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The City and the Writer: In Austin with Ire’ne Lara Silva

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Austin as you feel/see it?

For me, Austin’s mood is that of a blank canvas. There’s always the sensation that this is a place where people and art can be created and recreated. That this is a place with a kind of spaciousness other cities can’t claim. Where you could choose to be enveloped in community or to claim your solitude. At its best, that mood lends itself to artistic diversity and cultural openness. At its worst, it lends itself to dangerous kinds of  ‘forgetting’—whether that has to do with gentrification, the erasure of long-lived African-American and Latino communities/histories, and economic ‘development’ at the price of Austin’s natural beauty.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

In 2001, I relocated my mother from South Texas to Austin in order to take care of her. She’d been diagnosed as terminally ill with colon cancer. I took her to her first appointment with her new oncologist. He spent only a few minutes with us, scanning her file and never looking her in the eyes. He assumed she didn’t understand English or he just didn’t care. Said there was no reason to continue with chemotherapy and that I should fill out the paperwork to prepare for hospice. We left the doctor’s office. It was a beautiful day in November, filled with golden early afternoon light and the leaves changing and a slight chill in the air. My mother saw none of it. She closed her eyes and said not a word. We got back to my apartment. She went to bed and slept the afternoon away. In my heart, I knew she’d finally given up after two years of fighting. She passed away two weeks later.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

I worked graveyard shift as a state employee for half a dozen years. I used to take a break each night at around 2 a.m. and sit outside to look at the night sky. A railroad track ran a block or so behind the building. On certain nights, I’d see these pale animals wandering along the railroad. Someone said they were deer, but I wasn’t convinced. One night, they came close enough for me to realize that they were coyotes. I came to call them my ‘coyote’ breaks. Nightly we shared the breeze and the dark sky overhead.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

You trip over a writer every few steps in Austin, but my recommendations: Dagoberto Gilb, Celeste Guzman Mendoza, Scott Wiggerman, Deborah Paredez, and Oscar Casares.

Is there a place here you return to often?

One place I love—the Great Outdoor Plant Nursery on South Congress. The hundred year oaks, the café overlooking the plant nursery, the local metal art on display everywhere, and all the cozy alcoves lend themselves to long hours of dreaming and contemplation.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Other writers would choose famous dead writer’s houses and legendary drinking holes, but for me, the two iconic literary places that should be known by everyone are two bookstores:  Resistencia and Bookwoman. Resistencia was founded by the poet Raul R. Salinas in 1981. It’s had various locations in its three decades, but it has managed to survive—and thrive—while offering a wildly diverse, socially and politically progressive event calendar. Resistencia has been an important community center in every sense of the word. Bookwoman has been around for about the same amount of time, and is one of less than 20 feminist bookstores in the United States and the only one in Texas.

Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Nature is everywhere in Austin. There are the parts of it that everyone knows—Town Lake, Mt. Bonnell, Barton Creek, etc. But what I love are the parts of it that you happen upon suddenly—hiking through Shoal Creek, the river east of Pleasant Valley, sudden forests of bamboo, a turn away from a residential neighborhood that takes you to almost unwalkable wilderness.

Where does passion live here?

It lives in its residents—not in a place. Austin—as a city—can get too caught up in appearances. But its people are real—whether artists or activists, teachers or cabdrivers, day laborers or small business owners.

What is the title of one of your works about Austin and what inspired it exactly?

Actually, I’ve never written a poem about Austin or set in Austin. I’m planning to set a chunk of the novel I’m working on in Austin—mainly because of that feeling of Austin as being a blank canvas. My main character is entirely invested in exploring new identities and he needs a place to recreate himself.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Austin does an outside exist?”

Absolutely. I grew up with parents who worked as migrant truck drivers and transported grains and vegetables from the field to the processing plants. They followed the harvests from South Texas to Mathis to Oklahoma to New Mexico to the Panhandle and back to South Texas. I read maps before I read books. I am acutely aware that Austin is only a small knot of roads on a map. As a place, Austin’s only a moment and a knot. A place where we’ve all stopped for a bit. The knot may keep us fascinated for a few decades or a few years, but it’s only a moment before this Austin becomes the next Austin and then the one after that. Beyond Austin, there are places that never change and places that change even more rapidly.


Ire’ne Lara Silva is the author of furia (poetry, Mouthfeel Press, 2010) and flesh to bone (fiction, Aunt Lute Books, 2013). She is the fiction finalist for AROHO’s 2013 Gift of Freedom Award, the 2008 recipient of the Gloria Anzaldua Milagro Award, a Macondo Workshop member, and a CantoMundo inaugural fellow. She and Moisés S. L. Lara are currently co-coordinators for the Flor De Nopal Literary Festival.

Published Jan 28, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal

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