June 2007

John Zuarino

features

An Interview with Felicia Luna Lemus

Following the success of her first novel, Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties, Felicia Luna Lemus’s new novel Like Son was sparked by a photograph of unimaginable intensity. When you see Edward Weston’s Nahui Olin, you have an almost physical reaction. Your heart stops, your limbs freeze, and you lock eyes with that everlasting, brutal gaze captured in time. Lemus had a similar reaction, and after the initial shock, it sparked an impulse to write. And after nine years of experiments and breaks, Like Son was born.

Like Son is about the same obsession that plagued its author. Frank, the transgendered son of an aging Mexican expat, receives the Weston photograph and a book of Nahui Olin’s poetry that once belonged to his grandmother. The back cover is inscribed:

My love,
      “She went through me like a pavement saw.”
                                          Yours as ever for the revolution,
                                                            Nahui

Frank becomes obsessed with Nahui Olin, and rightfully so. In the years following his father’s death, Frank escapes from LA and settles in New York, where he falls in with a girl named Nathalie, sleeps through 9/11, and builds a shrine to the Weston photograph in his apartment.

I met with Felicia at 9th Street Espresso in Alphabet City. Before starting the interview, she said she had something for me. She reached into her bag and pulled out a paper fortune-telling fish, the kind that you hold out on your palm and, according to its movements, curls and flips to analyze your emotions. I held it out, and as the imperial death march from Star Wars played on the café’s overhead speakers, it told us that I was passionate. Frank, Like Son’s protagonist, receives a similar reading. Felicia smiled, and we continued our talk on Olin’s gaze, a writer’s approach to magical realism, and how to successfully sit through a reading without fidgeting in your seat.

In your book you not only write as the opposite sex but as the trans-sex. What was the impetus behind that decision?

For me, trans-characters are part of the world, and trans-people are part of the world. I really, truly just wanted to write a story where I have a protagonist that can be transgendered, like Frank is, where it wouldn’t be about his transgenderism, where it would be about his life. It’s just a story about a person who is transgendered, and the fact that he was born a baby girl and now goes through the world as a man, of course that’s going to influence the way he sees and perceives things and the way he moves through the world and his interactions, but I wanted it to be first and foremost about the person. I think there’s value in coming-out stories and coming-of-age stories, but that just wasn’t what I was interested in doing.

It seems like every time someone writes an LGBTQ character, it’s about their sexuality or their coming-out or their sex.

Yeah, very often. I’m not so much interested in trying to normalize it or make it invisible. Someone paid me a huge compliment and said that, in their opinion, Like Son is a post-trans novel. In a way, it’s like a post-queer novel where, of course, it’s a central part of the book, but it’s moved further out.

Tell me about Nahui Olin. When did you first encounter the Frank Weston photograph, and how has it affected your writing career?

I first saw the portrait of her in January 1998 in The Orange County Weekly when I was still living in southern California. I was just looking through to find out what I was going to be doing that weekend. I saw the portrait in the paper, and honestly, I thought, “Right on, there’s this fierce riot grrl band coming through town,” and, “I’m in love with this person,” and, “Who is she? She’s my new idol.” I had to find out who she was. And then I read the accompanying article and found out that it was actually the depiction of what would be at this Edward Weston exhibit going on at Laguna Beach. I’d never seen this Edward Weston portrait before, but I had seen others. I went down to the exhibit and saw it, and I was just so captivated and so mesmerized by her. I was taken by her eyes; she has these electric-fiery-crystal kind of eyes.

I know what you mean. When I first saw the cover, I just thought holy shit!

Yeah! (Laughs) I had the same sort of reaction. Seriously, she had me wrapped around her little finger instantly. She just looks so fierce and so... to me she kind of looks like a drag queen, and all of her seams are showing. She’s kind of haggard, she’s glorious and beautiful, but fierce, and you would not mess with that one.

So anyway, I saw that portrait, and at that point it was really hard to find information about her. The portrait had her name and the year it was taken, Nahui Olin 1924, and that was it. I went about trying to figure out who she was, and I could only find passing references of her in other people’s biographies of Frida Kahlo and Edward Weston, Tina Modotti. It was just really hard finding information about her. So I just started writing fictional accounts of her, like I just decided, “Okay, I’m fascinated with this image.” It sparked all this writing. Eventually I put that aside and wrote my first novel. And then in the amount of time from when I had first seen the portrait to when Trace Elements... was published, two books about Nahui Olin had come out. I thought, okay, she’s still in my mind, she’s still this obsession, and now there’s more information about her. I read the books, and I realized I had to figure out how to reincorporate her into another novel setting. I went back to those early pages and figured out what I could use from them.

Do you think you’re done with her?

Oh... I don’t know (laughs). It’s hard to let go of her!

That was a horrible way to phrase that question, I’m sorry.

No, I know, it’s like killing her or something. I’ve grown very attached to her. I went to a conceptual art school, CalArts, and it’s very not cool in my creative training to have a muse. It’s just so square and ridiculous. But in some ways, she kind of is. There’s something about her fundamentally as an historical figure that I am attracted to and does inspire me, but I think she’s kind of been swept under the rug in a lot of ways. That in and of itself was interesting to me. Like, why? Why do we not know more about this woman? She was brilliant, she published all these books, and she produced incredible, really brilliant, naïve paintings. Why was there this concerted effort to keep her out of history? I find that intriguing, and it definitely pushes me forward in a lot of ways.

...plus those eyes (laughs).

Mainly the eyes.

Okay, fine, it’s the eyes. And her hair. That whacked, crazy hair.

It’s like a mod-mullet.

Exactly, I mean, can you see her at a club right now? Can’t you see bumping into her at some totally awesome place?

Like Misshapes or something?

Yeah.

Actually, that would totally ruin it for me if I saw her at Misshapes.

But she could be anywhere. She could be walking around in the East Village, and she would not seem out of place at all. It’s like, oh cool, we’re in the East Village. Look at all these cool people. She’s just kind of timeless. Plus I have the tattoo (she exposes her wrist, which reads NAHUI). I just like the name. That’s as far as the tattoo’s going to get.

What does the name mean again?

Oh, it’s so wonderful. It refers to the final epic of human existence on the Aztec calendar wheel. It’s the final sun on the wheel -- literally “Earthquake Sun,” referring to the apocalypse. So it’s very understated of her to have chosen that name. That didn’t hurt my obsession one bit either. Her birth name was Carmen Mondragón, which is the totally typical Spanish-French-Canadian slash I don’t know name.

I like Nahui Olin better.

Me too. I think it well suits her.

There are short scenes set in the past between Nahui and Frank’s grandmother. They’re written with a hint of magical realism. Do you personally see the movement as influential?

I think it’s just so much a part of Mexican and even Mexican-American culture that, if you are moved in any way by contemporary art or literature, it always seems to find its way in. What I think is so interesting about Mexican magical realism in particular is the mix between indigenous and European culture. It’s very mestizo in itself because it’s between Mexican culture -- its native, indigenous culture -- and then Spanish church influence in a unique way. It’s something I grew up with. My great-grandfather was full-blooded Chichimecca, he was full-blooded Mexican Indian, and then my great grandmother was kind of a curandera in some ways, very fair skinned. I don’t know, I just feel like it was just so much a part of how I grew up, like hearing these stories and being told about el cucuy, a boogie man who would come in the night to steal you away, and you’re told fantastical things all the time. You take it with a grain of salt, but it’s just part of it all.

There was one thing that was so interesting that a teacher told me in graduate school, a poet named Amy Gerstler, who recently read at The New School. She’s an amazing poet, Jewish-American. I mean, she’s not Mexican-American, but she has such incredible, gorgeous magical imagery in her work. She was a resident faculty member at CalArts when I was a student, and she told me once that if you’re going to incorporate all these magical realism elements, what you need to do is keep the real very grounded and concrete, so that then when you do have magical moments, they are believable, and they spark you. There are a lot of different influences that I’ve had in terms of how I approached this, from this poet who isn’t Mexican to my cultural upbringing.

You know, I’ve been trying to work with magical realism for a few years, and I wish somebody had told me that.

I know what you mean. It’s something that I’ve kept with me all these years. That was 10 years ago, but I hadn’t heard it said so concretely. It works, because my tendency is to write very hyperbolic stuff, and I constantly have to pull it back.

Like “kill your baby.” That’s what a faculty member once told me to do with my writing. You’ll love something to death and think it’s brilliant and perfect, and then you have to kill it.

Yeah. And speaking of killing things, another faculty member, Peter Gadol, said, “Felicia, your work is like an assortment of truffles. You’ve given your reader all these truffles. Now they’re dying. You need to give them a glass of water. It’s too much! They need water!” I was like, what is he saying? There must be a compliment in there somewhere.

Let’s make this as abstract as possible.

Yeah, right.

So your partner is T. Cooper?

Yes, we met three years ago and a little change. I’m trying to think, he did a reading at Bluestockings, with Soce, the Elemental Wizard. You need to go home and Google him. His name is Andrew, he lives right in the neighborhood. He does some sort of computer programming -- he’s like a total tech geek in his day job. But he’s also this amazing queer rapper, but it’s like very nerdy, smart hip-hop. Since there’s a lot of Jewish/queer themes in T’s book too, they paired up for the paperback release of Lipshitz 6 at Bluestockings and again in Chelsea, and basically Soce freestyled. T. opened up Lipshitz 6 and read a sentence out of wherever --- Soce read the whole book, and he’s such a good, sweet nerd that he remembers the entire thing, he’s like really cerebral-smart -- and Soce freestyled off of it. He had a beat, and he’d just go. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life. In the meantime he’s wearing these Dockers and button-down shirt, so he looks like the nicest Jewish boy that you’d want to take home to mom kind of thing, and it was just beautiful. I’m sorry you missed it.

I’m never there for the good ones. I think the last one at my store was Jayne Ann Krentz, and I just thought oh, great!

Yeah, Soce wasn’t there (laughs). We try to mix it up when we do readings as much as we can, just because I think people have very short attention spans for having to sit still. We’re very aware of taking other people’s time.

I only gained the discipline to sit still through a reading, even an amazing one, maybe a year and a half ago. It really took forever.

No, I know. I’m going to an event tonight, and there are going to be at least five readers. It’s an anthology on Condoleezza Rice, and Kate Bornstein and Coco Fusco will be there. Coco did this amazing performance art piece in the late '80s where she and another artist stood inside a cage in “savage” outfits in front of the Natural History Museum in D.C. They’re all amazing. Anyway, they did all these articles and essays on Condoleezza Rice, and everything has a very liberal twist on it. And then Sapphire should be there. But anyway, I don’t know how I’m going to sit through it. They’re all people I admire greatly, and I don’t know how I’m going to sit through it (laughs). And I think it’s going to be a party, so there’s going to be all this wine and cheese, and I’m just like... (she pretends to sigh). I can already tell I’m going to be biting my nails. It’s this weird high school thing where I can’t sit still.

You mentioned in an article that, though you grew up with a Mexican background, you’d often pass for white.

It’s strange. I’m the same way now where often times I’d pass for straight. One of my friends, Jennifer Baumgardner, co-wrote a book called Grassroots. She’s this really beautiful, tall, blond, swanlike, model-looking girl who’s bisexual. In the book she talks about how there is the potential for passing as “femme-straight,” that there’s a potential that appropriates radical power, like it can actually be a transgressive, powerful place because you are able to get into the door. And once you are in the door, metaphorically, you can gain entry into places that you may not be able to otherwise, and then once you’re there... revolution! You can really change things in radical ways that you might not be able to as directly.

Having read that just recently, it’s given me an insight on the kind of potential that there is in maybe passing as white or straight. Previous to reading that book, I had always thought of it as being strange. I’d grow up and I’d hear people say the most incredible racist things, not knowing in any way that it was a reference to me. I’d just hear stupidity and hate. So people would reveal a side of themselves that they wouldn’t necessarily reveal all of their lives, like they wouldn’t have said certain things in a polite conversation had they known that I was Mexican. But now I’m starting to see that there is that great radical notion, that there is that ability to maybe do something transgressive, just gaining entry to certain either literal or conceptual, metaphorical spaces that I wouldn’t have entry into otherwise. And once I’m there, I’m speaking my mind, getting things across. It’s definitely a weird position. It’s a strange mixed privilege. That’s another part of it too that I’m definitely aware of. I’m aware of the way that racism protects what people perceive as Mexican, the ways that they’re limited and the ways that I won’t be, and it’s frustrating. It’s disgusting.

But on the other hand, I’ve had many situations where I’ll speak in Spanish with someone, knowing that they’re Mexican, and people will take offense. I think their perception is that I’m patronizing them, that I’m a white girl who’s practicing her Spanish. But I’m like, “No! Please, I wasn’t even allowed to speak English at home.” So it’s a strange position.