Tag Archives: Huizache

An Interview with Octavio Solis

8 Dec
Octavio Solis is one of the most prominent Latino playwrights in the country. In addition to his work for the stage, he's writing a series of stories set in El Paso.

Octavio Solis is one of the most prominent Latino playwrights in the country. In addition to his work for the stage, he’s writing a series of stories set in El Paso, two of which appear in the most recent issue of Huizache.

Octavio Solis is a playwright and director whose works have been produced across the country and include Alicia’s MiracleSe Llama CristinaJohn Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven, Ghosts of the RiverQuixoteLydia, June in a Box, Lethe, Marfa Lights, GibraltarThe Ballad of Pancho and Lucy, The 7 Visions of Encarnación, Bethlehem, Dreamlandia, El OtroMan of the FleshProspectEl Paso BlueSantos & Santos, and La Posada Mágica. His collaborative works include Cloudlands, with Music by Adam Gwon, Burning Dreams, cowritten with Julie Hebert and Gina Leishman and Shiner, written with Erik Ehn. Solis has received an NEA 1995-97 Playwriting Fellowship, the Roger L. Stevens award from the Kennedy Center, the Will Glickman Playwright Award, a production grant from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, the 1998 TCG/NEA Theatre Artists in Residence Grant, the 1998 McKnight Fellowship grant from the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis, and the National Latino Playwriting Award for 2003. He is the recipient of the 2000-2001 National Theatre Artists Residency Grant from TCG and the Pew Charitable Trust, the United States Artists Fellowship for 2011 and the 2104 Pen Center USA Award for Drama. Solis is a Thornton Wilder Fellow for the MacDowell Colony, New Dramatists alum and member of the Dramatists Guild. His new anthology, “The River Plays” has been published by NoPassPort Publishing. He is working on commissions for the Magic Theatre SF and Yale Repertory Theatre.

To read an exercise on creating tension between desire and thought, inspired by Solis’ story “The Want,” click here. More of Solis’ stories in this series can be found in the new issue of Zyzzyva and forthcoming in Arroyo Literary Review. On March 4, Solis will read from these stories at Arts & Letters Live at the Dallas Museum of Art.

In this interview, Solis discusses his approach to fiction and nonfiction, laying the mental groundwork for stories, and moments that lead characters to speak in code.

Michael Noll

Huizache doesn’t label this story as fiction or nonfiction, and so I’m wondering how you would categorize it. Is it one or the other?

Octavio Solis

I would categorize it somewhere between. I started writing these pieces that reflect things that happened in El Paso: turning points in how I recognized how I functioned in the world and who I am, so they’re moments of discovery. But as I was writing, some of them seemed so surreal that they seemed like dreams, and so if I didn’t write them down, they’d be relegated to just dreams. But as I started writing them down—I’m a storyteller, it’s what I do—as I started writing the story, the details and characters started to take on a life of their own. There are details on the sides that aren’t clear, I can’t see them as clearly, and so I give myself permission to make them up. But they’re made up in the sense that I insert them in the moments when they weren’t there, but they’re part of my background, personal history, youth, my past. So they fall into place very readily. I don’t even feel like I’m making them up. But usually the central moments are real and true except that they take on a life of their own. Somebody said, I can’t remember who, “Once you start writing something down, it starts to become fiction. It just can’t help it.” That’s what I gave myself permission to do: tell a story. I realized I had bigger fish to fry than just write an autobiographical story. I’m more interested in telling stories that will resonate in a more universal way.

As for what really happened, I remember that it happened in the winter, but I don’t remember if it was right around Christmas time. It could have been. I remember that I was in college, so it had to have been over Christmas break. But to write that way, frankly about something like that, I’m running a risk because it doesn’t cast me in such a positive light. At the very least, I look like an idiot. But I was young and stupid and horny and crazy—and something else was operating. I also had recently lost my faith. I was told I’d been saved by my drama teacher, was reborn in Jesus and all that, and warned not to stray in college. Then all of that fell away, and I realized the reason I wanted to be saved and be a Christian was to be in the theater. And that felt like it was my way in. But then in college, that all fell away. There were consequences for all that—feelings of grief and remorse about the loss of that community. So I was dealing with loneliness on an epic, metaphysical scale. Not just physical loneliness. And once you have all of those ingredients working together, you become sensitive, aware of the invisible connections that were already emerging. You just let them happen. You don’t even have to force them that much. And so suddenly this girl becomes the virgin Mary and I’m offering her refuge. Of course it’s a complete negative image of that. She’s not looking refuge. I’m looking for a good time and she’s ready to provide it, which is quite different, and that’s the point. It’s an inversion of the Christ story.

Michael Noll

Did you always know the story was headed for that moment? The beginning is filled with Christmas imagery—Bing Crosby, the lodestar in the Franklin Mountains—but there’s also a shock of recognition at the end for the narrator (“And how fucking Catholic of me…What a fucking cliché.”)

Octavio Solis

It also happened to me as a writer, that sort of discovery, oh shit, what have I been writing? It’s all so clear to me now. How could I have missed it? That’s the wonderful thing about writing these stories. I’ve amassed 50 of them.The wonderful thing about them is that I make discoveries as a writer as I’m working on them. I’m not there to share an epiphany. I’m having the epiphany. That final paragraph is also me as a writer thinking, “Oh Jesus, unbelievable.” No matter how much of an atheist I am, all this Catholicism has made me think this way—and I’m so blind to it. I’m hoping that if I’m having the discovery, the reader will land in this same place. And that comes from my theater background. I was trained by a great writer, María Irene Fornés. She taught us to be available to the moment, to discoveries, to not have everything so planned out, to see the journey, the starting point clearly and follow the thread. It will take you to a place as a writer you didn’t expect. Then it becomes a delightful discovery for the writer and will be that for the audience. If you can predict how it’s going to end, the audience will, too. But if you don’t now what’s around the corner, then the audience won’t, either.

Michael Noll

There’s something pretty uncomfortable about that discovery, especially in the moment right after he picks up the girl. He claims to be doing it out of concern for her, but when he says, “Dangerous for a girl in her condition…I hope you didn’t drink too much,” it’s creepy. As I read it, I thought, “Oh no.”

Octavio Solis

Oh yeah, it’s very uncomfortable. But then it turns around the other way as well: she looks innocent and stranded, but she’s not. She’s also looking for me as much as I’m looking for her. The dynamics are constantly shifting inside the car. They start shifting from the time I see her. The dialogue in the car—because of the discomfort, because it’s harder to just lay out baldly what the needs and wants are—you start speaking in a kind of code, unconsciously, without the narrator really knowing what he’s really after, what he’s really saying, until she makes it very clear: You wanted this. You were after this. Don’t pretend otherwise. Because he’s functioning on two planes. I explain a little in that passage about the difference between want and need: I want someone in the carnal way, I need company, I need to be good again, the good Christian again and find myself in fellowship with other people just to do that. He’s opening on this level where he’s wanting someone. He even says, I want someone to give me some nighttime CPR, and goes into bars looking for that. He wants to take her home. He’s a boy scout, but he also won’t admit to himself that he wants something else.

December 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Create Tension Between Desire and Thought

6 Dec
Octavio Solis' story, "The Want," appears in the most recent issue of Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature.

Octavio Solis’ story, “The Want,” appears in the most recent issue of Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature.

Every writer knows that it’s important to find a character’s motivating desire, and those desires are often pretty simple: make money, find love, get revenge, get away, get laid. These are essential human desires, but when they’re distilled down to basics, they can feel too simple. In our minds, our lives are messier and more complicated than any of these desires, which is why we’ve all heard someone say (or we’ve said), “It’s not just about ___. It’s the principle of the thing.” In life and in stories, there’s the desire itself and the invisible architecture of thought, rationalization, philosophy, theology, and politics that we construct around it. Sometimes we become so invested in this architecture that we forget about the desire upon which it’s built.

Octavio Solis crafts an entire story around the distance between the architecture and desire in “The Want,” which you can read in its entirety online at Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature.

How the Story Works

The premise is simple. The narrator is home from his first semester of college and feeling lonely. He goes for a drive and thinks, “I need a girl, some girl to lie to, hold, feel against me, someone to give me a little nighttime CPR, for god’s sake. Just one time. One night. That’s all.” It’s a pretty straightforward desire, and if the story proceeded from there, the plot would be the same as any of a thousand movies about young guys trying to have sex. But Solis begins to build an architecture of thought around this desire, and the story changes.

Here is the next paragraph:

The loneliness is hurting real bad now. It’s not in the heart but in the head like a migraine shooting icicles into the back of my eyes. It’s in my throat too, sore with the whispers that keep hissing out of my mouth like bile. All around me, the streets are barren and shiny in the night. All mortals hidden, out of reach. This is what my born-again high school teacher said would happen. You abandon the Lord and you’ll feel the desolation of that choice. You’ll be more alone than you could ever imagine. Painful and paralyzing is the sinner’s harrowing.

The desire has been enlarged, spreading from the heart (and, probably, another organ) to his head and eventually to the entire world (“the streets are barren and shiny in the night. All mortals hidden, out of reach”). You’ve probably been taught about the pathetic fallacy: the giving of human emotions to non-human things (animals, the sky, trees). At it’s worst, it’s an emotional shortcut. A character is sad, and so the weather is sad and rainy. That’s sloppy writing. But Solis is using the same basic idea in a different way. His narrator sees the world (empty streets) and perceives it through the lens of his emotion (lonely, horny), and so in his mind, the street seems to reflect his own feelings back at him.

The desire also becomes about more than just sex. Now, religion is part of it.

Into this new enlarged sense of desire comes a girl, walking alone by the railroad tracks. She’s pregnant. The narrator offers her a ride. The scene that follows depends completely on the distance between the narrator’s physical desire (find a girl) and the thoughts he’s built around it (“All mortals hidden out of reach…abandon the Lord…more alone than you could ever imagine.”) In short, he forgets (or pretends to himself that he’s forgotten) about looking for sex. He tells himself (and her) that it’s human connection that he wants: “I tell her that I draw strength from her company.”

The girl cuts through this. I won’t say how. You should read the story. But it’s important to note what she does not do. In stories by beginning writers (and in some scripts by professional TV and film writers), a character like the girl will dispense wisdom. She’ll be a kind of guardian angel, swooping into the story to help the main character feel better or learn something. If that’s the point of the story (Highway to HeavenQuantum LeapTouched by an Angel), then so be it. But it’s crucial to look out for lazy tropes. For example, when a character like the girl is black, she too often becomes the magical negro. Solis avoids this problem. The girl doesn’t dispense wisdom. She acts and speaks in ways that match her own desires in the moment.

The result is a great, tense passage. Read it here.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create tension between physical desire and the architecture of thought a character builds around that desire, using “The Want” by Octavio Solis as a model:

  1. Find the basic desire. Keep it simple. What does your character hunger for? Or, what is an absence that is unacceptable to your character? The objects will be some of the usual ones: money, food, shelter, security, love, friendship, sex. Once you find the desire, put the object at its center just out of reach. Solis’ narrator wants a girl, but he can’t find one. The bar is full of “older blinder boozers” and the streets are empty. What does your character want? How can you make it seem impossible to get?
  2. Lay the foundation for the architecture of thought. The story begins on Christmas, and so there is a series of Christmas imagery: Bing Crosby on the radio, a city light that reminds the narrator of the Christmas star. The character is home from college, and so he flips through his high school yearbook, looking at pictures and notes written by classmates. The yearbook suggests a different kind of loneliness, not just sexual but more general. And, it’s a pretty short jump from Christmas imagery to theological loneliness. So, give your character and story something to work with. This is basic narrative work: what details in the setting and situation stand out to the character?
  3. Build the architecture of thought. When your character is alone in his/her head, thinking about these details while in the midst of the basic desire, what thoughts come up? Keep writing. What do they spin themselves into? In “The Want,” we soon realize that the narrator is struggling with his religious beliefs (or has moved past them and is struggling with the aftermath). We also realize that he’s not quite sure how to be an adult (reading the yearbook). He goes into a bar but doesn’t like the company he finds there. Like anyone does while driving, he thinks and thinks about these things and develops some ideas. To some extent, he’s created his own diversion from looking for sex. He’s distracted by his own thoughts. What are the thoughts that your character might become distracted by?
  4. Bring another character into the story. This character will not be aware of the invisible architecture of thought in the first character’s head. The girl in “The Want” only knows what she sees: a guy has picked her up. It’s natural, then, that her actions and words will cut across the world the narrator has created in his mind. She interacts with him based on his desire (which is evident), not his thoughts. Conflict ensues. So, what character can you bring into the story? How does that character fit into your main character’s basic desire?

The goal is to create conflict and tension by giving your main character/narrator both a desire and an architecture of thought build around that desire. You may know what those thoughts will be beforehand, or you may need to explore the premise a bit to discover them. Once you do, bring another character into the story.

Good luck.

An Interview with the Editors of Huizache

19 Nov
Diana López

Diana López

Diana López is managing editor of Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature and  the author of the adult novella, Sofia’s Saints; the middle grade novels, Confetti Girl and Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel; and the young adult novel, Choke. She was featured in the anthologies Hecho en Tejas and You Don’t Have a Clue and appeared as a guest on NPR’s Latino USA. She won the 2004 Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award and the 2012 William Allen White Award. Lopez teaches English and works with the organization, CentroVictoria, at the University of Houston Victoria.


A.J. Ortega

A.J. Ortega

A.J. Ortega is the assistant editor of Huizache. He has lived all over the Lone Star State but calls El Paso his home. His focus as a writer is short fiction, which is inspired by living in the Southwest and the complexities of border culture. He is currently working on his first book, a collection of short stories. He also writes poetry, creative non-fiction, and book reviews. Some of his writing has appeared in The Rio Grande Review, Front Porch Journal, American Book Review, Southwest American Literature, and various newspapers.

To read an exercise about portraying relationships with a single, specific detail based on Michele Serros’ essay “A Bedtime Story” that appeared in Huizache, click here.

In this interview, López and Ortega discuss the mechanics of putting together an issue of a literary journal, why “Honda CRX” is better than “sports car,” and what it means to be publishing Latino literature.

Michael Noll

One of the challenges of running a literary journal is identifying good submissions from okay ones. Obviously, Michele Serros was a known writer, and this essay may have been solicited. That said, it’s easy to read the opening passage that introduces the situation and see how this essay could have leaped out of a slush pile. How soon into reading this essay did you know, yep, this one’s going in the journal?

Diana López

The first issue of Huizache was entirely solicited. We were a new magazine, so it was important to establish our character. In a way, it served as a thematic and stylistic template for the issues to come. Michele’s piece is in our second issue, the first open to unsolicited submissions, and we received some good stories through the slush pile. Dagoberto Gilb, our Executive Director, reached out to Michele to solicit her work for two reasons. One, we were feeling a little panicked because we hadn’t received enough submissions from women, and two, we want our magazine to feature both new and established voices. Including Michele in our sophomore issue helped establish a sense of balance.

She sent Dagoberto two stories, and both were great fits for Huizache. We really deliberated about which to include, but ultimately “A Bedtime Story” felt like a stronger complement to the other works. This was an angry year for readers and writers of Chicano literature because of the Tucson ISD book ban. In many ways the second issue of Huizache is a reaction to that event. It opens with a defiant grito from Lorna Dee Cervantes in “A Chicano Poem,” and it also includes a narrative by El Librotraficante, Tony Diaz, about the caravan that toured the Southwest to establish underground libraries of the banned books. Immediately preceding Michele’s story is a poem about a minuteman tracking immigrants the way a hunter tracks prey.  So you have this dark poem followed by something funny. That’s why Michele’s story is centrally located in the magazine, to provide an emotional counterpoint. One of Michele’s greatest gifts is that she reminds us that we need to laugh, too.

Michael Noll

Tolstoy wrote that happy families are all the same and unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways, but I’ve read enough essays and stories about unhappy marriages to know that the same sort of trouble dooms a lot of relationships. As a result, my eyes tend to glaze at the average divorce/affair story. What about this essay made it stand out from the unhappy crowd?

A.J. Ortega

The second issues of Huizache included Serros' essay, plus a poem by Lorna Dee Cervantes and an essay about smuggling books into Tuscon, AZ, by Tony Diaz.

The second issues of Huizache included Michele Serros’ essay, plus a poem by Lorna Dee Cervantes and an essay about smuggling books into Tuscon, AZ, by Tony Diaz.

Most stories when looked at from a birds-eye view can’t be entirely new or unique in terms of the general premise. But when you zero in, it is the minutia, the little details, that separates it from the pack. While on the surface, Michele’s piece is a breakup/divorce story, it stands out because of Serros’ voice and the specificity in the concrete details. Details like the narrator listening to Howard Stern or the chocolate donuts and goat’s milk at the end make this something more than another breakup story.

My favorite details are in the opening. We are introduced to two older couples: Happily Married 20 Years and Happily Married 38 1/2 Years. They aren’t named. They aren’t described. They are purposely unspecific and vague. But, do you see what is described on that first page? The car. The focus on the car, the Honda CRX, is what makes this story charming, funny, real. The whole punchline is about having sex at the beginning of a relationship, in a car. Readers know the “sex in the car” bit. In fact, it’s overdone. But, in this story, Michele makes sure to specify that she is referring to the front seat of the car. I think you lose something in the story if you say “sports car” or “two-seater” instead of Honda CRX. On top of this, being precise about the make and model places this story in the early 90s. Then you get to the mention of Howard Stern, who has been around forever but was never as polarizing as he was in the early 90s. All of the details, what we get to zoom in on, are deliberate and calculated in this piece.

Michele’s charm as a writer is that she is quite funny. This particular story doesn’t attack the issue of the breakup of a relationship in a sad or overly sentimental way. Instead, the break up is enveloped in humor. Just like readers are familiar with the idea, the act, the ritual of having sex in a car, we also know the ritual of the break up. It’s awful, it hurts, it’s sad, your cry, they cry, you love them, you hate them, they hate you, and on and on and on, and then time passes and it becomes a story, a chapter of your own life.

What’s great in “A Bedtime Story” is that we don’t see the nastiness of the couple at their worst nor do we see their subsequent sadness. What for? Most of us have lived it. In this piece, we don’t see a big blow up of an argument or fight, complete with the crying and snot and dry heaving. Instead we get the mattress-rotating scene. Even if the scene plays out like a comedy routine, I bought it, and I know other readers did too. They aren’t fighting about the mattress. They are fighting about everything else in their relationship, whatever that may be. We never see that on the page, but, the way the story is crafted, it’s there. Sometimes the “real” story is revealed in the ellipses or line breaks.

Michael Noll

Huizache bills itself as “The Magazine of Latino Literature,” and so I’m curious how you view that word, Latino. I live in Austin, and so my sense of the word is Texas-centric, but, of course, if you go to New Mexico or Arizona or California, it’s not really referring to the same group of people, or not exactly, anyway. (As an example, I just heard a story on NPR about the need for translators of indigenous Mexican languages in California because so many of the farm workers don’t speak English or Spanish.) When you focus on Latino literature, what do you mean? Is it a focus on culture? Language? Geography? Some combination of all three?

A.J. Ortega

Rates of English usage among Hispanics, according to Pew Research Center.

Rates of English usage among Hispanics, according to Pew Research Center.

Way to ask the tough questions, Michael. Our magazine focuses on Latinos, those of us from Latin America, or with ancestors from Latin America. I will say, though, that language doesn’t always have to do with identifying as Latino. There are Latinos in the U.S. that speak little or no Spanish. And, as you pointed out, some speak indigenous dialects. You know, I read one of those Pew Research Center things recently that made claim that more Latinos are proficient in English than before. Obviously! At this point, most of us are from here, American. Most of us speak English, and proficiently. This is why a magazine like Huizache has to exist. A lot of people, unfortunately, aren’t aware of these issues. I don’t know how many people are unaware, except that it’s a lot. Enough to warrant a magazine centered on giving Latinos a voice in the world of literature. Huizache aims to focus on Mexican American writing, mostly from the West and Southwest, as that subset makes up 60%-70% of the Latino population, but we are open to all Latinos, and everyone else.

As our country evolves, there are more and more Latinos all over the country. Our numbers are many but our voices, sadly, limited. Sometimes I think the obsession with labels used to describe different authors might be solely to figure out what shelf to put their books. But, it is all more complex than that. People need to understand that when navigating these labels, and how they apply to each individual, they will not be perfect at it. Even I’m confused. Labels are tough. Figuring out who you are is tough. That’s one thing a lot of Latinos have in common. Some of them grow out of one label and into another. Others are headstrong and stick to one. I, for example, don’t like the label Hispanic. The word refers to people from Spanish-speaking countries. However, the label was adopted by the U.S. government, specifically the Nixon administration, in order to count the Spanish-speaking population in the Census. And, as you and I both pointed out, some Hispanics don’t actually speak Spanish. Going further, some people feel that Hispanic also has echoes of the Spanish conquest and colonization in it, since that is how we got to speaking Spanish in the first place. (It also has the word “panic” in it, which is a little irrational but makes me feel weird anyway…especially when you hear it on the news.) I use Latino mostly, but when I can be more specific I prefer to do that. I say I’m Mexican American. The only way I can resolve my own identity, and subsequent identity issues, is by including the two things that have me confused in the first place – having cultural roots from Mexico, with Mexican family, parents, but being born in Houston, growing up in Texas and appreciating that I’m American. But, I’ve also known people who, for some reason, recoil at the uttering of “Mexican” like it is a bad word, and use Hispanic instead because it sounds softer.

I do like the word Latino because it seems to have been sprung from the community itself, rather than imposed by the government like I explained above. As a population of people who have different cultures, with different versions of Spanish, from different places, we at least share some struggles. One of these is the lack of exposure of our brilliant writers. Huizache aims to fill that gap.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in the meaning of Latino especially in terms of Michele Serros. The words Chicana and Chica appear in three of her book titles, and she grew up in California. But she also married a well-known rock musician, and her work inspired both at least three mega-famous bands (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins, and Rage Against the Machine). This latter part isn’t the standard Latino biography that we see on TV—and not just with ignorant statements by people like Donald Trump. Latinos don’t seem to appear in the news unless it’s a story about migration. All of this is to ask this: How important was Michele Serros, not just in carving out space for Latino writers but also in broadening a national sense for who Latinos are?

A.J. Ortega

Rage Against the Machine's Zach de la Rocha appeared onstage with Los Tigres del Norte on their song "Somos Más Americanos" for a MTV Unplugged special.

Rage Against the Machine’s Zach de la Rocha appeared onstage with Los Tigres del Norte on their song “Somos Más Americanos” for a MTV Unplugged special. The New Yorker wrote a long feature about the norteño band here.

True that the latter part is not part of image of Latinos that we see on TV…but Latinos know otherwise, especially when it comes to the rockstar part. Mexicans and Mexican Americans love Rage Against the Machine. Zach de la Rocha, the lead singer, is a Chicano and the band was/is a huge success in Mexico. If you check out their Battle of Mexico City concert, you’ll see what I mean. Zach de la Rocha even joined the Los Tigres Del Norte, a norteño group, during their MTV Unplugged rendition of “Somos Mas Americanos,” a song that addresses the complexities of immigration and Mexican heritage. This is exactly the point of a lot of the conversation we’re having.

So, that’s a good segue into discussing how Michele Serros has been a tremendous influence on her own community of Latinos, women, writers, and even rock stars like Zach de la Rocha, Billy Corgan and Flea. I think what we can take away from the impression she had on people like these superstars is that she was able to transcend the label. I heard in an interview that she was once called a “Chicana falsa,” that is, she wasn’t the stereotypical Chicana according to her peers during her adolescence. She made it clear that the label isn’t her entire identity, but only part of it. Her upbringing in SoCal, with the beaches and malls, was part of her identity, thus the skateboarding and surfing. She was a lot of things, not just one. I think that’s a normal pressure that Latino writers have on their shoulders, wondering how you will be viewed, how you will be labeled, and how you will represent your community. Once your work is out there, it’s out there and people will think what they want. Michele, by putting certain words in her titles, took a certain amount of control over that, and that is something to admire. She had agency of her own identity as a Chicana, and even plays with it, challenges it, flips it on its head.

She reminds us that Latinos are a diverse group of people. The more people who realize this the better. Some Latinos are women and they call themselves Latinas. Some Latinas prefer to be called Chicanas. Some Chicanas are skaters. Some Latinos are brown. We also have white Latinos and black Latinos. A lot of Latinos speak English. Some, like me, speak Spanish but with an American accent. Others can’t speak a lick of Spanish. Some Latinos are teachers and some are rockstars. Some Latinos drink at bars, others are bartenders, and some even own the bar. And still, some are writers.

As long as we have authors like Michele Serros (que en paz descanse) to tell our complicated stories that don’t fit the dominant narrative, the people outside of the Latino community, and even those within it, will hopefully begin, or continue, to understand who Latinos really are and, in turn, their value to American literature and the country as a whole. Michele may be gone from this world, but her work and contribution to the literary arts keeps us moving forward.

Thanks for the questions, Michael. Wish you could have communicated with her directly. Your readers can get over to huizachemag.org and order Huizache, including issue two which includes Michele Serros’ work, for their collections. We have five issues now with a long list of award-winning authors, established and new, with attractive covers from Latino artists that’ll look great on their bookshelves. Read them, and enjoy them.

November 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Portray a Relationship with One Well-Chosen Detail

17 Nov
One of the last pieces that Michelle Serros ever published appeared in Huizache, a journal dedicated to Latino Literature.

Michele Serros was a groundbreaking Latina writer from Los Angeles who recently passed away. Her essay, “A Bedtime Story,” appeared in Huizache, a journal dedicated to Latino Literature.

It’s probably not surprising that good writing avoids abstraction. But abstraction doesn’t only mean terms like justice or goodness. For example, take a relationship or a marriage. We talk about these things as if they are as actual and real as, say, a gala apple, but that isn’t quite true. When you see a relationship, you see two people. When the relationship seems to be going well, or when it’s headed south, that judgement is based on various cues that we pick up—and those cues often involve specific behaviors or conversations, not generalizations about the relationship as a whole. As a result, when writing about not-quite-tangible details like a marriage, it’s useful to replace something complex with something simple.

This is exactly what Michelle Serros did in her essay, “A Bedtime Story.” It was published in Huizache, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay gets straight to the point, connecting the relationship to something specific:

A week into our marriage, I insisted to my new husband that we buy a new bed, immediately. Two older couples we both highly respected, Happily Married 20 Years and Happily Married 38 1/2 Years, advised us that there wasn’t just one secret in keeping a marriage happy, but rather two: a good refrigerator and a good bed.

This move immediately makes writing about this marriage much easier. For example, rather than Serros trying to describe the dynamics of her marriage, she can show us how she and her husband felt about this most-important part of their marriage. For example, details that might not mean much suddenly become potentially quite meaningful, like this:

As a newly married couple with individual credit card debt, there was no way my husband and I were going to shell out four digits for a so-called good mattress.

Also, rather than showing all the ways that the marriage begins to deteriorate (which might be many and too complex for an essay), Serros is able to use that single detail to convey the entirety of the marriage’s problems:

Six months later, during the summer solstice rotation, the arguing continued.
“Why do you always give me the heavier side?” I complained.
“The heavier side?” my husband smirked. “There isn’t no heavier side. It’s a mattress. It’s the same all around.”
“You’re not even holding up your end!” I accused him.
“I am totally carrying my side. You’re the one letting it drop. God, you’re so antagonistic!”

In case we’re beginning to grow suspicious of the neatness of the bed-as-metaphor, Serros gives us reason not to worry:

My husband and I slowly discovered that even between each solstice we had many non-mattress rotation issues to argue over.

Serros has managed to write about something as complex as a marriage using an image that anyone can easily see.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s replace an abstraction with a specific detail, using “A Bedtime Story” by Michelle Serros as a model:

  1. Identify the abstraction. While it might be something like peace or anger, it’s more likely to be a relationship. After all, it’s what most stories are about: relationships between couples, between parents and kids, between friends. Figure out which relationship is at the center of the story.
  2. Connect an object to that abstraction. It can be something that is generally associated with that type of relationship. Serros uses a bed to portray a marriage. But the object can be anything as long as it’s important to the characters. The most famous works of literature do this. What is at the heart of Bob Cratchit’s conflict with Ebenezer Scrooge? Low pay? Sure. Miserable working conditions? Long hours? Yes. But the object that we remember is the coal that heats the office and that Scrooge rations so heartlessly.
  3. Develop a conflict around the object. If characters disagree generally, how will they disagree over the object? As most of us know, when we’re feeling disagreeable, we don’t need a reason to argue, only an opportunity. The opposite is also true. If we’re in love or full of happiness, we find joy in everything. How the object you’ve chosen bring the characters together or drive them apart?
  4. Show the world around the object. One of the most important lines of Serros’ essay may be the one where she tells us that she and her husband “had many non-mattress rotation issues to argue over.” Let the reader know that you, the writer, are aware of your own trick and that the object you’ve chosen to focus on is, indeed, a good stand-in for the entire relationship.

The goal is to take the characters’ attitudes and personalities—the nature of their relationship—and make those things concrete with a detail or object. This object, then, can focus those characteristics and relationship in order to create conflict.

Good luck.

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