breakfast.  Each room is themed - the Hemingway room, the Agatha Christie, the Amy Tan, and so on.  I was so enchanted with the hotel back then - I wasn't yet a published author, I was barely a writer.  Now, here I am again, with my husband (yes, the guy that proposed to me in the library) celebrating our 22nd anniversary and my MFA, and I'm wondering what does it take to be a great writer.

It doesn't take an MFA - though it gives writers opportunities to experiment and learn what to do and not do.  It doesn't take vacations to writer's hotels, though it's definitely inspiring and relaxing and provides lots of time to think.  I sometimes wonder if being dead is the magic that transform an okay writer to a great writer.  Or just stupid luck.  Really, I don't know.

The university world doesn't believe any commercial writer is great or even good.  All the authors on the best seller lists are lousy and their millions of readers are a bunch of people with poor taste according to them.  And all those lovers of commercial fiction and their editors and publishing houses don't seem to think much of the great literary writers coming from the university MFA programs, because those books are rarely published and when they are, they barely sell.

Hemingway Room
So, after all this time, I really don't know much, I guess or I've realized that greatness is really someone's opinion.  I think I'm less concerned with being a great writer and more interested in simply telling stories that matter to me.  That's what I've been doing and probably what I'll continue to do.  Maybe my greatest novel will begin tonight on this rainy evening on the Oregon coast as I sit surrounded by Hemingway's books.

Friday, June 1, 2012

You Must Read This

A while back NPR asked me to write an aritcle about a book that influenced me.  The title of the column is called "You Must Read This."  As often happens in publishing, they never actually published the article. The book I chose was How to Be a Chicana Role Model by Michele Serros. 

Tomorrow, I'm attending a commencement that The Association of Latino Faculty, Staff, and Students puts on for all CSUSB graduating students, and Michele Serros is the key note speaker.  I'm thrilled to get the opportunity to meet her.  So, I figure, this is a great time to finally publish the article I wrote about her. 

You Must Read This:
I read How to Be a Chicana Role Model the year I published my first book, Conquest using my pseudonym, Lara Rios – a book that featured Latino characters. I have to admit that I am not a Chicana. Neither did I feel an urge to become a role model, but something about the title drew my attention. Maybe because at the time, I was a teacher and knew that Latino kids had very few, if any, role models.

Instantly, Michele Serros had me smiling and realizing that somehow I picked up a book that would change the way I wrote and what themes I chose to write in future books. I loved her style, and for the first time began to question if it was possible to write fiction about Latino realities. Stories that spoke to other Latinas and portrayed our culture the way it really was – not worse, not better – but authentic.

In one of the vignettes, Serros writes about being a teenager and overhearing a friend tell a guy they befriended over a CB radio that Serros had a wide, Indian nose. Feeling betrayed, Serros leaves without saying good-bye to her friend, but then spends years pinching her nose to make it more attractive and look less Indian. These are the type of stories that are subtle, and yet touch readers deeply. Who hasn’t had the experience of having someone carelessly say something that ends up hurting our feelings or affecting how we perceive ourselves. I have. Immediately, I related to that story.

But what I loved about this book was that it wasn’t a book about how bad it was to be a Chicana. It wasn’t a book about injustices or prejudices. She gives us stories like the one about her nose, yes. But she also shares stories about how Latinos treat each other. She tells how a Mexican Fly-girl on the set of In Living Color treats her like trash, because she doesn’t want to be seen with a less successful Mexican. Another funnier tale is her continual quest to get an honorarium she was promised by a Latino professor. And my favorite story was about her family all going to see Madonna play Evita as Michele reminds her relatives that they promised their struggling actor Uncle Charlie on his deathbed not to support films that cast non-Latinos for Latino roles. Her family though, full of excuses, defend Madonna and go off to see the film, leaving Michele home alone wondering how it happened that her family so easily transferred their allegiance to celebrities.

How to Be a Chicana Role Model is a work of fiction. Or is it? It’s written in first person, the narrator being Michele Serros. In a witty conversational tone, Michele takes readers through events that feel real and leave you wondering if she made all this up or if it really happened. The truth is that it doesn’t matter, because each of her vignettes could have happened to any Latina. This is what made it such a special book to me -- the universal nature of the character and the stories. Years later, as I write my own books, I remind myself that I want to make my characters specific, but their issues and challenges universal enough that when the reader closes the book they feel I wrote the book specifically for them. This was Michele Serros made me feel and why over ten years later, her book still sits on my shelf.