by Laura Valeri
Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Mexico and New Mexico, Jose Skinner writes about hard times on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border. His debut short story collection, Flight, was a Barnes & Nobles Discover Great New Writers selection that Publisher Weekly described as “varied, well-crafted, and frequently daring.” Following that early success is Skinner’s latest story collection, The Tombstone Race, a glowing literary accomplishment that deserves all the attention and praise it is receiving since its release.
Sparkling with unflinching authenticity, rich with language that is as poetic as it is stark and raw, each of the fourteen stories in The Tombstone Race offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of various denizens of the Southwest. From the homie who can’t escape his bad reputation on account of his strange looks, to the first generation college graduate pulled between an academic career and the needs of his immigrant parents, to the the cantankerous artist bickering with the locals over heritage, Skinner has given us what the Kirkus Review calls “a photo-album of desperate lives” that navigates “the mean streets of New Mexico” with undeniable grace and grit. Skinner writes with the same agility and precision about the travails of second generation Mexican immigrants as he does about the US natives that share the Southwestern land and culture. Featuring characters as diverse as “gangbangers,” failed cops, high-school girls, and adjunct professors, the stories in The Tombstone Race are often ironic, sometimes satirical, always compassionate, and frequently tempered with a fine sense of humor.
LV: The opening story “The Edge” is a semi-humorous, semi-tragic account of a kid, Osvaldo, whose greatest misfortune is that he resembles Tuco Ramirez, “The Bad” in Sergio Leone’s celebrated spaghetti Western, The Good The Bad and The Ugly. Because of his off-putting looks, even his friends easily believe him capable of committing murder, when in fact he might be entirely innocent. Tell us what inspired this character. We often read stories about women or girls being defined by their looks, but not so many about men.
JS: Two of my all-time favorite short stories are Russell Banks’s “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story” and Andre Dubus’ “The Fat Girl,” both of which have to do with women oppressed by people’s opinion of their looks, so surely these have served as inspiration for “The Edge.” Of course, the theme of people marginalized because of their appearance is at least as old as the appalling Latin saying monstrum in fronte, monstrum in animo (monstrous in appearance, monstrous in spirit) and has been presented classically in such works as The Elephant Man. Nietzsche went so far as to say Socrates’ looks were the symptom of Greek decadence and decline. Sheesh.
LV: At the risk of a spoiler, let’s discuss an event at the end of the story, when Osvaldo is given the opportunity to erase his old identity and start new. I am tempted to read some Biblical allusion into Osvaldo’s rising from the river as a baptismal act, a symbolic rebirth into faith, and yet if that were the correct reading, I can only see it as ironic rather than metaphorical. Osvaldo, I get the impression, is stuck in the mold of his life as much as he’s stuck with the face he was born with. But the story does tease the reader with some Biblical allusions, for instance, Osvaldo’s alternating role as angel and devil in the eyes of his peers.
JS: As an active promoter of atheism, I must of course deny any positive reference to Scripture in my work, lol. Water as the symbolic source of rebirth has pagan origins far predating Christianity, and that’s based in turn on biology, of course. The angel/devil motif is harder to deny. The “Goth chick” who presumably spirits him away at the end also strikes me as some kind of divine apparition, though we don’t know exactly what sort. Interestingly, Angel Eyes’ name in the original Italian script of The Good the Bad and the Ugly is Sentenza (“Judgment”), which suggests he’s some kind of avenging angel. But nah, according to Sergio Leone he’s just a sociopathic mercenary “in the most banal sense of the term.” In the story, Osvaldo is far from sociopathic, of course.
LV: An uncomfortable tension pervades every line in the story titled “Looking Out,” a delicious ambivalence that hinges on the meaning of the word “Sublime.” Here, a girl is recounting a hike with a boy, a tale that only obliquely suggests may have capitulated in an assault or in any case, an event that the girl cannot quite decide how to process. Her dilemma rises from the opening two sentences: “If Jennifer told the story of her life so far, would she tell it as a beautiful dream or as a nightmare? That’s what Rufino asked her up on Lookout Mountain.” Jennifer prefers to believe her experience with Rufino was “sublime” in a literary sense she misunderstands to mean dangerous, but not personally threatening. Yet her mother’s and the police’s reaction point to a far more sinister interpretation, something, perhaps, closer to Edmund Burke’s definition: “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger…Whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror.”
I am morbidly fascinated by this idea of a character who may or may not have been a victim of sexual assault, who may or may not be in denial about how she was abused. What inspired Jennifer’s ambivalence, and how does her attitude, and the underlying threat of sexual abuse tie in with the other themes in the story, for instance about Rufino’s ethnicity being exploited by the school as a way to hide or atone for white privilege?
JS: Now that you bring it up, she does seem prepared to defend Rufino on the basis of his Otherness, doesn’t she? She herself feels she’s an outsider (doesn’t practically every teenager?), and as such she is ready to make common cause with the ultimate outsider, Rufino, “who could probably mark four or five boxes on one of those what-race-do-you-belong-to questionnaires.” If an assault did take place, I suspect it might take some doing for her to admit it. If consensual, she still has to convince her mother, and possibly the school authorities and the police, that it was. Either way, the scenario is nightmarish, though at the end of the story she is willing to believe that the encounter was not only consensual, but sublime in a way that will ultimately contribute to a beautiful life for her.
“Then there was this Romantic thing called the sublime, which Jennifer understood was something like when you looked out at the desert or ocean from a mountaintop and felt afraid but not really, because even though you knew that all that out there was a lot bigger than you and could swallow you up and you were nothing in comparison and were mortal, you were still you and alive to tell about it.”
LV: I know that you took great care to assemble these stories from the many that you have written, and there is a progression, a sense of change and maturing that a reader experiences from the first story to the last. Also, the collection opens with the “The Edge” about innocent Osvaldo, a kid not just in age, but also in experience, and concludes with “The Sand Car” about a cantankerous aging artist forced to interact with people who share the arroyo she appropriates with her paintings and legal deed, but which is viscerally and historically connected to the people she’d rather erase, and by whom she feels erased. In spite of the rift between cultures, which is especially clear in “The Sand Car,” I do get the sense that the meta-story connecting all the individual pieces is one of hope and healing, with art at the center of it. There are other subtle progression, for instance from the graduate student who studies gangs to the professor who has written about them. Tell us about the choices you made here, the meta-story that emerges from each individual progression.
JS: A good deal of consideration needs to go into the arrangement of stories in a collection, even when, like these, they aren’t obviously connected in any way. That being said, I can’t say I arranged these with any pattern consciously in mind—it was more of a gut thing. I think I always knew “The Sand Car” should wrap the collection up; it is no doubt the most hopeful of the stories, and it gathers together many of the themes hovering about the others. And, relatedly, here’s a tip about titles: if you’re going to use the title of one of the stories for the title of the collection, use the most interesting title. Unless, of course, you think that story sort of sucks and you don’t want to showcase it.
LV: Sexual identity is a conflict in a few of the stories, and because these evolve in a setting where conservative social standards and Catholic influences prevail, they often point to intolerances in the subculture that remain unchanged. When focusing so deeply on a subculture there is always the challenge and risk of stereotyping, but you never cross the line. I loved that in “The Tombstone Race” the mother would rather her son be a gangbanger than respectably gay, and that in “Crypto” the narrator hides his own homoerotic desires behind an obsession with Judaism, but while the attitudes in both stories rang as accurate and probable, in no way did I ever feel as though they were stereotyped. I think a similar thing happens with your treatment of gangs. You play with taboos but you render them with so much authenticity and precision that your authority as a cultural observer is never in question. What is your foothold, your reach to the heart? As a writer, how do you “go for the jugular”?
JS: If there is any jugular I’d hope to aim for it is that which carries the toxic blood of machismo. Of course, if in fiction you aim for it directly, you will likely have a didactic story on your hands, and nobody likes those. But let me celebrate from my soapbox here the great strides have been made in recent years towards the emancipation of people with sexual identities outside of the (hetero)norm. I can only hope that things will continue in this direction, and that in the sexual anxieties depicted in the stories you mention will someday be considered quaint.
LV: I know from other interviews that you once were told by a top editor at the New Yorker that your use of Spanish words was too reminiscent of Junot Diaz, who already had that area sufficiently covered. The comment strikes me not only as racist, but also as ignorant of the nuances of language, of a type of American English that is as legitimate and widely practiced as, say, writing a narrative with Southern expressions and Southern syntax. So this brings me back the difficulty of being a writer who defines his work by his personal influences, and a writer who is being defined (or restricted by) the market. How do you navigate bilingualism as a writer in the US? Does the fact that you are fluent in both English and Spanish hinder or help your writing or your career?
JS: The story that gave rise to that venerable editor’s remarks is “Solidarity,” the second-to-last in the collection. He wrote, “I don’t mean that you’re imitative but only that a reader will automatically and unfairly make the comparison, noting the presence of all those everyday and accurate Latino words—abuela, chotas, sinsonte, and the rest —and blame you for the echo.” Since “Solidarity” is a story about two aging Chicano radicals in New Mexico and Junot Diaz generally writes about horny young Dominicans in New York and DR, the “echo” these putative readers are hearing isn’t that of theme or character but is literally that of the dread sound of Spanish. What makes this even more painfully laughable is that the words “chota” and “sinsonte” and probably most of “the rest” are Mexican words unknown to Dominicans. What this editor seemed to be saying was, “The New Yorker caters to the kinds of readers who lump all you Spanishy people together, unfair though that may be.” I’m sure he knows his market, and he’s probably right that there’s limited interest in the U.S. in “ethnic” literature. Authentically-voiced fiction about non-white people can get the attention of small and university publishers seeking “diversity,” but it doesn’t often translate into robust sales.
“My father explained to him about the marigolds. He showed him the new slogan on the breakfast side of the menu–nuestros blanquillos son más amarillos— and tried to interpret the play on words. “You know eggs, that’s a very bad word in Spanish. You know, –” he lowered his voice–“the balls. So when we’re being polite, we call them instead the little white ones. Blanquillos. So here we say, ‘Our little white ones are more yellower. Yellow. I’m thinking if the restaurant was over in Amarillo, we could say, ‘We have the yellowest little white ones in Yellow.”
LV: In a KTEP “Words on a Wire” interview you said that writing a novel is easier than writing a collection of short stories. I heartily agree with you, as I consider the short story as complex and compressed as a poem. However, as you know, most classes in writing programs teach the short story as a gateway to the novel, when in fact the two forms are entirely different. I think writer Joy William said it best: “a novel wants to befriend you, a short story almost never,” and I think that’s true for the writing process as much as it is true of reading. What have you discovered about how you approach the two forms? Did any of that reflect on your own education with the Iowa Workshop or your teaching?
JS: I share Borges’ opinion that most novels are too long. Conversely, I don’t share most people’s reaction to short stories, which is, “That’s all? But then what happened? Come on, be my friend and tell me!” I guess I’m not looking to befriend, lol. As a reader what I’m looking to experience is an aesthetic appreciation of shape and design that is best satisfied by poems and short stories. Of course, many novels have excellent design, but many others seem to me baggy, with parts you can skip over with not much loss. Imagine skipping over parts of a short story without detriment to the experience!
It’s often been remarked that fiction workshops tend to focus on the short story, because these are more manageable in the workshop setting than are novels. Certainly the workshops you and I took at Iowa dealt overwhelmingly with short fiction. (Interestingly, we both had award-winning collections published while still students at Iowa, which means we must have written those stories prior to getting there—and which doesn’t mean an Iowa MFA is pointless, right?)
LV: In “The Sand Car,” Bettina describes her art-making as addictive as heroin, once giving her highs, but over time devolving into an urgency, a need. Is that how you feel about writing?
JS: Writing has always been more of a challenge for me than a need. Which I guess begs the question: Do I need to be challenged? Maybe so, but most of the time I’d rather be reading, and indeed I read a lot more than I write. Don’t ask me what: the list is too long!
“She pictured the bliss that had invaded Rudy’s face when he injected the heroin. It had been a long time since she’d been infused with that kind of bliss when she painted. She was addicted to painting, but in the way they say a long-term addict is addicted, in a negative way, taking it to not feel ill, to feel normal. And that was truly horrible, to crave something not because it makes you feel good, but because not doing it makes you feel ill.”
LV: What can we look forward to from you in the future? What are some exciting things that are coming up that we can share with our readers?
JS: I’m writing a literary thriller. I’m not quite sure what that is, but I’m learning. A page-turner, you know. Which means I have to shake this short-story habit of trying to make each chapter a self-contained little gem, and get those cliffhangers in there! Viva plot, cabrones!
[Read an excerpt of Jose Skinner’s new memoir here]
Jose Skinner’s stories have appeared in Boulevard, Third Coast, Colorado Review, Florida Review, Quarterly West, Bilingual Review, and many other literary journals, as well as in the anthologies Our Lost Border: Essays on Life Amid the Narco Violence, In the Shadow of the Strip: Las Vegas Stories and Las Vegas Noir. His first collection, Flight and Other Stories, was a finalist for the Steven Turner Award and the Western States Book Award for Fiction. His new collection, The Tombstone Race, was published by University of New Mexico Press in 2016. You can learn more about Jose’s work on his website: joseskinner.com