Category: ~ Background to the Stories

The Cry of Independence

IMG_0072_1024Ninety- nine years ago today, September 15, 1916, the bandit-general of the Mexican Revolution Pancho Villa pulled off a daring attack against Carrancista forces in Chihuahua City, in state of Chihuahua, with 2,000 Villista irregular troops against 9,000 government soldiers—the opposing revolutionary faction recognized and supported by the U.S. At the same time, 10,000 American troops under General Pershing were not that far away, looking for Villa for his attack on Columbus, New Mexico earlier that year on March 8 – 9, in which eighteen Americans died.

September 15, at midnight, is when Mexicans traditionally give the Grito, the Cry of Independence, re-enacting the cry Hidalgo gave in 1810 in Dolores Hidalgo, a town forty-five minutes from here, Guanajuato, declaring war against Spanish control.

Villa’s troops entered Chihuahua at midnight without challenge because they blended in with people coming into town for the celebration. Much of the citizenry was sympathetic to Villa. The Cry for Independence—”Viva, viva México!” soon turned into “Viva Villa!” as sympathizers realized what was happening. Villa freed potential allies from the Penitentiary and occupied the Presidential Palace, then withdrew.

This is the scene then in my novel, Playing for Pancho Villa, when Frank Holloway and his friend Juan Carlos, a young doctor, captives, find themselves forced to join Villa’s attack on Chihuahua. Frank survives, Juan Carlos does not.

Because the latter believed in the civilizing power of horses, that night still outside Chihuahua, Frank and friends build an immense fire beside the river Chuviscar and burn Juan Carlos on top of his horse’s side—both killed by Carrancista machinegun fire.

“Dawn was coming and the stars faded. A river of sparks curved up and away. The fire crackled and spit. River stones exploded from the heat. A slight breeze came up. The three of us stood upwind, so we would not have to smell the roasting horse, which was acceptable, or Juan Carlos, which was foreign and troubling.”

L’archéologie des Pères: Playing for Pancho Villa, Défense & Illustration

Parfois je m’allonge dans le lit entre la nuit et l’aube, en m’interrogeant sur la vérité de mes assertions sur la nature du monde. Je décris des images, mes personnages jouent une histoire—mais décrire l’intrigue de l’histoire est très différent de l’acte de narration. Celui-ci consiste en l’invention, la sculpture et le filage du conte, dans l’espoir qu’on puisse—par la manière de raconter l’histoire—suspendre l’incrédulité du lecteur; que le lecteur croie ce que je dis.

Une autre partie a quelque chose à voir avec mon propre besoin de croire—ce qui est plus facile si le livre sur un niveau plus profond explique quelque chose sur moi. Bien sûr qu’il le fait, mais comment il le fait n’est pas clair du tout. Le Frank Holloway inventé, qu’est ce qu’il veut me dire dans mon roman Playing for Pancho Villa? De quelle manière ses aventures sont aussi les miennes? Pourquoi penserais-je ou aurais-je le besoin d’écrire une telle histoire? Dans quelle mesure est-ce que je me révente?

Les images et séquences que je peins en distribuant les coups de pinceau—comment décide-je sur quelle couleur et sur où je les jette? Je n’ai pas beaucoup de réponses pour ces questions, sauf que cela a à voir avec tous les pères, grand-pères et arrière-grand-pères dont les existences s’étendent sur tout le chemin jusqu’au début de ma lignée. Les mères et les tantes n’étaient pas muettes, j’ai appris d’elles. Mais les pères se taisaient. Je veux savoir plus d’eux. Être qui je suis peut dependre d’eux. Mais puisque ils se ont tellement tu, à cause de ses dispositions ou de la mort, à qui dois-je demander?

Peut-être que c’est à moi. Raconter une histoire sur mon père— sur mon grand-père dans ce cas—est, suppose-je, ma manière de parler avec ceux qui sont restés silencieux. D’abord, en les reinventant—puisque à ma connaissance mon grand-père Frank n’a jamais franchi la frontière mexicaine sur la jument de son père.

Mon frère m’a récemment envoyé des archives généalogiques. Une entrée de douane montre qu’un Frank Bennett rentra Aux États Unis sur un bateau du Honduras. Est-ce qu’il était mon grand-père? Mon frére m’assure que non. Mais il n’existe aucune preuve dans un sens our un autre.

J’ai lu un article récent dans le New York Times sur des soldats disparus au combat au cours de la seconde guerre mondiale, dont les corps n’ont jamais été retrouvés et comment cela hante des membres de la famille, dont certains n’ont jamais connu le parent disparu.
C’est cela que sont les pères? Disparus au combat? Suis-je simplement un parent de plus qui les cherche, prenant la pelle, creusant où je crois qu’il sont allongés? Raconter une histoire, est-ce de cela qu’il s’agit?

The Archaeology of Fathers

Sometimes I lie in bed between dark and dawn wondering about my own assertions about the way the world is. That is to say—about my own writing.

I describe images, my characters act out a story.

Saying what a story is about is very different from the original storytelling. The latter is about invention, sculpting, spinning the tale—with the hope that the way I tell it will lead to the reader’s suspension of disbelief—to the reader’s willingness to believe what I am saying.

Another part of it has to do with my own need to believe—easier, if the book, on some deeper level, is telling me something about myself. Of course, it is, but how is far from clear. What is the invented Frank Holloway telling me, in my novel Playing for Pancho Villa? In what way are his adventures also therefore mine? Why would I even think or need to tell such a story? To what extent am I re-inventing myself?

The images and sequences I paint (laying down the brush strokes), how do I decide which color and where to lay the stroke? I have few answers for these questions—unless it has to do with all the fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and beyond, that stretch all the way back to the beginning of my line. The mothers and aunts were not silent, and I learned from them. But the fathers were quiet. I want to know about them. Being me may depend on it. But since they were so mute, through disposition or death, whom am I to ask?

Unless it is myself. Telling a story about a father—my grandfather, in this case—is, I suppose, my way of talking with the silent ones. First, re-inventing them—since to my knowledge my grandfather Frank never crossed the Mexican border on his father’s mare.

My brother recently sent me some genealogy records. A customs entry shows that Frank Bennett re-entered the U.S. on a ship from Honduras. Was it my grandfather? My brother assures me it wasn’t. But there is no proof either way.

I read a recent article in the New York Times about soldiers missing in action in WWII, whose remains are never found, and how it haunts family members, some of whom never even knew the missing relative.

Is that who these fathers are? Missing in action? And I am simply one more relative looking for them, lifting the spade—digging where I think they lie? Is this what my storytelling is about?

About My Stories

Before becoming a finalist (not the winner) in the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award, I tried to pitch my collection of short stories to some five university presses and publishers. Only Cinco Puntos Books, I think, took the effort to read my book proposal.

The exercise was very worthwhile in any case, since I was forced to think about my own writing and describe it.

For those of you who might be interested in this process, or in a context for reading my stories, or in Mexico generally, I include portions of the book proposal, in a kind of question–answer format, for ease of reading.

What is the collection about, in a nutshell?

Along the lines of Quinones’ True Tales of Another Mexico, my manuscript called Foreground – a collection of twenty-seven short stories – focuses on a Mexico where cataclysmic events erupt, where war, mob hysteria, sudden dark preoccupations, collapsing structures, and anarchy lie just below generosity, intelligence, humor, and stubborn patience.

My stories reflect two Mexicos. In the first, modern freeways connect major cities, with their Costcos and Radio Shacks. But beside the highways, beyond the shopping centers, advanced health centers, tourist hotels and beaches, across the mountains, covering the entire country, there is a parallel world of human, horse and burro paths, still used, which connect villages, milpas (corn patches), memory, hunger, love, loss, and war. This is the deep indigenous landscape of the Mexican psyche from which comes the vocabulary of poetry, song, food, folk medicine, and art – a landscape as essential to Mexicans as the forests of New England were to the Transcendentalists. This landscape is vulnerable to extinction by modern institutions, both legal and illegal. Big media, government, business monopolies, and the church point away from deep landscape, while using its customs and images for their own narratives. The state does not invest in its human capital. Farmers give up and move to urban poverty. Rural and urban youth turn to the drug cartels, or cross the border to the North, in both case at great risk.

These two Mexicos – deep culture and modernizing culture, and the tensions that build between them – form the background tectonic rumble, as I write my stories about the good, intelligent, generous, and hard working people I live among.

What about research?

Since this is not a non-fiction book, I choose to re-define the word research, as it applies to my work. Non-fiction, it seems, acquires a body of knowledge, through research, in order to explore an area of interest. A fiction work begins with the storyteller’s story, which may be triggered by something experienced or read. After the story has been told, then the research commences, in order to strengthen the credibility of the tale.

As for the first step in my process, as in Boccaccio’s Decameron, I tell my stories to someone. I write them at a wobbly coffeehouse table, surrounded by university students (not the plague), in the presence of my Mexican writing partner – each week. I read them to him immediately, then often embed them in a framework story later. That is the second step, layering time, place, and narrator.

A third step is listening to my Mexican writing partner. I have suffered his wisdom at all points, for a long time. If a there is a unique flavor to my stories, it is because of what I have learned from him, from his confirmations and re-directions. It also helps to have studied Spanish for twenty-five years, with very special people, reading the local and national Mexican press, and opening myself to the knowledge of Mexican friends, especially those in Michoacán.

What have reviewers said about the stories?

Fred Hills, a former Editor-in-Chief of McGraw-Hill and subsequently Vice President and Senior Editor at Simon and Schuster, who had edited Raymond Carver and William Saroyan, worked with Vladimir Nabokov, and published the Nobel Laureate Heinrich Böll, read five of my stories and wrote these ringing words:

“Sterling Bennett is a beguiling and gifted writer, a virtuoso who intrigues and fascinates, like a poet whose work suggests more than can be fully grasped or absorbed in a single sitting, or a single reading. The world he evokes is a strange and sometimes enchanting place, but also dark, bewildering, even unfathomable. Where one cannot easily walk away from this writer, where he is clearly a considerable talent.”

On the other hand, the person that advanced me to a finalist position in the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award wrote the following less ringing note to his/her fellow judges,

“Historical search stories triggered mostly by old parchments, manuscripts, letters, records in libraries or family drawers when someone dies. Most shorts, in a 19th Century style of writing. German, Mexican, French stories about the diaspora in Mexico after WWII. Much flashback about WWII, structured as straight narrative about past events, little embellishment. Layering of metaphysical on these events feels unearned to me, definitely sentimental, but the events themselves are mesmerizing.”

I have to give this critic credit for having found me out as moonlighting in the 19th Century. Except that my style itself is a little more modern. It is true, though, that my approach was partially formed by a career of teaching 19th and 20th century German short story writers: Tieck, Kleist, Keller (Swiss), Droste-Hülshoff, Goethe, and Mann. From Goethe’s “Novelle,” 1828, I take the idea of the Wendepunkt, the turning point, and the concept of eine sich ereignete unerhörte Begebenheit, a unexpected unheard of event – often also the moment of transition between predictable order and chaos.

What about your voice and style?

Being my own graduate student, in this case, I would define my voice and style as the following: the unique choice of image, cadence, sound, sentence structure, juxtaposition, speed of flow; and plot – where I see the storyteller (inside me) moving like a snake through a field, choosing his path with a kind of revealed inner logic. Then there is the dimensionality of words – as in the story “The Hair and the Heart,” when Miguel Angel and Claudia make love on floating vegetation, hidden by rushes from the entire Purépecha town, with “… warm dark water seeping up through the reed bed…” touching their bodies. With the background question, from the very beginning of time: How many young lovers have done that along the shores of lakes? The formation of character; and, finally, the right painterly strokes in description, so that the reader can complete an image and see it fully with less information. Luis Alberto Urrea does this with great skill in The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

I add humor, irony, a sense of plot and action. I populate various stories with family names (as does Luis Alberto Urrea in The Hummingbird’s Daughter), usually uncles and grandfathers, partly in efforts to re-invent family, partly, – I suppose – to fill the yawning silence on the male side. I like to think that my stories contain universal themes, and that the events I describe – often discordant with habits of reason, order, and predictability – are events that happen everywhere, and to all peoples, with local variation. And that a good yarn can deepen and humanize a view of another people, and thus inform as well as entertain.

What would you say to the timeliness and appeal of your stories?

I have always thought the U.S. served as the spiritual backyard of the German imagination. Mexico may serve the same purpose, though a darker one, for the U.S. imagination. Most Americans know something about Mexican language, beer and beaches. Far fewer have a grasp of Mexico profundo – the foundation of generosity, intelligence, humor, and patience. Many equate Mexico with danger, a perception that repels, but also attracts. Americans need to know about their neighbor to the south: about its cultures, histories, languages, and what’s going on right now, and how Americans are involved: the drug wars are fueled, for example, by U.S. consumption of drugs and the U.S. sale of weapons to the drug cartels. They need to know, for example, that at the end of the Mexican-American War 1846-48, Mexico was forced to concede (the U.S. occupied Mexico City) 55% of its prewar territory to the U.S., including California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and parts of Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. Many Mexicans remember this historical fact, while few Americans do. The overflow of Mexico into the U.S. is an old and continuing process (see John Ross’s book The Annexation of Mexico, 1998). Poverty and the leadership’s lack of interest in providing jobs and education drive the courageous and hopeful toward the U.S. border or into the hands of the narco-cartels, who will supply jobs.

Who would you say you are writing for?

I have always written with the idea of sharing my stories with an audience. I have read to live audiences for something like the last thirty years. It is very hard to answer whom the storyteller is writing for, in the moment of writing. The only analogy that comes to mind is the compulsive liar, who fabricates seamlessly, for almost anyone. The storyteller’s audience, then, is anyone who is listening.

Who will buy this book?

Well, clearly the paper book publishers decided no one would buy it, at least to the extent that they the publishers would make any money. In a sense, this may have been a good thing for me, in a time of changing fortunes for paper book publishing. It would appear that eBooks are the future or, one could argue, the present. E-publishing removes the skeptical or uninterested gatekeepers. The potential for audience – the whole point of writing, in my opinion – greatly increases, if the writing is good and readers recommend it to other readers; and if the proper links are placed, which direct new readers to the site. The stories, I have decided, should be free. In the meantime, the only English language publisher in Mexico has picked up and published my novel Playing for Pancho Villa, a novel expanded out of my short story “Mr. Leibniz and the Avocado.” Playing for Pancho Villa was available for purchase in Mexico as of February 2, 2013 (www.editorialmazatlan.com) and will be available in the U.S. market in April, 2013, wherever books are sold, Amazon, Kindle etc.

Who would read the stories as a eCollection?

People who like a short, complete, well-written, yarn; retirees sniffing out Mexico; travelers; expatriates in Mexico, who are beginning to look more closely at where they are living; readers with limited time (most of us); readers beginning to focus on Mexico because of the Bicentennial (Independence 1810) and because of the hundred-year anniversary of the Mexican Revolution (1910); and because of growing fiercely politicized immigration issues; students, at all levels, of Mexican social and political affairs. Anyone with a Kindle, lying on their side, reading for a few minutes before sleep pulls down their lids.

Who else writes stories (novels) about Mexico that you would recommend?

Well, I would include Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Hummingbird’s Daughter, for its wonderful voice and writing; its compelling images of end of the 19th century Mexico. Every writer runs across another writer who he or she thinks is threateningly good. Urrea is that for me. I recommend him highly.

Then there’s Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, but especially the collection of short stories El Llano en Llamas (The Burning Plain), which takes us down into México profundo as unerringly as an hungry burro going home; I know of no one – Mexican or otherwise – who can match his vision and language, when it comes to very deep Mexico. Nellie Campobello’s Cartucho comes close to it. Not to be missed is Cate Kennedy’s Sing, And Don’t Cry: A Mexican Journal – a passionate and loving observation of life and lives in rural Mexico.

Who are other expatriates writing from Mexico?

This is the specific group for comparison and includes: John Reed, Mexico Insurgent, 1914, a work that is Homeric, accurate, and beautifully written. This is a wonderful book. Not recent, but timeless.

Then there’s B. Traven, especially his story “Macario.” His writing answers the question: Can an expatriate write about the deep culture of the country he or she is living in? I think the answer is yes.

Daniel Reveles with his Tequila, Lemon, and Salt honors the Mexican village and its characters, with great generosity.

I highly recommend C.M. Mayo’s (the 1995 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award winner) collection of short stories Sky over El Nido, especially the remarkable stories there: “The Wedding” and “Rainbow’s End,” which show the collision between Mexico profundo and Mexico imaginario. And, of course, her novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, with lines like: “… in the night the crows flew to Mexico, to feed on dead soldiers. In the day, they digested the flesh.” Writers and historians should make regular visits to her blog at madammayo.blogspot.com.

Last, I would include Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, stories, from Mexico, edited by C.M. Mayo, 2006, especially the story “The Green Bottle,” by Ricardo Elizondo Elizondo, which echoes the grinding hopelessness (and beauty) of Juan Rulfo’s El Llano en Llamas “The Burning Plain.”

Thank you! This has been a wonderful fake interview.

You’re welcome!

[To read the stories, go to the sidebar on this blog and pull down “2011 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award finalist collection “Foreground.”] Two sample chapters out of Playing for Pancho Villa are also near to top of the list on this blog.

Partial Inspiration for “The Tumor and the Baritone”?

I made the following comment to a friend’s Facebook entry, where she was emphasizing the importance of singing and choirs in our lives:

“My father was a great singer. He would take his pipe out of his mouth, stick it still lit I fear into his pocket, clear his throat, get the A from the piano player (or some such note) and burst out into his rich warm baritone. He would do this because all the aunts had cried out, “Oh, Bill, please sing us something!” And then they would join, their bosoms heaving, and the whole house, along with candles, seemed ready to lift into the night sky and disappear forever.”

My Friend Tonio Kröger

Recently, I ran into an old friend, Tonio Kröger. “Tonio Kröger” is the name of a short novel by Thomas Mann. Tonio’s father is a Lübeck patrician and the essence of North German purpose and propriety. Tonio’s mother is a southern dark-eyed beauty; she is passionate, musical, impulsive, and vague. She takes no positions on anything.

Tonio’s name comes from one of her brothers and is not northern and German enough. Tonio grows up learning how to see what is behind everything. He becomes a writer, a poet – and is therefore forever set apart from the blond, blue-eyed beautiful people who live robust lives of gain and satisfaction.

He wants his boyhood friend Hans Hansen to value him above all others. He is in love with Ingeborg Holm, who is more drawn to Hans Hansen. They – Hans and Ingeborg – are put off by Tonio’s brooding, sensitivity, his literary nature. Tonio becomes a sought-after writer. He scorns those who find themselves changed by his writing. He holds a long soliloquy in front of his Russian painter friend Lisaweta Iwanowna, who serves him coffee while he complains about not being one of those he wishes would love him – the blond and blue-eyed, who are popular and take riding lessons.

Lisaweta says, Tonio, I have listened to you go on and on, and now I am going to tell you what you are. I imagine her putting her hand lovingly on his shoulder. Du bist ein verirrter Bürger, she says. You are a member of the bourgeoisie who has gone astray. That is all she says, but the meaning is clear. He is a bourgeois, a city dweller, who has somehow fallen in among painters, writers, and musicians – at his own peril.

Lisaweta is a kind woman, a hard-working artist, and a friend. Tonio picks up his hat and leaves, unable to accept either intimacy or ironic truth. It is a great moment in modern German literature – Mann telling the truth to one of his own creations. A truth which ricochets in our direction. It goes to the question which secretly concerns most of us: To what extent are we artists? In which direction do we lean more – metaphorically – toward our orderly, somewhat melancholy patrician father, or more toward our passionate and beautiful southern mother? To what extent are we able to integrate both parts and achieve the creative tension between practiced persistence and dreamy passion?

Goethe speaks about true freedom existing only within a limiting structure. Nietzsche designates the two sides as the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Lisaweta describes it as der verirrte Bürger. The bourgeois gone astray, but still bourgeois. Writing fiction may require the unfettered inner voice – the storyteller – and the external sober adherence to clear grammar, economy of expression, cadence, and sound. The storyteller speaks from internal images, of things seen and actions taken. A painter uses years of learned technique to  reproduce a moment of recognition, to such an extent that the viewer of his art believes that he or she has glimpsed something known to be true and striking.

Goethe criticized the German Romantics for their lack of order and limits, for their adherence to mental suffering and excess. Yet, some of the German Romantics knew how to remove their protagonists from bourgeois restraints. The hero wandered away from town, skipping out on hard, boring work, and got lost, traveled through strange landscapes, and went through the stages of individuation, die Mutternachtseefahrt, the mother-night-sea journey, which both Jung and Joseph Campbell talk about.

After Lisaweta’s comment, Tonio leaves Munich and takes a trip north. He visits his childhood home, which is now a municipal library. At the hotel, a policeman demands his papers, suspecting him of being a confidence man from the south. It is an old Thomas Mann theme: the similarity between the writer and the criminal, perhaps because they both steal. Tonio carries no papers. In an effort to establish his identity, he takes out a manuscript he is working on. This act only increases the policeman’s suspicion. Still, Tonio manages to cross over to Denmark. He stays in a well-known seaside resort. He walks along the beach. He rejoices in the booming green and white of the sea. He appreciates the northern bourgeois non-writers he finds himself among. His scorn washes away. He is at peace.

A group of tourists arrives. They are boisterous and happy. By stroke of fate – at least so it seems – among them are his childhood loves. Hans Hansen – nearly twenty years later, still wearing his sailor frock and tasseled Imperial sailor’s cap. He is still blond and blue-eyed, still presuming in his rank as handsome and deserving burgher. And there – at least so it seems – is Ingeborg Holm, a little fuller, her bright blue eyes somewhat more squinty, but as healthy and lovely as ever.

From the safety of the dark terrace, Tonio watches them dance. He moves closer and takes a seat. They pass right in front of him, over and over, but they never see him, never recognize him. And therefore, nothing has changed. He loves them anyway but this time feels no pain, no suffering from being rejected. In bed, on his pillow, the boy in him still prays that she will come to him – but she does not. He whispered two names into the pillow,” Thomas Mann writes, “these few chaste, Nordic syllables which were synonymous with what he knew about love, suffering, happiness, life, deep feeling, and home. At the same time, he saw himself eaten up by irony and intellect, laid barren and paralyzed by knowledge…caught halfway between sainthood and rutting…and he sobbed, out of regret and homesickness.”

The next day he writes to Lisaweta Iwanowna. “I stand between two worlds, am at home in neither, and for that reason it is not easy. You painters call me a bourgeois, and the bourgeois are suspicious and want to arrest me…I admire the proud and cold, who venture out on paths toward demonic Beauty and who despise mere common people. But I don’t envy them. For if there is anything that can make a Poet out of a literati like me, it is this bourgeois love in me for what is human, alive, and common. All warmth, all that is good, all humor comes from this…When I write, I hear the sea churning, and I shut my eyes. I look into an unborn, shadowy world, which seeks order and expression, I see what looks like human forms waving at me, asking that I seize them and release them into Story. Tragic and ridiculous figures, or mixtures of both, I am very fond of them. But my deepest and most secret love is reserved for the blond and blue-eyed, the bright and vital ones, who are happy and kind and common.”

Thomas Mann redeems Tonio Kröger. But the question remains: Who will redeem us? To what extent are we the artist of der verwirrte Bürger, el ciudadano extraviado, the bourgeois gone astray? One part parched ordering patrician; one part feminine, fiery, passionate, and suspect. Does our own artistic grace lie somewhere on this continuum? Is that what we are looking for: redemption? I have not had answers to these questions. And that is why I was so happy to run into my old friend Tonio Kröger again, and Thomas Mann’s clear and passionate prose.