I’m feeling pretty good/bad about myself: sitting here, writing words that pertain to someone with the stature possessed by the one and only Achy Obejas. On the one hand, I feel good: I’ve been given yet another opportunity to interview an influential, triumphant artist who knows more about writing, language and words than I probably could ever imagine for myself (wait, this was supposed to be the part describing why this makes me feel good). Then on the other hand, I feel bad: how could my words possibly do Achy Obejas’ illustrious career any justice and how do I choose my words in a way that will captivate an audience lured in by the sheer magnitude of Achy’s prolific significance in the industry?
I’ll just get out of the way and let her do the talking…
(For Story Week), you’ll be reading your tribute to the late, great David Hernandez, someone who more than mentored you in many ways over the course of your careers as a friend and confidante. How do the emotional layers involved with a project like that affect not only your writing but your performance and your interactions with people before and after the show who want to talk about your work and your relationship with David?
David was first and foremost my friend, and that’s how I thought of him. And he was someone with whom I enjoyed talking about writing and writing practice, about writers we liked, and process. Whenever I write poetry, I think about David, and I don’t know that his physical absence has changed that in any way. Talking to people about David always brings back those early years in Chicago, finding my way, following him around town, late night diners, lots of laughs, lots of self-discovery, lots of growing up. We laughed a lot. We hugged and kissed a lot. I love the opportunity to remember those times. It’s a pretty warm and special feeling.
His passing is still fresh and I’m sure you’re probably still mourning in your own way. How do you gather the strength and courage to perform your work dedicated to David?
Oh there’s no special strength and courage — it’s a celebration of David and just the thought of David is pretty inspiring. Honestly, it’s such an honor, such a high. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Batya, his wife, to choose what I’ll be reading, so it’s almost like David chose what I’ll read.
Also, was the tribute to David’s legacy something planned prior to his sudden passing last month or was it put together posthumously?
My understanding is that it was posthumous.
Hypothetical: Where would you be without his influence and guidance over the years?
I’d be less of a poet, for sure. But I’d also be missing a huge part of my Latino identity. People like David and Angel Figueroa, the Amills from the old Yuquiyu Bookstore, Gini Sorrentini and Roberto Caldero and, yup, Luis Gutierrez long, long before he was an elected official, all helped shape my identity beyond my Cubanness. I always knew Cuba y Puerto Rico son las dos alas and all that, but getting to know those folks in Humboldt Park, being made to feel so at home, having my eyes opened in so many ways, that’s a whole lot on Angel Figueroa, who introduced me to David, and then to David, who was the magical portal to so many other things.
“To be any kind of writer, you have to be a poet first. And to be a poet, you have to be in love with every word you write.” – David Hernandez
This is one of those quotes that any writer should have tattooed on their soul. What do those words mean to you and how do writers stay in love with the words through all the craziness known as life?”
Well, that’s my mantra, really, even though I write a lot more prose than poetry. David spoke those words to me at a very important point in my life. I’m probably such an insistent and careful writer because of those words.
When you’re reading, who/what excites you? What writers hit that button for you?
What excites me is being made to think differently, being challenged. I read different things all the time and my tastes are constantly changing because of it but Reinaldo Arenas is a perpetual favorite, as are Gertrude Stein, Olga Broumas and Dennis Cooper. But right now I’m also pretty hyped on J.M. Coetzee, Percival Everett, Yiyun Li, Porochista Khakpour, Miguel Mejides, Michael Ondaatje’s poetry (especially ‘Handwriting,’ which I read and re-read), Derek Walcott (he’s an SOB but what a writer!), Srikanth Reddy’s ‘Facts for Visitors,’ Rafael Campo’s new ‘Alternative Medicine’ and almost anything by Mahmoud Darwish. I’ve also been re-reading Roland Barthes’ ‘A Lover’s Discourse’ and the new ‘Poetry of Witness’ anthology edited by Carolyn Forche.
Growing up in the Midwest, did you always envision yourself growing up to become the extremely accomplished writer you’re known as today? The accolades and awards and fellowships and opportunity were always part of the plan, right?
Ha! I just wanted to write, I envisioned myself writing and writing and everything and anything else was gravy. I’m crazy blessed in this life, especially since Megan Bayles and our son, Ilan, have been in it. All I really want now is time and the means to enjoy it — don’t need a million years, don’t need a million dollars, just enough of both time and money to see and feel and live a full narrative arch, you know what I mean?
How has the Latino literature landscape changed since you published your first book?
Well, there are a lot more of us publishing and rocking the universe. And not just us but people of color in general. The more of us who are successful, the more we change the conversation; the more the conversation changes, the more interesting and vital and true it gets. There’s still a long way to go — I’d like to see more poc published but also as editors, as juries for prizes, as faculty at universities. We’re still woefully underrepresented in those areas.
Do you think it’s fair to lump all Latinos into one genre when it comes to literature… or any type of artform for that matter?
Of course not. It’s utterly ridiculous. I’m amused every single time I hear Junot Diaz and Danny Alarcon strung together; what, exactly, does their work have in common besides that they’re both Latino/Latin American?
I don’t know, but you seem like the right person for this question that I’ve been reserving for just the right time: Why do people feel the need to define/promote themselves and others by gender, race, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, etc.? Does any of it really even matter?
It absolutely matters because who artists are — that is, their life experience, their cultural experience — is the lens by which they create art. What’s screwed up isn’t saying that Junot Diaz is writing the Dominican experience as something different but that Jonathan Safran Foer is writing the universal experience instead of the Jewish white urban guy experience. How do you read Flannery O’Connor without acknowledging her as a white southern woman in a particular historical moment? I don’t know anybody who “promotes” themselves as one thing or another — every writer I know just wants to be a great writer, period — but who we are — who we all are — matters. It most certainly shouldn’t be the only thing that matters, but it’s not irrelevant.
How has poetry and literature changed your world and does poetry and literature have the power to change the world?
God, I hope so. I dearly hope so. It’s my lifeline.
Over the years, you’ve accomplished practically everything a writer can even think about let alone go out and actually do, so what’s next for Achy Obejas?
New novel, new poetry soon. And then time with my son. I want time to play with Legos and go to the beach and read to him and watch movies and turn him on to dominos and Celia Cruz and scrabble and Wifredo Lam and performance art and great food.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers, specifically aspiring Latino writers?
It’s the same advice I give my students, all my students: Write every day, read everything, read constantly, read stuff you don’t like, read poetry every day.
I’ve seen that you consider yourself a journalist above all other mediums in which you’ve enjoyed tremendous successes. Could you explain that (decision) to our readers?
I actually don’t, at all. I saw that my Wikipedia entry says that but I have no idea at all where that came from. I love journalism, and for a long time I made my living from it, but it was never my ambition or my goal. I was lucky to work at great places with generous editors who accommodated my creative impulses, people like Pat Clinton, Mike Miner, and Alison True at the Reader; Kevin Moore, Tim McNulty, Jimmy Warren, Geoff Brown, Kaarin Tisue, and Gerry Kern at the Tribune; Steve Edwards, Justin Kauffman and Robin Amer at WBEZ; and today, the terrific staff at In These Times, where I write a monthly column, but I’ve always seen myself first and foremost as a creative writer, as a writer of stories. When I feel really ambitious, I imagine myself a poet but god knows I know enough poets, and I read too much poetry, to think that’s going to be true in this lifetime. Poetry is, I think, the most divine, the most difficult writing. I aspire to writing poetry that can wave hello at Chicu Reddy’s poetry.
Achy will be reading her tribute to David Hernandez this Thursday night (that’s March 20th) in conjunction with Story Week:
6:00 PM, Doors: 5:30 PM
3730 N. Clark Street
Preston L. Allen, Every Boy Should Have a Man
Eric May, Bedrock Faith
Christine Sneed, Little Known Facts
Street Sounds, honoring the work of poet/bandleader David Hernandez with readings by: