David L. Ulin: Good evening, everyone. Welcome for tonight's episode of the California Book Club. I'm David L. Ulin, the books editor of Alta Journal. Before we get started, I'd like to introduce those of you who are unfamiliar with the book club and with the journal to what we're doing. Alta is a quarterly print publication on California culture, and history, and arts with an active and dedicated web presence. We do weekly book reviews. We run tons of material on the California Book Club authors. California Book Club itself is a once-monthly hour-long interview with a writer about a particular California book focusing on the power and the range of the California canon, and it's always great to be here. So we're really excited about tonight's guest, Jaime Cortez whose book Gordo, collection of short stories, is the book that we will be discussing tonight.
I do want to let people know that Sandra Cisneros was supposed to be here as a guest, but unfortunately, something has come up at the last minute, and she will be unable to attend. We'll miss her, but we have a great discussion for you tonight with Jaime and John Freeman of California Book Club host who I'll introduce in a minute. Before we get to the action, I want to acknowledge our partners. We couldn't do this without our partners, and one of the things that's really interesting and powerful about this is that we're really, really seeing the book community coming together in the service of literature, which is what makes this community so special. So our partners are Book Passage, Book Soup, Books Inc., Bookshop, Bookshop West Portal, DIESEL, A Bookstore, Green Apple Books, the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, the Los Angeles Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, Vroman's Bookstore, Narrative Magazine, and ZYZZYVA Magazine. All of these are great bookstores, great libraries, great magazines. Please avail yourself of their work.
So, how do you support this work we're doing, bringing... Oh, I forgot. I haven't done this in a while, so I've left something out. Okay. I do want to let you all know that we do a ton of coverage leading up to the events in the case of Gordo. We've got essays from numerous contributors and essays related to the book. We have an excerpt of Gordo. We also have a review I wrote of the book last September when it came out. All of this is included in our weekly CBC newsletter, which is free like the CBC itself, the California Book Club, so please sign up.
If you want to help support the work that we're doing, bringing in-depth articles, essays, and interviews with authors to you, it's simple. We have a sale for California Book Club members. For just $50, you can get a year of Alta Journal, a California Book Club hat, and one of our upcoming California Book Club books. If you want to sign up for that, you can go to altaonline.com/join, and you can also watch tomorrow's thank-you email for a link to this great idea, or you can also simply join Alta as a digital member for just $3 a month. As I say, I'm a huge fan of Jaime Cortez's book, Gordo, and I'm really looking forward to the conversation. So, without any further ado, I will get out of the way and introduce Jaime, and John Freeman will take it from here. Welcome, gentlemen.
John Freeman: Hello, everybody. Welcome to tonight's book club. I'm so excited to talk about Jaime Cortez's Gordo with Jaime himself. Nice to see everyone from Alaska to Pasadena, to Sacramento, to Long Beach, to Montana, to Mexico, to Peru and points in between. About five years ago, I got an email from one of our former guests, the writer, Rebecca Solnit, and the title of the email, which was sent on my birthday, which I thought was some strange birthday present, was "This is one of my favorite things I've ever read," and attached in there was a short story by Jaime Cortez, and Rebecca and her typical wonderful fashion said, "Jaime was meant by God to be a writer. I'm his nag and his pimp." That's how I met Jaime Cortez in a story called "The Nasty Book Wars," which is included in this book, which is a series of stories set in the 1970s in and around Watsonville, California around a migrant workers' camp.
There are 11 stories linked around the life mostly of a slightly husky, slightly femme boy growing up named... Gordo is his nickname, and we follow Gordo through his coming of age in this world, but we also meet a lot of other people, his friend, Fat Cookie. We meet a hairdresser later on named Raymundo, meet his nextdoor neighbor, Alex, who Jaime will read about tonight. I think the easy way to describe this book would be a revision of Steinbeck Country, but that underestimates how wonderful this book is, how funny, the psychogeography of the place that it creates in its simple sentences, and its beautiful riffs about how people live around each other violently with humor, with tenderness, with grace, with curiosity. I think it's a magical book that could probably reach millions in the end because it's written with such clear heart and also just an immense craft that lures us into very complex territory by giving us stories that feel warm to the touch that invite you in.
Jaime is that kind of person you'll see very quickly. He worked as an HIV prevention activist. He's worked as a performer. Probably several other jobs he might get into tonight. He's mysterious and wonderful. He's sitting in front of some very interesting art, which may or may not be his, and he's also drawn his own art in the past and written a graphic novel called Sexile, which we'll get into, but let's get him out of exile in the Zoom room and bring him in. This is Jaime Cortez, one of my favorite people in the world. Such a pleasure to have you here with Gordo tonight for the California Book Club.
Jaime Cortez: Hello, everybody, and good evening to you all. I'm so excited to be here with the California Book Club. It's such an honor, and I just have really been looking forward to this discussion and to having some time to share with you all. For many weeks, I've been looking forward to this, so it's good to be here. Thank you for having me.
Freeman: I'm going to resist the obvious question, which is ask you about the art behind you, but get into it maybe in a second because I do want to start with Sexile, which is this graphic novel. Really completely different style, different setting. You would almost never know that the person who worked on and made that book wrote these stories. So I wonder if you can talk to us about the genesis of this book, where these stories started to come out and how you decided on, because it feels very deliberate. You decided on the style in which you would tell some of these stories.
Cortez: You're referring to the stories in Gordo, yes?
Cortez: Okay. Great. They came out of, I think, a couple of things. Obviously, the book is... not obviously, but the book is a work of semi-autobiographical fiction, but it's really more than semi. It's heavily, heavily autobiographical, and Gordo is very much my earthly representative in this narrative that that child is very much me. I think it was a couple of things that was interesting to me. One is that I wanted to see more stories about people like this. So I was anxious to have these stories be out in the world and to tell these stories of that California that I grew up in, that California of farmworkers, of people on the underside of the economy, on the underside of legality.
Some of them were undocumented, and that was something that drove me. I think equally importantly for me, I was really interested in trying to communicate the kind of sensibility that the people I grew up with had. The way that they loved, the way that they joked, the way that they hurt. I was just really wanting to communicate this sensibility of this community of people, my family members and other people on the migrant farmworker camp and how we were together. So those two things were really strong motivators.
Freeman: So did you grow up in a camp like the one in Gordo, and if so, I wonder what your earliest memories of it were?
Cortez: I did grow up on farmworker camps, specifically in San Juan Bautista, which is really nearby to Watsonville here for those of you who know this geography of Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Bernardino Counties. So I did grow up in that setting, and what was the second part of your question? What was it?
Freeman: Just can you talk a little bit what it was like to grow up there?
Cortez: Oh, yeah. For me, looking back on it now, in so many ways, now that I think about it, it was like growing up in a Mexican village surrounded on all sides by California. That's the way I describe this place. Everybody was either immigrant or first generation American children of immigrants. Everybody spoke Spanish. The kids, a lot of the kids could speak English as well, but mostly, Spanish was the language of that little village that was the farmworker camp.
It was a place that was... It was in a small town like San Juan Bautista remains a tiny town, but I think the thing that, to me, was so striking was going back there as an adult and realizing that the distance between the camps and downtown San Juan, the two or three blocks of stores, and other bakeries, and all that stuff, the actual distance is probably not even two to three miles, but it might as well have been another country because it just felt like you were crossing into a whole different country when... To me, it felt like we were crossing into a different country when we went from this camp to the land of homes with driveways, and front yards, and indoor toilets.
All of that seemed to me like exotic and of another world. I think that's something that really jumps out at me when I think back at those camps. I did not initially realize that we were poor. It wasn't until I started going to school that I realized, "Oh, we are poor people," and so that was... For me, it was just everybody around me was in that socioeconomic bracket of farmworkers and their children. So there was nothing else for me to compare it to.
Freeman: That sense of being set off aside from California exists in the book, this really wonderful way of this deep enclosure, this almost sense of protection. In the first story, this guy who comes in with a bakery truck, selling donuts for 10 cents each, but two for 25, which is a weird deal because you think... I think that's how I remember it. I think like that's a...
Cortez: I think it was 12 cents each, two for 20.
Freeman: Yeah. Yeah. Okay, so that is a deal, and the kids look at him like this stranger that's sort of... It's almost like the beginning of an adventure film where this guy rolls up out of nowhere with this, and he's probably just driven in from another part of town, and the kids all... He's tries to speak to them very slowly in Spanish, and they're like, "No, we speak English."
Freeman: Throughout the book, I feel like you very gently keep, at least into the latter parts, the world enclosed, and I wonder what that enclosure allows you to do and what to not do as a storyteller in terms of how you treat, and look at, and present your characters.
Cortez: Yeah. I was very much interested in the interrelatedness of adults and children on this camp, and so occasionally, that little village, as I call it, would be... The bubble of that village would be pierced by somebody from the outside, and it's always event. It's noteworthy when someone from the outside would come to the camps. So that was something that was compelling for me. Also, a lot of the stories are about the society that children make in the absence of adults.
I think that having them on this farmworker camp and having that isolation, it's a perfect Petri dish for that experiment of what do kids do when you leave them on their own. I think that the isolation of the camp also helped me to get to those kinds of things because they had each other there, whoever else was in the camp, and there was not much else from the outside, so they have to contend with each other. That's the beauty and at times, the challenge of very small town life or village life, or in this case, the life of a camp is that you have this intimacy. You have to contend with each other.
Freeman: Yeah, and I think kids have an innate sense of fairness and unfairness. They're always up to mischief. They're trying on selves and ideas, and they react very viscerally to presentational modes of being, which is quite funny because throughout this book, especially in the first half, Gordo is often getting messages either by watching or by being presented with them of how he's supposed to be as a boy or as a man, which is absurd because he's a boy. So, in the second story, his father brings him a wrestler's outfit to ask him to be a man, but he presented him with the most incredible camp outfit a boy could possibly be presented with. I wonder if you could read from that story because it's a perfect example of the collision of adult and kid world.
Cortez: Yeah. So, that's great. That's a good introduction to it. The story does take place on the farmworker camp. Gordo's father has gone out as he always does on Sunday to the flea market, and he came back with all this boxing and wrestling gear for Gordo, which was like a gift from another planet. It was so alien to who Gordo really was, but it was so much about the father wanting him to be this kind of boy. So I'll just do a brief maybe five-minute reading from that. So the father bought a box, and they begin unpacking it and picking out all this boxing gear. Then, Gordo starts asking his father questions.
"'Where did you get all this boxing stuff?' I asked Pa. 'At the bulga, of course, the Aravez. They have new things for the boys today: Boxing, lucha libre, wrestling things. People were buying it like pan caliente. Look in the box, hijo. There's more.' Inside the big box, there's a smaller box. I open it up. Shiny white boxer boots with silver stripes, and shoelaces, and little dangly pompoms on the side. 'Thank you,' I say, 'These are so pretty.' Pa is real quiet. He opens his mouth like he's going to say something, but he don't say nothing. He shakes his head like something bad just happened. I'm holding my boots like little twin babies. I'm telling him they're so pretty, and then he breathes like he's really tired, and he says, 'Keep going, hijo.'"
"I reach into the box, and grab a folded-up bag, and open it up. 'Yes, a lucha libre the mask of my favorite wrestler, El Santo. The mask covers your whole head and face in sparkly silver. Even the mouth hole and the eye holes are sparkly.' 'It's all for you, hijo. Keep going,' he says. There's a bag in the box. I open it up. 'A jump rope. Wow, Pa, this is the best thing.' I feel like maybe I'm going to cry. I look up at Pa. I almost can't say it, but finally, I say, 'Gracias, Papi. I've been wanting my own jump rope forever. Sylvie never loans hers to me, but now, anytime I want to, I can play jump rope.' 'It's not for playing,' says Pa. 'it's for ejercicio. Understand? You start training and training so your heart and your legs can get fuerte, and you can burn up the fat, get strong to do boxing, lucha libre. Entiendes?'"
"'I understand, Pa.' 'Hijo, you know how Muhammad Ali is the Black Superman?' 'Yeah, he's the best.' 'Well, Gordo, you can be the Brown Superman. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Un gran campeón.' 'Okay.' 'All you need to do is train hard. You want to put on the Santo mask?' 'Yeah, Pa.' I grab it and try to put it on, but I can't. Pa takes it from me and unties the laces on the back of the mask and opens it up. Then, he puts it on my head, pulls it down hard. I can feel him tying the laces in the back. When he finishes, it's really tight. It's pulling my hair, my ears kind of bent, it hurts, but I don't care. I love it. 'Turn around, Gordo,' says Pa. 'Look at yourself.' I walk over to the mirror. Wow, I'm pretty sure I look cool. My Pa stands behind me. I hold up my arms and make a muscle. Then, he reaches down and tries to pull off my shirt. I don't want to take off my shirt in front of him or nobody. I grab it and yank it back down. 'Gordo,' he says, 'Take it off.' 'I don't want.' 'Take it off now.'"
"With my shirt off, I feel naked. I don't like it. He tells me to look in the mirror again, so I do. I look even more like El Santo now. He's smiling. I feel like El Santo. This is boss. 'Let's go outside so I can teach you jumping the ropes,' says Pa. 'I already know how to jump rope, Pa,' I say. 'When I play with Sylvie and the girls, I can beat them sometimes.' I grab my rope and follow him. I don't ever go outside with my shirt off, even at the beach. It's embarrassing to be fat. I don't like the way people look at me, but today, I don't care. I'm El Santo. I'm the best. I pick a spot in front of the house, and I begin jumping rope. My Pa looks pretty excited when he sees me jump. My dog, Lobo, comes running to see what's going."
"'Caramba, Gordo. You got good reflexes, mijo. Good feet.' I never seen my father so happy before, and I started to jump faster and faster. When the rope hits the ground, little rocks and dust pop right up. My Papi is watching me. He's laughing. He's so excited. He even jumps up and down a few times. Lobo is excited too. His tail is wagging. He starts barking. I start to sing my favorite jump rope song that I learned from Sylvie. 'I'm a little princess dressed in blue. Here are the things I like to do. Salute to the captain, bow to the queen, turn my back on the submarine.' 'Don't,' he yells. 'Don't what?' I ask. 'Don't sing that song.' I'm breathing hard from the jumping, but I'm also thinking hard. I look at his face. If the next thing I say is the wrong thing, I'm going to get hit. 'Should I sing a different song?' I ask. 'No, hijo. No singing. All you do is jump and count, jump and count. Okay? Every day, you're training. You're trying to jump a little more.' 'Okay,' I say, 'I'll count.'"
So that was an excerpt from the story, "El Gordo."
Freeman: Oh, I love hearing you reading, Jaime. You're such a great reader, and I love in that scene how there are two people in it, but one of them is wearing a mask, and it's not necessarily Gordo. It's like he's responding honestly to the messages that he's being given. While you were reading, Linda Lucero, one of the audience members, had a really good question which is, "Can can you talk a bit about how you found the right voice for these characters who are not yet adults?" because I think that's one of the great strengths of these stories.
Cortez: If I had to identify what the core project was in the end of doing this collection, it was nailing that kid voice. That's where I ended up having to put a lot of energy, and my process involved, first of all, a lot of reading it out loud. I have to hear it in my ears to know if it sounds "right," whatever that means. The calculus for that is a nuanced one that is very individual to me, what I think of as being the right thing, the thing that feels true to these kids. I think the other really important task was figuring out how to evacuate my adult mind and my adult language and frameworks out of this kid, get the adult self out, and instead, try to remember back to the poetics of children and to remember that there is such a thing as a philosopher kid. They philosophies in their own ways with their own language, with their own frameworks, and that was the work for that voice. It was a wonderful exercise. I'm really glad that I realized after a while that I had to get my adult self out of that voice.
Freeman: Well, and one other tiny detail that I think you get down very cold is that for kids, a dog is like another person, and so Lobo's activities... One of my favorite sentences in the book is, "The dogs are melting." The dogs are just part of the pack of kids growing up. Another question that came up from the audience in advance of the event, which I think is also related to what we're talking about in terms of voice, and seeing kids with their own terms with complexity, and creating a voice for that in stories is to ask, how much of this is influenced by comics, which is a great form in which those things can be worked out? Someone in particular wanted to know whether Gordo was inspired by a cartoon character called Gordo created by Gus Arriola.
Cortez: No. This Gordo was not inspired by that Gordo. Although I'm fond of Gus Arriola's Gordo, indeed. I would say that this wasn't... I think the connection that I would make to comics is that I tried to write very concretely and very visually. I often say I love drawing, and I love writing as well, and I often say that when I draw, I draw stories, and when I write, I write pictures. So I try to be really concrete, and I would say that for me, the experience of writing the stories is very much like a movie or storyboarding. I just think about, "What do people do? What do people say?" I don't spend much time at all inside the heads of any of these characters. Everything is coming from their words and their actions, so I'm focused on that, the very concrete and the very external.
Freeman: Yeah. As this book goes on though, Gordo becomes more of a participant observer in a way. I mean, he's talking the whole time, but in Chorizo, for example, when this family comes to town, this Indio family, he's doing a lot of observing about how his family deals with the challenge to be generous, to not judge, and he observes this exchange. I wonder if you can talk about the difference between the first couple stories, and I guess in some ways, the Cookie story is one where he's observing, but as the book goes on, he is watching and learning. He's not summarizing what he's learning, but somehow the stories tell us what he's registering, and I wonder if you can talk about that process.
Cortez: Yeah. In those stories, I really see Gordo, a little kid, finding the world rather mysterious like, "Why do people do this? How did this family arrive at the migrant farmworker camp with nothing, but a few bags of clothes that they carry on their backs?" All these things feel... there's the mystery of the world, and he's like a little detective using what he has to try to make meaning out of that. So he needs to be observant in order to just unravel these mysteries because it's not the kind of world where he can ask or he does ask for explanations of, "Why is it like this? Why do people do that? Why do people end up in those circumstances?" There's not that facile communication, which I think is a great thing for kids to have when they're growing up is to be able to just ask, but Gordo is not in a world of, "Just ask." He's more in the world of, "Shut up. You're a little kid. Shut up, and if you want to figure something out, you need to listen and try to make meaning." So I think it has to do with that.
Freeman: You've had some experience working in a listening capacity to some degree as an HIV prevention and AIDS activist and counselor to some degree. I might be misrepresenting some of that work, but I wonder if you can talk about the way that you grew up in the place that you grew up, and what it taught you, if anything, about how to listen to people and how to attend to what they are presenting you with, and what they're telling you, and how that sat with you as a person, not necessarily just an artist, but as a person moving into a world in the '80s and '90s that had some severe challenges, and when the activist in you woke up, and what it thought about listening as an activist capacity.
Cortez: I'd say a couple of things. One is that when I think about the years that I was involved in HIV, it was mostly on a volunteer basis, just volunteering to try to be helpful. There's a way that that can be very adjacent to activism, but I think it's not quite the same thing because it wasn't an act about advocating for change. It was trying to help within the systems that already exist. So I would be hesitant to call myself an HIV activist, but I was a volunteer, and I was engaged for those years that I was in that. Sometimes that can feel like activism, but there's a little bit of a different nuance.
I think the listening thing is a really interesting one to me, John. I think the most primordial thing I could say about the listening piece is a child growing up in a world where there's alcohol and violence has to learn to be very observant and has to know how to read the room because that, for me, anyways, that kind of violence or shouting could erupt at any moment. So you had to be able to know how to navigate that and how to not do things that might set it off. So the listening piece and being observant was a survival mechanism. You have to learn how to navigate these gross power imbalances and the hovering possibility of violence that's always there. So I think that was very informing to me in terms of listening, and observing, and trying to understand what makes people tick, and what do they want and need, and how much can they be trusted. So all of that is in play. I don't know if that answers your question, but that's the beginning.
Freeman: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I grew up in the era where kids were hit, so.
Freeman: I was always, as a kid, reading the room, making sure that I didn't get too close to the edge where I was going to get hit in the head.
Cortez: Yes. I was just remembering something very recently that I'd completely forgotten was that when I was, first, in elementary school, there was this hierarchy because some kids' parents had signed the form that said, "Yeah, you can hit my kid," and some kids' parents had signed the form that said, "No, you can't hit my kid." So there was this thing, and we had a lot of curiosity of like, "Are you exempt from being hit at school or not?" So I had forgotten all about that. We were in a funny transition between the culture of corporal punishment and the emerging culture of that, that corporal punishment in schools was unacceptable.
Freeman: Yeah. We won't go down this road, I promise, but there was a third grade teacher with a paddle with holes in it because the holes made it hurt more. You would think that this was 1919, but it was actually the 1970s, and that was... I dreaded going to third grade for that reason, and I guess one thing I want to ask you about is typically, when violence occurs in fiction, it can clear the room. It can flatten. Throughout this book, you have these moments where violence happens either person-to-person, or there's a fight, or men dancing suddenly getting into a fight because they're trying to figure out who's the best dancer. Then, suddenly, at the very end of a fight, there's an act of tenderness.
I guess what I'm trying to work towards is that you capture the suddenness, and then the fact that it's over and that there couldn't be, right after that, a swerve towards tenderness. I guess what I want to ask you about is, knowing how violence can feel when you're in it, how you were able to keep the story supple enough so that violence didn't overwhelm it because I think a book like this, because there are some really hard things in it, could have been overwhelmed by the acts of violence that occur within it.
Cortez: Yeah. I think that I knew that my stories we're right next door to abjectness. I knew that because you have this combination of poverty, and marginalization, and violence, and queerness. It's just right next door to abjectness, and I didn't want to be in that place. I wanted to hopefully uncover some of these tremendous challenges and frightening things that were part of this world that this child lived in, but I didn't want that to be so defining, and so I had to figure out... It's like a recipe. "Just how much of this abjectness can we include without it becoming abject? How much salt can you put in the soup before it actually becomes too salty?"
It's like that feeling, I think. I needed to do that because these characters are pretty much all based on actual people or composites of people that I actually knew growing up, including a lot of family members, and I love them. I don't want to flatten them into just perpetrators of violence or victims of violence. Life is much more complex than that. It's much more poignant than that to me. People are many things, and so that was, I think, how I was thinking about the function of violence and how to fold that violence into these stories.
Freeman: It allows you this unwillingness to flatten and your attendance to roundedness and characters. You're one of the best character writers I know in California writing, for sure, is you have this ability to have stories have many dimensions. So The Nasty Book Wars is a story which I talked about at the beginning of our... It's so many things. It's a coming-of-age story, it's a satire of sexual coming-of-age. It's a meditation on the normalization of sexual violence. These kids are basically learning how to be gendered sexual kids through nudy magazines, which are frankly quite gross that they then fight over and tear up into bits. In the middle of this, it's this amazing juxtaposed portrait of the adults having parties. You have all these wonderful nicknames for the characters, Preemie, Head and Shoulders who has no neck. In the middle of all this, there's also a raid from ice or the equivalent thereof then.
Freeman: It's somehow overshadowed by "The Nasty Book Wars," which is why, when I read this story the first time, I thought, "Oh my god, I have to publish this guy in Freeman's." So I guess I want to figure out from you because we're getting in towards the middle of the hour, and I'd love you to read again, is as you get to the middle, to the two-thirds point of this book, the stories get very complex, and the worlds that they're juxtaposing, especially in Nasty Book Wars, and especially in Alex. What did you change in how you were writing those stories to tilt them towards a greater contextual complexity?
Cortez: Yeah. These stories in this book were written over a long period of time, a couple decades, really, and some of them were... Most of the newer ones, I really focused on trying to get that Gordo kid voice, but some of the early earlier stories that involved Gordo are not told from his voice, and The Nasty Book Wars is an adult narrator telling that story. So you get to bring that adult sophistication to how you tell the story of these kids discovering this pornography which... After having the book out for more than a year, I finally started getting invitations from high schools to come and present in high school settings.
One of the things that comes up... That story will sometimes come up, and I always make a point of reminding these kids like, "Okay. You guys, if you have internet access, you have access to oceans of pornography. Every possible permutation from every corner of the world, it's all there for you to ogle and be fascinated by. I just need you to cast your mind back to a time when it was actually quite unusual to have access to porno if you were a kid and what it would mean to find this stash, this hoard of pornography." So I take them back to that, and I'm sorry. I lost track of the question.
Freeman: I guess I was asking, and you've answered it, which is how you tilt these stories towards greater complexity in the middle of the book.
Cortez: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Freeman: It answered that, having an adult narrator. It answered that.
Cortez: It's that voice, switching from the kid voice to an adult narrator, that allows you to have this different kind of penetration that's not just based on what you are observing, but it's combining what you are observing and connecting it to a bigger picture, bigger set of facts, which is the difference between that kid voice and that adult narrator.
Freeman: You've mentioned high schools, and if there's any educators who are listening to this call, I cannot recommend enough that you invite Jaime to come talk. I've seen you read in person, Jaime, a few times, and every time, you bring the house down. Once, you even overshadowed Rebecca Solnit, which I think is virtually impossible to do, but when you read at City Lights, everyone was, "Who is this guy? I have to get this book." That was a year or two before your book was even out. I want to move back to the book though because the heart of this book is a long story called Alex, which I think is just a masterpiece, and it does return you to Gordo's voice, but it's a different depth to the voice. He's observing. There's this person that lives next door named Alex, and I wonder if you could take over the description of the story because I think you handle so many of the details in it with just absolute mastery.
Cortez: I think in this story, Gordo and his family have left the farmworkers' camp, and they've moved into their own home, and they have a neighbor. The story is really about Gordo learning that things are not always what they seem and beginning to understand some of the inner workings of what was happening next door with his neighbors and of an abuse situation that was happening that echoes abuse that had happened in Gordo's own family, but it had all these other elements that were really confounding to Gordo to see, to begin to realize, "Whoa, there's something going on next door that I had no idea about, and I'm just trying to piece it together, and I don't quite get it."
In this scene, I'm going to read from Gordo's neighbor Delia who is the woman who lives next door. She's reaching out to him across the fence. There's a fence that's covered with ivy, and it has holes in it, and that separates the two properties. So they're having this communication across this ivy fence, and I want to read, again, another five minutes or so from there. So this Gordo talking about the couple that lives next door.
"If you saw them all dressed up in Easter colors on Sunday, you probably think they look pretty happy, but I know they're not because sometimes I hear the bad sounds coming from their house. I know the bad sounds from when Bob returns home drunk and angry from Alex's house. I hear shouting, things breaking, scared screams, somebody making noises like an angry animal. I once heard Delia begging Alex not to hit her, but of course, he didn't stop hitting. It never works when you ask someone to stop hitting you."
"A few weeks later, I'm hanging clothes on the clothes line, and I hear my name. It's soft at first so I don't really notice it, but it gets louder. 'Gordo. Gordo. Gordo.' I can't figure out where the voice is coming from till I notice it's coming from the ivy fence between our house and Alex's. 'It's me, Delia,' says the ivy. 'Hi, Delia. I didn't see you.' 'Gordo, I'm wondering, do you know how to fix this?' I hear the sounds of ivy leaves and vines getting pushed aside. Then, I see Delia's hand holding the transistor radio with a suitcase handle on top. She pushes it through a hole in the fence over to our side. I walk towards the hand and take the radio. 'Your radio is broken?" I ask. 'Yes. No. I don't know. Maybe.' I take the radio from her hand. 'Turn it on,' says Delia."
"I find the on/off button and push it. The radio starts playing when I need you. I change the station. It's Cornelio Reyna's Barrio Pobre. I change it again. It's a football game. Boring. I change it one more time, and it's Rock the Boat. That's my jam. I turn up the volume. It sounds good. 'Your radio sounds okay to me, Delia.' 'I know the sound is good, but it's broken. It's different. I bought this radio from El Salvador. I wanted to know what was happening back in my country, but when I turn it on here, it mostly talks in English. I can't hear the radio voices from home. I turn the dial to where the news should be, and all I hear is rock and roll in English. What happened to the voices from home?' 'I'm not sure how to explain it, but I tried.'"
"'The radio is different in every place,' I say. 'When we go visit family in San Jose, the radio is different. Different music, different news. You can't hear the voices from back home in your country. They're too far away.' 'Oh,' says Delia. I can tell from her 'oh' that this is bad news. 'I really wanted to hear the voices from home,' says Delia. 'I miss them so much. It makes me feel lonely. I thought the voices from home lived inside the radio, and I could bring them to Watsonville.' 'You can't, Delia.' 'I'm so stupid. I'm a [inaudible].' 'No you're not stupid, Delia. You just didn't know how the radio works. Here let me give you back your radio.'"
"Delia pushes back some ivy like a curtain on her end. Through the hole. I see a corner of her face. She has a puffy eye. It's black with purple. I don't say nothing. I pushed the radio through the ivy, and she takes it. 'Thanks, Gordo,' she says. She sounds so sad. I hear her walking away. I hear her backdoor open and then shut. I finish hanging the clothes. I'm not sure what to do. Ma is always telling me to mind my own business, says I'm like some nosy old lady. Black eyes are top secret. Two times, Ma got a black eye from Pa, but nobody said nothing about it. I guess you're supposed to shut up like nothing happened. Swallow the story, but Delia needs help, so what should I do?"
"I look up to the sky, close my eyes, and I ask God to tell me what to do. I wait and wait, hanging clothes. He don't say nothing. Every time I ask for help, he never says nothing. I finish hanging the clothes, and I go back into the house. Sylvie is doing homework at the kitchen table. Ma is cleaning the living room windows. I open my sock drawer and grab my Magic 8 Ball. I know it's stupid to ask a toy what to do, but I'm stuck. I hold the black ball close to my mouth, and I whisper, 'Should I tell Ma about Delia's black guy?' I shake the ball and stare at the little round window with the blue water. My answer floats up to the window, 'Ask again later.' Stupid ball. I shake the ball hard and ask again. 'Signs point to yes,' says the ball. Okay. That's it. I decided I'm going to tell."
So that was a little excerpt from Alex.
Freeman: Oh, I love that story, and it's just the first question of many he has to ask himself because once he decides to do something, decides to tell, a series of revelations begin. We're running a little bit tight on time, and I don't want to reveal what those revelations are, but it definitely opens up a world of complexity towards him, for him about people not being what they appear to be and abuse not coming from the expected directions all the time, so to speak.
Freeman: I want to go to a question from the audience from someone named Patricia Grogan because as you were reading, you talked about storyboarding your stories. You can see it so visually. You can see the fence. You can see them talking through it. You could almost see this as a film or a scene within a play, and Patricia Grogan asked, "Is there any chance of a collaboration with El Teatro in San Juan to present Gordo?"
Cortez: This is a wonderful theater company, and I have a complicated situation with them because I work at the Hewlett Foundation, and we're arts funders, and Teatro Campesino is one of my grantees. So, as the funder, it would be totally not cool if my play got presented at their theater because that's just... It looks so much like conflict of interest, and it is. So it wouldn't be there, but hopefully, another place that's not a grantee of mine might pick it up at some point. We'll see.
Freeman: Marsha Peralta asks, "Is this an audio book, and did you narrate it?"
Cortez: It is an audio book, and the Penguin did not want me to read the book. I tried to convince them to let me do it, but they want professionals to do it. The person they chose did a really good job. He's all pro. I remain a bit heartbroken about that because that book came to me in my spoken voice. As I mentioned, I always read my work out loud to myself, and in my mind, it only exists in my voice. They chose someone very capable, but it's not me, and I think it's always going to be a little bit heartbreaking that it played out that way.
Freeman: You have a lot of talents in various art forms. You've worked as a graphic novelist. You've put together anthologies. You've helped writers as a grant-giver at the Hewlett Foundation. Obviously, seeing you tonight, it's so clear that you're also a performer of sorts, which leads me to wonder just as a sidebar what the art is behind you, and if it's yours or someone else's, and how your visual aesthetic overlaps with or doesn't with your narrative aesthetic.
Cortez: Okay. Yeah. I could talk about this, and this one here on this corner, this is a painting by the late and very lovely Tony De Carlo who was at the time based in Los Angeles. Tony did these wonderful paintings of Latino men that tended to be his subject matter, and I always was very taken with that work and continue to be taken with it. This middle piece, which I could... Just let me see if I can adjust the camera a little bit. Yeah. There we go. This middle piece is an acrylic painting by Orlando Garza. He's a San Francisco artist, and I had seen another of his paintings in a similar vein with this man wearing a Santo mask. This is actually the wrestler in question in the story. This is a Santo mask. This is the look of it, except in this case, he turns it into a disco ball instead of just silver fabric, and I was just really smitten with it. I asked him if he could do another version of it for me, and he did. So this was my first ever commissioned painting that I purchased on layaway, and I'm so glad I did.
Then, the third one is Jaime Chavez, and he's based in Los Angeles. He does these beautiful, super graphic, super flat images combining LA homies with Aztec or Mayan elements. In this case, the homie is wearing this headdress, which I am a bit ignorant, and I don't know if this one would be Mayan or Aztec, but it's one of those, I'm guessing. That's the theme he likes to work with, and I adore his work. It's just so flat and elegant.
Freeman: Oh, that's wonderful. When you go to talk to high-schoolers or young kids about writing, about Gordo, about being an artist, do you ever bring visual art as you do readings, or do you just basically allow your voice to fill the room?
Cortez: I have not begun doing that. I think somebody asked about this last piece, so let me get it closer. They said they couldn't see it. Let me just grab it here, and this might a better picture of it. It's on wood, which I really love. I love painting on plain wood, and that's it. So anyways, but no, I have not incorporated the visual art into school presentations that I do.
Freeman: Going back to the story you just read, Alex, I feel like that would be such a great story for high-schoolers to read for all sorts of reasons because it's such a generous and enlarging entry point for issues of gender, of neighborliness, of what to do when you see something you know is wrong, about assumptions, about same-sex relationships, all kinds of things. I don't know what it is about this book, but it makes... and I know it's not me because one of the interviews that ran a view was in a Monterey publication just said, "The wisdom of Jaime Cortez," which you can be forgiven for developing a slightly big head if people start asking you things like that, but I do think this book purveys... It carries wisdom in the lightest way, and it does that by allowing a child to have wisdom. I guess what I'm building towards is a question that one of the audience members, Gabrielle Bernal, asked which is, "This is one of my favorite books that I shared with friends and family," Gabrielle writes, "I'm curious, what insights that you now know that you would share with Gordo or any of the other kids as a tío or as an older sibling?"
Cortez: Can you say that again, please?
Freeman: I think the question is... In this book, we're watching Gordo learn some things extensively in a way, emotionally, experientially. Of course, as the book goes on, we leave the kid world, and we meet Raymundo, so more closer to it, an adult, eventually, is an adult, but you don't reflect back on this world with adult knowledge per se, except in Nasty Book Wars, which is narrated from adult perspective. I guess the question that Gabrielle Bernal is asking is, what insights would you share with Gordo or with any other kids of that age that you now know yourself either as a writer, or as a tío, or an older sibling?
Cortez: I think there's a couple of things. I think about that, that little, fat, sissy boy. I think for anybody, just to go back and find the pictures of yourself as a kid, and just take a really, really good look, and it really opens up your heart to yourself, but also, just to kids in general. I certainly found that to be the case. Just pictures I've seen a thousand times. Just to sit and look really, really closely was a fantastic exercise. I suppose if I had to say things to a kid like that, one of them is you get to be yourself. You get to be yourself, and sometimes that comes at a price, but you get to be yourself. I think that was something that was so unfathomable to that little boy version of me was to imagine that you can just be who you are. You can be the sissy. You can be the queer kid. You can be the bookworm one in a world where being a bookworm was not very valued. You can do those things. I think it's just that. It's a very simple message, I think.
Freeman: Do you feel that way as a writer now, as an adult? I mean, the last time I saw you, we went to City Lights and had an event. You bought about seven books, and we talked afterwards. It was very clear that you have people in your life full of books, and cartoons, and art, and good friendships, and you've lived a life being an outman. I wonder if that is part of your feeling that you're talking about now looking back to kids or your younger self that maybe you got to become yourself. I guess the question I asked then is for kids who are in situations where they're not allowed to be themselves or feel like they can't be themselves, what do you say other than wait, or do you hope that a book like this allows them in some way to be themselves at least on the page or while they're listening or reading it?
Cortez: I think that one of the things for kids and for young people is if there is hostility, if they feel that there is hostility or actually danger in being themselves, they have to find the places where they can do, where they can express that, and it can be in the company of certain friends, trusted friends. That's a place. I remember being adolescent and a friend started basically explaining to me that he was gay, and that was revelatory, that someone else was experiencing that and that they would actually share it. I didn't feel comfortable sharing that about myself yet, but it meant the world to me that someone could share that, knowing probably very clear that I was also a gay kid. So there's that. It's like if the world broadly is not welcoming and open to who you are and how you want to express yourself, what little worlds can you carve out to have that?
I remember, for me, the great importance of drawing. That was just a place where I could be with my own thoughts, and I would be immersed in drawing for hours at a stretch as a little kid. That was a really great place for me to be. It felt safe, and it felt full of my expression, and that was a little world that I could control and enjoy, and it was something that... For parents, it's great because a kid locks himself up in a room, and he's just face down drawing on the bed. So it's hours of time that they don't have to be focused on taking care of them, or entertaining them, or whatever. So I think it's that. If the world at large is hostile, can you find little places in the world that are not?
Freeman: Lana, I'm so sorry. I think over the course of this whole hour, we neglected to say that Gordo is a lovely husky. I don't know how you would say it. Chubby kid. Yeah, he is big.
Cortez: He's a fat kid. Yeah.
Freeman: Yeah, and there's a question in the audience from CE Corngold which is about, "What was the biggest impact on you, Jaime? Was it nature, nurture, or education? Thank you for this wonderful book."
Cortez: What was the biggest impact on me? Wow. I feel like that's such a multi-part answer to that question, and the question, and I'm not trying to dodge it, is that it's all of the above. It's the person I was born to be. It's the person I was taught to be. It's the person I untaught myself to be. All of that, the interplay of all of that felt like... that feels like what was formative.
Freeman: Well, that's a beautiful note to end on, Jaime. It's been such a pleasure talking to you, working on this book with you. I was actually Jaime's editor for this book. It was just an enormous joy watching it emerge and find all these readers. I think it's the beginning of a long life this book is going to have. If you haven't read it yet, I cannot encourage you to pick it up more strongly. I think it's just an act of genius, big-hearted, lovely, funny as hell, and it will do probably what this hour did to you, which is make you smile and maybe have a little weep as well. I know I've had that moment. Jaime, thank you so much for giving up tonight and coming to talk to us.
Cortez: Yes, and I don't know if the names of those artists got shared out, but just in case people need to hear it. This little painting is Tony De Carlo. The middle one is Orlando De La Garza, G-A-R-Z-A, and then the third one that I shared with you was Jaime Chavez of LA. So thank you for asking. I support them, and I love their work.
Freeman: This is Robert Garcia, correct?
Cortez: Yes. That's Robert Garcia, another artist that I really enjoy. Yes.
Freeman: Yes. This is typical Jaime Cortez basically doing something creative, and then bringing five people along with him.
Cortez: Robert somehow managed to draw without ever meeting me a little kid that looked awful lot like me as a little kid, so I really enjoyed that little drawing on the cover.
Freeman: Well, thank you, Jaime. I think David, or Blaze, or Beth is going to come back on and tell you where to go now.
Ulin: I'm back. That was a fantastic conversation. Thanks to both of you. I love the book, and that conversation really illuminated a lot of what I felt about the book, so thank you for that. Just a couple of closing notes before we go out. Yeah. Again, big thanks to Jaime and John. If you want to revisit this interview, it was recorded and will be available at californiabookclub.com. Next month's book is Maggie the Mechanic by Jaime Hernandez. So you'll want to be back for that conversation, and a reminder again for the sale on Alta membership for California Book Club members. You can go to altaonline.com/join or again, the $3 digital membership. Please participate in a two-minute survey that will pop up as soon as we end the event, and stay safe. Stay well. Happy New Year. See you next month. See you next year. Thanks everybody for being here tonight.•