I have wanted to feature award-winning and groundbreaking writer, Lucha Corpi, on my blog for a long time. Well-known within the Chicano-Latino literary community, I'd love to see her find an enthusiastic audience in the larger literary world, as she deserves. She is the perfect writer to combine both of my longtime series, Books of Interest by Writers of Color and Literary Mystery Novelists. Although we've never met in person, Lucha and I also share certain aspects of our backgrounds, as you will see in this interview.
Lucha Corpi Bio
Born in Jáltipan, Veracruz, México, Lucha Corpi was nineteen when she came to Berkeley as a student wife in 1964. Corpi is the author of two collections of poetry: Palabras de mediodía/Noon Words and Variaciones sobre una tempestad/Variations on a Storm (Spanish with English translations by Catherine Rodríguez Nieto), two bilingual children’s books: Where Fireflies Dance/Ahí, donde bailan las luciérnagas and The Triple Banana Split Boy/El niño goloso. She is also the author of six novels, four of which feature Chicana detective Gloria Damasco: Eulogy for a Brown Angel, Cactus Blood, Black Widow’s Wardrobe, and Death at Solstice. Corpi has been the recipient of numerous awards and citations, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry, an Oakland Cultural Arts fellowship in fiction, the PEN-Oakland Josephine Miles Award and the Multicultural Publishers Exchange Literary Award for fiction, and two International Latino Book Awards for her mystery fiction. Until 2005, she was a tenured teacher in the Oakland Public Schools Neighborhood Centers.
For those new to your series, can you describe the Gloria Damasco mysteries?
Each of the four crime novels in my Gloria Damasco series has as backdrop the history, politics, and culture of Chicanos-as/Mexicans in the U.S. but particularly in California, up to and including the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s and 70’s. During her first investigation, Gloria discovers that she has a “dark gift.” She’s a clairvoyant. But she has always insisted on being guided by her reason not her intuition, so she does the leg work any detective would to solve the crime—if only to prove to herself that indeed her “dark gift” is real. In the first two novels, she also teams up with private detective Justin Escobar, under whom she apprentices to obtain her own P.I. license.
Gloria Damasco is considered by some critics and scholars as the first Chicana private detective in American literature. I suppose that means that Gloria is the first fictional woman detective to be deeply rooted in Chicana-o/Mexican culture in the U.S. But to me, Gloria is my sister, dark gift and self-doubt included. And I am glad to be her hand: her “ghost writer.” We first met on a scary night during one of my sojourns in the Sierra Nevada in 1989, where I’d gone to finish a poetry manuscript already due at the publisher. (Like you, Linda, I am one of those poets who’ve turned from “rhyme to crime.”) It was there and then I wrote the opening line of Eulogy for a Brown Angel, “Luisa and I found the child, lying on his side in a fetal position.”
Eulogy for a Brown Angel (1992) has as historical background the events during and after the National Chicano Moratorium peaceful march and subsequent riot in East Los Angeles in 1970. Finding a little boy dead on a sidewalk as the riot rages on sends Gloria on a long personal quest to find his murderer. Her investigation leads to the story of the Peralta family in Oakland, Gloria’s hometown. It takes her from East L. A. to Oakland, and finally to the Napa Valley, where the violent conclusion takes place. At its very core, Eulogy is also a study on racism, from its most socially blatant and destructive public displays to its more subtle manifestations within the Mexican American family as well.
Cactus Blood (1995) begins in Oakland with the “apparent” suicide of a Chicano poet, who had been involved in the United Farm Workers and Grape Boycott back in 1973, as had two of his friends who are missing. Gloria and Justin discover that the disappearance of the two and the possible murder of the third revolve around an incident involving the rape and pesticide poisoning of an undocumented Mexican girl 16 years before. The investigation leads them to the San Joaquin Valley, then to an old Native American ghost dancing site in Sonoma, the Valley of the Moon, in their search for a ritualistic killer.
In Black Widow’s Wardrobe, (1999) Gloria, her mother and daughter take part in San Francisco’s traditional Day of the Dead procession. On the way back to their car, they witness first an attempt on the recently-released convicted killer Licia Lecuona, aka Oakland’s notorious “Black Widow,” and then the seemingly coincidental bizarre abduction of a young woman by two costumed riders on horseback. Gloria looks into both disturbing incidents. A second attempt on Black Widow’s life is made, and she’s hired to protect Licia. Her investigation and her client’s willfulness lead them both down a dangerous path from the misty and familiar S.F. Bay Area to the remote Sierra de Tepoztlán near Cuernavaca, and back in time to the mysterious death of the legendary, historical figure: La Malinche.
How would you describe Death at Solstice to someone who has not read any of your previous novels?
In 2009, I celebrated my forty years as a poet and writer, and my twenty-year relationship with Gloria Damasco and which culminated with the publication of Death at Solstice. In her latest adventure, Gloria is hired by the owners of the Oro Blanco winery in California’s Shenandoah Valley, in the heart of the legendary Gold Country. She investigates the theft of a pair of emerald earrings rumored to have belonged to Carlota, Empress of Mexico. Anonymous notes, mysterious accidents, and the sightings of a ghost horse thought to have belonged to the notorious Gold Rush Era bandit Joaquin Murrieta soon have Gloria struggling to fit together the pieces of this puzzle. The disappearance of a young woman, a saint, supposedly able to perform miracles, and the gruesome murder of her nurse send Gloria on a fateful journey that ends in gun play and tragedy at a Witches’ Sabbath on the night of the summer solstice.
You had achieved critical acclaim as a poet. What inspired you to write your first novel? What was your inspiration for this series?
To answer this question, I have to go back to my hometown, a small tropical village in the southern half of the state of Veracruz, where I spent my formative years. I consider myself quite fortunate to have been born into a community that fostered both the creation and performance of poetry and music, and the art of storytelling. I was also lucky to be a daughter to parents who believed in educating the girls in a family. My sister and I received a comparable education to that of our brothers, and the best education my parents could afford. Also, by accident, I started primary school when I was four years old and by age seven I could read very well. To keep me challenged in reading, my teacher asked me to memorize poems and began to instruct me in the recitation—declamation—of poetry.
That same year, my father underwent a cornea transplant and had trouble reading the newspaper. He asked me to read to him from any page in the newspaper except La página roja—the crime page. I was seven years old, so my father went to great lengths to remove the red page and hide it from me. But he didn’t destroy it right away, so I usually found it and read it. La página described knifings, fights in the sugar cane fields, other brawls and bloody accidents, in all their gory details. I soon tired of reading those repetitive news reports. But my curiosity grew the first time I read about and followed the case of a woman who had unsuccessfully tried to poison her husband. I fell in love with the kind of story, in which it was evident that there was someone’s “intelligence” behind the crime, and someone else’s matching “wits” to bring the criminal to justice—aka the detective story. But it wasn’t until 1989 that I undertook the research for my first mystery novel, months before I met Gloria Damasco, the detective who would need access to all that knowledge at a moment’s notice to do her job.
What's your writing process? What is a typical writing day like for you? Do you keep to a set schedule? What are your writing habits?
I usually begin research for a crime novel about ten months before I actually sit down to write. I do not write a synopsis of the novel, but I do begin with a list of subjects and topics to research, books to read, activities to experience in person, and very frequent visits to other sites and locales where the action will take place. I only intuitively know that this information is important, but it isn’t until I do the actual writing, (keeping my butt on the seat long and often enough to get it done), that I discover how those elements fit into the plot. My personal style of writing is one of discovery, of being open to surprises, allowing myself to let the characters reveal themselves as they see fit, and let my detective guide me as the investigation develops. My role is to tell the best story I can, with no personal agenda of my own, and my best effort not to manipulate content or character. I make sure the characters, even the minor ones, are seen in their many dimensions, that the plot is solid and every detail or question raised is accounted for or answered to my satisfaction by the end of the story.
During most of the years I was writing long fiction, I was also a full-time teacher in the Oakland Public Schools’ Neighborhood Centers, a ten-hour-six-day-a-week job. I was also a single mom. I have been as passionate about teaching as about writing and motherhood, all creative endeavors. Creativity, however, does not spring eternal and its well is not bottomless. Teaching and parenthood took a lot of my time and creative energy. But writing helped me to find my spiritual and psychological equilibrium because it was the only endeavor that was mine and for my benefit only. I could not dispense with it anymore than with breathing or eating. So I made the time to write, which was two hours, from five to seven in the morning every day, including holidays. A summer off to write six hours a day was a luxury. Obviously, I am addicted to writing, and I simply refuse to find myself one of these days in my deathbed saying, “I could have written.” So in 2005, after 31 years, I decided to retire from teaching, devote to writing and family, finally enjoy a social life and put more effort into promoting my work.
Although I still write long fiction early in the morning, I’ve found that other kinds of writing require a certain…je ne sais quoi…“mood or ambience” perhaps? Before I began to write fiction, I was strictly a poet for ten years, and my writing time was from ten to midnight every night. Now, I am in the process of writing a collection of personal essays, The Orphan and the Bookburner. For inexplicable reasons, I have to write each piece in the early evening, between 5 and 8 p.m. And, I must listen to Jazz while writing it, perhaps because it is the best kind of music to sooth my spirit while I explore “the truth” about self and family, my life as an immigrant, and other painful experiences.
What projects, literary or otherwise, are occupying you at the moment?
After my mother died two years ago, I began to realize how important it is for all of us and our children to have a sense of continuity (history) and connectivity (family and community). In the U.S. individuality is sometimes taken to dire and/or tragic extremes. The essays in the collection are meant to offer my grandchildren access to the bridges spanning generations and cultures, and to the languages that give them voice, so they may freely redefine who and what they are. Writing personal essay has been much harder for me than writing short or long fiction. And it’s been the source of many a nightmare. Truth be told, I’d rather do a little murder in black and white and sleep like a baby. But I’ve promised myself to have a final draft by my birthday next spring. When this book walks out of my life to find its own destiny, I’ll go back to reading for my own pleasure, so essential for any writer and poet, young or established, to thrive and continue learning the craft. And every night, round midnight, walk back into the embrace of my life-long lover: poetry.
Later this week, I'll catch up this blog with photos and descriptions of recent travels and events and the dramatic tale of my computer woes--which has a happy ending because I have a generous and talented oldest son.