By María Isabel Molestina-Kurlat
“I think you’re worth all the souls in hell. thass thousands of more souls than there are in heavan. So you’re worth a lot, pana.”
The above quote is from the acclaimed novel Bodega Dreams by Ernesto Quiñonez declared by the New York Times as “a New Immigrant Classic”. The book is now required reading in most NYC public schools and rightfully so. I discovered Prof. Quiñonez through The Moth and boy am I grateful and also glad to learn he was a fellow Ecuadorian pana too! I was captivated by his storytelling and decided to write and ask him some questions. I know you are curious so below is the full interview…!
Tell us about your beginnings in writing, what sparked your interest in creative writing especially?
I actually wanted to be a painter but later I felt I was not that great of an artist on canvass so I switched to literature. At the City College of New York, I was fortunate enough to study with great professors who loved literature more than celebrity. They were in it for the love of language, words, and books. One of them was Fredric Tuten. He taught me that there was always art; it is what a humanist culture is composed of, so that the museum, the library, the jazz club, the theater, the film, the poem, the novel, meant transcendence. This had nothing to do with leading a life of pleasure or some bourgeois notion of leisure, but that Art can be enlightening and therefore empowering. Because of literature, we are no longer students or professors, there are no janitors, or policemen, bakers, lawyers, or administrators, documented or undocumented but rather because of literature we are elevated, transformed from our ordinariness to become heroic figures. I saw hope in that and soon realized that Art, especially its branch of literature, held the blueprint to my idea of happiness.
Would you please describe in detail your role as Associate Professor in the Department of English at Cornell University and your trajectory to this position?
Cornell University is a great place to work. Its Creative Writing Department is the most successful open marriage in history. Everyone is allowed to go off and do as they please without asking for permission and yet somehow, we all come back together when need to with no hard feelings. What we try to do is find voices that are not being well represented in the wonderful white pale pages of English literature. Latinx voices come into play here as well as others. So, Helena Viramontes, Stephanie Vaughn, Michael Koch and John Lennon, and I, are always on the lookout for these under represented voices. Now, that’s all I and the faculty can do, we need help from the publishing world to get these voices published and heard but more importantly, we need the Latinx audience for these and other underrepresented voices to buy and read their own people’s books! They are documenting your tribe’s stories, hopes and dreams. Economics come into play here but I’d like to think that if a Latinx is broke, there is this building, it’s huge, and you can get books free, it’s called the library. Librarians will buy books that people read, so read.
The downside of teaching at Cornell is the location. Ithaca bites. It’s an arrogant small town that calls itself a City, located in the middle of a god forsaken, Anglo, cultureless nowhere. Long winters of Netflix and vodka. I get Latinx undergraduates knocking at my office door all the time saying, in a voice like Biggie “It was all a dream, I thought I wanted to be here. I want to go back to Brooklyn.” I tell them I want to go back, too! But we are here to represent our people in these Ivy towers. Our people are risking their lives everyday crossing borders in order for their future kids to have a shot at an Ivy degree and you want to go back to Brooklyn? So far, all of them get this and graduate after four years. I’m stuck here. But there are worse fates.
What is your current research project?
I’ve been reading a lot of Beckett. I have two homeless men, one Puerto Rican the other Ecuadorian on the corner of 110th Street and Lexington Avenue “Waiting for Donald Trump’s Tax Returns”. They wait and wait, just shoot the breeze killing time. Soon a boy appears who says that Trump beats him, but that he will release his taxes after he is audited. Then in Act II, the boy shows up again that Trump will release them tomorrow. This continues. The two homeless men who as New Yorkers are familiar with Trumps lies, get fed up, they don’t wish for rope but get their lives in order, an apartment, a job, and go vote Democrat. Hey, I can write for Saturday Night Live if I wanted to. In all seriousness, my research project depends if I can get to Spain during my sabbatical, if not there is no point in mentioning it.
Can you share with us any project or initiative dealing with Latin American or Latino communities?
The final novel of my Spanish Harlem trilogy, Taina will be published by Vintage sometime in 2020/21. It deals with the sad and neglected fact of forced or coerced sterilization of Puerto Rican/Latinas during the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, some still to this day. The characters are a pregnant virgin who is taken cared for by a Vejigante and a teenage boy. Anyway, if trees must die for my pages then I want to say something important as well as offer a good story. Whether I am succeeding or not, I don’t know, but I am trying.
Protest Literature and Magic Realism are listed under your research interests, how and when did you become involved in them?
At the City College of New York City, I studied under, the late Edward Rivera author of “Family Installments” and also Luis Raphael Sanchez author of “Macho Camacho’s Beat”. They taught me that protest and magical realism were the same thing. The boom writers were all writing protest novels and disguising them not so much with magical elements but rather with a magical language. And yes, they were marketed, sold to the Anglo-American audience with that phrase “Magical Realism” (which comes from the 20th century art world, and the painters who were tagged magical realists like Andrew Wyeth of “Christina’s World” don’t really fit the category of what we today are familiar as magical realism) but to the boom writers they were not writing anything magical, it was all social protest, social realism.
How do you envision the fields of Latino Studies and Creative Writing in terms of diversity and inclusion?
We must start finding and including everyone, European Latinx, Asian Latinx, African Latinx, Venus Latinx, Mars Latinx. We will. We must find these voices not just in Creative Writing but in all of academia. We need to find common paths, similarities that do exist, they just need to be explored and developed. The big four of the USA: Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Dominicans are not the Latinx spectrum. As the world becomes smaller we need to branch out by filling in what’s missing. That is what diversity is, what’s missing. So, what’s missing in creative writing and Latinx Studies and academia as a whole? A lot. We are so mixed, especially now in 2018, that you can be sure there are Latinx who are Jewish Guatemalan Czech Irish Dominican and gay, and that is only from the mother’s side. So, are they receiving the proper instruction, support, and attention? In a polyglot and eclectic Latin America and United States the relations between space and borders need to be carefully and specifically addressed so they can be erased. No one can therefore be boxed in as the boxes won’t exist. The new literary and cultural artifacts that will emerge from this revolution will be pretty awesome. There should come a time when our favorite ethnicity is: Intelligent.
What has been the most rewarding (or challenging) part of your career as an academic and as a Latino writer and scholar?
Getting my work understood by publishers early on was challenging. But I had great writers that came before me and I held on to the belief that they had cleared a path, all I needed to do was my work and keep walking on it and soon I’d run into someone who will get it. When I think of me reading Sandra Cisneros’ poems “My Wicked, Wicked, Ways”, or Helena Maria Viramontes’ “The Moths and other Stories”, Dagoberto Gilb’s “The Magic Blood and Other Stories”, Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary”, Algarin’s and Piñero’s “Nuyorican Poetry an Anthology”, Julia Alvarez’s “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents”, Esmeralda’s memoir, “When I Was Puerto Rican”, reading a City College graduate and New Yorker like myself Oscar Hijuelos, winning the Pulitzer Prize for “The Mambo Kings Play Song of Love”, I recall a skinny kid in the early 90’s who said “It has been done. Just stay on the path. Do your work.” The most rewarding is when I’m riding the subway and see people especially young boys, who don’t normally read, entranced by Bodega Dreams. I have been told by New York City Public Librarians that it’s one of the most heavily stolen novels. They don’t bring it back. As the son of an Ecuadorian Pinko, who was raised with all that Sixties optimism, Beatles, Stones, Young Lords, Chavez, King, and Kennedy’s, I can only feel pride and wink at Abbie Hoffman, “Steal This Book.”
What advice can you offer to an aspiring Latino/a/x writer?
Read, write, repeat. Start by reading writers from your own background, your own ethnicity, and then branch out, even the dead white guys have a lot to teach you, and me but always start at home. Go to the museums a lot, learn about painters, once again start from those who are from your own background and then branch out, this will give your writing color. Listen to music, all types, once again start at home, not just your generation’s but everything and everyone, this will give your writing its rhythm. Go to the movies, see everything, this is where you will steal your plots, your lines, your visual ideas. And, more importantly: Don’t get old. Don’t die.