Academic journal article MELUS

An Interview with Montserrat Fontes

Academic journal article MELUS

An Interview with Montserrat Fontes

Article excerpt

Montserrat Fontes is a novelist, screenwriter, journalist, and teacher who was born in Laredo, Texas. When she was nine years old, she moved to Los Angeles to live with her maternal grandmother. She received her B.A. and an M.A. in Comparative Literature with emphasis on Russian literature from California State, Los Angeles. Fontes is the author of two novels. The first, entitled First Confession (1991), focuses on two children's lives as they grow up on the U.S./Mexican border; the second, Dreams of the Centaur (1996), won the American Book Award for Best Novel in 1996 and eloquently captures the Yaqui Indians' resistance against the Diaz regime. Fontes currently teaches English and Journalism at a Los Angeles High School, where she encounters students who speak almost one hundred different languages. I interviewed Fontes in January 1999 during her third trip back to Texas since she moved from Laredo in 1950.

EMJ: I'd like to begin with some questions about your background, your education. Can you talk about when and how you started writing?

MF: Sure, I started as a child. I always wanted to write songs because I was growing up at a time when Mexican singers were really taking off, Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante, and we had maids that also sang. That was a very clear form of expressing emotions beautifully, so I thought, and they are. My mother was always a poet as well as a poetry reader, and she would teach me how songs are poems. So when I wasn't achieving in school, she said, write a poem before you can come in the house ...

EMJ: That's great advice.

MF: ... and some people said, "that's so sadistic." It really wasn't. I didn't feel unsure of myself, and I always knew that she was going accept anything as long as it was written because I did not like to literally write on a piece of paper. I didn't know that she was keeping my stuff; it's in English and Spanish, and so she mailed my stuff in to a poetry contest when I was in fifth grade, and that was when I was first published. I remember holding a book, and it had my poem called "My Seashell," and it had something like an a-a-b-b-c-c rhyme scheme, but most importantly it was written in English. Back then I would just write mainly to myself. But when I had a near-death experience on the Rocky Mountains on the western slopes, and I was literally hanging from a 12,000 foot cliff, I said to myself, I haven't done it. I haven't written the books that I wanted to write. I had done some pseudonymous writing, and I had sold some ideas for screenplays, but I'm talking about the stuff that you pull out of your kischkas, out of your inner self; I hadn't gotten around to doing it. So I came back that summer, determined to do that. So basically I started writing that summer, in 1980, and my education had nothing to do with it. It was a matter of urgency. I had to tell the story of Victor in First Confession. I had to tell the story of the great love a mother can have for her son in Dreams of the Centaur, and now I have to tell the story of how a woman refuses to be defeated, which is the story of my grandmother, and as I said this morning, she's the parent that I choose to claim. You know, there are my biological parents, and I love them dearly, but the person who's my parent is my maternal grandmother.

EMJ: You mentioned earlier that you're working on a trilogy, so the story of the woman who refuses to be defeated is the third part of the trilogy?

MF: Cormac McCarthy gave some really good advice; he said that when you say the word "trilogy," you start with the last book first. So that way, if you don't finish it, you got it finished. So I knew I wanted to start with First Confession. That was the last part, and it ends in 1968 on purpose because that was the summer of the Mexican Olympics when the Mexican army turned itself lose on the Mexican students who were rebelling against the facade of Mexico, and all the bodies were burnt and only sixty reported dead, but hundreds of people disappeared. …

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