BY ANY STANDARD, Frederick Luis Aldama is, well, crazy smart. The kind of smart that is backed up by degrees from prestigious universities, with a professorship at yet another prestigious university, and about 30 nonfiction books to his credit. And those are just the broad outlines of what is a remarkably productive career in academia. But if you ever meet him, Aldama simply comes off as an attentive, kind, funny, and humble guy.
Aldama, who was born in Mexico City, is the son of a Guatemalan/Irish American mother from Los Angeles and a Mexican father from Mexico City. His family eventually moved to California. Aldama earned his undergraduate degree in English (summa cum laude) from the University of California, Berkeley in 1992, followed by a PhD from Stanford University in 1999.
Aldama eventually moved to the Midwest. There, he became a University Distinguished Scholar as well as Arts & Humanities Distinguished Professor at The Ohio State University, where he teaches Latino/a and Latin American literature, television, comic books, and film in the departments of English, Spanish and Portuguese, and Film Studies.
And Aldama has — not surprisingly — been recognized for his work. For example, he was honored with the 2016 American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education’s Outstanding Latino/a Faculty in Higher Education award, and he received the White House Bright Spot for Higher Education Award and the Ohio Education Summit Award for his Latino High School outreach program, LASER.
There’s more: Aldama is founder and co-director of The Humanities and Cognitive Sciences High School Summer Institute, and the author and co-author as well as editor and co-editor of about 30 books, including recently The Routledge Companion to Latino/a Pop Culture, and Latinx Comic Book Storytelling. He is editor of Latino and Latin American Profiles book series (University of Pittsburgh Press), and the trade book graphic novel and nonfiction series, Latinographix (Ohio State University Press). Aldama is the co-editor of various other book series, and is a member of the standing board for the Oxford Bibliographies in Latino Studies.
So, he’s crazy smart, right?
Well, Aldama apparently felt the need to add short story writer to his CV. I knew Aldama had a little fiction in him because way back in 2005 when I sent out a call for submissions for an anthology I was editing, he submitted a bit of flash fiction that made it into the book. But after that, nothing but nonfiction seemed to flow from his keyboard.
I was wrong. Aldama had a book of flash fiction in him in the form of the collection Long Stories Cut Short just published by the University of Arizona Press.
This is a book unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Aldama offers bilingual, illustrated miniatures to capture borderland lives in horrifying, hilarious, and heartbreaking brushstrokes. The stories ebb and flow between Spanish and English, among startling pen-and-ink drawings of his Latino/a protagonists. This is an urgent, potent, illuminated Bible for our times.
Aldama kindly agreed to answer a few questions for LARB about Long Stories Cut Short.
DANIEL OLIVAS: You’ve written many books on Latina/o literature, television, film, and comics. This is your first collection of fiction. What inspired you to move in this direction?
FREDERICK LUIS ALDAMA: In many ways, this is a tack in a different direction in my writer’s journey. In other ways, it’s a natural extension. For me, both scholarship and fiction spring from our capacity to imagine and to conceive of hypotheticals. It’s just that by accepted convention, scholarship takes one form and fiction another; and, scholarship seeks to identify existing social and physical objects and relations, and fiction seeks to create new physical and social maps with new shapes and new possibilities. Put more simply, and a phrase I just used with my Introduction to Film studies course, I climb the mountain because it exists … I do art because it doesn’t exist.
I’ve been teaching and writing about fiction in its many guises for so long that I thought, well, maybe I could parlay this know-how into its actual creation. While I’ve written formally on Latino poetry, videogames, TV, and literature, I’ve been especially drawn to comic books, flash fiction (or microcuentos), and film. With comic books and film, I’ve been especially interested in how Latino/a creators use visual, alphabetic, and auditory devices to give shape to our stories. For instance, in my books on filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, I explore how he uses sound and image to at once entertain and convey serious sociopolitical messages. In my books on Latino/a comic books, I consider how our creators geometrize our past, present, and future stories. In my work on flash fiction, I explore how the concision of its form — the careful selecting in and out words, images, and syntax — guides our gap filling mechanisms in ways that make new perception, thought, and feeling about the world we live in.
Long Stories Cut Short grows from my knowledge of how all three of these powerful storytelling media work to distill and reconstruct the building blocks of reality. While it includes comic book visuals and a sense of the filmic, in the end readers recognize it as fiction where the dominant is the alphabetic — the written — in the flash fiction format.
It also takes the shape of something readers today see all the time, but have become habituated to: super short narratives in the form of tweets. Of course, an average tweet aims to convey information without much if any aesthetic shaping in mind. Perhaps, however, a reader of Long Stories Cut Short like one of my undergrads might see that the same length or less can create a powerful narrative. Think of [Augusto] Tito Monterroso’s famous one-line flash fiction, “The Dinosaur,” which reads, “When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there” (“Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí”).
Or, one of mine, “Destroy, They Said,” that reads: “Schools, hospitals, parks, roads, power transmission lines, water pipes, dwellings, humans of all ages and genders … all obliterated in the name of an ancient god.” And, my one-line story, “Planning to Teach,” unfolds as follows: “Learning to read and write in order to teach to read and write … so they were killed.” The story is sparse, allowing the reader to have this flash image of a world where students (Latino or otherwise) who work hard to acquire skills of survival and to teach these skills are murdered. It works metaphorically and literally, especially if the reader fills in the gaps with the tragic fuller story of those 43 students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College, Mexico, who were murdered by the cartels working as an appendage to the corrupt state apparatus. Perhaps my undergrad so used to sending and reading tweets might see how the concision of form and the careful selection of words, images, and syntax can create something new and lasting — something that ask us to think more deeply about the world we live in.
I conceived of the book as an organic whole where all the parts work individually and interlock collectively to create in the reader’s mind a sort of supragestalt experience. So, as one moves through the collection, these and other of one-line narrative fictions begin to resonate and add complexity to the longer (750 words max) fictions that appear in the “Beginnings,” “Middles,” and “Ends” sections. By conceiving it as an organic whole, the aim was for readers to stitch together each of the flash-fictional gestalts as one would an assembly of shots in a film.
I wanted the readers to have a multimedia experience that crisscrossed genre and national borders. To this end, I worked closely with two young brilliant Chilean comic book creators, Rodrigo and Fernando of Mapache Studios. Through Skype and Facebook Messenger, we worked collaboratively to be sure that the artwork didn’t illustrate the stories, but rather worked to expand the imagination of the reader. With only slight guidance from me, Rodrigo and Fernando distilled and reconstructed my flash fictions from their perspective: Latinos living with a past and present shaped by its own social, cultural, political forces. With my story “Cell 113” about a US Latino thrown in jail for no reason, they draw the interior of a Chilean jail, transporting the reader to Chile’s history of torture, murder, and disappearance of innocents.
Finally, along with my knowledge of how different fictional forms use different shaping devices to convey meaning and trigger emotion, there’s life experience. I’m reminded every day that as a Latino in the United States, our lives have not been allowed the long story. For many in our Latino/a communities, access to K–12 and higher education, libraries, and proper living wages have been denied. Many in our communities haven’t been able to realize their full potentials as human beings — as homo faber. Our stories have been cut short.
Unlike virtually all other short story collections, yours is both bilingual and illustrated. Can you talk a little bit about the development of your manuscript vis-à-vis its use of English and Spanish and the integration of the artwork?
Thank you, Daniel, for picking up on this feature of the book: the organic flow not just between alphabetic and iconographic narratives to create a multisensorial experience, but also between languages: English, Spanish.
Working closely with the extraordinary design team at University of Arizona Press, I wanted to be sure that book you have in your hands would move seamlessly between English and Spanish. Rather than create artificial page breaks when one language ends and another begins, they run seamlessly into one another with just the title as an indicator of a break. There would be no walls dividing the two languages. In other words, I wanted the layout and design to reflect the way our communities exist in and across linguistic and national borders.
I wanted the experience of Long Stories Cut Short to mirror the multilingual, multinational, mulitextured experience of our Latino/a communities. And, I wanted the design to dispel any sense that English was somehow the “original” and Spanish the “duplicate.”
Lastly, as the bilingual reader will discover, the microcuentos in Spanish expand the same story in English and vice versa. That is, they share character and plot DNA, but as rewrites of one another that aim to expand the imaginative experience of the story as one passes between the two languages.
Put simply, from the moment I first imagined the book to its writing and final design, I had front and center the creating of Long Stories Cut Short as a multimedial, multilingual, mutinational experience.
You have so many wonderful and different characters in your stories. How did you work on developing so many voices?
Years ago, when I conceived of Long Stories Cut Short, I knew that it would focus on distilling and recreating the triptych of the life journey for Latinos: from birth to middle and old age and death. In my mind, I had each story already shot, cut, and assembled even before I put pen to paper. I’d already seen flashes of stories with characters from all walks of life — including many who we might find abhorrent. For instance, in the “Beginnings” section, readers step into the mind of a Latina infant who deciphers the world by reading before being able to shape thoughts through spoken words. In the “Middles” section, readers will encounter a young Latino family struggling to make ends meet during the mortgage crises. And, in the “Ends” section, they will find themselves six feet under the ground in the mind of a Latino construction worker shot dead for no reason, musing on about the racist actions that led to his death but feeling hopeful that it wasn’t for no reason: “I can feel the pulsing and pounding beats of the people stomping above. I can hear the shouts for justicia. For me? Maybe I did count, for something.”
With the book already shot, cut, and assembled in my mind, I began writing the book from back to front, beginning with the story that ends the book: “A Long Story Cut Short/Una larga historia amputada” — that follows the thoughts of a fierce abuelita as she takes her last breath: “I don’t apologize. That’s what’s so nice about dying. You don’t have to apologize to anyone anymore. Not to anybody. Above all, not to yourself.”
The flash fiction form allowed me to create a quick, urgent immersion into the lives of a panoply of Latino/a characters whose lives often end in a gut punch to the reader. We have a rich tradition of sentimental and nostalgic characters in Latino/a letters. Our voices had been silenced for so long, our authors wanted to give shape to dreams lost, obstacles overcome, and new lives made. With few exceptions, we shied away from airing our dirty laundry. We’re living in a different creative moment today. Long Stories Cut Short aims to create an experience that fleshes out the lives Latino/as are grasping at understanding: living with impossible decisions, suffocating from actions taken — and all intermixed with a forceful vitally and strength of vitality.