Alex Espinoza was born in Tijuana, Mexico and raised in suburban Los Angeles. His first novel, Still Water Saints, was published by Random House in 2007 and was named a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection. His second novel, The Five Acts of Diego León, was also published by Random House in March 2013.
Alex’s fiction has appeared in Inlandia: A Literary Journey Through California’s Inland Empire, The Southern California Review, Flaunt, and the Virginia Quarterly Review. His essays have been published at Salon.com, in the New York Times Magazine, in The Other Latin@: Writing Against a Singular Identity, in The Los Angeles Review of Books, and as part of the historic Chicano Chapbook Series. His awards include a 2009 Margaret Bridgeman Fellowship in Fiction to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, a 2014 Fellowship in Prose from the National Endowment for the Arts, a 2014 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation for The Five Acts of Diego León, and a 2019 Fellowship from MacDowell.
His newest book is Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime, which was published by The Unnamed Press in June, 2019. Alex is the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair of Creative Writing at UC Riverside.
- The one thing that comes immediately to mind as I reviewed your novel is the inextricable link between identity and abject pain. It’s everywhere! Identity conflict operates on a personal level, on the family level and at the national level. Before I ask questions about each of those areas, can you just speak overall about what role extreme discomfort plays when you think about identity in your writing?
My position as a gay Latino writer with a physical disability is all about the pain and discomfort of trying to forge an identity when so many factors collide and contradict. I always seek to write the experiences of characters facing the extreme dilemmas of identity, nationhood, and sexuality. These topics are never easy to write about, never easy to confront, but the epiphanies they offer when they are excavated can be profound.
2. As a follow-up question, how much of this inextricable link between identity and pain is the result of some form of oppression and how much of it is self-inflicted? What role does each character/person play (in the book or in literature and life, in general) in having a relationship with their own identity?
As a character, Diego’s position as a half indigenous individual navigating a culture that is very Euro-centric, coupled with his own insecurities about his sexuality and his role in the imagined life his aristocratic grandparents have imagined for him is the direct result of a societal oppression, a societal oppression that, even now, that constructs hierarchies around skin shades and sexuality. Because he’s never had anyone to help guide and nurture his impulses in a productive way, we watch as he stumbles, makes bad decisions, and ultimately must face the consequences of the choices he’s made.
3. Now let’s break down the pain of identity into different areas, starting with the historical setting of The Five Acts of Diego León. It’s the 1920s. Diego León is from Mexico but that country is going through an identity crisis with the Revolution. Then Diego ends up displaced from his rural Mexican village and ends up in the era of Hollywood in silent films. And then the United States is on the verge of its own identity problem with the Roaring 20s running full throttle into the Great Depression. Tell me about the painful forces in play during that time period and what drew you to it as the setting for your story.
Initially, I was drawn more to the idea of the dreamy and glamorous images of old Hollywood, and I set out to write a book about a young Mexican man who ends up in Hollywood and becomes the “Latin Lover” of a film studio during the 30s. Diego was very much based on the experiences of actors like Ramon Novarro, Gilbert Roland, and Anthony Quinn in the film industry. As I did more digging, though, I looked further into the historical and cultural shifts happening all around Mexico and the United States and Hollywood (which is its own mini “nation”). There were too many significant things happening that made it impossible for me to turn away from as a writer. We had the Cristero Rebellion, a bloody civil war between the Mexican government and the Catholic church which was a direct result of the Mexican Revolution. We had the first iteration of the “militarized” U.S./Mexican border with the construction of the notorious Santa Fe Disinfection Plant, and the rhetoric of immigrants as “diseased” and “inferior.” And then there was the Great Depression and the advent of sound that revolutionized the film industry in profound ways. I didn’t see these so much as painful forces, though, rather forces beyond Diego’s control that, again, alter and influence the decisions he makes, both good and bad.
4. Diego Leon has intense personal struggles of his own. With being Mexican in the United States and having to pretend he’s French. (A Washington Post review of the book said Mexicans were “sprayed and dusted” before being let into the country). With having a rural Indian background while being shaped by highbrow grandparents. With having his personal interests squelched by those grandparents in the name of “business”. What resources can one possibly draw from under such circumstances to survive?
The character, to me, embodies an individual who sees himself not as victim of such circumstances, but as a survivor, someone who is completely cognizant of himself and his possibilities. I wanted to write a character possessed of an awareness much like that of my immigrant parents who risked everything in order to survive and to provide a good life for their children. My parents had no road map, there was no precedent. They immigrated to the United States blindly, with only their faith and their love for their children as guideposts. Diego is the same way. The resource he draws from is his own desire to survive and live life on his terms, even if that means stepping over people to do so. A reviewer called Diego’s ambitions “selfish” and said that, basically, a more believable story would have been one where he ends up staying in Mexico and fighting alongside his countrymen instead of “following a selfish dream.” I thought, “Wow. What an incredibly ignorant and racist comment.” That reviewer was basically saying that they didn’t believe Mexicans could carry ambitions that exist beyond the violence and poverty of the country at that time. I took it to mean that, for this reviewer, what made more sense are depictions of Mexicans as ruthless and violent brutes incapable of seeing beyond their experiences. The whole point of this book is that Diego is a character complex enough to embody ambition and, yes, even arrogance and ruthlessness.
5. Interestingly, what helps Diego León eventually move forward, commercially speaking anyway, is by embracing one aspect of his identity which is genuine–his homosexuality. His relationship with the Hollywood producer provides him with the opportunity to move forward with his career. Is this a chance to explore himself more fully, in a way he’s otherwise had to hide? (You might want to check out my next question before answering).
Absolutely. We have to consider that, during this period, things like homosexuality existed but were rarely talked about. Same-sex attraction in Hollywood was, for the most part, tolerated in private but reviled in public. Take the case of William Haines, who was one of the most successful leading men in silent-era Hollywood. Everyone knew he liked men and that he was in a committed relationship with a man. It was only a scandal the minute he was busted in a YMCA in downtown Los Angeles soliciting a sailor. Louie B. Mayer, fearing the PR nightmare this would cause, gave Haines an ultimatum: either concede to a sham marriage to a woman or get fired. Haines refused the marriage idea and walked away. It would have been historically inaccurate for me to have had Diego proclaim, “I’m gay!” because people just didn’t typically do and say those things at the time. I think Diego’s destructive upbringing has instilled in him a desire to be needed and wanted. His experiences with the film executive are just another manifestation of that.
6. I mentioned in my last question that he “embraces” his homosexuality but then again is that really the case? Does he really embrace it or only share this part of his identity when it’s convenient in other respects? What do you think?
I don’t think he either fully embraces it or outright rejects it. And I think this what makes it so hard for readers to sometimes understand. We’re so used to polarities when viewing things like sexuality (Straight or gay? Out or in the closet? Happy or miserable?). I think he’s just coming into his own at those moments in the book. I don’t think he knows what he is, and I didn’t (and Diego doesn’t) feel any pressure to have to label him as one or the other.
7. What is on the other side of struggle? When one has a conflict in identity, how should one approach the struggle and is there ever an “arrival”? Will struggle ever end? And if so, what does that look like?
I don’t think struggle ever ends, because I don’t think we are ever fully capable of understanding ourselves. I, for one, am glad. Struggle forges us, tempers and stretches us.
8. Which authors inspire you? V.S. Naipaul popped into mind a few times as I was reviewing your work. Not necessarily his grouchiness but as his writing reflects the intense intermarriage between identity, travel and displacement. I may be totally off base though. Would like to hear whose writing gives you courage.
I go to different writers for different things. When I was writing this book, for example, I read a lot of John Dos Pasos, Graham Greene, and Carlos Fuentes. I also read a great deal of history books on Mexican migration and the border during the early part of the 20th century. I was inspired by Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust for depictions of the Hollywood of the 20s and 30s in literature, and also John Fante’s Ask the Dust.
Jay’s interview with Alex Espinoza is part of an ongoing series of author interviews. Click here to review Jay’s other interviews.