No More Steppin-and-Fetchin' - Ivelisse Rodriguez Interviews Aaron Michael Morales

IVELISSE RODRIGUEZ:  Aaron, thank you so much for taking the time to interview with Kweli.  We really loved your work and are excited about this opportunity to interview you.  

The violence is something that intrigues me about the book.  Plenty of other interviewers have asked you about the violence in Drowning Tucson, so I will abstain from asking the same question.  However, considering that Americans tend to want happy endings, what allowed you to refrain from giving anyone a happy ending?  For example, Felipe in “Torchy’s” seems like a good candidate to move beyond the confines of what is expected of him.  He does in way, but what restrained you from allowing him to escape, going to college, etc.?  What’s your artistic impulse that moved you toward giving Felipe the ending that he does get? 

AARON MICHAEL MORALES:  I think it’s funny that you mention Americans wanting happy endings. We do, indeed, tend to romanticize life and prefer to escape reality through our various forms of entertainment—movies, books, music, etc.—but the truth of the matter is the very nature of an ending, as a concept, is something that requires unhappiness. Sure, there are “happy” ways to die—in the arms of your lifelong love, beneath a prostitute in a sleazy hotel, of a heart attack as you see your last winning Powerball number sucked up the little tube—but ultimately the end is the end. This is something that I’ve paid attention to for a long time. There is a dearth of “happy ending” literature out there, but if you look at the works of literature that have staying power, the authors who are read decades or centuries after their work was first published, you’ll find that the vast majority of it isn’t happy at all, in the generic sense of happiness. On the contrary, much of life is suffering. Much of human existence is learning to find the moments of joy in the everyday suffering of our human experience. It’s our most primitive and basic conundrum. It’s what makes the fleeting moments of happiness that much more valuable.

Not to worry. I’m not sitting here with fifth of Old Grand Dad in my trembling palm and the greasy barrel of a shotgun pinned beneath my jaw. But I do think that the solemn, realistic—yes, even violent—writing that focuses on life’s tragedies that many people would rather ignore is a valuable and necessary line of inquiry that serious writers must at least consider in their work.

In terms of Felipe’s end in the opening chapter (well, depending on which table of contents you choose to utilize), it is absolutely necessary that he meet a violent end for several reasons. Yes, it was hard for me to let him go. Felipe is one of the few truly decent characters in the novel, especially in terms of the men on display. But still, it is what Felipe stands for—an alternative form of masculinity—that is an affront to the neighborhood boys who try to paint him as some sort of bitch, when in reality, they are the ones who are scared. They are scared because they’ve bought into the ridiculously absurd notion of street respect and masculinity. In reality, all they do is evoke fear in the people of the neighborhood, particularly the young people. But, that’s not respect. It’s only fear. It’s the brute force of numbers putting pressure on those who would dare to question the system. 

These men—and gangbangers in general—must subscribe to the notion that people look upon them with respect, that other men and boys want to emulate them, that they are somehow bucking a system set in place that emasculates them if they attempt to engage it. If not, then it throws the whole system of masculinity and the cycle of maturation into chaos. Hence, Felipe’s punishment. He represents the alternative. Though he comes back because he is in reality not yet a man, he is actually more brave, more masculine, and more noble than anyone else featured in the beginning of the novel. He shines light on the reality of the street code, shows how it is actually a culture of fear (including the fact that many of these “hard ass” thugs are scared boys themselves), and he pays the price for it. 

In fact, there is a happy ending. Ricardo, Felipe’s childhood friend, realizes this very thing as he witnesses his best friend get beaten to death. So, in the end, you could say Felipe is something of a martyr, and this isn’t lost on Ricardo. Hopefully, it isn’t lost on readers as well. 

IVELISSE:  It seems that with some of your characters in Drowning Tucson—Manny, Felipe, and Rebecca come to mind—having to play a role and even straining against a prescribed role has led to death (physical death, death of a way of life, etc.).  Is there ever a safe space for your characters?  A space where some of your characters could be who they are without such grave consequences?  Or is that safe space solely that transgressive moment when they choose a new way of life? 

AARON:  Unfortunately, this isn’t a construct of mine—that those who push back get buried. I wish I had just invented this particular element of reality to serve my fiction. Sadly, the news is full of men and women, boys and girls, who, when they try to break free or do something that goes against whatever social conditions are preordained for them by virtue of their birth, are punished for it. This is just another aspect of what you asked in the previous question. Let’s take Felipe again. I’ve seen this particular set of beliefs play out time and time again in my life. In my childhood, in my thirteen years of teaching at the college level—several of which were in pretty rough neighborhoods in Chicago—I saw young men and women attempt to take the sensible way out and use education or a strong work ethic to extract themselves from what they recognize as a life of unrelenting despair. But over and over again, I’ve seen my brown and black students ridiculed for trying to be white, for “selling out,” for turning their back on the streets (how dare they!), when they took significant and meaningful steps to break a particular cycle, be it violence, lack of education, poverty, or whatever. It’s because of this that so many of my characters resort to extreme measures to fight back against the suffocating lives they are leading. And, it’s because of this unrelenting and powerful structure that is in place that so many of them are sucked back down or completely obliterated because of their refusal to conform to their plight.

However, I think that there are certainly characters in Drowning Tucson who—as you so wonderfully put it—“strain against” the status quo without any particularly devastating end. Most of them are lesser characters to some extent—Lavinía, Ricardo, Gutierrez, Felipe’s mother—but there are a few major characters who do push back and are not necessarily facing death in a literal or metaphorical way. Jaime, in the chapter “Kindness,” is one such character. He is on the run from the violence of his homophobic classmates in a small southern Arizona town primarily populated by people stationed at the Ft. Huachuca Army Base. However, in his journey, what he actually realizes is that he has it within himself to care for someone, to even forgive, despite his excessively brutal upbringing and the tragic loss of his friend and lover. Yes, he is rabid with the need for vengeance, and he even gets a little taste of it, but ultimately he is given a gift when Gutierrez takes him under his wing and provides a role model for him—a positive masculine role model. What this does is provide Jaime with the possibility of something other than death. Jaime realizes this in a roundabout way. But his final actions in the chapter are very much acts of kindness and tenderness. He, in the end, with the help of Lavinía’s friendship and Gutierrez’s mentorship, is able to navigate the torrent of violence, homophobia, poverty, and machismo, and he comes out the other end. Still breathing. 

IVELISSE:  Luis Urrea described your work as “savage Chicano” writing.  With this in mind, how would you say your work is working within and/or against a Chicano literary tradition? 

AARON:  I have a strange relationship with the Chicano literary tradition. On the one hand, I think that some of the greatest published works in American literature have come from Chicano and Latino writers. That is undeniable. And there is a massive crop of young Chicano and Latino writers coming up through the ranks at breakneck speeds who owe their passion and the literary possibilities in their own writing to the founding mothers and fathers of Chicano and Latino literature. 

But what bothers me is that the tradition, the Chicano and Latino literary tradition, at least in the way it is defined now—as something that magically appeared (or was permitted to appear, or forced its way in, depending on how you look at it)—in the “Latino boom” of the Sixties, seems rather constrained in what is capable of being done. That’s not to say that people aren’t pushing those boundaries. I personally know several writers who are doing just that. But, the overarching way in which literary publishers and the literary public define and conceive of Chicano and Latino literature is very bothersome to me. It’s as though we are expected to be the grateful minority. So, any attempt by a writer at moving beyond the safe and romantic abuela poems, or writing beyond the magical realism that makes political outrage “adorable” and “fun” and “exotic,” is met with a sense of shock. As in, “who is this angry brown person? Don’t they want to teach us about the quinceañeras and medicine women of their culture? Don’t they want to illustrate their border-crossing woes and their excitement about assimilating into our great culture?” And for decades the literature has played it safe.

I’m pleased to say it appears as though we are finally making strides in the right direction. We, Latino and Chicano, writers are finally realizing this isn’t the world we know. That these aren’t the experiences we’ve had. And we have nothing to apologize for. We have every bit of legitimacy as any other group or ethnicity. So fuck it. No more apologizing. No more steppin-and-fetchin’ for the literary establishment or the overtly romanticized (and adorably safe) canon of Latino literature (as determined by god knows whom). Let’s do what we want to do. What we have to do. Maybe that’s the “savage” part of Urrea’s statement. Or maybe it’s the subject matter of the novel. Maybe it’s that the book dares to criticize masculinity openly, the absurd codes of the street, the dismal conditions into which impoverished children are born and how futile the fight to extract oneself from this situation often is. Maybe it’s that the book critiques the Chicano community itself. I think it’s long overdue. But that’s just my take on things. 

Incidentally, my next novel, Eat Your Children, is a Chicano-free work. It begins with the line, “Smell that, Davey? That’s the smell of no fuckin’ wetbacks,” which is Davey’s father (from “Easter Sunday” in Drowning Tucson) explaining how they’ve purposely moved to a Midwestern town without a single brown person. Instead, the novel features a city primarily made up of white people—mostly poor—wrestling with the meth epidemic that swept through the Midwest from the late ‘80s to the early 2000s. It ponders the fate of the children of all these meth heads, kids who are equally doomed by the circumstances of their birth. 

I wonder if it will still be considered Chicano writing? It’s definitely savage. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. 

IVELISSE:  How would you define Latino masculinity?  What are the pitfalls?  What are the saving graces? 

AARON:  I think the very concept of Latino masculinity is a complicated and problematic affair—one that I’ve explored and pondered for over twenty years now. In fact, I teach courses and regularly present at panels on this very topic. So I could go on for a long period of time about this. Nevertheless, I’ll try to touch on the three elements of the question in a brief but concise way.

First, there’s the definition, which is actually simultaneously rigid and fluid. For example, there’s the idea that Latinos are expected to be tough and have a nearly super-human work ethic. That we are to be proud, present ourselves as intensely unemotional men in the face of adversity, while at the same time being overwhelmingly romantic. Oh, and we must love to dance. We are to work with our hands. Become one with the earth. Be devoted to our mothers and our religion. Some of these are obviously stereotypes, but they are ones that the vast majority of Latinos I’ve met in my lifetime—whether fourth-generation or fresh over the Great Fence—in some way attempt to incorporate into their identities as males. 

The downfalls of Latino masculinity—of masculinity in general—are that these very same traits, when abused, when misunderstood, when exaggerated, can actually become harmful. Even deadly. Take, for instance, the idea of the romantic “Latin Lover,” as perpetuated by both mainstream and Latino media. So you have a swarthy, strapping man whom women throw themselves upon. They cannot help it. We exude exotic brown sexuality. But when you translate that into real life, when a man takes that particular stereotype to heart and embraces it, then what kind of man is he to become? He might be, yes, a sexual conquistador. He might give scores of women the night (or nights) of their lives in bed. But how to disconnect that, how to turn that off when you become a father or a husband? How to navigate that lifestyle when you have a daughter who will some day grow up, according to this particular outlook, to be the object of desire for an equally problematic man? It’s the same for women. They are to be these beautiful, sexually desirable, fiery women. Men must grovel at their feet. And yet, they are expected—by that very same code—to remain virginal. Or there will be hell to pay. So these are some of the complexities, even pitfalls, of masculinity. Of Latino masculinity. And this is something I critique with great regularity in my fiction. Specifically, in Drowning Tucson. I would even venture to say that the overarching theme of the entire novel is a dissection of machismo in all its positive and negative forms. 

But I do think that all traits of masculinity—from loyalty to toughness—are positive attributes for any man to aspire to, provided that he not necessarily buy into what I like to call hyper-masculinity, which is basically when a person takes a masculine trait and abuses or exploits it. So do I think Latino masculinity, or masculinity in general, is a bad thing? Not at all. I think that many elements of Latino masculinity are potentially honorable. Unfortunately, navigating this space is a difficult thing to do. And those who abuse one or more masculine traits can quickly give the whole concept a bad name.

IVELISSE:  In an August 2010 interview with Rigoberto Gonzalez for the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors blog, you state, “As for the question of me leaving Tucson, I don’t think I ever really left.”  Presumably, you are talking about not leaving Tucson mentally.  In what ways, though, has physically leaving Tucson affected your mental image of Tucson?  How did you see Tucson during the time you wrote Drowning Tucson in contrast to when you were living in Tucson?  Did physically leaving afford you a different image of Tucson?  

AARON:  Physically leaving Tucson was a good thing. For one, it gave me more distance from the literal place. Right now I live over 2,000 miles away. But it locked the image in my mind of Tucson in the late ‘80s, which is when this book needed to be set. It needed to be set during a major uptick in violence that occurred in the late ‘80s in major cities all over the country. There was a dramatic shift in how gangs worked, in the level of violence they were willing to commit against each other, and in the sudden easy access to serious weaponry. 

Tucson today is a vastly different place. Miracle Mile, for instance, is mostly cleaned up. It’s still seedy, but it’s been power-washed, much like how the Times Square of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s no longer exists. So anyone who is visiting Tucson for the first time and using my novel as a road map will be surprised to find that some of the places I wrote about don’t even exist anymore. I think it’s for the best that Tucson is no longer as violent as it once was. There is still plenty of violence, poverty, and racism, and they have their share of political drama in the state of Arizona, particularly in regards to immigration, multicultural education, and so on. But it’s a great place. With great people. I’ve actually written a great deal of fiction set in Tucson. It’s not all as relentless and brutal as Drowning Tucson.

IVELISSE:  The first story I read in the book is “Torchy’s.”  I am intrigued that the first voice we hear is Officer Loudermilk’s voice.  He starts the book by saying, “There’s the goddamn spics I was telling you about.  Hanging out next to Torchy’s.  If they aren’t sticking up poor Torchy, they’re laying some poor girl behind the place.  Nothing but trouble.  You’ll learn.”  If one starts the book with this story, what’s the role or significance of this first voice that ushers us into the world of Drowning Tucson?

AARON:  My intention was to set the stage for the world that Felipe tries to navigate—indeed that all the characters are attempting to reconcile with their personal goals and dilemmas—without being didactic or heavy handed. So rather than come out and say, “see here? This is the place where this little Latino boy is growing up. Where people in power see him through a certain racist lens. Isn’t this awful?” Instead, I choose to let the characters speak for themselves. I’m certain readers can deduce precisely what Felipe—and everyone else who is Latino in the novel—is up against. In some cases it’s that they’re in a set of circumstances in which they are rendered powerless. But, in other cases, some of the characters are their own worst enemy. Their choices are made out of desperation. Out of the sense that all is lost before they have even figured out what it is that they’re trying to fight, or resist. And that’s a powerful thing. So it was important to begin the book that way. To usher the reader in through Loudermilk’s perspective. To show how the next generation of law enforcement is being mentored and trained by people with a skewed perspective of what’s actually going on in this particular community. But, to Loudermilk’s credit, he’s not entirely wrong about his reading of these young people. These things are never that cut and dry. That’s what I was attempting to capture with the opening lines. And I hope that complexity resonates with readers. 

IVELISSE:  Your book allows a specific reading for a specific kind of reader—the purist, the skeptic, the quixotic, the zealot, the downtrodden, or the deconstructionist.  Which reader are you?  Why? 

AARON:  That’s a great question. I’ve been asked about the tables of contents many times, but I’ve never been asked about which reader I would be. I think I’m something of a mix between a skeptic and a zealot. I’m not skeptical or cynical in general. I have a very good life. My daughter has grown into a talented and strong young woman, my family is healthy, my job satisfies me. But, when it comes to human nature, I tend to think humans do more damage to ourselves and each other than good. When faced with a moral or ethical dilemma, it just seems to me that people are prone to selfishness. We romanticize the idea of humans having the good of mankind in mind all the time. But open up a newspaper or visit any news site and you’ll see that it appears—at least judging by the stories that get reported—that people are just as troubled and disturbed as we’ve always been. Maybe more so. 

On the other hand, I got out. I escaped a life of poverty. I thought that my destiny was sealed for me, but I’m living proof that a person can take advantage of the opportunities that are occasionally made available and genuinely better his life. And this is what I’m zealous about. In my teaching, in my presentations and readings that I give, I constantly point out the fact that while a person is in the midst of a tumultuous experience it can appear as if there is no way out. Often there isn’t. But, at least in the case of myself and a handful of students whose lives I’ve seen changed by educational opportunities, all hope isn’t lost for everyone. I’m fanatical about this fact. Despite what people might think, if they judge an author by his work. Life can be good. I’m just getting started.