Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 22, 2000
Head: Ernesto Quinonez Discusses His Debut Novel, `Bodega Dreams'
Sect: News; Domestic
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
"Don't be sarcastic." That's what parents used to tell their children when they made wisecracks or talked back. But now the word "sarcasm" doesn't seem to be negative any more. Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, has these thoughts on whether the meaning of the word has changed, or if people have a new attitude toward sarcasm itself.
GEOFF NUNBERG, LINGUIST: I got an e-mail from a friend of mine. She was very excited about this guy she'd started seeing. "He has a great sense of sarcasm," she said. I was a little taken aback by that recommendation. I thought of writing her back to say, Gee, if I were the guy, I'd have waited till later in the relationship to let on to that.
But I knew I was thinking in terms of the old-economy sarcasm. For a lot of people nowadays, sarcasm doesn't have to be cruel or cutting. It's just a cover term for pointed humor of any kind, from satire and parody to simple banter. There's not much trace left of the original meaning of a word that's derived from the Greek words for "tear the flesh."
What I interpreted my friend as saying was that the person had a great sense of irony. For those of us raised under the old dispensation, that was an important distinction. Both sarcasm and irony involve saying the opposite of what you mean, but with irony you're winking at your listener, where with sarcasm, you're sticking out your tongue. The first is a private joke, the second is a public ridicule.
Why did the boundaries start to get fuzzy? At one point, I thought it had to do with the fact that people have gotten a little unclear on the other meaning of "ironic," the way you say, Isn't it ironic to acknowledge how fate can frustrate our expectations? Nowadays, a lot of people seem to use the word with no sense of piquancy or ruefulness, it's just a synonym for "coincidental."
I hear sports announcers doing this all the time -- Ironically, he was wearing a borrowed jersey the last time he kicked a 50-yarder. But it turns out that people have been using "ironic" in this loose way for more than 100 years, and up to now it hasn't dislodged the other uses of the word, or blurred the line between irony and sarcasm. And on reflection, I don't think that what my friend is suffering from is just a semantic confusion. If the word "sarcasm" is replacing "irony," it's because that's what's going on out there. Wherever you look, "irony" is moving out and "sarcasm" is moving in.
Johnny Carson was ironic, David Letterman is sarcastic. "Peanuts" was ironic, "South Park" is sarcastic. Andy Warhol was ironic, Jeff Koons (ph) is sarcastic.
Come to think of it, "Seinfeld" was pretty sarcastic too. That's why it surprised me with Jedediah Purdy described the show as "irony incarnate" in his provocative recent book "For Common Things." Purdy went on to argue that the show represented a sensibility that's eroding the sense of trust and commitment in American life. But America did just fine under the reign of irony. If you were bent on seeing "Seinfeld" as a threat to the republic, it could only be as a representative of the new decriminalized sarcasm.
It's troubling to think that Purdy himself might be shaky on the distinction. It's a sign of just how far we've fallen.
The best model I can think of for the shift from irony to sarcasm is the way the novel "Emma" was transformed into the movie "Clueless." In fact, if you were making up a banner for the new sarcasm, you'd write, "As if" on one side and "Whatever" on the other.
But then, almost all the recent Jane Austen movies allowed themselves a lot more sarcasm than the novels did. The extreme example was "Mansfield Park." It turned the novel's priggish heroine into a version of Jane Austen herself, only a lot prettier and bristling with sassy retorts, somebody who wouldn't have been out of place as a regular on "Ally McBeal."
It was something of a revelation for people who'd never thought of Jane Austen as somebody you'd describe with the adjective "in your face." But that's what's happened everywhere, sarcasm's gotten winsome, irony's gotten old.
There isn't much point to being ironic in an age that puts such a premium on knowingness, when everybody's in on everything. We can't all wink at once. And there's really no need for the obliqueness of irony either, now that we've cast off all the inhibitions that the ironic sensibility festered in.
Irony's always been the recourse of people who weren't allowed to say what they mean. But who needs indirection when "The New Yorker" is publishing four-letter words?
For people who were raised under the old regime, of course, the new forms of sarcasm can take some getting used to. My generation was force-fed on irony. I pull down my college paperbacks of Austen or Fielding, and I keep finding the word "irony" written in the margins. And it can still make us uncomfortable to hear somebody say, "Well, duh." We tend to read it in a cutting way. But really, it isn't like that. When the line between the words begins to blur, the difference in intention does too. Sarcasm, irony, it's all just high spirits now.
I'm not concerned when my 10-year-old daughter tells me, "In your dreams, Dad." I know she means it in the nicest way.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.
Coming up, Ernesto Quinonez talks about his new novel, "Bodega Dreams," set in Spanish Harlem where he grew up.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: "Bodega Dreams" is a new novel about a young man in Spanish Harlem who's trying to get out of the neighborhood. "Bodega Dreams" is the first published novel by Ernesto Quinonez, a writer in his mid-30s who has taught fourth-grade bilingual English. Like the narrator of the book, Quinonez grew up in Spanish Harlem and is half Puerto Rican and half Ecuadoran.
Let's start with a reading from "Bodega Dreams."
ERNESTO QUINONEZ, "BODEGA DREAMS": "It was always easy to get into fights if you hated yourself. So what if you fought a guy bigger than you who will kick your butt? So what if you got stabbed with a 007 in the back and never walked again? So what if someone broke your nose in a fight? You were ugly anyway. Your life meant zero from the start.
"It was as if you had given up on the war and decided to charge the tanks with your bare fists. There's nothing brave in it, you just didn't care any more. It was easy to be big and bad when you hated your life and felt meaningless. You lived in projects with pissed-up elevators, junkies on the stairs, posters of the rapist of the month, and whores you never knew were whores until you saw men go in and out of their apartments like revolving doors.
"Fires, junkies dying, shootouts, holdups, babies falling out of windows where things you took as part of life. If you were a graffiti artist and people knew you were a good one, death meant an opportunity to make a few bucks. Someone close to the deceased, usually a woman, would knock on your door. `Mira, my cousin Freddy just passed away. Can you deal him (ph) a rest in peace? You know, a RIP?'
"So you would bemoan Freddy's death, whether you knew him or not, and say you were sorry, and that's what had happened, like you really cared. `Freddy,' she would say, `Freddy was shot by mistake, man. He wasn't stealing nothing.'" You nod and then ask the person on what wall she wanted the RIP, the rest in peace, to be painted on.
"`On the wall of P.S. 101,' she would say, `the school yard, you know, the back wall, the one that faces 111th Street? Freddy will hang there all night. I want it to say, "Freddy, the best of 109th Street, rest in peace." And then I want it to have the flag of Borinque (ph) and a big conga with Freddy's face on it. Can you paint that?'
"You would say, `Yeah, I can paint that,' and never ask for the money up front, because then you wouldn't get tipped.
"I painted dozens of RIPs for guys in El Barrio who felt small and needed something violent to jump-start their lives, and at the same time end them. It was guys like these who, on any given day, were looking to beat someone up. So it was up to me to either become like them or get the hell kicked out of me."
GROSS: That's Ernesto Quinonez reading from his new novel, "Bodega Dreams."
You did those RIPs, those rest-in-peace graffiti things, for people in the neighborhood who died?
GROSS: How did you start doing them?
QUINONEZ: I always loved graffiti, and spray cans were very popular in the '70s. It was part of a crew. You would have a crew, which was like a little gang, and wherever you went you would carry a spray can. And you would write the name of the gang or the crew. So if your name was The Spanish Connection, which was our name, it was up to me to make sure that wherever we went, I would write "The Spanish Connection."
And from there on, I moved on to RIPs.
GROSS: Were there a lot of people you know who were killed that you ended up doing graffiti memorials for?
QUINONEZ: Yes, I did a memorial for Sapo (ph), who actually was one of the -- a friend of mine. And Sapo died when he was 14. And in my book, he lives to be older, but in the neighborhood, what happened with Sapo is, we used to fly kites on the roof, and we used to fly them with beer. And so sometimes we would get a little tipsy.
And I guess one day he must have been flying up there by himself, and he must have gotten a little tipsy, and he fell off the roof. And so he died at 14, and the -- where we lived, the house was surrounded by these gates. So he fell on top of those gates, and he was impaled by the gates right on the spikes. And it was not very nice to look at.
GROSS: What was your memorial painting for him like?
QUINONEZ: It was him flying kits, because that's what he loved. He loved flying kites. He was a little chubby. So I had him flying the kites and smiling. And everybody that knew him would pass by, and they would either light a candle, drop a rose, drop a 16-ounce beer, or something.
GROSS: Where'd you paint it?
QUINONEZ: I painted it right on the same wall where he fell, behind the gates. I climbed the gates and then on the wall, which -- there was a window right on top of it, I painted the RIP right underneath it.
GROSS: Do you still paint?
QUINONEZ: No. Now I'm -- I basically do writing.
GROSS: Would you describe the neighborhood that you grew up in?
QUINONEZ: The neighborhood I grew up in was actually -- you know, I can't complain. I had a great time, even though I did know that there was some really nasty stuff happening. And sometimes they would bite me, and they would bite my family. Coming over here, I was thinking about the day when my mother got mugged, and she came upstairs crying, and me and my brother, we rounded up some of our friends, when we got some bats and we got some bags, so we could go look for them.
And I remember why we brought the bags. And the reason you carry the bags is so the police would think that you were going to play baseball on a vacant lot. And we went looking for these guys, and we never found them, so we all had to go back home, and we were really frustrated.
And then there were other times when you were watching television and you were eating, and you were really into the show and you were really into your food, and you mom would go, That's your sister calling, she's downstairs, you got to pick her up because there's a rapist, you know, in this building somewhere. So you had to leave your plate of food, you know, put on your coat, it's freezing outside. You got to meet your sister downstairs, you got to walk her up the stairs, you know, to make sure that nothing happens to her. And we hated that. That was part of the living in El Barrio.
GROSS: How many flights did you have to walk down?
QUINONEZ: Depends where we were living, because we lived in a couple of buildings. The one that I really hated was the one on the sixth floor, and that was rough, especially when I was watching my "Starsky and Hutch," you know.
QUINONEZ: And then I had to leave, and I'm, like, Oh, man, you know, why doesn't her boyfriend bring her up, you know?
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Ernesto Quinonez, and his new book is called "Bodega Dreams."
One of the main characters in your book, Willy Bodega, makes his money selling crack, but then puts some of it -- puts some of the money back into the community, detox centers, he subsidizes low-income housing. He's a very ambiguous figure. You describe him as "a representation of all the ugliness in Spanish Harlem and also all the good it was capable of being."
Would you describe this character a little bit more, and who, if anyone, he was based on?
QUINONEZ: Actually, Willy Bodega was based on real-life characters and also on literary characters. I'm going to start with the literary character. The literary character that I used as a model for Willy Bodega was actually Jay Gatsby, who was poor, he was a hoodlum, and he was in love with Daisy, and Daisy left him to marry someone with money, which was Tom Buchanan. So in order for him to have the same status as Tom Buchanan, he sold booze, and he became a big bootlegger, and that's how he made his fortune. And now he was ready to go and fight for Daisy's love.
GROSS: This is "The Great Gatsby."
QUINONEZ: This is "The Great Gatsby," yes. That's basically what the book is, in a nutshell, although it has other themes. But Bodega does the same thing. He was in love with a girl from the neighborhood who married a rich Cuban family, and now he became a big drug lord selling all types of drugs, and now he has enough money, enough stature to go and fight for her love.
What he's doing that Gatsby didn't do, and there's a line in Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," when the father says, "He would have built the place." But I didn't see Gatsby build anything. All he did was throw parties.
So what I did was, my Gatsby started building the place. He actually did, he actually did renovate abandoned buildings that the city of New York totally neglects, to this day, and renovates them, and puts people who need low-cost housing to live there. And he also has this dream of starting a great society of Latino professionals.
The other person that I based Willy Bodega was in a real-life character in El Barrio. His name was actually Willy Vasquez. And he was a gangster, and he was in a lot of racketeering things. But then he met this guy, and Harry Quintana was actually a Harvard architect. And those two got together, the Harvard architect got together with the gangster Willy Vasquez, and they started the real great society. And it was a program, it was a group of people that recruited a whole bunch of -- or anybody that went to college in Spanish Harlem, and they recruited all these Spanish Harlem college students to help teach the Harlem -- the East Harlem dropouts.
GROSS: So do you see the character of Willy Bodega in your novel as a really ambiguous figure, one who is, you know, both really evil, because he sells crack, and good, because he helps renovate the neighborhood?
QUINONEZ: I see him more a representation of almost everyday life, or if you want to go -- of American life, or the United States. It can do some great good, and it can also do some horrible evils too. And I based Bodega on that.
GROSS: Did you read a lot as a kid?
QUINONEZ: No, I actually painted a lot. I knew actually my painters before I knew my literature, and not just the famous ones, I knew the obscure ones too. I loved the Latin American muralists, I loved the Mexican muralists, I loved a painter from my father's country, from Ecuador, Jaillas Amin (ph), I loved him, I loved Puerto Rican painter Oriero (ph), I loved him, I love Campeche (ph), I loved also Picasso and the regulars, Matisse, Miro, Alushila (ph).
So I loved both cultures of painting. And it was only when I got older, when I was in my early 20s, when I went to City College, that I started reading, through a professor that I met named Frederick Dutton (ph), who introduced me to all these great books that I should have read.
And I remember seeing some of those books in my high school, but I didn't really pick them up.
GROSS: When you were really into painting, did you go to the museums, or were there other ways that you saw the work of the painters who you liked?
QUINONEZ: I went to the museum, but I also went to this place called Talla (ph) Borinque, which is now the Jula de Burgos (ph), cultural institute, at 105th Street and Lexington Avenue. But I used to be -- it was very nomadic, so it was always changing, because they were always losing some sort of funding, so they were moving. But they were the ones that actually took me under their wing when I was, like, 16, 17. And I learned a lot from them.
And I would also take workshops and (inaudible) El Barrio, they would offer drawings or painting or sculpting or some sort of workshop, and I was always signing up, hoping that they would pick me. And once in a while, they would pick me, and I was very happy about that.
I would -- when I would go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there was always this sort of uneasiness, because I really thought the guards were, like, after me or something, so it sometimes -- I would go with a friend, and we would dress up, because that way they wouldn't look at us so bad.
GROSS: Did it make a difference?
QUINONEZ: So we wouldn't wear our sneakers. I don't know, but it made me feel better. You know, I couldn't just go with my sneakers, you know.
GROSS: So when you decided to start writing, how did you end up getting published?
QUINONEZ: Gee, I don't know, God smiled on me, I don't -- I have no idea. I met Gloria Loomis (ph) through -- well, I think City College was very good to me. City College (inaudible) interest showed me books and educating me, which is a great tradition, because it was for the workers, City College was for the poor, the education -- college of education for the poor. It is called Poor Man's Harvard, it was called. It had some, you know, some valleys, and maybe it can rise up to a higher standard now. But it's still good, it's still good. I'm proof of that.
I met Walter Moseley, who's a mystery writer, there, and he was teaching a course, and he's actually a student of Frederick Dutton, the same professor who introduced me to great books. So through him, he said, "Well, when you finish with that book, let me look at it, and I'll show it to my agent." And I said, "Sure."
So I gave him "Bodega Dreams," and he gave it to his agent, and she said, you know, "I like this, this is very good," and she decided to represent me.
But before that, before that, because it might sound like a overnight success, before that I wrote another novel. It was titled "The Slow Death of Lobsters." And nobody wanted the novel. So -- and that was, like, three years before the Bodega novel, before I wrote the Bodega novel. So I was rejected a lot, and I was rejected a lot by agents too, not just publishers.
GROSS: My guest is Ernesto Quinonez, author of the new novel "Bodega Dreams." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Ernesto Quinonez. His first novel, "Bodega Dreams," has just been published.
Tell me what some of your favorite movies and TV shows were when you were growing up that you think helped kind of shape you.
QUINONEZ: You know what? I used to like this guy called Dolomite, and he was an African-American who was just trying to get by. And the cops were always -- were setting up. And they would set him up so that he can work for them, so he can go into places that they couldn't go, so they were actually using him some -- sort of like an infiltrator. And he will always at the end actually get the cops back instead of helping them.
And what we would -- we would go see these movies, which were called blaxploitation movies, and Dolomite was my favorite. And we would wait intensely for this line, and the line was, "Stop Whitey." And by the time you would hear that line, we were all going, Yeah! and the whole theater would just go, Yeah!
And to us, that was very exciting. He was sort of like a James Bond character too, because he -- instead of saying, "Bond, James Bond," he would say, "Dolomite," you know, "Dolomite, mother-fletcher," you know...
QUINONEZ: ... and we were, like, Yeah! So he was big, Dolomite was big.
GROSS: What else?
QUINONEZ: We also liked "Starsky and Hutch," we liked "Baretta," we liked those cop shows. For the movies, we -- there was this other movie called "Cornbread, Maxwell, and Me," about a basketball player, and he was from the ghetto, and he was a very good basketball player, but at the end he gets shot because the ghetto drowns him. So to us, that was also a big movie.
There was another big movie for us, it was called "The Warriors." It came out in '78 when we were in junior high school. And wow, when we saw that, one of the kids had a spray can, and wherever they went, he would paint a W. We knew that. We said, you know, we thought the W was cheap, because it's easy to do a W. What we would do is actually do the whole logo, because every crew had a logo. And we understood what was happening.
And in "The Warriors," it's basically about a guy who -- I think it was Van Peebles, Mario Van Peebles -- he's the leader of a big gang, and he calls all the gangs of the city together so they can unite and become this big power in the city. And then someone kills him, so then they kill the visionary, they kill the leader, and they blame the Warriors.
So now the Warriors have to get home to their turf, which is Coney Island, all the way from the Bronx. And the whole movie is about them coming from the Bronx all the way to Coney Island through all these obstacles, a gauntlet of gangs, so they fight their way through all these gangs. And that, to us, was a big movie.
GROSS: In your novel, the main character, the narrator, really wants a nickname, and he -- you know, he finally gets one. Did you have one, and was that important to you?
QUINONEZ: Yes, I was actually Chino, and it was important. And, you know, it's...
GROSS: Same name as your character.
QUINONEZ: Yes, same name as my character. Actually the first chapter is pretty autobiographical. And then there are others just sprinkled around it. But when I was -- "Goodfellas" came out, like, in 1990 or '91. When I saw that movie, there's a part where the narrator, Ray Liotta, is saying, "Everybody had a name. There was Johnny Two-Times." And the guy goes, "Gotta get the paper, get the paper." Then he goes, "There was Nicky Eyes, and there was the guy, Pete the Killer." And then he goes, "I took care of that thing for you." "There was this guy... "
So they had names too. And I'm saying, you know, Italians were in our neighborhood as well. They were on Pleasant Avenue. It's really an old thing that you got to have a name, if you want a personality, you got to have a name, and especially if you're an outcast, especially if you consider yourself an outlaw. If you want the respect, you got to have a name.
GROSS: So how'd you get yours?
QUINONEZ: I got mine because Bruce Lee movies were really popular, and there were a lot of Chinos, but it wasn't a name that was just given to you. And I mention that in the book. Chino was, like, an honorable name, sort of like for an Italian mafioso to be called Fats. He's not going to be called Fats if he's skinny and has no, you know, no sort of reputation for being mean or something.
So Chino was like that. You had to look a little bit Chinese, you had to have some sort of Asian looks, and then you also had to fight. Doesn't matter of you won or lost, you just had to fight, sort of like Bruce Lee.
So there was a couple of Chinos, and I was one of them.
GROSS: If you don't mind my asking, the character in "West Side Story" that shoots the romantic lead is named Chino.
QUINONEZ: Right, he was probably the only Spanish in the whole movie. Then again, he might have not been. But he looked Chinese too. He had the cheekbones.
GROSS: Did that movie have any impact at all? (laughs)
QUINONEZ: No, we hated "West Side Story." We liked the music. There's this Puerto Rican comedian who had a very sad life and committed suicide named Freddy Prinze. His son is now doing these teenage movies, Freddy Prinze, Jr. But Freddy Prinze would make fun of that movie. And one of the things he would say was, Tony is yelling for Maria, and only one window opens, you know, which is (inaudible).
QUINONEZ: A whole bunch of windows should open if you start yelling "Maria" in Spanish Harlem.
GROSS: If you teach again, and I realize that you're not sure if you will now, because it depends on how your writing career goes, but if you teach again, full time or part time or, you know, fourth grade or college, do you think it will be a good thing for your students that you're published, that, you know, you love writing and reading so much that you've published?
QUINONEZ: Yes, I think it'll be good for the students, and for the whole Latino community. I get very happy when I see a Latino being published. I get very happy when I see a Latino being a director. I get very happy when I see that my people are being represented. To me, that's important, and I think it will be important to them too.
The funniest thing about when I heard that I was going to be published, I told my parents that I was going to be published, and I've been at this for a while, so my parents were, like, Yeah, OK, that's good. You're not going to quit your job, right? And I said, No, no, I'm not going to quit my job. They said, All right.
And then when I told my kids that I was going to have a book out, they all went, Yeah! Our teacher's going to be famous! Well, my parents didn't do it, you know, but my kids did, because to my parents, the most important thing is that I have a job, you know, that I support myself, while the kids saw it more as, This is something cool, this is something elegant, you know, this is something prestigious.
So I think now publishing has an opportunity to publish a whole bunch of Latino writers, you know, not just me, but others, you know. And it's not unfertile ground. There are other Latinos like Juno Diaz, Sanda Cisneros (ph). But they're far and few in between, and I think we need more of them.
GROSS: Well, Ernesto Quinonez, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
QUINONEZ: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Ernesto Quinonez is the author of "Bodega Dreams."
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producers today were Roberta Shorrock and Joan Toohey Wesman. Audrey Bentham is our engineer, Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant, Ann Marie Baldonado directed the show.
I'm Terry Gross.
(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "MARIA," "WEST SIDE STORY")
TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Ernesto Quinonez
High: Writer Ernesto Quinonez's debut novel, "Bodega Dreams," is set in Spanish Harlem. Like his narrator, Quinonez is half Ecuadorean, half Puerto Rican. A reviewer in the Kirkus Reviews writes of the book, "Edgy, street-smart.
Spec: Art; Minorities; New York City
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End-Story: Ernesto Quinonez Discusses His Debut Novel, `Bodega Dreams'
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