interview: DAVID BOWLES

David Bowles is BUSY! He has the following releases this year.

  • February 23. The Sea-Ringed World: Sacred Stories of the Americas. My translation and expansion of the book by María García Esperón, illustrated by Amanda Mijangos (MG non-fiction). Levine Querido.
  • March 23. The Immortal Boy. My translation (in a bilingual flip book) of Francisco Montaña Ibáñez’s impactful No Comas Renacuajos (MG/YA fiction). Levine Querido.
  • April 27. Tussle with the Tooting Tarantulas. Book five of my 13TH STREET series (illustrated by Shane Clester). HarperCollins (HarperChapters).
  • Summer. El ascenso del rey enano. My Spanish version of Rise of the Halfling King. Penguin Random House (Vintage Español).
  • August 17. Fight with the Freeze-ray Fowls. Book six in my 13TH STREET series (illustrated by Shane Clester). HarperCollins (HarperChapters).
  • August 24. My Two Border Towns. My debut picture book, illustrated by Erika Meza, releasing in both English and Spanish (as Mis dos pueblos fronterizos). Penguin Random House (Kokila).
  • October. The Witch Owl Parliament. Volume one of the graphic novel series Clockwork Curandera, co-created and illustrated by Raúl the Third. Lee and Low (Tu Books). Publishing simultaneously in English and Spanish, as El Parlamento de Lechuzas).
  • And, he tweets! @DavidOBowles

Yet, he managed to have a little time for an interview. We did it old school: via email.

Hi David! Thanks for agreeing to an interview. I hope it helps promote all the good work you’re doing. How are you? What has sustained you over the past year?
I’m doing well, all things considered. Staying focused on the needs of my family and community keeps me busy, driven to do the work of teaching, writing, and advocating that sustains me and through which I strive to sustain others. But I’ve tried to be kind to myself as well, indulging in a lot of feel-good romantic K-dramas and composing music. My wife Angélica and I managed to carve out a couple of weeks in December to decompress and unplug—that brief vacation breathed new life into us.

I’ve gotten to know you through your activism and that has me wondering where did you learn to speak out? Who did you witness being a voice for others?  What were some of the injustices that you became aware of early on?
I grew up hearing tales of injustice perpetuated against my Mexican American community here on the border. During my childhood,

Dr. David Bowles, UTRGV Assistant Professor in Literatures & Cultural Studies. Photo by Paul Chouy

however, I didn’t always believe my Grandpa Manuel Garza, Uncle Joe Casas, and others who wove those tragedies amid their spooky storytelling. But I always understood the importance of family and community, of standing in solidarity against those who want to hurt us and of standing up for those among us who are weaker and poorer. When I was still a kid, we moved to South Carolina for seven years. As a Mexican American family that chose to live in all-Black neighborhoods—and given that my youngest sibling Fernando, born in Myrtle Beach, was half-Black—we faced a degree of ethnic and racial violence from white folks that was less visible or common in South Texas. Because my mother was white, I realized that, as a light-complexioned Chicano, I had more privilege than my kid brother, could move through different spaces unquestioned. But because of the family I belonged to and the color of my brother’s skin, I also straddled a divide between the culture of power and the people it oppresses. It was a hard lesson.

My father, who had converted from Catholicism to Evangelical Christianity at a Black Baptist Church, got ordained and started a congregation in Beaufort that welcomed all ethnicities and races and dared anyone to challenge that choice. From him I learned to fight—mostly with words, but sometimes with fists—to defend my family and the Lowcountry community that embraced us as their own.

When we moved back to South Texas, that impulse toward forcing justice from an injustice world kept burning in my heart. I became a teacher because of it, working with “problem” kids who simply needed dignity and affection, fighting even against administrators to see them treated like human beings. And now, of course, that never-ending struggle continues: publishing is my focus now, alongside education, both of them systems that need to be broken and rebuilt to efface more than a century of oppression.

I think along with the energy to change the world you seem to have an energy to keep learning, growing and changing as an individual and I see that happening through the diverse writing projects you’ve undertaken recently. Through the translations, the series work, the graphic novel and even the picture book, what have you realized about writing that you didn’t know before?
I’m definitely a big believer in the need to constantly question oneself, to break down the misconceptions, prejudices, and bad habits that have built up recently and rebuild oneself afresh, with an eye toward greater enlightenment and humanity. If we don’t do that work, life itself will eventually shatter us, and we may not be able to put the pieces back together then. Gloria Anzaldúa—the queer Chicana philosopher from my home county of Hidalgo—called this the Coyolxauhqui Process (named for the Aztec goddess of the moon, who was broken into pieces by her brother, god of the sun). I use the phrase “shattering and bricolage,” but the idea is the same. Putting your soul back together again does indeed leave seams, but like in the Japanese art of kintsukuroi, those scars are beautiful and unique.

Translating (between my native tongues of Spanish and English, but also other languages I’ve studied, like Nahuatl) is a great tool for this sort of close personal examination, as language and thought are closely connected. And writing in multiple genres for multiple audience also keeps me from falling into a rut. I push myself with every new project, push the boundaries of both my creative skills and my very being, helping me deepen my identity and writing philosophy, anchoring both in community and ancestral lore, de-centering the worst aspects of my European heritage (like capitalism and colonialism). The most important lesson I’ve learned as an author, actually, is that writing is ultimately about the book and the reader. Not me. When we remove our ego from a project and fight for it to be the best it can be for the audience we need to reach, magic happens.

How does Twitter influence your creativity?
Twitter has allowed me to stand in solidarity with like-minded social justice warriors (a title I proudly accept) as we collectively fight for greater equity and dignity in our society. It has also given me a platform to share knowledge with the world, especially harder-to-find information about pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, the Nahuatl language, etc. Realizing that the key to social media is content creation, I’ve used Twitter to develop new strategies for conveying complex ideas in catchy, pithy ways, which in turn has helped me to be more concise and “voicy” in my writing elsewhere.

What do you hope young readers take from your writing?
I hope Mexican American (and more broadly, Latinx kids) come away with a clear conviction that our community is worthy of being depicted in books, of being studied in school, of being celebrated for its variegated diversity. I hope they are convinced their own lives, as particular and wholly unique iterations of our shared experience, though perhaps only wispily reflected in my work—like their own reflections in a window as they look out on the world—are beautiful and fascinating, full of all the glory and contradictions of any human life.

I hope that readers who aren’t from my community come away excited about how cool our culture and language are, fully recognizing us as their equals in this society and indignant at any further attempted erasure of us from the national conversation.

And this may seem strange, but I want some of them to wish, deep in their hearts, that they were Mexican American, too, as so many of us have wished our entire lives that we were anything other than the embarrassing folks on the wrong side of the tracks. Though they never can, we still welcome them as our siblings, our allies, our fellow human beings, beside whom we are proud to stand and raise our lamps against the darkness.

Thanks, David!