If there’s one thing you learn while fighting what could be a terminal illness it’s that there is no time for writer’s block. All the fears and doubt that routinely plague a writer are immediately overpowered by the newfound sense of urgency. At least that was the case for writer Juan Alvarado Valdivia when writing his debut memoir ¡Cancerlandia!: A Memoir.
The Peruvian memoirist and cancer survivor has since moved on to tackle other titles including husband, dad and most recently fiction author. In his latest book of short stories, Ballad of a Slopsucker, he touches on identity, Latino masculinity, family and redemption from a U.S. Latino perspective with the same veracity.
‘LLERO caught up with the California native on the heels of his book launch to discuss what inspired these sometimes-dark stories, how mixtapes helped him in putting together this collection and the importance of finding other Latino writers to hold on to.
‘LLERO: Ballad of a Slopsucker is your first foray into publishing fiction since your debut memoir, ¡Cancerlandia!: A Memoir. What made you leave memoir and now venture into writing fiction?
JAV: Really, I have been writing fiction since I was 19 so I feel like I’ve had stages, like my late 20s and then my 30s that was when I was writing nonfiction kind of because I was in the MFA program and then because I was writing the memoir…otherwise fiction is something that I’ve been writing for a long time so it’s nice to get back to it after the memoir. The memoir in some ways was the hardest thing I ever wrote. I had to write some pretty unflattering things about myself, so it was nice to go back to fiction and name other people similar to me and have bad things happen to the [characters] rather than me.
‘LLERO: So how did the idea for this project come about specifically?
JAV: Throughout my 20s I accumulated a lot of short stories – you know, some of these stories that are in the collection they date back to 2005. [After finishing] my MFA and the memoir I felt that I was a better writer. So, I had basically over the years revisited some of those short stories that I liked. The ideas were good, but the execution just sucked, frankly…so I was able to fix some of that. By then I had written enough short stories that centered on a Latino protagonist… so after a while I was like, well, I think I’ve got a selection of stories that basically threaded around the Latino protagonist, and that was kind of the genesis of the book. I had enough good stories that I could put together for a collection
‘LLERO: Was Latino masculinity something you wanted to specifically address in the collection?
JAV: Yeah, I definitely did. I figured out kind of what my preoccupations as a writer are, and Latino masculinity is something that has always been interesting to me. And I think that my parents, you know they’re from Peru and I was basically raised here in the US… I think masculinity I’ve always kind of struggled with to be honest. Just with how this is a part of society, because my dad and my mom come from very conservative parts of Peru and my dad is very much like a typical, sort of, old fashioned Latino. Today, for example, I saw him washing dishes and I said, “holy shit!” I can count on my hands how many times I’ve seen my dad washing dishes.
So, early on, in my teens I was like, I don’t wanna be like him, I don’t wanna be this typical Latino that leaves those things that women are deemed to have to do, you know? Now, I’m a dad, so that complicates things. So yeah, I think that’s been a preoccupation of mine for a while personally and broadly as well.
‘LLERO: What is the greatest challenge putting together this book of stories?
JAV: I’d say the most challenging thing for me was getting them together. I always felt like a short stories collection should have at least nine stories. And for some reason I think I thought about it very musically. I still have a lot of CDs, I remember CDs I bought had 12 songs, so I thought let’s get 12 of these stories together. I think the biggest challenge was putting together 12 stories that I felt were good enough… that I was proud enough of, and that I felt kind of fit together… even though, like you said, there’s a lot of different things going on there… but I wanted to have like a little kaleidoscope of my experience and the experience of Latinos on the page here.
‘LLERO: On the flip-side, what was the most enjoyable aspect of the process?
JAV: The most fun part – once I had the 12 stories we were gonna put together – was coming up with the order. I treated it musically. I come from a generation where we put together a mix tape, we know how that is, it’s not just a nostalgic thing you read about, we actually did that, and it was a process. I wanted to take the readers through a similar experience – if they were to read all of these stories in one sitting what kind of experience could I put them through? Similar to my favorite albums that in a musical way achieved that. To me that was the most enjoyable part, kind of mixing together the stories.
‘LLERO: Speaking of the order you purposefully put “Justo” first? If so, why? That story just smacks you in the face!
JAV: I wanted there to be light and darkness. I knew when I was putting together the collection that that was one of the main things I wanted to deal with. And I also wanted the collection to be like a reflection of where I am right now. I think there’s much darkness in our world and the future as human beings. But despite all of that I still wanna hold on to hope. For me, it was really important to try and include that in the collection, add the light to try and end it with some hope. So that was what made me think, well, then let’s start with something very dark so we can then just make it to light. Also, one of my favorites, Manuel Munoz who wrote Zigzagger, the story “Zigzagger” that names it, is also the one that starts the collection, and it’s a super fucked up story… so I just felt “that’s the way to start a story collection”.
‘LLERO: I was like, how did you think of something so dark?! OMG, I thought I knew you!
JAV: [Laughs] At my book launch I got that question too. He was like, “I’ve met you, I know you’re a very nice and kind young man, where did you get the idea for that?”
Well, I’ve been a cycling enthusiast for a long time. I still ride my bike to work and over the years I’ve had my share of bicycles stolen from me, so that was the inspiration for that story. My last bike that got stolen. I went to pick it up, and thought, “oh, my bike’s not there,” so I just got this idea, what if someone planted bikes with shady brakes and then just waited for someone to find them. It was kind of absurd, it was like a rage fantasy.
‘LLERO: Definitely. I see other themes touched on like family, identity and home. How have Latinos inspired some of these themes?
JAV: One thing I learned from my memoir was that Latinos sort of have these regrets in life so with this Latino collection I was particularly interested in writing a character that has some deep regret about something that they’ve done with their lives. And many of my characters, to be honest, if they were like real life people, they probably wouldn’t be people that I would want to hang out with, nevertheless I was interested in trying to sort of understand them. And this is kind of a more of a humane thing – this thing about them and their pain and their regrets. So, I think that’s an overarching thing I really focused on with many of the stories. I also focused on telling stories where we’re [Latinos] just normal human beings like everyone else.
‘LLERO: What do you hope readers come away with from this collection?
JAV: Hopefully, a little more understanding [about Latinos]. I wanted to give a little reflection on many of the cultural nuances we have as Latinos. Sure, people can lump us together because we all speak Spanish, but each country has their own history and we are all very different from one another. I was hoping folks would read the stories and see some of those differences because I was purposeful trying to make sure some of the stories take place in different countries or have different perspectives. Also, I was trying to give people some hope.
‘LLERO: What advice do you have for up and coming Latino writers trying to get their stuff out there or trying to find their voice?
JAV: The same advice you’d give to anyone: Write what you feel like you need to write and don’t let anyone get in your way. And then also be reading a lot. I feel that if you want to be a good writer you must read a lot, and you’ve got to read well. For Latinos, I think it’s important to find a writer who really speaks to you and whose voice you really like and stories that you really gravitate to. Find those writers and keep them close to you and keep on writing as much as you can.
For more information on Ballad of a Slopsucker and other works from Juan Alvarado Valdivia check out his author site.