Opening New Doors and Windows: Talking with Daniel Chacón
The characters in Daniel Chacón’s Kafka in a Skirt: Stories from the Wall® live at the intersection of technology and the unfathomable nature of time and existence. It’s not that the rules of physics cease to exist but that we, as readers, are allowed to peer into all of the ways that they’ve never really existed. Unexpectedly tender and inquisitive, these stories explore identity, life on the border, childhood, maturity, creation, and connection.
The author of two novels and three previous short story collections, and chair of the creative writing department at the University of Texas-El Paso, Chacón doesn’t restrict himself to describing border life as represented in the headlines. His characters breathe and love and imagine and reach towards each other, their paths exploding in all the possibilities that life itself brings.
I recently spoke with Chacón about his newest collection of stories, technology as a metaphor for identity, connecting with past and future versions of ourselves, and more.
The Rumpus: It was clear to me that Kafka in a Skirt: Stories from the Wall is playing with the idea of how the internet/cloud/technology holds all the minutiae of our lives, but to me, it felt like it was perhaps a way of capturing and reflecting as many facets as possible of the author’s mind—to show shards of memories, of home-life, of little and large loved things, of the ways possibilities and realities trip over each other, of what were once conflicting passions that with time found a kind of harmonious coexistence. How do you feel you explored identity and your lived experiences up to this point?
Daniel Chacón: The final story of the collection finds itself in the near future, when there is only one significant cloud storage company called The Wall®. They are way bigger than iCloud or Dropbox, because of the immense amount of all of our data that they have stored, including some data that we don’t even have access to anymore, like things we deleted long ago; everyone’s web history, documents, audio files, music we streamed or downloaded, text messages, grocery lists we made on our notes app, and quadrillions of photos. Along with data from companies, schools, government agencies, world governments; data too big to be managed by human beings. All this is stored in The Wall®.
Think of the photos inside this cloud taken on smartphones from Apple, Samsung, and Huawei. They all end up in the Wall®, and if you had the computing power of God, you could put them all together like a puzzle and you could see a mosaic of photos that show us our collective view of the planet. Add to that all the other data, emails, PDFs, voice memos, with the computing power of God, you could put them together and get a sense of what it is to be human.
I suppose this could be a metaphor for identity. Everything that the individual ever experiences, any available memory that we store in our hippocampus, any sound or song we store in our auditory cortex, whether we remember it or not, any poem we have read, any movement we have stored in our muscle memory, it all exists (available for download or not) within us and helps create the structure of our two levels of consciousness, our conscious mind and our unconscious.
The sum total of all this personal data is perhaps a “view” of who we are, what it is to be Daniel or ire’ne. We are us on two levels, our self-perceived public identity and who we are inside, on a deeper level of consciousness.
For the writer, every book is about identity. Yes, we can write about “other,” or made-up characters, or issues we care about, but whatever it is it comes from the depths of our own, private Wall®.
Rumpus: Given all of that, two levels seems a bit restrictive to be all we are made of. There’s the third level of all of things we don’t know we know—our unconscious—and also all of our potential selves—everything we’ve ever been, everything we ever could have been, everything we could still become.
Chacón: Yes! We are made up of so much more than the data we have stored in our conscious and unconscious.
Perhaps we are made of time. We are made of matter and energy. And the energy we are part of may very well be cosmic potential. Or, like you say, our “potential selves.”
Martin Luther King Jr. called our potential “pending cosmic energy.” We are all part of some source, if you will, that keeps things moving and expanding and seems to have consciousness. There may be a Great Mind, if you will. Maybe this is what some call the Creator, the source, Ein Sof, God, Jesus, the Mother Goddess, or even Einstein’s ultimate goal.
When Einstein says that he wants to know the mind of God, he’s talking about the way things move, the energy, the universe, the rotation of the planets, the weirdness of the quantum world. It’s a beautiful fact that most of physics puts us, the observer, at the center of things, as a participant in the creation of reality. We are creators.
Whether or not the cat is dead or alive depends upon on you.
Rumpus: One of the stories that most lingers in my mind is “The Enchanted Tiki Room” with its narrator co-existing on the physical plane with himself at different ages. I’m curious to know more about how this story developed.
Chacón: I believe we can communicate with different versions of ourselves. This gut feeling has been with me ever since I was a boy. At nine years old, I could talk to future Danny, me at twenty-five years old. I used to encourage myself.
At first, I thought this was the imagination of a child, but as I grew physically and metaphysically, I came to understand that both branches of physics (general relativity and quantum mechanics), as well as the mystical texts concerning time, tell us that as individual observers, we see space-time according to from where we observe. Time is not linear, so from some points of observation, the past and present are happening simultaneously. There is no real past, no real present. Everything’s happening now.
Perhaps within our lifetime, we have a sphere of access, maybe from the time we’re born to the time that we die. We can get glimpses into other space-times from where we observe. If this is true, we can, in a sense, be our own angel. You know that feeling we sometimes get that there is somebody watching out for you? Guiding you? Protecting you? And sometimes messing things up for you! Angels and demons. If time is all happening at once, that could be another version of you.
Perhaps we can access future versions of ourselves to guide us in the present. We could use past, more innocent versions of ourselves to remind us of what is fundamental. When present-time Chacón (the one you’re hearing now) gets too mired in some addiction not beneficial to my growth, I’m sometimes confronted with little, seven-year-old Chacón, or an older version of me. Sometimes they gang up on me and try to talk me out what I’m doing.
This idea came out while I was writing “The Enchanted Tiki Room,” although I didn’t intend it.
I just wanted to write a story inspired by a trip to Disneyland that I took in my fifties, with my wife and her daughter. We passed The Tiki Room, and I remembered how when I was a boy and I came with my family, my mother wanted so badly to see the Tiki Room, but my father told her it would be boring. She didn’t care. I’ll go alone, she said, and she did, she left him standing there in his anger. I followed her inside. I wanted to write about that. I didn’t know what was going to happen in the story.
Rumpus: After I first read Kafka in a Skirt, I messaged you about the profound impact it had on me. I’d just finished reading a popular book published by a Latina (who will remain unnamed) and found myself in a deep, depressive funk. It seemed to me that the book modeled hopelessness. I didn’t find anything empowering or inspiring about that work. For the most part, I was preoccupied thinking that Latinx people were still so hungry for representation that they weren’t asking for more than that. That familiar stories of sadness and betrayal, abuse and addiction, were what we took comfort in. And then I read your book—and in no way is this an exaggeration—but I felt like your book restored my spirit and my faith in the work of Latinx writers. It felt so clearly like your stories were opening all the doors and windows in a dark house and letting in the light and air. Reflecting further on this, I thought about all the unexpected places that your collection, Hotel Juarez, also took me. How do you perceive this ongoing task of opening doors and windows in your work? In your role as a Latinx writer?
Chacón: One of the fundamental images in our collective imaginations (you see this a lot in movies and Netflix series) is a hallway with a door at the end, or a room at the top of the stairs and a door, leading no one knows where. Or a hidden door behind a bookshelf. We want to open those doors and see what’s on the other side. We so want to have the key. To open those doors is perhaps fundamental to human desire and fear. The Peruvian poet Noraya Ccoyure writes, La muerte es una puerta sin casa.
The door from the living to the dead. A door is also access to the soul. To the beyond. Also, let’s not forget the doors of perception. In our mind there are many doors (in my father’s house there are many rooms; in our brains there are many neurons), most of them closed, and when by study or through contemplation we open one, it reveals connections we may have never considered.
Doors open onto the imaginal world, the astral plane, the creative field, Narnia—whatever you want to call it. I like how you call it an “ongoing task” of opening doors and windows, because that’s what we do as artists. That’s what we do as writers. We open doors and windows and hope to share our view with readers. I think that’s what Latinx writers are doing today, opening new doors and windows.
I mean there are an amazing amount of doors opening in poetry from people like Carolina Ebeid, Felicia Zamora, Carmen Giménez Smith. You, ire’ne, in your poetry and fiction, have opened many doors. Writers open doors and create windows, and they sometimes show us a slice of reality we didn’t even know existed.
Rumpus: I really liked the choose-your-adventure guide you provided for this collection. We focus so much on narrative arcs for collections of poetry and short stories that it sometimes feels as if our freedom as readers to have our own individual experience of a book is negated. At the same time, this playfulness also comes up against the expectations that a reader might expect of your work or that of a Latinx writer. Could you please speak to the aspects of playfulness and expectation in Kafka in a Skirt?
Chacón: When I was a boy and all the other boys were off playing sports, getting sweaty, pushing against each other’s bodies and grunting, I was playing dolls with my neighbor, Graciela. She brought out all her Barbies and dolls and her little pieces of furniture and plates and teapots and we played for hours. I loved it. There has never been anything I loved doing more as a child than playing dolls. You got to imagine worlds, to create lives and stories, to speak and think in other voices.
I loved playing with dolls! And I’m still doing it. Only I use language and story and characters, but I love to play. And because I’m playing all the time, I do not need to stop myself from entering into worlds of the imagination. If you want your doll to fly, do it! Let your doll fly over the city at night under the stars. In fact, now that I think of it, in Kafka there is a character, a nine-year-old girl named Quark, who flies all around the city, through buildings and trees.
That’s not to say that some of the stories I write are not realistic, whatever that may mean. Rather, when I enter into a new story—usually following the language—I’m going there to play, not to carry the burden of expectations.
Rumpus: Speaking of playing with dolls, my curiosity was piqued at seeing different male characters in these stories with a range of sexualities and with a range of how they expressed their masculinity. Is this a result of maturity, experience, fatherhood, or writing? All of them?
Chacón: I think it has to do with aging and being a more experienced writer. When I first started writing in the 1980s, I was coming out of the Chicano movement—when it was still called the Chicano movement, not Chicanx, or Latinx, so consciously or not, how I referred to my work was exclusionary. Today, I’m older, in my fifties, and I just want to write good books, but I also want to be inclusive. I don’t want to leave anyone out of my work, except for perhaps racists.
Now I’m more than willing to take my own advice: Don’t try to control the story. When you’re young, you think you know everything. Now, I know I know very little. So, I let the story go where it needs to go. As a young writer, I often tried to control everything toward a Chicano esthetic, plot, theme, character, the entire story. The story “Fuck Shakespeare” is as an example.
I wrote that story when I was twenty-something years old, a student at Fresno State in the ‘80s. It was published by ZYZZYVA, but I left it out of every collection I have ever published, because it just didn’t seem right. The story bothered me. Then I was working on Kafka, now in my fifties, and I saw “Fuck Shakespeare” in my story graveyard, and I read it and saw immediately what was wrong. I wasn’t allowing the character to be. The character is gay, and I must have known it all along, but my personal version of toxic masculinity wouldn’t allow the character to be who he is.
I think where I am today, and where Latinx literature is today, reflects the development of our experience as activists and people of color. Latinx sensibility moves towards inclusion and away from masculinity and oppression, which go hand-in-hand.
Rumpus: As I’ve probably told you before, I deeply, deeply love Toni Morrison’s work. Song of Solomon is my favorite, but I imprinted on Beloved. It lives in me the way only a handful of other novels live in me. I recently came upon an interview/conversation she had with Pierre Bourdieau where she talks about how, as an African American writer, the artistic/technical/aesthetic aspects of writing Jazz were overlooked. Because the literature of minorities was perceived only as the literature of “I protest” and “Ouch, that hurts.” How do you see this play out in your own work and how it’s perceived? For example, I see that your work is often compared to Latin American masters—not canonical American or Latino writers.
Chacón: Andrés Montoya and I were roommates and best friends for many years. In fact, we started writing seriously at the same time, and both got accepted to the University of Oregon MFA program at the same time, so of course, as friends we constantly gave each other shitty advice. But one of the most profound things he ever said to me was, Don’t think of yourself as a Chicano writer. Think of yourself as a Latin American writer.
And I didn’t know it at the time, but my aesthetic, my sense of reality, the way I put together a story was much more Latin American than it was North American. I just didn’t know it.
I wasn’t reading the Latin American greats at the time. I was reading Flannery O’Connor and Bernard Malamud. It wasn’t until after my first book that somebody told me I must be profoundly influenced by writers such as Borges and Cortázar. I was too embarrassed to tell them I had never read either one. So it wasn’t really until my mid thirties I started reading Latin American writers, and I immediately understood their sense of reality, one that has always been with me, that isn’t so linear. North American critics began to call this view of the world magical realism. I reject that term.
I remember one time one of my fiction professors called me an experimentalist, and I didn’t know what he was talking about. I just wanted to write stories.
Photograph of Daniel Chacón by Alejandro Meter.