By Monique Quintana
Monique Quintana: Family, women in particular, seem to be the pulse of your new short-story collection. How did you come up with the title, How Some Abuelitas Keep Their Chicana Granddaughters Still While Painting Their Portraits in Winter? It’s also the title of the first story in the book.
Myriam Gurba: It’s kind of tongue in cheek because it’s so long and pedantic, and it delves into the heart of the story immediately. This grandmother who’s capturing and creating culture through art and folk art, I think, links all the stories. That’s why I appreciate the title so much, and I also really wanted to evoke the identity of the Chicana in the title, to ground the short stories in a canon of Chicana literature.
MQ: I did see that first story as an interesting means of entering the collection. I immediately saw the family thread, but I also saw that it would be very female centric, which I appreciate. I myself have fond memories of my mother and grandmothers telling me really sinister stories, mostly to keep me out of trouble. Who were the storytellers in your own family and what did they teach you about story?
MG: The storytellers in my family were mostly women, and the storytelling that happens in my family tends to be the strongest in Mexico. When I was a kid I would get to go to Mexico a lot more frequently. The generation of storytellers is dying; we’re losing them year-by-year. But I do have an aunt who loves to host gatherings. She’ll put out wine, and everyone will sit in a circle, and the elders will take turns spinning yarns. One of the fun parts for me is that they’ll each have their own version of a story, so one will tell their version of the story, and then another will contradict her, and say, “No, you got it wrong, here’s the real version of the story,” and that will provoke a new story, and you could be there for hours fully entertained by storytelling. Their storytelling tends to be really melodramatic, kind of spooky, but also funny. Those are my favorite flavors in storytelling. My dad tells a lot of stories too, and so immediately in my household, that’s where a lot of stories came from, from my father. He’s more of a formal storyteller than the sort of folksy, natural, organic storytellers.
MQ: I definitely saw elements of chisme in the collection, a merging of the grotesque with humor. I want to talk a little about your first book Dahlia Season. I do see the differences in the collections; of course, the first being that Dahlia Season is a collection of short stories and a novella. When I read that book, it felt very much like a lament for L.A. The narrator is the first story “Cruising” talks about what a real California beach looks like. I was really taken with that whole idea. Living in California’s Central Valley, a lot of people get surprised when they visit. It seems to shatter their preconceived notion of California. Can you elaborate on the idea of a “real California,” and what kind of California you are most interested in writing about?
MG: I’ll start by saying that I have a lot of different muses that influence my work, and one of my chief muses is California. I love California. To me, California isn’t so much a place, as it is a spirit or an entity. I’ve always had this intense relationship with California. I remember being a little girl on the playground after it rained and smelling the earth, smelling California, and loving the smell, and finding it so delicious that I was compelled to put dirt in my mouth because I wanted it to be a part of me. I would pick rocks off the ground and I would suck them because I wanted the flavor of the earth so much; I seriously wanted to consume it. I’m in love with California.
I don’t ever want to leave California. I’ve been all over the United States and nothing compares to California, and I have fantasies about dying in California and being buried here, so I can become part of it physically. California is dazzling because it’s so many things simultaneously. It holds so many worlds that other regions of the United States cannot. Other places cannot contain these concentric universes. L.A. County alone holds universes. If you travel block to block, neighborhood to neighborhood, the change that you can see geographically and ethnographically occurring is wild. In Long Beach where I live, we have a block that is entirely populated by Cambodian refugees, and then the next is Black folk, and the next block is Mexican families, and one Salvadorian family, and a Japanese family. Our state is so culturally rich; and not only that, it’s also geographically rich. Everything that you want geographically you can find in California. Any geographic encounter you would want to have, you can have it in California, and it’s within driving distance.
MQ: California definitely feels like a microcosm of the universe. I was really taken with that concept in Dahlia Season, the real California vs. illusions of California. You continue the idea of illusions in Painting Their Portraits in Winter. As a reader, I was constantly questioning what is real and what is not. This book seemed to me like a lament for those living in the in-between. We see that happening in Dahlia Season, but it’s further explored in the new book. We really see the conflicts that arise when different generations of family come together. Borders, both literal and metaphorical, punctuate these stories. Can you talk about how the characters in the book live in those marginal spaces?
MG: You’re definitely on to something in describing the liminal spaces that exist for the characters and creatures in the book. I think a lot of the stories read as myth and allegory. Myth is rooted in reality, and an attempt to explain reality by using truths to enter the world of fiction. Myths really straddle fantasy and reality in that sense. Myths are not fully real, but they are an attempt to explain the world as it is. Myths and allegory run through a lot of the stories. As you were saying, the book is really woman centric. I don’t think I did that intentionally, but I appreciate literature that puts men on the periphery. Frequently in literature, and in film, we experience creation through the male gaze, but to me, the female gaze is much more compelling. It’s something that I relate to far more. This collection is written from the female gaze. You’re forced to experience things from the female gaze to engage with the stories. If you identify as a woman, you are automatically in a liminal space, you are automatically marginalized, and so the liminality becomes a byproduct of all the stories. Female creatures that are non-human also populate the stories. The sort of fantastical quality of some of the creatures, like the Aztec demons, gives them an even greater sense of liminality, and those creatures reside in a space of liminality, that sort of Goth in-between space that Gloria Anzaldúa wrote about so evocatively in Borderlands/La Frotera: The New Mestiza.
MQ: I really liked how children are characters in the story. Children’s voices are always stifled in society. These are also children that will grow into women. As female children, we see the many intersections of marginalization. We see how the female body is made into a monster. Two of the characters are very young sisters. So, with that, I was pleasantly surprised when I realized that the stories are connected and working within the same family. How did go about arranging the stories as they appear in the book?
MG: I’m going to talk a little bit about children and mothers, and then go into how I arranged the stories. I’m typically really annoyed with writing about children, and writing from the point of view of children. Typically, it feels so sanitized, and doesn’t treat children as fully realized characters; they tend to fall flat. They tend to be dancing around children’s capacity for evil, or their burgeoning sexuality, or their banality. Children have those things too. They tend to be idealized in literature, and they don’t have fully embodied voices. I really wanted to experiment with that idea through characters. In transitioning to a conversation about mothers, I wanted to explore the grotesque relationship between mother and child, and I also wanted to explore the concept of the childless woman, or the barren woman. She’s somebody who is misunderstood, or treated as unnatural, and I wanted to take the childless woman, the barren woman, and the woman who killed her children, and sort of normalize her, and put her at the forefront of the story, so that the reader could empathize with her, so she’s not this strange thing or this monster, that her monstrosity is normal; her monstrosity is something that could become acceptable as a reader. Typically, in media, women who kill their children are presented as violating the ultimate taboo, but women violate this taboo every day. So it can’t be that taboo, if infanticide by mothers is so common. So, that’s why I was drawn to writing about motherhood in that particularly vile and grotesque way, and in a destructive way.
As far as the order of the stories, I instinctively felt like the story with the grandmother teaching her granddaughters should go first. I staggered the stories according to tone, because I wanted different notes to be struck, so the stories could play of one another in an almost musical way. The first story is epic in a small sort of way, and the next story to me is a sillier, funnier, smaller story, and the next story, “E = MaChismo2” is spookier and gets sad, and “Georges Bataille Look Into My Eye” is funny and silly. I wanted to provide the reader with some breathing room, instead of stifling them with the same tone over and over again; give them different tones so they could take a break from the spooky, so they could go to the funny, and then take a break from the funny, and go to the mythic, and then go from the mythic to the folksy. I think I was paying most attention to tone in the organization of the stories.
MQ: It made me think of when I was a kid and my family was really into horror films. We’d watch something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and then we’d watch something funny so we could get to sleep that night. That marriage of the macabre and comedy seems to be ingrained in the Mexican-American family. That was something I noticed about the arrangement of the book. I always got a respite from the horror, which I found compelling and it kept me reading.
MG: We usually think that tragedy and comedy are opposite sides of the mask, but to me, the relationship between horror and comedy is much tighter. To me they’re almost the same thing, like fraternal twins. If you push horror a little further, it becomes comedy.
MQ: It does seem that all comedy stems from laughing at the miseries of other people.
MG: All comedy is a violation; it’s a breaking of a rule. The more breaking of a rule, the funnier something is. That’s also what horror is, the breaking of a rule. I think the horror in my work is influenced by southern gothic literature, where the horror and grotesqueness is disturbing to some readers, but there are also readers who find the humor in it, because it’s so hyperbolic. I have started to think of Painting Their Portraits in Winter as an apo-gothic book, as a Chicana gothic book.
MQ: I definitely see echoes of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor in the book. What I appreciate about your book is that it’s relevant to my experience as a woman of color, so thank you for that. I’d also like to ask about the form of the book. You’ve written poetry, short stories, flash fiction, and a novella. I think that you could make the argument that Painting Their Portraits in Winter could be called a novel-in-stories. How do you decide what form you want your fiction to be called?
MG: I’ve heard from a couple of people who explained that because of the reemergence of the characters, the collection reads like a novel in a very odd way. It wasn’t necessarily my intention to do that, but I liked that that occurred accidently, and I think it adds a complexity that I didn’t realize to the work as a whole. My publisher identifies my work as belonging to a sort of literary form. I find it really hard to discuss what form a lot of my writing takes. As you’ve said before, my characters are very liminal and I see my form as very liminal too. A lot of my stories exist between forms. Something that may seem to be flash fiction could also be interpreted as a prose poem.
I’m challenged by that question. I think that a lot of my writing is hybrid writing, and I haven’t developed the language to classify what it is that I do. I like that about writing. It makes me feel free. I don’t have to conform to any sort of length, or style. I let the story tell me what it is. A lot of that is instinctual. I’m a very emotional and instinctual writer. I know there are other writers who are more cerebral, who will plot and structure. I can’t do that. I find my writing becomes very stiff if I try to give it a skeleton. The way that I visualize myself writing is like when you watch a wasp or a bee building a home with that weird cellulose. It looks like they’re vomiting and they soon they have a hive. That’s how I visualize myself writing. It’s like I’ve been vomiting material and before I know it, I’ve created the structure. I’m thinking, it’s inhabited now, and I didn’t think it was going to look like this, holy shit.
MQ: Connected to the idea of form, I’d like to explore the idea of audience. Your story, “Chihuawhite,” is about a Mexican Goth girl, a Moth. I really connected to that story. I’ve been reading Anne Rice since the sixth grade, and my closet has been a black hole for as long as I can remember, so I totally got that girl. What effect does your audience have on how you craft characters? Are you writing with a particular girl in mind?
MG: Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. I usually feel like I’m just writing for myself. I’ll get really taken by an idea, and I’ll become obsessed, or fall in love with the idea. Something will really disturb me about the idea. When an idea gets that kind of emotional response from me, I can’t rest until I do something with it. There is also a particular kind of reader that I do write for. It’s a version of myself that I know exists, because I’ve seen them multiplying. It’s a girl or a woman, who’s Latina, nerdy and bookish, and has a tradition of macabre, not only from her culture, but from just growing up as a girl. Sarah Silverman once said, being a woman is like living in the world’s slowest horror film. You experience horror over and over and over again. That’s the girl I’m writing for. The one who has invested interest in those things. I imagine myself and the girls I knew who would hole up in their room, and burn candles, and paint their fingernails black, and listen to creepy music, and want to read a book about somebody like themselves having adventures, and not finding anyone like that in literature because there are so few characters that are nerds of color, especially female nerds of color. I feel like the big book about a nerd of color was The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. I thought, holy shit, this is a book entirely fixated on the nerd of color.
MQ: That book definitely lingered with me too. We don’t usually get a lot of intelligent characters of color in white narratives. Ultimately, it takes a person of color to write about that nerd of color experience.
MG: Another writer that does this is Felicia Luna Lemus. She writes about nerds of color. Another person is Christy C. Road. She does graphic novels. The thing about Junot Díaz’s work is that although it’s beautiful and amazing to read, you’re constantly getting slapped with his dick while you’re reading.
MQ: [Laughs] Yes, it’s very male centric.
MG: If you’re willing to push the dick out of your face, and then prepare for that fact that it’s gonna come slap you again, then you can be at peace with his work. But’s that’s going to happen. There’s this super macho element that you have to be willing to stomach.
MQ: I’d like to return to the idea of ghosts as female figures, like the looming figure of La Llorona. Ghosts are very pervasive in the collection. What do you think makes for a good ghost story?
MG: One of my favorite things in the world is to hear good ghost stories. I urge people to tell me ghost stories. If there’s a context for telling stories, like a blackout or a lockdown, I’m always the person that says, “Let’s tell ghost stories.” If we’re all experiencing hyper-awareness, then the story becomes that much better. I love all kinds of stories. I especially like ghost stories that involve female ghosts and ghosts that carry some kind of message, because then the stakes are heightened. Ghosts with a message are a key ingredient for a ghost story, and also a ghost that brings with it an element of danger and death, a ghost that’s an omen for impending tragedy. Then we’re wondering when that tragedy is going to affect the characters in the story. The first ghost I was introduced to was La Llorona, so she occupies the highest stake in my mental pantheon on ghosts.
MQ: She was definitely my first, too. So, I love how your stories are imprinted with women who are icons of Chicana feminism like La Llorona and Frida Kahlo. I’ve personally come to view Kahlo as a modern day La Llorona because her art speaks to the immense pain of being a woman and living in the in-between. Traditionally, La Llorona has been perceived as the bogeyman of Mexican culture. How do you think your stories complicate this idea?
MG: In the story “Chaperones,” women’s destructive nature is celebrated as much as women’s creative nature. I feel that the destructive nature of women in downplayed and not honored, and I wanted to honor a woman’s capacity for violence in that story. When people tell their children the story of La Llorona, it’s very much a warning: “behave, or you’ll encounter this woman.” I wanted to represent the encounter as something potentially exciting for people. The character who’s narrating “Chaperones” is describing her excitement, wondering if La Llorona could be the psychopomp that takes her into another world, and maybe that passage could be pre-death, but maybe that passage could be something macabre, but exciting at the same time. And almost eroticizing it, in an almost lesbian context, mixing sex and death together, and the idea of this girl trying to sleep and fantasizing about La Llorona. So adding an erotic element to her complicates the narrative.
MQ: We talked about how you the title of the book is a code for Chicana-identified women. I find that my own Chicana identity grows and changes, as I grow and change as a woman and a writer. How would you define your Chicanisma at this very moment?
MG: At this very moment, I feel connected to my childhood encounters with the word Chicana. My father introduced me to the word. He told me I was a Chicana, and explained to me what the word meant, and then I adopted that word as my own. I introduced myself that way, or reflect on myself using that word. It’s always been a word that I’ve carried throughout my life, and I feel like it’s a gift from my father, and it’s a very specific word for a very specific identity. I’m the child of Mexican parents, but I was born in the United States. Having that ancestry gave me a very particular perspective, and puts me in a really liminal space where there are times when I feel fully embodied as an American, and there are times when I feel fully embodied as a Mexican, and there are times when I feel disembodied, and I feel neither of those things. For me, being a Chicana is having to navigate the paradox of being fully embodied and disembodied at the same time, as an American and as a Mexican, and then having the outsider experience of being a woman added to that mix.
MQ: Your stories are both joyful and macabre. We could use those two words to describe the very act of writing and being a writer. What keeps you writing?
MG: What makes me write, and what makes me create in general, is literally a compulsion that I’ve always had. There’s a tension that I carry with me, and the only way that I can serve that tension and anticipation and anxiety is by making something. Frequently it’s writing. My brain is obsessed with language and doing things with language, and chopping words apart, and sentences apart, and narratives apart, and putting them back together in ways that couldn’t fit. My brain is always trying to simulate a problem. It feels like an addiction. I do feel there’s something that verges on mental illness with creative people; let me modify that, with artists. I had this conversation with a friend the other day. A creative person can sit down and write a story and enjoy writing the story, and then they’re fine with never writing another story again. An artist will die if they never get to write another story. I feel like I fall into that category. It’s almost like a pathological drive. I have to do it. If I don’t do it, I’m dead. For a lot of artists that I’ve talked to, that’s how they experience life.
MQ: You’re compelled to do it, no matter how painful it is.
MG: The only analogy that I can think of, where you’re compelled to do something so unnatural is addiction. It’s like a mental illness with a really great byproduct.
Monique Quintana is a Master of Fine Arts candidate in fiction at California State University, Fresno. She serves as associate fiction editor for The Normal School Online and is the president of the Chicanx Writers and Artists Association.