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For Manuel Munoz, there's an unseen San Joaquin Valley that's considerably different from the one many people know. His 2003 collection of short stories, Zigzagger, chronicles that world.
Munoz is the son of farmworker parents who grew up as a working-class, queer Latino in Dinuba, about 30 miles southeast of Fresno. Even though he was a standout student in high school, an admissions worker discouraged him from applying to Harvard. Munoz went anyway, with $100 in his pocket, later becoming the first in his family to earn a college degree.
His first step out of the Valley was his first step into a questioning world, one that would constantly challenge his work ethic, his sexuality, and his ethnicity. Munoz managed to make sense of the questions in his writing, and has now emerged as a promising voice in contemporary Latino literature.
In an interview, community journalist Jefferson Beavers talked with Munoz about coming to terms with his home, finding his place among different communities, and becoming a better writer.
You were born and raised in Dinuba and left in 1990 to attend Harvard. How much has the Valley been a part of your everyday life since you left high school?
When I was in college and grad school, I could come home for long stretches, three weeks or a month. After I got my first full-time job in 1999, it was one visit a year. The longing for home started to kick in. Maybe it was nostalgia. But that feeling started to strengthen my writing, as I was fashioning a lot of the stories for Zigzagger. I realized that my home was more important in my life than I gave it credit for.
You have said that leaving the Valley has shaped everything you write and your entire being. Have you ever imagined what your life may have been like if you had stayed?
I can't imagine myself living there, because I feel so different socially. But it's inescapable. When I think of places I've lived the longest, it has been California and Boston. I was in Boston for seven years and it feels like such a foreign place. It feels like a wave of nothing. But sometimes when I'm here in New York, I can close my eyes and know things in Dinuba. I know how things smell, how they sound. I don't have any comparable experience in my life.
You attended the annual Young Writers Conference at Fresno State when you were in junior high. How was that influential to your development as a writer, and to your awareness of the history of Valley literature?
I was put into a separate class with [Pulitzer Prize-winning poet] Philip Levine. I remember him saying something like, "You'll be a good writer someday when you figure out what to write about." I didn't find out until college who he was, because I didn't know the Valley produced writers. I never had a sense that the place was worth writing about, to be honest. I read Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath in high school and it mentioned Pixley and picking crops. I thought, wow, this took place in a town I know. I realized that literature could take place in this very Valley. It can actually transport you to the place you're in.
In 1998, after you earned your Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Cornell, what was your publishing path? What was it like being a small-town boy with a big-city degree, trying to make it as a literary writer?
I had worked on a novel at Cornell. A university press looked at it. One reviewer gave it a great read, and another one sent the most devastating, damning letter about my writing. It really took me down a notch. I don't know why I turned to short stories. I guess I figured if I'm going to work in obscurity, I might as well do short stories. I wrote first one, "Campo," and it got taken by the journal Glimmer Train. So I started writing more. I made friends with other Chicano writers who later got my stories into the hands of the editors at Northwestern, which published Zigzagger.
Writers and critics from Sandra Cisneros to David Ebershoff have praised Zigzagger. When and how did the big-name literary set first notice you and how did that praise affect you?
My agent asked me if I could get this book into the hands of any writer, who would it be. So we sent out the galleys and kept our fingers crossed. We were lucky. Cisneros is a reason that a lot of Chicano writers of my generation began writing. She showed us that we could write literature about our own lives. And I picked Ebershoff because his novel The Danish Girl floored me with its precise language and gorgeous detail. Ebershoff went to the L.A. Times and asked to review Zigzagger. I remember that I went all over New York trying to find a copy. I finally found one in Penn Station, read the review, and I was near tears. I couldn't believe it happened this way.
I understand that your stories are being integrated into the canon of contemporary Latino literature now at colleges in Southern California. When did you first learn about this acceptance and were you surprised?
It tells you about how close-knit the Chicano academic community really is. A few who'd heard of the book told people, then they told other people. Then it started to really pick up that way. I had thought that our literature hadn't been so receptive to books like mine. I don't want to call my book a gay book, but it has that in there. So I'm surprised and happy that people have put it within a context of the other texts.
The stories in "Zigzagger" have been described as moving beyond the traditional themes of Latino literature to explore conflicts of family, sexuality, memory, and loss. In what contexts do you see the book being used in the classroom?
I'm doing a reading in Miami soon, for a class called Queer Literature, 1945-present. Miami is a Latino community. So I'm curious to see what the rest of their reading list is about and how they are inserting me into this dialogue. But I'm eager for the moment when I can hear a professor talk about it in context with another book. And that's very gratifying.
Who are the writers that you most admire, and what are the books that you most enjoy reading?
I read a lot of poetry. I can't write it worth a damn, but I read it because a lot of poems aren't narratives. I enjoy how writers approach ideas this way, in a way that I can't. It tunes my ear to language. There are short-story writers who I come to all the time, like Alice Munro. I try to keep up on all the Chicano/Latino writers, like Helena Maria Viramontes. I always tell people about her novel, Under The Feet of Jesus. It has slowly but surely started to cement itself in the Chicano canon.
The Valley has a rich history of Latino literature, including Luis Omar Salinas, Andres Montoya, Gary Soto, and dozens of others. How do you see yourself fitting into that tradition?
I'm definitely coming in through the doors that they've opened. Those writers were at the forefront. They were there in the days when you couldn't even get the press interested just because you were Chicano. They've seen the whole publishing world changing face. What's different about me is that I've had all the advantages they didn't have. They're trailblazers, they did it on their own. I'm definitely part of the next generation. If you line me up against any one of them, and what they went through to get their work published, my story pales in comparison. I'm very thankful to all of them.
What do you hope that people come away with after reading your work?
I just want to be seen as a writer. Everybody wants to see me as a Chicano writer, a gay writer, a Chicano/gay writer, whatever. They move me into those labels, and it becomes a label that you can't overcome without people reading into it. Ultimately, I want people to put down the book and say, "We can look at identity later, but damn, he's a good writer." There's no way to escape identity, where you came from. But readers assign a politic to you that isn't always correct or the full picture. I want more than that.
Manuel Munoz will give a free public reading Oct. 20 at California State University, Fresno, as part of the San Joaquin Literary Association's annual Visiting Writer Series. He will appear at 7:30 p.m. in the Alice Peters Auditorium, inside the Peters Business Building, 5245 N. Backer Ave.