This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Jaime Cortez, whose first story collection, Gordo, is out today from Black Cat. Set in the 1970s, Gordo follows the escapades of a young boy who lives in a migrant workers camp in California. Gordo is bookish and wrestling with a queerness he has not yet named. In one story, the boys and girls become locked in an intense rivalry over the rights to a stash of porn magazines—exacerbating, in Gordo’s words, “an excruciating binary to a sissy boy like me.” And while he struggles internally, external threats loom: The very magazines the kids are warring over were scavenged from the room of a man taken away by Immigration and Naturalization Service agents. Through Gordo’s eyes, the community comes to life in this story and others similarly filled with both irreverent humor and heartache. Cortez reveals the imperfect, but tender ways families and friends care for one another. “What a voice, what a charming, idiosyncratic voice!” writes Rabih Alameddine. “Cortez tells the untold stories of California. Set what you know aside, lay your expectations on the couch next to you, put your feet up, pick up this book, and journey into a land as real and complex as the state itself.” Jaime Cortez is a graphic novelist, visual artist, writer, teacher, and occasional performer. Cortez has historically used art and humor to explore sexuality, social justice, HIV/AIDS, and Chicano identity. He wrote and illustrated the graphic novel Sexile for AIDS Project Los Angeles in 2003.
1. How long did it take you to write Gordo?
I wrote the short story “Raymundo the Fag” around 1998. The other stories followed over the course of the next two decades. The longest story in the book, “Alex,” was completed in 2020.
2. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
One of the first public readings I ever did was around 1998 at Café International on Haight Street in San Francisco. I was still a bit of a hick and felt super boho and sophisticated reading at a ratty café. People in the audience laughed when I hoped they would. Yay! This was so exciting to the humorist in me. I began to think I was onto something with my tragicomic tales. I was not in any way thinking that this story would be part of a book of connected short stories. That was not at all my plan at the time, but that is what happened.
3. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Telling all the truth.
Both of my parents are dead now, but I still want to protect them. In my semi-autobiographical stories I could not bring myself to go fully into the family history of domestic violence. It was too painful to fully unpack that in depth. In some ways I perpetuated the code of silence that many distressed families enforce. Writing Gordo showed me the limits of my willingness to tell the whole truth, and challenged me regarding the merits of telling it all.
4. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I do not have a powerful internal engine of creation that keeps me writing no matter what. I write best when there is a howling deadline hurtling in my direction. Given the gift of a deadline, I inevitably wait until the last minute and enter that zone of potent focus and desperate productivity. I write when there is a publishing opportunity in the offing. I write when I am on fire to set a story to the page. I have never kept regular hours or routines. I write at my normal desk, seated on an expensive—for me—office chair, and I am very easily distracted and stop writing to attend to the distraction. What works for me could be disastrous for other writers and vice versa.
5. What are you reading right now?
I am polyamorous—slutty?—with books. I have five books in rotation at this time and curl up in bed with one or more of them in random order. Becoming A Man by P. Carl is one trans man’s story of transition. Selected Poems of Emanuel Xavier, wherein Xavier reminds me why he is such a New York City lit legend. The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story edited by John Freeman—who also edited Gordo! And I’m about to dive into Honey Boy by Camille Roy and am almost finished with Recollections of My Nonexistence by the fabulous Rebecca Solnit.
6. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
I am a prose kinda guy, but occasionally a poet really gets under my skin. Joe Jiménez’s Rattlesnake Allegory is beautiful and I hope he continues to publish and get recognition for his work.
7. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Gordo, what would you say?
“Hey you. Yeah you. Listen up. Combining unsparing humor with heart is a superpower. Trust it.”
8. Outside of writing, what other forms of work were essential to the creation of Gordo?
I write in pictures, movies, really. I am interested in how dialogue and action can define a character and less so in the inner monologue that runs through a character’s head. The visual arts were my first love, and my MFA is in visual art. I love graphic novels—writing and illustrating my graphic novel, Sexile, just about killed me while giving me so much life.
9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
Professor Patrick “Pato” Hebert of New York University. He is so damned brilliant and knows me with the intimacy of a bestie of twenty-five years. His analysis was deeply intersectional before that word entered the parlance.
10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Hearing various versions of “don’t wait for the muse, don’t wait for inspiration, just do the writing” has effectively incinerated most of the woo woo from my thoughts of how and why to write. I am grateful for that.