Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Gary Soto

Last night I got to meet Gary Soto. He is a Latino writer who has several books of poetry, short stories, picture books, middle grade and YA novels. In other words, this man can write it all and I was star struck.

Books by Gary Soto
People often ask me to recommend books for boys and Gary Soto books are almost always one of the first I will list. Gary’s books often cover topics that appeal to boys, that go beyond sports or other imposed gender norms. He captures their insecurities and desire to belong. He explores themes of changing family dynamics, broken hearts, losing loved ones, living in poverty, and the frustration of birth order. He does this in a way that feels like he is talking to you, like the characters are your friends and you inhabit the same world. Most of his books take place in Fresno, California, but a kid in the middle of New York City or Nebraska can relate just as easily. 

His poetry ranges from light and hilarious, to deep and thought-provoking. When reading or hearing his poems you can tell that each word is carefully selected. Each one deliberately serves to convey emotions in the reader. Listening to him read his poetry was like being there with him as he lived those moments and it felt like a privilege to witness. 

I am often in awe of writers. I see them almost as these magical creatures that allow me into their world through the pages of their words. That is a powerful and intimate thing so believe it or not, when I meet a writer whose work I have connected with, I become shy and quiet, not knowing what to say. Tonight I asked myself what I would want my readers to tell me if I were presenting my work. Would I want to hear how they related to my characters? Do I want to know what they felt when they read my work? Do I want them to be curious about my process? None of those questions seemed to capture the connection I felt to Gary and his work. What I felt above all, was gratitude.

Gary reads his poetry
I was thankful that he was brave enough to write at a time when Latinos weren’t getting published. In the nineteen sixties, when Gary was first becoming published, Chicanos were in the thick of their movement. Mexican Americans were seen as a threat at best, as thugs to be avoided and silenced at worst. He did not compromise his work because to make it more commercial. He didn’t use his writing for social commentary about the struggles he saw around him. He wrote what was true to him – the world through his brown eyes, from the place he knew best. He did not choose an Anglicized pen name, or stick to one genre and allow himself to be pigeon-holed. That may not sound like a big deal, but when I think about how archaic publishing can be, and the huge gaps in diversity that the industry still contends with, I appreciate his courage. He is a pioneer. His career has been long, filled with awards and varied writing, from books, to plays and scripts. It is one to be admired and aspire to. And despite all that, he is humble.

He easily laughed at himself as he shared his poetry. He opened up with the audience about his aversion to school, and how he chose college classes based on how easy he thought the class would be. He thanked the students in the room for coming for their extra credit. He told how a reader named her dog after him – a Chihuahua of course, and how a young reader was thoroughly unimpressed to meet him, even though she was reading one of his books that very moment. He never alluded to the many awards he’s gotten, the films made from his books, the plays that put his work on stage. He treated those who came to listen to him as though he was having a conversation with an old friend. It was a memorable night to say the least. I thought I admired him before, but upon meeting him my respect for him as a writer, as a poet and as a person is higher than I could have imagined. 

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