5.04.2007

Writing Life 4

A couple things on my mind: one, my recent trip to South Texas went better than I could ever imagine. Friday, April 27, I visited with a great group of high school students who make up a reading group calling itself G.R.O.W.L. from P.S.J.A Memorial (and please forgive me for not remembering what the letters stand for even though I asked several times--Readers is one, Wolverines is another). I got to hang out with them from around 8a.m. til around 1p.m. Thanks, Liza Puente, for that wonderful experience. We talked books, the importance of reading (I was preaching at the choir), we videoconferenced with another couple of schools (actually lunching with P.S.J.A. HS too), then drove like a maniac to Donna ISD where I met with 99 middle schoolers who had read The Whole Sky Full of Stars. I was iffy at first to meet with this younger set because my story deals with the problems of two high schoolers and here they were, middle schoolers, and yet, they seemed to have enjoyed it. I enjoyed passing time with them.

Later that night several contributors to the anthology edited by Dagoberto Gilb titled Hecho en Tejas gathered for a performance at Cine El Rey. David Garza's music was haunting, no matter what language or genre he sang in. Hanging out with former students Becky, Ronnie, and Tanya (whose boy Christian is awesome!). The following day several authors did readings, workshops, signings at the first annual literary festival at Region One Educational Service Center. It went so smoothly largely due to the hard work of Maria Elena Ovalle and her people at the center. I hope it'll go on for another 20 years, at least.

All this to say this other thing: part of the work of the writer is to hang out with the readers.

Item two on my mind: book reviews. Generally, I do pay attention to them. That is not to say I let them get to me; if they're positive (as is the recent starred review in Booklist) or negative (like the one found in School Library Journal). I take the good and bad in stride. What other cliches can I use: I got thick skin; It don't stick; No skin off my nose; Sticks and stones...? I've been blessed with good reviews mostly. Reviewers who have critiqued my work have done so in a contructive way: not enough character development, weaknesses in plotting, etc. Stuff I can work on if I want to please the critics, which I don't, really. That is, I don't want to write to cater to this very particular group. I want to communicate my story as clearly as possible to all readers. That's what drives my writing. That includes thinking very seriously of who my characters are, what drives them, etc. The latest review, though, the one in School Library Journal, seems ignorant to me. It doesn't bother me that Marie Orlando, the reviewer, is bothered that the dialogue seems false, or that the ending is overly-simplistic, or that the characters are flat. All of those come with the territory. What I feel is uncalled for, though, is Orlando's statement that I give my Mexican American characters a "mere passing nod to the boys' ethnicity." I don't know how to read this statement: my initial reaction, that I documented in an email to my editor, was that Orlando's is a closeted sort of racism. Sleeping on it, I had time to let her silliness settle, and yet, I still had no clue what to think. So maybe bigoted (intentional or not) or simple ignorance on her part (or simple arrogance). Should I have had my characters scream from rooftops their Mexican Americanness? Would that have made mine a better story, the writing stronger and clearer? If that is what she means, then I could do the same thing; that is, I'd expect gender and sexuality and faith or lack of faith and all ethnicities to be treated in a very stereotypical manner. Our young narrator's supposed to be Black in C.P. Curtis' Bud, Not Buddy, but can you make him sound Blacker still? Lucky, in Patron's award-winning book, isn't girl enough because she's word-curious (read intelligent) instead of being boy crazy and crippled by her looks (not enough of this or too much of that body part). You see how dumb this train of thinking is? It's racist, it's sexist. Ugly. I could give Orlando the benefit of the doubt and let her off easy: she's giving my book a very superficial read. I'm not saying it's a work of genius, but there are choices I made that address everyone of her issues with my story; I'll address this one, though: the characters' nicknames are Alby and Barry. Alby's real name is Alberto, and Barry's is Bartolomeo. They've opted to go with the more Anglocized versions of their names. They've been in the U.S. a long time, or long enough to let pop culture influence them. I challange Orlando to find one instance in the whole, entire book a lick of Spanish coming out of either of the boys' mouth. She won't be able to do it. I didn't put the language in their heads. They, like so many other young people who are Mexican American in South Texas (even on border towns, which Mission is not, which is where my story takes place) either can't speak it or choose not to (too much to get into about why either choice, but it's written about in so many places). Their parents do, but even they stress speaking English, so aside from describing Alby and Barry's dark brown skin, the switchblades they carry in their pockets, their misogynistic behavior, their lack of dedication to education, their broad smiles that expose such white teeth, their taco/burrito/bean eating habits, their overall laziness, what can I do to give these boys' ethnicity a passing nod, when it was my intention to write them as boys who don't think about their ethnicity? And now I wonder what rang false about their dialogue? Is it that they don't speak Spanish? Man, I'll leave it there. Except to say this: I thought readers were supposed to be enlightened, forward-thinking.

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