Tales from the Valley
Author David Rice Interviewed
South Austin is David Rice's neighborhood, where La Reyna Mexican Restaurant is, for many, the undisputed queen. Even at eight in the morning, the restaurant walls reverberate with a happy babble of English and Spanish. In a black suit coat, a t-shirt, and ancient jeans, David Rice sits across the table from me, looking comfortable and awake. He talks expansively, energetically, warmly, peppering his speech with literary references and personal stories. Some people are "consummate storytellers"; Rice, I think, is a compulsive storyteller, but luckily the kind that it is a pleasure to listen to. I am sucking down cups of coffee, but it isn't the caffeine keeping me alert -- it's Rice's enthusiasm for even the smallest detail of the place and the people which he calls home.
AC:Let's talk about why we can't do this on Monday.
DR: Monday I will probably be in the Valley, starting a workshop. My high school is right in the middle of the Rio Grande Valley, Edcouch -- Elsa High School. If you look in the book there, Edcouch is mentioned. All those towns in that book are real towns. I was told I should make them fictional. And I said, "Why don't you tell that to people in New York -- make New York fictional." Anyway, I've been asked to teach for two weeks in the Rio Grande Valley. I'm going to teach writing. I'm going to have them read 10 short stories. We're going to read Crane, some Malamud, Hemingway, and of course some Chicano lit -- Rolando Hinojosa-Smith.
AC:Can I get that name?
DR: Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, Doctor. He's a professor at UT, he's written about nine novels. He's very underrated. A couple of years ago, Texas Monthly slammed him. I think they don't understand him. They don't want to take the time to understand the culture. They want the culture to be accessible to them, but when that occurs, the authenticity is lost. And so these people are saying, "I don't understand his literature..." Well, you're not making an effort, are you? You want it to be all so simple -- whitewashed, if you will. Well, screw you.
AC:There's a great line in "She Wants To See The World," ....
DR: Where the captain is looking at the sergeant -- "she couldn't read Spanish." Yeah. For that story, I actually interviewed a sergeant who'd been in the army for about 28 years. I interviewed her to get an idea of Gloria. How Gloria thinks. Because women back then, if they joined the service, whatever their race, they were considered either women looking for husbands, or whores, or lesbians. And Gloria, the question is, is she lesbian or not?
AC:Which you leave unresolved.
DR: Right. I leave it to the reader to decide... people want a nice, tight ending. Hey, man, it doesn't work that way. If indeed the story had a nice ending, someone would die in the end. And even then, that's not an ending. The past is always with you, as Faulkner and Virginia Woolf have said.
AC:You make a real effort to be in contact with your readers. Why do you feel that is important?
DR: Mexican-American writers, ethnic writers -- I would argue all writers -- have a responsibility to share their work. Now, I cannot influence the way you interpret the work, but I must make myself accessible for those questions. I give a lot of free readings. And I don't do it because I'm a nice guy. I do it because it's needed. I have to go to Del Rio, Edcouch, Elsa. I have to go where I'm needed. I didn't want to do this interview, at first.
DR: Because, in my opinion, Austinites, as liberal as they say they are, really aren't liberal. I think they vote liberal. But the whites all live in the north -- you don't see any Mexicans in Hyde Park -- we're in the south, the blacks are in the east. So when the Chronicle says they want to do a story, you want to interview me, I thought, come on, man, when does the Chronicle care about Mexican-Americans? In the five years of your short story contest, I haven't seen any Chicano literature. And I think I've read them all.
So I felt like saying, you want to interview me, but I don't want to be interviewed. And that is arrogance on my part. It's not about me, it's about the book. You had the kindness to read the book and like it, and so I must share it with you. I must go where I am needed.
AC:Why do you feel you're more needed in Del Rio than in, say, Dallas?
DR: In the border towns, man, they get it. They understand this stuff. And they love it. And my hope is that this inspires them to write. Because what I have written is nothing compared to what has not been written by these folks down in the Valley. And in South Texas, and in Laredo, and in El Paso. There's a wealth of stories in those areas that have to be told.
Writing is history. All literature is history. So you must write. My stories go way beyond the author, they're about culture and heritage. And therefore I have a responsibility to show them. I don't charge for these readings. That's not what it's about. If you're writing to make money, I have a good idea that your literature isn't going to be worth reading.
AC:Once the money comes in, you tend to edit yourself.
DR: Yeah. I mean, I was told to take out these names, and to take out these towns, to whitewash them; they said it won't sell. I was told to define words. Like if I take curandera, which is a healer, to say "my mother was a curandera," and put "healer" in parentheses. T.S. Eliot didn't do that in his poems -- he's got Latin, French, German. I don't read Latin, I don't read French, I don't read German. I gotta go look it up. They're always asking Mexican-American writers -- ethnic writers -- to "make it a little more accessible." If I do that, I'm giving in. And I'm insulting my readers.
AC:But doesn't not defining words possibly exclude people like me, who are interested, from reading your stories?
DR: Yeah, good point. Well, look: We're in a Mexican-American restaurant right now. Look at my plate. You see anything that looks like we're at Denny's? If I wanted Denny's, I'd go to Denny's. I have to stay true to form... the fact that you read them and enjoyed my stories, I am flattered. I am grateful, that there are people out there who want to read this who are not Mexican-American. And even the ethnic stuff's not that ethnic. Still traditional, but... well, you don't need a Spanish dictionary to read it. I think I made it very accessible, but I was told "more accessible."
So, I think it comes down -- and here's that old line -- I think it comes down to racism. In a nice, kind of scholarly, way.
AC:What tradition do you see yourself writing in?
DR: Raymond Carver and Rolando Hinojosa-Smith... Hinojosa-Smith's from the Rio Grande Valley. And he is a master at showing racism, in short stories about Mexican-Americans in the Valley and how they're treated. And he does it with such subtlety. It really ticks me off that this man lives here, and people don't know who he is. He's a master, he's really a great short storyteller.
AC:Is there something about the short story form that especially appeals to you?
DR: I write short stories because I see life as a series of short stories. Life to me is not a novel. One long story, granted, but it is thousands and thousands of little vignettes that make up your life. That all interconnect.
AC:What made you start writing?
DR: Well, I've always wanted to be a writer. Here's my theory. As a child, everyone has at least five voices. And these voices whisper things like, "be a writer;" "be a doctor." "You're good with your hands, be a mechanic." Now, the voices may leave you alone for a while. But they come back, whispering. If you ignore these voices, which a lot of people do, when you are in your eighties and nineties -- when you're sitting in your bed wearing Depends, not feeling too well -- these voices are now hourly screams. "You should have been a writer!" These voices are spirits. They're here to help us along in this world. And if you ignore those spirits, then, dammit, you've just insulted them. You've just insulted yourself... I feel that I was meant to be a writer. It's just what I was meant to do.
The way I write a story -- I watch people. I watch them in their normal duties. Then I imagine what they're like at home. So, for example, you take [the man who owns] the Golden Slipper (a South Austin shoe hospital). He works with shoes all day long, smelling leather and glue. People come in, drop off shoes. Folks'll say, "Those are my favorite shoes." He'll say, "Yeah, those are nice shoes."
Now, working on shoes is second nature to him. So while he's working on shoes, he thinks of other things. He thinks about his wife, his children... Let's say he wants to go on a trip. So he has to do more shoes, has to bust his butt. He wants to take his kids to Disneyland. So this week a guy comes in with a pair of boots for him to fix. But when he comes to pick them up, he says, "Those are my favorite boots, but I don't have the money." And from there, a magician takes over, you know? Nothing is simple, man. Everything is truly very complex. But made to look simple.
AC:The stories in Give the Pig a Chance remind me of conversations I might overhear.
DR: That's an enormous compliment, because then they sound real. To me, these stories are real. Six months after I wrote "Tina La Tinaca," it happened to my tia conchita. She got gangrene in her right leg. She was a very obese woman, weighed about 380, 400 pounds. It took six men to get her out of a two-story house, with cables and a canvas chair. So, anyway, when you write a short story, if it hasn't happened before, it's gonna happen. That's that energy, making you write. And you gotta write when you feel like writing. Don't force it. Give yourself the respect to let it happen. I didn't start writing until I was 27. These are the first short stories that I ever wrote.
AC:What did you do before this?
DR: Oh, I drove a bus, worked in the library, file clerk, worked at Brackenridge hospital, cooked, worked in a video arcade. I do landscaping now. Anyway, you must not take this energy for granted when it comes to you. And so, when I sit down to write, I sit down to write. I gave each one of these stories my full attention when I wrote it. Each one of them has a specific place in my heart and mind.
AC:The title story was my favorite.
DR: "Give the Pig a Chance"... I read that at Deep Eddy books. After I read that story, men came up to me, shook my hand, and they go (deadpan face) "Good story, man." And they walked away. For some reason, men really understand that story. Because men, well, men are really dumb, you know? I'm a man, I know what I'm saying. We really fuck up. That pig story, that guy fucked up, he blew it. That story really gets to men.
At the end of that, the guy says, if he couldn't be forgiven, he would fight the reminders. And sometimes that's what people do. You want to be liked, you want to be a good guy. But people won't give you a chance to be a good guy. So, they don't want to help you rehabilitate, they won't help you with your problems -- fuck 'em. The society with no compassion creates these monsters that are around now. We deserve them. The Valley has 27 percent unemployment. Politicians ignore the Valley on a daily basis. Our fine governor won't help the colonias. Evil has to be fed. And those who feed it are the people in power who show no compassion for anyone else.
AC:What are you working on now?
DR: I'm working on my second collection of short stories right now, I'm halfway through with it. I've already got the third book of short stories in my head.... Eventually maybe I'll branch out, Houston, San Antonio, the Colorado. But it will always be Mexican-American, the folks will always be from the Valley. That's what I know and that's what I write. n