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An Interview with Kathleen Alcalá

by Rob Johnson

I recently e-mailed Kathleen Alcalá a list of questions/observations, asking her about some of the issues raised above, and also about her new novel Treasures in Heaven. My questions and her written responses follow:

RJ:In your "Introduction" to Fantasmas, you write that what the stories are about the search for love. The first time I read that, I thought it an odd way to describe stories in a collection of supernatural literature. However, after reading all of your work, I see, for example, that you consistently describe love as the link between higher (supernatural) and lower (natural) realms. Spirits of the Ordinary begins with a quotation from The Zohar:In love is found the secret of divine unity. /It is love that unites the higher/ and the lower stages of existence, /that raises the lower to the level of the higher-/ where all become fused into one. "And in The Flower in the Skull, for me, one of the most insightful (and moving) moments occurs when Concha, near the end of her life, realizes that "she has spent her life yearning for a past that didn’t really exist, and never had. "What she has really missed is her mother’s affection, which she yearned for and never received. She had thought that what she needed was to return to a place, but what she learns is that place is only holy, only sacred, because it is made so by love.

KA:Stories of the supernatural are stories of transformation, from one state to another. Love is the strongest transformational force that we know, and also the one most sought after on a daily, ordinary basis. These stories, for the most part, were not tales of alienation, which might have been expected if this was a collection of strictly horror stories, but of people searching for connections, usually to others. When our drive to connect, to transform ourselves from one state to another (unhappy to happy, unloved to loved, shackled to free) is so strong that it seems to exceed the limits of the physical world, then we may invoke the otherworldly on our own behalf. And sometimes there is a response, but not always in the ways that we expect.

I think that Concha’s yearning for place is valid. There is a love of place that transcends the love of individuals. In a traditional culture, this love is expressed through ritual and stewardship of the land. These rituals tie people together in the course of their daily lives, so that we identify love of family and culture with place. Place, under these circumstances, is holy.

But Concha had also enshrined the memory of her mother as the anchor of her former life. The person on whom she had depended the most was also the person who abandoned her to her fate, but after years had passed, Concha could see that it could probably not have been prevented. Whether she knew it or not, Concha’s mother, in the act of abandonment, probably saved Concha’s life.

When Concha leaves her village, she is little more than a child, with an experience of the world limited to her village and family. In fact, traditional village life at that time was designed to reinforce a fear of the unknown, of the outsider. It was designed to keep people tied to place as a means of survival, of perpetuating the crops, the culture and the people.

After years in Tucson, although she is still very provincial, she encounters her long-lost brother Beto, who tells her stories of his survival of the tragedy that killed their mother, and of his subsequent travels in the world. Only then can Concha see that there are many stories, and that her story is only one of them. While this does not necessarily make her a happy person, I think that it does give her some closure on the past. Whether she knew it consciously or not, Concha probably understood that the past could not be recreated, in that she had never tried to visit or return to her village.

While I was in Tucson researching this book, I wandered into the office of a historian named Tom Sheridan. I tried to ask him, why do some cultures survive exile and persecution, like the Jews, and why are some scattered, like the Opata. He said that in traditional culture, place is sacred, so if a people are separated from the land, rituals are not fulfilled, crops are not planted, and the culture is destroyed. Without culture or land to hold them together, people scatter and are dispersed. This is why separating indigenous people from their land is so devastating, as demonstrated in the United States and Australia, as well as Mexico.

But when Moses came down off of the mountain with the stone tablets, the word was made holy. And the word, unlike land, is portable. So the Jews were able to put the stone tablets in the ark and carry them off into exile, and with them, an intact culture and way of life. Considering the material I was working with in Spirits of the Ordinary, about the hidden Jews of Mexico, and The Flower in the Skull, about the Opata, this was a very valuable insight for me. I am greatly in debt to Dr. Sheridan for providing it.

RJ:One of the pre-publication readers of Fantasmas was truly "angry" with the book and wrote, "The field of Mexican-American folklore with its ties with Mexico has been greatly overdone, though a book of contemporary writers attempting this has not been done. The field has been so overworked that serious Mexican American short story writers have been struggling their entire careers to create work that does not fit the stereotype that ‘all Mex. American lit is about curanderos, la llorona, tortillas, and family superstitions. ’I’m afraid this book might take the reader and the larger mainstream readership back to those stereotypes. "The book may well receive this kind of criticism. What would you say in response to critics who think it is a book that reinforces stereotypes?

KA:I think this response says more about the reviewer than the book itself, but it gives us a chance to talk about some very interesting things. My parents’ generation had to spend a great deal of time convincing people that Mexicans were capable of holding jobs outside the level of farm worker or menial labor, and part of this was showing an "advanced" view of the world. In the forties and fifties, this meant being very patriotic, giving your children "American" (British) names, and not appearing to be too superstitious or backwards. In other words, it was a class thing, and being Mexican was equated with being lower class. Of course it still is, but the ability of the writers in this collection to look at these symbols with irony, with affection and with an eye towards their aesthetic value shows the growth of an artistic and intellectual sophistication in our community.

The other aspect to this response is the assumption that this anthology is written for a non-Mexican-American reader. Toni Morrison said that, if all of the literature produced in the U.S. were read, one would find that the assumed reader, overall, is white. Oh no! I thought. I never made that assumption about my work. I’m doomed!But the other writers in Fantasmas took the same approach that I do, i.e., that we have an educated readership-educated about our culture, to whom these things don’t need to be explained. The gaze is that of a brown person. Leslie Marmon Silko wrote about being a photographer in an essay called "The Indian With a Camera. "She talks about being pulled out of a group photo, as a child, because the tourists taking the photo didn’t think she looked Indian enough. Now that she is a photographer, she makes white people nervous by pointing a camera at them.

In other words, the response shows a generational shift in aesthetic viewpoint, from encouraging the production of literature that shows Mexican-Americans in a socially acceptable light (the society being white), to literature being written to express all that our culture has to offer, and not really caring what others think of us as a result. If the symbols in the stories had been replaced with Fitness trainers, SUVs and Prozac, they might have appealed more to the reviewer, but they wouldn’t be half as much fun.

RJ:Critics often call you a "magical realist. "Yet you came to the works of "magical realists" after you yourself arrived at a similar place in your own work. How did this occur?What led you to combine an interest in the physical and metaphysical world?

KA:Growing up, I heard family stories, and I read a lot. Since we were in church half the time, I used to sit there and read the Bible, which, like Shakespeare, encompasses most of the human condition. I also read a lot of everything else, and especially liked science fiction, perhaps because that approach to storytelling validated the Mexican POV of many possibilities. I don’t know. In any case, I never made a distinction between realistic and magic realistic writing. The first book I read that probably fell into the accepted canon of magic realism was One Hundred Years of Solitude, by García Márquez, maybe in 1972 or ’73. I remember I found a copy in Spanish later and sent it to my parents, because it was so like our family stories. I also made my husband read it before we married, so that he would understand what sort of a family he was getting into.

About the time I got serious about writing fiction, I came across an article on magic realism by Yvonne Yarbro Bejarano, written as an introduction to a Seattle production of Blood Wedding, by García Lorca. It included a reading list. That was the first time I had thought of this type of writing as a school, or approach. That was probably in 1984.

My favorite definition of magic realism is by Ariel Dorfman, who said in an NPR interview about his play, Widows, "When people who have nothing demand everything, that’s real magic. "This is literature that talks about not just the transformation of the individual, but of society.

RJ: You have named Leslie Marmon Silko as an influence. What can you say about the importance of her work, and what can you say about the link between Mexican-Americans and the indigenous people of the Americans. I know where I live, it’s clear that the Indians never left.

KA:While I was writing The Flower in the Skull, I was sometimes overwhelmed with the feeling that no one in contemporary culture would care what I was talking about, that I was addressing this book to the dead. During that time, I read Almanac of the Dead, and here were these ideas, these stories, this understanding of the relationship of the people of the SW to the land, and the immateriality of the political border to traditional cultures. It was not written to flatter or beguile. She did not pull any punches. It was written to show these connections between the seen and the unseen, the past and the future. By talking about the Yaqui, who live on both sides of the border, she highlighted another culture, like the Opata, who have claims that supersede current boundaries. It was a great relief to find her work.

I referred earlier to one of her essays, which is in Yellow Woman and the Beauty of the Spirit, Simon and Schuster. I read parts of the book each day at a workshop I taught in Oregon, because it seemed to address so many different aspects of the writing that was being presented to the group. I look forward to reading her newest work.

RJ:You have written to me that you prefer the term "Border" literature to the nation-specific labels such as Mexican-American. Can you elaborate on this?

KA:These labels are always a drag. I am sometimes asked if I am Spanish, because it is considered impolite or insulting to ask if I am Mexican. Mexican American feels like the next politest thing to ask. Because of the location along the Tex/Mex border, the vigor and somewhat transgressional nature of these stories, I think it would be appropriate to call them Chicano, but as you say, your students associate that term with old fogies like me. Border literature implies the ability to dip into both cultures and step back and forth across the border. This area was a place of cultural convergence long before the Spanish or Americans showed up. By its very nature, the Southwest has always encouraged the cross-pollination of cultures, so border literature appeals to me.

RJ:Spirits of the Ordinary is a deeply religious work influenced by Christianity and its many expressions (Catholic, Evangelical), Judaism, and the religious beliefs of the indigenous peoples of North America. Is there a single, overlapping cosmological story you are telling here?Or are you more interested in pointing out those curious intersections of world religions-for example, the idea of Four Worlds that is common to both Judaism and the idígenes of Casas Grandes. I can’t remember where I read this, although I believe I have read it more than once, that in the nineteenth century in America there was a popular theory that the native Americans were descendants of a lost tribe of Israel.

KA:It was a lot of trouble to figure out how these three world views could be worked into this novel, but I felt that it was necessary in order to tell this story completely. The influences are clearly visible, in retrospect, in the way the cities and towns of the SW have developed, especially in Northern Mexico. It’s not an accident that the North is politically independent from central Mexico. It’s not an accident that Pancho Villa was from the north, and Francisco Madero, the first president after Porfírio Díaz. Madero was a practicing spiritualist who wrote several books which he claimed were dictated to him by his dead brother.

Finding the quote from TheZohar was as great a relief to me as finding Leslie Silko’s work. I carried that quote around with me for about two weeks. It is about finding the universal in the specific. Not only are each of us part of the whole, but a single act of kindness is an act of universal grace. A single act of cruelty is a falling away of a bit of the whole for which we are all striving. The belief of students of the Cabala that the very act of meditating on its words will hasten the coming of the Messiah, implies that we each have a part to play in knitting up the fabric of the universe. The indigenous impulse to accept foreign religions and incorporate them into existing practice is due to the fact that the indigenous, for some reason, seem to understand that this is merely a partial view of the whole. I would have to study for the rest of my life to really understand these ideas, but I tried to incorporate them into the actions and motivations of the characters in Spirits of the Ordinary.

RJ:Could you describe your research methods in Mexico. What libraries have been of greatest use to you?How are you received?As an outsider? As an insider?

KA:I was nervous about going to Mexico City-as a Chicana, I had encountered people from Mexico who consider us despicable-traitors or something, because our parents left, or the old class thing, that we were lower class. My Spanish is not great, so I translated my questions into Spanish, and had examples of what I was looking for. I also had names of people to call once I got there, who were very helpful in telling me where things were, who I should ask for.

I would go to an archive or library, and surrender my credentials-in my case, this turned out to be my driver’s license. Then I asked for what I needed, and was told that it was missing, inaccessible due to construction, or somewhere else. Then I went to the next thing on my list. Eventually, the librarians would start to bring me things, and when the right document showed up, I would praise them highly, ask for more like that one. Basically, I just would not go away until I got what I wanted. I don’t consider myself very aggressive, but by Mexican standards, I seem to have been. People were too polite to refuse me. I had expected to run out of resources after a few days and become a tourist, but it never happened. I was incredibly fortunate.

I used the Archivo Nacionál, which is downtown, the Hemeroteca at the Universidad de Mexico, the archives of the PIEM-the women’s studies program at the Colegio de Mexico, and the archives of the Universidad Hebraica. I also went into as many bookstores as possible and just looked around. The best bookstore for my purposes was the Librería Madero.

Just as helpful were the people I met every day. As I said, I had a couple of names, and these people were very gracious, inviting me into their homes and giving me their perspective on arts and literature and politics in Mexico today. But I also talked to taxi drivers, vendors, people I met in Tepotzlán (I’ve written an essay about visiting Tepotzlán which will be on the website of the Kirayama Prize this fall, called "Climbing the Pyramid"). It helped me understand how things work in Mexico, and especially that Mexico City is one of those Center of the Universe cities, like New York and Paris, where things are of lesser importance the farther they are from the Center. No one was rude to me, or condescending. I had a wonderful time, and hope to return regularly for the rest of my life.

RJ:Your forthcoming novel, Treasures in Heaven, deals with the feminist movement in Mexico in the 19th century and its relation to the seeds of the 1910 Revolution. Do you see a similar rise in feminism among Mexican women today?

KA:When we use the term feminism in 19th Century Mexico, it means something entirely different from what Americans think of as feminism from the 1960s or 70s. Feminists in Mexico, at that time, were fighting for state-funded education for women. They were fighting for legitimate employment for women, fair wages and working conditions. Women had actually lost legal status in the mid 1800s under the rewriting of the constitution after independence from Spain, and women did not get the vote in Mexico until the 1950s.

I suppose the fight is not too different today, including the search for cheap labor by the United States, and the search for foreign capital by the government of Mexico. The upper-class women I met in Mexico City seemed very advanced in their ideas, but only two I met also held a position of power to match. Most of the women simply went about their own business, and seemed almost studiously uninterested in the greater world. It was inevitably the husbands, in a family, who were curious enough to talk to me, find out what I was doing, what my life was like.

I think that it still takes a very motivated-either by need or exceptional ability-woman to succeed in Mexico today. In a country where the minimum wage is the equivalent of three dollars a day, most working-class women are still too busy putting food on the table to organize. The teachers union is very powerful, and it will probably be through some sort of labor movement, rather than strictly social or cultural, that real change will come about.

RJ:Please tell us what we need to know about the excerpt from your novel. What are your future writing plans?

KA:"Blood and Ceremony" falls fairly early on in the new novel, Treasures in Heaven. I see this as the last of three novels set in 19th Century Mexico. I hope that, in total, they tell the story of a time and place that I find fascinating, and crucial in understanding the Mexican Revolution and our place in the world today. The history of my family is also imbedded in these novels, so I hope that others will find their stories, as well. I hope that by including these cultures, the Jewish and indigenous as well as the mestizo, we can get past the idea that we are a monolithic people.

It was only in researching this work that history, in general, started to mean anything to me. Economics, the repercussions of the Civil War, the history of Texas, all made sense. Growing up in California, nothing we were taught seemed to have anything to do with us, although my parents always considered California a part of Mexico. I am now meeting other people interested in reclaiming our history and putting it into scholarly or creative work. As I told someone recently, upon hearing her explain her family’s history in San Antonio, it’s so great to hear someone else doing this:I sometimes feel like a guide at the Smithsonian when I start to tell this history for the umpteenth time.

I plan to spend the next year just reading and thinking about a new set of books. I also plan to write a proposal for an anthology on the Opata, which I hope will be picked up by a university press.