Thursday, November 22, 2007

Dagoberto Gilb

by Steven Williams

Dagoberto Gilb black and white photographA broader reading audience is beginning to recognize Dagoberto Gilb for his fearlessness, wit, and authenticity and originality of his voice. This is good news for readers since the literary community has been aware of his work for some time: Gilb has won a Whiting Writers Award, received Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, was awarded the Texas Institute of Letters' Jesse Jones Award, received PEN's Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award, . Gilb was born in Los Angeles and later lived for many years in El Paso. Gilb graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1973 with a double major in Philosophy and Religious Studies. In 1976, he earned a master's degree in Religious Studies. Gilb blames his inability to enter the white collar workforce on his looks. "I'm a kind of big guy and particularly then-now I look sweet and nice, but then I looked mean and ugly and scared people." It was simply easy to find work on constructions sites. His background as a writer is antypical because he eventually spent about sixteen years working as a construction worker and twelve of these as a journeyman, high-rise carpenter in the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. In fact, Gilb has stated that he sometimes thinks of himself as a carpenter who wrote since he would work days as a carpenter and write at night. In the late 1970s he bagan shuttling back and forth between El Paso and Los Angeles following carpentry jobs as they became available. In 1982, he began to have his stories published in journals and magazines. After a decade of having his short works in print, The Magic of Blood was published by University of New Mexico Press in 1993. Eventually the quality of his writing and the life of writing drew him in so completely into itself that he became a full time writer and is now on the creative writing faculty at Texas State University in San Marcos and teaching in the Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program. It is necessary to keep in mind that while Gilb can be considered important living Chicano writer, this categorization is unimportant. It is the quality of his writing that counts, what he is able to reveal about the shared human experience, and his ability to energize and guide young and aspiring writers. Dagoberto Gilb currently resides in Austin, Texas.

Winners on the Pass Line and Other Stories (1985)
This was Gilb's first published book and is a collection of his short fiction. It was also the first book published by Cinco Puntos Press of El paso.

The Magic of Blood by Dagoberto Gilb front coverThe Magic of Blood (1993)
This was Gilb's second published book and is also a collection of twenty-six of his short fiction. The characters in these stories are predominantly lower middle-class working people living from paycheck to paycheck in either El Paso or Los Angeles. Work and family are the most important factors in the stories and they are highly readable. This book gained more attention for Gilb and, most importantly, was a major critical success. This book gained Gilb a PEN Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for the best first fiction, the Jesse Jones Award for best book of fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters, and a Whiting Writer's Award as well as becomming a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuna by Dagoberto Gilb front coverThe Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuna (1995)
This is Gilb's first published novel and it also was critically very successful. It is a story set in the gritty, everyday world of the Southwestern, Chicano working class. The main character is a man on the run from his past and who finds the anonymity he wants with a stay at the El Paso YMCA. As he becomes used to his new surroundings he begins to meet and interact with the other disenfranchised residents. It through these people that Gilb is able to vividly recreate the world of underemployed, mentally ill, and abandoned people whose humanity still manages to give them color and complexity. This book was named a New York Times Notable Book and shortly afterword Gilb received his Guggenheim Fellowship.

Woodcuts of Women by Dagoberto GilbWoodcuts of Women (2000)
This is another collection of Gilb's short fiction tied together by is probably best described as an obsession with women. A collection of ten short stories that mostly take place in El Paso. They are about various Mexican American men and women while the simultaneously pursue sex and spiritual sustenance. It is especially ironic that Gilb's male characters collectively have a roving eye, a trait he has also been accused of, and, as the title suggests these men are unable to sustain more than crude impressions of the women they are drawn towards.

Gritos by Dagoberto Gilb front coverGritos: Essays (2003)
A collection of Gilb's essays including his commentaries for National Public Radio's Fresh Air. In these essays Gilb unselfconsciously reveals himself, his zest for life, and his passionate intent to illuminate Mexican American culture. His writings consider such things as what it was like growing up Americanized in Los Angeles as the son of a Mexican mother and German father, his work as a carpenter and seeing Immigration round members of his work crew, Steinbeck, caring for his family, and more.

Hecho en Tejas by Dagoberto GilbHecho en Tejas: An Anthology of Texas Mexican Literature (2006)
This is an anthology, destined to become a canon of Texas' Mexican American literary heritage. Gilb has chosen about one hundered selections ranging from a sixteenth-century narrative by Cabeza de Vaca to contemporary prose by writers such as Sandra Cisneros. His selections are divided into two broad periods of time: before 1930 and from 1930 to 2000 with each of the post-1930 decade receiving its own separate subdivision. The represented writers and styles include the prose writers Américo Paredes, Rolando Hinojosa, and Tomás Rivera; the poets Ricardo Sánchez, Carmen Tafolla, and Abelardo Delgado; and the lyricists Freddy Fender, Santiago Jimenez, Sr., and Selena. Notably, Gilb also makes strong committment to presenting emerging Tejano writers by including Christine Granados, Erasmo Guerra, and Tonantzin Canestaro-Garcia.

The Flowers by Dagoberto Gilb front coverThe Flowers (January 2008)
Gilb latest novel is due for release in early 2008 and its main character is an unusually smart fifteen-year old Mexican American who is living with his vivacious mother in Los Angeles where racism exists as a sort of constant background haze in their lives. His mother makes a sudden decision to marry an Okie building contractor and he is dragged off to a new part of the city to live in a small apartment complex. Once, there, the young man ends up meeting his neighbors and then becomes caught up in their lives. The range of other tenants allows Gilb to explore all the questions of human experience -- hate, pain, anger, and love -- and reveal how these commonalities of the human condition transcend age, time, and especially the idea of race. A markedly fine example of Gilb's fearlessness as well as the importance of his strongly authentic and original voice in contemporary American literature.

Newer Article: Beef Burgundy, Crackling Bread, Pice Ar Y Maen, Sevillian Yellow Plum Conserve, and Les Ioles (Writers' and Artists' recipes)


Older Article: The 2007 Barry Awards Winners

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Dagoberto Gilb, a voice of the Southwest by Steven Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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