Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Frederick Luis Aldama and the Active Transformation of Culture

In the 24th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Frederick Luis Aldama, author of Long Stories Cut Short (University of Arizona Press), discusses his influences and aims.

What influenced you to become a writer?
I’ve been publishing on authors such as Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Junot Díaz, Ana María Shua, Elena Garro, Julia Alvarez, Salman Rushdie, among many others, since my undergrad days at UC Berkeley. I feasted on the maximalist writing of a Carlos Fuentes as much as on the minimalist writing of masters such as Augusto Monterroso and Jorge Luis Borges. I greatly enjoyed reading and writing on the poetry of Julia Alvarez and Rhina P. Espaillat, as well as Rafael Campo and C. Dale Young, among many others. I am mentioning Latin American and Latino/a authors, but where would my writing be without the precedents of Rabelais, Diderot, Goethe, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Céline, Brecht, or even the Swiss Max Frisch and the sublime Yasunari Kawabata? And the powerful insights and proclivities and wisdom of Aristotle?

There is something about the concision of form in the work of Borges, Shua, and of course the great Tito Monterroso that fascinated me to the point that it triggered my own impulse to try my hand at fiction—flash fiction or microcuentos. As a result of all this, some years ago I outlined the totality of what would become Long Stories Cut Short: Flash Fictions from the Borderlands. From the very start, I knew that this work would be a series of flash fictions (with the constraint of being no longer than 750 words) and would include comic book images.

I have been reading and teaching comic books for quite a few years now, so I know well that the experience and imagination of the reader may expand when exposed to comic book images. I also know that fiction is made with the bricks (bits and pieces) of anything and everything in the universe. So from the very beginning, I figured out the whole book’s shape and contents. I wanted it to be a hybrid alphabetic/graphic narrative, and I wanted the stories to focus on the everyday lives of Latinos—from Latina infants who can read before they can speak to border-crossing teens and romancing abuelitas—that I would metabolize and give new shape to modes of writing we traditionally think of as existing exclusively in disciplines such as philosophy, biology, psychology, journalism, history. Nothing would be off limits in terms of where the stories might carry readers. For instance, the story “Lexicon” begins:

“I learned how to read before I could speak. I apprehended the world through its material manifestations, its signs. Later, black scratches and blank spaces will tell me of the absent world. Lexis: Greek for ‘word.’ And, also for 'speech.’”

My love for world literature, philosophy, and psychology have marked me as a human being and as a scholar. But in a very specific way, it was my early love of Latin American authors and visual artists that inspired me to become a fiction author, seeking to explode the microcuento form in ways that would make visceral the lived experiences of Latino/as across the Americas. I’m thrilled now to be able to contribute something to the active transformation of our culture at large.

Describe your writing habits
During the academic year, I write 3-4 hours every day, usually in the early morning before the sun rises, the email begins to flood in, and the texts ding. I also wear soundproof headphones—the kind you see folks using when operating jackhammers. The bubble of my imagination is easily punctured by the slightest noise, including even the sound of the keys clickity-clacking as I type.

Fortunately, as an academic, I have long stretches during the summer when I can up my game to 12 hours a day. I turn off the Internet so that I don’t have access to social media and email—or the Internet generally. I can’t write when there are distractions. Depending on what idea grabs me the most, I’ll work on fiction or scholarly nonfiction for a certain amount of time. I often switch from one mode to the other according to my mind’s demands. In many ways, I don’t see my fiction and nonfiction writing as somehow ontologically different. I see them both as creative.

In this bubble where I don’t let anything interfere, I live for hours with my words and images, finding ways to express feelings and thoughts—to make new readers’ perceptions and deepen their experience of the world.

I should add that because I teach literature (and comic books and film) I read fiction every day—and attentively.

Name something by another author that you wish you’d written
Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Quesadillas: A Novel.

Where does a story begin for you?
Almost always a word, a phrase, a feeling, or a concept begins imposing itself as an obsession and a rhythm. This, in turn, starts growing by addition and subtraction into other words, other feelings, other images, as if the need to describe and tell about a tiny fraction of the universe takes hold of my whole mind, my whole self. That is the moment the tyranny of writing becomes absolute: Expression needs to take place, even if only as a sketch or a rough draft. Then comes the careful revision, deleting and rewriting with seemingly no end.

How do you know when a story is finished?
When I feel all the bricks have been laid and the structure holds as a unified whole. Then the universe is contained in this tiny speck.

How do you get yourself back on track when your writing isn’t going well?
I write myself out of dead ends when I find the rhythm I need, when the mind tunes back and finds the right music. Then a word comes back, or a feeling, or an image or a concept that recommence the building of strings of sounds, of phrases and sentences that create new words, new images, new feelings, new concepts. And the machine gets going anew until it stops again. I have to relax to go into this process. A hot bath is an excellent way to start the flow. Eyes closed, the music in the brain churns words, concepts, images, feelings…

Describe an idea that you want to write or return to that you haven’t quite figured out yet.
An environment of incessant fear together with great juvenile expectations is the theme of a manuscript I have in a drawer, to hopefully become a maximalist, picaresque novel. I’ve got hundreds of pages written that now need some serious sculpting. On the other end of things, I’ve begun work on an interwoven flash fiction collection that can be read more like a novel; I’m working out how it can at once be read as a series of autonomous flash fictions and as a novel.