An Interview with Tim Z. Hernandez
Interview conducted by Yia Lee.
1. Hello Tim, I understand that you are a poet, novelist, performance artist, and playwright. I’m curious as to which one was your first love, and how you grew as an artist from one genre to the other. Do you find writing multiple genres a challenge? Does one inform the other? What are your thoughts on literary genres—should there be no such labels?
It was a kind of organic process, I think. My initial goal wasn’t really to even become a writer, so much as, that I had things I needed to say. I guess I still feel this way to some degree. So language became the medium. Of course, this meant, I had to familiarize myself with the tools of language, and of narrative-making. So, I began learning and studying these tools. Poetry came first. Later it was fiction. And these got me to thinking more about the oral traditions, the kind I was raised around. The kind we’re all raised around. So I studied oral histories, read them, practiced them, paid attention to how each one of us has a natural instinct for telling stories. This lead me to the realization that, as natural storytellers, when we convey our stories, we don’t consider genres by any means. We just tell it, and use language however we need to, as long as it helps get the point across. Now I began to deliberately write in this way. Later I added non-fiction, illustrations, photos, more tools to the toolbox. Now when I write, I don’t think of it in terms of genre, or labels, not at all. I just write, and whatever tool I need from the toolbox, it’s there for me and I don’t hesitate to use it. But beyond my own work, I like this approach because it also empowers non-writers, everyday people, outside of literary circles and academia, to consider sharing their stories too. I find this approach to be an invitation, it is an inclusive conversation that acknowledges we all have stories worth telling. And we all have the tools necessary to tell it.
2. In relation to the previous question, your book All They Will Call You is called a “documentary novel.” It is the true story of a plane crash over Los Gatos in 1948 that killed 28 Mexican deportees, who were not even given names in the initial news reports. In the book, you combine investigative nonfiction, poetry, interviews, songs, reimaginings, and your own personal testimonies. The book gracefully intertwines these different elements into the narrative, making for an intricate, layered experience. For example, one of the unique elements that haunted and riveted me were the floating, fading names across the white space of the paper on pages 160-162. Did you intentionally set out to write the book as a blend of storytelling/art devices? Also, if a reader enjoys the experience of All They Will Call You, what else can she read that is similar?
I think this question is answered in my previous reply. I use whatever tools necessary to make the story effective, and to get the point across. I looked to poetry to provide much of the freedom I needed in order to write All They Will Call You. Poetry breaks rules, looks at language for more than its narrative value. It can be illustrative, or jarring, or fragmented, if need be. So I pulled from poetry a lot in this book.
As to the second half of your question, some books that I looked to while shaping All They Will Call You include works by Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead/ U.S. 1, Michael Ondaajte’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary, Eleni Sikelianos’s The Book of Jon, Juan Felipe Herrera’s Mayan Drifter, Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Studs Terkel’s My American Century, Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Hector Tobar’s Deep Down Dark, Ruben Martinez’s The Other Side, and many many others…
3. I was also struck by your investigative work to locate the families of the plane crash victims, including funding your research travels and “calling churches randomly all over Mexico, asking about birth certificates…” You also wrote in the book that your Spanish “sucks” so there was even something of a language barrier as you researched. How did you find the fuel to keep going? Is the project still ongoing—you only found seven families, right?
I adopted the belief that this work is more of a calling than a creative endeavor. I was called to do this work, so I do it. And yes, it is still ongoing. I plan to write two more books on this subject—a trilogy, but only after there have been decades between each one. This way I have time to locate more families, and the distance with which to see the work in its totality.
4. It is exciting to know you are still working on this project. I look forward to hearing more from it. Heading back to the direction of the Central Valley, when he was the US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera said that “Fresno is the poetry capital of the world.” There is a large community of poets, past and present, who call Fresno home including Andres Montoya, Gary Soto, Mai Der Vang, and Brynn Saito. How does the San Joaquin region influence you as a writer and artist?
The SJ Valley is home. It always will be. It holds an incredible array of powerful and diverse stories, and I try and remain open enough to see when another good one comes along. And all of these writers you mention here, and many others, continue to be influential to me, and to my writing, and I look to their work so often, especially as I make my home in other states, as a way of grounding me, reminding me that I come from a long lineage of vital storytellers, and that I am part of a sacred, humble and compassionate community, and I’m so grateful to them all, including others such as, Juan Felipe Herrera, Margarita Luna Robles, Mas Masumoto, Mike Medrano, Lee Herrick, Marisol Baca, Lisa Herrick, Kenneth Chacon, Pat Fontes, Nikiko Masumoto, Steven Church, David Campos, Bryan Medina, Daniel Chacon, and the younger poets, Destina Hernandez, Martin Velasco Ramos, Mike Jasso, and many many others---agriculture isn’t the only thing the San Joaquin Valley produces, and I am constantly nourished by this produce of poets and prose writers!!
5. Fun question: What is your favorite way of dealing with the infamous heat of Fresno summers?
By leaving Fresno. Driving far far away from it, if possible. This is how I leave the heat of Fresno, and the HEAT of Fresno.
Thank you, Tim, for your time and wonderful replies.
Bio: Tim Z. Hernandez is an award winning poet, novelist, and performance artist. His poetry collections include Skin Tax and Natural Takeover of Small Things which won the 2006 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and the 2014 Colorado Book Award, respectively. His novels are Breathing, In Dust and Manana Means Heaven, the latter winning the 2014 International Latino Book Award in historical fiction. All They Will Call You is his latest book, a genre bending work called a documentary novel. To learn more about Tim, visit his website here.
All They Will Call You is available through the University of Arizona Press here and on Amazon.