Acclaimed fiction writer Helena María Viramontes will be one of the featured authors for Gemini Ink’s 2017 Writers Conference. Viramontes grew up in east Los Angeles, which served as inspiration for works such as the award-winning novel Under the Feet of Jesus, Their Dogs Came With Them, and the short story collection The Moths and Other Stories. Viramontes now lives In New York, where she teaches English at Cornell University.
During the Gemini Ink Writers Conference, Viramontes will be teaching a fiction workshop titled “Re-Imagining Other Worlds Through a Political Lens.” Due to its popularity, the workshop has already sold out.
Gemini Ink spoke with Viramontes about best writing practices, creative inspiration, and her forthcoming workshop in San Antonio.
GEMINI INK: Do you have any secret rituals you perform before you get started? What is your writing routine?
Helena María Viramontes: When I was a beginner writer, I would pray to the universe to help my heart be generous and big enough to access the emotions and frustrations and fears of others. Part of that prayer was gratitude that I had, as a brown woman, as a Chicana, a writing space, a roof over my head, food in my refrigerator, and that my kids were healthy. A lot of people don’t have that.
Now, my meditation is my writing. My prayer is my writing. That’s why I don’t really have those rituals anymore, because I’ve become them.
I really believe in the discipline in writing. Writing is discipline, is perseverance, is patience. It’s not so much catharsis as it is a meditative practice.
GI: Do you have a favorite piece of writing advice?
HMV: Grace Paley said, “Write things you don’t know about those things that you do.” In other words, suppose you want to write about your mom and you think you know a lot; what is interesting is to pursue those things you really don’t know.
Always be curious about things. I believe in connecting physical objects to emotions. You don’t always have to have a character translate feelings, but you can have a character looking at an empty bottle and realizing that it’s empty, and that’s an image and metaphor for emptiness.
In the Gemini Ink workshop, we will be working on the physicality of the world. We live in a very visual culture, but that’s only one out of five senses that can be utilized. You have to have concreteness and specificity. You have to pull at opposite ends. A good character should never just be good; she should be complicated.
GI: Do you have any special charms, talismans, or souvenirs in your workspace?
HMV: My studio is filled with photographs. Right now on my desk, I have a beautiful Japanese-style watercolor my brother made. I have a framed letter from Tillie Olsen – she was a dynamic socialist writer and author of Silences, which is about how difficult it is for women writers to get their writing done. I have a picture of my brothers, my family, my daughter, as well as old pictures of my mom and her family, and I have pictures of houses in Los Angeles, to remind me to keep writing about this history that has been erased.
GI: Can you name a source you return to for creative inspiration?
HMV: For me, the East L.A. community where I grew up carries such profound significance – these streets where my mother, siblings, and I grew up; the places where they fought and loved. I study documents, read histories, and then recreate them in my work so that even my children will understand where I came from. I will not accept the erasure of my community from the national narrative. I will work three, four, 10 times harder to put it down on paper so that you will understand that you cannot erase us.
It’s strange to always be talking about L.A. One of the strangest things is that people don’t see me as a California writer. That’s very sad.
GI: Your novel Under The Feet of Jesus includes fantastic descriptions of characters, the places they inhabit, and the ways they look and act. The settings feel incredibly vivid. Do you have a particular strategy for creating descriptions such as these?
HMV: I had a Sundance Institute Fellowship and the incredible opportunity to have a storytelling workshop with Gabriel Garcia Márquez. He loved movies. One of things that I took away was the cinematography of a scene and the objects in it. I realized that I really needed to use the cinematography of the real world. I wanted to be able to create scenes that would translate emotions and not have flatness to them. I didn’t want to tell; I really wanted to show these emotions.
GI: In some of your short stories you show how young women are weighed down by the expectations and limits their paternal figures impose on them. What motivated you to write about that?
HMV: In all the things I read, I had never found any characters that were like my sisters, my family. And I love my sisters dearly. My older sisters really had it rough because of my father’s sternness, but they were also very creative. And so I wanted to honor them, but I also didn’t want to romanticize them as being the virtuous daughters, because that would make them one-dimensional. I wanted to write about those paradoxes and struggles. With The Moths, I used James Joyce’s Araby as a model, with the spike-up, obstacles, epiphany, and resolution.
GI: What is your next project?
HMV: Scholar and writer Elizabeth Escobedo has done invaluable research that revives the voices of suppressed young brown and black women of the World War II era who resisted unfair rules and detention at reform schools. I really would like to write something about that.