Stories of Women and Borderlands:
An Interview with Christine Granados
Christine Granados was born and grew up in El Paso, Texas. She has been a Spur Award finalist and winner of the 2006 Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award. Christine's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such magazines as the Evergreen Review, Callaloo, NPR's Latino USA, Texas Monthly, Texas Observer, and El Andar, along with several anthologies and college textbooks. You can learn more about her work at ChristineGranados.com.
Front Porch: As a Chicana writer from El Paso, your work could fit into different categories such as Latino Literature, American Literature or Borderland Literature; is there a term that you embrace or do you resist such categorizations?
Christine Granados: You can’t really resist categorizations; they label you, so there’s no resisting. Whatever they call me, that’s what I am. I don’t take offense to any categorizations, unless they are mean spirited. I just want people to read my book. When people read it, they find that they can identify with a lot of the characters. People from Utah read my book, people from New York, and Jewish people, and they all identify with the characters.
FP: Dr. Miguel Olmos Aguilera has said that the “Borderlands,” the area along the US-Mexico border, “has always had an emotional meaning as well as a geographical one. Since pre-Hispanic days, it has been a place in the imagination of death and fame, suffering and heroism, as well as a reality which kills people.”(1) Do you think that the literature of this region today differs from the larger context of Hispanic-American literature?
CG: Sure it differs but then it doesn’t. The landscape is different and the language is different. However, when you get down to the essence of a story, say, a love affair, they are all the same. The difference is the language and the landscape. Stories become unique when they are told from the point of view of the people living in a region. That’s what makes stories unique. That’s what fiction does; it humanizes all these different cultures, languages, and landscapes and lets somebody in Utah be able to identify with someone from the Borderland. That’s what literature does—good literature. We don’t have a lot of good literature, but we’re working on it, as a community.
FP: What do you think are some of the most significant trends in Hispanic American literature right now, and how does your writing speak into those conversations?
CG: The trends are what the media pick up on, for instance, the crossing the border story, the narcotraficantes story, the Juárez murders. That’s what a lot of writers in and outside of the culture write about. My work doesn’t necessarily touch on those topics because it talks about, again, the human experience of living among the narcotraficantes and the female genocides in Juárez. I don’t want to exploit that in order to become popular or to follow a trend. I just can’t do that. I naturally write about what I know and all that I know is what I hear about what’s happening on the border. Because the “Hispanic American” trends in literature weren’t really my experience growing up. I can’t write about crossing the border illegally or losing someone in the drug war. What I can and do write about is the day-to-day life of an American of Mexican descent, who happens to live along the border and in that living is shaped by the corruption, drug trafficking, and poverty of existing next to a third world country. What I write about is the people who live with the knowledge that there are people dying right across the border and go on with their day; how they have to numb themselves to it, and how the reality is that they have to go on living while those atrocities are happening in their very own neighborhood. I write about the everyday people, who aren’t activists but still go out there and make the world better by just living their lives.
FP: In your short story collection, Brides and Sinners in El Chuco, you write predominantly in English but do not hesitate to include Spanish words and phrases, and yet you do so in a way that the English speaking reader is still able to follow. How do you make linguistic decisions? Does your audience play a key role?
CG: When I started writing, that was very difficult. Tim O’Brien was helpful when I took his class at Texas State. He’s the one who first told me that I needed to decide who I was writing for and if I wanted to make my stories accessible to everyone. I decided I did want to make this accessible to everyone; yet, I wanted to have enough Spanish in there to let readers know where the story was set. Language is such a political statement, especially among Chicano writers, or Mexican-American writers, or whatever you want to call me, who decide to use Spanish. Once a writer decides, they are making a bold statement. What’s funny, all the politics aside, is that a lot of my family members were upset that I didn’t put more Spanish in the collection. They said, “This isn’t how we talk.” I said, “I know, but I had to make it accessible to the larger population.” A writer gets flack either way they decide. What annoys me is that Spanish in stories is a political statement, but when people write in French it’s considered chic or intelligent and nobody gives it another thought. But when it comes to Mexican Americans and Spanish, people get all bent out of shape and say: “Oh, it’s Spanish. What kind of statement is this person making?”
FP: In Brides and Sinners your protagonists are women and girls with diverse opinions and experience, yet all have well developed voices that lead the narrative. When you start a new story, does the voice come first or do you begin with some ideas of plot and then find a voice to match?
CG: That’s a difficult question to answer. Kinda like the chicken or the egg. I actually wrote “The Bride,” in Dick Heaberlin’s class. It started with all the friends I knew growing up whose life goal was to be married, and so I kind of gathered them all up and wrote about them as this one person named Rochelle. So I guess I started with the story, but it’s hard to say. I don’t plot out a story. I vomit onto the page and then I put it aside. When I look at it again, I say, “Oh, I’ve got something here. These names mean something.” In the writing of the story, the voice develops and I cut and edit or, maybe, the voice is there and I cut and edit. I don’t know. There are also times that I deliberately follow an idea. I think, “No one wants to talk about abuse, about women who like to be abused. Why don’t I explore this? Let me explore this.” I write about what I notice and what I’ve always noticed were all the negative stories. When I was kid, I knew whose parents were divorced and who sold drugs and who was being beat up at home and that’s what I remember. That’s what stuck with me. I have a lot of happy moments in my childhood, but I don’t remember those. My parents always say, “You only remember the bad. What’s wrong with you?” I guess my problem is that I was born to be a writer.
FP: In the Acknowledgements section of Brides and Sinners you say that your family was your first introduction to the art of storytelling. How have your family’s stories influenced your fiction?
CG: My family helped me in every way imaginable, from characters to how to tell a story, to how to edit a story. In my house or at family gatherings, you sit at a table and you’re trying to get attention. We were up against relatives who lived during the Depression, fought in Vietnam, and got smacked on the knuckles by teachers for speaking Spanish in school. When you get a chance to tell your story it had better be good, because you’ll get pushed aside and ignored for the better story. You have to be loud and have a better angle than the next guy, so you’re editing as your talking. Dagoberto Gilb gave me the best writing advice ever. It was writing advice that I understood and could relate too, not this lofty intellectual theory from some of the other writers I have taken classes with. He said, when you’re writing, pretend you’re at a bar and you’re trying to pick up a guy. You want to keep his attention, so you’ve got to tell him a story. You’ve got to edit it and you’ve got to tell him only the good parts. That’s all writing is, trying to keep his attention. It’s simple. It’s what we did at home at the kitchen table. He said a lot of students in MFA programs think too much and they don’t just write. They’re thinking of structure and form and they’re not just writing from their gut.
FP: Are there particular themes that you find resurfacing in your writing?
CG: Strong women—I think my characters are strong. It’s funny because I get different reactions from men and women. Men feel horrible for the women in my stories. But the women laugh and they get it. The men in my family, like my brothers, think my stories are the saddest things they’ve ever read. I don’t understand; there’s so much hope in them. The women are like “That’s hilarious! That’s exactly how it is. That’s exactly how we are.” So, I guess, strong female protagonists or women in charge of their own destinies are what resurface in my writing.
FP: You have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas at El Paso; how has the study of communication influenced your fiction?
CG: My journalism background taught me editing and being concise. I think that’s why I write short stories, because I was trained as a journalist to write a story in 500 words or less—the shorter the better. And you know, all the stories I’m sending out now, I send them to agents and they tell me, “I need a novel. I like your writing but give me a novel. I can sell a novel.” How do you give a novel when you’re not writing a novel?
FP: In addition to fiction, you write columns and nonfiction. Can you talk about how your writing process is different or similar for each genre?
CG: When I’m writing fiction, I need more time; I need days and time. I’m not sure why that happens. When I’m writing columns, when I’m writing news stories, when I’m writing features, I know I have a deadline and so I’m in the mode to get this work done in a day or two. I know I need to interview this person, and do this research, and do this follow-up interview. Maybe if I could use that kind of deadline strategy for the short story or novel, maybe that’s what I need to get another book published again.
FP: How do you balance being a working writer while having an involved home life?
CG: I think every writer has the problem of finding time to write; they all have family lives. I handle it by having a lot of guilt about one thing or another. I don’t know if men do this to themselves; I don’t know if it’s strictly a female thing or if I’m generalizing or being sexist in thinking that they don’t have guilt. But I feel guilty that I’m not giving my kids enough attention. I feel guilty that I’m not being exactly the writer that I should be because I have these other obligations, or that I’m not being a good wife, or a good teacher. Guilt runs my life and I’m not even Catholic.
FP: What writers have influenced you the most?
CG: Well, Dagoberto Gilb. His books The Magic of Blood and The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña were the first I’d read that validated my existence in the world. By that I mean the first I’d read talked about being a working class American of Mexican descent living in the desert southwest and living in an urban area. It was a powerful moment. After I’d read his collection of short stories, I realized that I could do the exact same thing. I could write about the people I grew up with. It’s difficult to explain the thrill of seeing people who sound, look, and act like you portrayed in the pages of a book, especially when you’ve never seen them in books. It was a powerful moment.
But before I knew “real” living writers like Dagoberto, Tim O’Brien, Tom Grimes, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Chris Offutt, it was people like Tilly Olsen, Alice Walker, all the chicks, like Kate Chopin, Jane Austin, Willa Cather, Grace Paley, Eudora Welty, and Katherine Anne Porter whose stories I soaked up. Before them, in my younger days, it was Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King, Ken Follett, Jean Auel, Michael Crichton.
FP: Is there something that you have not yet written about but hope to?
CG: Yes. I hope to write short stories or a novel—or whatever it becomes—of small town Texas life, which is where I’ve been living for the last ten to fifteen years. There’s just so much wonderful dysfunction in small town life, so many cultural borders that are being navigated in Texas towns.
(1) Olmas Aguilera, Miguel. qtd. in Vulliamy, Ed. America: War Along the Borderland. New York: Picador, 2010. Print. 7.