Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sayulita: Images and Magic

Sasha and I are spending the summer in Puerto Vallarta. We brought a camera, but we don’t really take many pictures. It’s been sitting in a drawer of the condo we rented, and the only time we’ve used it was when we saw a huge iguana climbing up the wall across the way, but by the time we found the camera and turned it on, the iguana was gone.

Oh, and across from our balcony I was struck by this image of chairs on a rooftop.

That's essentially what we do with our camera, we capture images that strike us, no matter where we are. I’ve traveled to a lot of places, sometimes famous places like Paris or Buenos Aires, and my friends are disappointed that I never take a camera, and if I do, I come back with pictures not of the famous landmarks but of images that I like.

Sometimes people take pictures of the famous landmarks just so they can go back home and show their friends that they were there, and sometimes I even hear that among tourists, “Now we can say we saw the Eifel Tower!"

I don’t come back with pictures of the Eifel Tower or tango dancers, because if that’s what one wants, one could Google image search and find plenty of them, from photographers much more able than me.

Why enter a new city only to experience the images one has had before even entering the city?

Whenever possible, I liked to submit to a city, to feel its spirit and its rhythms, and to move through its streets and corridors according to how they city teaches me to move, not according to images that I have already had before I came.

You must see this, then this, then this!

Then you can tell your friends you have seen the city.

I remember the first time I got back from Paris, and someone asked me, “Did you visit the Eiffel Tower.

“No,” I said. “I didn’t get around to it.”

“Oh,” they said, deflated.

But I drank beers in a bar with second generation African immigrants, in a neighborhood where there were no white people, let alone tourists, where on the corners boys dressed hip-hop style and listened to rap en francais, and one of the guys I drank with, an older man who lived on the edge of the city, took me for a ride in his rickety old car, zipping in and out of Paris traffic, until we ended up on a dimly lit street in a poor neighborhood and stopped at a Guadeloupe restaurant where he knew the owner, and where we all drank strong fruity drinks from his country until we are all very drunk.

One cannot experience the spirit of a place if the images and expectations of the place come from without, that is, if the cultural meaning of a place is already fixed.

So I'm afriad to say, I have no pictures of Puerto Vallarta, but I found this one on Google.

Pretty, ain't it?

In fact, when I go to a new place I don’t even like to bring a camera, because I want to experience the place, to feel it, and if I’m struck by some experience, I would rather write about it, or just remember it, let it exist as a memory within me. Some mystics say that our souls are made up of memories, so even if I don’t remember every detail of an experience, it becomes part of me, my spirit.
Memories co-create me.

However, a few days ago, Sasha and I had to be like tourists with a camera.

We had to bring a camera with us on what was supposed to be an afternoon excursion to Sayulita, a small town about an hour away from PV.

See, our friend Agustin F. Porras used to live there when he received a fellowship that would support him to do anything he wanted for about a year (yeah, he’s one of those genius types). The only scholarship I ever got as a student I had to pay back after graduation.

It was called a student loan!

With this fellowship money, he got in his VW bug and drove through Mexico, ending up in Sayulita, a small beach town in Nayarit, where he would spend a year, reading, thinking, writing poetry. I had met Augie in the MFA program at the University of Oregon, where the three of us, him, me, and the late poet Andrés Montoya where the only Chicano students in the program.

In Sayulita, he lived underneath a palapa, a grass hut without walls, sleeping on a hammock. He read all 1,000 pages of Don Quixote, he told me, the entire story, while he was there in the jungle.

“You should read it,” he always tells me.

Now, he wanted Sasha and I to go to Sayulita, to see what it was like, to go see if we could find any of the people he knew. He gave us names of expats who owned restaurants or coffee shops, and told us to ask them if they remember him. It was quiet and small, he always told me, and many places didn’t have running water or electricity.

For a year he ate fish he caught with his hands and drank coconut milk from the shell. He took walks in the jungle, a machete in one hand, and with the other he brushed off the scorpions that fell from trees onto his shoulders, and he danced around snakes that shot out from the rocks.

Okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating.

He didn’t say it was quite that way, but he did say that to see Sayulita I might be able to understand him a bit more, because who he is now was probably influenced a lot by that place.

Augie is one of the most Zen people I have ever known. He’s kind, patient, and always at peace, so we agreed to go to Sayulita, maybe see the place that taught him to be at one with everything, maybe get a bit of the magic for ourselves.

Take pictures, he said, and he didn’t mean the artsy-fartsy pictures I usually take of chairs on rooftops.

So, all this has been a very large introduction to sharing the photos we took.

These are for you Augie.


We got out our camera, got on the bus in PV, and we arrived late afternoon on a very hot day.

The bus dropped us off by a bridge. Here’s the first thing we saw.

Once we crossed over the bridge we found ourselves in a small town, which seemed very slow and quiet.

And very Mexican.

After crossing through the town, we made it to the beach.

Here's an image I knoow Augie will like.

Augie's all about the duende.

Although he might be disspaointed that one of the boys in the image is texting.

They didn't even have telephones when Augie lived there.

Actually, the ATV above probably breaks his heart.

(Tomorrow I'll add more Sayulita images. Remember we were only going to spend an afternoon?
Well, things got a little weird and...well, I'll tell you about it in the next entry.

Virtually See you then.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Bridge of Time: Puente and Chabot College

When my good friend, the late poet Andrés Montoya and I graduated from the University of Oregon, we were lucky enough to have jobs, maybe not as sweet of a deal as our classmate Chang Rae Lee got, a three year visiting professorship under Garret Hongo, but neither did we, like Chang Rae, get a big book deal from Riverhead. Native Speaker was bought up before he even graduated with his MFA.

Nor was I, quite frankly, I must admit (gulp)as good of a writer as he was.

Or I should say, we were different writers.

He wrote beautiful language-based fiction, quiet like a prayer, and I wrote shout-out-loud, in-your-face short stories about messed-up Chicanos who mess up themselves and others, who, when they try to love, end up punching everybody, stories with more passion than craft.

I got a job at Modesto Junior College (More about that place later) and Andrés got a job at Chabot College in Hayward.
We both taught composition, lots of classes of composition, which means we had piles and piles of papers to comment on and grade, hundreds of students each semester.

One of the reasons writers who graduate from MFA programs do not go on to publish even one book is all the papers they have to grade. I know so many great writers, people brilliant with words and images, writers as talented as any of the greats, but they never publish a book because they spend so much time teaching so many classes. They never write.

Writing, I tell my student, is not about talent. It’s about persistence. If you are driven enough to learn your craft, if you are willing to cheat your employer and when you’re supposed to be doing work at your desk you’re really reading or writing, you’ll publish a book.

Anyway, Andrés got a job teaching composition, including the Puente classes, at Chabot College.

So in 2009, on my book tour, when I had the opportunity to visit Chabot, I was very excited.

The last time I had been on that campus was when Andrés invited me to his Puente class to read one of my stories, which was called “Chicano Chicanery” and was about some Chicano university students who write “Fuck Shakespeare” all over the campus walls and hallways, as a means of protesting white cultural dominance.

I’m not sure if it was a good story, but Howard Junker liked it, and he ended up putting it in Zyzzyva, under a different title. When my first book came out, Chicano Chicanery, the New York editor hired by Arte Público didn’t like the story much. I guess she didn't think writing anti-Shakespeare messages was very funny, and she asked me to take it out of the book.

Anyway, years ago I read that story for Andrés’ Puente class, and they seemed to love it. Puente is a program at some California community colleges designed to assist under-represented Latino students to transfer to four year universities. In their English classes, they teach Chicano literature.

Maybe they liked my story so much because for the first time they were taking a literature class where they read stories and poems written not by dead white men, but by Chicanas and Chicanos like themselves.

After my reading in Andrés class--at a time I only dreamed of having a book published--some of the Puente students came up to the desk where I sat and asked me to sign their copies of the Fuck Shakespeare story, which Andrés had photo copied from a dot matrix print out.

Signing my name, I felt like a real writer, and I loved Puente so much that I would help start one at my own school, and I would become a Puente teacher .

Well, fast forward the camera of my life to now, and I’m on my book tour for Unending Rooms. I got an opportunity to go back to Chabot College for a big reading and book signing.

It was going to be a great event, open to the entire school, organized by Ramón Garcia, the Puente Counselor at Chabot, who has been fighting for justice since before Andrés and I were fighting for a place in line at the jungle gym.

It was going to be a great event: A former Puente teacher returns with four published books.

But I blew it.

I scheduled two events on different sides of the state, on the same day, at the same time.

I wrote to Ramón apologizing, and although he was disappointed, (he had made such beautiful fliers!) he was kind about it. He had to cancel the event, but he offered to let me come another day, the only day I had free, a Monday afternoon.

He said it was too late to get the awesome theater he had reserved for the event and to invite the entire college, but I could visit the Puente class.

I jumped at the opportunity, not only because it was what I had done years earlier in Andrés’ class, but also because I love the Puente Students.

They love literature. They love writing.

Early Monday morning, at about 6 am, Sasha , Kafka and I drove from Fresno, where we were staying with our good friend Lee Herrick, to Hayward.

We were met by Ramon himself, and after showing us around, we went to his office, where we reminisced about when Andrés was the Puente teacher, how one time he helped students organize a protest. It got pretty wild, and the cops showed up and tried to break it up. One of them pushed Andres out of the way, and Andrés, not a pushover, might have pushed back.

He was handcuffed and arrested in front of all his Latino Students, charged with assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest.

I remember he called me that night and told me about it, and I shook my head and said, “Ay, Andrés!”

Years later, Ramón showed us around campus, the places Andrés used to teach, his office, and then he bought us a cup of coffee.

We went to the class, and it was great.

Sasha, who held Kafka (you know he’s our puppy, right?), said it was the best reading I had ever done.

The students loved the stories. From Unending Rooms, I read “The Tree That Wouldn’t Leave Sara Alone” a children’s tale (maybe) about a big oak tree that falls in love with a little girl and follows her everywhere. She has to get an injunction.

I had only brought a few books to sell, thinking the students wouldn’t have enough money to buy them, but they lined up afterward and bought them all within ten minutes. I had to run back to the car for more.

I know it went so well because of them, the Puente students, and not because I’m so fantastic.

I don’t mean that in false humility.

The Puente students were great that day, and because of that fact, they saw greatness in me.

Who is a genius?

Those who find genius in everyone, everywhere, at anytime.

The Puente class was full of geniuses.

After they had all gone on to their next classes, Ramón took us to a small café downtown, that had outdoor seating, which we needed because we had Kafka with us.

We ate the best fish tacos I had ever had in my life, shark tacos, mahi mahi tacos, salmon tacos.

Kafka sat on the sidewalk, watching the people pass. Then he laid down and slept for a while.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Live from Oregon!!!

I just arrived in Medford Oregon and then made my way to Ashland and am staying at this hotel.

It's one of those old boutique hotels, where the furniture is like from a Jean Paul Satre play about hell (2nd Empire Furniture) and the rooms are very small but not at all hellish.

It's nice.

I'm on the top floor looking out on the city where they have the great Shakespeare festival.

This morning I'm going to be on the radio for an hour talking about my novel, and the shadows took him, which is set here in Southern Oregon.

The Latino students at Southern Oregon State University invited me, and they are treating me very well. Check out the SOU Latino Student Union myspace profile and the poster they made for tonight's the event. Looks like a poster for a baile, no?

Last night they took me to dinner, about twenty students, at a restaurant that stayed open late just for us.

Even though my novel is set here, I haven't been here since before I wrote it. Check out this recent article about books set in this valley, including shadows.

It's so much bigger now, and there are a lot more raza then there used to be. Back when I used to come to Medford, there were few Mexicanos, mostly those who worked in the orchards, and mostly men, who came and went with the seasons. But now, there are everywhere. We are everywhere, even in the university, even giving a reading tonight.

These young people of the Latino Student Organization, are puro Latino, puro Mexicano, but they're also Oregonians, many of them having lived here most of their lives.

Oregon Chicanos, man!

You gotta love them.

¡Aztlán, Oregon!

¡Con Safos y que!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Lynn Middle School Revisited

You know how we lie to ourselves when we enter bookstores? We say to ourselves that we won’t but anything, we’re only going to look?

We love to browse through new books (used ones too, but that’s a different story).

We love to look at the images on the front covers, we read titles and the blurbs on the backs covers, and sometimes we open the book and read the first paragraph, just to see if it grabs our attention.

Some people like the smell of new books,
and they hold them like an oxygen mask over their faces and take in the smell

I like to read the first sentences of books, and if I it blows me away, I read the first paragraph, and if that blows me away, the first page, and if that blows me away, etc.

In spite of my promises, I leave bookstores with at least one new book for our shelves, sometimes several.

As will happen, I often forget about these books for many years.

But somehow, my soul must have known what I was doing, why I choose that particular book.

One day, years later maybe, a decade later, I pull that book off of the shelf and read it, and it somehow seems like the most appropriate thing for me to read at that time.

Like it was meant to be.

Like it was exactly what I needed to read.

That’s not a mistake, that’s not a coincidence, that’s not chance. That’s my soul knowing.

Even when I don’t know it, my soul me, the spiritual me, somehow knows that a particular book will be important to me.

There are several books on our shelves that I have yet to read, but I know I will, and I know when I read them, it’ll be right.

Remember those great kids at Lynn Middle School who lined up to buy my books after I visited their school? (See the blog entry called Benediction below)

I imagined these kids might wait a while before they read them, but it seems these kids couldn’t wait.

Their teacher, Lisa Weinbaum, wrote me an email.

As sweet as your blog is, Daniel, your book is not sitting idly on a bookshelf waiting to be read. Most of the kids have already read it.

A girl named Caitlyn read it twice.

Well, every month I have the kids do book projects. Basically they can make ANYTHING to represent their book, then they talk about the book to the class. Caitlyn finished And the Shadows Took Him, not once, but twice. She sculpted this herself. Man, is it heavy, too.

See the head inside the basket?

She clearly read the novel, and if you have read and the shadows took him, you know from where in the novel she got this idea.

You know about the father and his collection of heads.

When I was still writing the novel I considered calling it Father of 1,000 Heads.

If we ever come out with a third printing, Caitlyn’s art work would make a great cover, wouldn't it?

She captured part of the novel's soul with her art.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

In the Valley of the Whale: Reading in Fresno

Fresno is my home. It will always be my home.

It has so many things dear to me, my family, friends from childhood, new friends, former students, the Tower District, The Million Elephant, which, if not one of the best Thai restaurants around, certainly has one of the best restaurant names.

Fresno has all the levels or schools I've gone to, from Kindergarten at Robinson Elementary, to Hoover High, to Fresno City College and a master's degree at Fresno State.

It has the old homes of my dead grandparents, and the home on Mesa Street where I grew up, the house in which my mother died in the living room on a hospice bed, all the family around her,
holding her cold, bony hands, putting our own hands on her head and shoulders in prayer, until her last breath, the same house in which my father still lives. It has many of the homes in my imagination.

And it has the most incredible street in the entire world, the most important road of my creativity.

The street of which I speak is greater than the Roman Iter, greater than all the ancient or modern broad ways that cut into the great cities of the world.

Blackstone Avenue is the six-lane avenue that cuts through the city from downtown, goes across the river and passes through the homes of the rich, into the mountains, to Yosemite, into blue heaven.

On our way to my first California reading at Fresno State on Friday 13th a few weeks ago, I was driving my red rental car with Texas plates to the reading with Lee Herrick and Sasha. Kafka our dog was with us.

When I turned on Blackstone Avenue to get to the university, Lee told me it would be much faster to take the freeway, but I told him how Blackstone Avenue could take you anywhere.

When I was a kid, my family had been driving back from a family party on the east side of town, and my mother in the front passenger’s seat pointed at a wide avenue lined with neon signs and full of bright cars and lights. She said, “That’s Blackstone (I heard it as two words, black stone). It’ll take you anywhere.”

She meant anywhere in Fresno, Kmart, the fairgrounds, my grandmother’s street in Pinedale, but I was a child who lived in my imagination, and I thought she meant it could take you anywhere in the world.

I thought she meant you could take that street and find yourself suddenly in the jungles of the Amazon, or the great cities of the east, anywhere in the world. I thought she meant you could turn on side streets and you’d be on the moon, or on Saturn, and you could get out of the car and walk across the terrain like a ginger bread man in a space suit.

I could take that road to any place, even where the physical laws of our universe didn’t matter, where trees and ducks could talk, and when you opened books castles and villages bloomed into existence.

I took that road to the reading and I was a kid again in the backseat of my parents' 1961 Chevy Impala, going to see my grandmother, or taking a fun family trip to Roading Park to the zoo. I thought Blackstone Avenue must be the biggest, most important street in the world, and now I was a kid again and I went down that road and entered into the future, Friday 13th 2009, a writer on a book tour. I'm with my lovely wife, the brilliant poet Sasha Pimentel Chacon.

I ended up at California State University, my first California reading for Unending Rooms, in the parking lot next to the Peters Building.

We were a few minutes late to the future. On my way into the building, I saw my dad, waiting by the entrance, so old now, his eyes so bad he had to squint to see me, and I hugged his small body. He smelled of mothballs and cologne.

I saw my cousins, now adults, Chicano men with big hands and bellies, and I saw my sister and her teenage daughter and her husband.

I was in the future.

We all walked into the building together, a line of Chacons, looking for the room.

I saw the woman from the bookstore packing up to leave.

“What’s wrong?” I asked her.

“The books sold out,” she said.

"All of them?"

"Just like that. Some lady bought five," she said.

I pictured one of my aunts buying five books.

I saw the host of the evening, coming out of the light of the theater, in a hurry. He told me everyone had already arrived and we should get started. I could hear the voices in the theater, a cauldron of voices.

We entered into the lights, and I saw it was such a beautiful place, full of light. What a great way to start my California readings.

It was like walking into heaven, all the people you know and love in one spot, there to see you, to share in your happiness, all those shining faces. I was reminded (or maybe as I’m writing this I am reminded) of an ancient poem, Rumi I think, that loosely says something like this,

Tavern or temple

A friend’s face radiates it all.

It must have taken me ten minutes to reach the front, because I kept stopping to hug and kiss everyone. I saw my uncle Thomas sitting next to my aunt Cookie, a stack of five books on her lap.

After I was introduced by Alex Espinoza (a great writer), I went up and introduced my friend Valarie Nikaido. She got up and sang a song “Sabor a Mi.”

Then I introduced Liz Scheid, because I had asked her to share a poem with us.

The song and the poem were beautiful, and the spirits their voices invited into the room gave even more light, more radiance, and it wouldn’t matter what I read after that, the people there had good will, such immense good will.

Whatever story I read, they would be able to enter into the fictional landscape, to see it like a movie playing in their heads, and at the same time they would be able to sense the energy coming from the fictional archetypes, the metaphorical field.

García Lorca used to start his readings by inviting the spirit of brotherhood into

the room (fraternidad) for exactly that reason, so that the metaphors could be felt and understood at the same time.

There was so much fraternidad at Fresno State (I call it good will) that the success of the reading had very little to do with me.

There were so many brilliant people there (all the accomplished writers that make up the MFA faculty, Corrine Clegg Hales and John Hales. Steven Church, Tim Skeen, as well as many of Fresno’s exciting young writers like Lee Herrick, Tim Z. Hernandez, Mike Medrano, and my own brother Kenneth R. Chacon, and so many others, graduate students, teachers, others who just happened to walk in) so many brilliant minds that their collective imaginations filling the room could give radiant form to even the least of my stories.

It was a great success because of them.

After the reading, we had to bring another box of books from the rental car, and we sold twice as much as the bookstore even had in stock.

Sasha, Kafka and I had a free weekend before we had to make our way to the next stop, Hayward, to Chabot College, where I presented to the Puente students.

Talk about brilliant minds.

Next entry, I’ll talk about the Puente Students.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


Before I left El Paso, I visited a middle School in Las Cruces, where most of the 120 students I read to were Chicanos, poor like me, some of who would be labeled "at risk" like me.

I read them a new story, one that's still unpublished, and I answered their questions.

Their teacher the amazing true believer in justice, Lisa Weinbaum, had assigned them to read two or three of my stories, including "Too White," "Mexican Table," and "Godoy Lives," all of them from my first book Chicano Chicanery.

They were ready with questions, their hands shooting up, and their little mouths making Arnold Horseshack noises,
Ooo, ooo, pick me!

And then something amazing happened.

Remember, these kids are not the richest kids on the border. Their parents work hard to survive in the economy, but the teacher had told the parents that a Chicano writer would be visiting campus, and if they wanted to send their kids with money, they could buy a book.

I only brought ten books, thinking that only a few would sell.

I've been to readings at universities where only two or three books sell. I've been to other places where all the books sell out.

But after the questions were over, when the kids picked up their backpacks and slung them over their shoulders, they didn't leave. They gathered around the table where I had my books. They held out their money and asked me if I would sign a book for them.

I sold all of them (and gave one away).

It was so cute, but it was more than that. It showed me something Life has been teaching me for many years now.

Recognition from the top doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if I'm invited to great ivory tower universities, where white men with patches on their sport-coat elbows stand in line to buy my book and later write papers about the many metaphorical possibilities of my landscapes.

What matters is to be recognized by the kids at Lynn Middle School.

What matters is that right now and for who knows how many years into the future, my book will be on the shelves of their homes, maybe even one of the few books in the house, and even if they don't read it now, even if it sits unopened for many years, it's there, in their homes. Maybe someday when when they're in high school or when they're adults, they'll open the book and release my spirit into their lives.

And I loved that I started my tour at a Middle School with a majority of Chicano students.

It was like the benediction that opens a poetry book.

It was like a blessing, 120 tiny hands on my head and shoulders blessing me for my journey, blessing my new book.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Dog Who Saved Shadows

(Continued from "Who Cares About Your Book, Chicano?" the previous entry)

My novel and the shadows took him was about to die. No one was reading it. No one cared about it.

There was no author to promote it, to read from it, to tell people about it.

He was in Argentina talking to angels.

One night, I was walking along Avenida Santa Fe, one of the busiest streets in the city, people walking at all hours of night, a cafe at ever corner, when something flashed in my eye, some kind of sharp light.

I was crossing an intersection, and I looked away from the light and into the eyes of people crossing in the opposite direction.

I kept looking into people’s eyes as I stepped onto the sidewalk.
I looked into as many eyes as I could, people sitting in sidewalk cafes, people walking opposite me, people sitting on the ground begging, people looking into shop windows.

Suddenly I saw lights bursting out of their heads.

This is hard to describe, but I saw it.

Lights came from people’s heads and reached all the way to up into the sky. I looked up and saw the yellow glow that covers the city at night.

I could see light pouring from everybody's head, and sometimes, the light was strong, like on children pulling carts full of cardboard and some old ladies begging in front of the church steps, light shooting up from their heads like they were standing under the beam of a transporter. On other people the lights were more dull, as if the person from who it shot was barely alive, or maybe, people who had so much darkness within them that the light barely filtered through their heads and shot up to the heavens.

I knew I was seeing something beyond the veil, like the energy of God shooting in and out of all people, or maybe I was seeing some version of human auras. But I knew something was about to change in the way I see reality.

Nothing else happened that night, and unfortunately I would never see those lights again, not with the same intensity, because the next day I got an email from Elaine, the lady who was watching my dog during my year off.

Felix was in trouble, she wrote. He missed me so much that no fence or dog kennel could keep him in.

He destroyed everything and escaped, running across the city, across busy boulevards and big parking lots, until he found a spot that smelled familiar to him, the parks we used to walk in, the stores we used to shop at, the porch of the house where we used to live.

One time a friend of hers, who had had only seen Felix once, saw him standing outside of Walgreens, waiting at the door.

“Felix?” she asked, approaching the dog, who kept looking at the door of the store and all the people coming in and out.

She looked at his collar and saw that it was indeed Felix.

She called Elaine and told her where he was, and Elaine came and got him.

It was the Walgreen’s where we used to walk together, and I would tell Felix to stay, and I would go inside and get what I needed, while he waited by the door, certain his daddy was coming back.

“He misses you so much,” Elaine wrote.

She tired keeping him indoors, but he tried to get out and go look for me, and he destroyed her blinds, her door, and the alarm system by the door.

This had been going on for months, and bless her generous soul, she didn’t say anything to me, because she didn’t want to take my year abroad away from me. But now, Elaine was very ill and had to go to the hospital.

Another friend picked Felix up from Elaine’s, but when he started destroying her house too, trying to get out, she said she was sorry, but I had to come and get him.
Either I had to send Felix to a kennel, where he probably would have died of fear, or I had to give up my year in Buenos Aires.

I went home.

Felix was so excited to see me he jumped up and down and got on his back and cried for half an hour. We both cried.

Before I had left for Buenos Aires, I had sold my car, my furniture, and I had rented out my house. I had nowhere to go.

I took some money from the bank, a good chunk of what I had planned on living off of, and I bought a used Saturn.

Felix and I jumped in and drove across the country, to California, where we spent the next four months couch surfing. It was the happiest time of his life. We were together 24/7. We were on the road most of the time, stopping to run on beaches or on the banks of rivers or through city parks we had never seen before.
When I slept on someone’s couch, he slept right there on the floor next to me, occasionally touching my hand with his cold nose, just to make sure I was still there.

It wasn’t what I had planned to do for my year away from teaching, but it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me, to us, not only for the great time I spent on the couches of family and friends, to feel all their love, to get to know them better, but it kept my novel alive.

I had spent a lot of my money on the car, on gas, on food, so I needed to find a way to make some money.

That was when I set up readings for shadows. I visited several colleges and universities, and even some high school students, I did signings, I spoke with students about being a writer, and I did signings at bookstores. At one event, a Young Writer’s Conference in Fresno, I read to about a thousand people. I read from and the shadows took him. At the readings, people bought the book, a bunch of people, and some professors at those readings started using it in their classes. It went from one million on Amazon when I was in Buenos Aires to under a hundred thousand when I was home in California.

I know, that doesn't sound like much, almost a hundred thousand books selling at that time better than mine, but I didn't become a bestseller, I became a midlist writer.

A month later it came out in paperback.

I hate to say, Felix died this summer, a few years after our time in California.

It was very hard on us. He was a family member.

It’s funny to think that if he hadn’t been around, shadows wouldn’t be around.

It’s still used in a lot of Latino/a literature classes, thanks to my hooshker dooshker doo.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Who Cares About Your New Book, Chicano?

There are over 170,000 books published each year in the United States.

That's about 465 books published each day.

Or 14, 166 books a month.

Or 19 books every hour.

That's a lot of books.

And these numbers do not include self-published books or vanity presses, which can be made available by the writers on, but books published by presses, companies that come out with books by authors.

Some of my students and ex-students, frustrated with the difficulty of getting published, have done it themselves, posted it on Amazon, got their friends to write reviews, as if to say Screw you! to the publishing companies. I just want a book.

The fact is, most people don't know the difference between presses, a book is a book, and if a mother can brag to her friends that her son or daughter wrote a book that's published and everything, why would it matter who published the book?

How much do self published books add to the 170,000 published each year, I don't know. I just know there's a lot of books.

And very few of them will ever make it on the shelves of bookstores.

I have three books out, four if you count the selected works I co-edited of Jose Antonio Burciaga's work.

Whenever I walk into a bookstore, I can't help it, I look for my books. I look for Chacon, but mostly I see Chabon or Chaon. Rarely do I see my own books, and when I do, I'm very happy. I take it up to the cashiers and tell them that I'm the author and can sign it if they'd like.

I do this because once signed, they cannot return it, they can add one of those stickers to it that says, "Signed by the author."

The fact is, it's hard to find my books in bookstores, and one of my books, my novel and the shadows took him, is published by one of the big New York companies.

When it came out, they sent me on a book tour, I flew first class for the first time, and I felt oh so important, like a real writer. Agents picked me up at the airports and drove me around the cities.

But in every city where I showed at a Barnes and Noble or Borders Books there were about three, sometimes four people who showed up for my reading and signing.

At one Borders bookstore in San Diego, nobody showed up.
Not a soul.

They had a stack of my books, a table for me to sit and sign, and they even gave me a bottle of Evian water, but I sat there alone, watching people walk by.

I ended up walking around the store with copies of my book and introduced myself to disinterested shoppers. They would hold the book and and say, Nice. Then they handed it back to me, smiled apologetically and walked away.

That's the reality of being a ....(gulp!. I'll admit it) a midlist writer.

What is a midlist writer?

Well, we're not bestsellers. Out of the 170,000 books published each year in this country, about 20 of them are read by everybody. Midlist books are not among that 20.

We midlisters write what might be called literature, and we are often published by independent or university presses, although I know many midlist writers who have New York trade presses that hope publishing them will someday pay off.

the reality of publishing in today's gluted market is a writer must go out and promote his or her book.

Unending Rooms, a collection of stories, is my new book.

It came out in November 2008, which was during a busy semester. Like many writers, I make my living teaching other writers in a university MFA program.

I didn't have time to go out and promote Unending Rooms, but this semester I'm doing a book tour.

(New Post 2-18-09)

First let me tell you a little about the new book, Unending Rooms.

But first, I need to back up.

When my first novel and the shadows took him came out, I made a big mistake.

I was naive about being a writer in a country where over 170,000 books are published each year, over 10,000 of them being books of fiction, where every hour a new book of fiction is published.

I made a stupid mistake.

See, I had a big New York company on my side, they sent me on a tour, they sent over three hundred review copies of the book to newspapers and magazines throughout the country, so maybe I thought I had arrived as a writer. After the reviews came out, after the tour, after the visits to colleges campuses where I would be introduced by a literature professor with patches on his sports coat elbows, I would be able to walk into any book store in the country and there it would be, Chabon, Chacon, Chaon.

Like a rhythm, Chabon, Chacon, Chaon.

Book tour fantasies took over, and I saw images like in the movies, or like that Sienfeld episode where Elaine's ex comes out with a book and sits in some busy Manhattan bookstore, hundreds of people in line waiting for him to sign their copy.

But that didn't happen.

At my first reading of the tour in San Antonio, two Chicano guys were the only ones in the audience, and they just happened to be there. When they saw another Chicano guy, and that he had a book, they said, Orale! and they stayed and listened to me read. Neither of them bought a copy.

You know how many reviews it got?


The El Paso Times (the city in which I live) and the San Antonio newspaper.

My readings were announced in the LA times, the New York Post, and some major magazines, but that was it, a few sentences with just the information.

And I was about to make one of my biggest blunders.

And if you have a book, don't make this mistake.

And if you already have a book or books, I'm sure your were smart enough not to make this mistake.

My mistake:

I took a year off from the university, without pay.

That doesn't sound so bad, and it wouldn't have been, had I used that year to promote the book.

But I fled to Buenos Aires, a place so far away, so much another part of the planet that water swirls the opposite way down the drain.

It was a great city.

I decided to spend a year there, just writing, reading, and enjoying the city.

I loved it.

I walked.

I rented an apartment in Palermo,

on Borges Street,

just a few blocks from his childhood home.

I ate empanadas and drank malbec.

I ate lunch at outdoor cafes near a plaza and watched the tango dancers perform for tips.

I worked every day on my new novel, waking up each morning and working so many hours that I not only lost track of time, but I often lost track of space. I didn't always know which landscape I was really in. I wasn't always sure if I was hungry or if my character was hungry, so I wasn't always sure if it was me getting on my coat and heading out of the building to the streets or if I was writing my character getting on his coat and heading out of the building to the streets.

And I read. I read Poe, Paul Auster, and Toni Morrison. I read Cortazar, Sabato, Neruda, Verlaine,Ruben Dario, and Baudelaire. And I read Borges, Borges after Borges,

poetry, fiction, non-fictions, and so many interviews, books and books of interviews with Borges, so much so that I could hear his voice sometimes when I thought of something, as if he were giving his opinion on my thoughts. And I read the books Borges led me to, fiction by Stevenson and Chesterson, three volumes of Swedenborg, Thomas Merton, and I started to read Kabbalah.

And at night, or on days when I only wrote for a few hours, I went out into the city and walked. Some days I walked for eight hours, sin rumbo, just walked, and I met people and talked. Sometimes I ended up at open mic readings or independent theaters, where the young actors had piercings and smelled like patouchi oil.

I lived a few blocks from the Botanical Gardens and the Zoologico, the same one where Borges became entranced with a tiger and the same zoo visited by Cortazar, where I imagined that he imagined for the first time the story that would become "Axolotl." From my apartment I could sometimes hear the elephants crying. It was there that I become entranced by the Elephant and realized how strongly I identified with that animal, that inside of me there was an elephant. I would stare at him for hours and imagined that he was staring back at me.

It was an amazing time for me.

But it was a disaster for the book.

Back home, with nobody around to promote shadows, nobody bought it.

I don't think it ever ranked less than one million on Amazon.

Do you know what this means?

When you go to you can see how a book is selling vis-a-vis other books.

Currently I'm reading Roberto Bolanos, 2006, which I love so much I'm thinking of using in a graduate class next semester.

Out of curiosity, I checked 2666 on Amazon and it was ranked 350 in book sales.

That means there are only 350 books in print (and there must be millions of books in print) that are selling better on Amazon than Bolano's book.

When I was walking the streets of Buenos Aires, I would sometimes step into an internet cafe and check my email, and sometimes I would see how my new novel was doing.

I expected it would at least be less than 10,000, maybe even less than a thousand, but it was always over one million.

That meant that over one million books were selling better than my new novel.

No one was reading it.

The book tour, the announcements in newspapers and magazines, the two reviews it got, were not enough to sell the book.

and the shadows took him was failing.

But then something happened, something out of nowhere that may have saved the life of my novel, which today, in paperback, is still in print.

(more later)