JULY 14, 2020
On June 28, Rudolfo Anaya died in his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The man commonly referred to as the Father of Chicano literature had been suffering from ill health for a while. For many of us who shared in some or all of his cultural touchstones—and who therefore embraced his literature—it felt as though a family member had passed.
Two generations of Latinx writers had been inspired by Anaya to become writers themselves because he proved that our stories matter and could be published and read and appreciated. I can say without a doubt that his trailblazing 1972 novel, Bless Me, Ultima, convinced me to start telling my own stories in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Eleven books and one full-length play later, Rudy still inspires me to write.
Yes, I just called the great writer “Rudy.” And that is because I reached out to him seven years ago to propose a short, email interview for LARB regarding his new novel, The Old Man’s Love Story (University of Oklahoma Press). In response, on June 7, 2013, at 12:14 p.m., he responded with a short email: “Ese, email me questions & thanks. Rudy.”
So I sent Rudy several questions and he responded in a couple of days. The Old Man’s Love Story is about love and, yes, death…the death of an old man’s beloved wife after decades of a life together. And in response to one of my questions, Rudy said: “Death comes to us all, the old man has accepted this natural consequence. Is there an afterlife?” That theme of wondering what comes next has appeared often in his writings, but there was an urgency and immediacy expressed in this novel that I had not seen in Rudy’s earlier books.
That short but powerful interview then appeared in the print edition of the LARB Quarterly Journal — but it never appeared online. With Rudy’s passing still reverberating through my psyche, I reached out to Tom Lutz on July 3 to see if the interview could be made available on the LARB website, and he agreed. When I suggested that perhaps it should be introduced with an editor’s note, Tom wrote back: “Why don’t you write one, Daniel?”
I agreed, and you have now read that introductory note. Here is my short interview with the Father of Chicano literature, Rudolfo Anaya, as it appeared in print seven years ago.
—Daniel A. Olivas, July 4, 2020
Two Questions for Rudolfo Anaya
Rudolfo Anaya’s 1972 novel Bless Me, Ultima is one of the foundational texts of Chicano literature. Born in New Mexico to a family of ranch hands and farmers, Anaya grew up in rural New Mexico before moving to Albuquerque as an adolescent. Anaya spent two years trying to find a mainstream publisher for the book before going with Berkeley’s Quinto Sol, a publishing house dedicated to the Chicano Movement. The book was an immediate success and continues to be widely read and assigned in college classes.
Daniel Olivas interviewed Anaya about his latest novel, The Old Man’s Love Story. It is a book of mourning, based in part on the death of Anaya’s wife of 44 years: “An anguish deep in his soul sprouted and set loose suffocating tentacles. He had not cried since childhood, but now he cried. The loss he felt wracked his days and nights. He had entered a time of grieving, not knowing if it had an end.”
But it is also a realistic reflection on aging. Anaya writes about surviving on social security, dealing with ageism, the way an old man can be hard on himself: “You had your chance, chango. Is that what you had become? A monkey man? Walking around like a chimp on his knuckles. Dragging his lame leg…” Anaya’s protagonist complains about the decay of his body with honesty, tinged with both humor and fear: “Old people know bathrooms are dangerous places.”
The Old Man’s Love Story is an intense philosophical meditation on death, memory, and meaning, or as Anaya puts it, “Love, grief and memory. The sad, symbolic world of three, the old man’s trinity.” In the midst of the suffering and self-abasement are moments of redemptive poetry. “Life ends,” he writes, “like shining from shook foil.”
DANIEL OLIVAS: The Old Man’s Love Story grows out of your experiences with the 2010 passing of your beloved wife, Patricia. It almost feels like a personal journal (though in the third person). Did the manuscript grow out of journal writing? Why did you decide to call it fiction rather than a memoir?
RUDOLFO ANAYA: The publisher called it a novella, some book reviewers have called it a memoir — I guess it’s a mixed genre. Let’s call it a story that grew out of personal experiences that I then wrote from a prose/fiction perspective, that is, my perspective as storyteller. It could not be otherwise. I only have myself to tell the story.
My strong suit is writing fiction. My search for the true nature of reality has led me to believe that memoirs are really fictions. We cannot capture the true experience we write as memoir. As we write what we “really believed happened” we create a story around the experience, and since that past experience now lives in memory, we compose a story (fiction) as we write the memory. All we write is fiction, and that’s the beauty of writing memories to share with others. It’s by using the elements of fiction, basic storytelling, that stories come alive. The imagination thrives by using the elements of storytelling.
And no, I didn’t keep a journal. The chapters I wrote are themselves the journal of my journey through grief, love, and memory. The journey continues. I am still writing the story every day. If I write the passages in my mind, the old man’s story would grow and grow. The book by now would be 20 or 30 times bigger.
In the preface, you state, in part: “The old man’s wife dies, but her spirit is still with him, and her essence lives in him. But if the life they once shared lives on only in fading memories, what happens if those memories die?” In your case, this really isn’t an issue because many of those memories are now in this novella that readers can experience (in a sense) for generations to come. In other words, one can argue that your love of and life with Patricia have now been immortalized. Is that one reason you decided to write this book?
Yes, some of the memories my wife and I shared are written into The Old Man’s Love Story, but a million other memories are not recorded, and they will never be recorded. This is a truth the old man learns, and so do I as I tell the story. Of all the memories ever held by us humans on earth, only an infinitesimal amount survive. The great maw of time swallows everything, and time is a simple concept, or a way of saying, we forget. We forget everything.
Writing was a way to spill out the emotions I was experiencing. I did think along the way I was writing to others who had gone through loss of a loved one. I did not think of immortalizing the love my wife and I shared, or at least not until the final chapter. Death comes to us all; the old man has accepted this natural consequence. Is there an afterlife? As a shaman, the old man has caught glimpses of a truer essence beyond the veil that separates different realities. What he believes of the afterlife is an important theme in the book. In the end he believes he will be with his wife, but I don’t sketch out the geography of his belief. Let the reader believe what he or she will believe. But do believe in love.
Daniel Olivas, a second-generation Angeleno, is the author of nine books including, most recently, The King of Lighting Fixtures: Stories (University of Arizona Press), and Crossing the Border: Collected Poems (Pact Press). He is the editor of the anthology Latinos in Lotusland (Bilingual Press), and co-editor of The Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles (Tía Chucha Press).