“But still the crossroads does have a certain dangerous potency; dangerous because a man might perish there wrestling with multi-headed spirits, but also he might be lucky and return to his people with the boon of prophetic voices.” —Chinua Achebe

Manuel Luis Martinez has lived perpetually on various crossroads. Having grown up in San Antonio, where Mexico is as much a part of the United States as the States is a part of Mexico, Martinez went on to become a Stanford-educated critic and a novelist. I had a chance to ask him about both his scholarship and his fiction, published and forthcoming, as well as the role of the writer given the impending historical presidential administration.

Patrick Rosal: A couple years ago, I heard you give a dope-ass lecture on Jack Kerouac. Say a little bit about geographic and class mobility. What does a migrant perspective bring to those American ideas?

Manuel Luis Martinez: First, thanks for the kind words on the lecture.  I started thinking about the importance of mobility in the American imagination, right around the time that I read Kerouac's On the Road and Ernesto Galarza's  Barrio Boy.  Everyone's heard of Kerouac, not so much Galarza, and reading these two books back to back, made me realize that the theme of the American Road, what I called "movement discourse," was incomplete without taking the migrant experience into account. Kerouac and his boys wanted to explore their individualism via the prerogative of "mobility."  But what they never quite got was that this was a privilege of whiteness and of class.

Now, I never argued that this made them hypocrites, but … [they have] a romanticized vision of "movement" as ultimately liberating.  Taking off on that journey across the American landscape brings Kerouac all sorts of "eyeball kicks," where he can observe the black jazz musicians in San Francisco and Denver, where he can tag along with the "Mexican Girl" and work as a migrant laborer for a couple of weeks, without ever understanding how his philosophy of libertarian individualism allows all sorts of systemic oppression.  The people he observes aren't able to get out on the road.  They are marked by skin color, class status, nationality, citizenship status, etc., and they can't leave it behind the way an educated, middleclass, white Kerouac can do. 

…[R]eading the migrant writers, such as Tomás Rivera, Ernesto Galarza, and Américo Paredes (to name just three), opens up our understanding of America in the postwar period.  These writers are also on the road, but not for individualist self-expression; they're on the road because they have to survive.  They'd much prefer to create stable communities, to live where they can raise a family, connect with each other in meaningful ways.  In essence, they want to be citizens.  But their "mobility" is a forced thing, which ironically keeps them stuck in the same class and political positions.  Mobility, when it comes to the migrant, is a curse of fixedness.

Rosal: One of the things that I really like about your fiction is that, precisely, there's this sophisticated theoretical latticework about race and class, reorienting and specifying our ideas about what freedom is, what liberty is, migration, and pilgrimage. How much of the scholar/critic shows up in your creative process?

Martinez: I think more than my theoretical queries, my experience shapes my work. I think I was drawn to social and critical race theory because of watching my grandparents struggle when I was a kid. I grew up in the barrios of San Antonio, and I knew that things "didn't make sense."  So I sought out economic and political theory to help give me a vocabulary for the inequity and racism I saw and experienced.  The fiction gave me a forum for expressing it.  

When I sit down to write, I'm not necessarily thinking about modes of alienation or utility value versus exchange value, etc.  But when I'm choosing what to write about, the same concerns that lead me towards materialist criticism, lead me to the subject matter and the framing of that subject matter via my fiction.  For me, what's central, is the struggle.  And the struggle that impoverished people of color face is inherently connected to race and class.

Rosal: That struggle is definitely clear in your main characters, Luis in Crossing and Robert in Drift. I feel like your prose evolved quite a bit from the first novel to the second. Your diction in the second novel felt less strained, more direct. I like to think this is as much a political maturation as it is a stylistic choice — as you get the sense the narrator of Drift is looking at you directly in the eye when he tells you the story; there is a voice of everyday people that holds steady in the context of literature.

Martinez: I think I was channeling Hemingway and Sartre in my early days, so that I wound up constructing the voices of the men in Crossing in English, but with rhythms I heard in Spanish.  It's not always successful.  Perhaps it had something to do with consciously attempting to deal with Big Existential Issues. 

For Drift, I was much more relaxed.  I knew these people very well.  I was writing about my barrio for people from my barrio.  It was a much more "intimate" conversation where I imagined myself as that 16 year old, confused, desperate, lots of bravado, but hurting.  And I wanted more than anything to reach that reader, the reader I was twenty years before. 

So if we're going to talk about "political maturation," I think I would define it as becoming aware of who my audience was and what effect I wanted to have on them.  I wanted to create a narrator every bit as savvy and intelligent as Holden Caulfield.  That was important to me, to show that young Latinos were much more than the throwaways most people see on the street.  You wouldn't believe, or maybe you would, how many folks in the business told me that Robert wasn't "believable" because he was too smart.  Imagine that?  It's not a complaint one hears about young white characters.

Rosal: I'm gonna blow up your spot a little, Manny. I know you've written some poetry. I know some of it is in the service of a protagonist of yours who is a poet. I wonder if you could talk about some of the poets you go back to repeatedly.

Martinez: As for poets, I have the utmost respect for them. The poet has to capture the real through an economy and depth that fiction writers do not, but I do aspire to that standard.  That's why the narrator of a novel I wrote called Tougher Than Us is a poet.  I wanted to force myself to think very hard towards what end I wanted to put my/his poetry.  What sort of poet would I be? 

You asked which poets I’ve read: Lorca, Homero Aridjis, Neruda, and Américo Paredes.  I'm drawn to poets who had/have a political agenda but don't necessarily write about the worker's paradise.  These four can be, and often are, lyrical and even romantic in both senses of the word.  Paredes is particularly close to my heart, not because he is by any means the "best" of these poets, but because he writes about a place I know.  His vision of South Texas and the Mejicanos who live there, is both comic and tragic.  It's that sense of the familiar, of cutting to the quick of what is seen but not known, or known but not seen, that I aspire to as a fiction writer. 

What I love about poetry is that it is about the most democratic form of literary expression.  It's the first thing a vato drifts towards when he wants to let his lover know how he feels. 

Rosal: It makes sense that we're drawn to writers of communities we identify with. I had a great conversation in Indiana with the poet Ross Gay and the fiction writer Don Belton. The question came up about how frequently, or infrequently, Asian Americans appear in Black literature and how frequently or infrequently Black people appear in Asian-American literature. Has each of our communities focused so much on speaking to itself or, for that matter, to a mainstream white community that we've excluded one another from our writing? Why aren't we writing to and about one another more?

Martinez: That's an interesting question.  My first guess would be that Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans rarely show up in each other's literature because "we" frequently isolate ourselves from each other.  We sort of mix it up in the urban sphere, but not really.  We're "aware" of each other, but tribalism is a strong and rigid force, no?  But then again, I grew up in San Antonio, a military town, and I had white friends, black friends, Asian friends, Latino friends, so I don't know how true my earlier statement is. 

My next guess would be that the dominant paradigm has people of color reacting to and against the "mainstream," which is defined as a ubiquitous whiteness. We trick ourselves into thinking we need to respond foremost to that center/periphery equation.  As "minorities" we must speak from the outside to the inside.  We want to write about access rather than a movement towards a cooperative expression of diversity. 

You see it in the political realm as well.  African-American and Latino interests are a good example.  Rather than providing a united front, one which recognizes our difference but also recognizes the necessity to speak to each other and for each other, recedes in the face of identity politics and the corrosive notion that "we" need to get "ours" and let "them" get "theirs."  It's the reason that people of color haven't formed a lasting coalition.  Maybe we need to stop worrying about "challenging" the white center, and create new center(s), political, artistic, and cultural. 

Rosal: As we speak of access, by the time this interview goes online, we are likely to have our first Black president-elect. It's been a vibrant election all the way through the primaries and I know you've been following closely. Do you find that your writing has changed or that you're compelled to respond, given the highs and lows of the political atmosphere as of late?

Martinez: For the first time in eight years, I feel like the U.S. government is back in competent hands.  Barack Obama is smart and he has integrity, but there's going to be a lot of pressure on him to perform and also to live up to the expectations that so many of us have placed on his administration.  During the campaign, I did everything I could to help the cause, donating time, money, and energy.  But it wasn't enough!  I couldn't rest with all that was on the line and so I put my pen to work for Barack by blogging. 

I had a column called Gag Reflects, my own "rapid response" to the lies and innuendo spread about Obama.  It helped to keep the bile from killing me. I've always been a political writer in that my fiction has a mission.  I've always been drawn to writers who sought out social justice, Steinbeck, Tomás Rivera, James Baldwin, to name three of my favorites.  So I'll continue in that vein.  My latest novel project is entitled Los Duros, and it’s an attempt to bring to light the glaring inequities in America's colonías, the obscenely poor spaces where forgotten kids try to survive in third world conditions, where they are forced to live in the shadows.  If a writer isn't trying to shine a light at what's right under our noses, then they aren't living up to their talent.  America is in trouble, and its artists bear a responsibility in the struggle to move forward. 


Patrick Rosal is the author of two full-length collections of

poetry, My American Kundiman, which won the Association

of Asian American Studies Book Award, and Uprock

Headspin Scramble and Dive, which won the Members'

Choice Award from the Asian American Writers' Workshop.

His essays and poetry has been published widely in journals

and anthologies including Harvard Review, Indiana Review,

Brevity, and Language for a New Century. He has twice

served on the faculty of Kundiman's summer writing retreat.

                                                      Manuel Luis Martinez is a professor of English at

                                                      Ohio State University and is currently working on a                                                      

                                                      new novel, Los Duros.  His previous work includes

                                                      the novels Drift (2003, Picador), Crossing (1998,

                                                      Bilingual Press), and the forthcoming, Day of the

                                                      Dead (2009, Floricanto Press).  He has also written

                                                      a literary study, Countering the Counterculture:

                                                      Rereading Postwar American Dissent from Jack

                                                      Kerouac to Tomás Rivera (2003, University of

                                                      Wisconsin Press).  He lives in Columbus with his

                                                      wife, Molly and his cat, Asher.

Migration, Democracy, and a Few Words About Writing in the Obama Era: An Interview with Manuel Luis Martinez

by Patrick Rosal

Photo Credit:  Melissa Piano