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Charlie Vázquez, a radical writer of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent, is the author of Buzz and Israel (Fireking Press 2004) and more recently, Contraband (QueerMojo 2010), which follows one man’s subterranean exile in the American Southwest. Recently we traded emails and he answered some of my questions about queer Latino politics, his inspirations for Contraband, and the purpose of queer existence.
1. The influence of Latin-American revolutionary struggles is keenly felt in Contraband. Given the book’s very real inspiration, what made you decide to incorporate elements of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fantasy into the Latino noir genre? What freedoms does this allow you?
Contraband’s plot’s backbone is a fusion of three key elements of queer history: the often fatal abuse of homosexuals in the Nazi concentration camps, the persecution of gay Cuban journalists and artists after Fidel’s victory in Cuba in 1959, and the 1950s Senator McCarthy-led “Lavender Scare” in the US government that equated gays with communists, spies, and threats to the intelligence structure during the bubbling of the Cold War. The relentless headhunt and resulting plight of a queer person—and not just a queer person, but a Latino one—came quite naturally to my imagination. When I started writing it five years ago, I was able to imagine what is now happening in Arizona as the beginning of much worse things to come.
I wove these concepts into a fictive civil war set in near-future America and all of the dystopian, post-apocalyptic elements you ask of came to life. Enter the Latino struggle: most Americans don’t know (or care to) that the Spanish-speaking heritage of North America is older than its English-speaking counterpart by well over a century. We’re not people who just simply paddled our way to Texas and Florida and California from distant, exotic locales—we in fact gave those places their names. A boiling point is reached in the story when Nueva California and the Western Territories secede from the rest of the country—a kind of reversal of the appropriation of nearly half of Mexico’s land after the Mexican-American War.
2. There are obvious parallels between the experiences of the “lunars” and of both political dissidents and queer people at various times throughout history. Can you talk a little about this? I’m also interested in your choice to make the lunars a group with common genetic make-up. How does this reflect your own views on what makes us and unites us as queers?
That’s a complex question, but I think I know what you’re getting at. I do think there’s a genetic/organic root to queer personality, our souls, as esoteric as that may sound. It’s been said that ‘men crave affection and attention from men where there is an absence of a father figure, thus homosexual tendencies.’ Really? What kind of bourgeois take is that? The majority of men I grew up with in the Bronx did so without dads and they’re more often straight-oriented, not gay. And plenty of gay men I know still have great relations with their dads.
So I think (or maybe even hope) that there is an organic purpose to our queer beings, something that stretches back to the beginning of mankind—I like to think that we exist to make things beautiful and to add dimension, philosophy, color and inspiration to life, shamanism, bedazzlement. Mother Nature’s main thrust is certainly the procreation of species, but if we weren’t needed we’d have been ousted from the gene pool by now, right? So these are what “lunars” are in the book. And they are a threat to a digitized nation that wants to purify race and destroy beautiful things—as only (white) God can be beautiful. In Contraband, the lunar genes have been identified. If you test positive for them, you are never seen again.
3. You describe yourself as a radical writer. In what ways do you consider Contraband a radical novel (including but not limited to its politics)? How does your experience as a queer Latino man relate to your radical identification?
I’ve always admired outlaws and leaders, people who start things from the ground up and not just join something when the numbers are safe. As an out Latino writer, I will not be read by certain Latinos, and as a Latino I may not be understood completely by non-Latino queers. It’s a strange place to be, but it’s also the genesis of my own voice—it’s everything I am, period. Promoting my book to Latino book clubs and mingling with other Latino writers feels odd at times because of this, but I’m looking forward at this point and not back. I like to write about gender non-conformity, revolution, the spirits of the dead, which many find superstitious and perhaps even alien. And forget about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—queer sexuality abounds in my imaginary paramilitary culture!
4. How does your experience as a musician and photographer impact your writing, either in process, focus or style?
Very good question! As an audio-sensitive person, I like to illustrate, with words, the sounds in settings, the textures of voices, even the quality of the inner thoughts of characters. Soundtracks bring movies to life for me in this way. As a former photographer, I think of each paragraph as a photo when I write—the overall composition and its components, details. I also used to make wire jewelry and writing a chapter is much like stringing a necklace of paragraphs together.
5. You’re also a poet. How is your writing process similar or different when writing poetry versus prose?
I’ve been writing—what might be considered poetry—since my adolescence and wrote a lot of lyrics when I was involved in music in my late teens and twenties. And I’m not saying it was all great by any means. When I began focusing on fiction that was put on hold. I’ve been dabbling with poetry again and have more confidence with it, so the “poet” tag is a pretty recent thing. Right now I’m compiling song lyrics I wrote over the years and a new series of poems about the Bronx of my childhood. When it’s developed enough, I’ll start showing it to publishers. I’m more of a novelist and short story writer, though. I self-published my first novel, Buzz and Israel, back in 2004, and although it needs a major revision, I would like it to be reborn, if only for a good laugh. I like the abstraction of poetry—the freedom of it. I like my fiction to be concrete and clear which is the opposite.
6. You also host the PANIC! reading series in New York. Can you tell me a little about the series’ mission and how it came about? When is the next reading and where can our readers find out more about it?
PANIC!, like most things in my life, began as an experiment. Sam J. Miller, Lee Houck and I were all published together in the volume Best Gay Erotica 2008 (Cleis 2007), which was edited by my friend and fellow Latino word-warrior Emanuel Xavier. After he hosted a group reading for the volume, I asked Sam and Lee to join me and my friend Pietro Scorsone, a musician and writer, to do a reading at Nowhere for pride season two years ago. And from there it has grown.
I wanted to meet other writers and spotlight talent from different sectors of New York’s massive LGBT writing/performance community—black writers, women writers, transgender writers. The reading series’ that were in place at the time were different than what I envisioned I wanted for mine. The next PANIC! lands on Wednesday, June 23rd, 8PM. The best way to get reminders is to find my group on Facebook or to register for my bimonthly blog.
Photo courtesy of El Payaso.