Arts & Life, Features

The end of fiction genres?

CSULB alumni Christopher David Rosales has released his debut novel “Silence the Bird, Silence the Keeper,” which mixer called a “communal love child of Marquez, Bolaño, and Orwell, a child who inhabits an America that resembles Pinochet’s Chile, and yet feels uncannily (and frighteningly) familiar to present day Los Angeles.”

The Daily 49er spoke to Rosales about his novel, his time at CSULB and writing in general.

What was your major at CSULB?

I changed majors more than a few times: film, photography, Spanish translation, and at one point fire science. Then I realized that the one thing I always did during all those majors—the habit or hobby or true love I never quit—was writing. So I threw myself into English literature with an emphasis in creative writing. I graduated in 2007.

Tell me about your time at CSULB and how it helped you develop as a writer.

I really feel that the time at CSULB was the most formative in my writing career. I’ve gone on to receive an MFA and a PhD in writing. But the time at CSULB was when I realized I could make writing a career—it was in workshops led by Rafael Zepeda and Lisa Glatt. The program was particularly great for a B.A. program. We had critical discussions on the art of writing that I still take into account when I’m making decisions in work. There were opportunities to publish. Riprap literary journal there on campus was where I published my first creative nonfiction essay.

How long did it take you to write the “Silence the Bird, Silence the Keeper”?

It took me a year to write it, but about five years of rewriting before I turned it into the publisher.

Could you give me a brief synopsis of your debut novel “Silence the Bird, Silence the Keeper”?

The publisher calls it a blend of magical realism and dystopian fiction. It’s about an alternate America, specifically an alternate Los Angeles county based on city like Compton, Paramount and Long Beach; actually CSULB appears in a few scenes. A street assassin named Tre, a beloved brother and son, finds himself caught in a city where all its citizens, even its most dangerous, are potential targets in an on-going power struggle. Tre’s family is trapped on all sides by narco-trafficers, politicians, and guerillas and they feel that there is a need to escape.

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What big ideas were you playing with in writing the book?

So I grew up in the 90’s when gang warfare was a profound social concern in Los Angeles County. And a lot of the times it was dismissed as a byproduct of pop culture, such as people are listening to too much rap music or as the gluttony of the people who are being afflicted upon by horrible social-economic circumstances and are really just trying to survive. The more time I spent away, travelled and researched this topic, the more I saw it would be important to legitimize the gang war and the violence you see on the news as actual war. We have a lot of wars that are fought every day here in America that aren’t officially sanctioned—we don’t see them as legitimate war.

Consider that researchers in Atlanta interviewed more than 8,000 inner city residents and about two thirds had been violently attacked and half knew someone who had been murdered. At least one in three of those interviewed experienced symptoms consistent with PTSD. That speaks to me of the trauma that’s happening here at home. For some people in this country, day-to-day life does not feel like “first-world life.” In fact, for many watching television, the accounts given of life in America feel completely otherworldly.

There’s a great deal of cross-pollination between literary and genre traditions in your work. Is this an individual quirk or is it reflective of a bigger movement or even a generational shift?

I think it’s mostly a generational shift. You have literary forerunners like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” which is a ghost story. Margaret Atwood has “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which is speculative fiction. You can’t deny that it’s happening, and in a way it’s been happening all along, even Shakespeare wrote genre.

At the same time there’s been this other tradition of genre writers who have been writing with literary merit, like Gene Wolfe, Octavia Butler and Roger Zelazny. I think the wide exposure to so much that we have these days can only cause this cross-pollination. Absurdism is a genre. The New Yorker short stories are a genre. There may be some genres have been more historically valued by academics, giving them more legitimacy as capital L literature. But it’s about good writing. Every genre has its own constraints and the best writers know when to satisfy the genres expectations and then they also know when to light a stick of dynamite and blow them all out of the water.

I find your work exemplifies a wonderful quote by the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa: “Literature is art married to thought, and realization untainted by reality.” Do you see the fantastical and the great tradition of magical realism, which very much permeates your work, as a tool that subverts reality in order to better focus it?

That’s a great way to put it. So magical realism subverts our notions of reality—the assumptions we all make when we say something is real or not real. If we can initiate a reader into a mode of thinking where they are constantly rethinking how the world “really” works, then that’s the writers and readers task; to cohabitate a world as a thought experiment and then return to this one with tools and weapons to make or break it.

What advice would you give to budding writers?

First step: read and read and read across all boundaries, sometimes because you love what you’re reading but especially when the reading is a chore. Sometimes the writing is rough, in which case you learn to not write badly. Sometimes it’s a chore because the writing is damn good, in which case you learn how to push yourself. But I don’t think you’ll ever learn as much as when you apprentice yourself to experienced writers in person—forging a relationship.

*Update: A reference to the city of Carmel was corrected to Paramount, Rosales’ hometown.

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