"What they call you is one thing...what you answer to is something else."

—Lucille Clifton, about questions of identity,
on PBS's Fooling with Words

Beginning with an e-mail Q & A with a University of New Mexico class taught by writer Rich Yañez, I've had many wonderful discussions with students reading Zigzagger. The questions they have posed have given me a great opportunity to move from off-the-cuff remarks and musings about the craft of writing to a more careful consideration of all the dynamics at play in Chicano/a literature. I thank all of these students for helping my writing in this way.  

Below is an edited version of the New Mexico Q & A. Hopefully, I can add to this section after I have visited a few more campuses and gathered the questions best suited for classroom use. Students (y tambien professors!) are also encouraged to visit La Bloga, the superb book-related site for Chicano/a literature. La Bloga conducted an interview with me upon the release of my second collection.

1. It seems that you were hesitant to name characters in Zigzagger. Is there a reason that most of the central characters are named "the man" or "the boy" rather than given proper names?

I've always been drawn to fiction with distinct authorial distance, a narrative voice removed from (and therefore, to a degree, not complicit in) the politics of ethnicity, identity, and geography. By virtue of who I am, my work will always be saddled with these questions, whether I choose to attempt answers or not. Maintaining distance, however, allows me to redirect readers to the nature of characters and their relationships and to the interplay of language—gifts that I believe are automatically and without question granted to most writers.

I first encountered distance as a narrative virtue from cinema. The very best films found me believing the inner worlds of the characters—and ignoring the fact that the narrative was a composite work of a director, a handful of actors, a screenwriter, and a slew of other individuals who worked together to build a story. If film can produce that effect with the involvement of so many people, fiction should be able to do the same under one hand.   It's surprising how often that doesn't happen. As a reader, I'm always looking for the seamwork that shows me how the narratives built their effects.

2. In many stories, especially in the "Harbor of Hands" section, it felt as if we were watching them through the eyes of a camera. Did you intend for some stories to have the feel of a film or a photograph?

Cinema has had such a powerful effect on me because I've realized that it is the most democratic way of telling a story. It has so many ways of reaching us—from the story itself to the cinematography to the sound. It's a wonderful way to "read" as many stories as possible and I cannot resist applying its lessons to fiction whenever I can.

However, I'm a writer and not a filmmaker because books are always solitary pursuits. We can compare notes later, but we cannot read side by side. We cannot inhabit the same space while reading, nor imagine the same things as we read. Films can be experienced in a number of ways and settings—in a theater or at home, alone or with others. We will always "see" the same thing. Books, though, honor the imagination and affirm the value of our inner lives, our ways of thinking silently.

3. How does myth figure into your work? Where did the idea for the opening to "The Third Myth" come from?

Myth is such a powerful force in Chicano/a storytelling because our writers understand that we, as a culture, have consistently turned to myth as a source of answers, even though the myths themselves have never agreed with one another. This inconsistency makes myth a wonderful tool with which to work:   it asks us as writers to surrender completely to the idea of not knowing, and that's a necessary lesson for every writer. Myth tricks us into believing that our shared beliefs are enough to bind us culturally, but when we remember the flaws of all stories, we remember that sometimes components are changed. What has been left out? Who left it out? What can we do as writers to restore the missing pieces?

For the record, all three myths in "The Third Myth" are made up. They are my own words entirely and I wrote them with a different syntax and voice to make them sound "official." My own family thought they were strange: "I've never heard that one before," they said, but believed it anyway.

4. Some stories, like "Teatro Japonés" and "Monkey, Sí," seem to involve the reader more directly than others. How aware are you of your reading audience? What role, if any, do you see us playing in your stories?

Both stories involve the second person—"you" and "we." In each case, I was conscious of speaking to the audience, to our various approaches to stories and why we read them, to my frustrations of what we expect of narratives when we have already labeled them as "Chicano" or "gay." Unfortunately, it is a limiting position to be in and not one of my own making. I can "hide" my gay identity by not writing about it, but all a reader has to do is look at my name or see my author photo on the back of a book and my work falls into a specific set of expectations—spoken or unspoken. In my earliest work as a college student, I recognized the tendency to "whitewash" my stories of all elements of cultural and ethnic distinction. I didn't want to be identified. Now, as I discussed earlier about narrative distance, I have found ways to transform those same, destructive ways of hiding my identities into more useful, powerful tools: I recognize the social constructs that made me feel I had to do that, but I've used them to write stronger fiction.

Readership is an impossibly difficult subject for any writer.   All I can hope is that a reader will meet me halfway. Right now, I can count only on those readers who already see literature as a way to empathize and understand—they will always be willing to see through the window of my experience. To capture the rest, all I can do is concentrate on how I've shared my stories. The words, the arrangement of language, the nuance.