“A Good Story Haunts You”: Exploring the Intersection of Art and Activism with Luis J. Rodriguez

Author photo of Luis Rodriguez in front of a rock wall.

In this interview conducted by Frank Burch, Luis J. Rodriguez discusses the intersection of art, activism, and education. Rodriguez argues that exploring the latter two avenues is best done with a thoughtful and rigorous approach to craft. Good writing can achieve more than plaudits and praise—it can open people to new languages, flatten binaries, and teach us how to be better people.

Luis J. Rodriguez served as the official Poet Laureate of Los Angeles from 2014-2016. He is a novelist, memoirist, short story, and children’s book writer as well as a community and urban peace activist, mentor, healer, and youth and arts advocate. He has fifteen books in all genres, including the best-selling memoir, Always RunningLa Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. His latest memoir is the sequel, It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing. His latest poetry book is Borrowed Bones. Luis is founding editor of Tia Chucha Press; with his wife, Trini, he has a podcast called The Hummingbird Cricket Hour.

Frank Burch: You’ve spoken in the past about feeling a sense of responsibility towards your community. What would you say is the writer’s responsibility overall to his or her community?

Luis J. Rodriguez: I think they’re things that people have to do, but writers in particular. Number one is to be about truth. Even if it’s fiction there’s truth in it. All mythologies have metaphors for living, for thinking, for whatever. So I’m always thinking about what I have to bring in for truth, especially when the truth is not known, or when the narrative has been shaped by others, and you have to kind of say, “Now, wait a minute. You don’t got my story. You don’t know our world.” You got to fill this in with story. That’s one of the first things.

The next thing is to bring in beauty. I mean, I think a good writer should bring good writing, should write powerful sentences, write beautiful poems or fiction, or whatever it may be—nonfiction, even journalism can be good writing, you know. So I think beauty is a part of that, bringing more wonderful things into the world, turns of phrases, whatever it might be.

The third thing is just really bring goodness. What I mean by that is, you know, the way it is now, people don’t even know what goodness is anymore—good people really do some terrible things. So I think they have to get back to—I guess the struggle rolls through every generation—to renew what’s decent and moral and good in the world. That’s the writer’s job too.

Burch: So for you, craft and fulfilling responsibility are very much in sync.

Rodriguez: Absolutely. One of the things I learned is that I didn’t master my craft if I didn’t master English. I started as a Spanish-speaking kid. I wanted to be able to speak to the world I wanted to speak to. And I could say, you know, I know English, but I’m not really good writing [it]—but no one’s going to read your work. People watch things, read things, see things that are really compelling. So I want to be compelling enough for somebody to say, “Hey, I want to read this guy. I want to hear what he has to say.” I don’t want to just say it, I want people to say, “You know, I may not like what he says, but I like the way he says it.”

Burch: I’m glad you brought up language. I wanted to ask—you’ve written a lot about feeling alienated as a young boy in a school system where students who know the language succeed, while those who don’t fail. What would you tell a young writer who feels the call to create and to write but is placed in a system where their language is not allowed to be?

Rodriguez: Right. ‘Cause I got punished for speaking Spanish. Here’s my thing: I think all languages are vital and important—there’s not one language better than the other. This happens to be a country where English is the common language, so that’s the language I want to be good at. But I never lost my Spanish. I mean, I don’t formally have education in Spanish. I just speak it because of everyone in my family and community. I write in Spanish as much as I can. I learned by doing it. And I don’t think you have to unlearn one language to learn another. I think, in many ways, learning one language is the doorway to learning other languages. And if you go around the world people do that. They speak two or three languages—you go to Europe, they have to because Europeans have so many languages. And so it’s a really narrow mindset to think you only need to be good at one language. But I do feel that, for me, English is going to be my dominant language, for a lot of good reasons—but I don’t want to lose my Spanish. I’ve even been picking up the Nahuatl language, which is the language of indigenous Mexico, and I’m learning a few things from that. I think learning new languages is really, really important.

Burch: So it sounds like your focus is more on reaching as many people as possible. Is that the advice you’d pass on?

Rodriguez: Really, it’s about audience. I think audience is an important relationship with any writer. My reader, who are they? I want to make sure I can reach as many as I can.

Burch: You’ve also spoken about the relationship between masculinity and poetry. In my experience, I’ve seen boys who I think carry themselves in a very masculine way but can be comfortable with things like poetry—

Rodriguez: Yeah, yeah.

Burch:—and we live in an era where notions of masculinity and notions of manhood are being challenged and are changing—what have you seen in your experience in that relationship between manhood and poetry, and art generally?

Rodriguez: I think all people are feminine and masculine. They may be males and females, which is one thing, but as far as what energy we drive from: feminine and masculine. And what I mean by that is feminine energy is generally the creative, imaginative—it’s how you envision things. But the masculine is how you shape it. The masculine allows you to realize whatever you’re imagining or envisioning. It’s important to have both, in proper balance. But I don’t mean balance so much, because, actually, I think the imaginative, as far as I’m concerned, leads. It really is that constant. Whereas that masculine, shaping one is variable and secondary, but important. You can’t do one without the other. But to me, it’s important to have an imaginative life.

And young men, unfortunately, aren’t told to do that. They’re told to not be sensitive, which I think is one of the keys that opens you up to the feminine, to those imaginative things. And therefore we close off a lot of these energies that are a part of who we are. And then what you’re seeing is a distorted male come out of these schools, come out of these homes, come out of every program. Males who don’t know how to feel—they have to detach themselves. I go in prisons. I work with these men—writing opens up, again, those energies. Their sensitivities come out, their imagination comes out, and they start feeling a little bit more whole as a human being, instead of that mutated male that everybody has been forced to see.

Burch: Your career as a writer seems like it wouldn’t exist without activism at the heart. But for a lot of us, life as a writer can feel kind of cloistered, and hermetically sealed from the realities of everyday existence, from those injustices that I think we all want to fix. What advice can you give the writing community to make an impact on the larger world using the skills they have developed and their passion to write?

Rodriguez: Well, to me it’s a big responsibility. What you write matters. If you look at it that way, you’re going to think about what you write, and who you’re trying to reach, and what you are trying to say. Some writers I know don’t care about that kind of stuff. That’s fine—I do. I care about that, because I was an activist before I became a writer. I was always into writing, but I wasn’t always seriously into, you know, going to school, learning the language, and working as a writer. I was an activist first. And so, in many ways, it was the coming together of two different—completely different, diametrically opposed—things. But there’s a way that it intersects, and that’s what’s important to me.

Because I think that any writer—they don’t have to live the kind of life I did to have something to say—to say, “I want to impart some knowledge, I want to impart some wisdom, I want to impart a good story.” A good story has something in there. Good stories aren’t just beginning, middle, and ending, and entertaining. That’s fine, those are of value. But a good story haunts you for a while. There’s something in there you want to keep thinking about and maybe go back to that story again. That’s what I think a good writer should do: keep haunting the reader for a while, about what you’re saying, about how or why, so that the reader says, “I can’t just let it go.” You know what they say about “aesthetic arrest,” where you look at a painting and it holds you. You’re arrested for that moment. And then you leave, but you actually get an imprint. It stays with you. Certain songs do that. Not every painting is going to do that, not every song, but there are songs that stay in my head, I can’t get rid of them for years and generations. And you’re like, what happened? Good writing should do that.