Of Cards and Community:
An Interview with Viola Canales
EARLIER THIS YEAR, writer Viola Canales published her debut poetry collection, The Little Devil and the Rose. Written with candor, grace, and economical language, the book is a series of poetic, largely autobiographical vignettes about the South Texas experience. Each poem is tied to an image from lotería, a Mexican game of chance. The fifty-four cards of the lotería deck provide the premise and structure of the collection, and contribute to the rich, immersive quality Canales creates. Like all of her work, The Little Devil and the Rose is informed by the interactions of diverse sociopolitical, religious, and emotional forces, and their effects on the community and the individual. The public and private are essentially inseparable in Canales’s work, and every reader is invited to the table she sets.
Front Porch: The Little Devil and the Rose is the your first published collection of poems. How did you begin writing poetry?
Viola Canales: I’ve been writing poems for many, many years. Leaving home to attend a boarding school over three hundred miles away at the age of fifteen triggered my writing of poems and stories, enabling me to express the many emotions I felt in leaving one world (the barrio in McAllen, Texas) and entering another (the Episcopal prep school of St. Stephen’s). Several of my poems were published in the school’s paper.
FP: How did your experience writing fiction inform your use of narrative in The Little Devil and the Rose?
VC: My relationship with writing is grappling with how best to express a peak emotional experience—one that stops time or gets etched into my soul because it is so joyous or so sad or so wickedly funny or absurd. Shaping the experience using the arc of a novel or short story sometimes works best, but the vivid, striking power of images and metaphors and patterns of poems worked best in conveying the experiences expressed in The Little Devil and the Rose, which span hundreds of years and are about family and community, as well as the individual, plus war and spirituality, ritual, hope and death…and of course food—chocolate and pan dulce and the favorite dishes put out for those returning on the Day of the Dead.
FP: The scenes of South Texas life in this collection are so vivid and resonant. How would you describe your relationship to place as a writer?
VC: All my writings are inspired and rooted in South Texas, where my family has lived even before Texas, Mexico, or a border was established. The poem “The Soldier” is about how families, such as mine, served as the northern frontier of New Spain, not with a presidio of soldiers, but with a fortress of bonds forged between families, through marriages and baptisms and pledges of loyalty for life. Even today, many living in South Texas are related to one another. So much turbulent history has happened there: My great-great-grandfather, for instance, was kidnapped at the age of fourteen by a Comanche raid. The War between the U.S. and Mexico (where Mexico lost what is now the Southwest) was triggered over whether the border was the Nueces or the Rio Grande River, and many families, including mine, lost, not only their land, but status and so much more. (I, for example, as many of my generation, was punished for speaking Spanish, even in the playground, when I started first grade. And when I turned fifteen, the San Juan Shrine in the nearby town of San Juan, where my family attended Mass very often, and which was built by the donations of many who had lost their lands, was deliberately destroyed by a man who flew his plane into it.)
But on the bright side, the music and foods and rituals and stories and games such as lotería—which dates back centuries and inspired me to write the poems in The Little Devil and the Rose—help weave people there into families and communities, still.
FP: As you mentioned, you found inspiration for the book in the evocative images of lotería. Were there certain images that you found more fruitful or more satisfying to work with than others?
VC: The fifty-four images of lotería are like archetypes to me, and to many others in South Texas, since the game has been played for centuries: I grew up playing it, but so did my parents, and their parents. And often when our extended families came together, on Easter or a celebration such as a birthday or wedding, playing lotería was the perfect way to reunite and catch-up and tell stories. It is also still played in many nursing homes in South Texas today since it conjures up family and culture, as well as so many memories of playing it over so many years.
As for what images I found most satisfying to work with, I would say that they were all meaningful to me, though some kindled painful memories, where others resonated with mystery or absurdity or blissful reminisces of childhood.
FP: One of the most interesting things about The Little Devil and the Rose is the way the poems examine the intersection of public and private life. The individual and the family are intimately connected to each other, the broader community, history, religion, and the social order. How do you see the personal and the public interacting in your work?
VC: The personal and the public are like the two sides of the same coin. This stems, I think, from my family history, where families, as I noted earlier, bonded and served as the northern frontier of New Spain, and thus had a personal, as well as a public function. I was also raised with the belief that every person was born with a don—a special gift, whether as a healer or storyteller or musician or cook—that the person had the duty to discover and then nurture and grow to the point of, not only bearing its fruit, but also sharing it with the rest of the community.
FP:This book is a bilingual collection, with each poem appearing in both English and Spanish. What was the translation process like? In which language did you tend to write the poems first, and how did translation affect the content and form of the poems?
VC: My first language was Spanish, the fifty-four lotería card images are in Spanish, and since I started playing lotería quite young, my earliest memories of the images are in Spanish. But, I have continued playing lotería through my many years growing up with family and friends across generations, so the poems were inspired by emotions triggered by these images—emotions that are neither Spanish or English. I did, however, write the English version of the poems first, then translated them into Spanish, though there were some Spanish words (such as comadre) that stayed Spanish in the English version since no English words conveyed the same meaning.
FP: You've had experiences in many fields, most prominently in law and politics. In what ways have these experiences informed your work and your writing process?
VC: As noted earlier, I was raised to believe that everyone—regardless of education, status, or wealth—was equal and was born with a special gift (called a don) that the person was to discover and then bloom to share with the community, enriching everyone as a result and strengthening the community as a whole. My work in law and politics stems from trying to break barriers that prevent people from living full and meaningful lives due to unjust laws or ways, which also keeps them from gifting us with their special talents. This too is reflected in my writing—whether novel, short story or poem—where characters are shown confronting obstacles, grappling with transcending or breaking through them (if not broken by them), and experiencing a change in themselves as a result.
FP: You currently teach at Stanford Law School, is that right? Does your writing life have an impact on your work in education and law?
VC: I’ve taught a writing-reading seminar at Stanford Law School for several years now, where students have the opportunity to read and discuss stories, novel excerpts, non-fiction articles and essays about lawyers and the practice of law, while working throughout the quarter on a short story, novel chapter, or non-fiction article, which the class comments on and edits through a series of workshops. Having written my novel and book of short stories while working as a lawyer and later as an official in the Clinton Administration, I try to impress on the students that they can use writing to express and channel their creativity while working stressful jobs that might feel alienating at times, thus providing an outlet and balance, and perhaps even a creative solution to their legal case. (For instance, a legal case might involve a lot of raw emotion that is not recognized as being relevant to proving a claim, but the lawyer might grapple with these issues in a story that is meaningful to him or her.) I also emphasize how, throughout history, it has often been a book or story that has galvanized and changed people’s consciousness to fight for justice (for instance, the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the fight against slavery).
FP: What is your personal relationship to poetry? Do you see yourself continuing to work with the form in future projects?
VC: I have been writing and reading poetry for many years. A poem can sometimes do what a novel or short story simply can’t, so yes, I will continue writing poems.
—Timothy Connor Dailey
Early in her career, Viola Canales served as a field organizer for the United Farm Workers and officer in the United States Army, where she was tactical director at a Brigade Fire Distribution Center overseeing Patriot and Hawk missile systems in West Germany, and before this, a platoon leader at a Hawk missile battery. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she practiced law at O’Melveny and Myers in Los Angeles (while also serving as a Civil Service Commissioner for the City of Los Angeles, to which she was appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley) and San Francisco, and then headed up the westernmost region of the Small Business Administration under the Clinton Administration. Her book of short stories, Orange Candy Slices and Other Secret Tales, was published by the University of Houston’s Arte Público Press, and her novel The Tequila Worm, published by Random House, was designated a Notable Book by the American Library Association and won its Pura Belpré Medal for Narrative, as well as a PEN Center USA Award. El Gusano de Tequila—her Spanish translation of the novel—was published in 2012 by KingCake Press. Her bilingual book of poems The Little Devil and the Rose (El Diabilito y La Rosa) was published in 2014 by the University of Houston.