Thelma Reyna: You have a long, distinguished background in scholarly writing, earning a Ph.D. from UCLA and teaching at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. You’re now focused on creative fiction. What was the major challenge you faced in transitioning from scholarly writing to fiction?
Graciela Limón: How to handle “freedom.” What I mean is, in writing critically, there are guidelines and rules that must be followed at all times, whereas in creative writing, inspiration is the guiding light.It was this freedom from form that I most felt as a challenge. Strange, isn’t it? In the beginning, I found myself always compelled to make certain that what I wrote was precise, completely researched instead of motivated by feeling or sentiment. In a word, I found that freedom daunting and a little intimidating. Later on, I loved it!
TR: Both your academic and fictional writing spotlight your issues of interest: cultural identity, feminism, and social justice. How is tackling those issues via fiction different from addressing those topics academically?
GL: Now that I write creatively, those issues you cite become humanized; they take on the form of personal stories, and they many times even become human beings. Now my issues leave behind numbers and facts to take on the identity of flawed, weak, but unforgettable people with names and faces.
TR: Do your three dominant issues dovetail in today’s society, and, if so, how so? In your new novel?
GL: I’ve written and published nine novels, and each time I’ve found it difficult not to bring forth the issues that most concern me, whether it be class struggles, women’s issues, cultural and trans-border experiences. And sincerely, I feel comfortable delving into these issues over and over again because I see their relevance to our society today. How do these concerns appear in my new novel, The Intriguing Life of Ximena Godoy? Here again I focus on the issue of the Latina, and how my protagonist breaks with the rules of convention and tradition that govern women in our culture. Oh, it doesn’t come free to her, as she pays a high price for her emancipation. However, Ximena Godoy makes her choices, and she is what she is.
TR: Your new novel is set in the first half of the 1900’s in Mexico and the U.S. and details the traditional gender constraints faced by Ximena; her rebellion against this; and her choices as she navigates life on her own terms. How does she embody feminism in ways that resonate with today’s woman?
GL: I believe that Ximena Godoy reflects many Latinas of our times in that she pursues her goals and ambitions while rejecting the rules set up for her by society. Does she do this to a flaw? Perhaps. The issue, however, is that she lives and loves on her terms, not by those established by a faceless society. It can be said, therefore, that although Ximena Godoy inhabited the first half of the 20th century, her life story resonates with the second part of the century, and indeed reaches powerfully into our current years.
TR: Today’s younger women reportedly balk at calling themselves “feminists.” What’s different from the feminism of the “women’s liberation” pioneers 50+ years ago, and what women advocates value today? What’s the same?
GL: Honestly, I have difficulty differentiating between the two terms: Women’s Lib and Today’s Advocates. However, I can cite one difference: I see today’s young Latinas as mostly well-educated and therefore more articulate, and they have a clearer vision. What I see as similar is that, essentially, we all are united by one force: To achieve what is good and best for women. I firmly believe that if as women we remember that we must respect what other women aspire to, how they express themselves, and how they go about achieving those goals, then this is to be Free. And to be Free is to be fulfilled and complete. Whatever label any woman chooses to adhere to, I’ll support her because I know that at heart, we’re on the same path.
TR: As a highly educated Latina author who has won prestigious literary honors—such as the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award, the Luis Leal Literary Award/UC Santa Barbara, and the Gustavus Myers Book Award—how do you perceive the publishing landscape today for American Latino/a authors?
GL: Thank you for your wonderful words. You honor me. Then to your question: In many ways, I see the publishing landscape as much improved from, say, 20 years ago when few Latina/o authors were even published. That has changed somewhat in that now there is a distinct interest on the part of publishers to publish our work. On the other hand, I find, or think I find, a very thin interest in our writings on the part of the readership. I find readers aren’t interested for the most part in our [Latino] issues, unless we as authors concentrate on what I call the “folkloric” aspect of the Latino experience. Even worse, there seems to me to be a negative curiosity regarding the underbelly of our culture. What I mean by this is, that unless a book deals with stereotypes (gangsters, convicts, drug addicts, prostitutes, and other dark figures), the reader turns away from the page. Yes, the landscape has improved, but we have a long way yet to go.
TR: Since your first book publications in —In Search of Bernabé (1993) and The Memories of Ana Calderón (1994)—has the world of book publication changed in any way for Latino/a authors in the U.S.?
GL: As I suggest above, the main difference in publication is the expanded number of titles by Latina/o authors now available by publishers. The improvement has thus been one of exposure and a widened landscape.
TR: How has your writing evolved since 1994? Have your dominant themes or literary interests and goals changed, and, if so, how?
GL: I see my writing as evolved (and evolving) in many aspects, mostly in character development. I’ve always been fearful of falling into the trap of perpetuating stereotypes because it’s so easy to do just that. I’ve tried very hard all along to smash the expected molds, both female and males. Naturally, being a woman, my focus has always been on my female characters, hoping not to “neglect” the males. It’s difficult not to fall into the stereotype trap here because our culture almost encourages it. It’s undeniable that among us live the Dominant Machos and the Submissive Females. However, I’ve tried to conquer that reality by working with it, yet not dehumanizing those characters, thus keeping them from being stereotypes. Oh, it’s a tightrope! It’s very difficult! However, this is where I believe my writing has evolved, and continues to evolve, hopefully for the better.
TR: You studied, taught, and wrote about Latin American and Chicano literature throughout your academic career. What are the most prominent bonds among all these Hispanic literary traditions?
GL: What a wonderful question! Latin American and Chicana/o literature are bonded one to the other by several unbreakable ties. Those literatures have in common, first of all language that acts as a nexus. Although that language (Spanish/Portuguese/African tongues) is modified and colored by different accents and expressions in Latin America, as well as enriched by an added layer of English for us authors on this side of the border – we have retained that linguistic tone and rhythm that sets our literature apart and binds us to one other. A second connection, just as important as language, in my opinion, is our mysticism, which is a hybrid of Catholicism and Pre-Columbian beliefs. What a rich spiritual mix underpins all that literature that has come about on both sides of the border! And yet another tie, probably the most important, and connected to that hybrid mysticism, is our mestizo background. The stupendous mix of races that defines our literatures cements both expressions.
TR: Where do these literatures diverge in their focus and method?
GL: I believe that our focus changes with respect to social issues. We Chicana/o authors are naturally drawn to concentrate on the challenges and issues that confront our society, which in turn are different from those that our Latin American colleagues face. I really think that we, on this side of the border, tend to be more direct and frank; perhaps some of us might be considered more audacious and blunt. And I believe this comes to us as a result of being brought up in the U.S., where we’re taught to be outspoken. Where a Latin American author circumvents or evades, a Chicana/o aims straight at the heart of the issue without mincing words.
TR: What are some of the main challenges facing Latina/o authors going forward? Latinos are projected to become the largest “ethnic group” in the U.S. within a few decades. How might this affect the American literary landscape?
GL: I believe that the main challenge facing U.S. Latina/o authors is to always keep in mind that our mission is to be the voice of our particular society. Where there’s injustice, privation, or any other roadblock, it’s up to us the authors to shine a light on those issues, with the intention of being part of the solution. We must remember that we are, and will always be, a part of that “ethnic group,” not mere bystanders, and that because we have been given the power of the word, it’s our responsibility to use it wisely and always for the advancement of our group. It’s a tough calling, but it is what it is! Thank you, Thelma, for giving me the opportunity of responding to your insightful and stimulating questions.