Monday, September 23, 2019

Ten Authors I Wish I’d Discovered Sooner

I became an avid reader at a young age. However, I grew up on an island that’s roughly 100 miles long by 35 miles wide, so there weren’t many choices in terms of bookstores. Between the lack of places to purchase literature and my anemic finances, my options were limited to whatever was on sale at the only Borders on the island. That means I read a lot of Jeffrey Deaver, James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell, Stephen King, Pablo Neruda, and Michael Connelly. I’m sure they became an indiscernible part of my DNA as a reader, so I don’t hide the fact that I read them. In any case, the internet wasn’t a choice for me until my last year of high school, so Amazon was also out of the question for that first half decade of devouring books. Thankfully, my father was also a reader and I received many books from him. What I couldn’t get that way or find at an affordable price, I either stole from the school’s library or wrote down on a list that never got any shorter. I’m not proud of having stolen books from the library, but the first book I stole, Horacio Quiroga’s Tales of Love, Madness and Death, for example, changed my life. After all that changed and I could order books online, I became an even more dedicated reader and my nights were spent in the company of authors who helped shape me not as a reader but as a writer. Their influence is something I feel even today. I’m not talking about copying styles, but about something more profound, something that goes far beyond my appreciation for James Ellroy’s telegrammatic style, Julia de Burgos’ way of anthropomorphizing nature, or Richard Laymon’s straightforward brutality. What I’m talking about is my writer DNA, the cumulative elements that in various ways lead to my voice or that at least gave me the push to keep writing and find it. Nowadays I write multicultural, multilingual, violent fiction steeped in syncretism and superstition, and I’m incredibly happy with that. However, I often wonder what my writing would be like if I’d had a chance to read some authors earlier in life. Here are, in no particular order, the ten I wonder about the most:

10. Henry Miller

Some consider the man a genius and others think of him as no more than a libidinous hack. For me, he masterfully walks the line between the two. His work is beautiful, deep pulp. His observations on art are art themselves and when he gets down and dirty, he doesn’t pull any punches. This duality is something I try to achieve; to dance on that dividing line between what most call literary fiction and the blood, sweat, tears, and other bodily fluids of the literary gutter. Every time I find myself editing a paragraph in which I, to a degree, find that balance, I wonder how Miller’s prose would have helped shaped the malleable mind of a 14-year-old who desperately wanted to share his own stories.

9. Gwendolyn Brooks

Strangely enough, I devoured poetry as regularly as I did crime and horror in my early years. Oliverio Girondo, Mario Benedetti, Julia de Burgos, and Federico García Lorca quickly became favorites. Many years later, already living in the U.S., I encountered the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, online and almost by accident. Short, sweet, playful, and surprising in its depth, especially in his shorter poems, her work forced me to rediscover and rethink rhythm, to explore once again the way words can force you to read them a certain way because the author has infused them with the power to set the tone and rhythm in the mind of the reader.

8. Jim Thompson

My crime education was packed with books by Elmore Leonard, John le Carré, whom I found a touch boring but read because his books were around, and the aforementioned James Ellroy, among others. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I moved to Texas that I finally acquired a few Jim Thompson books. His work blew me away. His novels were full of violence, unreliable narrators, surprisingly odd structures, and bizarre inner monologues, but those elements somehow added up to outstandingly beautiful crime novels. I’ve always walked on the weird side of things, and have no doubt Thompson would have helped me land on the right path much sooner if only I’d been lucky enough to have access to his novels earlier in life.

7. Cormac McCarthy

I’ve written extensively about the backlash my bilingual fiction has received, and every negative comment or angry 1-star review that complains about the Spanglish always reminds me of my first encounter with McCarthy’s work. Here was an author who wrote using his own set of rules, and he was respected and lauded for it. To this day, his work, along with that of authors and academics like Junot Díaz and Gloria Anzaldúa, gives me the strength to push forward and write things they way they demand to be written and not like monolingual readers would like to read them.

6. Mayra Montero

For a long time, I thought of Mayra Montero as a journalist who wrote great articles and opinion columns for my local newspaper. I knew she was a writer, but had no interest in checking out her work. Right before leaving Puerto Rico for Texas, I decided to read In the Palm of Darkness (I read the Spanish edition, Tú, la Oscuridad), and quickly realized that she touched on many of the things that obsessed me: identity, language, mystery, and syncretism. It immediately made me wish I’d started reading her sooner. 

5. Langston Hughes

When craving the stunning beauty that can be found at the heart of poetry, I systematically evade purposefully convoluted poems and turn to the simple, straightforward poems of Langston Hughes. For a young author who reads and writes across genre boundaries, there are times when gratuitously embellished writing seems tempting. Similarly, for young readers and writers, dense writing may seem impressive. Later in life, once many weak, plotless, beautifully written books have been read and deconstructed, it’s almost impossible to go back to that while ignoring how satisfying simplicity can be. I wish I’d learned that sooner, and I’m sure that would have happened if I’d started reading Hughes back when I was reading poets daily before my 18th birthday.

4. Chuck Palahniuk

For years, Palahniuk existed in the periphery of my reading habits. That movie everyone has seen had placed him on my radar, but other books, lack of disposable income, and limited access kept his books away from me. Finally, I dug into his work, years after the aforementioned movie had come out. It was an eye-opening experience. I always leaned toward weirdness, and this man was the patron saint of it. If I decided to study journalism because Hunter S. Thompson was a journalist, I lost all fear of writing bizarre narratives because Palahniuk had been successful doing it. I regret not delving into his novels the second the movie ended.

3.  Edwidge Danticat

There is a collective Caribbean heart at the core of every Danticat novel, and reading her work is master class in how to tap into it. For those inhabiting Otherness, literature can be a weapon, a tool, and a home. I found all those things in Danticat’s work and, as a bonus, developed a little voice in my head that whispers “It’s okay, keep going” whenever I stop to think if my writing is becoming so tied to a specific identity or place that might be alienating for readers. 

2. Patrick Chamoiseau

Chamoiseau, like Danticat, came to me late and thanks to my time at the University of Texas at Austin. Also, like McCarthy, he showed me that mixing languages was not only acceptable but sometimes required in the name of authenticity.  

1. Harry Crews

Crews changed the way I looked at fiction, my understanding of weird, and shaped a few of my views on writing, and he did all of it in the last ten years. Before I moved to the United States, I hadn’t even heard of Harry Crews. His name, like that of Chester Himes and Charles Willeford, two authors who could easily be on this list if it were longer, was one I came across when I started looking for better, stranger fiction that none of my cohorts were talking about. I found it quickly, and I became a huge fan of Crews even faster. It’s impossible not to wonder what twenty years of his words would have done to my brain.

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, professor, book reviewer, and journalist living in Austin, TX. He is the author of ZERO SAINTS and COYOTE SONGS. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias. 

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