Kathleen Alcalá

The Clueless Eater

Interview with the Bellingham Herald

July 17, 2007

July 17

Hello all –

It has been a busy spring! Following is an interview with Margaret Bikman at the Bellingham Herald. I was also in Portland, Olympia, on Whidbey Island, and in Denver, Colorado. I will read with other Hedgebrook alumnae at Elliott Bay Books this weekend, so I hope to see some of you there. Next month I will visit Albuquerque, Leavenworth, and Bellevue. See the end of this newsletter for specific times and places. For reviews, see links on the home page of my website. I am working on a short story collection. What are you working on?

Best, Kathleen

June 21, 2007

Alcalá unveils her sources


Seattle writer Kathleen Alcala’s first nonfiction collection of personal essays explores her connection with her family, her heritage and what shapes her as a writer of fiction.

Q: How did you decide which essays to include in this book, and how did you decide the order in which to place them?

A: These essays started as a response to the many questions I received about the basis for my fiction. People wanted to know about my family. When I put them all together, I found that they fell naturally into essays that were about childhood and the past, to essays about the writing process, and finally to essays in which I applied my aesthetics to literature and contemporary events.

Because the essays talk about creativity in a very personal way, people have responded very strongly to them as more than biographical or historical writings. They really take them to heart.

Q: I’m intrigued by your comment that your experience with Mexico has been “both a fairy tale and a stern taskmaster that, while gracious, has no patience for the romanticism or idealism it is so easy to bring to such a beautiful country.” Yet in your storytelling, you invoke the spirit of memory, and much of it seems to me to be quite romantic, in the classic sense. Could you elaborate on your thought?

A: My early memories of Mexico are, of course, those of a child, and so have the sort of clarity and simplicity with which children recall the past. I think that my mother’s family also romanticized the past, as opposed to the economic realities of their lives. Thus, my descriptions of Mexico probably have those layers of memory and perception that make
even the ordinary seem beautiful. So when, at 18, my cousin gave birth to a brain-damaged child because they were too far from medical help, it brought me up short. When you have to make due with what you have, there is no room for romanticism.

However, Mexicans really love Mexico, even the poorest, and are able to look beyond the drudgery of making a living to sing while walking down the street, and to fight passionately for social justice. One has to hold an idealized view of what is possible in order to do that.

Q: What is magical realism, and how is it important in your writing?

A: I began writing stories in this style before I knew what it was. It is simply the way stories are told in my family. I tell people that I made my husband read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García
Márquez before marrying me, so that he would have an idea of what he was getting into. Sometime in the '80s I read an article in the program for the play by Federico García Lorca, "Blood Wedding," staged by Intiman Theater in Seattle, that used the phrase "magical realism," and included a book list. This was the first time I understood that people saw it as a school or style of writing.

If you look at anthologies such as Black Water and Black Water 2, edited by Alberto Manguel, one sees that it is a style used all over the world by people who value the unseen as much as the seen, and who often have to write in elaborate metaphors in order to subvert the political or social order of their respective countries. As in my description of Mexico above, it gives this style of writing a haunting depth that results from seeing below the surface of a grim society to the idyllic possible.

Q: What are some of the important elements of having a live performance space, whether it’s for theater or for sharing stories?

A: Hearing stories told is a feast for both the eye and the ear. The best storytellers, even on paper, tend to come from cultures where oral storytelling is still practiced, such as the Irish and people from the southern United States. It probably shapes their brains in a different way, and they are able to recall and use dialogue and description in their work in a way that immediately pulls you into the situation.

Telling a story to a live, present audience also forces the storyteller to be sensitive and responsive to an audience, and tailor the story to suit them. I am honored to know people such as Vi Hilbert who understand that the power of their presence comes from the stories themselves. Walter Benjamin, the philosopher and writer, said that the storyteller makes himself a “vessel” for story, and although imperfect, is filled up by the story and so makes it new, conveys it to a new audience.

As a writer, bookstores are a precious venue for me, but as a citizen, I hope that we will provide public spaces where people can gather and talk and tell stories in impromptu settings.

Q: How are the ideas of the sacredness of “the word” and the sacredness of “place,” perhaps ascribed to different cultures, enveloped in your fiction?

A: I have joked that I could have just written a 600-page novel instead of three 200-page novels, and people would have been really impressed. But when I began the first novel, “Spirits of the Ordinary,” I realized that the worldviews of each novel would be entirely different.

“Spirits” is about a secretly Jewish family that holds the word as holy, and has a son who is drawn to place. “The Flower in the Skull” is about the meaning of place to a group of indigenous people from Sonora. People who hold the word as holy have an advantage due to portability that we see even today in a world culture that deals in information. But when we
forget the holiness of place, we destroy the very things that keep us alive. “Treasures in Heaven” is about the endurance of people when even these two are changed or removed.

I have really struggled to understand these things and convey what I have learned in my writings, because they reflect the journey my family has taken across time and place. I think these ideas are still relevant, so I hope people will take them from my books and apply them in creative ways.

Q: How do libraries open doors to your writing?

A: Libraries are magic places. When I was 6 years old, a bookmobile visited my rural mountain community, and I went home with a couple of Dr. Seuss books. After that, I was hooked. Being allowed to use my uncle?s library in Chihuahua Mexico as an adult was an awe-filled and humbling experience, because it was mostly off-limits when we were little. I was raised with a great reverence for books. It must be because, although my mother?s family was poor and moved a lot, her father loved books and managed to take them along on all their journeys.

In doing the research for these novels, I was able to find or verify information that had been ?lost? for decades, so it was almost a treasure hunt for me. Although, like everyone else, I now do a lot of research online, there is still nothing like the physicality of books, of the pleasure of turning around between shelves and discovering the unexpected, of wondering about the people who handled them before, or who found this topic important enough to write about. I have to admit to just sitting in my office sometimes and admiring my books!

Q: When do you sing? (taken from your essay with that title)?

My essay, “When Do You Sing?” is about my mother’s funeral and the importance of music in my family. It is one of the few ways in which my emotionally repressed relatives can express themselves.

While I can sing, I was never especially musically talented, so writing is my outlet. Overcoming the “internal editor,” as I call her, is the hardest thing that a writer has to do. I find that my students want to write, have the talent and ability to write, but are constrained by a sort of censor that all of us have built into our heads. When I can lock that person in a closet and just start writing, I come the closest to singing.

Reach Margaret Bikman at margaret.bikman@bellinghamherald.com or 715-2273.

Used by permission of the publisher.
Copyright ©2007 The Bellingham Herald
All rights reserved. Any copying, redistribution or retransmission of any of the contents of this service without the express written consent of The Bellingham Herald is expressly prohibited. The Bellingham Herald. 1155 N. State. St., Bellingham, WA 98225, Phone (360) 676-2600.

Upcoming events:
July 21 - 7:30 pm, Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, fundraiser for Hedgebrook Writers Retreat with María de Lourdes Victoria Muguira, Wendy Call, and Jacci Thompson-Dodd.

July 26, 27 - Workshops at the Pacific NW Writers Association Conference, Hilton Seattle Airport and Conference Center.

August 5 – 7, Society for CryptoJudaic Studies Conference, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

August 17-18, A Book for All Seasons, Leavenworth, Washington. Workshop and signing.

August 19 – 2:00 p.m., Jewish Community Festival, Bellevue Downtown Park.

October 19 - Bedtime Stories 2007 for Humanities Washington with Charles Johnson, Jess Walter, and Jana Harris. Washington Humanities

November 9 – 11 Wordstock 1500 SW 12th Avenue, Portland, Oregon 97201
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