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Literary outsider triumphs


www.statesman.com

Houston Chronicle (06/19/2003)
By Eric Miles Williamson

ABOUT a decade ago, when talking to a roomful of creative-writing students at the University of Houston, Dagoberto Gilb related his experience as a literary outsider, as someone outside the writerly and academic loop. For 16 years Gilb had been a card-carrying union carpenter. While the privileged among the class -- and that was most of them -- had been networking, schmoozing, spending summers in Venice, Gilb had been swinging a hammer by day and writing by night.

A former UH professor, himself Ivy League-educated and from a wealthy family, took issue with Gilb and said, in front of the crowd and confrontationally, that Gilb was no outsider, that he had a master’s degree in philosophy (it’s from the University of California at Santa Barbara).

It was a stony moment surely remembered by all who witnessed it.

The fact is, however, there is a difference between a lower-middle-class Mexican-American educated at public universities who puts himself through college with his union card and his labor, and a wealthy Ivy-educated poet and critic. Latin isn’t taught at high schools in the Los Angeles and El Paso barrios.

The laborer works long hours, drinks a beer at day’s end, and passes out on the couch from exhaustion, television gone to static hiss because he’s too tired to get up and shut it off. No fellow laborer is going to edit his manuscript and help get it published by George Plimpton. Though it’s possible for a laborer to get an education and write a book and become a professor at a state university in Texas, it’s not possible for him ever to be a true insider, someone who went to college with the children of the world’s leaders.

Gilb, author of acclaimed story collections ( Woodcuts of Women; The Magic of Blood) and a novel ( The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña ), may now be a professor at Southwest Texas State University, but he’s no literary insider, and his fourth book, the essay collection Gritos , is a splendid and touching and intelligent work that demonstrates the difficulties of becoming an artist when coming from modest means.

As Gilb writes in Poverty Is Always Starting Over ,Poverty is often seen for its brutality, for what it absolutely denies. But common poverty isn’t about not getting started, it’s as much about only getting started, about always being at the beginning. Poverty is about starting over again and then yet again. It’s about talent fully shaped, but which, unencouraged, discouraged, lasts the briefest moment.

Gritos consists of 36 essays and is divided into four sections. The first, “Culture Crossing,” is a series of thoughts on El Paso and about living and working on the border, where Gilb spent many years. Section 2, titled “Cortes and Malinche,” is about masculinity and about the intersection (often collision) between Mexican-American and Anglo cultures.

The third section, “The Writing Life,” chronicles Gilb’s work at becoming the formidable and important writer he is now, his balancing act on the high wire, the life of the intellect and the life of the body and the growling belly vying for supremacy.

The final section, “Working Life and La Family,” pulls the collection together, showing how being a writer, professor, intellectual, carpenter, manual laborer, father, husband and man are possible without separating the categories into mutually exclusive occupations and callings.

Of course, a construction worker-turned-professor is likely to run into some problems in a university classroom, where the code of behavior rarely includes honestly speaking one’s mind. Imagine a brilliant construction worker from the barrio confronted with P.C.-trained upper-middle-class students. In “Me Macho, You Jane,” Gilb weaves several anecdotes together into an apologia of sorts. He ends the essay with this (which tells us a great deal about him):

Here’s a list: I like women. I like women better than men. I think some people deserve to get their asses kicked. I don’t go to bullfights. Well, I’ve been to a couple, but only because they’re in Juarez, and it’s something to do. My current drink is tequila and grapefruit juice, or vodka and tonic with two squeezes of lemon. I don’t drink beer very often, and I love baseball and basketball and don’t care for football much. You don’t like that, screw you. I love my family. I love walking the streets, or up a mountain, or a desert trail, alone. I eat beef. And serrano chiles.

To students and to younger writers, he gives this advice:

Write from the gut and soul. Spill it. Write from las alturas and from hoyos (avoid cheap, italicized, affected use of Spanish words). Don’t offer excuses, explanations, apologies, apologias (the Latin). ... don’t write for Them. Don’t respond to their issues (if they ask about the gang problems in your community, ask them what they’re doing about their biker and pedophile problems). Try to please God or the Virgin and not others (well, Others). But privately. As in silent prayer. They know you are flesh, know your tears of joy and pain. You will quit your day job; if you’re a writer, you’ll be fired often enough, anyway. If you want to be The Leader of the People, if you want to be a Saint, if you want to be The Guru, please don’t pretend to be first of all a writer. Unless you’re dead.

Gritos is a book serious readers need to read. Gilb’s voice is one too seldom heard. It’s a rare thing indeed when a man from the working classes finds himself a nationally known author, and what he has to say about our world is not what we get when we read the essays of a John Updike or a Dana Gioia or a Harold Bloom. Dagoberto Gilb might be speaking for himself, but he speaks so well that what he says becomes universal -- the trait of our greatest writers. In a brief essay titled Steinbeck , he writes,

The authorities say Steinbeck is sentimental, his work melodramatic. But if that’s so, even if it’s only that, I’m sentimental for him now. Because so many people, and so many writers, have left behind or never learned a respect for manual work, for people who carry and use tools for a living and get calluses and chapped hands and dirt under the nails, who bend and stoop, people who work by the hour or the basket, who build and fix things, who dig and plant and pick. The literary world is a powerful suit-and-tie business, and the well-dressed stories that editors look for are too much by writers whose game is played as professionally as Harvard MBAs, whose marketing goals are not meant to cause a reader to step outside the privileged cubicle to see who’s sweeping the floor in the hours after they’ve gone home.

Gilb forces us to see those janitors after hours. And what we see is not swept floors only, but honor and the dignity of toil.

Eric Miles Williamson is nearing completion of his second novel, a sequel to East Bay Grease . Vice president of the National Book Critics Circle, he edits American Book Review and lives in Missouri with his wife, Judy. He is associate professor of English at Central Missouri State University.

Although the name has been officially changed, it will take months, if not years, to erase the SWT logo from the San Marcos landscape. The university estimates it will cost $350,000 to change signs and has received written pledges from sympathetic alumni to cover those costs. The bill does not allocate any pubic funds for the change. The school has set up a committee to oversee the physical changes as well as a fund to manage donations.

University President Denise Trauth, who was hired last year and preferred to have more time to mull a name change, said Thursday that she will embrace the new name.

“ Your name doesn’t cause you to become prestigious,” she said. “But as you grow in pursuit of excellence, the name Texas State will help.”

The school will celebrate its new name at a ceremony Sept. 9, the 100th anniversary of the first day of classes at Southwest Texas State Normal School.