Interview with Daniel Olivas by Frederick Luis Aldama
Daniel A. Olivas is the author of nine books, including this year’s The King of Lighting Fixtures: Stories (University of Arizona Press), and Crossing the Border: Collected Poems (Pact Press Press). He is also editor of Latinos in Lotusland (Bilingual Press), and co-editor of The Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles (Tía Chucha Press). Olivas earned his degree in English literature from Stanford University, and law degree from the University of California, Los Angeles. Since 1990, he has practiced law with the California Department of Justice. A second-generation Angeleno, he makes his home in Los Angeles with his wife, and they have an adult son.
FLA: Daniel, you are author and editor of numerous books and now you have a near simultaneous publication of your book of poetry, Crossing the Border (Pact Press) and a book of short fiction, The King of Lighting Fixtures (Camino del Sol). You are also a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books and work as a lawyer for the California Department of Justice in the Public Rights Division. What’s your secret?
DO: I don’t golf. And I’m a compulsive writer and editor. Perhaps it’s a disease.
FLA: You also edit La Bloga.
DO: Ah, but I share blogging duties with about a dozen wonderful writers.
FLA: While you studied literature at Stanford, you are largely self-taught as a creative writer.
DO: I refused to take creative writing classes while in college because I thought it’d be a frivolous thing to do. Little did I know that I’d embark on a writing career in middle age. But I’m happy I took the route I did. I enjoy being a lawyer, especially in serving the people of California.
FLA: As a creator of fiction and as a lawyer you believe in the power of the written word—especially for our Latinx communities. . .
DO: Language is everything, no? Without understanding the power of words or how to use them effectively, I wouldn’t be a very useful legal advocate or creative writer. And certainly within the Latinx communities, it is incredibly important for us to have a voice, whether it is in the courtroom or in library, classroom, or literary festival.
FLA: Our Latinx community is devastated on a daily basis. Can you speak to how you see your creative and legal work clearing materially positive and transformative spaces for us?
DO: We see many victims of fraud aimed at various communities including the Latinx community. And sadly, there will always be scam artists who will take advantage of a community’s worst fears and concerns. The Attorney General’s office has been at the forefront of protecting the most vulnerable people in California including immigrants who may be tricked into paying for worthless—or even harmful—immigration services. From a creative standpoint, I think it’s important for Latinx voices to be heard because if we don’t tell our stories—and therefore imbue them with truth borne from experience—others will attempt to do it, and they’ll likely get them wrong in some respect.
FLA: If you were to identify a pivotal moment or scene in your life that turned you to writing, what would that be?
DO: My parents—even when times were tough—always made certain that their five children had access to books, whether at the library or as gifts. Their love of telling stories and of the written word triggered something in me at a very young age. I started to make little books with illustrations almost as soon as I could spell out words.
FLA: Your fiction and poetry shows the full complexity of what it means to be Latinx in terms of class, religion, gender—and sexuality. . .
DO: The Latinx community really consists of multiple communities in terms of immigration experience, national origin, income, gender identity, age, education, language, spirituality, urban, rural, etc. We are incredibly complex which provides a wonderful basis for a complex body of literature that we can offer.
FLA: In all your work Los Angeles is your epicenter.
DO: My grandparents came to Los Angeles about a hundred years ago from Mexico, part of that huge wave of immigrants escaping the violence of the Revolution. I was born in downtown Los Angeles, I grew up a few miles from where I was born, and I’ve worked in downtown Los Angeles for thirty years. Los Angeles is part of me, so it very naturally plays a major role in my creative writing. But because of who I am, I present a Los Angeles that is not tethered to the Hollywood moviemaking business. This city is so much more, and I want my fiction and poetry to reflect that.
FLA: Can you talk about the differences and similarities (theme and form) that you see in your poetry Crossing the Borders and short fiction The King of Lighting Fixtures?
DO: My poetry tends to be narrative in form. Basically, I’m telling shorter, more concise stories in my poems. So, in that way, my poetry collection is similar to my book of short fiction. Indeed, I think I could take almost any of my poems and turn them into short stories. In the end, I am a storyteller whether I am writing a poem or a story.
FLA: In all of your creative work you use different technical, formal devices to give shape to your content. Can you speak to how you at once use and innovate of the more conventionally formal elements in your recently published work: rhyme scheme in your poetry or perspective in your fiction, for instance. . .
DO: I truly enjoy writing. It is not painful for me. But the part that is fun is that I get to innovate and play with form and genre. The King of Lighting Fixtures is comprised of magical realism, fables, social realism, metafiction, flash and hint fiction, you name it. And my poetry is likewise not pigeonholed. At the same time, because I do not have an MFA, I don’t have the training to analyze exactly how I do what I do. In that way, I am free to try something new with every story or poem.
FLA: You also deliberately sidestep formal convention and expectation.
DO: I suppose it’s deliberate in the sense that I am deliberately putting words into my hard drive. But I allow that inner censor to go on vacation so that my imagination can have a fun time.
FLA: You create fully fleshed out, breathing Latinxs in the poems Crossing the Border many of whom I recognize in my own family. These same characters could appear in more conventionally identified narrative fiction. What is it about poetry with its concision of form and line breaks that appeals to your recreation of Latinx lives?
DO: A poet can say so much in the silence of a stanza or line break. That’s the power of poetry for me. And I as I noted, many of my poems could be fleshed out into short stories, but at the time I wrote them, they seemed better suited for the concision of poetry.
FLA: How might you respond to the concept of “Alternative facts”—especially in light of your work both in fiction and law as it relates to the Latinx community.
DO: It’s kind of funny: I think there is more truth in my fiction than there is coming out of the Trump administration especially when it comes to the concerns of the Latinx community. That is why I wrote—and included in The King of Lighting Fixtures—a new story titled, “The Great Wall.” I wanted to show the human suffering that would befall so many in the Latinx community if his wall were ever built. Families are already being torn apart, hate crimes are up, and young people who have benefited from the DACA program are in fear of being deported even though they are as “American” as anyone else. And the concept of “alternative facts” is abhorrent to me as an attorney.
FLA: Any final words?
DO: Latinx writers in the United States have now created a huge body of literary expression, and it seems that more and more of us are publishing books every day. That makes me proud. But we also have a lot to overcome in terms of exposure and coverage in the press not to mention finding a publisher in the first place. But we are doing it, aren’t we?
Frederick Luis Aldama is Arts & Humanities Distinguished Professor of English, University Distinguished Scholar, and University Distinguished Teacher. He is the author, co-author, and editor of over 30 books. He is editor and coeditor of 8 academic press book series. He is founder and director of the Ohio Education Summit Award and White House Hispanic Bright Spot winning LASER/Latinx Space for Enrichment & Research. He is founder of the Humanities & Cognitive Sciences High School Summer Institute. He has been honored with the 2016 American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education’s Outstanding Latino/a Faculty in Higher Education Award. In 2017 he was inducted into the Academy of Teaching and the Society of Cartoon Arts.