Tuesday, March 31, 2009

In the Valley of the Whale: Reading in Fresno

Fresno is my home. It will always be my home.

It has so many things dear to me, my family, friends from childhood, new friends, former students, the Tower District, The Million Elephant, which, if not one of the best Thai restaurants around, certainly has one of the best restaurant names.

Fresno has all the levels or schools I've gone to, from Kindergarten at Robinson Elementary, to Hoover High, to Fresno City College and a master's degree at Fresno State.

It has the old homes of my dead grandparents, and the home on Mesa Street where I grew up, the house in which my mother died in the living room on a hospice bed, all the family around her,
holding her cold, bony hands, putting our own hands on her head and shoulders in prayer, until her last breath, the same house in which my father still lives. It has many of the homes in my imagination.

And it has the most incredible street in the entire world, the most important road of my creativity.

The street of which I speak is greater than the Roman Iter, greater than all the ancient or modern broad ways that cut into the great cities of the world.

Blackstone Avenue is the six-lane avenue that cuts through the city from downtown, goes across the river and passes through the homes of the rich, into the mountains, to Yosemite, into blue heaven.

On our way to my first California reading at Fresno State on Friday 13th a few weeks ago, I was driving my red rental car with Texas plates to the reading with Lee Herrick and Sasha. Kafka our dog was with us.

When I turned on Blackstone Avenue to get to the university, Lee told me it would be much faster to take the freeway, but I told him how Blackstone Avenue could take you anywhere.

When I was a kid, my family had been driving back from a family party on the east side of town, and my mother in the front passenger’s seat pointed at a wide avenue lined with neon signs and full of bright cars and lights. She said, “That’s Blackstone (I heard it as two words, black stone). It’ll take you anywhere.”

She meant anywhere in Fresno, Kmart, the fairgrounds, my grandmother’s street in Pinedale, but I was a child who lived in my imagination, and I thought she meant it could take you anywhere in the world.

I thought she meant you could take that street and find yourself suddenly in the jungles of the Amazon, or the great cities of the east, anywhere in the world. I thought she meant you could turn on side streets and you’d be on the moon, or on Saturn, and you could get out of the car and walk across the terrain like a ginger bread man in a space suit.

I could take that road to any place, even where the physical laws of our universe didn’t matter, where trees and ducks could talk, and when you opened books castles and villages bloomed into existence.

I took that road to the reading and I was a kid again in the backseat of my parents' 1961 Chevy Impala, going to see my grandmother, or taking a fun family trip to Roading Park to the zoo. I thought Blackstone Avenue must be the biggest, most important street in the world, and now I was a kid again and I went down that road and entered into the future, Friday 13th 2009, a writer on a book tour. I'm with my lovely wife, the brilliant poet Sasha Pimentel Chacon.

I ended up at California State University, my first California reading for Unending Rooms, in the parking lot next to the Peters Building.

We were a few minutes late to the future. On my way into the building, I saw my dad, waiting by the entrance, so old now, his eyes so bad he had to squint to see me, and I hugged his small body. He smelled of mothballs and cologne.

I saw my cousins, now adults, Chicano men with big hands and bellies, and I saw my sister and her teenage daughter and her husband.

I was in the future.

We all walked into the building together, a line of Chacons, looking for the room.

I saw the woman from the bookstore packing up to leave.

“What’s wrong?” I asked her.

“The books sold out,” she said.

"All of them?"

"Just like that. Some lady bought five," she said.

I pictured one of my aunts buying five books.

I saw the host of the evening, coming out of the light of the theater, in a hurry. He told me everyone had already arrived and we should get started. I could hear the voices in the theater, a cauldron of voices.

We entered into the lights, and I saw it was such a beautiful place, full of light. What a great way to start my California readings.

It was like walking into heaven, all the people you know and love in one spot, there to see you, to share in your happiness, all those shining faces. I was reminded (or maybe as I’m writing this I am reminded) of an ancient poem, Rumi I think, that loosely says something like this,

Tavern or temple

A friend’s face radiates it all.

It must have taken me ten minutes to reach the front, because I kept stopping to hug and kiss everyone. I saw my uncle Thomas sitting next to my aunt Cookie, a stack of five books on her lap.

After I was introduced by Alex Espinoza (a great writer), I went up and introduced my friend Valarie Nikaido. She got up and sang a song “Sabor a Mi.”

Then I introduced Liz Scheid, because I had asked her to share a poem with us.

The song and the poem were beautiful, and the spirits their voices invited into the room gave even more light, more radiance, and it wouldn’t matter what I read after that, the people there had good will, such immense good will.

Whatever story I read, they would be able to enter into the fictional landscape, to see it like a movie playing in their heads, and at the same time they would be able to sense the energy coming from the fictional archetypes, the metaphorical field.

García Lorca used to start his readings by inviting the spirit of brotherhood into

the room (fraternidad) for exactly that reason, so that the metaphors could be felt and understood at the same time.

There was so much fraternidad at Fresno State (I call it good will) that the success of the reading had very little to do with me.

There were so many brilliant people there (all the accomplished writers that make up the MFA faculty, Corrine Clegg Hales and John Hales. Steven Church, Tim Skeen, as well as many of Fresno’s exciting young writers like Lee Herrick, Tim Z. Hernandez, Mike Medrano, and my own brother Kenneth R. Chacon, and so many others, graduate students, teachers, others who just happened to walk in) so many brilliant minds that their collective imaginations filling the room could give radiant form to even the least of my stories.

It was a great success because of them.

After the reading, we had to bring another box of books from the rental car, and we sold twice as much as the bookstore even had in stock.

Sasha, Kafka and I had a free weekend before we had to make our way to the next stop, Hayward, to Chabot College, where I presented to the Puente students.

Talk about brilliant minds.

Next entry, I’ll talk about the Puente Students.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


Before I left El Paso, I visited a middle School in Las Cruces, where most of the 120 students I read to were Chicanos, poor like me, some of who would be labeled "at risk" like me.

I read them a new story, one that's still unpublished, and I answered their questions.

Their teacher the amazing true believer in justice, Lisa Weinbaum, had assigned them to read two or three of my stories, including "Too White," "Mexican Table," and "Godoy Lives," all of them from my first book Chicano Chicanery.

They were ready with questions, their hands shooting up, and their little mouths making Arnold Horseshack noises,
Ooo, ooo, pick me!

And then something amazing happened.

Remember, these kids are not the richest kids on the border. Their parents work hard to survive in the economy, but the teacher had told the parents that a Chicano writer would be visiting campus, and if they wanted to send their kids with money, they could buy a book.

I only brought ten books, thinking that only a few would sell.

I've been to readings at universities where only two or three books sell. I've been to other places where all the books sell out.

But after the questions were over, when the kids picked up their backpacks and slung them over their shoulders, they didn't leave. They gathered around the table where I had my books. They held out their money and asked me if I would sign a book for them.

I sold all of them (and gave one away).

It was so cute, but it was more than that. It showed me something Life has been teaching me for many years now.

Recognition from the top doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if I'm invited to great ivory tower universities, where white men with patches on their sport-coat elbows stand in line to buy my book and later write papers about the many metaphorical possibilities of my landscapes.

What matters is to be recognized by the kids at Lynn Middle School.

What matters is that right now and for who knows how many years into the future, my book will be on the shelves of their homes, maybe even one of the few books in the house, and even if they don't read it now, even if it sits unopened for many years, it's there, in their homes. Maybe someday when when they're in high school or when they're adults, they'll open the book and release my spirit into their lives.

And I loved that I started my tour at a Middle School with a majority of Chicano students.

It was like the benediction that opens a poetry book.

It was like a blessing, 120 tiny hands on my head and shoulders blessing me for my journey, blessing my new book.