A Q&A With Diana López
Dagoberto Gilb calls Diana López, “a forceful, new-generation voice in our literature.” Here the young author discusses her debut novel, Sofia’s Saints.
texasmonthly.com: Did you expect that your first book would be so well received?
Diana López: It’s been a pleasant surprise. Most people are fond of my characters Pete and Chimuelita. They’re certainly my favorites—my affection for them, contagious.
texasmonthly.com: What inspired this work?
DL: Once you start a book, everything in your environment informs it. So my novel has many sources, but I’ll focus on how my main character became a woodburning artist. I got the idea at a craft show when I saw a lady using a pyroelectric pen. I thought, what would Michelangelo think about this? He had an organic view of art and believed that by chiseling away the excess, he could free a shape locked in stone. Sofia has a similar view. Even her medium is organic. She looks at wood and sees saints outlined in the rings. For her, art is discovery — not invention and not arrangement. Hers is a very old-fashioned view, one that is constantly challenged because Sofia lives in a world where art is manufactured, or in her words, “imposed.” Instead of enlightening, art advertises. It is viewed as a commodity and judged, not by aesthetics but by how well it sells. (Think of all the Thomas Kinkade studios in the country.) This commercialism is what Sofia works so hard to resist, but then she’s forced to reconsider because she suddenly needs money to buy a house.
texasmonthly.com: Do you see yourself in Sofia?
DL: Well, I can’t draw anything more detailed than a stick figure. But if I am like Sofia, it’s because I’m both desirous of and suspicious of … magic, which I define as an encounter with the divine. So I’ll wear my St. Christopher and sprinkle holy water on my car before a road trip, but when I get sick, I call the doctor and take my medicine like a good girl. Mine is a heart caught between doubt and belief, logic and faith. But I will say, when I do feel “magic,” it’s because I’m writing (my version of woodburning) or because I’m spending time with the people I love. I think the same is true for Sofia.
texasmonthly.com: Author Dagoberto Gilb said that Sofia is the “future of America.” What does this mean? What makes this character so special?
DL: Sofia’s hard to place if you think about the history of minority literature. Whenever a minority culture first writes fiction, it begins by defining itself. It does this in two ways: by celebrating its traditions (as in Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima) or by setting itself against the oppressor (as in Tómas Rivera’s Y No Se Lo Tragó La Tierra). When writers make their culture the subject of their books, they acknowledge their otherness. But Sofia doesn’t do that. She’s not wondering what it means to be a Mexican-American because her heritage is deeply ingrained in her psyche and in her community. That’s what I mean when I say “culture as context not content.” I am not ignoring my heritage. Rather, I am insisting that it is equally American. So if Sofia is the future of America, it’s because she sees no difference between the Mexican and the American way of life. They co-exist for her, and she embodies that diversity.
texasmonthly.com: José Skinner says your book is a “sensuous depiction of post-Selena Corpus Christi.” How did the city change after her death?
DL: Today we live such insular lives. It takes an NBA championship or a hurricane to get people together. So when Selena died, we felt an overwhelming sense of community, and, I have to say, joy mixed with our grief. Think about it. Your neighbors are talking to you. The corner-store cashier and the stoic security guard offer warm, sympathetic smiles. Unfortunately, this communal feeling is short lived because it’s based on an event rather than a tradition. (Even the solidarity that followed September 11 has worn off.) Corpus doesn’t have too many hometown heroes, so we honored Selena by changing the Bayfront Auditorium to the Selena Auditorium, placing her statue along the seawall, painting her image on our buildings (something that occurs in the novel), and filming a blockbuster that documented her life. In some ways, entertainment is our religion and celebrities are our gods. Think of the Super Bowl, Elvis or Princess Di. This is what I see with Selena, a sort of deification.
texasmonthly.com: What do you hope readers take from this story?
DL: I like to quote Robert Frost whenever I’m asked this question. He says that a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” You can see this in his writing. It is deceptively simple because it is layered, and I admire him for writing at a time when other poets were showing off. (I think of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and all those footnotes.) Frost’s style of “deceptively simple” writing is what I aspire to. If someone reads my book and says, “That was fun,” then that’s fine. But if someone else reads my book and has an eye for examining what it says about family or art or faith, then that’s fine too. I like to offer that choice. Read for pleasure or read for meaning —it’s all up to you.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think that your career will help Chicanas to achieve a greater presence in American society?
DL: Chicanas are going to achieve a greater presence regardless of my career. An article in your magazine last month stated that even without immigration, Hispanics are moving toward becoming the majority in Texas. But sheer numbers aside, I’m meeting a lot of women like me, women from South Texas who appreciate a book that doesn’t cast them in such a stereotypical light.
texasmonthly.com: You are just embarking on your journey as a writer. What are your career goals? What would you most like to accomplish?
DL: I want to continue writing. Right now, I’m working on a second novel called A Daily Good Friday, and I have in mind vague ideas for three other books. That should keep me busy for the next ten or fifteen years.