Our Collective History: An Interview with Michael Nava

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MICHAEL NAVA IS the winner of six Lambda Literary awards for his Henry Rios mystery novels, the first of which, The Little Death, was published in 1986. Set in the 1980s, the series follows Henry, an openly gay, Mexican-American criminal defense attorney, as he excavates crimes and justice while grappling with his own conflicting identities. The latest in the Rios series, Carved in Bone, continues to tackle themes of identity and displacement, along with — like all good mysteries — a suspicious death and a cast of suspects. We chatted by phone, and talking to Michael Nava was like reading one of his novels: he was emotionally resonant, insightful, and provocative.

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DÉSIRÉE ZAMORANO: The first thing that struck me in Carved in Bone was that the opening was so gripping, and so sad with its pervasive homophobia. I found that overwhelming. I was wondering, how do you emotionally deal with that as you are writing about it?

MICHAEL NAVA: It’s a very common story. I’m about to turn 65. I’ve been out since I was 17. I’ve had hundreds of conversations as a gay man and realize that Bill’s story is just not that uncommon. I think it’s changed a little since 1971, where the opening is set. It has improved for the LGBTQ community in those intervening 40-plus years, so I have some emotional distance from the rawness of the story. That’s what protects me from not being able to write about it.

I found it very compelling, and I assume that’s how you want it for the reader.

Yes, of course. I started writing this book the day after the 2016 election. That Wednesday I sat down and started writing. I wasn’t writing it as a direct response, but I just felt compelled. One of the reasons I did that was because I wanted to write people and remind them that there was another very, very dark time in our recent history. And for the gay male community there was a time in our history when it felt like we were going to be literally, physically exterminated. By this disease and by the indifference of the government. And we certainly believed that with every small advance we made in civil rights in the ’70s were going to be rolled back.

We survived that time, not without a lot of losses, but we did survive it. In fact, it made the movement stronger. I think that’s my message really.

I wanted people to understand the despair and the hopelessness that gay men were feeling at that time, because I think that mirrors a lot of the despair and helplessness of what people are feeling now.

But I also wanted to realize that this book is set 30 years in the past. Things can change, things can improve, not without a lot of suffering and loss.

That helps me understand why you stayed in this time. You’re reminding the readers that life has been shit, but you can get through it. And of course there’s a cost.

There’s a huge cost. An emotional cost, people are actually dying. Back in this period that I’m writing about, there were initiatives on the California ballot which would have quarantined people with AIDS — put them into camps. William F. Buckley proposed that people who were HIV positive would have tattoos. As if they were people in Nazi concentration camps. The level of violence against people with AIDS, especially gay men with AIDS, is comparable to the level of violence we are seeing at the border. The level of verbal violence and unparalleled unrestrained bigotry, there is a direct analogy between what was happening with gay men in the early ’80s with AIDS and what’s happening today with our Latino community.

I think what’s different today is that back in 1984 when gay men were dying no one cared, really. Certainly not the Reagan administration. People care now, passionately about what’s going on at the border. There’s a resistance to it. The demographics of the country have changed. We may not be able to stop it, but people are not indifferent to the suffering, the way that they were back then, and that’s a positive.

It is positive, compared to the past. When I was younger, AIDS was a joke, a sick punch line to many, many jokes out there.

Anally Injected Death Serum.

People did not care. I remember that. There’s a lot to unpack in this book.

I write very complicated books. I have a friend who also lived through that period. He said, “This is a beautiful book, but I just can’t bear to read it.” But it’s something that needs to be said.

Which makes me think, who is your ideal audience, who do you want to be reading this book?

I have two audiences in mind. The first, queer people of my generation. I want them to read this book because it’s part of our collective history. Only now are we far enough from the epidemic that we are able to look at it with some emotional distance. It’s important that those of us who were there record this, before it turns into history. The other audience is those who are feeling powerless in the current regime, who are feeling desperate. I want them to read this and have the experience of this earlier time of comparable despair and hopelessness.

On top of all that, I hope I wrote an interesting mystery!

Of course! What I also found fascinating in the novel were the different Mexican gay identities that you portrayed.

Yeah, Nick’s family and Henry’s experiences. Henry’s experiences are similar to my own experience — growing up in the ’60s and ’70s and knowing that I was gay at a young age and just being terrified about to disclose it in the Mexican-American culture I grew up in, because I knew I would literally not be safe.

That’s one aspect of it, but I also have heard stories of gay/lesbian Mexican-American families who accepted them because family trumps everything else. They don’t reject their children. It was important to me to put that in too, to give a broader perspective of the responses families have when their children come out as gay or lesbian.

Which is great, because no single story is the story. Our experiences are not monolithic — but just as varied as the mainstream population’s.

I wanted to make clear that Nick’s father, as a Mexican immigrant laborer, who loves his children so much, who loves his son so much, that he’s preparing to accept the fact that his son likes to play with dolls. Mexican fathers are often portrayed as distant and abusive. That was true in my case, but it’s not true in every case.

I also wanted to portray really strong Mexican women, which is why his sister is the lawyer in the family. It’s the sister who is driven, motivated, and powerful. She’s the one that really runs the siblings, and sets the tone. I’ve met a lot of Latinas who’ve had that power and authority. I wanted to pay homage to it.

What is your experience as a lawyer?

I graduated from Stanford and I was a prosecutor in Los Angeles for four years, because I was committed to public service, then I spent most of my career as an attorney in the California court systems. The last 15 years of my career I worked for the California Supreme Court. The last five years at the court I worked exclusively on death penalty appeals. I basically practiced law at the highest level of the California court system for most of my 30 years of practice. During that I wrote seven novels and one work of nonfiction.

As Gustavo Arellano says, you’ve got the Mexican hustle down! As well published as you are, what was your road to creating Persigo Press and self-publishing Carved in Bone?

The series was being published by this conglomerate called Open Road Media. We got to the end of our five-year licensing deal. They would have published this as an ebook, but I decided at that point I wanted my books back. I wanted to control the books, control my legacy. I decided I would publish these myself. I’ve done the New York dance, I’ve had reviews in The New York Times and The New Yorker. But you basically give up control of your work. Economically, you always get screwed. This was me saying, I want to control my work.

A while back, you gave a talk about the lack of representation of Latinx people in the publishing world. Tell me about that.

I’m a lawyer, and I’m a researcher. I went in and did the research about our actual statistical numbers in the case of the publishing industry on interns, agents, editors, the people who basically run that world. What I found is that we’re essentially nonexistent in New York. There are very few or no Latino editors. I couldn’t find statistics on agents, for example. Many MFA programs don’t even keep those statistics, so we’re invisible to the industry. There’s a direct line between our invisibility in the industry and the difficulty that so many of us have getting published by the big houses.

There’s an assumption in New York, because they’re so ignorant about the Latino community, that there’s no audience for our books. That was typified for me by The City of Palaces. My historical novel, which is set about the time of the Mexican Revolution, was rejected by a dozen publishers. One of them said, “I just don’t see an audience for this.” I said, “There are 33 million Americans of Mexican descent in the U.S.” What he meant was he didn’t see a white audience for this book.

When New York thinks of Latinos, they think of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Cubans. Those are the people they see. They don’t think of Mexican Americans, and we’re the majority of the Latinx population. I’m not knocking our brothers and sisters in those other communities, I’m just saying, we’re the biggest group and we’re practically nonexistent. I call it the polite racism of white liberals. We’re all for diversity — except we hide behind the “there’s no market for it.”

Do you have thoughts on the current generation of LGBTQI?

I think that the progress has been uneven; certainly there are places in this country where you’re pretty safe being queer, to use the word young people have reclaimed for our community. The fact is that most states in this country still don’t have laws to protect us from discrimination. In many states, you can still be fired from your job for being gay or lesbian or bi or trans, and you will have no recourse. I think we should not overemphasize the progress that we’ve made, while we should certainly value it.

The binary of sexuality and gender is really in service to the patriarchy. Because if we allowed for gender fluidity, that undermines the claim of male supremacy. That’s why trans women are so violently attacked. They’re perceived as gender traitors, in a way. It’s all related to the patriarchy, and to misogyny, and keeping women in their place.

What I see among younger people that I find so encouraging is that being queer is not an issue for them. There’s a lot of fluidity in sexual orientation and gender identity. I think that’s fantastic. I really look forward to the day when who you love is just your own damn business, and no one else cares!

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Désirée Zamorano is a California-based short story writer, novelist, and playwright. She is the author of the novels Modern Cons, Human Cargo, and, most recently, The Amado Women.