Conversation: Dagoberto Gilb
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The stories in Dagoberto Gilb’s new book, “Woodcuts of Women,” are hot in several ways. They are set in hot southwest cities like El Paso, and they are mostly about love and sex. Gilb lives in Texas now, but he grew up in Los Angeles, of Mexican and German heritage. He got a master’s in religious studies at the university of California, Santa Barbara, and worked for 12 years as a union carpenter. His collection of short fiction, “the magic of blood,” won the Pen Hemingway award in 1994. He is also author of the novel “The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuna.” Thanks for being with us.
DAGOBERTO GILB: Thanks for having me here.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why the title “woodcuts of women”? I see these lovely wood cuts by the artist Artemio Rodriguez, but does it have something to do with the way you write too?
DAGOBERTO GILB: Yeah, I think the way I approach this and the sort of images… well, first of all, it’s wood. I sort of like the idea of wood because I was involved with wood so long, but also it’s that a woodcut artist works on a flat plane very much like a writer does, and in his case he carves out his image. You know, the white in a wood cut is what he carved out, and leaves the black. And a writer takes a piece of paper and applies the black to it, but both of us sort of start trying to describe this dreamlike quality of reality as we see it. I sort of like that it’s sort of the mirror, that the woodcutter, and my writing are mirroring each other, the black and white is this, you know… They are just kind of… Yeah.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Was it hard for you to write about women? I mean, these books are about the men who love them, but they are also about many different sorts of women.
DAGOBERTO GILB: Well, I don’t know. You know, people accuse me of being macho a lot, and therefore somehow people that that are macho, you know… being macho is something that you get accused of in whatever you do. If you slam a door, you’re macho. If you open a door politely, you’re macho. And I sort of thought I should try to sort of counter that. And the fact is that I grew up with a single mom, a very beautiful woman who, you know, taught me a lot…more about women than I did learn about men — also because when my “Magic of Blood” collection came out, much of it was about construction workers who are male, and I thought I would try something new here.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Read something for us, and set the scene.
DAGOBERTO GILB: This is from a story called “Maila: One Day in 1989.” It’s a story about a guy who walks into a restaurant and encounters a rather attractive woman, and then they decide to meet, and they are going to a… to a unique bar in El Paso, Texas. “We drive past the lights and the well-known streets, past the old courthouse and the new jail into the dark, oldest part of the town where frail tenements are without plumbing or electricity, where the Spanish language is spoken in its most idiomatic form, so close to roots of meaning and sound that words breed like simple cells. Dark– so dark that stars glare like streetlights, or the moon hovers as in wilderness. Through this sludge of night we cross dead metal ribs of train tracks, warehouses whose signs are brushed over chipping plaster and brick as frequently as gang tags. We glimpse bars whose decor and patrons, like the jukebox’s boasts and cries of love and death seeming to push open their doors, are as elemental as horses and goats and snakes; as leather and lard; as sweat and sunburn and rocks.”
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What I really notice is the compressed poetic style. It can’t be easy to achieve this.
DAGOBERTO GILB: No, I appreciate that comment because, I mean, being the kind of guy I am, I’m kind of large, and it’s sort of the last thing in the world that anybody would have thought I could do is be poetic, and I don’t even think of it that way. I kind of see it more like a stonemason. I sort of work very hard, and I pick up every rock, and I put it in and I chip at it, and then I apply some mortar and kind of work that way, one word at a time. It’s kind of methodical and laborious, but I try to get to the end.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I’m interested. You said stonemasonry. What about carpentry?
DAGOBERTO GILB: Well, I guess there is a similarity. I mean, you know, I was a high-rise carpenter, so I guess to the extent that you start at the foundation, you start at the bottom, and then, in a high- rise, you start, like, in a hole, and you work your way up into the street level, and pretty soon you start climbing higher and higher. But you do know the end. You know what the finished product… you have a vision of what it’s supposed to look like, and I think to that extent, I do exactly the same thing. And you have to be careful. You have to make sure that the bottom is done right or you kind of lose it as you go up.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You had to write for a long time before you got much notice. And I wonder if you have a theory about why that was so. Was it East Coast prejudice?
DAGOBERTO GILB: Yeah, I think it’s a combination of things. It’s difficult being a westerner. I think when you are from the West, there is a certain set of stereotypes that are expected. And then as a Chicano, you know, we have a certain number of stereotypes that we are supposed to fulfill. And mine are not the stereotypes… if you look around, I think people from the West notice who’s doing a lot of the work in buildings on the streets and on these high- rises– they’re mostly Latinos, and these are the people that I write about.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’ve expressed some ambivalence about being seen as a Chicano writer or a writer from the Southwest. Why?
DAGOBERTO GILB: Well, I don’t know that… Well, ambivalent… because I also want to be an American writer. I’m proud of being an American writer, and I want to be considered an American writer. I’m very proud of my heritage and happy to be a Chicano writer, but I don’t want to be boxed and limited to sort of an ethnic category where you go into a bookstore and where they have, like, literature, they have a certain set of books, and then where they have sort of Latinos, they put us over there. I think that being born and raised here, and the people that I represent or live with, you know, have generations, many generations here, this being… the Southwest being sort of a lot of Mexico. It was Mexico, once upon a time.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’ve said your good fortune is uniquely American. What did you mean by that?
DAGOBERTO GILB: Well, I love being here, you know… I think a lot of people from Mexico come here because there is so much opportunity here. And myself, I mean, that I have been graced to be allowed to write, I think describes a lot of what is really positive about this country, and has been. It offers jobs that… you know, I got to go to a junior college when I got out of high school. I wasn’t the best student at all. I got to go to a junior college and educate myself, and write. I mean, who would have thought? I can’t even believe it most of the time.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How did you know you wanted to be a writer? What got you started?
DAGOBERTO GILB: Oh, man, I think that’s funny. I think it’s like a disease. I don’t really think it’s a thing you… a lot of people aspire to it, but it’s like aspiring to a sickness that makes you get… you lose a lot of jobs. It’s like a handicap. I often think I should get workman’s comp.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: (Laughs) What are you working on now?
DAGOBERTO GILB: I’m kind of on a, you know, working all the time. I’m kind of scared to talk about it. I don’t want to jinx myself, but no, I’m working on a new novel.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you so much for being with us.
DAGOBERTO GILB: Thank you very much.