Interview with José Skinner
Nov 20, 2015
by D. Seth Horton
José Skinner was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Mexico and New Mexico. He moved to Nicaragua following the Sandinista Revolution to teach sustainable farming, and while in Central America began writing dispatches about the toll that U.S. intervention was taking in the region. Upon his return to the United States, he supported himself as a gardener, a translator, and an interpreter in the criminal courts of New Mexico. He eventually graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and went on to cofound and direct the MFA program at the University of Texas–Pan American (now named the University of Texas–Rio Grande Valley). He currently lives in Austin, where he writes and volunteers for the Proyecto Defensa Laboral.
His stories have appeared in Boulevard, Third Coast, Colorado Review, Florida Review, Quarterly West, Bilingual Review, and many other literary journals, as well as in the anthologies Our Lost Border: Essays on Life Amid the Narco Violence, In the Shadow of the Strip: Las Vegas Stories and Las Vegas Noir. His first collection, Flight and Other Stories, was a finalist for the Steven Turner Award and the Western States Book Award for Fiction. His new collection, The Tombstone Race, will be published by University of New Mexico Press in 2016.
This interview was conducted via email in the summer of 2015.
D. Seth Horton: You’ve just returned from a trip to Colombia with writers Christopher Merrill, Luis Alberto Urrea, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, and Joan Naviyuk Kane. How did that come together, and how did it go for you?
José Skinner: Christopher Merrill of the Iowa International Writing Program keeps a list of writers to tap for these international tours, and he must have been reading my mind, because I’d just been binging on Colombian writers such as Juan Gabriel Vásquez and William Ospina (as well as the TV series Escobar: el Patrón del Mal) and was already planning a trip to Medellín when I got the invitation. He put together a great group. Stephanie, Luis and I write a lot about Mexico and Mexican-Americans, but we also had Joan, a terrific Inupiat poet from Alaska, to refresh everyone with more northerly landscapes.
Colombia has a rich literary tradition, and a lot of the universities we spoke at were interested in how MFA creative-writing programs work in the U.S. Having been director of such a program, at the University of Texas–Pan American, I had a lot to say about that, of course. We schmoozed with gobs of Colombian writers, some of whom had attended the IWP. We celebrated the birthday of Jaime García Márquez, Gabo’s brother, with him at an exquisite Cartagena bookstore called Abaco. We also hung out with Jaime Abello, director of the Foundation for a New Journalism in Ibero-America, who is going to be up here in Austin in October for the dedication of the García Márquez archives at the Harry Ransom Center. It’ll be interesting to see the extent of these archives, because according to Abello, Gabo wasn’t much of a letter writer—he was a telephone guy.
DSH: There are several MFA programs in the United States that enroll Spanish speaking writers from Latin America, including the University of Texas–Rio Grande Valley, the University of Texas at El Paso, and New York University. What are some reasons why the MFA model is not as ubiquitous in Latin America as it is here in the U.S., and do you expect that to change in the coming years?
JS: Although our Colombian hosts showed a good deal of curiosity about creative writing MFAs and the workshop method, I sensed a bit of skepticism (as I have in other Latin American countries) about the possibility of teaching creative writing. Indeed, the main theme of some of our university panels revolved around the question, “¿Los escritores nacen o se hacen?” (“Are writers born or made?”)
The romantic notion of the individual writer-genius who is born to that destiny is still fairly strong in Latin America, as it is, I suspect, in most of the rest of the world. In the Spanish-speaking world, when one thinks of writers, one thinks of Cervantes scribbling away in his prison dungeon, of Neruda on the battlefield writing poems on paper made from the clothing of his dead Spanish Civil War comrades, of García Márquez making a U-turn after setting off on a family vacation and rushing back home to write One Hundred Years of Solitude in a single long burst of inspiration.
At the same time, Colombians are also well aware of García Márquez’s long apprenticeship as a journalist, and those who have read his autobiography can appreciate how dedicated he was to the craft of writing and to the study of Faulkner and other writers. Indeed, the Foundation for a New Journalism in Ibero-America, García Márquez’s brainchild, features workshops as a central component. Whether people down there think poetry and fiction can be as usefully “workshopped” remains to be seen.
DSH: The issue of academic institutionalization brings to mind one of the stories in your new book. In “Solidarity,” two old friends, Roberto and Manny, meet one another again for the first time in years. When they were younger, they were political radicals, but now Roberto is interviewing for a history professorship at a fictional university in Albuquerque, where Manny is an administrator. There is a scene in the narrative present where Roberto witnesses a young Chicano getting arrested for stealing beer, and I thought his reaction revealed just how politically passive he’d become over time. The story thus nicely illustrates Antonio Muñoz Molina’s recent assertion that “In history you don’t have to identify with the other, and you don’t have to accept the possibility that your destiny might be similar to the other person’s because you tend to feel safe.”
Is it fair to read your story as an indictment about the ways in which academia, despite its rhetoric to the contrary, nevertheless promotes professional security over, let’s say, political activism? Also, how comfortable are you with this kind of a political reading of your work?
JS: “Solidarity” is an unabashedly political story, so a political reading of it would definitely be in order. Speaking of political stories, and going back to your previous question, Latin American and Spanish authors find the injunction “avoid politics,” heard so often in U.S. creative writing instruction, strange. (Imagine what would be left of Muñoz Molina or Roberto Bolaño or Isabel Allende or Vargas Llosa if they were to eschew politics.)
In Workshops of Empire, Eric Bennett claims that the emphasis in U.S. MFA workshops on writing about the personal struggles of individuals in isolation from their sociopolitical contexts originates with the Iowa Workshop having obtained funding from a CIA front group in the Sixties with the expectation that the workshop would develop an aesthetic in opposition to Soviet social realism. This is an interesting, though certainly debatable, hypothesis. In any case, had I workshopped “Solidarity” at Iowa, I can well imagine many of my teachers and fellow students (James McPherson would have been an exception) having little interest in the political aspects of the story and encouraging me to go further into Roberto’s personal traumas (his divorce, his alcoholism).
Of course, divorce and alcoholism are more readily relatable to middle-class readers than is Chicano militancy, which is remote and “historical” in the way Muñoz Molina describes. And, as you point out, it has become remote to Roberto as well—it’s not until he’s in the actual physical environment of Albuquerque that his former militancy comes rushing back to him, with unfortunate consequences.
DSH: Some of what you say echoes Junot Díaz’s arguments in his essay, “MFA vs. POC.” He described the difficulties that he faced at Cornell because of the whiteness of the workshops, including an incident where one of his peers even asked him why he used Spanish in his stories. In your story, “Age of Copper,” which was published in your first collection, Flight, a teenager from Chile must deal with an Anglo teacher who neurotically objects to his use of Spanish. Interestingly, the story itself utilizes Spanish throughout, a technique that subtly undercuts the teacher’s worldview.
Like the issue of Chicano militancy, bilingual stories would seemingly challenge the comfort level of certain middle-class readers. How would you describe the ways in which Spanish and English work together in your stories? Is that something you figured out early in your career, or has it continued to evolve with your latest collection of stories?
JS: Speaking of Junot Díaz, this is what a venerable New Yorker editor wrote me on rejecting ”Solidarity”: “This story suffers seriously by its resemblance to the fiction of Junot Díaz. I don’t mean that you’re imitative but only that a reader will automatically and unfairly make the comparison, noting the presence of all those everyday and accurate Latino words—abuela, chotas, sinsonte, and the rest—and blame you for the echo.” Huh? So New Yorker readers would put writing about young Dominicans in New York in the same bag as my story about middle-aged Chicano academics in New Mexico just because they all know Spanish? If true, that’s pathetic, and it certainly shows what a long way Latinos have to go to get a nuanced understanding of their collective culture. Most tellingly, it says something about the “whiteness” of literary culture, at least as expressed by this longtime editor, who might as well have come out and said it: “We already have a brown guy in our stable covering those folks, but thanks.”
That being said, I think the “vast silence on [racial] matters” that Junot Díaz deplored in his Cornell workshops might be partly due to the silly notion, taken quite seriously by many white writers, that to write about cultures or races other than your own is somehow to “appropriate” them. So that of which they cannot speak, thereof they must be silent. But since when are writers proscribed from writing about anything they want? The test should be in the authenticity of the writing, not in who is doing it. I have used a lot of Spanish in my stories from the very first because I write a lot about Spanish-speaking people, but I try to make the Spanish clear within context for readers who don’t know the language.
DSH: I partly understand why some writers and critics worry about cultural appropriation, especially in the Southwest, where much of your work is set. It seems to me, for example, that many of the artists, writers, and intellectuals that moved to Santa Fe and Taos during the early twentieth century were guilty of this in various degrees. Many of them—D. H. Lawrence, Mabel Dodge Luhan, and Mary Austin, to name a few of the more prominent writers—envisioned the local cultures in prelapsarian terms, and their Eurocentric notions of the desert as sublime space continues to resonate for many people even in the twenty-first century.
Interestingly, one of your new stories, “Looking Out,” offers a warning against romanticizing the beauty of the desert à la the New Mexican modernists and their successors. In this story, two young people, Jennifer and Rufino, climb a mountain on the outskirts of Santa Fe, and Jennifer tries to see the landscape through a Romanticist lens that she learned about in school. This doesn’t work, however, and by the end of the story she’s unsure whether or not her trek was beautiful or nightmarish. To what extent did you have the history of Southwestern literature in mind when you wrote this story? Or to frame the question more generally, do you see your stories engaging with broader notions of regionalism?
JS: I guess my beef is really with the word “appropriation.” Certainly I’m against misappropriation. When D. H. Lawrence uses some cultural practice in Mexico or a stereotyped character to illustrate his ideas about the “noble savage,” that to me is a misappropriation. On the other hand, Richard Price appropriates, strictly speaking, the experiences of urban black men, but I don’t see him misappropriating them because I don’t see him putting them in the service of some oppressive ideology. Of course, a properly cynical postmodern theorist would say all narratives are serving some power interest (including the postmodern narrative itself?). In any case, I think a lot of writing students withdraw into writing only about what they know (which isn’t much, in a lot of cases) because they think any appropriation is going to be a misappropriation. But the whole idea behind imaginative writing is to appropriate experiences other than your own. The important question is how you do it.
Naturally, we’re all going to be writing from within our historical time, which for us includes an awareness of this very issue. We no longer anthropomorphize nature in the way writers used to because this seems to us a misappropriation, and it seems to us a misappropriation because to us it’s false, in the same way that noble savagery is false. The noble savage seems false to us given what we now know about race—that it is much more of a social construction than a scientific fact. (I.e., the human genome is so mixed that racial differences appear trivial.) The anthropomorphization or personification of nature, as we see in some of the writers you mention, seems hokey to us in an age where the separation of facts from values is stronger than ever and science has developed to give us a more distanced view of nature, even as it engages more closely with it in an attempt to control it. Thanks to Darwinism, people (many people, anyway) see that there is no teleology in evolution and that our existence is purely contingent. Unlike a lot of religious people, I don’t see this as necessarily leading to nihilism, but I do see it as a chance to exercise a kind of negative capability and embrace the world as both beautiful and nightmarish, as Jennifer seems to do.
Speaking of the nightmarish, I can’t contemplate the southern New Mexico desert without thinking of it as the place where the first atomic bomb was set off. No doubt this is in part owed to the many hours I spent looking out at the White Sands from the balcony of my father’s house in Cloudcroft. The White Sands were where the first A-bomb was tested, at a site called Trinity. (Apparently some of the “weaponeers” feared the explosion might light the atmosphere on fire in a chain reaction, but what the hell.) This event, along with establishment of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia Labs, the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range, etc., have made New Mexico a centerpiece of the military-industrial complex, and so it’s impossible to portray the state as a romantic backwater in the way some of those earlier writers did.
DSH: I really like your notion that we need authentic experiences other than our own in order to move beyond cultural misappropriations. In fact, one of the qualities that I admire in your work is the way in which your characters tend to approach otherness. For example, despite the initial conflict in “Flight,” the title story of your first collection, a Hispanic man from the Española Valley eventually befriends an African American man from Oakland, and the story ends with a presumed handshake. You offer your readers a tender moment here, which crosses linguistic, racial, and geographical boundaries. While such empathy marks many of the stories in Flight, I’d like to suggest that this seems to have become even more pronounced in your second collection. An empathy toward otherness has thus seemingly morphed into an intimacy with otherness. Consider, for example, this brilliant passage from “My Dealer, in Memoriam”:
“The criminal’s lonely. He needs family. The victim and the victim’s family become his family. They become very intimate, their lives intertwined through court dates and newspaper reports and TV interviews. They learn all about each other. The killer apologizes, the family rebuffs the apology, though sometimes there’s a renegade in the family who in one way or another accepts the apology. They demand remorse, he seeks forgiveness. If it’s a death penalty case, the family gets the front seats at the execution. It’s not just out of revenge that they go. It’s out of the insatiable desire for intimacy. They want to enjoy the ultimate intimacy of killing the killer, just as the killer has enjoyed the intimacy of taking their loved one’s life. It’s only fair. It’s only fair to the killer and family alike to give them all this final experience of intimacy by letting them watch him die.”
Do you agree with the trajectory I’m suggesting between your two collections of stories, and if not, how might you articulate the relationship(s) between them?
JS: This new collection, perhaps more than the first, has a number of stories of people struggling internally with issues of authenticity and identity. For example, Emeterio in “Crypto” displaces his homoerotic desire for Michael Goldblatt onto an interest in his own supposed Jewishness, then awkwardly tries to correct his course, with disastrous consequences. In “Backing Up,” Danny convinces himself that the theft of his computer and the loss of his research at the hands of the gangbangers he is studying is part of an unconscious ploy of his to get “jumped in” to the gang and experience gang life more authentically. Similarly, the municipal court judge in “Judge, Your Honor, Sir,” whose job it is to pass judgment on the druggies and derelicts who come before him, allows himself to get sucked into their lives as a means of understanding them and his own crumbling life better—or so the narrator of this monologue speculates. In “Clean,” Eddy comes to wonder if his very blood, which maybe to him is a metaphor for the soul, isn’t hopelessly corrupted, and is tempted to go back to the dope that has masked that corruption. And Roberto in “Solidarity” can’t quite reconcile his political radicalism with the need to submit to the hierarchies of academia. There are a quite a few internally conflicted characters in these stories, many of whom seem to try to resolve their conflicts through head-on intimacy with others, for better or for worse.
DSH: Would it be fair to say that the issues of authenticity and identity that you’ve written about throughout your latest collection are also deeply entwined with notions of place? For example, in “The Sand Car,” Bettina Dixon is a New York artist who has lived in a small village in northern New Mexico for thirty-five years. She obsessively paints a car that has been abandoned in the arroyo behind her house, documenting the way that nature is slowly transforming the object. A young heroin addict from the area wants to study art with her, but she refuses, and this unwillingness to join the local community ultimately leads to devastating consequences for her. There’s an interesting bifurcation in these two characters, for she sees herself as the authentic artist in relation to the young man, but she’s still an outsider in the village, though she’s lived there for half her life.
To expand on this point a bit, I wonder if you might discuss the differences concerning place between your two collections. In Flight, the settings included northern and southern New Mexico, Colorado, southern California, Texas, Mexico, Chile, Guatemala, and El Salvador. In The Tombstone Race, the stories are set entirely in New Mexico. Why this change to a more contained geography, and do you expect the Rio Grande Valley to enter into your fiction at some point in the future?
JS: I had so many stories set in New Mexico that I decided to make a collection just of them. (The other day I found another that I’d published in Quarterly West back in 1997 that now I see I could have included.) There are many great collections restricted to a single state, such as Chris Offutt’s Kentucky Straight, Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories and, more recently, Claire Vaye Watkins’s Battleborn. In general, I’m drawn to writers who are attentive to place and landscape: Paul Bowles, Wallace Stegner, Haldór Laxness. Relatively featureless places like the Rio Grande Valley (really an alluvial plain) present a challenge for me, though a Bowles would have no problem with it. (Cicadas are “the sound of heat itself,” he says somewhere—I like that.) I’m shopping around a novel set in another intensely flat place, far West Texas, but at least they have knock-down-drag-out weather out there for dramatic effect.
DSH: Would you care to tell us a little more about your novel? And since you’ve now worked in both genres, how do you see the differences between the novel and the short story?
JS: The novel is about two Texas teenagers who become fascinated by the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, with one of them eventually running away from home to “join” it. (Like him, at least 100,000 Americans, most of them young, became “Sandalistas,” as they were somewhat derogatorily called.) When he gets into trouble in Nicaragua, his friend is compelled to go down and rescue him. I spent a lot of time in Central America during those war-torn years as a free lance journalist, so I’m familiar with that setting. I’d call the book a tragicomic 1980s coming-of-age/road story, though for all I know that’s exactly the wrong pitch for today’s “market.”
At 150,000 words, it’s probably too long as well. I guess I got carried away with the freedom this kind of novel has to offer in terms of allowing the writer to build a complex plot covering a period of years. Up until then, I had only been writing short stories, which, as you know, have to be economical. Lex parsimoniae, yo. A short story just gives a glimpse into a situation. As my teacher Frank Conroy used to say about the short story, “the writer implies, the reader infers.” It’s sort of like an artfully cropped photograph where the viewer has to infer what might be going on off the page. Not that a novel can’t be artful, of course, but I have to say that in mine, the reader doesn’t have to infer a damned thing. It’s all there, a sprawling family portrait (two families, actually). You don’t need to wield the principle of Occam’s razor (“do not multiply entities beyond necessity”) as mercilessly in a novel as you do in a short story.
I referred to “negative capability” in a previous question, which Keats says is “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” It occurs to me that a reluctance to exercise negative capability is behind the relative lack of popularity of short stories as opposed to novels, especially commercial novels. A good short story often leaves the reader suspended in uncertainty and doubt and defamiliarizes the world in a way that’s maybe too disturbing to the average reader of commercial fiction, who seeks just the opposite—the familiar, clichés and all.
DSH: I actually remember how strange I felt the first time I read a short story; the experience was akin to watching experimental dance for the first time. Twenty years later, a great short story still has the power to rekindle that original sense of wonderment for me by turning the known world into something more mysterious. It sounds as if you would agree that the genre, to borrow a phrase from Louis Menand’s recent discussion of Donald Barthelme, provides more powerful “access to the ineffable” than most novels. I wonder, then, what’s next for you. Will you continue to explore New Mexico through short fiction, or do you have another project in mind?
JS: That’s great: “access to the ineffable.” Of course, much experimental writing might also claim to give such access, but a lot of this writing is too abstruse for me. The kind of story that pleases me most takes me through reasonably navigable territory to the brink of the ineffable. Just off the top of my head, Tessa Hadley comes to mind. She’s good at endings, that’s for sure.
My current projects include a memoir about growing up in Mexico during a politically tumultuous time and growing away from my father’s project of turning my brother and me into proper bourgeois “juniors.” Maybe because I’ve been writing stories for so long, I conceived of each chapter as being self-contained, but I’m not sure that’s going to hold up. I have a number of stories set in the Southwest and Mexico that I’ve been tinkering with and revising for, oh, ten or fifteen years, but which I haven’t given up on (yet). My agent is shopping around that coming of age novel I mentioned above about the two west Texas boys who become political radicals—I seem to be interested in how people get radicalized. Another novel is set on the Texas–Mexico border, where I lived and taught for a dozen years, but this one is still in the beginning stages, and ideas are a dime a dozen, you know—the challenge is execution.