Profiles: Contemporary Writers
Gary Soto, Nicholasa Mohr, and Gish Jen are three contemporary American writers whose works are or will be represented in the Heath Anthology of American Literature. All full-time writers today, not one of them started out as a writer. But all three found their voices as Americans with unique cultural heritages and now share their art with readers.
A prolific writer, Gary Soto has published eight books since 1990. These include four collections of poetry-A Fire in My Hands (Scholastic, 1990), Who Will Know Us? (Chronicle Books, 1990), Home Course in Religion (Chronicle Books, 1991), and Neighborhood Odes (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992)-and four volumes of prose- Baseball in April (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), which is a collection of short stories for young adults, A Summer Life (University Press of New England, 1990; Dell, 1991), Taking Sides (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991), and Pacific Crossing (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992).
Soto did not start out intending to be a writer. "I had entered college saying I was going to study geography and urban planning, mainly because you have to declare some sort of major in college." he recalls, "and I had always liked houses, like those in the part of Fresno, California, I grew up in. My initial motivation to write came from Philip Levine, my creative writing teacher at Fresno State. He made me feel like a writer, encouraging me to study literature and to continue writing. Studying with him, I discovered I was passionate about writing."
Soto began to read world literature during his junior year in college, and continues to read widely today. "I didn't come from a family where reading was a part of daily life, so I feel I got a late start, but I made up for it," he says. He acknowledges Knut Hamson, Pablo Neruda, Italo Calvino, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. and Henry James as his strongest literary influences.
"When I entered college, I was a bad writer," he continues. "I even had poor grammar! But I had these stories inside me that had to come out, so l disciplined myself and set about to get language right. It was no different from how a martial artist or ballet dancer must practice.
"If I had applied this discipline to being a doctor or an accountant, it would have been incredible! But unlike most Mexican-Americans in college in the early '70s, I wasn't practical-minded. I was never career-oriented; I just wanted to write. Being a writer isn't a safe livelihood, however. Look at how Dorothy Parker, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway ended up-at the end of a bottle or a gun barrel."
Today, Soto is shifting the focus of his writing to literature for young adults. "Four years ago I began to receive letters from junior college and high school students in response to Living Up the Street [Strawberry Hill Press, 1985]. Their response made me want to write more for younger readers and Baseball in April was the result. Seeing that kids enjoyed my writing really turned me on, so after that I wrote a novel and a book of poems for them.
"Now I've begun doing films for children-I write, produce, and direct them," he continues. His first film was The Bike (1990), an eleven-minute bilingual film about a Mexican American boy and his adventures with his first bicycle. His second film, The Pool Party (1992), which has been funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is a story of class difference about a poor Mexican American boy and a better-off Mexican American girl who invites him to a pool party.
"Film-making is a whole new way for me to express my artistic vision," observes Soto. "It's collaborative and mysterious, and financially scary, sometimes. Film images are more immediate than the printed word, but reading is such a powerful experience that I don't believe it can be replaced by film. That is why I continue to write, as well as work in film.
"My secretive goal," he concludes, "is to nurture the next generation of Mexican-American writers through my writing. I have taught at colleges, but college writing courses don't always do it. It takes years for one good writer to come out of such programs. So I have turned to full-time writing, and writing for younger readers, to encourage more Mexican-American students to become writers.
Nicholasa Mohr was well-established as a visual artist and print-maker before she turned to writing. At the suggestion of her art agent, she wrote about the graffiti that appeared in her prints. producing 50 pages of childhood reminiscences. "I discovered it was very hard to write," she recalls, and when her agent didn't like what she had written, she was disappointed. Shortly after this, she met with an editor at Harper & Row about her prints and she offered the editor her manuscript, as well. To her surprise, a week later the editor offered her a contract to write her first book.
"I was always a tremendous reader," says Mohr, "but writing that first book [Nilda, published in 1974] was a hard, painful experience for me. So I took some of my favorite writers-Shirley Jackson, Chekhov, de Maupassant- with me while I worked on the book at the MacDowell Colony [a community for musicians, artists, and writers in Peterborough, New Hampshire]. I spent a summer discovering the craft and the magic of storytelling. When I finished Nilda, I knew that I had become an avid storyteller. Painting with words instead of images had become my new means of artistic expression. Writing would be my major vocation."
Since the publication of her second book, El Bronx Remembered, in 1976, Mohr has been a full-time writer. She speaks positively of her transition from visual to written art. "The visual art world is very exclusive and expensive. You have to have a lot of money to buy a work of art, because the artist has to make a living from selling single works. But when an artist writes a book, it becomes accessible to a wider audience. You can go to the library and read the book or buy it as an inexpensive paperback. I feel better about working in that world."
American women writers have been Mohr's greatest influence. "Shirley Jackson, Carson McCullers, and Katherine Anne Porter were the ones I learned in school and came to love. (It wasn't until later in life that I read the great Latin American writers like Julia de Burgos and Gabriel Garcia Marquez)," she explains.
"From the American women writers I appreciated that the more specific you are in your writing, the more universal your appeal. So I write about what I know best-the woman's experience and the Puerto Rican community in New York City," says the New York City native, who now lives in a Brooklyn brownstone. "I have to write from my own experiences, but I always hope readers can share these experiences and become more aware of other peoples' struggles, and thereby make connections with each other through my writing. I want my readers to see that we're all connected as members of the human family and have this common ground, no matter what our ancestry."
Mohr writes fiction, drama, screenplays, and teleplays. Forthcoming works include a children's fairy tale about the Puerto Rican rain forests, to be published by Viking, and a book of stories for adults about women and love, to be published by Arte Publico Press.
After 18 years as a writer, Mohr says, "There are still lots of stories for me to write. If I lived two lifetimes, I still couldn't write them all. I hope there will be more Hispanic writers finding their voices, too, learning to value their own lives as important and valuable to write about. I believe there's room in these United States for more books by Americans of color."
"I became a writer by a process of elimination," explains Gish Jen, whose work will be represented in the Second Edition of the Heath Anthology of American Literature by her short story "In the American Society." She continues, "I considered medicine, business, law, and even architecture as careers but dropped them all.
"The first writing course I took as an undergraduate at Harvard was a course in prosody taught by Robert FitzGerald. The course's weekly assignment was to write something in verse. FitzGerald really liked my first poem and handed it out to the rest of the class to read. That is how my writing career was born."
Jen was born in 1955 and grew up in New York City. Her parents had immigrated from Shanghai to the United States in the 1940s. "Our family was always a one-of-a-kind family living in a white neighborhood," she recalls. "It didn't occur to me until I was in college that writers like me were left out of the books I read."
After graduating from Harvard, Jen still didn't turn to writing full time. Instead, she worked briefly for a publisher, attended the business school at Stanford University for a year, taught English in China for a year, and finally completed a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Iowa in 1983. Her first published story, 'Bellying Up,' which had won the Raymond Carver Write-Alike Contest at Iowa, appeared in The Iowa Review. Other stories soon appeared in The Yale Review, The Southern Review, and others.
But again, her career took a different turn. "I married after graduate school," she says, "and basically stopped writing. At one point I was so desperate for a job that I even took a typing test at the Harvard employment office. I scored very well-90 words a minute with no errors-but it took several months for them to find an opening for me. In the meantime, I received a fellowship I had applied for at the Bunting Institute. So, of course, I took that instead of a secretarial job in a dean's office at Harvard!
"I wrote my tail off at the Bunting Institute, because by then I was so down and out about my writing. I felt this time I had to make it work."
After her start at the Bunting Institute in 1986, she began to see her work published more widely in magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic, as well as being included in several anthologies. Additional fellowships and awards enable her to continue writing full-time. Her first novel, Typical American, about a Chinese family who immigrates to and becomes established in the United States, was published in 1991 by Houghton Mifflin. It was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle Award.
Reflecting on her writing, Jen observes, "I think I have been heavily influenced by Jewish writers, especially Bernard Malamud. Their humor, their heart-on-the-sleeve quality, and their strong moral sense all impress me.
I've also been influenced by Victorian novelists, especially Jane Austen. I don't think there is a woman writer now writing who hasn't been influenced by Austen. For a while, when I was younger, I wanted to be Austen's Emma.
"Someone once pointed out to me that Typical American has a lot in common with Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby," she observes. "I realized then that that's true-all that sense of outsiderness', all that earnest fascination with America is very much part of my work, too.
"I would hate to see any of these writers whom I love thrown out of the canon today. We read in a much more sophisticated way these days, and I think that's appropriate. It's hard to accept books with 'happy-ever-after' endings like Jane Austen's without a grain of salt, now. But I think it's still valuable to read her and other great writers in context. The important thing is not to worship the older works and to remain open to the new."
Jen, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and 13-month-old son, is working now on a second novel but doesn't wish to discuss its content. Not wishing to be pressured to complete this work, she has not yet offered it to a publisher.
"Writing is the one activity in which I'm never bored," she concludes. It's always hard, always a challenge. There's a quest in writing fiction, a religious aspect of searching for truth, that makes it meaningful for me."