An interview by Jennifer Maritza McCauley
It’s always a pleasure to engage with passionate writers who are literary advocates and boundary-pushers, in their writing and in their outreach. Jon Marcantoni, a Colorado-based writer of Puerto Rican and Corsican descent, has committed himself to emboldening experimental writers of color, and challenging readers through his publishing programs and through his own genre-bending novels, plays, and short works. In 2016, he founded La Casita Grande Press, an imprint dedicated to Caribbean and Latino writers. He is the author of four novels, all dealing with Puerto Rican socio-political concerns. In 2017, he won awards from the Mexico International Film Festival, the Oaxaca FilmFest, and El Ojo Cojo Film Festival for his screenplay El festejo de San Sebastián. He has appeared in Huffington Post, LA Times, Latino Rebels, Washington Post, NBC Latino, Publisher’s Weekly, and El Nuevo Dia, amongst publications. He lives in Colorado Springs, CO, and teaches at the University of Colorado.
In this interview from 2017, we discuss bilingual writing, the power of plays, multi-genre works, and running a Latino press, amongst other topics.
Our journal is interested in your “origins,” i.e. where you’ve come from as a writer and where you’re going. Would you talk a bit about why you chose creative writing as a profession? Did you face any obstacles getting where you are now?
I sort of fell into it. I've made more money as an editor than as a writer, and even then, it was only supplementary to whatever random job I needed to get by (I'm the man of a thousand jobs, I've done retail, waiting tables, sound tech for a comedy theatre, food critic, medical equipment repair, soldier, copyeditor, etc.) I never got any scholarships. When I finally pursued my Bachelor's it was in Spanish Studies, which I paid out of pocket and by amassing massive debt, pursuing a dream of returning to Puerto Rico to work for the Instituto de Cultura, only to see that fall apart and having to enlist in the Army. So the luxuries that many writers, especially ones in academia and coming out of elite schools and backgrounds, I never had. I thought I was going to be a filmmaker, out of high school I went to the Art Institute of Atlanta, only to be kicked out on the streets and then bouncing from home to home for two years, working three or four jobs at a time while living with shady and criminal people (prostitutes and drug dealers, no lie). During that time, I hooked up with an indie production studio in Atlanta's West End, and was paid to write short scripts--I was 19. The money I got from the studio was enough to convince me that, since I had to work so much to survive, the best thing to do was write, since I could do that with any schedule.
To back up a little further, when I was a teenager doing community theatre and street performing, I became known in my circle for being able to produce things very quickly. I could throw together a full-length play in a few days, short plays in a few hours. Fast forward to Atlanta, I could write short scripts for the studio within hours and get paid $500-1000. They only needed scripts every few months, so I couldn't rely on that. I could come up with poems to submit for prizes within minutes, and short stories in a few hours. I was less successful at that. But I kept getting opportunities, and then I tried my hand at editing, which I found I had a knack for, and quickly got work doing that. My first job was actually to edit a short book in 48 hours. That work ethic, being able to produce quality work and help others to produce their own quality work, in a short span of time, while holding multiple jobs and having other responsibilities, has carried me through to today.
I came into the writing world from a performance background, and any performer will tell you that you can't have an ego about your act, you have to accept negative feedback, you have to accept, and even seek out, failure. Failure is the only way you improve. Performing develops a thick skin. That thick skin allowed me to push through all my setbacks. At different times in my writing career I've been insulted, belittled, told even that I don't know how to write, being told that nobody would want to read the stories I wanted to tell, being told I needed to Americanize my stories. I needed to write more positive stories. I needed to adhere to standard formulas.
I write because I get a lot of joy out of it, and the fact that I veered away from the established norms (didn't get a MFA, all my characters are Puerto Ricans or Latin Americans, my stories focus heavily on social problems from a Puerto Rican lens, my style is experimental, I've been poor my entire adult life, I only got a Master's to get out of the Army, married a single mother when I was 23,) I have never fit in with the lit community, or the academic community, where so many writers make their homes, and where I currently reside as well. So my writing is for my own enjoyment. I still am amazed when strangers tell me they read, let alone like, my books.
I fight for my writers, because I want them to have the chances I didn't have, or at the very least, know what it is like to have an editor who pushes them and a publishing house that truly cares about making the most of their books. I see any future of mine in the literary world being work I do for others, which is to say LCG, because I want others to succeed where I have failed.
How did the idea for your most recent Spanish-language book Tristiana come to you? Why did you want Tristiana to be "un rincón imaginario"? How does Tristiana reflect your own feelings about Latin American politics/history?
Growing up going back and forth to the island, I always had a strong connection to Puerto Rico and its history, but when I attended the University of Tampa, I had two professors who opened up my worldview to include all of Latin America and Spain. The writings of Eduardo Galeano, especially, influenced me to break away from the established reasons for why Latin America is the way it is, and look at the systemic reasons, namely economy and the role foreign influence, neo-colonialism, has on it.
When I first started developing Tristiana, I was still in college, still developing my own ideas about these topics. The book was inspired by two things, the siege of Triana, the gypsy district of Sevilla, during the Spanish Civil War (The book's title is a combination of the words triste and Triana. In the context of the book, the literal translation of the word Tristiana is "Land of Sadness"), and the opening chapter of Jose Saramago's The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, wherein the author tells the history of Christianity through the description of a stain-glassed window. I wanted to take the ekphrasis of that chapter a step further, and not just describe a painting, but embody the style of the painting to tell a story.
It took me eleven years to complete the book, first because the style of the paintings required me to research each style and there was a lot of trial and error in the process of making a visual style literary (or how I've described it elsewhere, turning a concrete art (painting, photography, theatre) into an esoteric art (writing and music), and secondly because I wanted the Spanish to reflect multiple dialects. As a result, slang from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Argentina, Guatemala (Chapin, the nickname of one of the revolutionaries, is the Guatemalan equivalent of Che), and Spain all pop up in the story. The historical references are even more extensive, with allusions to the Salvador Allende era in Chile, the Dirty Wars of Argentina and Uruguay, indigenous massacres in El Salvador and Honduras, the post-Revolution muralist art scene in Mexico, the U.S. invasions of Puerto Rico and Cuba in 1898, 1980s Peru, etc. There are so many historical references in the book I would be impressed (and skeptical) if someone told me they got all of them in the first reading. So to answer why I wanted to create a “rincón imaginario” it was because I wanted to create a snapshot of all of Latin America, cut off from time and space, to dissect the region the way a surgeon would, to understand the shared essence of our cultures and histories.
And by creating this contained world, it also allowed me to control the way the reader experiences it. A goal was to create a world full of romance, beauty, and possibilities, and then destroy it in a way that would be devastating as well as reflective. We mourn what happens, but we should also contemplate why it has to happen in that way, what does the ending say about ourselves?
InTristiana, you interrogate dualities such as preservationism v. upheaval, city v. country, revolution vs. peace. The “enemies” in this book are just as physical as they are internal; your named and unnamed characters struggle against themselves just as much as they do violence and colonialism. You write: “Pero hay sombras ligeras y sombras pesadas, sombras que inspiran tranquilidad y sombras que sofocan,” and there’s this idea that these shadows, versions of ourselves that we see but can’t fully know, are alternating between suffocation, strength and fear. Would you talk a bit about the process of writing a book in which cultural identity, revolution and peace do not have clear solutions or definitions?
This question honestly has me stumped, because I'm not sure if a process was involved in tackling all those subjects. The story you are telling contains multiple facets and themes, only a fraction of which you are aware of. They come about as natural offshoots of the story you are telling, and it's up to readers what they take from it. Also, those kinds of themes come about from larger concerns that don't always have to do with the story. As a person, I am obsessed with dualities and contradictions and internal struggles that are often ambiguous in their origins, which is an offshoot of how I view art--as an exploration of life in all its facets. You can't fully investigate anything if you don't look at the entire prism of possibilities.
And these particular topics you mention, the contrast between city and country (which is a huge issue all over the world, even in the U.S. For instance, in the state I live in, Colorado, the urban epicenter of the Front Range Metro (which extends from Fort Collins to Pueblo and encompasses Denver and Colorado Springs, where I live) uses water from the mountains and plains, creating water shortages in rural areas and increased political tension as a result; there is no clear answer to resolving that. The conflict of the need for warfare to resolve large political conflicts and the need for warfare to not continue indefinitely, that has existed since time immemorial. I have no answer for it, nobody does. Internal struggles differ from person to person, and they are the struggles that are most difficult to resolve, since there is no one solution because no one type of person exists. To investigate these topics means being open to not providing answers, and finding a great deal of suspense and intrigue in not knowing.
Tristiana, one way of looking at the story, is as an investigation into what is the soul of Latin America, what drives it, inspires it, makes it distinct? Well, there is no one answer to that. A book that I continually go back to is Pablo Neruda's Canto General, which is an epic poem he published in 1950 that covers the history of Latin America from pre-historic times to the present. It is a magnificent poem, and a central conceit of it is that Latin America is a land of misnomers and miscommunication. That is a conceit which is also used in Tristiana, starting with its name (from the Txectliana River, pronounced Shekt Liana, which the Spaniards mis-hear as Tristiana). This story is one of the book's many historical references, in this case, involving the origin of the word Perú. It came about by the Spaniards asking an Incan what the name of the land they were on was, and he blurted out two words, Birú, his name, and then Pelú, which was the Quechua word for river. So we get Perú from a complete misunderstanding. I also incorporated that theme in the use of repeated place names, the country is Tristiana, the capital city is Tristiana, but so is the main district of the capital city, and there is intentionally some confusion as to which Tristiana is being referred to at any given time. This refers not only to Guatemala and Mexico's self-titled capital cities--and in Mexico's case, the state in which the capital is in is also Mexico--but also things like, how many Santiago's are there in Latin America? This repetition creates a geographic dissonance that is disorienting, much like the various factions of society seem to function as several interwoven labyrinths (labyrinths which remain closed off to one another). No wonder Borges came from this region.
Which is to say, by the very nature of writing about Latin America, a nature which is reflected as much in language as in politics and cultural hybridity, one inevitably creates something concerned with ambiguity and uncertainty. I didn't even have to try, it was already there.
On the level of personal tastes, I have always been comfortable, in art and philosophy, of not having all the answers. I have been a film buff since I was kid, not just American films, but European and Asian ones as well, and outside the U.S. the aesthetic of ambiguity is prevalent. It is something I have always liked, and I have always disdained the American sensibility of needing answers for everything. Some things should remain mysterious.
The role and function of theatre and the estadillo play heavily into this book, as a narrative device and as a comment on illusion vs. reality. Would you talk a bit about why you wanted to examine theater in Tristiana?
The first things I ever wrote were plays. I started taking acting classes when I was six. My leaving theatre in my early twenties was based on finances, not because I had fallen out of love with the stage. Theatrical devices have been used in all of my books: the stream of consciousness monologues in Traveler's Rest, the first-person chapters detailing the perspectives of each main character in The Feast of San Sebastian, the interviews in Kings of 7th Avenue, the dialogues, dance sequences, and performance scenes in Tristiana. I consciously wanted to make Tristiana a book about theatre, both the art itself and the political and social theatre that dominates our lives. So much of politics is performance, my current day job is as an instructor, which is entirely performance in regards to the student-teacher dynamic, so much of our ideas about revolution and activism is rooted in performance. One of the many driving theses of the book is that during peacetime, revolution and militancy take on a romantic quality that whitewashes warfare and the sacrifices one must make during war. It is easy to criticize historical generals, to look down on groups for committing war crimes, but the very act of war is criminal. So either morality is a fake construct with multiple interpretations meant to justify a specific belief system, or morality is universal and finite. The perspective of the book is that it is fluid and that the civilized assertion of humans needing to be merciful and kind and above animalistic tendencies, but the book’s position is that this is both wrong a performance people put on to deceive ourselves. Humans are animals and sometimes animals have to kill for the greater good. The question is how do you turn off one’s willingness to kill in order to return to the role of the civilized leader who can play the part of the righteous warrior. All of that is theatre.
What allows us to demean or glorify warfare is largely due to our not participating in it. Santiago has a line where he tells Joaquín something to the effect of--One day you will have to choose between two bad options--most people, certainly Americans, don't understand that concept in terms of life and death.
But there is another reason for emphasizing theatre, but to discuss it I do have to talk about a particular sequence near the end of the book.
The scene during the siege of Barrio Gitano when Amelita, Joaquín, and Antonio walk through the theatre district to find it bombed and the actors and actresses wandering around, zombie-like and disfigured, was a symbolic way of showing how the arts are amongst the first targets of a totalitarian regime, that our work threatens the established order. I feel like, in a country like the United States, a lot of artists, pre-Trump, took their social position for granted. Artists in other countries know that the minute the social order starts to crack, that sooner rather than later they will be silenced.
Finally, Tristiana is a tribute to the art of theatre because it is also a tribute to the full spectrum of humanity. Performance is ingrained in our very beings. Performance is how we told stories, from the earliest times. Performance is also how we entertained, how we formed communities, how we learned. Performance is central to our ability to fall in love, to develop friendships, professional relations, how we relate to our children, how we function in society, all the good and bad, is some variation on performance. I wanted to capture the roles we play in our daily lives, in our ideologies, and the range of human experience. Theatre, for me, was the best way to convey both the intimate and the epic.
In Kings of 7th Avenue, you interweave the stories of two couples who have two vastly different relationship trajectories through a more traditionally told narrative. Tristiana, however, combines traditional narratives with short prose, choruses from the campos, dialogues, surrealist snapshots and ekphrasis. Would you talk a bit about why you chose to include various narrative forms and voices in Tristiana?
Like I mentioned earlier, the origin of Tristiana came from a desire to be unconventional. Tell a story through vignettes that imitate not one, or two, but multiple (in the end, 18) painting and photographic styles. So the attitude from the get go was to do something daring and original. And then a funny thing happened. Without realizing it until my editor, Fernando Sdrigotti, pointed it out to me--I had watered down this daring concept by surrounding the vignettes with traditional scenes. I had copped out on my experimentation because after years of criticism about my stylistic flourishes, and years of believing I hadn't let it affect me, I was forced to admit that it had affected me in a most detrimental way. I had been in denial about how afraid I was to veer too far away from accessibility. As Fernando pointed out, rightly, I was being a hypocrite. I spend so much time encouraging daring and being true to oneself to other artists, but here I was giving in to insecurities. The vignettes worked, nothing else did. And so, three months before the book was to be released, I spent roughly a month completely reimagining the book. I broke the book up into sections, including a deleted scene section, and placed the ending monologue AFTER that section. Why? Because I wanted the reader to see the deleted section, with its alternate scenes and characters who were cut out of the main narrative, in essence, presenting another vantage point into the story, before seeing its grande finale. I cut out almost all narrative from the first 100 pages, fully buying in to the theatrical themes I had originally kept at arm's length, and turning those first hundred pages into, more or less, a play. I created dance interludes to serve as segues between scenes. I created the Greek chorus of campesinos, to make the story more polyphonic. I strengthened the roles of Darío and Amelita, who for me, are the book. The original version was much more about Joaquín, and now he is a supporting character. I left in the narrative in the war section, which was already written as a series of brief moments, meant to capture war the way photographs would. I was determined to eliminate any details that made the story commonplace, and fully embrace its weirdness. The final editing of this version was completed three weeks before the books' release. I had always seen Tristiana as a sort of kaleidoscope, one that exists outside of time, by using multiple formats and techniques, I was able to disembody the story so that it would be simultaneously hyper-realistic and dreamlike. It was intuitive, and driven by the need to be fearless.
How has your own relationship with Latin American or Puerto Rican culture influenced how you pursue your writing projects or literary citizenship?
Above everything else, I am Puerto Rican. I claim no emotional connection to the United States as a country. Sure, the U.S. has influenced me because I live here, but I have no loyalty to it. I was raised to see myself as an isleño, to learn and revere our literature, our history, our arts, the land and its people. While LCG is a book publisher for all Latin Americans and Latinos in the U.S., and our Lounge is for anybody, I always keep a special look out for Puerto Ricans.
I write about Puerto Ricans for the same reason white people write about WASPS, it is who I am. One of the most offensive and nefarious attitudes in this country is that if you write about foreigners, they have to be treated as others. White people are never asked why they write about their own communities, why should I explain why I write about mine? Yet the number one complaint I have received about my writing is that it is not accessible to white people due to all the Spanish, the references to Puerto Rican history and politics and tradition. In these times of social and racial awareness, to write about your people unapologetically is a statement--I won't sugar coat who I am. But I still lament that I have to defend that choice.
One of the reasons I wrote Tristiana in Spanish was so I could present it to Latin Americans and not have to field the questions of why write a Latin American allegory. In Spanish, and in Latin America, I am not the other. I am just a Puerto Rican telling our stories. Unlike most Latino writers, I have no desire to be a part of the American fabric. I'm Puerto Rican so my characters are Puerto Rican. But even more so, they are human, and the stories I tell are human ones.
You’ve been committed to empowering marginalized communities through La Casita Grande. Would you talk a bit about why you felt creating La Casita Grande was necessary and what you've learned from building this community and publishing imprint?
LCG came from my observations while working for two indie presses, Savant Books and Aignos Publishing. I had already started a mentorship program with Chris Campanioni, which would eventually serve as a model for LCG, and I threw myself even more into that. Whenever I saw a writer had a book coming out in my social media feeds, I'd arrange an interview with them. Consciously and unconsciously I was trying to find every opportunity to edit and advocate for other writers. When I did events, I invited one or two other writers (which I still do.) I had been thinking of having my own publishing house way back in my early 20s. The period of time when I was focusing on myself taught me that I don't find much fulfillment in my achievements if I don't bring others along with me. That realization propelled me to finally make my ideas for a press into reality.
At Savant I was just an editor, but at Aignos I was Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder. I set up the editorial department, hired editors, recruited writers, and because of my position, I got a lot of access into how publishing works as an industry. So many presses are more or less book printing factories, releasing books that have been copyedited maybe once or twice, but where in depth line editing is largely absent. Many presses will give superficial, off-hand advice like, "Do an event, send out press releases, seek out reviews" but if you have never done any of those things, it's like telling someone who has never driven a car, "All you have to do is turn the wheel, press the gas to move forward, hit the brake to stop, and you are good!" Authors also get very little training on how to arrange an interview, how to conduct themselves in an interview, how to contact media. There is an attitude of, "If I just show up at a conference with copies of my book, people will come to me", and that is not reality. Writers often obsess over things like query letters, and take a passive approach to publishers. It doesn’t occur to some of them that they can approach publishers like everyday people, and engage them in conversation, and what's more, that they can contact presses and inquire about why the press would be a good fit for them, rather than the other way around. Building relationships with editors, journalists, and agents, is hugely important, yet writers often won't do it, due to a sense that they can't simply reach out to such people. Most of the doors that have opened for me, have been from being friends with editors, journalists, and agents. I have met so many writers who also view editors as enemies, and a lot of editors who view writers as petulant children. But that comes from a lack of communication, not because those things are true.
So writers are often unprepared, and for people who have been writing for a while, they had to figure out how to navigate the world on their own and many times learned bad habits that get them only so far. Writing is like any other career, you can end up in a place where you are comfortable, maybe you have a decent following in your city, and you get complacent with that following. That doesn't really allow for personal, creative, or professional growth. But if you don't have anyone else guiding you to go beyond that comfort zone, can you blame them for staying in that position?
I was talking to an applicant for an editorial position at LCG just the other day about this very topic of proper editing, and what I told him I think sums all this up perfectly, "An editor, even more than one who corrects a manuscript, is one who acts as mentor for the writer.” While it is easy to imagine writers are prima donnas who think their words are golden (these people do exist, however), that is not the reality of most writers, and it is not the reality of anyone who is a good writer (I say good instead of serious, because you can be serious about something and still suck at it). Writers want guidance, they also want their book to be released. As an editor, you provide the guidance they need, and temper the desire to merely release a book versus releasing the best book possible."
Writers want support, they want guidance, they want to improve, and when a space is created that is geared toward those things, the community develops naturally.
Seeing these problems, and many more, I knew there was a hunger for different stories, and creating a space for them. I pitched LCG to a few presses but nobody was interested because they did not see the appeal and did not see the urgency for such a platform. Then I approached the publisher of Kings of 7th Avenue, and they were immediately excited about branching out to this audience, taking the risk, and the reception in our first year has been fantastic, bigger than even I thought it would be.
Do you have any new projects you’re excited about, personally, or through La Casita?
I just finished my first full length play in fourteen years, Gonzo/Adria, about the Cerro Maravilla murders in Puerto Rico, and I am seeing about organizing a staged reading and then seeking theatres to submit it to. I presented Tristiana and our other books at the Feria del Libro Internacional de la Habana, which I am absolutely thrilled about.
In Summer of 2019, LCG will relaunch as a multi-modal literary platform for experimental writers from marginalized communities. While we will continue publishing books, those books will be supported by a podcast, which will act one half literary talk show focusing on the publishing industry and current events in the literary world, and one half writer's showcase, where we feature a performance adaptation of an excerpt from one of our books. This performance will be taped and air on our forthcoming YouTube channel. The video, podcast, and social media posts supporting both will promote the featured book and allow people who may not be avid readers, or who have busy lives that prevent them from reading an entire book, exposure to new works by writers of color, LGBTQ writers, and non-western writers. The podcast will eventually feature books from other indy presses. We will also be publishing plays and screenplays, and we are committed to an equal representation of male and female writers in our future output. In February, we will be doing a call for submissions which will run for two weeks, Feb 8-22.
Bio: Jon Marcantoni is a Puerto Rican writer and editor. In 2016, he founded La Casita Grande Press, an imprint dedicated to Caribbean and Latino writers. His writings focus on social and politics issues, and to cut through the darkness, he likes to throw in some jokes. The jokes are important.