Hey there, Jen Pastiloff here. I’m the founder of The Manifest-Station! Welcome to the newest installment- The Converse-Station: A place where writers interview writers. (Thanks to author Elissa Wald for coming up with that name.) I am so excited by the idea of this series, I can hardly stand it. The readership on the site is so high that I figured it was time for something like this. Today’s interview is between two of my friends, two women I look up to tremendously. Both have appeared on the site already. Gayle Brandeis (her two pieces on the site went viral) and Alma Luz Villanueva. Both of these women are fierce. THis is an honor. Smooches, Jen.
“A Continuous Dream”: An Interview with Alma Luz Villanueva by Gayle Brandeis.
Alma Luz Villanueva is a visionary. She dreams her own world into being, as both a writer and a woman, and empowers others to pay deep attention to their own dreams.
I’ve known Alma for 15 years–she was my mentor in the MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles, where we are now colleagues and, more importantly, friends. When I was her student, Alma would have me write questions for my characters and put them under my pillow, sure I’d have more clarity in the morning (she was right!); unlike many writing professors, she encourages her students to write our characters’ dreams, a practice which often breaks our stories wide open. I love how dreams have guided the most profound decisions in her life, including her move to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico several years ago. A few months ago, she dreamed of me in a white gown and said she knew it signaled a powerful transformation. I ended up needing major surgery not long afterwards; I told her later that I thought of her dream often while I was in the hospital–I was worried it meant I was going to die, and I kept telling myself to be open to whatever transformation might be waiting for me, even if it was the greatest one. Alma told me that she had sensed I would be close to that edge, but she didn’t want to interpret the dream for me–she just wanted to give it to me whole, to let it reveal its own truth. That is the great beauty of Alma as a teacher–she opens important doors within her students and gives them the courage and freedom to explore what’s on the other side. This woman is brimming with, glowing with, hard-won wisdom.
I have the great pleasure of seeing Alma every June and December at the Antioch MFA residencies, and always look forward to the shamanic rattle she brings to the faculty meetings, her eye-opening, heart-opening seminars, and our traditional Thursday night dinners together, full of the most nourishing conversation. This June, we’re planning on pina coladas, and maybe dancing, to celebrate dreams and transformation and friendship.
Alma has been a literary force for decades. She began publishing poetry in the late 1970s, when she won the University of California at Irvine’s Chicano Literary Prize. She has since released eight books of poetry, including Planet, which won the Latin American Writers Poetry Prize, and the forthcoming Gracias. Her four novels include The Ultraviolet Sky, which won an American Book Award and is listed in 500 Great Books by Women, and Naked Ladies, which received the PEN Oakland Fiction Award. Her latest novel, Song of the Golden Scorpion, was published by Wings Press October, 2013.
Song of the Golden Scorpion tells the story of Xochiquetzal, a 58 year old woman whose dreams lead her to San Miguel de Allende, and her passionate connection with Javier, a 34 year old doctor. Their 12 year affair is deeply erotic but also reaches beyond the body, and the book is ultimately a story of healing on both a personal and cultural level.
I asked Alma a few questions about the novel over email.
GB: You mentioned to me that male reviewers have issues with Xochiquetzal’s sexuality. Could you speak about this a bit? Was your decision to write about a 58 year old woman’s sexuality a political one in any way? Also, I know that sometimes you require your students to write about sex. Could you talk about why you feel exploring a character’s sexuality is important for a writer?
ALV: In a sense it was ‘political,’ as in it’s normal for a 58 year old man to be with a 34 year old woman- 24 year difference, as it was with Javier and Xochiquetzal. I recently read an interview with Joan Collins who’s 80 years old…her husband is 48, so a 32 year difference. She was asked the secret of her marriage and she responded, “Sex, sex, sex.” Then about the age difference, “Well, if he dies, he dies.” I laughed so hard, that spirit. And so, although there was a ‘political’ slant to these lovers, it ultimately was simply human. To be human is to be sexual/sensual/alive…I encourage my students to explore their character’s full humanity (as you know haha). And so, I think men, as in all cultures, still don’t want women to claim their full humanity/sexuality- yet they want us to continue to have babies, replenish the next generation. I say, GROW UP. And I say this as a mother of three grown sons, all feminist men. Male writers are expected and encouraged to express, write within their full humanity, their sexuality. Think of Junot Diaz, for example, and he’s a Latino who won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel, ‘THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO.’ A woman, and a Latina woman, would not be celebrated for her full humanity, her sexuality with no censors, on the page. But this is true for all women, no matter their ethnic/cultural group- that ‘mother/whore’ curse we must continue to challenge as whole human beings. We became mothers from our own desires, hungers, ecstasy. And if we choose not to be mothers, our desires, hungers, ecstasy remain intact. Our own.
GB: Because I’ve known you for so long, I recognize parts of your own story, your own life, within this novel. I’m curious to hear your thoughts about autobiographical fiction. How does fiction and life flow together for you? Did you set out to braid your own story into this novel, or did it slip in unexpectedly?
ALV: Fiction as life is a continuous dream, with a lot of work involved (haha), as well as much pleasure/joy. This novel isn’t ‘autobiographical fiction,’ as my characters, as in ALL of them and there are many, took over. I didn’t consciously choose to include some of my experiences in Bali, for example, but at the moment of la fictive dream, my dream and Xochiquetzal’s dream merged, and I liked it. So did she, so it stayed. The characters have to agree or forget it. I know many novelists include their own experiences, so I’m certainly not the first, or the last. I think of two of my favorite novelists I loved before I ever wrote- Colette and Herman Hesse, who wove in their own life experiences with their characters. And so, I have never been an Israeli Commando, Ari…or a Mexican drug lord, Pompeii…or a Japanese woman roaming the world planting peace crystals to honor Hiroshima/Nagasaki, Ai… or a Hopi-Taos flute playing man, Hank, and more. All characters in this novel, whom I had to dream with to know who they truly are.
GB: You weave a lot of poetry into the novel–Neruda, Rumi, your own/Xociquetzal’s–and the prose itself is deeply informed by poetic conventions: repetition, rhythm, etc. I know you also have a new book of poetry, Gracias, which you’ve called the novel’s twin, about to be released. How does the process of writing poetry differ for you from writing fiction, and how do the two crafts feed one another?
ALV: I was brought up by my full blood Yaqui grandmother Jesus Villanueva, who came to the USA from Sonora, Mexico, in her early 30s. She never spoke English so I was her translator at clinics, welfare offices, banks etc- she taught me ‘dreaming’ from the time I could speak. And then she taught me poetry, told me wonderful/terrible stories. As a writer, I was a poet first (I’ve published eight books of poetry), although I always loved to tell stories…I think of the traveling Native story tellers, perhaps in a past life with beautiful tattoos. Their tattoos symbolizing dreams, stories. I have some but probably not as many as I should to keep up with my dreams, stories. And so, I always begin with the Dream…I’ve kept Dream Journals for over forty years and return to them often to re-member. The gift. The map. The Dream guides my life first, then I’m led to poetry, and poetry finally guides me to stories, the written version, fiction. The fictive dream. Poetry is my mother tongue, and although I write in English mostly, it’s always sung/echoed in Spanish, my grandmother’s chanting Yaqui language. Her morning prayer/poetry to the Child Sun, her rattle…the first sound I heard when I woke up. Then we shared our dreams over hot chocolate, pan dulce.
GB: Your book is full of scrumptious sounding food, which helps amplify the earthy sensuality of the novel (I love the mango “surgery”, and all of the other delicious feasts that Xochiquetzal and Javier share.) Could you talk a bit about writing about food? Also, I remember reading a review of The Ultraviolet Sky that said something like “What’s with all the omelets?”, and there are quite a few omelets in this novel, as well. As an omelet fan, myself, I have to ask–are omelets a specialty of yours, and what’s your favorite kind?
ALV: As with sex/sensuality, the pleasure, and necessity, of food are to me hand in hand, mouth to mouth. They naturally come together when I write those moments- sense-uality. One of my favorite omelets is the ‘chorizo omelet’: Saute some chorizo, to taste, in a pan a few minutes, add red bell pepper, onion, garlic, simmer a bit more, covered. Then I add two eggs for one human, 4 eggs for two… break the eggs in a bowl, add some milk/almond milk, sprinkle basil, beat, and pour on top of chorizo/vege mix. Then add slices of Oaxaca cheese, my fave, or any cheese you like…over that some spinach, chili flakes, a bit more basil, and simmer until omelet is done with lid on. Keep lifting the omelet to see if it’s browned/cooked, and cheese melted, spinach cooked, YUMMY. I top it with fresh mango salsa, or store bought is fine. A glass of chilled chardonay, or champagne- at the end cafe con Kahlua, cinnamon on top. Here in Mexico, before you eat, you’re blessed with ‘BUEN PROVECHO!’ When I first moved here, total strangers would pause, lean in and yell this, making me jump. Now I wait for the blessing.
GB: Your book is also deeply spiritual, exploring Buddhism, Hopi ritual, Mayan mythology, the creation of the Energy Child, etc. It’s rare for novelists to tackle matters of the spirit the way that you do–are there any novelists you’ve been inspired by who explore spirituality?
Any words of advice for writers who wish to bring matters of the spirit into their own work?
ALV: I love Herman Hesse for his spiritual quests within his novels- I think of ‘SIDDHARTHA,’ but all of his novels include the spirit quest. Again, I read him before I wrote any fiction and he gave me ‘permission’ to think/write with spirit in mind (I fully realize now). Alice Walker’s fiction has that hallmark of spiritual writing- her ‘THE TEMPLE OF MY FAMILIAR’ a spirit journey to the very beginning, stirrings of humankind on our planet. Louise Erdrich’s ‘THE PAINTED DRUM,’ a spirit journey of ancestors, dreams, within Ojibwe, Native reality. I always return to the truth of Spirit- that all true spiritual paths/journeys are one journey. Which is what ‘SONG OF THE GOLDEN SCORPION’ brought me to, this truth. “We wed ourselves to the Mystery, not to conquer it or be conquered by it, but to greet it.” Inuit wisdom If we, as poets/writers, approach spirituality in this Spirit, we’re always welcomed home.
GB: In the novel, you write “The tendency of her spirit wasn’t strange here, it was daily life. It wasn’t ‘magical realism’ (she hated that literary gringo term, as though the reality of millions was simply a fairy tale, a ‘myth’); no, it was just the reality, the human spirit. Unedited.” Do you feel that your work is often fighting against gringo literary convention? Could you talk about what it means to you to write as a woman of color?
ALV: The first time I heard the term pathetic fallacy in regards to one of my poems in my MFA workshop (years ago), I almost punched someone. ‘Pathetic fallacy’ to whom…if you’re raised within a culture, a way of being, that honors the Dream, the spirit alive in all living things, even stone, water, stars, the center of our Earth, and that they speak to us (even if we can’t hear, cease to hear); the so-called Western Canon does NOT speak for those who can still hear this on-going song, music, poetry, voice of wild wisdom that surrounds us daily, nightly. Blessing our lives and our dreams. As a woman of color, I can only write from my own truth, voice, vision, while listening to the voice of wild wisdom as deeply as I possibly can.
GB: I know dreams play a vital role in your life and in your fiction. Could you talk about how dreams inform your process as a writer, and how they influenced this novel in particular?
ALV: Since I’ve already answered this in previous questions…and I love your deep questions, Gayle. From the beginning dreams (literally) hauled me into the fictive dream of this novel, as I was trying NOT to start/write this novel. I was dreading the long journey of the novel, that long pregnancy to ‘the end.’ Javier and Xochiquetzal came together in a dream…a ‘wide screen’ dream, taking up all the space…and they just stared at me, into me, through me. No words, but their eyes fiercely, yet lovingly, said, “Surrender,” and I did. Surrender. Wrote the first scene, which I tried to place further on in the novel numerous times…a very erotic scene, their first time together sexually. Every time I did this, they refused to appear within the fictive dream, the novel, and I could hear them laughing, very loudly. The scene remained the opening scene, and we…all of my characters…continued on to the end, six years later. Scene by scene. Dream by dream. I got ‘lost’ a few times in the 454 pages- not ‘logically’ as I could refer to my notebooks, but emotionally/spiritually. I simply couldn’t find IT, how to continue. Then one of my characters would appear in a dream. This happened most crucially toward page 300, and Javier appeared on the ‘wide screen’ of my dream, those eyes, and said, “I don’t need a map, only blood.” I continued to the end. Something released. That surrender.
GB: Xochiquetzal tells a story about a Balinese healer she met who keeps an eagle chained. When Xochiquetzal asked the woman why she didn’t set the eagle free, the woman asked “What is freedom, Madam?” (an encounter that I know you experienced in Bali, yourself.) In one scene, many of the characters answer that question for themselves, so now I must ask you: what do *you* think is freedom, Madam?
ALV: That healer’s question lives in my DNA, my dreams, and sometimes my answer is, “To see a hummingbird in flight….To see an eagle spiraling toward the sun…To hold my great-grandchild for the first time, that sweet human weight…To dive into my sacred glacier lake in the Sierras…To sleep on the Mother Rock there, no fear…To wake up to the stars singing so loudly and the lake singing in harmony…To see endless branches dripping with dreaming monarchs…To hear the young boys sing monarch songs as they laugh with such joy, here in Mexico…To see the vulnerable wonder in their parents’ eyes as they offer me food, these caretakers of the miracle of monarchs, these trees…To witness Madre Mar, her great heaving dance… To hear the laughter of my grown children and grandchildren…To dream the ancestors…To dance just cause I feel like it and as weirdly as I wish to…To cook wonderful food and share it, and to be fed juicy mangos…” And I see all of this is rooted in love/loving…”What is freedom, madam?” To exist within the rainbow, the spectrum, always changing…storm, sun, rain, snow, tears, laughter, pain, joy…always love. Listen.
Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), and Delta Girls (Ballantine), and her first novel for young people, My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt), which won a Silver Nautilus Book Award. Gayle teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Antioch University and lives in Riverside, CA, where she is mom to two adult kids and a toddler, and is winding up her two year appointment as Inlandia Literary Laureate. Connect with Gayle here.
Jennifer Pastiloff is a writer living on an airplane. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, among others. Jen’s leading a long weekend retreat to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif. She and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: Los Angeles, Seattle, London, Atlanta, South Dakota, Dallas. She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff. Join a retreat by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.