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Monday, June 29, 2009

Why I Write Simply

My prose tends to be simple and direct. I don’t use words like ‘ideation,’ ‘deconstructing dynamics of power and authority,’ and ‘synthesizing structure.’ Perhaps when I was at Yale as a graduate student in philosophy, I may have written like that, but I made it a point of eschewing such language forever. I still however use words like ‘eschewing.’ I can’t help it. Why?

When I started writing fiction, which was late in life for a writer, as a grad student, I wanted to get away from the meaningless abstractions of philosophical seminars. This linguistic pretension removed me from my community, from my father and mother, from my abuelita. The first story I wrote, “The Abuelita,” was specifically for readers to remember who my abuelita had been, and to criticize my study of Heidegger and Nietzsche at Yale, for its isolation, for its anti-humanity.

For in classrooms within the Gothic fortress of Yale’s Old Campus (and I suspect at many of the seminars in academies across the country), a human being is a mind, first and foremost. But in Ysleta, my home less than a mile from the Mexican-American border, the human being was, and is, feet. Feet in pain. Callused hands. Adobe houses built by those hands and feet. La gente humilde of Ysleta.

At Yale I was reacting against the elitism of the academy, an elitism that is hard to overcome when you can immerse yourself in books and forget the workers who make that world possible. I was also reacting against myself. I loved reading German and Greek philosophers. They did provide unique, unconventional insights into the human being. I had become an Ivy Leaguer in many ways. I was torn, between the people I loved at home and the ideas I devoured away from home.

I also noticed that many of the practitioners of academic fancy language, as I’ll call it, were individuals who treated people poorly. Their education and facility with argument and power encouraged lying, deception, and manipulation. The nature of truth, the pursuit of abstraction in universities, was a passive aggressive violence. Eliminate your opponent, not by killing him, but by warping arguments to win at any cost, by murdering his mind. The nature of truth was hate.

When you view human beings as abstractions, then it is easy to abuse those abstractions without guilt. Judging a person as a category is the root of racism; it is the root of cruelty. Moreover, writing about the world of people is an exercise in abstraction, and explains my deep ambivalence about being a writer. Too often my writer friends forget themselves in their world of words.

So I took a different tack with my fiction. I wanted to write so my father and mother could understand me. I was writing for them, and to give voice to those from Ysleta. I wrote simply. I also wrote prose obsessed with details, personal stories, to give meat to those understanding my community outside the mainstream. I used myself as an example to provide a meaningful character struggling with complex issues, within the murk between right and wrong.

Yet I also wanted to explore the ideas from Yale, and beyond, which I thought were worthwhile, so I wrote philosophical stories questioning the basis of morality. I wrote stories that asked whether murder was always wrong, or belief in god always holy, or success the root of moral failure. Most importantly, I believed the people of Ysleta had a lot to teach the people at Yale about being good human beings. I still believe that.

But this effort to be clear and direct about difficult questions has sometimes condemned me in academic circles or among those who prize the beauty of language above all. I am also condemned by those who never think beyond the obvious and popular, because I write philosophical stories. You will never find my fiction at Costco.

I am in between. Trying to write to be understood by those who matter to me, yet also trying to push my mind with ideas beyond the everyday. It’s a borderland I inhabit. Not quite here nor there. On good days I feel I am a bridge. On bad days I just feel alone.

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