David Bowles on the literature of the borderlands: Our lives are beautiful and startling blends"
David Bowles is a Mexican-American author and member of the Texas Institute of Letters. His thirteenth book, Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico, will be coming out in 2018 from Cinco Puntos Press, and he was one of the featured authors at the McAllen Book Festival this past weekend. He spoke with us via email for Sunday’s Lone Star Listens.

LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Where did you grow up, and how did it influence your writing? Did you come from a family of storytellers?


DAVID BOWLES: I mainly grew up the Río Grande Valley, though my father was in the Navy, so we spent a few years in the Low Country of South Carolina. Interestingly, these formative years also mirror my family’s unique blend of ethnic heritage and storytelling traditions: Southern Gothic and Mexican-American leyendas. It’s inarguable that those sensibilities drew me toward storytelling, eventually finding their way into my writing. My dad’s side of the family was rife with storytellers, from my tíos to my father. Chief among them, however, was my grandmother, Marie Garza. I credit her and her dark legends of la llorona, las lechuzas, la mano pachona, etc. with inspiring my love of story … especially lush, creepy, timeless tales.



Was reading encouraged in your family/community? What books did you remember from your childhood?


My dad had been a big reader of pulp magazines, comics, and paperbacks since he was a kid, and my mother gave me arguably the best gift of my lifetime when I was four years old: she taught me how to read. By the time I was in school, I was well ahead of other kids. Librarians took my love of spooky legends and guided me toward adventure, fantasy, science fiction. I still remember being 7 or 8 years old and reading the Doc Savage books, the Chronicles of Narnia, and The Lord of the Rings. My taste grew even more eclectic as I got older, and my teachers and librarians led me into canonical literature by the time I was in junior high. Absent from all of this exploration (in the late ’70s and ’80s) were any books by U.S. Latinos. I didn’t even realize that Mexican-Americans had written books at all till I got to college.



When did you think you might want be a writer?


When I was a kid, I used to orchestrate large “make-believe” sessions with the boys and girls of my neighborhood, setting up elaborate plots and characters and assigning roles. By the time I was in junior high, I had discovered I was good at writing as well. The real epiphany came when I was in eighth grade and my teacher, Bill Hetrick, pulled the lid off poetry for me, revealing its inner workings and wonders. So it was that, despite being such a fan of speculative fiction, my first real attempts at creative writing were poems, and poetry still has a very special part in my life. As a high school student, I wrote my first novel (a bit of sci-fi comedy along the lines of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy) for a teen writing contest sponsored by Avon Books. I didn’t win, but I had written a book. I now knew I could do it.



What was the first break you received as a writer?


Entering the world of publishing was a slow, gradual process for me. I had pieces published here and there in my twenties, small venues, but though I continued writing, I set my dreams of being an author aside to focus on family, career, and community. Once I had gotten my doctorate and seen my oldest daughter off to college, I knew it was time to pursue that lifelong goal in earnest. For several years I had been working on a collection of short stories, mostly magical realism and fantasy, set along the border and featuring Mexican-Americans. A hard sell in the modern market. But at a conference I got up the courage to directly approach a regional publisher about the project, and he agreed to give it a look. That was when The Seed: Stories from the River’s Edge was published, giving me the courage and confidence to push on along my unusual path.


My big break, you might call it, came when The Smoking Mirror was selected by the American Library Association and REFORMA as a Pura Belpré Honor Book. That sort of national recognition changes everything for an up-and-coming writer—leading to better book deals and literary representation.



You have a wide-ranging repertoire of writing from poetry to translation to speculative fiction to YA fiction. Do you have a different creative process as you switch platforms? What is your creative process like?


At the end of the day, all the varied writing I do requires discipline and keeping priorities straight. Applying butt to chair and fingers to keyboard, if you will, every single day. Before I got a tenure-track position at UTRGV, I worked for nearly a decade as a central-office administrator in a school district, heading up first the English language arts and then bilingual program. During those years, I would get up each morning at five to write before taking a shower and heading to work. No one unwilling to make those sorts of sacrifices gets much done in this business, I’m afraid.


Different platforms do require different specific processes, of course, because the skill set is slightly different. Translation is a bit like solving a puzzle—my creative instincts are subsumed in a more rational, methodical mindset, consulting multiple sources and discovering the right voice in the target language. Poetry, on the other hand, is more purely inspirational. Rather than compose on a keyboard like I do for most other work, I tend to use paper and pen for verse, trying to capture the magic of a given moment on-the-fly (and in the field).


The speculative fiction I write—whether for adults or kids—takes just a tradition sequence of world-building, plotting, and daily writing at my computer (usually in my office at the university). I have weekly goals (between 7,000 and 10,000 words) that I force myself to meet, regardless of “inspiration” (in the case of prose, I don’t wait for the magic, heh).



Are there special challenges for being a writer from the Valley versus being in one of the metro hubs such as Austin, Houston, or Dallas?


Well, it means not being as “plugged into” a network of working writers—while there’s a pretty healthy poetry scene in the RGV, there aren’t many professional authors living down here. But that isolation works fine for me, really. I’m content to write in relative solitude and then engage with my community as just another Mexican-American from the borderlands, fighting for the dignity this region deserves. Metropolitan areas are just a drive or flight away, and I’m a part of many online groups of Latinx / Texas authors. I think that suits me fine.



Now I am going to ask you to take off your writer hat and put on your Dr. David Bowles–University of Texas Rio Grande Valley assistant professor hat. How have students changed, and how has teaching literature changed since you've been an educator?


In some ways students are broadly the same—visionary, full of a passion for justice, hungry to change the world. But they’re more galvanized for the task of ensuring respect and equity for everyone, regardless of race, creed, gender, orientation, etc., and they have organized in ways that weren’t possible before, using the Internet as digital natives, challenging professors to rise to the occasion. They strike me as more in love with reading, but across multiple texualities and in ways that don’t always mesh with academic goals—which I believe is our problem to fix, not theirs. As we teach literature—no longer shoving the canon down their throats, but linking it to culturally relevant books and verse from the contemporary scene—professors are hopefully acquiring new skills, learning about new voices, expanding our own appreciation of the power of the written word.



In February of this year you were inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters. What was that like?


It was pretty fantastic and humbling! You have to be nominated by two members, then the council decides whether to approve you as part of the slate, and finally the members have to vote you in. The induction ceremony is a little intimidating—standing in front of these luminaries of Texas letters, reading your selection, struggling with that nasty ol’ impostor syndrome. But they are so encouraging, friendly, giving—they embrace you at once, even with the stars in your eyes.



You have a new book coming out in 2018 from Cinco Puntos Press, titled Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico. Can you tell us about this book?


Since I was a kid, I have loved legends and mythology. Eventually I became obsessed with epics like the Iliad and the Odyssey. Despite growing up on the U.S./Mexico border, I had never read a single Aztec or Mayan myth until I was in college, when I learned about how the Conquest had basically erased most indigenous narratives. As different projects led me to research first legends from all over Mexico and then their roots in the pre-Columbian past, I realized there wasn’t an epic account of ancient Mexican tales available for readers, so I set about adapting, translating, and retelling Aztec and Mayan myths and legends.


Differently from other books of Mesoamerican lore that recount myths separately or piecemeal, Feathered Serpent, Dark Hearth of Sky presents a single cohesive narrative that traces the mythic past of Mesoamerica from the creation of the world to the arrival of the Spanish. Drawing from a variety of sources (especially Nahuatl and Maya texts), this fresh version blurs the line between the mythic and the historical, treating all the stories as depictions of actual events. My goal was to stitch together the fragmented mythology of pre-Colombian Mexico into an exciting, unified narrative in the tradition of William Buck’s Ramayana, Robert Fagles’s Iliad and Neil Gaiman’s Norse Myths. I feel certain that readers of Norse and Greek mythologies will delight in this rich retelling of stories less explored.


Intended for a general audience, the book is accessible for middle- and high-school students, though I suspect it would work just as well in an intro-level anthropology course at the university.



Last question: What's the one thing that you want people to know about living in the Valley?


Gloria Anzaldúa called this region a “nepantla,” a sort of liminal space, the coming together of very different worlds. Where they overlap, the resulting limbo can be painful and isolating—but it can also be magical and liberating. We Valleyites are inheritors of the traditions of indigenous Coahuiltecans who lived along the banks of the river and its many oxbow lakes, the Spanish and their mestizo children who carved vast ranches from the arid land, and the Anglo settlers who snatched up those ranches and tried to remake this floodplain into a magical valley, a capitalist paradise. As a result, our lives are beautiful and startling blends, our culture rich and layered, our traditions both exotic and familiar. And this lovely mélange—fraught with poverty and violence as it sometimes may be—is constantly infused by the influx of more gente from our Motherland to the south, so that before the concoction crusts over and grows cold, new fluid spice sets it to swirling.


For writing fantasy and magical realism, poetry that roils with passion, there is no better place in the U.S.


* * * * *

Praise for David Bowles’s work

Chupacabra Vengeance

“An incomparable work of art. Bowles has a unique and beautiful mind that he spills out in full color glory on the pages of this book built out of dark, literary masterpieces. The stories read like fairy tale nightmares, at turns dark and terrifying, sometimes very sad, sometimes lighthearted and playful, rarely happy but always hopeful, cerebral, very human tales that stay with the reader long after they’ve closed the book. Every single tale in this collection is a gem in Bowles’ lexicon, and, as a whole they make up something that is both bleak and beautiful.”  —Hellnotes

The Smoking Mirror

“Layered with rich references to cultural life in Mexico, this book offers a compelling, fast-paced new addition to the world of fantasy. Part folklore, part mythology, this first in a series of stories about the Garza twins will leave readers with a more nuanced understanding of regional histories from Mexico and a desire to read more of the Garza twins’ mystical adventures.” —Language Arts

A Kingdom Beneath the Waves

A Kingdom Beneath the Waves is one of the most imaginative fantasies I’ve read in years. Latinos of all varieties will find things to identify with, and the book is so action-packed its appeal will be global.” —La Bloga

* * * * *