Gary Soto speaks about experiences as writer

    Author Gary Soto spoke at UCSD as the final event in the month-long Cesar Chavez celebration on May 3. Soto’s talk was sponsored by the Thurgood Marshall Institute, the Department of Literature, the Cesar Chavez Committee, the Center for Humanities and the California Culture Program.

    As a poet, novelist, short story writer and playwright, Soto writes for all ages. Earlier in the day, he spoke to a group of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at Preuss School.

    Born and raised in Fresno, Calif., Soto has set most of his work in the place he describes as “not exactly Hell … but you can see it from there.” He described all of his literature as having a very local feeling, since he knows the places where these stories took place.

    “I had [a story] set in Japan; I had no business writing about that,” Soto said.

    When asked about his contribution to Chicano literature, Soto mentioned three of his novels, “Nickel and Dime,” “Poetry Lover” and “Amnesia in a Republican County,” which all featured a fictional Chicano poet, Silver Mendez, as the protagonist.

    “[Silver Mendez] is the only poet who never grew up, and he still believes in … the struggle for change,” Soto said.

    Soto also discussed the work of other contemporary Chicano writers.

    “I do admire the first wave of writers, though I don’t agree with their politics or simply how they wrote,” he said. “They wrote very poorly, but that’s OK. They were responsible for kick-starting the literature.”

    When asked what drew him into writing for young adults as opposed to just an adult audience, Soto mentioned Chicano writers such Richard Rodriguez. He said his own memoir, called “Living Up the Street,” was a reaction to Rodriguez’s book “Hunger of Memory.”

    “I decided to write my own version of what it was like to grow up Mexican-American,” he said. “I began to get fan letters, and I had never gotten fan letters before.”

    Soto cited “Jesse” as his favorite novel. He set it during the late 1960s and 1970s farm workers’ movement and described it as a “prominent struggle.”

    A member of the California Rural Legal Assistance and the United Farm Workers of America, Soto emphasized the need for a legal arm for the farm workers.

    “To this day, we still need lawyers, people who are overseeing that landlords and growers obey the law,” Soto said.

    In addition to discussions of his role in Chicano culture, Soto read excerpts from some of his 20 books and fielded questions from the audience about his writing.

    After graduating from high school with a 1.6 grade point average, Soto went to a junior college where he became immersed in the works of different American poets, motivating him to make a career in the field.

    Soto doesn’t write in Spanish, saying he would “destroy the Spanish language” if he did. Yet Soto said he still brings his Latino roots and his childhood experiences in Fresno into his writing, in his poetry and novels like “The Afterlife.”

    Asked about advice to overcome writer’s block, Soto said to just keep writing.

    “The act of writing keeps you on the edge … you just have to keep writing,” he said. “I’m scared of not writing.”

    Communication professor Michael Schudson, who attended the event, was among those who helped bring Soto to campus.

    “It was great fun for me to bring a writer I have enjoyed and admired to UCSD and introduce some of my colleagues and students to, and find that there were so many other fans around,” Schudson said.

    About 90 people attended Soto’s talk, which Schudson said was about the size audience he had hoped for.

    “I was very excited to hear Mr. Soto speak,” graduate student Ashley Lucas said. “I’ve been a fan of his work for a long time, and it was great that they could bring him here to campus.”

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