Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2013.
Named after the first president of the NBCC, the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award is given annually to a person or institution—a writer, publisher, critic, or editor, among others—who has, over time, made significant contributions to book culture. As evident in recipients to date, the award is truly ecumenical, seeking to recognize outstanding and longstanding work from any sector that affects a book and contributes to American arts and letters.
Tonianne Bellomo, on behalf of the School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, recipient of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award for the 2013 NBCC awards.
Tonianne Bellomo: Congratulations on being awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award. What was your reaction when you heard the news?
Rolando Hinojosa-Smith: Thank you for your kind congratulations. Reaction? I think I was silent for a moment. I didn't know what to say or think except to thank the caller. A bit of a shock; a happy one, but nevertheless a most welcomed surprise.
TB: What is your definition of American Literature?
RHS: American Literature is exactly that, literature written by our fellow citizens. I wrote fiction in a high school program called Creative Bits; during that time, I'd also written a short story in Spanish; influenced by my living in a village of 1200 (Arteaga, Coahuila) during the summers of '43, '44, and '46. As a Freshman, I read Ole Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth. That may have been influential for he wrote in Norwegian and English. As for influences, I'm sure I've been influenced by every writer I've read.
TB: You consider yourself a Chicano writer. Are there any other authors that embody that spirit or idea?
RHS: The term Chicano is the Spanish version of Mexican-American. Primarily, however, I'm a Texan, and, to my good fortune, bilingual and bicultural as were my parents and brothers and sisters. Unknown to many Chicanos, although, I published an essay for Ventana Abierta (Open Window) for the University of California at Santa Barbara. The topic: Chicano. A few years ago, going through the Madrid telephone directory, I found eight or nine phone numbers listing Chicano as a last name. In Málaga, I saw a painting by someone last named Chicano. In regard to the essay, there has been no response.
In the '70s, Chicano was said to derive as a shortened version of the term Mexican. At one time, the x, shared the pronunciation with the Mexican j (English equivalent, ha) as well as sh. This was popular etymology, but there's no linguistic foundation for the term Chicano.
TB: In a few of your essays in the collection Voice of My Own, the way you describe Texas is almost like it's its own world. Do you feel like Texas is almost isolated from the rest of the United States because of its mix of cultures? And, if so, does that isolation feed into your work at all?
RHS: Many of our fellow citizens may behave that way, but Texas is, geographically, large enough and populated enough for five states, and English pronunciation varies. Hollywood made Texas a cowboy state. In movies, it's more glamorous to ride a horse than to drill for oil or to till the soil. Also, many Texans like the fame or notoriety, but, in the main, we're like everybody else.
TB: In "E Pluribus Vitae," you speak of the 'many lives' of both your father and yourself. Can you elaborate on this idea and how these many lives may or may not have contributed to your writing?
RHS: Any normal human has and passes through many lives: birth, school, employment, military service, marriage, children, relatives, education, and so on. As a writer, I, like many writers, draw from these as well as inventing lives for one's characters. Writers are also helped by the travels one takes. Aside from English, I speak Spanish and Portuguese, and they, too, form another part of my life. One's background—that is, where one hails from—also plays a large and important part in the writing. All, then, in one form or another shape one's character and writing.
TB: You have written in both Spanish and English, though I have read that you prefer to write in Spanish and then translate your own works into English. What is it about the Spanish language that you prefer? And do you ever find that you don't have the words to express yourself in one language but do in the other?
RHS: In the early years, I wrote the first three or four novels in Spanish which I then translated into English. Now, on occasion, I'll write articles and essay in Spanish and English; as for the fiction, it's mostly English because the majority of my life has been lived in English. I must add that younger Mexican-Americans do not read Spanish be they Californians or Texans or from any of the fifty states. That was not so fifty years ago, but it is so now. As to word choice, and for accuracy's sake, that calls for editing and striving to come up with the word or words that fit. It's fun and it's challenging, but, then, that's what writing is.
TB: In "A Few Notes on Translation," you said that having knowledge of the history and culture as well as the language is essential. This idea hints at a belief in an interdisciplinary education system in which each subject builds on the other. Most American schools do not really advocate this kind of intellectual thought. Do you think that it's almost inorganic for the education system to break up areas such as history, literature, and language? And do you think that students lose anything when those subjects are broken up and taught separately and, often, not in tandem?
RHS: I can't answer the question because I was born into a family of readers and teachers. My grandmother, Martha Phillips Smith, taught school as did my mother, Carrie Effie Smith; there were five of us children, and four entered the teaching profession. My parents read and they also read to each other. My two older brothers and two older sisters also read as well, and so, I thought everybody read. The public library for a town of 6700 was well-equipped as was the high school. The superintendent, Dr. Ernest H. Poteet, left to serve as the superintendent of a bigger school and from there, he served as the president of Texas A & I University in Kingsville. His successor as superintendent, Leon R. Graham, was later appointed as the Associate Director of the Texas Education Agency, and both left us a first class library at Mercedes High School.
What did we read at home? Whatever we wished; of the five, I was the only one to read Spanish. My mother showed me the alphabet, made the sounds, and I repeated them. From letters to words and from words to sentences with a Spn./Eng. dictionary at home. Nothing to it. And so, I read literature; American, Texan, and world history; American and British detective stories; and I listened. Listening was of great benefit because I heard all manner of stories covering I don't how many subjects.
TB: You have a conversational tone to your writing. Some commentators have mentioned that it's inspired by your concern for the Texas-Mexican oral tradition. Do you agree?
RHS: It isn't a matter of Texas-Mexican culture, history, or influence. It's my style and I've kept it throughout. Every culture I know has an oral history, that's how story telling began. The important matter (when one writes) is to pay attention to fidelity. Don't short-change the reader, but don't tell everything, let the reader learn, judge and, I would hope, enjoy the reading.
TB: Can you speak more about this Texas-Mexican oral tradition and its role in your life and others living in that culturally rich world of the Mexican-U.S. border?
RHS: It's not so much a Texas-Mexican oral tradition, it also has to do with the time I began listening to stories as a child. Picture this: across the street where we lived, there stood a city light around which the old men (most likely in the '50s and '60s) tell all manner of stories. I listened, did not butt in, and when I tired or grew sleepy, I'd cross the street and go home. I don't use the stories I heard, but I would glean something from what and how they said what they said. Natural speech without adornment of any kind. Some talked of the Mexican Revolution (1910 to 1920, approximately), their participation or non-participation; a name would be mentioned and someone would take over.
Story telling is older than dirt, and it's part of every civilization. The Greeks didn't start writing right away, and they must've had a fine oral tradition. American Indians did too. A small community thing.
TB: How do you see American literature evolving in the future? And what do you think Chicano writing's role will be in that future?
RHS: The future of Chicano literature will depend on the output. It's been around since the mid-1800s, but not well-known throughout because it was centered in New Mexico. Aside form the use of Spanish in the writing, the same writers would then write the story or poem in English.
Why New Mexico? There was much trading between Santa Fe and Albuquerque and Hayes, Kansas. Merchants moved their merchandize eastward and westward. English, then, was not unknown. One, however, must keep in mind that the writers were few, were bilingual (yes, even then), and were privileged. There's an example of America the Beautiful in English, translated into Spanish and then (the writer) would translate into English.
There are many literary critics now who focus on Mexican-American literature. That's their job; it's the writers who have to keep producing—and producing good, readable literature—or it will die in the vine. I have no idea where this will wind up.
I'm just glad I was here when the revival came.
Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, the Ellen Clayton Garwood Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of the Klail City Death Trip Series of novels, which examine relations between Mexican Americans and Anglo Americans in the fictional Rio Grande Valley town, Klail City, Texas. He is the recipient of numerous literary awards, including the most prestigious prize in Latin American fiction, Case de las Américas, for the best Spanish American novel in 1976. His novels include Ask a Policeman (1998), The Useless Servants (1993), Becky and Her Friends (1989), Dear Rafe (1985), Rites and Witnesses (1982), and Partners in Crime (2011), all published by Arte Público Press. In 2011, he also published a collection of prose writings, A Voice of My Own: Essays and Stories. Several of his novels have been translated into German, and The New York Times Book Review has compared him to William Faulkner, saying: "Although his sharp eye and accurate ear capture a place, its people and a time in a masterly way, his work goes far beyond regionalism, He is a writer for all readers."
Tonianne Bellomo is the fiction writer, English tutor and an MFA Creative Writing Fiction student at The New School. She has written for the entertainment site StageBuddy.com and is a blogger for The Music Fan(atic). She lives in Crestwood, New York with her family.