Dagoberto Gilb, 1994 PEN/Hemingway Winner for The Magic of Blood
Q: You were born and raised in Los Angeles. Describe your neighborhood and how it influenced you as a writer?
A: I grew up on the border of Watts, a lower-middle working class neighborhood. I hung or tagged along with black, Mexican, Chicano, and white peoples, none college types. College was where athletes who were good played sports. The LA I knew was an especially racist city then and no surprise that the 65 Watts Riot was blocks from me, the edge of the burning. National Guard troops were stationed in an abandoned lot nearby; once over, LBJ drove by in a convertible limo waving. I grew up with my Mexican mom. I’ve worked since 13. My ‘neighborhood’ was as much that. That is, I wasn’t born comfortable, with plans that didn’t have work slash money attached, usually immediate jobs and sometimes hustles. That’s the biggest influence on my writing as opposed to the vast category of writers published.
Q: Your mother is from Mexico and your father is of German descent. Both were raised in Los Angeles, and both speak Spanish. Did your parents struggle with identity, their identity (fitting in), and if so have you used their experiences in your stories?
A: I didn’t grow up with my father. I don’t think ‘identity’ was a vocabulary word back in their or my day—my dad, a Marine, I was told was ostracized from his family for marrying a Mexican. My mother was a proud mexicana. The experiences of either has little or nothing to do with my fiction. The Magic of Bloodis primarily situated around my sixteen grown adult years as a construction worker and union high-rise carpenter living between Los Angeles and El Paso, Texas.
Q: Why did you attend several junior colleges before enrolling in the University of California, Santa Barbara?
A: Apparently you didn’t experience a high school with students who, like me, didn’t love going and got swats and suspensions, who remember those times as about fights and girlfriends and sometimes badass rides, and were given C’s and D’s—I did battle to keep away the F’s. Not college bound. I couldn’t have gotten into a state college even if I had any idea of doing that. Funny to attach the word ‘enroll’ to my transfer to UCSB. It was a big deal to me, don’t get me wrong. Not one person I knew went to such a high-class university—a new universe. I initially wanted to go because, like Berkeley, it was leftie. I was all for the revolution back then.
Q: You double majored in religious studies and philosophy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. You also earned a master’s degree in religious studies from UCSB. Right after college, did you know you wanted to be a writer, or were you contemplating another career?
A: I was deeply contemplating a career as one of the great philosophers of all time.
Q: Writing as a Chicano, is The Magic of Blood only about the lives of working class Chicanos in the Southwest? And did you draw from your experience as a construction worker and high-rise union carpenter, which you did for 12 years, for any of these stories?
A: The vast majority of the characters in the book are Mexican American because that’s been most of my life’s point of view. And as a person who came up along with people who lived on wage jobs. Job sites, in the world and I think my stories in that book, mirrored the culture that is the Southwest. That you’re asking me if I ‘drew from’ my life experience for a few of the stories presumes that writing, fiction, is primarily library-like research and ‘imagination’ of ‘life’ and ‘work’ outside grad school or professorial duties, the assumption of ‘creative’ writing. My work uses life and people and the learning I’ve received and experiences there, and I write fiction based on that.
Q: Why do you believe it took so long for you to get published?
A: First of all because I did not attend a prominent creative writing school program and therefore the work’s quality (and my credibility) was considered suspect. Second, because there is so much stereotyping of Mexican American culture that only a few tropes were understandable to publishers. The Magic of Blood is about an urban working class people who are Mexican American. Third, being working class was not considered, I learned, literary. Finally, for the same reason you do not see any major (or many minor) national newscasters who are MexAm, even when it concerns e.g. the border and anti-‘immigration’ (which has a long historical tradition of anti-Mexican racism); you don’t see MexAm actors, producers, directors, political leaders, writers, artists or art, musicians or music. Or literature: New York, the center of American literature, didn’t want to publish what I wrote.
Q: I read that you met Raymond Carver who offered to help you gain entrance into the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Do you believe if you took his advice you would have been published earlier in your career, and you would not have had to work as a high-rise union carpenter for so many years?
A: I didn’t know what he was telling me when he offered it. I didn’t know what the Iowa workshop was. I didn’t want to go back to school. I wanted to be a writer, and I thought writers were people who academics at college (I loved college, by the way) read in classes when they were considered good. I do not think Iowa or any college workshop would have suited me, no. I was already a carpenter when I met Carver. It seemed like good work to me; I liked physical work, I liked being outside, near mountains and highways and building things with my tools and skill. I always have worked. I had no idea that my actions and thoughts might in fact block my writing ambition. New York would not publish me; only my region’s local press would, the University of New Mexico Press. The Hemingway Award was what unlocked the gates for me and invited me in.
Q: Do you see Hemingway’s influence in Carver’s writing?
A: I’m no scholar of either writer.
Q: What is your favorite Ernest Hemingway book or story?
A: Like everybody, I’ve read a few of Hemingway’s books. Though I was fascinated by the story of his life, his work was not for me, as his much wealthier upbringing and life experience was nothing like mine or anyone’s life I knew. I love “Hills Like White Elephants.”
Q: Do you remember where you were when you learned that you won the PEN/Hemingway Award?
A: I was in Laramie, Wyoming. I was at the university there because, once the book came out, I was offered gigs that paid better than construction jobs that were 48-hours a week—and in those years union jobs were harder to get. I think it might be good to point out here too that the award, from PEN and supported by the Hemingway Foundation and JFK Library, is a national first book of fiction prize, and is not about a writer being “Hemingway-esque” or anything like that. Many get very confused by this. Especially back when I got it, I was often attacked for winning it only because I was a physical male.
Q: Do you want to discuss the incident in 2009, which sidelined you for months, almost ending writing career?
A: I had a serious brain injury. I did write a story, “please, thank you,” that parallels my experience, which was published in Harper’s. I have had to learn much that was new to me as a consequence. I can’t run. I lost my ability to handwrite. I lost some vision. I fight on. I know so many who’ve had much worse for much longer.
Q: What are you working on now, and how can your readers stay in touch with you?
A: I went through a hard period the last few years, but doing okay now. I am slowly but finally closing in on a novel. Though I’m not an avid user of it, I have a Facebook page. I get quite a few messages there from highly intelligent fans of mine.