April 17, 2010

iScribe Interview Series - Curiouser and Curiouser

Name: Aran Valente
Major: Political Science
Year of Graduation: 2010
Position: Featured writer (Spring 2010)

Saguaro Blossoms" was probably one of the most challenging pieces we've ever read. It opened up a debate that really bordered on uncomfortable, but we all agreed that it was an important conversation to have. Was that kind of discussion your goal as a writer, or were you looking to tell a story and let the reader come away with whatever they were able to glean from the piece?

I meant the story to be challenging in that it presented an antithesis to a popularly unilateral argument about ethnic relations and emigration issues in the United States. In terms of debate, at the time I was writing it I didn't think a group of people would be reading it at once so I never considered a discussion at the end of the reading. That being said, I am glad that a debate occurred because I think that only by talking about controversial issues can people identify underlying problems and begin to move towards solutions that work to the benefit of everyone and not just whatever group has the power to write the laws of society at that time.

Are there elements to the story that had to be left out? Any background information on the characters or social climate, or even a resolution beyond your conclusion?

The story behind the story is still going on, though civil and human rights lawsuits have been filed against some construction contractors and some unions have been formed. At the time I came up with the story, I was working as a union organizer for the Arizona American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO) though my family and I currently affiliate with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). A lot of the dialogue and Roberto's thoughts were taken from comments strikers and construction workers made about civil and human rights' abuse on the job. I purposefully decided to leave out union organizers and put them in the background because I thought it would have been too much of a subjective stance on the issue. A lot of the story was designed around expressing the disappointment of people who painfully discovered the paradox first hand of having their basic rights as human beings ignored by a country founded on equality.

Is "Saguaro Blossoms" part of a larger work? How do you envision the entire piece unfolding - will it be a short story collection? A continuous novel with added characters and events? An expansion of this particular story to encompass more of these particular characters' experiences?

It could be part of a larger work but it’s difficult for me to say at this point. I don’t think I’ve had enough experience to write a novel yet but maybe a series of short stories. There is a longer version of the story but I think this vignette is the best so far.

Now, the big question - why? What made this story so compelling that you absolutely had to share it?

While union organizing, we were often given false locations for delegating by corporate contractors and would drive for sometimes up to six hours to a location that didn’t even exist yet (which wasn’t uncommon during the housing boom at that time). Everyone would groan collectively when they came to yet another highway barrier and saw only barren desert beyond. On the bright side, I got to have lots of conversations with the other organizers and strikers to pass the time.

On one of these long drives I was staring out the window at all the palm trees going by and thinking about how they were bought for the area and how people were trying to change an arid desert into a tropical metropolis. I thought about using a palm tree to symbolize a sense of alienation from the society people were working to improve a country that rejected them and decided to have symbols in the story be put in the context of common Arizona sights. I wanted to design a story that would expose the politics people faced who were overlooked by society and do it in a way that showed more accurate depictions of Latino/a American and in particular, Mexicans, and Mexican-American day-laborers than was normally seen in the media. I took a class on radical writers from the Black Arts Movement of the '60s and wanted to use universal social concepts expressed in the class’s texts to show how people from a different cultural community who face a similar adversity would express their discontent and fight for their peoples’ freedom. I also thought of structuring the story in a similar fashion to Jack London’s, To Build a Fire, in that external factors would be shown that inhibited peoples’ ability to function in a society. The main difference would be that in To Build a Fire all the factors were from nature and in "Saguaro Blossoms" they were made by people.

I’m not sure that I absolutely had to share that story or that it was especially different than other stories or articles on labor exploitation written in the South West or America. Members of the Latino/a and Latino/a American community and marginalized groups in general have been writing about exploitation such as this for generations. All I did was put it in a contemporary context from what I had heard, seen, and researched while organizing during the summer time. Without the testimonies of visionary strikers and Construction Workers who found their voices and shared their experiences no one would ever even know problems such as this were going on in America or at the most would have a very narrow minded view of them. In this way, I think there could some problematic aspects to the story because I have not had the experience first hand that I wrote about in the text. I don’t think that people should come away feeling that they’ve had “the undocumented experience” or “the Mexican experience” but that they’ve read a story to make them more aware of political issues surrounding racism, labor abuse, and documentation. My hope is that stories such as this will make people curious about the subjects presented and interested in educating themselves with a more holistic stance on emigration and labor policies. I also hope that readers will come away with an interest in stories by Mexican and Mexican American authors, journalists, etc. or people who are aware of adversities that members of Mexican and Mexican American communities face. I don’t want my story to be thought of as a permanent social signifier but rather an interface for political identity and cultural expression.

What other events and experiences do you hope to capture in the future?

Well, it’s hard to predict the future. I am curious to see how the recession has affected labor relations in Arizona currently and compare and contrast with my former experiences there.

What 5 writers or other works (entire books, stories, articles, movies, etc.) stand out as favorites, be it the most influential in your own work or simply for enjoyment?

Stories that influenced my writing in Saguaro Blossoms include:

Poems by Sonia Sanchez
Poems by Amiri Baraka during his transition period
Etheridge Knight’s poem: The Bones of My Father
Jack London’s To Build a Fire
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

Reading through past editions of the Scribe, what piece(s) made you think,"Wow, I would love to live in the world this writer has created!"

Well, I enjoyed reading "Glass" by Gillian Ramos and "To Train Up a Child" by Samuel Aboh. I wouldn’t want to live in the world Glass depicts though. It sounds pretty disturbing.

[ed. note - "Glass" appears in the Fall 2008 edition; "To Train Up a Child" appears in the Spring 2009 edition]

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