Author David Bowles has published fourteen books since 2009, and his latest, They Call Me Guero, is winning ALL the awards, it would seem. Lone Star Lit caught up with David via email to get all (well, almost all) the scoop.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: They Call Me Güero is EVERYWHERE right now: it’s the 2019 Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award winner, a Pura Belpré Honor Book, an honor book for the Walter Dean Myers Awards for Outstanding Children's Literature in the Young Readers category, a National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Notable Poetry Book for children, and a Best Book of 2018 at Shelf Awareness. Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico is on the best YA of 2018 list at Kirkus. I follow you on social media, and you seem genuinely blown-away as the awards are stacking up. What has this been like for you?
David Bowles: It’s definitely a dream come true. I’ve received awards before (for The Smoking Mirror and Flower, Song, Dance), but the reception of this little book has been humbling and energizing. Above all, I’m excited that the additional exposure will mean that it gets into the hands of more children—both Latinx and non-Latinx kids—which is ultimately the goal.
Why do you see the book as important to both those groups of young people?
For Latinx kids—especially Mexican American ones—it’s really important that they see themselves, their families, their culture as important subjects of literature, as worthy of being depicted in positive, uplifting ways. The present climate makes this need frankly poignant. When so many messages in society around you indicate that you’re a problem, a crisis, an unwanted burden … well, you need books, you need poetry, to counter that despicable depiction.
And frankly, that’s why non-Latinx students need books like this. They need to see the reality of their Latinx peers, to see them reflected in literature as three-dimensional, engaging individuals whose lives are rich and meaningful. Right now, an average of 3500 books are published each year for kids. Only around 100 are centered on the Latinx experience. That needs to change.
You are focusing on writing for young people. Was that a conscious decision on your part or a general metamorphosis in your work?
Definitely a conscious decision, though partially a metamorphosis that occurred before my first book was published. Throughout the late ‘90s and early 2000s, I was working on an adult science fiction series, but my experiences as a teacher of middle- and high-schoolers, retelling the legends my grandmother Marie Garza had told me when I was a kid, set me on the path to reaching out to young people through literature. My first book, The Seed, arose from that desire to craft YA fiction that tapped into our shared cultural traditions and spooky stories.
Of course, I have been writing for a general or more adult audience as well. There are stories I want to tell that don’t always fit the strictures of kid lit. But my main concern is writing for Mexican American youth and their peers.
The Smoking Mirror, a 2016 Pura Belpré Honor Book, is the first in your super-hero series about the Garza twins, Carol and Johnny. Since then, two more books in the series have been published, A Kingdom Beneath the Waves (2016) and The Hidden City (2018); two more are in the works, Wings Above the Burning Earth (2020) and The World Tree (2022). What challenges will the twins face in the next installments in the series and how have they developed to meet those challenges? Do you know if their story concludes with the fifth book?
From the moment I started the first book, I knew how the series would end. I have the very last chapter of the fifth book sitting in my head, and everything the Garza twins go through is pushing them to a particular point, to a decision that frankly will surprise many readers.
Without giving it away, I’ll say this: I’m convinced that individual power is not enough to combat chaos and destruction in our lives. The real heroes are groups of people—families and communities—that stand in solidarity against great odds and use their love and collective will to enact change.
Raw, naked power—the godlike abilities that Johnny and Carol will continue to accrue in books 4 and 5—is ultimately dangerous to wield at all. Like nuclear weapons, all such superpowers ensure is mutual destruction. And now I’ve probably said to much.
There will be lots of incredibly cool things along the way, mind you. Mesoamerican giants and elves and harpies. Gods, both dark and light. Betrayal, love, sacrifice. All a young teen could ask for from a fantasy series.
You are one of the authors working with Adam Gidwitz on a new middle-grade series from Penguin Dutton called The Unicorn Rescue Society. The Chupacabras of the Rio Grande will be published in April. How did this collaboration come about, and what has that process been like for you?
Once Adam had decided to use his position and power to craft a series of books co-written with writers from marginalized communities, he knew he wanted to do one set on the border (he has a great relationship with students in Laredo), featuring chupacabras as the cryptid (each book has a different creature in need of rescuing). When he approached Matt de la Peña, wondering who might be the best collaborator for that book, Matt immediately said, “Mexican American? Border? Chupacabras? Middle grade? You need to talk to David Bowles.” Or words to that effect, heh.
So Adam reached out to me and I agreed! Working together was really fantastic. We hit it off well, and once I’d outlined the story and we’d revised that outline with the rest of the team, we set about alternating two to three chapters. Writing that way helped us to maintain a rhythm and voice that was true to the other books. But ours was indeed quite different, more politically charged by virtue of its setting. Early on we realized we couldn’t avoid talking about the border wall and misconceptions about border folk, so we took a different tack: we centered that controversy and met it head-on in a compassionate way that kids will be able to understand.
They Call Me Güero and Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico were both published by Texas institutions, the Byrd family and Cinco Puntos Press, in El Paso. How did your relationship with the Byrds and Cinco Puntos come about and what is it like to work with the publishers of such beloved authors as Benjamin Alire Sáenz?
Given the fact that they published four of Luis Alberto Urrea’s early books as well as many by Ben Sáenz, I am tempted to call them kingmakers. Both those men are role models for me, both as humans and as writers, and they are respected on an international level for their beautiful, important prose and poetry.
Cinco Puntos is one of the most important advocates of marginalized voices. Their books for kids have transformed lives in the Rio Grande Valley and can be found in so many classrooms. The Byrds are delightful, simple, loving people. Accomplished authors and translators themselves, they approach each project not just from a marketing or editorial vantage point, but as creative minds seeking to maximize the beauty and relevance of the work.
They are also really damn funny.
You were inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters (TIL) in 2017 and currently sit on the board. The newly elected TIL inductees were announced in January. What was it like for you to take part in the process of selecting new TIL members?
Humbling and exciting! Getting to know authors that I’ve perhaps heard of or whose work I’m somewhat familiar with, diving into their writing and background, realizing just what luminaries our state produces … it’s quite amazing. I feel so fortunate, and I take my responsibilities seriously. Of course, the joy you feel upon seeing them react to the announcement is also a rush. And given the diversity of the new crop of nominees and inductees, I’m not indifferent to the weight of helping to reshape the TIL so that it more accurately reflects the state of Texas letters in the 21st century.
You’re an assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. What are your goals in teaching Mesoamerican literature and, hopefully, the next generation of writers?
My goals in teaching kid lit and Nahuatl language and literature intersect with my goals as an author: to lift the voices of Mexican Americans, celebrating our culture in the US, its origin in Mexico, and Mexico’s roots in Mesoamerica. I want to normalize this long and storied heritage for students who have not been exposed to it in US schools, even those just scant miles from the border in communities that are majority Mexican American. We need more writers, yes. And we need more teachers using the books those writers craft. We need more Chicanos learning indigenous Mesoamerican languages, decolonizing their minds, integrating some of the highly developed pre-Colombian philosophy and science into their daily lives.
These things make us better people. They enrich and complicate the variegated traditions of North America, combat and interrogate the dominant US narrative.
The banner at the top of your website reads, “order amidst chaos.” Why did you choose that phrase to headline your website? What is particularly chaotic for you personally, and how do you attempt to impose order? Are you successful in the attempt?
For ancient Mesoamericans, the principal conflict in the cosmos wasn’t good versus evil. They would have found such a notion naïve. All things contain good and evil. Even the gods. Instead, chaos and order were the crux of things. The point of life wasn’t, however, to eliminate chaos. Without it, order was meaningless. Without destruction, nothing can be created. Without creation, there is nothing to be destroyed. Existence itself requires both. The conflict becomes a search for balance between them.
This sophisticated indigenous conception of the universe deeply moves me. All around us, deliberate destruction and inexorable entropy pull at the foundations of our lives. Being a human means not fighting that, but not giving in to it, either. Instead, we bend that entropy, repurposing the destruction into new creation, new order.
Every book I write is a reshaping of fading ideas into bright, novel configurations. They, too will darken and crumble. Before they are lost to oblivion, however, I trust—I must believe—that another will fan those embers and use the fleeting flames to forge something even more enduring.
This struggle happens within us as well. Gloria Anzaldúa wrote of the Coyolxauhqui process, the reassembling of broken selves. My book of poetry Shattering and Bricolage delves deep into that remaking of the self. One of the poems got quoted recently on Criminal Minds, in fact: "When wounds are healed by love / The scars are beautiful." The poem’s title is "Kintsukuroi," the name of a Japanese artistic technique in which a finished ceramic piece is deliberately broken and the pieces rejoined with silver or gold solder so that the brokenness becomes part of the object’s beauty.
When I first contacted you, you teased that there is big news on the horizon; are you ready and able to spill on it yet? If not (DRAT), what else do we have to look forward to?
While there is big news coming about a new series for young readers, that’s as much as I can say at present. But I do have a graphic novel coming from Tu Books in 2020: Clockwork Curandera, a YA reimagining of the Frankenstein story that blends indigenous magic with steampunk technology, set in an alternate northern Mexico/South Texas called the Republic of Santander in the year 1865. I also have a second graphic novel coming out in 2020 … that will be announced pretty soon.
I should also point out that the University of Arizona Press is re-releasing Francisco X. Alarcón’s Snake Poems in March, twenty-five years after its original publication. I helped fulfill the late poet’s dream by translating his work into Nahuatl for this special edition.
My mind is blown with all you have accomplished and are accomplishing. I need to ask some fluffy questions to decompress. Commence the Lightning Round...
Favorite book? Right nowThe Tale of Genji. Answer changes each year.
Number of books on your nightstand? eReader? A dozen.
Strange habit? Plucking stray long hair from my beard.
Interesting writing ritual? Listening to electronica and drinking coffee.
Funniest flaw? My kids assure me it’s my “dad jokes.”
Favorite quote? “I change myself, I change the world.” ―Gloria Anzaldúa
Something interesting that few people know about you? I’m a musician and singer with several independently released albums.
Pet peeve? Uh, very few trivial things bother me. But I do wish people would set off direct address with a comma.
Most underappreciated author/hidden gem author? Juan Sauvageau (Stories That Must Not Die)
Team Oxford comma? Not unless it eliminates possible ambiguity.
A Mexican-American author from deep South Texas, DAVID BOWLES is an assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Recipient of awards from the American Library Association, Texas Institute of Letters and Texas Associated Press, he has written a dozen or so books, including Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry, the critically acclaimed Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Mexican Myths, and They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems. In 2019, Penguin will publish The Chupacabras of the Rio Grande, co-written with Adam Gidwitz, and Tu Books will release his steampunk graphic novel Clockwork Curandera. His work has also appeared in multiple venues such as Journal of Children’s Literature, Rattle, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Nightmare, Asymptote, Translation Review, Metamorphoses, Huizache, Eye to the Telescope, and Southwestern American Literature. In April 2017, David was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters for his literary work. Visit David Bowles on his website.