Crossing Literary Borders
By Barbara Strickland
SEPTEMBER 2, 1997: In May of last year, when Latino author David Rice mentioned Dr. Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, author of the Klail City Death Trip series, during an interview, the name evoked only the vaguest of reactions: that good old academic nod, learned well in four years of college. The Nod says, "Um-hmmm, of course, who wouldn't know about that?" with a raised eyebrow and a pen pressed thoughtfully against the lips while you riffle through mental Rolodexes scrabbling frantically to remember that significant name, fact, or place. I have a "C" GPA, but an "A" in The Nod.
Hinojosa-Smith is the owner and sole proprietor of the Klail City Death Trip series, a loosely linked collection of 13 short novels set in mythical Belken County, a county situated on the Texas-Mexican border. Each of the Klail City novels deals with incidents in the lives of Klail City's Anglo and Texas-Mexican citizens. Of the series, Dr. Jaime Mejia, Professor of Literature at Southwest Texas State University, has written, "No other works by an American author to date accomplish as significant or as expansive a project." Of Hinojosa-Smith himself, the renowned author and historian Americo Paredes has said, "He is the best we have."
Rolando Hinojosa-Smith is very much like his brief, enigmatic books. There is an amusing sort of physical resemblance: Seventy years old, he is a tall, slender volume of a man and at first unimposing, with his quiet voice and relaxed manner. In a less shallow sense, there is a nice mixture of complexity of idea with an unexpected simplicity of expression in his speech and demeanor. Hinojosa-Smith embodies perfectly the Shavian dictum that manners mean "not having bad manners or good manners or any other particular sort of manners, but having the same sort of manner for all human souls"; he turns the same genteel regard onto the waitress who comes to take our lunch order as he shows to me, the writer who is here to interview him.
Some people flaunt their knowledge like diamonds, as a way of saying "Look what I've got that you haven't." Hinojosa-Smith seems to flaunt his as an invitation: Come see, come taste, come share. If his casual allusions to history and to literature are somewhat daunting, the effect isn't intentional. When I confess my insecurity with Spanish, stumbling over the Spanish title of his first published novel, Estampas del valle y otras obras, he happily embarks upon an impromptu linguistics lesson. "Spanish is what we call a paroxytonic language."
"A paroxytonic language. That means that it's a language that abounds in vowels. And we have no vowel quality. The `o' is always an `o' in Spanish, the `a' is always an `a.' English, you have `rat,' you add an `e,' you have `rate.' It changes. But the `a's' in `Estampas,' they never change. You'll always be understood in Spanish, and that's the important thing. Say `estampas,'" he directs.
"See? It doesn't change. That'll be two dollars," he says, grinning.
Hinojosa was 44 when Estampas del valle y otras obras won the Quinto Sol Literary Prize in 1972. Estampas was later translated into English and published as Sketches of the Valley and Other Works. Then Hinojosa-Smith rewrote it in English and published it as The Valley in 1983: "I changed some of the... Valley," he says. He refers to the English and Spanish versions of his books not as translations, but as "renditions." "I think I like to keep the flavor rather than just a word-by-word definition or translation. Because what won't fit in English -- or Spanish, since I've done both English and Spanish -- I try to give the nearest equivalent to it, say, a word-play or something like that," he says.
Hinojosa uses a number of techniques -- verbal collage, pastiche, reportage, the fabricated news clipping, to mention only three -- to create narratives that are implied rather than verbalized. For example, a stabbing at a bar may be described three different ways: by the local, Anglo-owned newspaper; by the sister of the man who committed the stabbing; and by the man who stabbed him. Verbal narrative, third person, but not fully omniscient, makes an appearance in only one of the Klail City Death Trip series novels, Partners in Crime. "It strikes me," I say, "that narrative in the typical sense implies that there is a truth. The characters may dissemble, or lie, but there is an underlying truth that can be discerned. But now, with your series and its overall lack of a typical narrative -- are you saying that there isn't a truth?"
"I'm saying that it's very difficult to ascertain what the truth is. I'm not talking about point of view." He sips his iced tea. "People use their imagination more than they use their intellect. And the reason is that the imagination is very active and inventive while the intellect is not. The intellect is very lazy. We prefer, really, not to use our intellect. So you use your imagination. So therefore the search for truth," he says, chuckling, "is ongoing. And you think you've uncovered it and it's like an onion. So I figure, well, the writer shouldn't know everything."
I say, "Now, there's this idea of, uh, you know, Chaucer's idea of auctoritee."
"Yeah," he says expectantly, his entire face suddenly physically alert and his attention totally focused. So much attention is unnerving, and I flounder: "Uh, you know, the idea of having authority...."
He frowns, trying to guess which direction I might be going in. "You control it," he says finally. "It's your blank sheet of paper. But when you sit down before the computer, who's in control? So I say, well, the tone is going to be this way. For now. Lord knows what's going to happen with it when you develop the characters. So this authority of yours is never limited, but it allows you to -- to change your mind. I mean, the characters don't `take over,' I've never believed that. They do influence you in the sense that you suspect, and then you learn more about them. So, that's how they change. But not because the character tells you, "This is who I am, the hell with you." He pauses. "Some writers like to pose, though. It's very natural. [They] make it seem as though writing is the most difficult thing in the world. Picking citrus is," he says, raising his eyebrows, "you've got a lot of thorns on those orange or grapefruit trees. That's hard. Picking cotton's hard. Writing? Come on."
Dr. Hinojosa-Smith pushes his food around on his plate with a folded tortilla and muses on why writers write: "Freud says three things about artists, writers, painters, sculptors, musicians... he says -- he's very playful at times, you know -- he says artists go into it for fame, money, and sex." Surprised, I laugh, but he continues. "You're laughing because you've not thought about it that way. But here I'm citing a hell of an authority, one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. Yeah. It's all ego."
"But wait," I say, "You mention money -- and yet, you don't have an agent, you publish only with small presses. So now, where's the money?"
"At my job," he replies, "Teaching. Which I love. I've said this before," and there is perhaps the slightest edge of a gritted tooth in his voice, for Dr. Hinojosa-Smith has been asked this question many, many times, "but I'll say it again, for print: I have the best job in the world. I teach where I want to teach, at my old alma mater, and then, I get to write. I also get to travel. People invite me to come give talks and readings. I'm doing what I want to do."
While he keeps a low profile in Austin, he tells me that he thinks he's "visited, I don't know, maybe over two hundred, two hundred and fifteen universities in the U.S., not counting Germany or France or any of the European nations. From Harvard to Sul Ross. Have you ever heard of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine? Every year they have something called the Ken Santagata lecture. So I was chosen this year. I did a reading, and then I taught two classes, and then I read a formal paper. So they got their money's worth, and I did too -- I met new people, really liked it, went walking. Took a whole day off to walk, up the Maine coast, very rocky, very cold -- this was in November -- and that's money, to me."
I respect the hell out of Freud. But fame, sex, and money seem like rather odd goals for someone whose books are mainly read by academic critics. "Listen," I say. "There's gotta be more. Isn't there some purpose, some sort of higher goal to your writing?"
"Oh, it'd be nice, yeah."
"But no?" I press. "No, there isn't?"
"But no," he replies, "that's why you keep writing all the time, why you keep painting, keep sculpting. "Well, this is good, but I think I would like to continue this," you know. I don't know about a greater good. That's a very nice Protestant type of, ah.... But it is, you know, `the greater good' -- whose greater good? Are we going to settle the U.S.? Do away with the Indians, leave England, you know, that type of thing?" He pauses. "But, there is something there, and you're right, you put your finger right on it. Because, you want to continue doing and maybe do it a little bit better the next time. And there's no guarantee and that's the great thing about creativity. That there's no guarantee that you're going to succeed."
Hinojosa-Smith thinks of his Klail City Death Trip series as an "ongoing conversation." It is a conversation to which he has been listening ever since his birth in 1927 in Mercedes, Texas. Just three miles north of the Rio Grande, Mercedes lies south of Edcouch, the town in which author David Rice sets many of his short stories, and west of Brownsville, which author and historian Americo Paredes renamed "Jonesville" in his fictional writings. It is a largely middle-class community of mostly established and intertwined Anglo and Latino families. "The ties," Hinojosa has written, "... are psychological, economic, historic, and, because of time, bound by blood relations." The son of an Anglo mother and a Latino father, he has always been aware of, and made real in his work, these ties. His is one of the more compassionate portraits of a bi- or multicultural society. And yet the Klail City Death Trip series, even though rendered into English, seems to receive little positive attention from mainstream critics.
In fact, the majority of the criticism about Hinojosa-Smith has been written by Latino or Latina critics such as Dr. Jaime Mejia of Southwest Texas State and Dr. Rosaura Sanchez of the University of California at San Diego. "He won't admit it," Dr. Mejia says, "but I think he would like more mainstream attention than he gets." Juan Rodriguez, Associate Professor at Texas Lutheran University, describes Hinojosa, whom he says writes middle-class stories in a working class tradition, as being "sandwiched" between Americo Paredes and Tomas Rivera. This, Rodriguez says, results in some confusion regarding Hinojosa on the part of both Anglo and Latino literary critics.
Hinojosa-Smith is known for his allusions to other, usually Spanish, works: The title of Claros varones de Belken County comes from the title of a 14th-century manuscript, Claros varones de Castilla. "Where does the name, Klail City Death Trip series, come from," I ask. "Is that an allusion to another novel?"
Dr. Hinojosa-Smith corrects me, saying, "It's not a novel, The Wisconsin Death Trip series. It's a book full of pictures of dead people." "Um-hmmm," I think. He continues, "Babies, youngsters, and grownups and middle-aged and all -- what happened was this: When we were settling the Midwest, they went to the Scandinavian Islands to recruit people to come and settle here. And... one of the selling points, which was a lie, was that the winters in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, were just like the winters here. Of course, ours are what we call "continental winters." Where it's terribly cold. So they came here, and they died, by the hundreds. And by the thousands.
"So I was in the library at Texas A&I at Kingsville once, and I found it, liked the title, took it home and -- my God. Just picture after picture of dead Scandinavians who'd been recruited to come and work here. Who were lied to."
Ah-ha. "That puts a much darker tinge on your work, doesn't it?" I ask, fishing.
"I think so," he says, his manner suddenly bland. "There's a lot of death in my work, of course, but nothing as dark as that."
"He hates categories," I was told, "He hates to be categorized." Dr. Hinojosa-Smith also hates, it would seem, questions that are fishing expeditions. He has perfected the art of deflecting indirect questions in a flawlessly factual, perfectly seamless manner. Ask him a direct question, however, and he answers at length.
"Racism and history -- they're not motifs, really, but would you call them forces in the series?" I ask.
"Mm-hmm," he says, "I find them very important. It has to be historically based. Because if there is racism -- and there is -- there's one theme. And it's not the same as it was in the 1930s, or as it was post-World War II 1945, or the way that it is in the 1980s, or now, in the Nineties. It can't be the same. It has to change. Otherwise you'd have a revolution. So society makes certain adjustments, it always does."
Dr. Hinojosa-Smith continues, "... I don't think that [racists] spend 24 hours a day -- `How can I impose my racism?' No. They have wives, lovers, taxes, debts. They're human. To insist that this is the raison d'etre -- no. Are there Mexican-American racists? I'm sure there are. Whether they're Anglo or Mexican-American, they're a little bit of what you and I are -- good most of the time, tell the truth most of the time, self-advocating, self-sacrificing -- you know, all of these things, these human attributes. No one owns a monopoly in any field."
We talk about his writing. He has just signed a contract and turned in another novel, Ask a Policeman. "It's a continuation of the series, but it's also directly tied to Partners in Crime," his novel, published in 1988, about corruption on the Klail City police force. "The man who got away [at the end of Partners in Crime], when the novel begins -- it's a linear novel again, this good old 19th-century solid novel -- is in jail in Belken County." The title comes from an old English music hall song. Hinojosa-Smith recites, in the cadenced tone that one uses for rhyming speech: "`Every member of the force has a watch and chain, of course. So if you want to know the time, Ask a Policeman.'"
He has "no idea," he says, what will happen next in the series. "I think most writers write that way, most writers start with a `what if.'" He pauses over the cleared table. "What would happen, if a Mexican-American woman, educated, belonging to one of the first families of her town, well-off, Roman Catholic, with two kids... what would happen if that woman one morning decided to drop-kick her husband through the goalposts of life, as the hillbilly song says? And what if I let people from the community, who are pro and con, from all walks of life, all ages, tell the story? But, now, I have a question for you, Miss Strickland." He points a finger at me. "What gender was the writer?"
It's a trick question, right? I think fast, trying to remember Becky and Her Friends, the plot of which Hinojosa-Smith has so neatly reconstructed for me. I realize that it isn't that I can't remember -- there simply is no way to know. Hinojosa's "narrator" in Becky is genderless, which Hinojosa says was his intention. "Because people say, `Only a black can write about blacks, or only a white can write about whites.... Or a man can only write about men, he can't write about women.' So I said, let's see. What is the sex of my questioner -- there's no narrator, really. In Spanish it was much more difficult, you have gender in Spanish. I put in one hint."
I wait, but he's not telling. "That secret," he says, "is safe with me. And with the book." And he smiles.
That is, effectively, the end of our conversation: Dr. Hinojosa has papers to grade, it being just about exam time. And he does not let anything get in the way of that. Nevertheless, he's too polite to leave without chatting for a minute. I tell him about my car, which I have only just retrieved from the shop, and we talk about public transit systems we have known, in London and Germany. The day brightens as we leave the restaurant; the conversation becomes so companionable that I halfway expect it to continue. I am in the middle of the parking lot before I realize that he is not there. Turning, I see him, partially silhouetted in sunlight, his hands in his pockets and his face untroubled, as he steps off the curb to walk home.
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