DANIEL OLIVAS: In your first novel, The Little Death, published by Alyson Publications in 1986, you introduced readers to a contemporary character, Henry Rios, who is a gay, Latino criminal defense lawyer based in Los Angeles. Rios appears in six more of your novels — a widely acclaimed, award-winning series. Now, 28 years later, you bring us The City of Palaces (University of Wisconsin Press), which is the first of four historical novels set in Mexico just before the Revolution. What drove you, after all your success as a mystery writer, to make such a dramatic literary turn?
MICHAEL NAVA: When I first turned my attention from poetry to fiction in my early 20s, I wanted to write about my sense of “otherness” and estrangement from mainstream culture — as a gay man in a straight world and a brown man in a white world. I found the American noir a perfect vehicle for that exploration. In classic noir novels — by Chandler and Ross Macdonald, for example — you had an outsider hero who embodied the virtues the mainstream pretended to honor — loyalty, courage, ingenuity — but rarely demonstrated. This was the perfect setting for a queer Latino lawyer struggling to do the right thing in a hostile world. That’s why I wrote mysteries, not because I set out to be a mystery writer.
By the time I got to the last book in the Rios novels, I had pretty much exhausted its capacity to explore those outsider themes. At the same time, I had become more interested in my Mexican heritage and identity than in my gay identity. So I looked for another literary vehicle to explore that aspect of my “otherness.” One thing and another led me to Porfirian Mexico, the Mexican Revolution, the Mexican-Arizona border, the story of the Yaquis, and Hollywood in the silent film era. Basically, The City of Palaces and the books that will follow are my attempt to retell a chapter of American history to prove, as if it needed proving, that we have always been a multicultural society built largely on the labor and vision of immigrants — in this case, Mexican immigrants.
It is clear from reading The City of Palaces that a great deal of research went into it. Could you talk a little about that effort?
I started the research in about 1995. My original plan was to write a novel based on the life of the gay, Mexican silent film star Ramon Novarro, and a character based very loosely on my grandfather, a Yaqui Indian, from a tribe in the Mexican state of Sonora. As I struggled to write that novel, I realized there was so much backstory, about Mexico at the brink and in the beginning of the Revolution, and the tragic history of the Yaquis, that I needed to rethink my approach. So, one novel has become four!
The research has gone on for almost 20 years and continues to go on. I love researching the past — history nerd that I am — even though 90 percent of what I learn never makes it to the pages of the novel. I mean, I needed to know that men’s trousers in 1900 had buttons not zippers and that wristwatches were considered effeminate even though those details are not in the book. To create a plausible world for my reader, I had first to create an extremely detailed world for myself.
Sexual orientation again plays a pivotal role for your characters, but this time, rather than contemporary California, we are introduced to their struggles and joys against the backdrop of late 19th- and early 20th-century Mexican culture. What difficulties, if any, did you encounter in writing about what it meant to be gay a century ago?
A major character is based on Roman Novarro — whose upper-class family fled Mexico during the Revolution — and he was homosexual. In The City of Palaces, we meet this character, José, as a nine-year-old boy. The challenge there was to convey something to the reader that José does not and cannot know about himself: that he will love other men. So I present him as a sensitive, isolated, artistic child who loves his mother and grandmother, shies away from his father, and falls passionately and unconsciously in love with a slightly older boy.
The other gay character is Luis, José’s uncle. Luis flees Mexico following a notorious police raid on a homosexual ball in Mexico City, at which, allegedly, the son-in-law of the president of the republic was present. Luis goes to England where he meets Edward Carpenter, another historical figure, who was perhaps the earliest advocate for the rights of gay people. Luis returns to Mexico, having learned to accept his homosexuality and, more importantly, to understand the oppression of homosexuals as an issue of social justice. This allows Luis to then become involved in the Mexican Revolution because he links his personal struggle to the larger struggle of the dispossessed masses of Mexico’s poor.
And that is a continuation of another theme in my fiction — the struggle for human liberation. That struggle has many fronts — poverty, political disenfranchisement, misogyny, homophobia — but ultimately it is a single, unitary struggle.
A Daniel Olivas interview for LARB.