Mythologized Visions: An Interview with Sesshu Foster

George Salis: Did you have a vision of an Aztec having a vision of an American working in a slaughterhouse who had visions? How many visions can you envision?

Sesshu Foster: My versions of Aztecs in contemporary industrial landscapes come through mythologized visions via the Chicano movement, as in this Ramona Gardens housing project mural by Wayne Healy:

“Ghosts of the Barrio” 1974 (photo by Lisa Newton).

The iconography of the Chicano movement that I grew up with at the time was macho and militant, as you can see—-the ghosts of the past are all armed warriors, surrounding Chicano guys with violence and conflict, whether Aztec, Spanish conquistador or revolutionary soldado. The Mexican state uses Aztec iconography for nationalist purposes as well, on everything from the national flag to money, on state buildings and monuments. Other sources of visions and versions include commercial images, such as this one, taken from the legends surrounding two major volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, above the Valley of Mexico. This is a romanticized and Europeanized image that is common on commercial calendars and posters for restaurants and bakeries in East L.A.:

Atomik Aztex aims to go there, to the limit of imagination and history, between image and reality, between ideology and practice. To make the legends and stories of history translucent, a double consciousness you can see through.

GS: There’s an author’s note at the beginning of Atomik Aztex which says “Persons attempting to find a plot in this book should read Huck Finn.” You also mention that they should read nonfiction [emphasis yours] if they are looking for accurate information “on Nahua and Mexica peoples or the Farmer John meat packing plant in the city of Vernon”. Was this warning inspired (or should I say provoked?) by your experiences with, shall we say, less-than-experienced readers and did the warning prove effective? I’m reminded of dullard readers who read Rick Harsch’s Voices After Evelyn or Kramberger z opico expecting for nonfiction accounts. And of course readers are always looking for the guiding light of a plot through that abyss so offensively cluttered with words.

SF: One of the tropes of narrative is to conflate customary elements of conventional “realism” with facts and data, and I was trying to suggest that much of the facts and data that could be found in the book were presented figuratively, metonymously or synecdochally, in context. Out of context, the meanings shift and alter.

“Plot,” per se, is one of the most signally artificial constructs of narrative concepts. Commonplace ideas of “plot” suggest that it is a kind of preconceived architecture that some authors meticulously “plot” out like a route through a maze of prose, like a line across the topography of a map, like a frame for a building on a blueprint. Viktor Shklovsky titled his book on plot Energy of Delusion. Indeed, one implication of “plot” is plan, and a commonplace idea is that a reader passively embarks on a hothouse reading experience like a rider on “Mister Toad’s Wild Ride” at an amusement park, with the swoops and swerves of the ride preplanned to titillate, sequentially, plywood figures designed to pop out at intervals, or garish mannikins drop into spotlights to shock with prerecorded electronic laughter, that kind of passive and preplanned sequential reading experience is a delusion I seek to skip. Amusement park rides are designed to stay on the tracks and amuse a passive rider. I want another kind of ride for a different kind of reader.

GS: People often talk about ‘the American dream,’ usually in terms of capitalism and obtaining material things and a high social status. What is the American dream to you, and is it dead within this Plutonian plutocracy we find ourselves in?

SF: In 1940, Henry Miller (who had been living in Paris) got a $500 advanced from a publisher, purchased a 1932 eight-cylinder Buick sedan and drove 25,000 miles around the U.S., and wrote a book about the trip which he published in 1945 with the title The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. Like Miller, there have always been critics of crass material consumerism and reactionary ideological conformity in the U.S. Even post-World War 2, at the beginning of a U.S. peak in global cultural and political hegemony. That’s the “American dream” for me, that 1950/60s period of peak and seemingly limitless prosperity, an expanding economy with the spending power of wages for workers doubling till the mid-1970s. Worker standard of living grew to include those dream commodities: single family home, lawn, cars, “entertainment console,” stereo hi-fi record player, TV, etc. Jack Kerouac hitchhiked back and forth across the country a few years after Henry Miller and On the Road and his other books dream that American dream which had already been eulogized in the last paragraphs of 1925’s The Great Gatsby. The 1960s proved how much that dream was based on war, theft of Indian land in the U.S., resource theft and unequal exchange throughout the “developing world.” In the 1970s that dream degraded further. Reagan’s presidency in 1980 put an end to the increased standard of living via union-busting and income redistribution from workers to the rich via taxation and deregulation. Now each generation faces a state oriented toward servicing the rich only, with decreasing real wages for workers and corresponding lower standard of living for working families, with fewer options outside the general immiseration. Is the dream dead? You can’t kill a dream. Dreams can dream themselves. Now in Shanghai there are streets and malls lined with the same shops that you used to see in Beverly Hills. You can expect that the food is far better in Shanghai.

GS: Conversely, are slaughterhouses—in which billions of animals exist in pain and fear and are born to be murdered—American nightmares, not just symbols but actual realities of oppression against other living beings? Aside from the fundamental immorality of the slaughterhouse, it also seems as though the next big virus will come from one at some point. Did you eat a plant-based diet before writing about working in a slaughterhouse, during, after, or would you consider adopting one now in the year of COVID-19 and impending climate catastrophe?

SF: Atomik Aztex may suggest a “fundamental immorality” to industrial slaughterhouses like the Farmer John plant. It processes 6,000 pigs per day—-hams, pork chops, hot dogs, sausage casings, bacon, lard, pigs feet. It’s true, those animals suffer and die. But I’m more interested in what consumerism does to us as human beings. Consumerism hides the processes of production from us, the consumers. Consumerism separates and alienates us from pigs, from animals and vegetables, from the land and the ocean. As consumers, we’re alienated from nature by consumerism—-which is why we know the names of corporations and products like MacBook Pro and iPhone, Zoom and Crowdcast, Toyota and Tesla, but walking outside we probably cannot name with the same immediate recall every and each bird, weed, tree, shrub and the other living things that we have grown up with and surround us daily. Likewise, consumerism hides the work of meat packers and farm workers behind gleaming plastic in the supermarket and glib images on commercials. We have consumed these products our entire lives, and what do we know of their production? Vegetarian consumers are not necessarily any more conscious of the industrial processes that produce their vegetables, nor are vegetarians necessarily more cognizant of the conditions that farm workers labor and live under—-especially as the (white) apartheid imagination centers white people only in their own imagination and casts all others into some dim margin. If consumerism hides labor behind readily disposable packaging and a smokescreen of advertising, the apartheid imagination of Hollywood and the corporate media presents that consumerism to white people as the privilege they’re uniquely entitled to. That’s why groups of whites, some of them armed, responded enthusiastically to Trump’s foolhardy early calls to “re-open” the economy. To this day, many resist and resent the obstacles placed upon consumption by the pandemic, because of a consumerism which they see as part of their essential identity.

GS: This is a guest question from Rick Harsch: “Is there an explicit connection between your activism and your writing?” I would also like to know the ways in which you’re an activist and what efforts you think are most effective.

SF: The explicit connection between a book like Atomik Aztex and my “activism” is the community in which both take place. My books and related activities focus on East L.A., developing out of this place, and in some ways, returning to it. This is a dynamic, imaginative relationship and my books are not solely documentary, though there’s often a documentary aspect to them. In Atomik Aztex, for example, my late father-in-law’s photographs from the 1940s document an often indigenous Mexico that immigrant workers left behind when they came to East L.A., and which, in different ways, no longer exists. My books document, imagine, or interpolate these histories behind events and the events behind facts and images. High school friends who worked for the Asian American community newspaper, Gidra, in the 1970s, published my first poems there. From the first, then, I have worked with community activists as my editors, publishers, and readers. I have served on boards of community literary or cultural organizations, as well as organized readings, writing workshops or fundraisers for groups or causes. I served as a writer on a North American delegation of poets and writers (which included Alice Walker, Robert Allen, and others) to the Nicaraguan International Book Fair. I served as a writer on a Los Angeles delegation (which included Harry Gamboa, Luis Rodriguez, Luis Valdez, Tom Hayden and others) to the Mexico City Book Fair. As a teacher, for 35 years I taught composition and literature in East L.A., serving as union representative and department chair, faculty sponsor for student clubs and organizations, liaison for their activities in the community. During this time I participated in two citywide teacher strikes defending public education in Los Angeles. For the last ten years or so, I have been collaborating with artist Arturo Ernesto Romo on various community interventions, panels, performances, readings and research that we have documented in a website, The ELA Guide, and a novel, ELADATL, to be published by City Lights in September 2020. Which efforts are most effective? Those efforts that are transformative for the participants are the most effective, be they strikes or workshops or anti-war demonstrations or movements. Social change will change you. I kid you not, I am better than I started out.

GS: You’re also a prolific poet. What makes poetry poetry to you, as opposed to prose, especially when one can consider prose as poetry?

SF: Narrative prose is structured with literary conventions, those elements commonly understood to be narrator, setting, dialogue, character, motif, etc. Poetry often dispenses with the sequencing and syntax of paragraphs and sentences to deliver meanings and message less moderated or modulated via those kinds of conventional structures. Less “once upon a time,” and more telegraphic, direct, personal. That’s what I like about a poem. It’s more like a personal letter or postcard—-direct to me—-and less like a treatise, a lecture, a history.

GS: What is a novel you think deserves more readers?

SF: Maybe The Fifth Corner of the Room by Israel Metter, about a doomed romance of a Soviet scientist whose career is scuttled by anti-Semitism and the love of his life who is destroyed by Stalin’s purges. Victor Serge’s novels could use more readers, too.

GS: What can you tell me about your upcoming novel, ELADATL: A History of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, and how does it compare and contrast with Atomik Aztex?

SF: ELADATL was intended to be a collaborative project between a group of artists and writers in East L.A. But they all dropped out! Even before we got anything done! Have you ever tried asking people to write for you? I had this idea that I would collectivize my writing process and invite the community in. But I think most people consider writing to be a lot of unrewarding toil, and rightly so. Anyway, the last ones standing were me and artist Arturo Ernesto Romo, though I was able finally to include pieces by a few friends, too. Arturo and I drove all over East L.A. for years, researching little known events, histories erased by gentrification, local mysteries and personalities. Some of that made it into the website ELA Guide, “your guide to walking and driving tours of East L.A.,” though some of it, like our proposed interviews with musician Ruben Guevara, the murals of East L.A., and a Chinese history of East L.A., never made it onto the website. Besides driving all over the Eastside and interviewing people, Arturo and I organized magazine-format panel presentations at universities and community centers that he called “Recent Rupture Radio Hour” where we interviewed activists such as Rosalio Munoz, leader of the Chicano Moratorium in 1970 when 30,000 people marched in East L.A. against the Vietnam War, artists like Iraqi-American Rheim Alkhadi and Sandra de la Loza (“The Pocho Research Society”), and urban farmer Reies Rodriguez, always a favorite for his accounts of growing (and butchering) your own chickens and livestock. When the Smithsonian asked me to send them a poem about Latino-Asian American collaboration, I sent them a video Arturo and I made while driving around East L.A. about Guy Gabaldon, a Chicano orphan raised by Japanese Americans in Boyle Heights in East L.A., who used his homegrown Japanese skills to capture 1,500 Japanese troops single-handedly during the Battle of Saipan in World War 2. The main difference between ELADATL and Atomik Aztex, then, is that collaboration, based on this research, these performances and community interventions that Arturo and I improvised and conducted, with the participation of others.

GS: When working on your fiction and writing in general, how do you approach research? Is there such thing as too much research?

SF: Every book is composed in its own way. I don’t have a one-size-fits-all writing process. Every book has its own process which ends up structuring the manuscript. Here’s an excerpted chapter from Atomik Aztex that was edited out of the book, along with the reasons it was left behind. People often say, “It’s all research.” But how do you process that research? Is that research you undertook, lived through, via the body and its million nerves? Is it library research, long nights of reading, or collective research undertaken and discussed in groups? Where do you take that knowledge and what do you do with it when you have it? Is it applied in your own experience and the consequences noted? Is your research collective or individual, and is it presented in your community (collectively or individually) and made useful?

GS: Rick also wants to know what baubles of yours make you nostalgic, if any.

SF: Sometimes I can spot smoke in the distance on the horizon while driving, some remnant skill from wildland firefighting in Colorado and Wyoming when I was in college. Sometimes I can tell whether it’s a car or house fire, a grass fire or timber. Likewise, the pulverized dusty smell of decayed granite on a trail is nostalgic, all those summers on the road or on a trail in the mountains.

GS: Here is another question from Rick Harsch: “What upsets you the most about American history? Was there, in your opinion, a turning point after which doom became inevitable?”

SF: The U.S. history of genocide and slavery and imperialist wars is not upsetting. We live with it. But when the agents and defenders of that history are screaming verbal abuse in your face—-or out of the windows of a pickup truck pulled alongside in some other town—-or from behind the line of cops at a demonstration—-then maybe things get heated. But I am too wrapped up in my own life and my own projects that are, in the long run, my answer to that history. In 1942, half my family were farm workers relocated to horse stalls at Tanforan racetrack and then concentration camps in the Arizona desert. Years later, like 100,000 others, they were given $25 and a bus ticket and told to go someplace. Just like so many of my students, they didn’t spend their days “upset,” they spent every day building better lives for themselves and their families. I note that most of my students don’t have time for doom; most are too busy.

GS: If the shituation in America gets worse, would you ever consider self-exile like your contemporary Rick Harsch who lives in Slovenia?

SF: I’d only go where they cook good Mexican food. That rules out Slovenia.

Sesshu Foster taught composition and literature in East L.A. for 30 years. He also taught writing at the University of Iowa, the California Institute for the Arts and the University of California, Santa Cruz, Occidental College and Pomona College. His most recent books are World Ball Notebook, winner of the American Book Award, and City of the Future, winner of the CLMP Firecracker Award. ELADATL: A History of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, a novel co-written with artist Arturo E. Romo, will be published by City Lights in 2020.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below (River Boat Books / corona/samizdat). His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreads, Instagram (@george.salis), and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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