Five Questions with Joe Jimenez

Kayla Rae Candrilli: Your story, “syllable knots & milkweed” in NANO 9.2’s queer feature, is so visceral. I can feel the “Texas sun” which is really “Mexican sun.” Can you tell us a little bit about the process that brought this piece into being?

Joe Jimenez: I used to prefer poem-making over prose. But I started working on a novel last summer, and I wanted to practice my prose skills—this piece started off as an exercise. I like exercises. I think of writing much like muscle work. Bench presses, biceps curls, skullcrushers. I wanted to delve into voice, to build a character much like men I know, much like a man I once loved, and to do so, I fixed him around things I know well—lowrider bikes, Texas sun, plants indigenous to the part of the world I am from. This piece started off as a way to develop a muscle inside me I felt was weak, in need of growth. I started by remembering the way this guy spoke. Language as an archive, skin as a record of want and not having. It’s the idea of “desire is memory,” as Luis Alfaro, the first writer whose words meant anything necessary to me, said, which I read in my Freshman Seminar at Pomona College in September 1994. And so, I wrote about a guy named Martin, which is totally a made-up name, and a narrator who brings guys over to his duplex for hook-ups and small-talk and stories about Texas plants and our fathers. The constraint of the nano was brilliant for me, as it forced my hand to create newness from concision and the pressure of smallness.

KRC: This piece uses colloquialisms to its advantage, helping to develop the characters, space, and time. What advice would you give to a young writer that wants their character to speak in something other
than the defaulted “Standardized American English?”

IMG_0687JJ: A starting point is the word “defaulted.” Recognizing this position, that “standard” US American English carries its weight and throws it around, if we allow it, if we don’t intervene, if we don’t value other tongues, especially our own—that’s the starting point. Like Gloría Anzaldúa says, “Nothing happens in the real world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.” While I don’t see the language I use as colloquial—it’s my language, it’s where I come from, and one of the registers I possess—I can acknowledge that to mainstream America, my language is colloquial. I’m not mad at this. A part of me embraces the fugitive languages, or falls in love with them as I hear them. Part of this is resistance to assimilation and reflects my love for mestizaje, my own identity as a man of mixed heritage; part of it is boredom with what standard English can and cannot do in the stories and poems I make. And in this, I have benefited from the access that speaking, reading, and writing standard English offers us, and yet, I still want the way language throbs, how it pulsates with new words, new sounds, from (re)mixing, knowing well that access is often denied when this type of language is carried openly or worn.

KRC: Is there a specific type of content that you gravitate toward in fiction? A topic that pulls you to the piece no matter what?

JJ:The most recent short story I’ve worked on is called “Sexy Cyborg Cholo Clownz,” and I wrote it for an event called Domingo de Pecado, held at Trinity University, here in San Antonio, last year. DdP was an event sponsored by Kórima Press, the publisher of my poetry collection The Possibilities of Mud, and its intent was the celebration of queer Latina/o erotics, sexiness. Accordingly, I challenged myself to not visit my usual tropes, suspects like shaved heads and cholos with shitloads of tattoos and muscles, big white muscle daddies, beards and uniforms. Instead, I wanted to write about something I found not-sexy, which led me to robots and clowns. The premise of the piece is that in times of great sadness, when we find ourselves in the dark seas of suffering, we might turn to cariño as a remedy, to something like affection as our salvation stratagem. So I resisted those typical tropes, initially, as I embarked on the piece, but perhaps my resistance was futile, as I ended up going with a post-apocalyptic version of cholos, tattoos, of course, and a 65 Chevy Impala hardtop, candy-green. The short story is scheduled to appear in an upcoming issue of Aztlan, which is a journal of Chicana/o Studies and in an anthology of speculative fiction.

KRC: What artists (writers, musicians, visual artists) do you turn to when you are feeling stuck?

JJ: Most recently, I’ve turned to performance artist Rafa Esparza and playwright Virginia Grise. I wrote a piece entitled “The Presence of Absence & Kites,” which Vicki, Rafa, and I performed as part of San Antonio’s Luminaria performance festival. For Rafa, the body is the vessel, the vehicle, the voice, the site of profound articulation, whereas for me, the voice in my mouth does this, and ironically, much of what I write is about the body, or bodies like mine, so I project onto the body and out of it—fears, desires, love, wonder, lust, sadness, awe—all the while wishing and admiring and noting ways in which artists do other things with the body, like digging a hole, cutting one’s hair in that hole, then, undressing and donning a brown men’s suit hanging in a tree and then burying oneself in that hole under the moon, which is exactly what Rafa Esparza did with his body at the Luminaria performance. It is profound. And if I listen to other bodies, I can learn from them, which is how I turned to Vicki Grise, who wrote the play blu, whose work I turn to when I think of ways to reimagine the world, to reimagine my body in the world as it is and the world as I think it could be. Vicki helps me get unstuck, because yes, there are words and images in the plays and in her performances that convey messages about possibility and love, messages that I need to hear when I feel the heaviness of making something necessary or when I feel the ache of loneliness but also because I can hear her vow, which is one to the voice, to speak an honesty that is felt in bone, an honesty much like a drive much like a heartbeat much like a breath one takes after a long walk when we’re injured. For me, Vicki is one of those artists with whom I believe my work is in conversation, not just because I can hear her voice, her questions, not just because I believe we are of the same community, and as a Chicano artist making art for my community matters immensely to me, but really because she has a heart like mine, and when you find another writer or artist, when you find another human being who knows your sadness, then, what more can you ask for when you’re stuck?

KRC: What are you working on right now? Is there something we can look forward to?

JJ:I just finished final edits for a young adult novel called Bloodline, which will be published by Arte Público Press in May 2016. Bloodline tells the story of Abram, a young Chicano high school student navigating the world of masculinity and violence. Conflicted over his family’s history of crime, Abram falls in love and tries to figure out a way to improve his life, which leads him to make a life-changing decision to follow his uncle and use his fight skills to make money. Echoing William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Bloodline asks the question: Are we destined to become like the men in our families, or can we change our fates?