With Carlos Hernandez, David Bowles, Ernest Hogan, Sabrina Vourvoulias, Silvia Moreno-Garcia & William Alexander
People are stories, and when we push these stories to the margins, we lose them. Hosted on a shared Google Document like our previous round table on “Asian SF,” this discussion sheds light on how the story of international speculative fiction—or SF by bilingual and multi-lingual writers living in or coming from outside the Anglophone world — is one of hope, even humor, against the greatest odds. In this intimate exchange, six different writers who trace their origin to the region and its rich and diverse culture give us a sense of the complexity and immensity of the idea of Latin America. We sincerely hope that this round table will entertain and encourage our readers to actively seek and engage with the rich diversity of speculative fiction from the region. — Editors
Let’s begin our roundtable discussion with the essentials. Tell us about your background. How have the different places where you’ve grown up or lived, their cultures and histories, shaped your identity (or identities) and continue to define you as an individual today?
Carlos Hernandez: I’m told I learned (Cuban) Spanish first from my parents, and my indefatigable devotion to Sesame Street taught me English. Most of the childhood I remember I lived in Sarasota, Florida. There was a not-insignificant pan-Latinx community there that called St. Martha’s Catholic Church home. I had two First Communions: one at St. Martha’s and the other at the utterly un-Latinx Incarnation Catholic Church. Different as can be. Incarnation’s was so practical and logical and predictable it was almost Protestant. During my St. Martha’s First Communion, I saw the mouth of one of my fellow First Communioner’s mouth fill with blood as he bit down on the Host (which you’re not supposed to do! My abuela specifically cautioned me against doing that!).
Mind you, I do not trust my memory; I don’t believe that really happened. But even right now as I type this, I can perfectly recall the moment, clear as fact, clear as all the history that’s tied to my soul. I think my two First Communions explain a great deal about my bifurcated Latinx childhood.
Sabrina Vourvoulias: I was born in Bangkok, Thailand. My familial history is weird. My father was born in Chicago, but only because his Greek parents had stopped there for a visit on their way to Colombia (where they lived through his teenage years before moving to Mexico City). My mother was Guatemalan and Mexican. Her father’s side of the family had started out in the U.S. and during the Mexican Revolution, moved to Mexico City (in the reverse of many U.S. Mexican families) and became Mexican. The maternal side of my mom’s family was rooted in Guatemala City and Quetzaltenango from the very first years of the Spanish invasion.
My mother grew up dividing her time between Guatemala and Mexico, and had deep loyalties to both countries. She was a Mexican citizen for the first 30 years of her life, and a Guatemalan citizen for the second 30+. I know this seems strange to most people, but my mother was all about honoring ancestral ties (while eschewing parental and societal mores), and borders in life as in art didn’t really mean much to her. I grew up in Guatemala (with at annual forays to Mexico) during the years of the undeclared civil war — which was a hugely formative aspect of my childhood. We left when I was 15, after my father was kidnapped, and the U.S. we came to was foreign to all of us.
I essentially lived the foreign-born immigrant experience with the privilege of U.S. citizenship. Even today, some 40 years later, I bounce between the formative realities of Guatemala and the U.S. in the same way I bounce between English and Spanish, and I wish there were some equivalent to Spanglish I could use as an identifier. But there isn’t and U.S. Latina ends up having to do the job.
Ernest Hogan: I was born in East L.A., as the song goes. My mother’s maiden name is Garcia. I remember the flowers in my grandmother’s garden towering high over my head, and watching Space Patrol and Commando Cody on black & white TV. Before I was old enough for kindergarten, we moved to West Covina (considered to be one of the most boring cities in California). At the time our neighborhood was mostly leveled dirt where tract housing was to be built – it was like a Mars colony. Years later The Martian Chronicles gave me déjà vu. It was also the first place where I was called a nigger. It gave me something to fight against. Trips to Mexico, and across the Wild West/Southwest/Aztlán gave me perspective. Eventually, while in Phoenix to help with an Aztec role-playing game that failed to materialize, I met the fabulous Emily Devenport, married her, and lived in the Metro Phoenix Area ever since. We like to travel to places like New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Tenochtitlán … etc.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia: I was born and raised in Mexico. I was born in Baja California, but we moved around a lot for the first few years of my life until we settled in Mexico City. I grew up speaking Spanish. I moved to Canada as an adult and have lived in Vancouver ever since I landed here. I think I like staying put because my parents were so nomadic and haphazard at times. As an immigrant, I have a different experience than people who are second or third generation from Latin America. Also, the fact that I live in Canada makes me a minority among minorities, and I exist at the periphery of the dominant Anglo culture of the United States. I don’t think I’ve ever ceased being an outsider, I was an outsider growing up because I didn’t fit in but I’m still an outsider now.
David Bowles: I grew up and continue to live in the Río Grande Valley of South Texas, just a few miles from Mexico. My parents’ families have called this place home for generations. But we lived for about seven years in South Carolina when I was a kid because my dad was in the Navy. He’s Mexican-American, but my mom is Anglo-American, so it was often easier to pass as “white” in the non-Texas South. When we lived in mainly Black communities, however, we let people know we were Latinos. That sort of transience of identity, that “nepantla” or middle ground that Gloria Anzaldúa explores in her work, had a huge influence on me. My dad used to say that we were “border folk,” one foot on either bank of the Río Grande.
As an adult, I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico (my wife’s from Monterrey, Nuevo León), exploring that part of me more deeply. I studied pre-Columbian culture and literature in a scholarly way, learned Nahuatl (the “Aztec” tongue), and translated indigenous poetry. The upshot now is that, though I feel like a child of two cultures (maybe three if we look at Mexican-American as distinct from Mexican), I hew closer to my Latino heritage than anything else.
William Alexander: I was born in Miami, grew up a bit in Texas, and then grew the rest of the way up in Philadelphia. We swallowed the assimilationist nonsense that bilingual children learn neither language well, so my Spanish atrophied. My father gave me the Anglicized version of his name; we come from a long line of Guillermos. I learned how to pass early on.
The myth of Cuba as a lost island paradise runs strong in my family. Dad is also a big Tolkien fan. I think he considered himself Aragorn, a Númenórean exiled from the place of his ancestors and wandering the mainland in secret. The rest of us were hobbits who traveled in his wake.
Is speculative fiction haunted by the literary acceptance of “Magical Realism?” When did you first realize that what you were interested in reading and writing was a different brand of literature: science fiction, fantasy or horror?
Carlos: Whole books need to be written about magical realism’s relationship to SFF. The thesis of the book I haven’t written yet would maybe run something like this: since there is a clear, and explicit historical through-line from Kafka’s Metamorphosis to Gárcia-Márquez’s literary career, thinking of magical realism as somehow spontaneously generated out of 20th century Latin American culture neglects its international roots. And yet, the current devolution of the term as a synonym for “fantasy that literary elitists have permission to enjoy” sloughs the term of the linguistic and socio-political context that makes its most distinctive voices important contributors to global letters. Somewhere between those two poles, like the spark jumping between the spheres of a Van de Graaff generator, lies a more honest definition.
Unlike Sabrina, I read SFF before I read the authors we associate with magical realism; they didn’t come to me until graduate school. What I can tell you is that, looking back now, SFF felt like the closest approximation to how my bilingual mind understood the world. Even now, I can sometimes translate a sentence from English to Spanish, and that act of translation transforms the very same idea into something more fantastical, outrageous, hyperbolic and strangely formal. Sometimes I will transliterate idioms in Spanish into English so as to recapture the magic within their metaphors.
I love how Will identifies the 20th-21st centuries as times in which realism is losing its grip upon literature. SFF’s mainstream appeal, its dominance in film and video games, and its sharing space on the bestsellers’ list with other genres serves as a solid reminder that, at the end of the day, all fiction is fantastic. Just dwell for a moment of the wondrous impossibility of a third-person omniscient narrator and you will quickly have to come to terms with the fact that literary fiction is stuffed to brimming with extranormal ways of knowing. Magical realism, SFF, and the fantastic in general are all epistemologies as legitimate as anything literary realism can offer.
Sabrina: I grew up reading García Márquez, Borges, Cortázar, and Miguel Ángel Asturias in Spanish at the same time I was reading Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Frank Herbert in English. I didn’t then, and don’t now, see much use in putting walls between categories or genres. Magical Realism is wonderful … the only thing that isn’t wonderful is that all Latin American and/or Latinx writers are expected to write it and not any other flavor of fiction. But that’s a limitation of publishers and marketers and agents, not the form or the writer. Personally, I’m uninterested in writing fiction without the possibility of magic in it, but I’m far more comfortable calling myself a speculative writer than a magical realist or a fantasist or science fiction writer.
Ernest: I was a bookstore clerk for ten years, during which not one customer asked for magic realism. If we asked random people on the street what magic realism is, would they know? Would they care? Does anybody know what speculative fiction is supposed to be? I’ve always been over-imaginative. As a child I had a lot of imaginary friends — maybe being a writer is a grown up way of doing the same thing. I always liked the weird stuff, even though it scared me at first. I eventually found myself identifying more with the monstrosities than the humanoids. I didn’t pay too much attention to the genre labels, or if it was supposed to be high or lowbrow. I get the same pleasure from a low-budget monster movie as I do from a surrealistic art film. This got me in trouble in school and my career. My taste in things tends to offend delicate sensibilities.
Silvia: I write magic realism. I was interviewing Karen Lord and she was talking about how culturally Caribbean literature doesn’t differentiate from the fantastic and the mundane as sharply as Anglo literature, and it’s the same for Mexico. The sharp divide is not there, it’s more muted. I love magic realism. I also write what might be called science fiction, fantasy and horror. The problem comes when people want to shove you in the Magic Realist box and you can only be that one thing. They don’t want you to do horror or science fiction, or if you do it, You’ve Done It Wrong. It’s frustrating.
David: I think that for Latinos magical realism certainly looms large, as does folklore and legend. It’s tougher to reframe our stories so they fit neatly into industry-prescribed categories of science fiction, fantasy, horror. I find myself mixing and matching all sorts of speculative devices when writing. Conveniently, the recent trend in the speculative market has been toward greater cross-genre experimentation, but as Silvia points out, if people decide you’re a magic realist, it gets complicated.
I grew up with all of this simultaneously — my dad had a bunch of old pulp magazines and paperbacks from when he was a kid, so I would listen to the age-old tales of lechuzas, la Llorona, la mano negra and so on from my grandmother Garza and then gorge on Golden Age sci-fi or Lovecraft, etc. before turning to my Black Panther and Swamp Thing comics. It’s all blended for me, I think, psychologically — whatever sliver of non-reality I need to make a story work, I’m willing to use it. More problematic, perhaps, is story structure. Sometimes it feels like modern genre fiction prizes the twist above all else. In my particular cultural case it feels good to retell essentially the same timeworn tale but with a new voice, detail, energy.
William: I love that you used the word “haunted” here. We should slip into a more magically realist mode when we think about this kind of haunting, and accept it as indelible rather than something to banish or exorcise. We are haunted by magic realism, by the fickle judgment of literary acceptance, and by the last gasps of realism itself as the dominant, dominating genre in the West. We carry those ghosts, and they won’t go away. But realism has already lost the position it enjoyed for most of the twentieth century. By its very name it overestimates its own privileged relationship to reality. It also implies stasis, as though the way things are is the only possible way that they could be. As realism declines, its hierarchical methods of categorizing non-realism also decline. Now we get to revel in the overlap.
I don’t know when I first noticed my own alliances to speculative genres; the overlap was just always there.
When did it occur to you that you could write your own stories? How long did it take to go from that realization to making your first professional sale? Did you feel like an “outsider,” someone writing from the margins?
Carlos: That I could? Very early on. I had my first poem read over the loudspeaker of Phillippi Shores Grade School when I was in first grade. I had the adventures of “Crazy Carlos” read on AM radio station WQSA when I was in fourth grade. I was my high school’s outstanding student in English. But I concentrated on poetry throughout my undergraduate and through my Master’s, and I didn’t return to fiction until I started on my Ph.D. After that, it took me several years of work on craft before I started selling fiction. Humbling, necessary work. My first sale was a novella that could’ve used another draft or two.
I never felt like an outsider. But that doesn’t mean others didn’t think of me as an outsider. Bill Campbell, my current publisher, told me that one bookstore refused to carry my collection of short stories, The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria, because they “didn’t get many Cubans” buying books there. Sigh. I think one of my superpowers is my ability to shrug off ideas of marginality. It’s allowed me to succeed where I might not have, had I more truly accessed what was going on around me.
Ernest: I’ve always made things up — note the imaginary friends. I’m dyslexic and had trouble learning to read, but I loved looking at the pictures in books and magazines, and making up my own stories about them. These days I get tired of all the stories that we are bombarded with. To relax, I enjoy random images and material, and end up making up my own stories. At first, in grade school, I would draw stories. Then I discovered comic books, and was soon reading more and faster than my classmates. In my early teens I wrote letters to comic books, and they were published! Before the Internet, I could create something on my typewriter, mail it to an editor, and it would end up on comic book racks all over the country. It made me think, yeah, I can be a writer. It was about a decade from the realization to my first sale — it seemed like a torturous eternity to me. If I wasn’t such an outsider, I would have given up. I often meet people who want to be writers, but after getting to know them, think, “Naw, doesn’t stand a chance. Too normal. Doesn’t bear the Mark of the Beast.”
Sabrina: I started writing poetry in the second grade. That remained my primary form through college, though I did take a fiction workshop with Allan Gurganus that opened my eyes to the joys of longer prose forms. For most of my adult life since college, my form has been journalism. I only started writing fiction again in 2009. My first short fiction sale was in 2009/2010 (when I was 50); my novel, Ink, was published in 2012, but my first professional rate fiction sale wasn’t until 2013. I was probably one of the oldest (if not the oldest) Campbell-eligible writers ever. And, yes, I felt very much like an outsider. I’m not a prolific writer, and I had only published three stories between my first spec fic publication and my novel. All of my people at that point were in journalism and immigration advocacy — and there is less overlap between those and the spec lit world than I would like. What really helped me start feeling a little more inside (but still on the fringe) was being on panels at both Arisia and Readercon. I was really fortunate that the programming committees at both were willing to take a chance on me.
Silvia: I started writing seriously in 2006. That’s when I moved from writing shit to writing not-so-much shit. By shit I mean I was trying to imitate Anglo writers. All my characters were white and they were on a quest to kill a dragon, drinking ale at a tavern. When have I had a drink of ale at a tavern and spoken with a British accent? Never, I tell you, but I thought that was what you were supposed to write. So I regurgitated Tolkien shit and it was all shiny rockets piloted by Captain Kirk. It was terrible. But in 2006 I began to explore what I wanted to write and it wasn’t that. I wrote a number of stories set in Mexico and things that people called more ‘literary’ than ‘spec’ and just didn’t care.
I sold to a bunch of tiny rags. I’ve never had much luck with professional publications. I subbed but no dice, and 10 years ago you had to still send the Self Addressed Stamped Envelope so I was more likely to be sending stuff to tiny online zines. I don’t think I had a ‘professional’ publication in a magazine until two or three years ago. I did sell stories to anthologies at what might be considered pro-rates before that, mainly because I was recruited for a number of Kickstarter Lovecraft anthologies that paid decently enough. But I wasn’t in any prestige magazines, never really been someone people desire for those publications.
So, in short, I think I’ve constantly been marginal both because I never hit the “big” pubs or the big awards like others did, and because I’m geographically removed. You don’t get invited to shit when you live in Canada. It’s only with my work as a novelist that I’m drifting more to the ‘oh, we know who she is’ line.
David: I knew pretty early on that I wanted to write. By high school I was experimenting with poetry and writing short stories, mimicking the style of my favorite authors (as in Silvia’s case, these were white, non-Latino dudes). I wrote a comedic sci-fi novel my junior year in high school for a Avon Books contest. It didn’t win, but I knew I could actually complete a project (which is, ahem, pretty vital and encouraging).
College exposed me to the fact that, whoa, there were actually Mexican-American authors out there, crafting work centered on our experiences. I realized public school had robbed me, and I got busy catching up. My own creative vision was turned on its head. I got a few things published as a college undergraduate in small literary rags, but I eventually gave precedence to my academic career and marriage (at the young age of 21). I continued to write … in fact, I wrote a massive space opera trilogy … but I had little luck finding an agent or publisher. Because my characters were people of color with decidedly non-mainstream ways of talking and being, I often wondered if gatekeepers simply couldn’t connect with them and their lives.
I suspect I might’ve had better luck with the publishing world had I not been juggling family, work, and scholarship, but getting a doctorate was really important for me, coming from a working-class family for which university might as well have been another planet. When I finally achieved my academic and professional goals, I returned to speculative fiction with fresh eyes and sold a YA short story collection. I was 40 years old.
William: My initial training was in theater rather than writing, but luckily that turned out to be a transferable skill set. It’s useful to focus on narrative elements in isolation before you’re suddenly responsible for everything at once. My brief acting career ended when my back broke. (Long story. The very last straw was playing Caliban in a summer stock production of Tempest.) But my brain was still fizzing with theatrical things while I recovered from surgery, and that needed an outlet. Spinal surgery also turned out to be a useful Memento mori. Time and physical resources are finite. Time to get to work.
I spent a long, slow slog writing short stories and selling them occasionally, just barely often enough to feel legit. Then I went to Clarion, which is amazing if you can spare the time. After that I found my voice as a kidlit author; all of my novels are Middle Grade so far. They say “Ages 8-12” on the cover. This adds an extra layer of marginalization within the SF community, which tends to distance itself from children’s and young adult literature. We keep trying to add YA and Middle Grade categories to big SF awards, but the old guard just won’t have it. Speculative genres have been infantilized for so long that I think we overcompensate, eager to prove ourselves as grownups. We need to get over that and honor the stories that shaped us initially. China Miéville said this about Joan Aiken: “If that kind of writing hits you at the right time when you’re a child, the impact is like nothing else ever.”
Is it a trap for the Latina/o writer—this excessive need to be the voice of the people s/he may not know very well? How have Latin-origin writers addressed the concerns of the postcolonial condition in speculative literature?
Carlos: To answer the second part of the question first: Latinx writers have addressed postcolonial concerns with as many answers as there are writers. The hardest part of a label like “Latinx” is remembering of how little use it is. We use the term — and every cultural term like it — too freely. The Latinx experience is fractal: infinite within its confines. There are members of that community who speak no Spanish and who speak with academic fluency; whose skin color covers the entire human gamut of possible hues; and who have made postcolonial discourse the center of their lives’ work, or who ignore it entirely so as to focus on other topics.
I have, more than once, been asked to be the “voice of Latinx community,” especially in academic settings. When I am, I try to reinforce the point I made above. I have something to contribute to such a discussion. Just not nearly everything.
Sabrina: Hmmm. I feel like I write “Latinidad” from experience and from ongoing interaction with other Latinxs, so it can’t really be described as people I don’t know very well. I think maybe I have my journalism to thank for that, because I’ve really spent enormous amounts of time with Latinxs of many classes, occupations, educational and residency status, and of varied national origins. One of the best things about working for years in a bilingual, majority Latinx newsroom was the way this diversity informs even the Spanish we speak and write. (And, of course, that language that unifies so many disparate Latinxs now was one of the most fulminating and effective weapons the colonizers wielded.)
I think U.S. Latinx spec fic writers are in an odd place. We’re familiar outsiders according to mainstream spec fic, but we’re not really. The themes we broach in our work, the Latinx-centered perspective and/or preoccupations, as well as the underlying cadences and pacing of our pieces often don’t conform to mainstream expectations. And so we’re called out as crafting manifestos and engaging in identity politics instead of writing fiction, and are presumed to be working with subpar language skills. Those same preoccupations (particularly if political), the cadences and pacing seem to distress the mainstream less when encountered in what is considered outright foreign work. On the other hand we (U.S, Latinx spec fic writers) often seem to be just as insular and unconversant with the concerns and trends expressed by spec lit writers outside of the U.S. as the mainstream is. All of that to say that, no, I don’t think U.S. Latinx spec lit as a whole has really examined postcolonialism in the way that Latin American spec lit has …
Ernest: When I’m the only nonwhite person in the room — it used to happen a lot in events devoted to writing and science fiction — I find myself designated the representative of all the people of color in the world. I’m often considered to be “the black guy” even though I do have Irish in me, and since September 11, 2001, I’ve been taken for Arab. I never know what people are going to think I am. Would most of the human race want me to represent them? It would be like having Leonara Carrington or Alejandro Jodorowsky represent all white people. And I shouldn’t be trusted with such responsibilities — I tend to use them as opportunities to commit straight-faced mischief. I think that Latinoids — no matter how speculative, or literary their pursuits are — can’t help but address the concerns of their condition (and I’m not sure if we’re postcolonial yet, but that’s another story). It’s what we are. Even if we can manage to pass for Anglo/White, the truth will bubble to the surface. Every writer tends to do it in his or her own way. This is a lot of people and a lot of ways. What we used to call “Latino” describes a larger and more diverse slice of the human race than “Anglo” — a lot of identities, and lot of material for fiction, a lot of something new to throw into the mix. I usually try to avoid the usual stereotypes, unless I have a diabolical ulterior motive, and write about new ways of being Chicano, Latino, vaquero, pachuco, vato loco, no matter if you put o/a, a/o, @, or x at the end. The new generation always finds its own identity. The future is gonna be more than anybody can imagine.
Silvia: Since I was born and raised in Mexico, I know Mexico very well. But the more time I spend away from the country, and by now it’s been many years, the more you distance yourself. You can try to keep track of it via newspapers and online, but I’m no longer as versed in it as a local, of course. And I’m not part of the ‘lit’ scene there. Spanish-speakers likely don’t realize I exist. I’m not sure how they view me. I wouldn’t be surprised if they think of me as an outsider. I do know someone complained once that I write in English. I guess they saw it as a betrayal. With that said, my work often deals with class, sometimes with colorism. And some people hate it. I read a review where someone complained there were all these ‘issues’ with my vampire novel. Why couldn’t it be just about vampires? Why did there have to be talk about class, about poverty or crime? My answer is fuck off. You want your books pristine and scrubbed of all the ‘nasty’ stuff, but that means scrubbing off my reality.
David: I don’t know that it’s an “excessive” need (or a need at all, for that matter). Instead, writing about Latina/o characters and culture simply seems … natural. Granted, there is a sense of responsibility involved given our lack of representation in American publishing, but I don’t see myself as the voice of all Latinos (what would that even mean?) any more than a White woman from Georgia could be the voice of all White Americans. I do, however, try to broaden the body of work by and for Latinos by writing about experiences other than the more traditionally accepted immigrant/barrio narratives. The Mexican-American community, for example, is deeply layered and intersectional, and I’m personally interested in exploring (for example) what it’s like to be an intellectual, middle-class, queer Mexican-American girl with family on both sides of the border (Carol Garza from my MG series).
Still, there are the themes, cadences, and pacing Sabrina mentions — a peculiar mestizo rhythm that a lot of us move to. And it’s certainly puzzling to most agents, editors, and reviewers whose reading palate has grown accustomed to less piquant fare. There’s often pushback from gatekeepers who would erase that difference because it isn’t “quality” as they have been trained by homogeneity to define it. That’s one of the reasons I’ve ended up with smaller, independent, or university presses. They’ve got more interest in and a higher tolerance for work that doesn’t fit the industry mold.
Then there’s the further complication of pushback from other Latinos. I get this occasionally from certain activist Chicanos who feel that work that doesn’t center on “la lucha” (the struggle), that isn’t openly and primarily political, is frivolous and irrelevant. And, of course, as Silvia says, for Latin-American authors outside of the US, American Latina/o speculative authors may as well be some mythical cryptid. We’re not on their radar, for the most part. Sabrina is probably right that this stems from our insular disregard for larger trends and concerns throughout the Americas.
William: One way out of the trap is to recognize that we are a chorus and an ensemble. We get our solo moments, sure, but this right here is a very big show, a long conversation between innumerable voices. It is impossible to be comprehensive, to become the voice that recreates the entirety of where we come from. We can honor our ancestors while ditching the expectation that we can clone them.
What fuels your imagination as a writer? As an individual, where do you feel most at home: the real world or the world of fiction, times and places that are now in the past or their many alternate realities?
Carlos: What fuels? Science. Amazing turns of phrase. Atrocities. Fiction, poetry, lyrical nonfiction. Theater. A song I remember after 20 years and, with sudden clarity, can understand the shining beauty of a verse that went over my head. Kindness. Moral quandaries. Other people’s passions. Walks. Nature observed minutely. People at play.
Fictional worlds are the real world; our minds are phenomenological engines. We can’t have the first clue about ontology unless we figure out a way to tell a story about it.
Sabrina: I only occasionally want to reinvent the wheel or the universe. 😉 Mostly I like finding magic in the real world, and most of the time I find that in people. I’ve tried my hand at historical spec fic a couple of times, and I enjoy the research it involves and the challenges it creates for me as a writer, but it’s not my heart. Likewise, I enjoy writing the occasional science fiction piece (well, space opera), but the present and the near future are my inspiration y mi corazón.
Ernest: I live in the real world, dammit! I don’t understand these new nerds who want to live alternative universes, and prefer fictional characters to real, live human beings. They end up regurgitating undigested pop culture all over the place. Yuck! I find other times and places fascinating, and like to imagine things that never were, but the best stuff comes from your own slugging it out with life, like the mother of all art form, the bull fight. Real life is the launch pad. I do feel most at home where have the psychic space where can let my imagination run wild. The best inspiration comes from stuff that scares, or even threatens, me. I also love road trips, and finding out about things I’m unfamiliar with. Security is for wimps.
Silvia: I like realism and the mundane. I draw on my past experiences and the stories of my family. I’m amused when someone picks a detail in my stories as ‘unrealistic’ and that was something real that happened to me or my family members. Like in Signal to Noise someone complained Meche was too mature in her tastes (musical and otherwise) but I grew up in a radio station and had an equally eclectic taste at that age. But it’s very rewarding when someone tells me it felt ‘real.’ Someone from Mexico City told me I wrote the most accurate description of the Zona Rosa recently and I was happy for a week.
I like finding things in footnotes. That’s another source of amusement. In history books, especially.
David: I think I find my inspiration more in the legendary and mythic past, in everything from colonial Mexican folk tales to pre-Columbian Mesoamerican mythology. A lot of my work takes those elements of our past and reframes them with a heightened sense of realism and a modern Western speculative framework. My upcoming graphic novel, for example, takes place in an alternate 1865 in which my native Río Grande Valley and the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas form the Republic of Santander, a nation in which indigenous magic and steampunk technology exist side-by-side.
Even when I’m writing about the present, there’s a link to the past. My recent kaiju novel, Lords of the Earth, has Mexico ravaged by giant monsters that emerge in vast stone cocoons from active volcanoes. Nothing the Mexican military or scientists attempt can stop them until an indigenous anthropologist discovers an answer in the ritual songs of his ancestors. Garza Twins, my middle-grade fantasy series, is set in the present, but I usually only spend a couple of chapters at the twins’ school before sending them off on adventures in mythic realms peopled by Aztec and Maya gods, monsters, and spirits.
Nearly every new bit of understanding I gain about the history of Mexico and the US Southwest inspires new creative concepts for me.
William: Good coffee. The origins and mutability of literary species. Good music. The familiar rhythms of someone else’s voice. The surprising and unexpected rhythms of someone else’s voice. Good books in genres that are not mine, and never will be. Realizing that history is weirder, more gorgeous, and more horrible than we were ever taught. Good company.
What have you been reading recently? Who are your favorite writers within and outside the genre today?
David: Right now I’m reading a couple of things: Ghost Girl in the Corner by Daniel José Older, The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, and the Latin@ Rising anthology that Sabrina mentioned. I’ve also been reading a ton of graphic novels and manga recently: Clockwerx, Tokyo Ghoul, Saga, Ms. Marvel, Lowriders in Space, Boxers & Saints, etc.
My favorite writers (in addition to all of my fellow Latinx on this roundtable) are Guadalupe García McCall, Paolo Bacigalupi, China Miéville, Ire’ne Lara Silva, Gabino Iglesias, Isabel Allende, Cormac McCarthy, Ursula Le Guin, Salman Rushdie, Nnedi Okorafor, Neil Gaiman, Stephen Graham Jones, Carmen Tafolla, Haruki Murakami, Ana Castillo, and Philip Pullman, among many others.
When we start considering the dead, I love Octavia Butler, José Luis Borges, Horacio Quiroga, Dashiell Hammett, Herman Melville, Murasaki Shikibu…
Ernest: Uh-oh. Let me look at my Goodreads account… Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad, Goin’ Crazy with Sam Peckinpah and All Our Friends by Max Evans, The Gate of Time by Philip José Farmer, LOM Book Two by Frank Lechuga, The Lost Tribe of Coney Island: Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century by Claire Prentice, Tom Swift in the City of Gold by Victor Appelton, Peter Arno: the Mad, Mad World of the New Yorker’s Greatest Cartoonist by Michael Maslin, Gone with the Mind by Mark Leyner, Les Chants de Maldoror by Comte de Lautrémont, and Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America by Álvar Cabeza de Vaca. I think Tahir Shah has written some of the greatest books of the century so far. Ishmael Reed rules! In the genres, check out Nnedi Okorafor, Nalo Hopkinson, and Nisi Shawl.
Sabrina: I just got my contributor’s issue of the anthology Latin@ Rising (which has stories by Ernest and Carlos as well) so that’s what I’ve been reading recently. It has a tremendous variety of voices, and writers I had never read before so it’s been very engaging. I’m midway through Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson, which I am absolutely loving (and am bowled over by its craft). I’ve also recently read Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper and did a reread of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t know that I have favorites as much as writers I trust: Amy Tan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Louise Erdrich and Barbara Kingsolver among the renowned non-spec fic novelists; and Gina Ruiz, Sam Miller, Isabel Yap, Barbara Krasnoff, Rose Lemberg, Lisa Bolekaja and Alyssa Wong among the spec fic short fiction writers.
Carlos: David and Sabrina stole about 3/4ths of my answers when it comes to living authors! Let me especially second Castillo, Miéville, and Okorafor from his list, and Miller, and Yap from hers. If you haven’t read the authors featured in this interview, I’m telling you, you’d be hard-pressed to find a faster or better Latinx-Literature 101 education for yourself. And please everyone, go get Latin@ Rising!
As for the mostly-dead? Going to steal from myself here and give you this list:
Dostoyevsky. Flannery O’Connor. Alice Munro. Piers Anthony (as a young man). Katherine Dunn (for one book, but what a book!). John Barth, Asimov, Gárcia Márquez, William Gibson, Laurence Sterne, Kathy Acker. Rabelais!!! Too many to mention. Bradbury, Heinlein (yes, I know, but shut up), C.L. Moore (“Shambleau”!), metric tons of delicious Pulp, OCTAVIA BUTLER. Please, denizens of sky and underworld, let me once write something a third as artistically complete as Kindred. Frankenstein. Wallace Stevens. The Satanic Verses. Who has ever written better sentences than Elizabeth Bishop? Raymond Carver, especially the stories in Cathedral. Don Quixote is required reading! And as soon as you’re done, read Pedro Juan Guiterrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy—a book more profound than profane, and holy shit is it profane—and you’ll understand my sense of humor completely. Bless me, Ultima: please read this right now if you haven’t read it, and if you have read it, it’s been too long and you should reread it. Everyone should take a semester to study James Baldwin and another to study Toni Morrison. And Gogol. Minor in Gogol! Too many. I have a Ph.D. in English mostly to have an excuse to read for six years. I love so many books. I am reading genre works these days mostly by living authors and can tell you I truly believe we’re living through an SFF Renaissance. Going to stop now.
Wait, not yet! Isabel Allende! Wang in Love and Bondage. Emily Dickinson. The Master and Margarita!
Silvia: I read New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean recently, it’s a very interesting anthology. I’ve bought the translations of Yuri Herrera’s crime novels as e-books and am going through all of them.
William: I just served as a judge for the U.S. National Book Awards, so most of my recent favs are on that longlist. I’d like to single out two of them here: Meg Medina’s Burn Baby Burn — imagine a YA crime thriller crossed with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s debut musical In the Heights — and Anna-Marie McLemore’s When the Moon Was Ours, which is unspeakably gorgeous and magic realist all the way down to the whisperings of its DNA.
Tell us about your most exciting projects and your forthcoming publications!
Carlos: Gak! I don’t think I can tell you about the two separate novel projects I am working on right now, except to tell you that I am working on two separate novel projects. My next shorter work is going to be the biggest f-u I can give to the U.S. penal system via science fiction. Plus, I have been working as a game designer and have several games in the works. Hopefully, I will have much that I can share about these projects in 2017!
David: Things have taken off for me since my middle-grade fantasy novel The Smoking Mirror was selected as a Pura Belpré Honor Book by the American Library Association. Its sequel, A Kingdom Beneath the Waves, was published this past spring. Then my kaiju novel Lords of the Earth (about giant monsters rampaging through Mexico) came out October from Severed Press. Next year will see the arrival of two very different books by me: Chupacabra Vengeance, a collection of speculative short fiction coming from Broken River Books and Feathered Serpent, Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico, a book of Mesoamerican mythology coming from Cinco Puntos Press in the fall. Also, I am presently writing scripts for a TV show based on my book Border Lore, a dark speculative anthology series produced by Mucho Más Media and El Campanario. Filming on that may start this spring. The following year The Hidden City (the third book in my middle-grade fantasy series Garza Twins) drops. Then, in 2019, I have a steampunk graphic novel titled Clockwork Curandera hitting shelves.
Ernest: Latin@ Rising: An Anthology of Latin@ Science Fiction and Fantasy features my story “Flying Under the Texas Radar with Paco and Los Freetail,” which tells how and why my character, Paco Cohen, Mariachi of Mars, left Texas for Mars. I’m writing more about Paco; hopefully it will all come together as a novel. I’m working with Strange Particle Press, who have re-released High Aztech and Cortez on Jupiter, to put out a new edition of Smoking Mirror Blues, and Pancho Villa’s Flying Circus, a story collection. And online, at Tapastic.com, there’s The Terrible Twelves, which I co-wrote with my wife, Emily Devenport, a young adult fantasy with a Chicana heroine that you can read on your phone.
Sabrina: I’m just starting to think about putting together a collection of my short stories, and I’ve been contacted by a publisher to edit an anthology, but both are in such early stages there are no details to share. Other than that, be sure to pick up Latin@ Rising (Wings Press) in January, which has my story “Sin Embargo” in it, along with works by Junot Diaz, Ana Castillo and Kathleen Alcalá, Carlos, Ernest, etc.
Silvia: My second novel, Certain Dark Things, which has Mexican vampires, came out this October. It sold as a two book deal, two stand-alones, so I have been revising my third novel for the publisher. It’s a completely different thing. The vampire novel is noir, my third novel is a romantic fantasy called The Beautiful Ones. I am working on a second issue of The Jewish Mexican Literary Review with Lavie Tidhar. I am also a co-editor with the horror magazine The Dark.
I’m revising my fourth novel, which doesn’t have a publisher yet. It’s called Lords of Xibalba. Mayan gods in the 1920s.
William: My next book, A Properly Unhaunted Place, comes out in August of 2017. It boasts several illustrations by the great Kelly Murphy, and it’s about ghost appeasement specialists at a haunted Renaissance festival. Geekiest thing I ever wrote. But it also channels my concerns about history, and one of the two protagonists is Latina. The sequel is set to be published in 2018.