Transcript - Episode 87: David Bowles
Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 87. Today’s guest is David Bowles.
Hello, everyone, welcome to the show. As you just heard, today’s guest is writer David Bowles. David Bowles is a Mexican-American author from south Texas, where he teaches at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley. He has written several titles, most notably The Smoking Mirror, which was a Pura Belpré Honor Book in 2016, and They Call Me Güero, which won the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, the Claudia Lewis Award for Excellence in Poetry, and was a Pura Belpré Honor Book, and a Walter Dean Myers Honor Book. His work has also been published in multiple anthologies, plus venues such as Asymptote, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Metamorphoses, Rattle, Translation Review, and the Journal of Children’s Literature.
Now, I’ve known David a long time, we’ve been friends for more than 15 years now via different web forums and social media platforms, but this was actually the first time I got to actually talk with him—well, not face-to-face, exactly, but voice-to-voice anyway. And that really gets to something that I enjoy so much about getting to host this show, it’s introduced me to new people and given me the opportunity to connect more deeply with old friends. So, you know, that’s been wonderful.
In our conversation, David and I talked about two of his recent books. They Call Me Güero, which was released in October of 2018, is a middle-grade novel-in-verse about a young, light-skinned Mexican-American boy who lives in a border town in Texas. The word güero is a Spanish slang word or nickname for people with pale skin, whether Anglo or Latino, and the poems in this book give us a wonderful portrayal of what it’s like to grow up as a border kid, including the good parts, the community and culture—or, actually, the two cultures together—and the bad parts like, you know, the way that racism affects communities of color, and the way it always has. But also sort of more complex and complicated parts, like colorism, because here the protagonist is Mexican-American but white-presenting, and having to navigate what that means is handled really well here. And even beyond that, there’s just the sort of universal American experience of middle school and everything that comes with that part of adolescence, you know, figuring out your own identify, your friends, your body, romantic relationships, all of that. I thought this book was just wonderful.
Then we also talked about David’s book Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky, which is a collection of the myths and legends of pre-colonial Mexico, and what David does here is bring together the sort of common threads of many different cultures and ethnic groups from Mesoamerica, including the Maya, the Toltec, the Mixtec, the Aztec, and others. He takes all of these different stories and traditions and weaves them together to create sort of a unified mythic history of Mexico. Reading these stories was, to me, a lot like reading the Greek or Norse myths that I was obsessed with as a kid. And then those provided a lot of the backbone that got me interested in reading stuff like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion. Reading this brought me right back to that same feeling I had reading the more familiar legends and myths back then. And that sort of gets to the point of it, right? Because the fact that I’d be more familiar with the myths of Europe than the myths of North America is pretty striking, I think, and I really appreciate the project of this book in not just preserving these stories but in helping to bring them to a wider audience, including Mexican-Americans and non-Mexican-Americans.
I’ve included links to both of these books in the show notes, and I do highly recommend picking up a copy for yourself.
Now, David was also kind enough to add a new bonus reading to our Patreon archive, he read the first chapter of his middle-grade fantasy novel A Kingdom Beneath the Waves, which is the second book in his Garza Twins series. It’s a really fun excerpt that has me looking forward to getting these books for my own kids. The reading joins readings from novelists, poets, and essayists including Lydia Kiesling, Nicole Chung, Shivanee Ramlochan, Rachel Lyon, Franny Choi, and more. Subscribers to the KTCO Patreon campaign in any amount get full access to that bonus archive, and you also get access to a private RSS feed where each full episode of the show posts a day early along with those bonus readings. Your pledges are what makes this show possible, so if you like what you’re hearing, please go to patreon.com/sakeriver and make a monthly pledge. Once again, that’s patreon.com/sakeriver, sake like the drink and river like river, and there’s a link in the show notes for that.
Alright, let’s get started. As always, if you’d like to join in the conversation you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenPoetry on Twitter for your comments and questions. And now here’s my conversation with David Bowles.
Mike Sakasegawa: So I really, you know, just before I say anything else I just wanted to say I really enjoyed—well, I've actually read two of your books in the last couple of weeks. I read They Call Me Güero and then I also read Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky and I really just enjoyed the hell out of both of them, so—
David Bowles: I'm glad you did.
MS: Yeah, I was wondering if we could start with maybe a poem.
DB: Yeah, sure. I could read the first of poem from They Call Me Güero.
DB: Border Kid.
It's fun to be a border kid, to wake up early Saturdays
and cross the bridge to Mexico with my dad.
The town's like a mirror twin of our own,
with Spanish spoken everywhere just the same
but English mostly missing till it pops up
like grains of sugar on a chili pepper.
We have breakfast at our favorite restorán,
dad sips café de olla while I drink chocolate—
then we walk down uneven sidewalks, chatting
with strangers and friends in both languages.
Later we load our car with Mexican cokes and Joya,
avocados and cheese, tasty reminders of our roots.
Waiting in line at the bridge, though, my smile fades.
The border fence stands tall and ugly, invading
the carrizo at the river's edge. Dad sees me staring,
puts his hand on my shoulder. “Don't worry, m'ijo:
You're a border kid, a foot on either bank.
Your ancestors crossed this river a thousand times.
No wall, no matter how tall, can stop your heritage
from flowing forever, like the Rio Grande itself.”
MS: Thank you.
DB: And that's really— Thanks, you're welcome. That's really the poem that got the whole thing started because it was commissioned for this anthology called Here We Go, which was put together by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong in response to a call from English teachers—especially elementary English teachers—to them, "Give us some poetry that we can use with our students who are feeling upended by the election, whose, you know, family is Muslim or Mexican American, immigrant or whatever, and they just feel so much anxiety and we really could use some poems to help them grapple with that." And from there it became a book.
MS: One of the things that really strikes me—I didn't know that part. I did know that that that particular poem had been published previously, but I hadn't known that particular story. But one of the things that really strikes me, hearing that, is that there is so much joy in this book and particularly in that poem, like the first line is "It's fun to be a border kid," which is such an upending of the sort of narrative that we have about the sort of trauma of being in a marginalized community. I mean that's a real thing, but like I think one of the things that maybe we don't talk as much about is the joy of that as well.
DB: I think—I mean I just feel like when you say that, my immediate response is part of the reason that there's so much joy in it is because left to our own devices without trauma being imposed on us from the outside, a transnational community like the one that exists here in the Rio Grande Valley and then northern Mexico, it is self-regulating and a beautiful, wonderful place to live. It's only when other people come in and say, "Wait a minute, you can't live this way. You can't like have families on either side of the border and just go back and forth and no, no, we have national boundaries." When that kind of stuff comes in, that's where the trauma begins. That's where the breaking apart of families and the pigeonholing of people happens. When I was a kid in the '70s and '80s down here, there was a lot less of that. And it was—you were completely free to be going back and forth all the time. There weren't as many restrictions. And you know, this is not a post-apocalyptic landscape down here. This is a vibrant community with lots of love and beauty and just fun. And one of the things that I wanted to remind Latinx kids, especially Mexican American kids in the Southwest was, your life is valuable. Your life is awesome. Don't let other people who don't understand anything about your life tell you that you should somehow feel scared or depressed or othered. Like you belong where you are. And it is true that you hear a lot of people talking about this Anzaldúan idea of Nepantla and living in a liminal space and how difficult that can be in terms of identity and so forth. But when you're a kid growing up in a family just surrounded by love and tradition and just good things that mean so much to you, you're not thinking about that sort of stuff. Those issues, those really, really hard issues of identity are just barely beginning to pop up in Güero's life. He is still very much kind of a boy, a soft boy in a loving family and a really awesome community. And I wanted that to come across. He's a complex kid, he's aware of—he's becoming more and more aware of the difficulties within his community with colorism and so forth that are kind of imposed from the outside, colonial mindset that a lot of people have just integrated into their psyche. And also just he's a Mexican American kid growing up in 2019, Trump's America. So there are moments of darkness that try to impinge on this bubble of a wonderful childhood. And I just wanted to make sure that that complexity was there so that kids could read it and rejoice in seeing themselves reflected or even, you know, kids from outside of the Mexican American community could read it and see, "Wow, these kids, they live great lives. This is wonderful." While at the same time saying,"Hhey, you know, but there are these issues and they're not issues that Güero's family is creating, but they are issues that Güero's family has the grapple with.
MS: Yeah, I mean, I think you saw me say this—I said it in a couple of different places online, but just that when I was reading it, the thing that really struck me, that I kept thinking over and over again is I wish that I had had a book like this about my community when I was a kid. And—
DB: Yeah, me too.
MS: [laughs] I mean, I think it's funny because—and I say this all the time too—that like, you know, in a lot of ways this particular moment in America is very difficult and there's a lot of awful things happening. But I also, there is so much happening, particularly in art and literature that is so exciting that I never got to see before, that is just such a positive thing for me that has just been life changing. And I think, you know, books like this that I—I mean I literally, I really never would have seen a book like this when I was a kid. You know, like I'm a little bit younger than you, but like I grew up in the 80s and there just weren't books like this back then, you know?
DB: No, no, not at all. And I mean, when I was in elementary school here in McAllen, Texas—I went to Ben Milam Elementary—the only book that we read that had any semblance of Latinx representation, what we would called at the time we would have called Hispanic representation was Ferdinand the bull. And that is so freaking depressing just because it was set in Spain and there were people that had like Spanish surnames or whatever. But beyond that you, there was no sense, even though a good number of us were Mexican American, a good number of our teachers were, and we were just minutes from the border and the town of Reynosa just on the other side of the river, there was no notion that any of that mattered in school or in literature and so forth. And then I guess when I got to high school, we read some Latin American writers in translation, but beyond, you know, the occasional poem by Borges or short story by Octavio Paz or something like that, there was, there was nothing else. And it wasn't until I got to college and I read Sandra Cisneros' House on Mango Street in a world literature class—mind you like I had to read this, you know, US Latina's book in a world literature course, 1989—that I was like, "Oh snap, we write books, we can write about our lives. That's, you know, people will publish it." It was kind of an enlightening thing, an eye-opening thing that also made me double down more on my identity because I'm half—you know, my mom's white and my dad's Mexican American. So even though I grew up with the Mexican American side of my family, my parents had divorced when I was in my early teens. And so I had seen myself—because my mom was alienated from my father's family I'd seen myself like pushing that part of me further and further away. And you know, upon realizing what was going on, that that half of my identity was being systematically erased by the education system and just all kinds of other types of cultural white washing, I doubled down, you know. I was determined to become, you know, more Chicano than anybody could possibly imagine. I changed my minor from philosophy to Spanish and just started digging into that side of my heritage. And then here you have me, you know, many decades later with all the kind of wacky stuff that I do now.
MS: You know, that actually seems like it might be a good—I'd like to talk about both of your books and that seems like maybe a good sort of segue because in the introduction to Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky, which is your sort of collection of myths of Mexico, you talk about this process of... These were—none of these legends and stories were things that you or even most people, certainly not in America, even Mexican Americans don't grow up with these stories, that they're not ones that are well known. And so you sort of described your process of coming to those stories, which I found really interesting and I was sort of wondering if we could talk a little bit about that.
DB: Yeah, sure. I mean, because one of the things that happened upon, you know, realizing around that same time that I read Sandra Cisneros' book, I was—I took an Intro to Anthropology class in which among other things we got exposed to Aztec and Maya myths. You know, I realized I've gone to school, love Greek and Roman and Norse mythology. My teachers exposed me to all this stuff and I just ate it up. But again, you know, here I am, you know, Mexican American, just a few miles from Mexico, and I've never heard any of these. I didn't—I couldn't have named you a single god from the Aztec pantheon. May be Quetzalcoatl because of like a horror movie from like the '80s or something. But beyond that, I didn't—and not only did I not know, my grandfather, Manuel Garza, didn't know. And his grandparents, who came from the state of Tamaulipas in Mexico in the 1880s, they didn't know either. And this kind of erasure of pre-Colombian indigenous mythology and legends—both it's erasure and also through like syncretic processes its like evolution into modern Mexican legends that have like hints of indigeneity but that have been transformed. It wasn't something that you could get mad at anybody for. Like there's nobody to go up to and say, "Hey, I demand an explanation. Why the hell did you do this to us?" Because it's just been like process of hundreds and hundreds of years of different types of colonial systems working on mestizo people, on hybrid people. And so I wanted to start digging into like what the roots of the legends that I had grown up hearing. So, you know, we do have stories, and stories that you've probably heard there in southern California, stories of like La Llorona and lechuzas, like, witch owls and all these other really, you know, creepy, cool Mexican American, Mexican creatures. And it was—that was the path that took me into the past and to colonial Mexico and New Spain and, you know, tracing the roots of these stories until I, you know, came up against Mesoamerica and started reading as much as I could. Obviously most of it in translation from indigenous languages into Spanish and English. But I was often frustrated, especially by translations into English because they were so prosaic and you know, anthropological and not particularly inspiring. And I then just knew that somehow the originals must read differently. They must be full of power and beauty that is not being transmitted. And so I decided that I was going to learn now the language of the—of the Aztec Empire, to use the term that is pretty common nowadays, the Triple Alliance of Anahuac. And there's, you know, living in south Texas in the 90s and early 2000s, it wasn't like there was a place that I could go, your handy school for learning Nahuatl and other indigenous languages. No. So basically, you know, online shopping had become a thing, it was early 2000s and I just bought every book I could find, everything I get my hand on. And began to study, I guess really in earnest around 2008, 2009, the Nahuatl language. And here I am a decade later, having done a lot of translation. And so in the midst of all that, as I'm learning this and I'm reading those, especially the Aztec myths in the original versions that we have piecemeal here and there because so much was destroyed, I began to realize that even though, because of my scholarly work and my master's in literature and doctorate in education or whatever, I was being able to get my hands on these things and grapple with them and process them, the general public wasn't having access to these things. And so I decided to start putting together some of the most important myths and legends and weaving them around the fulcrum of like chaos and order, which is at the heart of Mesoamerican philosophy. The idea in Mesoamerican thought is not the struggle between good and evil that you see say like in western Judeo-Christian perspectives, but the need for a balance between creation and destruction, between chaos and order. And the two principal gods in the Aztec pantheon, in the Nahua pantheon, are Quetzalcoatl and his brother, Tezcatlipoca, who are respectively the god of creation and destruction, and they work together to build the world. And then they build the world by basically taming and breaking the back of a like ancient cosmic leviathan and building the Earth on her back. And organizing the book around that, that swinging back and forth of the pendulum to the more creation, more destruction and weaving in the stories and—basically, it's kind of like a mythological history of Mexico from creation to conquest with those two brothers and their struggle to make the world the way they believe it should be as like the fulcrum, the centerpiece. And that's—one of the things that I had to do as I was putting this together was to focus or to come to grips with the fact that this is a real downer of a story. It's a real bummer, you know, it ends with the decimation of the indigenous people of Mexico. And, you know, the imposition of European culture. So I decided as a counterpoint to that to do these convocations at the beginning of each one of these like little pods of stories, because they're grouped together in pods and the convocation is like directed at Mexicans, Mexican Americans, their allies and so forth and saying, "Hey, you know, let's come together. Let's talk about these stories. Let's retell them and reintegrate them into our lives," and so forth. And so that I'm tracing also the rise of the Mexican and Mexican American people as I also face the decline of Mesoamerica. It's a difficult balance to strike, but otherwise it could be a really harrowing thing if there's not some kind of hope. And I just really am a big believer in injecting hope into things. It's just, it's a dark and depressing story, the Conquest, but in the midst of all that, something else is born and it's kind of illustrative of the back and forth between chaos and order that was at the heart of Mesoamerican thought. And I think that's one of the reasons that when the Triple Alliance and the Aztec Empire realized what was happening, they were able to see it as the will of the gods because, you know, it just felt inevitable. Not inevitable in the sense that you hear people sometimes who are not as educated about this kind of stuff. It's not like, you know, Motecuhzoma saw Cortez the is a reincarnation of Quetzalcoatl and he bent his knee to him. It's nothing as simplistic as that, but it is this notion of the world has been destroyed and recreated multiple times before, who are we to gainsay the gods? If Tezcatlipoca, the god of chaos, has decided that it's time to break us then we will be broken, but we will arise again from the ashes. So it's, you know, there's a bit of hope in the midst of that despair that comes from that philosophy.
MS: One of the things that strikes me, I didn't realize that it was relatively recently that you... I mean ten years is not that recent I guess, but not that long ago either. That you—
DB: Yeah, no, I've only been studying Nahuatl for ten years and I mean—
DB: Yeah, no, it doesn't come across when I explain it like that because I'm not putting dates and things like that. So when you, when you read the introduction to Feathered Serpent, it's... You know, I'm just talking about it in the broadest of terms and yes, it would be easy to get... To not know the specifics from that.
MS: Sure, sure. But you know, one of the things that to me that I think is interesting is—and I think it sort of bears on what you were just talking about is that that is a language that people still speak today, right? Like—
DB: Right, sure. I mean there are... There are about, depending on how you count them, somewhere between like a dozen and dozen and a half Nahuan languages, many of them quite different from the language that was spoken or the language that has been, that was preserved at the time of the Conquest and spoken in the Triple Alliance, and some that are very similar. So like Huasteca Nahuatl, which is probably the one that has the most speakers, spoken by around a million people, is pretty similar. About 75% mutual intelligibility with classical Nahuatl, which is what I've been studying for the past decade. I've begun to study now, like that modern dialect of Huasteca Nahuatl.
DB: It's interesting.
MS: But I—the reason that I bring that up is just because I think... Like just recently I was talking with a Native American photographer whose name is Matika Wilbur and she was talking about how something like—they did a poll and like something like 80% of Americans think that Native people are just extinct.
DB: Yeah, I know, it's so depressing.
MS: And, you know, when you talk about this, you know, the story of the Conquest, yeah, you're right, it's harrowing and it's horrendous. But I think that there are probably a lot of people in the US—and I have no idea how it's seen in Mexico, I doubt it's the same—but at least here, there are a lot of people who probably think of, for example, like the Maya people as just having sort of disappeared and left these ruins, right.
DB: Yeah, absolutely.
MS: And the Aztec people as having been extinguished. Whereas really these are people who are still like, you know, their descendants are still with us.
DB: Yeah, yeah, the people themselves still are with us. There are about 2.5... ethnic Nahuas. There are probably like five million ethnic/racial Mayas living in southern Mexico and in Guatemala and so forth. I mean, these people still live there. Where I have a house in Oaxaca, it's in hamlet, it's in a Zapotec community that—lots of Zapotecos still around. There are Purepecha in Michoacán, others, the Tarahumara up in the north. I mean, there are tons of Indigenous groups still alive. The vast majority of these people, however, are Catholic and you know, they are culturally... Although there are, you know, some of the communities, especially more rural ones cling to more traditionally Indigenous ways of being. Those have been highly influenced by European perspective so that when you, for example, compare the culture and beliefs and rituals of Huasteca Nahuas to what was in place, you know, 500 years ago, there is a marked difference. And so we can simultaneously say that the Conquest, you know, decimated the Indigenous population—which does not mean it eliminated it—and broke Indigenous culture, like broke the back of Indigeneity in Mexico. And we can also say that those people and their beliefs have survived but they've not survived intact, if you know what I mean. Like there's just no way that we can deny the raw wound in their identity. And to this day in Mexico, there is so much discrimination against Indigenous people and so much pressure on them to, you know, to conform and be good Mexicans, good Catholics and all that kind of stuff that it's as if, you know, the Conquest is not over. It's still that this ongoing battle 500 years later. No, but your point is really well taken. You know, the casual American thinks of these cultures as being of the past and these people as being of the past. You know, I had conversations with Debbie Reese, who is a really, really wonderful scholar of children's literature and an enrolled member of the Nambé Pueblo people and she is always fighting for that, you know, when people talk about Native Americans that they not talk about them in the past tense all the time, they talk about them in the present tense. I mean, the work that I was doing in the book was a little bit different, but what it did require—some of the stories that I collected in there are stories that are still being told today. So, for example, the, the story of the Dwarf King of Uxmal, which is about these ruins in the Yucatán, in the state of Yucatán that are like heavily influenced by like Toltec architectural styles. One of the pyramids, there is a legend around it, about like this kind of half-elven little boy who was raised by a witch, and who was able to defeat the bad king in that area and become the king of Uxmal and build this really, really interesting temple. People—you know, I was able to find a couple of different sources of it, none of them written in Yucatec Maya. But then when I went down to the Yucatán peninsula and I spent time in Merida and Tulum in the state of Quintana Roo, which is right next to Yucatán and all these certain places, and talked to native Maya and asked them, "Have you ever heard the story of the Dwarf King of Uxmal?" And they're like, "Oh yeah, and you can find little statues of him laying in the jungle and stuff like that." So you can get like—one of the great ways that I tried to build in texture and modern relevance was wherever possible trying to find modern versions of the stories or modern people who preserve some of those things. So that I wasn't just relying on, you know, documents from that time of the Conquest.
MS: Yeah. So one of the things—and this, you actually said, uh, made a reference to this just a few minutes ago when we were talking about They Call Me Güero, that you were talking about sort of—there's this question that I often have about work that is about representation and identity. And I know, for example, you've been very involved with the #ownvoices movement.
MS: And you said a thing about that book being something, you know, for Mexican American kids to be able to see themselves, but then also for it being something for other people to be able to see.
DB: Right, right, right.
MS: And it strikes me that that's also true of Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky, that it can perform these two functions of being, you know, both inward-facing and outward-facing. And I—but I wanted to sort of get your thoughts about how those two functions sort of interact and what their, you know, their importance are and how you sort of think about those things.
DB: Yeah, I mean I think you're absolutely right in seeing Feathered Serpent that way. When I was writing both books, I was thinking almost entirely about young Mexican Americans and how they would react to the book. That's my primary focus. They're the faces that I see when I close my eyes and I imagine an audience in front of me. They're often the faces that I see when I do school visits and read to kids and talk to them about this kind of stuff. And my primary responsibility is toward them and their families and that takes precedence. At the same time as I'm working these things, I'm working within a framework of like US publishing, I'm thinking of, in very pragmatic terms of, you know, what is going to fit with in what the publishing world deems, you know, quality and acceptable, marketable, so forth. I'm thinking about—frankly, I'm really, really frankly thinking about like what people on award committees are going to be looking for and so forth. So all this stuff also is influencing the structure and the style that I'm using, if not the content. And then where those two things intersect, my desire to get these books in the hands of Mexican American kids and my understanding of the way the publishing world works, from that intersection arises this tertiary concern of like, how is this going to impact readers who are not from this tradition because I am working really hard to get the books out into the world and on shelves in bookstores. That means that people other than those that I primarily see my mind are going to pick them up. And that is wonderful. I do want that. So what is in this for them and how can I ensure that when they read it, they're rewarded as well? Because when you're dealing with books that are about representation, that are about reclaiming an erased past or whatever it happens to be, you have to be aware that it's also kind of performative. I mean, you're doing that in front of an audience. You're on the public stage doing this kind of stuff. And so, you know, what do you want people to come away with in terms of their understanding of the importance of representation? And then also their just enjoyment and edification from the thing that they're reading. So for people looking in, for people reading these books who are not like members of the Mexican American or broader Latinx community, I want them to see several things. Like the value of the myths and legends or the stories of Güero's life. And I want them to gain a better understanding of pre-Colombian Mexico on the one hand or, you know, border culture on the other. But I also want them just to enjoy like really incredible stories, to maybe expand their notions of the mythic and the beautiful and maybe dig a little bit deeper. I think it's unfortunate that, you know, people who only read what the US publishing, you know... I'm trying to think of a nice way of putting this. The behemoth of publishing puts out can sometimes have their view skewed. It's one of the problems that they just exist in publishing is this, you know, when you have people who grew up reading books from the very culture in which they were growing up, they have a very skewed understanding of the world, of quality and so forth. And so, you know, it complicates the work of somebody who is just really at the end of the day trying to create good representation for kids like him.
DB: You and I were talking a little while ago about how wonderful it would have been to have these kinds of books when we were children in school. But then your responsibility grows bigger than that because you become a representative of the culture to people who are not from the culture. You are engaging in this larger discussion in public venues about the value of this sort of thing, the value of having kids read Aztec and Maya mythology alongside Greek and Roman. That's tacitly an argument that I'm making by creating a book like this. I'm, you know, even if I never say it, I'm saying US education is screwing up by not including these stories. And so I'm going to get them in the hands of people somehow. So it is a really, really complex thing and I don't have clean answers about it, except that I'm aware of all of it and that I do my best to keep those three different lines of thought, you know, healthy and contributing to the work that I do.
MS: Mm. Well, why don't we take a quick little break and then we can come back and do the second segment.
DB: Sounds perfect.
Mike Sakasegawa: Okay. So for the second segment, I always ask the guest to bring on a topic of their own, which could be whatever you'd like to talk about, whatever's on your mind. So what would you like to talk about today?
David Bowles: Well, you know, I kind of want to talk about like sappy stuff that makes you cry and that you go after like deliberately because you want to experience that. And I mean, I don't know that anybody else in the planet does this—although of course I suspect that they do—but I have always had an affinity for just kind of like schmaltzy stuff that will trigger my emotions in like really obvious and maybe to some people like insultingly simplistic ways.
DB: But I really like it. I like to just be made to cry. And not—and usually in the kind of like happy crying ways, not like, "Oh my God, the world's going to end. Everything sucks. I suck." You know, that kind of like somber, I'm not talking about that. In my, in my book, They Call Me Güero, there's a character named Joanna, right. Joanna la Fregona, Joanna Padilla, and she's named after, although she doesn't really have very much in common with my first girlfriend who was also named Joanna. And I still remember the first date quote-unquote that I went on was when her father, Jack, drove Joanna and me to the one movie theater that was in town in McAllen in 1980s. It's on North 10th Street. I don't even know what it is now. It's like an old building that they've probably turned into a warehouse or something like that. And the movie we went to go see was [Savannah] Smiles. Now, I don't have any idea whether anybody knows anything about this movie and I just vaguely remember, but it had something to do with a couple of bumbling kidnappers who kidnapped this, this girl named [Savannah] and she's like, [Savannah] is like really sweet and just a great kid. And it kind of like transforms them by their being in contact with her. And I just remember realizing about halfway through the movie that I had picked thee entirely wrong movie to take a girl too, because I couldn't stop crying.
DB: [laughs] It was ridiculous. I just was there crying and like wiping my tears away or whatever. And I'm more than certain that she noticed that I was crying.
DB: But it just—and it was so schmaltzy and sickly sweet or whatever, but it just really touched me. The performance of the actress, just like all of the, you know, the musical cues and all the stuff that's set up to tug on your heart strings and make you feel a certain way, like worked for me. You know, I was 13 or whatever and it, you know, by that time I had kind of realized that I, you know, wasn't like a lot of other boys. I didn't take to my father's attempts to like make me into a man. You know, I kind of, I didn't want to like go hunting. I didn't want to learn mechanics. You know, I pushed back on a lot of things. I wanted to spend all my time reading and thinking and... And he encouraged all that kind of stuff. But he also got frustrated by what he saw as like a lack of balance in my life. But I was just drawn to that kind of stuff. Just last night for example, I was watching.... So it's a slightly problematic show, The Good Doctor, which is—it's that Freddie... What's this guy's name. From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Freddie...
DB: Yeah. There you go. And he plays an ostensibly autistic resident doctor. And you know, his performance is interesting and fun. And I don't know that it's particularly faithful to the way autistic people actually are, you know, there are some things that sometimes feel like a little stereotypical, but it's a compelling, he's a compelling character and it's a compelling ensemble cast and they have like all kinds of, you know, interesting storylines and every single episode has got like, you know, these stories that are about inspiring you.
DB: And you know, I don't usually watch that kind of television and I, like, I watch a lot of genre television and I like horror and all that stuff, but I like to watch this damn show and every time I watch it I'm like sobbing at the end of the episode.
DB: And like I watch it alone in my study and my wife will, she'll know it's Monday and she's going, "Oh you're going to go have your cry fest aren't you?" And I'm like, "Shut up, leave me alone!" [laughs]
DB: My wife makes so much fun of me—but in like this sweet, you know, like ribbing kind of way—about the fact that I cry over everything. We were coming back from Mexico yesterday. So I think I had two good cries yesterday. Or one of them was stymied by my wife being present, but we were waiting in line to cross the border from Río Bravo, the town that's right over the border from the town I live in. And it was a long line, it's Spring Break, there are lots of people going back and forth, and it was going to be about a 15, 20 minute wait. And so she plugged in a... It was a bunch of rock from the 70s and there was that song, "American Pie." and that song every single time gets me. It's like the lyrics are so... You know, it's like a perfect song for me and it just, I, when I'm listening to it and thinking about what he's writing about or it just, I dunno, it tugs on my heart strings and I'm like, tears are coming out of my eyes and I'm telling my wife, "Did you understand what he just said?" And she's like, you know, she'll tell me in Spanish, "No, I didn't catch that. What is he saying?" And then like I'm explaining it to her and like, "Do you see how impactful that is?" And she goes, "Well, it's, you know, it's impact is lost in translation, David. I'm sorry." And she just looks at me like, "What are you doing crying in line to cross the border?" But it's, I don't know, I cry easily and I'm not particularly embarrassed by it. I like, I now will sit in the movie theater and cry and I don't care. I—it feels good. It feels good to cry. And I don't know whether it's because I let stuff build up inside of me or what, but... I've also tried to teach my son. So I've got three kids: two adult daughters, and then my son who just turned 18, who's a senior in high school. And I've raised him the same way. I mean, I don't think he cries as easily as I do, but he likes also to watch things that like tug on your heartstrings. And we'll watch Steven Universe together, which is not schmaltzy at all. It's like really, you know, really awesome. But it's got a lot of like moving stuff and it's about, you know, your feelings, and things like that. And I like to see him just revel in his feelings. I think it's healthy and good. And I just wish it were something that more men did. And um, I dunno, I find it really healthy and useful when you think about that.
MS: No, definitely. I—it's a pretty regular thing that when I watch Steven Universe with my kids that they will see me like sniffling and [laughs] and all of that stuff, because it's a very affecting show. And I do think about that in terms of, especially my son a lot, you know, what kind of example I'm setting for him because this whole thing about masculinity can be such a prison, you know, not being able to understand how you feel yourself. It is funny to me like as I've gotten—I didn't cry a lot when I was a kid. When I was young, in fact it was sort of—I took this sort of almost perverse pride in like not crying about stuff when I was a kid. But I remember—one of the first times I can remember this happening was in college, we—a bunch of friends and I, we—our college was selling tickets to this performance of Les Misérables that was happening in LA. So me and a whole bunch of my friends went to it and we were sitting like way up in the nosebleed seats and I'm just sitting in back there just like, just tears, just streaming down my face as we're watching and, you know, like Les Misérables, some people will find that to be a particularly schmaltzy musical, but, you know... And I'd been listening to the music for that for years by that point. So I knew all the songs, but I had never seen it performed before and it was just like, oh my god, I was just dying. Just like I was—I felt like I was going to get dehydrated. I was crying so much. And more recently I had the exact same experience, for my birthday—I guess this was the year before last—my wife bought me tickets to go see Hamilton up in LA.
DB: Oh snap. Yeah.
MS: And, again, like I'd been listening to the music for a—like on repeat for a solid year and a half by that point. So I knew like every word of every song. We get there and before the house lights even come down, I'm already crying. And I was crying through the whole first act. Which is funny because that's not the sad act. [laughs]
DB: No, no. A couple of the songs, like I hear the first couple of notes and I'm like, "Okay, here it comes."
DB: Because it's like so—some of the songs are so affecting.
MS: Yeah. I couldn't get through the song "Dear Theodosia" without bursting into tears for like the first maybe four months that I heard that song. [laughs]
DB: Yeah. No, I agree with you. It's really, really well written and just, you know, there's a reason that we say something strikes a chord in you. It's like something is, you know, something reverberates within you. And that affinity, that touch from the outside is overwhelming because we don't... You think about it, like we love people so much. Our children, our wives, our, you know, families, people in our community. But it's very seldom that we get to touch mind-to-mind with each other. And so when that happens, it's really beautiful. And then when it happens from somebody who you don't even know, and something they create allows their mind to touch yours. It's like it's a really—it's an amazing thing. And to me, I guess that's kind of what it is. And whatever tools they're using, however gimmicky it may be, at the end of the day, like you've agreed to open yourself up and they've given you something that resonates in the right way for you. And I mean, that's really special. And you know, not down with the tough, gruff guys who are like, "Yeah, screw that. I'm, you know, I'm a guy, I want like horror and violence and dah, dah, dah, dah. And you know, none of this crying stuff."
DB: And I'm like, "No, no, you need to cry." This is—I don't know how you can be a complete human being if you're not able to feel joy and sadness. And you know, just more than anything, that feeling of—I'm trying to think of the term in Japanese, that feeling of that things are ephemeral and that there's beauty because they're fleeting. I just can't think of it right now. But, yeah, that ineffable thing about the world, it like moves me, like seeing other human beings doing things that show like how awesome we can be. That also really gets me.
MS: Yeah. I got really choked up when we went and saw Captain Marvel a couple times. I got choked up like at the—you know the part in the movie where they keep showing these montages of her failing at things, but then there's the part that she's standing up? [laughs]
DB: Yeah. Dude. I'm like, "Oh no, she's standing up." And I think I even clenched my first and I said something like, "Yeah, get up girl!" Something like that. Like, and people around me are going, "All right..."
DB: My son and my daughter, of course, knowing I am, were just like—they're down with it. But the other people in the row were like, "Hmm."
DB: "I don't know. That we approve of that expression of emotion from a man."
DB: Oh yeah. No, a great, great film. I mean, you know, not a perfect film. It starts in a really kind of wobbly kind of way, but once it gets going and once it starts focusing on her and her relationships with other people and stuff like that, that was really winning. I enjoyed it a lot.
MS: Yeah. You know, I find sort of this thing that you're saying about this sort of skepticism that people can have of this—especially men—can have about emotion. It's something that I reckon with a lot as an artist myself, you know. Like my photographic work, the first series that I... Like, all my photographic work is really about my emotions. But in particular my first series is all depictions of my family life. And it's sort of about my... How I feel about my experience of being a dad. But, so, you know, I have a lot of pictures of my children in this series and one of the things that a lot of times when reviewers will talk to me about my work is that they'll express a certain skepticism about whether or not the pictures are sentimental. And I... You know, at the beginning when I was sort of less sure of myself as an artist, I would just sort of like, "Oh yeah, you're right. I really need to get rid of all the sentimentalism." But as I've grown as an artist, I kind of have started pushing back against that a bit because I want to know like, what is it about sentiment, about sentimentality that we are so afraid of? Like, I guess like, sure, it might not be novel, it might not be, you know, something that's like fresh, exactly. But when we're talking about sentimentality, we're talking about, you know, our experience of family or even just like seeing like a flower or a rainbow or something. Like, sure, there's a trillion poems out there that are really hacky about flowers and rainbows. But like, you know, the other day I was having a really shitty day, a really crappy morning. It was raining and then I was driving to work and I was pissed off because I was like already having a shitty day. And then I was on my way to work, which I didn't want to be doing. And like the clouds just happened to break. I was halfway between my kids' school—where I just dropped them off, where we were late and all of this crap was happening—and my office and the clouds broke, the sun shone through. And there was this just magnificent double rainbow that was clearer than anything I've ever seen. And I was just like, you know, maybe I couldn't write a poem about this experience that would ever get published, but this is powerful in a way that I don't know that we necessarily... Like, why are people so skeptical of that kind of thing, you know?
DB: Yeah, I know. And immediately want to say—before you even get a chance, they're like, "No, nope, nope. Hackneyed, trite. You know, we've moved on from that." And part of it is, you know—this is going to be a weird thing to get into, but part of it is that when I think about poetry and I think about those kinds of subjects, I think about the fact that people are—what they mean when they say "We don't do that anymore" is that, you know, white male authors have kind of like already done that and they've—and we've moved on and which, you know, without like wanting to tie everything into identity, it does kind of erase the ability for people who are not, you know, part of that cultural tradition to say, "I want to express these sentiments as well." It also makes—your conversation about family makes me think about this thread I had the other day on Twitter about including families, including adults, especially in middle-grade books, and the kind of pushback that I've gotten from people. Like, you know, this notion that in literature, for it to be like a valid story about young people, it needs to be about their growth as individuals, cut off from adults and having agency that doesn't actually really exist in the real world thrust upon them. And I just take issue with that. I think that in my children's lives, like my wife and I are so deeply involved that, you know, any book written about them that left us out of it would be missing a huge chunk of it. Like we need each other and we love each other and like none of us is going to, for example, go off on some kind of interplanetary adventure without the other people coming along. It would be like, "No, you've been summoned to go to a distant planet? Um, yeah. Well your mom and dad are coming with you, buddy."
DB: Right? You know, first of all, like you're not leaving us on Earth while you go off to another planet. That's not fair. And secondly, you need us, you could like barely clean your own room without being told how to do things. You need us. So I mean, I know it's just tangentially related to this notion of sentiment, but I see it as part and parcel. Normal human lives are, you know, deeply caught up with interpersonal relationships and with our families and our communities. I think especially for people of color in the United States because we tend to have families that are a little more tightly knit just on average. I think. I'm not saying that all white people are like independent and they sever family ties at the age of 18. I'm not saying anything that's like that.
MS: No, but it is sort of like the sort of paradigm, right?
DB: Yeah, sure, it is the paradigm, yeah. And I mean—and so like our stories and our art and our, you know, emotions I think are all going to reflect that tendency to have tighter knit families and to have our identity a little more contingent on the specifics of our relationship with our family members and the larger community and culture that we're a part of. And so when I see that sort of stuff, that also moves me. You know, see somebody's, you know, family or community standing up for them and... Or like somebody—like a young person learning who they are by understanding something about their roots, something about, you know, their cultural past and all that, all that kind of stuff moves a lot and it makes me weepy.
MS: Yeah. Well so there's one question that I like to end with—because we're getting pretty close to time—but there is one question that I like to end with and that is if there is a piece of art or literature or creativity in some form that you've experienced recently that meant something to you.
DB: I read a couple of novels-in-verse, in the past, you know, few months or so that I think are really valuable and that resonated with me and that made me want to be a better poet and to do, you know, the kind of work that I've done with Güero, to do it more. And that's, first of all, The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, which tells a story of a Dominican teenager and like a coming of age story in New York City and just grappling with what it means to be a woman of color, a curvy woman of color. You know, both within her own community and within like the larger American scene and perspective on women of color, especially women of color who have curves and so forth and like, you know, how do you find your way? How do you assert yourself as an individual while also wanting to be part of your culture, even though sometimes your culture can be toxic? Because we—I mean, we've had conversations about culture in the past hour that might give the impression that we think that, you know, "Oh, you know, all of our culture's great." There's so much toxicity in every culture and—
MS: Oh yeah.
DB: Gloria Anzaldúa talked about this. She was like—I will paraphrase her—don't talk shit about Mexican American culture if you're not in it. But those of us who are in it, we need to fight against all the like messed up machismo and other homophobia and other bullshit daily. And that's kind of the way—this book is about that kind of thing. Trying to both be an individual who pushes back against the toxic elements of your culture while simultaneously celebrating your culture. And then another one was Jason Reynolds' Long Way Down, which is about an African American boy whose brother has been killed in a shooting incident and he finds his brother's gun and he's going down the elevator of their apartment building to the ground floor where the person responsible is just right outside. And he's determined to right this injustice since no one else is going to do anything about it. And on the way down, it's kind of like this like urban Christmas Carol kind of story. The elevator stops on every floor and another ghost gets in the elevator and he's grappling with like what has brought him to that moment, and so forth. And it's just a really, really powerful, powerful reflection on how we grapple with trauma and tragedy and how to go with our better angels in the face of a society that is not going to reward that very much. It's really, really powerful. Both of those are, you know, like young adult novels-in-verse and they've moved me and they've made me feel things. I really loved them and I think I aspire to be a writer like Jason Reynolds or Elizabeth Acevedo. They did fantastic work. And when I read their poetry and the way they're able to weave individual poems into like this longer narrative I'm just so blown away and humbled and desirous of learning from them. And they're both younger than I am. And this is one of the things that I think is super important is no matter how accomplished you become and no matter how old you get, you should always be willing to learn from other people, younger and different and quite frankly better than than you are.
DB: And that sort of humbling of oneself and willingness to learn from others is something that I really, really aspire to. And I mean, I love it when people learn from me. Hold me up as like "Oh, the wise Dr. Bowles. Look at him."
DB: I mean, that's all fantastic, but I'm just this dude. I'm just a border kid, just trying to figure it out like everybody else. So folks like that bring that into relief for me, and that's what I like.
MS: Great. Well, thank you so much for talking with me, I really enjoyed our conversation.
DB: So did I, Mike, it was so much fun. You take care.
Alright, once again, there are links in the show notes to both They Call Me Güero and Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky. There’s also a link to where you can purchase a copy of A Kingdom Beneath the Waves, do check those out.
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