Three Questions for Maceo Montoya Regarding His Illustrated Novel, “Preparatory Notes for Future Masterpieces”

December 25, 2021   •   By Daniel A. Olivas

MACEO MONTOYA, who has degrees from both Yale and Columbia, knows a little something about Chicanx literature. First off, he is an associate professor in the Chicana/o Studies Department at UC Davis where he teaches courses on Chicanx culture and literature. I have had the pleasure of being a guest author on two occasions and witnessed a classroom full of mostly Latinx students — many of whom are the first in their families to attend college — giving this youthful professor their undivided, respectful attention. And in chatting with these students, I learned many things including the fact that most had never encountered a Chicanx author until they met Montoya and the many guest writers he brought into his classroom. At the end of each of my sessions with his students, several enthusiastic students came up to me to proclaim: I want to be a writer, too! I cannot express the joy these proclamations brought to me. Why? Because if we don’t write our stories, someone else will. And that’s how we have American Dirt fiascos.

But Montoya is not only an educator — he is also a writer and artist. He has published books in a variety of genres, including four works of fiction: The Scoundrel and the Optimist, The Deportation of Wopper Barraza, You Must Fight Them: A Novella and Stories, and his latest novel, Preparatory Notes for Future Masterpieces. Montoya has also published works of nonfiction, including Letters to the Poet from His Brother, a hybrid book combining images, prose poems, and essays in honor of his late brother, the acclaimed poet Andrés Montoya.

Montoya’s artwork in the form of paintings, drawings, and prints have been featured in many exhibitions and publications throughout the country and internationally. He has also collaborated with other writers on visual-textual projects, including David Campos’s American Quasars, Laurie Ann Guerrero’s A Crown for Gumecindo, and Arturo Mantecón’s translation of Mexican poet Mario Santiago Papasquiaro’s Poetry Comes Out of My Mouth.

Montoya agreed to sit down with LARB to answer a few questions about his latest book, Preparatory Notes for Future Masterpieces, published this year by the University of Nevada Press. It is a wonderfully strange, hilarious, and heartbreaking illustrated novel about a fictionalized Mexican American artist’s dream to become a great painter. Montoya packs a powerful, satirical punch as he blends the surreal journey of one man with historical events and people to produce a brilliantly rendered picaresque novel.

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DANIEL A. OLIVAS: Your novel has a wonderful meta-quality in that it is framed as an inherited, unpublished manuscript with drawings by the deceased uncle of Ernie Lobato who, at the urging of his colleague, an activist and history buff (Lorraine Rios), sends the materials to a professor of Chicanx literature (Dr. Samuel Pizarro). Thus, this picaresque tale has several layers that include the manuscript itself and commentary throughout from Pizarro, Rios, and Lobato in annotations that are almost Talmudic in nature with contradictory observations and pronouncements about history, politics, and Chicanx literature. What inspired you to shape your narrative in this manner?

MACEO MONTOYA: This novel, more than any of my previous works, was shaped by both time and rejection. I started the first draft almost 10 years ago, and as I was writing I felt as though the language was emerging onto the page fully formed. Of course, I knew edits would be made, but I was certain that I was creating something special. So I was surprised that for years I’d send the manuscript out to literary agents only to be met with indifference. I had already published five books and I guess when you reach that point you expect the pathway to publication to get easier, for your work to be given its due. I was writing my best stuff and I couldn’t even get an email back. I’m not alone in this fate, but I couldn’t help but wonder why this work in particular wasn’t gaining any traction. The unnamed narrator of my novel is an outsider, estranged from his family and his community. He can be selfish, egotistical, pretentious, neurotic, and Eurocentric. As often as he stumbles into Chicano history, he steadfastly remains focused on himself and himself only. You could pick up the novel and forget that the narrator was Mexican American. Is that where the disconnect was occurring?

The novel was a finalist for two prizes, which was encouraging, but I still felt that readers didn’t know what to make of it. There was a time not too long ago when political art was considered suspect by the white cultural establishment; you had to constantly defend its merits on formal grounds. Now we live in a time where a work of art is almost expected to wear its politics on its sleeve. What were the politics of my novel? I knew they were inherent, deeply embedded in the work: how could they not be? This novel was my response to all that fascinated me about Chicano history and Chicanx literature, the world that I’d inhabited since childhood and certainly since I’d started teaching in Chicanx Studies. But maybe what was obvious to me wasn’t obvious to the reader. So I had two choices, either leave it as is, embrace ambiguity, and risk losing readers (or not have any readers at all), or explain to readers how to interpret my work. As much as I resisted the latter option, I decided to lean into it and find a way to incorporate all the thoughts that had been swirling around in my head. Those thoughts became the footnotes, which reflect an author/artist in conversation with his own work, my own meditations on this novel over the decade of its creation. But as you point out, those meditations contradict themselves, which is maybe why I needed three voices to contain them.

I’d like to add something. When I was working on the drawings, I often reflected on a conversation I had in art school with one of my mentors, the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar. I was very frustrated that every time people would look at my paintings, they’d see brown faces and it seemed to stop them from digging deeper; my paintings were viewed as issue-based, political, simplistic. At the time, I was reading a lot of Latin American authors, especially Gabriel García Márquez, and I asked Alfredo why readers would embrace literature that was ostensibly about brown people but shut down when it came to viewing a painting of those same brown people. His answer was more or less this: in a work of literature they can imagine themselves as the characters, but in a painting they can’t become the brown face. In that way, visual art is more confrontational, it doesn’t allow the viewer the same participatory role. Flash forward to the Trump era, and I felt that this was actually working against me. These literary agents, all white, were reading about this delusional navel-gazing narrator and they couldn’t see him for the rarity that he was: a Mexican American kid from the sticks in the 1940s with a single-minded belief in himself. I’m a Latinx writer, I can’t escape that and don’t try to, but it also means that agents, editors, and other literary gatekeepers look at my work through a narrow lens: will it appeal to readers interested in Latinx issues? My novel must’ve seemed too enigmatic. I mention this for two reasons: one, because it reflects the tightrope artists of color must constantly walk when it comes to insider and outsider audiences, and two, even though the drawings became an integral part of the story, an important subtext of them is to not let readers forget that the narrator and the world in which he moves is brown.

Ernie’s uncle encounters actual historical figures, including the late writer, Oscar Zeta Acosta, thereby creating alternate histories, if you will. How did you approach the integration of real people into your otherwise fictional landscape?

Novels such as Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children always appealed to me because of their humor and the way that their fictional, absurd creations are intertwined with historical events. Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man is another. I wanted to write a novel about a character whose personal story intersected Chicano history. But what I found was that my narrator was completely uninterested in that history and the last thing he’d want to talk about was why someone such as Reies López Tijerina or Oscar Zeta Acosta was important. The only person important in his world is himself. So I ended up editing out the descriptions of these figures because they didn’t seem natural — it was my voice entering in rather than the narrator’s. When I took out that context, Reies and Oscar and the outsider artist, Martín Ramírez, just became characters, and in some ways that made them easier to write because I wasn’t chained to their historical importance; I just needed them to be believable on the page. For those who did know the history, my novel could be an alternate reimagining, but the more likely result is that someone could read the novel and have no idea whom the narrator was encountering and why those moments were significant. While this might’ve freed me to write whatever I wanted, it’s also a sad reminder that most people are unaware of Chicano history. The footnotes served to provide that context, but in a perfect world I wouldn’t have to be author, illustrator, literary critic, and historian — it’s exhausting, even though creatively it opened up possibilities that I chose to embrace. One could argue that the footnotes are a capitulation to ignorance, but I also feel that they’re part of a long, at times agonizing, conversation that many Chicanx authors, scholars, and activists are having with each other. An old activist friend of my parents reached out to tell me how moved he was by one of the footnotes that reflected on Tijerina and why we should care if he’s remembered or not. For someone who lived and participated in that era, it was probably reassuring that 50 years later, I’m still grappling with that legacy.

Is your novel — ultimately — a cautionary tale for those of us who dare to become artists?

A cautionary tale? Quite the opposite. I see it as a manifesto for future masterpieces. My novel’s narrator never sacrificed his principles and died in obscurity, but he told his story on his own terms. One of the issues that my novel tackles is that Latinx literature continues to be defined by extraliterary concerns, both within our community and outside of it. Agents or editors might pass on an idiosyncratic work because they don’t think it addresses marketable Latinx themes, but am I any different when I choose novels for my classes because I know it’ll spark good conversations about identity and community? Both limit the scope of our literature by asking it to fulfill our expectations rather than transcend them. The Chicanx tradition has long privileged legibility and cultural relevance, and I understand where the need for that work comes from, but we’re too often hamstrung by voices asking us to explain or teach, to translate or to be a bridge. More and more, I think that for our work to really expand, we should risk misunderstanding. I say this having just confessed to explaining my work, but that’s why it’s a manifesto, my own preparatory notes for future masterpieces. Our control over how and even if our work will make its way in the world is limited, but that shouldn’t prevent us from pushing the boundaries of our singularity on the page. By the novel’s end, the narrator has accepted his unfulfilled promise, but the manuscript and drawings are proof that he never relinquished his dreams. He might not have produced paintings worthy of posterity, but he didn’t fail to share testimony of his unique and solitary struggle.

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Daniel A. Olivas is the author of 10 books and editor of two anthologies. His books include How to Date a Flying Mexican: New and Collected Stories (University of Nevada Press, forthcoming Feb. 22, 2022), The King of Lighting Fixtures: Stories (University of Arizona Press, 2017), and Crossing the Border: Collected Poems (Pact Press, 2017). Twitter: @olivasdan.