Lives Between Words: Exploring Latino/a Literature with Daniel Olivas

By Carribean FragozaJune 8, 2014

Lives Between Words: Exploring Latino/a Literature with Daniel Olivas

Things We Do Not Talk About by Daniel A. Olivas

BEFORE Daniel Olivas published fiction, he’d already established a full life as an attorney and a family man. He’d spent years poring over legal documents, reading and writing the fine print on all kinds of legal paperwork. And then, somehow, in the microscopic scrutiny of putting together words and taking them apart, a new chemistry of language began to develop, and stories started to emerge. Perhaps these stories had always been with him, a talent carried discreetly since childhood. Or perhaps they surfaced on their own, escaping in the interstices between words — or were the released potential, the other lives of the words in his cases and contracts. As a result, his own other life began to emerge, what he calls his “second act” as a writer of fiction. At 41 he published his first book and his literary career began to take flight (without abandoning his legal practice or his wife, as Olivas jokingly notes).

Now, after several short story collections, a novel, and the landmark anthology Latinos in Lotusland, Olivas has published his first book of nonfiction, Things We Do Not Talk About: Exploring Latino/a Literature Through Essays and Interviews. Over the years, Olivas has amplified his literary work by actively creating spaces of conversation for Latino writers. He’s done this as a regular writer for La Bloga and Los Angeles Review of Books. This new book, published by San Diego State University Press, includes a series of personal essays on a variety of topics, as well as 28 interviews with Latino poets, fiction writers, journalists, and playwrights.

In his essays, Olivas reflects on practical and creative aspects of the writing process such as balancing writing with “day jobs” and families, and making the transition from short-story form to the novel. As a Latino writer, he is also interested in how others use their ethnic backgrounds and personal experiences as material for writing, and utilize bilingualism and magical realism as literary tools. However, it’s Olivas’s deeper concern with moral authority, and to some extent the social responsibility of writers, that underlies the book as a whole. As you move into the second section of the book, you can see that his interviews are in conversation with the essays. The interviews — with a wide range of writers, from Latino heavyweights such as Sandra Cisneros to relative newbies such as Justin Torres — deepen his excavation of these subjects, making for a more complex conversation about Latino literature. As these conversations take place, Olivas — and this is one of the main strengths of the book — leaves room for the reader to engage.

Olivas explores the practical aspects of the writing process, including the creative use of literary tools such as bilingualism. Latino and other bilingual writers have at their disposal a shifting linguistic spectrum that Olivas touches on. The combined use of Spanish and English — “pocho talk” — may seem irreverent, if not lazy or careless (at least to the lazy or careless ear), but each of its permutations has its own nuanced syntactical logic when used honestly and skillfully. Olivas reflects on his own relationship with English and Spanish since childhood, which he continues to explore and to some extent reconcile in his writing as an adult. Bilingual poet Carmen Giménez Smith eloquently articulates her process in choosing not only words, but also different languages, weighing the shape, sound, and emotional qualities of each:
My first language was Spanish. Writing in a language other than that with which I grew up, with which I learned to think and feel, has surely had some bearing on my relationship to writing. I love finding words and sounds from other languages buried in English; I prefer to imagine discrete languages as continuous, like adjoining rooms connected by a common door — sound. When I revise a poem, I’m thinking primarily about sound, syllables as phonemic puzzle pieces.

The use of bilingualism should be discussed with more seriousness and sophistication in writing courses and Latino literature workshops. And, since we live in a multilingual world, particularly here in Los Angeles, I would even suggest that this conversation should be part of all writing workshops. Ineffective use — intended only to give “folk” color — almost always reads as forced and insincere, and “hispanicizes” language in ways that flatten narratives, characters, and voices more than it gives them room to flower in their true complexity.

Magical realism is an important literary tool that Latino writers have inherited from a long Latin American literary tradition that includes Márquez, Borges, and Rulfo.Some Latino writers can’t stand the thought of it without doubling over with nausea, while others embrace it like a long-lost and dearly loved relative. Olivas notes that he isn’t afraid to dip heavily into it, and even Salvador Plascencia, who doesn’t identify as a Latino writer in the first place, uses it with gusto in his acclaimed The People of Paper. On the other end of the spectrum, some Latin American writers, primarily those associated with the McOndo movement (a play on Gabriel García Márquez’s town of Macondo) entirely reject magical realism, claiming that it reinforces exoticized stereotypes of Latin America. I do however appreciate the more nuanced treatment of magical realism by Luís Alberto Urrea in his interview with Olivas:
I find the magic realism aspects slightly amusing. If only because the things that can be considered “magical” in the text are pretty much the recorded historical facts. During the editing of the book, there were a couple of points where my editor was busy chopping out the real facts and leaving in all the made-up facts so here was a case of truth being stranger than fiction and fiction trying to put mortar between the bricks of astonishment.

While Olivas delves into the familiar Latino themes — community, childhood, family, history — seeking ways to explore and represent unheard stories of Latinos, as a Chicano converted to Judaism, and short story writer turned novelist, he is also concerned with the complexity of crossing cultural borders and expanding into new territories of literary possibility.

When Olivas pushes against the limits of his comfort zone into novel territory, as he describes in his essay “Tight Little Machines” (after Plascencias’s reference), he also begins to wonder what he might write about beyond his usual themes. Previously, he saw no reason to stray from them, but this has been changing as he talks with writers such as Plascencia, who expresses some resistance to writing within the confines of “what you know” or who you’re supposed to be: “I’m much more interested in the works of the imagination than in my mundane reality,” he states. Poet Richard Blanco, the first Latino and openly gay man (not to mention the youngest) to serve as the inaugural poet draws on his personal experiences, yet finds it imperative to write beyond identity. “I am a writer who happens to be Cuban, but I reserve the right to write about anything I want, not just my cultural identity,” he told Olivas.

If a writer is prepared to write about worlds that are not their own, what gives them the moral authority to do so? Olivas’s deep concern with moral authority crystallizes most clearly in his essay “Documenting Hate,” in which he writes about an anti-Semitic attack. For much of his life, Olivas felt he did not have this authority to address anti-Semitism, until a shooting at his son's Jewish summer camp in an anti-Semitic hate crime; personal experience gave him the moral authority to write. It was settled, for him. But can only personal experience give us the authority to write about a particular subject? Are writers limited to writing only what they know? Are some worlds more off-limits than others?

Wrapped in the question of moral authority is the question of social responsibility. In “The Priest that Preyed,” Olivas reflects on a short story he’d written about a priest he’d known as a child that was eventually discovered to be a sexual predator. He takes this as an opportunity to not only reflect on this horror that became part of his own community, and the greater Catholic community, but also to begin thinking about the social roles that fiction could or should play. Is the role of fiction to shed light on truths? To expose injustice? He most directly addresses the question of social responsibility in his interview with Helena Maria Viramontes, who answers, “All serious writers have the responsibility to try and disrupt patterns of thought and behavior that damage the integrity of life.”

Many of the subjects that Olivas addresses in this book are important to current conversations about Latino literature, especially among students and writers. And not just Latinos — conversations about using multiple languages and Latino literary traditions like magical realism require more sophistication. Olivas’s Things We Do Not Talk About can be a useful tool to incite any reader into deeper thought not only about these subjects, but also about questions of authority and responsibility. These can be complicated topics, but Olivas leaves plenty of room for your own nuanced answers.


Carribean Fragoza is a writer and artist from South El Monte, CA.

LARB Contributor

Carribean Fragoza is a writer and artist from South El Monte, CA. Fuck 'em, she says.


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