portrait Interview with Aldo Alvarez

interviewed by Jarrett Walker

Published in Issue No. 60 ~ May, 2002

In his deceptively short first book, Interesting Monsters,
Aldo Alvarez covers a huge literary terrain. It could be read a story collection,
or as a novel; many pieces share the same characters, but each is in a
completely different literary style. Some head off in fantastical directions
reminiscent of Kafka or Borges, while still coming together in the end.
And while the two most recurring figures in the novel are gay men, the
book takes us far beyond the confines of “gay fiction.”

Born and raised in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, Aldo Alvarez earned a
Ph.D. at Binghamton University and was recently a Visiting Writer at Indiana
University at Bloomington. He is the founder of Blithe House Quarterly,
a widely respected online journal of gay and lesbian fiction, which can
be found at http://www.blithe.com. Recently, I talked with him online about
his book and its origins.

JW: One of your main characters, Mark Piper, is a techno musician
who used to be a minor star. Were you thinking in musical terms as you
wrote this book? Is it a piece of music on some level?

AA: I started to write Mark Piper stories a few years before
“Behind The Music” and “Where Are They Now?” became popular. Mark Piper’s
a “New Wave one-hit wonder”, someone who had a very brief moment in the
spotlight and persists in spite of it. I think it’s horrible that people
would doom some performers to having extremely foreshortened careers because
the market’s decided they no longer have any redeemable value. Being called
a has-been reduces someone to nothing. Being called a faggot pretty much
strips you of value in this culture, too. I saw a metaphorical relationship
between the two that wasn’t predictable and didn’t feel contrived.

In this sense, Mark Piper is a character who wants to regain the voice,
the speech that has been taken from him because he’s been silenced. Literary
and gay fiction have been pretty much been killed in market culture, too;
every six months, an article appears that declares them dead, as if they
have stopped being beautiful, moving and intellectually provocative. And
no one wants to have anything to do with them. I wanted to show, through
Mark and Dean, through their actions, that just because something has been
declared dead it hasn’t been silenced — that it is still vital and valuable,
that it is still fabulous, if only someone presented it as such and made
others pay attention.

I want to do what Dean Rodriguez, Mark’s other half, does as a collectibles
expert at an auction house. He trades in “ephemeral” objects, like vinyl
albums and toys. He showcases the value of the lot of the underestimated
and abandoned. If the prose weren’t melodious or jazzy, if the stories
didn’t work contrapuntally, like a concept album, I wouldn’t be able to
sustain the heightened experience of a narrative and sell it to readers.

JW: You grew up in Puerto Rico, and although you went on to do
a Ph.D. in English, your native language is actually Spanish, right? Do
you still feel alienated from English as a language? Do you ever write
in Spanish? Why/why not?

AA: I don’t think I have a native speaker’s perfect ease with
either language as at this point I am such a cultural composite that I
can’t claim pure usage in one or the other.

I was raised bilingual by Spanish-speaking parents; they perceived,
for better or worse, that proficiency in English was essential for the
economic and cultural survival of the upper class. My parents provided
us with anything that would make us as close to native speakers as possible.
We were sent to private schools that emphazised bilingual education and
were given any kind of popular entertainment that would make us consume
and produce English. By the time I was in first grade, I knew how to speak,
read and write a fair amount of English because of Sesame Street, Superman
and The Beatles. By the time was shipped off to college in the US, my adaptation
became so complicated that neither language felt like home or like exile.

When I was growing up in Puerto Rico, authors appeared to happen elsewhere,
in other countries. There were some locally celebrated authors, but none
with the kind of qualities I looked for in fiction. Writing in Spanish
and having to publish in Spain or Argentina seemed even more distant a
possibility than writing and publishing in English in the United States,
so it wasn’t a difficult choice to make. It wasn’t until I read Luis Rafael
Sánchez, after I finished my MFA at Columbia, that I found someone
from Puerto Rico doing the kind of fiction that appeals to me.

I do write in Spanish, though, when it’s useful. Most of the dialogue
in “Property Values” was written in Spanish, and then translated into English,
so I could better represent what those voices sound like to me.

JW: The collection is unusual in its radical mix of styles. Some
stories are pretty linear, others are really surreal. Sometimes you remind
me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, other times of Jorge Luis Borges. Do you
see your work as belong to a particularly Latin American tradition of surrealism
in fiction? Are there other influences that are more important?

AA: Looking back, I’ve always liked authors who challenge the
conventions, assumptions, etc of what’s constructed to be “real” or what
makes “reality” in culture — even what constructs them as “authors”, as
their own genre of fiction. Writers who reassure the reader about “what
we all know is true for everyone in real life” and “you can expect what
you can get from me as an author” don’t do it for me. This explains why
I am most strongly influenced by Modernists and Postmodernists that play
with and blur the distinctions between fables and lyricized reality. But
certainly, they’re not authors one could say are “realists”.

When I hit the 9th grade, I had an exceptional English teacher who introduced
me to Joyce, Saki, Vonnegut and others who pretty much spoiled me forever
for mainstream fiction. In Spanish, I loved Miguel de Unamuno and Ernesto
Sabato. On my own, I stumbled on Kafka, which, if I recall correctly, one
of my sisters read in college. She left her copy around the house.

In undergrad, I discovered Garcia Marquez, Barthelme and Pynchon. (I
also discovered Alan Moore, my favorite comic book writer.) Before, during
and after my MFA — when I had my biggest growth spurt as a reader — I
fell in love with Borges, Faulkner, Grace Paley, Manuel Puig, Luis Rafael
Sánchez, Italo Calvino, Jeanette Winterson, Raymond Queneau, Flann
O’Brien, Flaubert, Chekhov and Nabokov.

I really don’t owe much to authors I associate with traditional American
literature (say, Fitzgerald, Hemingway or Updike), so I can understand
why people would say I am more a European or Latin American author.

JW: Nabokov, then. How did a gay writer come to be enamored of
such an intensely heterosexual story as Lolita?

AA: Because it’s the story of a voice that’s been silenced.

account_box More About

Jarrett Walker holds a PhD in humanities from Stanford University, and is a co-Editor at Blithe House Quarterly. He lives in Portland.