***Interview with The Darkness Inside Me is Sparkling author Mateo Amaral***
from the December Issue of Red Ochre Lit: A Journal
Mimi Ferebee: Mateo I am thrilled to have you as our interviewee this month. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you this year and I am happy to present you to RED OCHRE’s readership. First, I think we should talk about your novella, The Darkness Inside Me is Sparkling. A poignant piece, this will undoubtedly ground our discussion. Tell the readers what this piece is about, and what you aimed to do with this work.
Mateo Amaral: Thank you for having me, Mimi. As always it is a pleasure to work with Red Ochre. Much of my writing begins with my job, which is teaching English in a low-income urban high school. For many years now our schools have been focusing on multicultural literature. We teach students about other cultures, and especially love to delve into the gray area where world cultures become blurred in the cities of America. Students read about the struggles of what it means to be Asian-American, or African-American, or Mexican-American. We put hyphens between everything and everyone. The protagonists eat food at Taco Bell and their digestion symbolizes this dichotomous struggle. I poke fun–Multicultural literature is a treasure, and I love teaching it. Yet as a society, I feel like we are moving past this into an area unexplored, and this is one lens I have chosen to focus on in my novel. Our young urban students of mixed ethnicities do not bring with them the cultures of their grandparents. Fourth and fifth generation kids don’t know squat about the food, language, or dance moves of their ancestors (I should know). Their only culture is America, and in an America where the wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, the only culture our youth have is one no one wants to name: The Ghetto. Our kids are increasingly multi-ethnic but monocultural—and their one culture is concrete streets, fast food, and gangsterism. My novel is about a young boy of many ethnicities who finds the only culture—the only world he has—is the ghetto. TheDarkness Inside Me is Sparkling is about a young boy faced with tough decisions in a world where there doesn’t seem to be a lot of right, just lots of wrong. My aim with this novel was to write something short aimed at our urban young men, because I have a hard time finding books that they buy into. So I figured I would write it, being from the same kind of world myself.
Mimi Ferebee: Having spoken with you, you compare this work to Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street, however, your work is geared towards a male audience. I find this particularly interesting as a writer and an editor because as much as I read, I often don’t run across writers who focus their works on the attention of low-income, urban students of mixed ethnicities and cultures—and especially young men. While our works may indeed incorporate characters that embody such attributes, it is quite rare to meet an author whose audience is this population. Naturally, this explains why there is not much of a literary genre for these boys. In your opinion, is this because writers are overlooking this particular audience or is it because publishers are not catering to them?
Mateo Amaral: I think it is a little bit of both. As you know, in the publishing world, the audience is almost as important as the writing. The larger audience publishers think your book will have, the better they feel about putting it out there. Young urban boys don’t buy books, so I guess you’d have to be pretty crazy to consider that your target audience. Luckily, most of my students think I’m crazy, so maybe I’ve just caught on to what they already know. Of course I am not looking at this in such purely capitalistic terms of supply and demand, I am writing for our boys.
We are losing our boys, it cannot be said any clearer. Our accelerated classes are filled with girls and our sheltered classes are wall-to-wall boys. 75% of Latinos who make it to college are girls, that is a complete inverse from just a few decades ago. Not to take anything away from the girls. Women have taken the opportunities afforded to them in the US and have run with them. But now it is our young men who are in trouble, and there doesn’t seem to be much help for them. The House on Mango Street is a perfect example of this idea. HOMS is a great book—great. But our urban boys aren’t interested in it. They flat out could care less about Esperanza and her chanclas. I’m not saying it isn’t good writing, maybe it is too good for them to appreciate. Either way, it is not an engaging book for boys, neither are many books taught in high school. At some point, we have to put dry, wordy literature aside and give kids storylines they understand with characters they can relate to in settings that look like the places our students live. We don’t have a lot of books like that, especially for our young men. In the end, my book is nothing like HOMS, but it began with it in mind.
Now, I’m not completely naïve about my audience either. I think anyone who reads my novel will learn something, and perhaps see our low-income communities in a different way. I think it will be an entertaining ride for any reader of books and literature. Many of my readers have admitted to learning something about these kids and about themselves in reading this piece. I think it is something everyone can read in addition to being geared at a certain segment of our population. Of course it wouldn’t hurt if middle and high schools bought tons of class sets either!
Mimi Ferebee: When you review this piece, what is the strongest feature? When I think of a young, male student struggling with identity and adolescence, the character that comes to mind is Holden Caulfield. This is one of the staples that Virginian teachers have used for years to reach our male students. A wonderfully developed character, Holden is a walking internal conflict. While this is all well and good, I imagine that Holden’s private school upbringing and his coming-of-age journey, built upon wealth and a conscious independence, may cause a bit of dissonance with everyday, male, urban students. How do you work to bridge this gap—to help these students identify with your main character, his upbringing, his daily development?
Mateo Amaral: I’m glad you brought this up. I think Catcher in the Rye is a book urban students can appreciate. But before they do, they need to get to a place in their reading and writing that is appropriate to understanding a character like Holden Caulfield. For many kids, this doesn’t happen until junior or senior year. The problem we have is we lose a third of our kids before they get to junior year. In our English classes, students become disillusioned with reading and writing because it is about characters like Holden Caulfield. We have to reach kids where they are at, and what that usually means is where they are at physically—where they live. Then we need to find out what they listen to and what they have seen. A kid like Caulfield might as well be an alien from Tramalfador as far as our urban poor are concerned, because that is about how much they can relate to him early in their reading lives.If we want the next generation to get hooked on Kindles and Nooks, the words need to be about them!
Mimi Ferebee: At what point did you decide to pursue publication for this piece? I think it’s important for authors to speak on this—the moment they decide that a work is finished enough to seek publication.
Mateo Amaral: I decided early on when I felt I had something special. I have a few writers very close to me who read my work, and with my early chapters I felt like I was onto something. I kept writing with a bull-headed brutishness that wasn’t going to take no from a publisher, and as I got to the end I thought I had a manuscript worth something. As far as it being finished enough, that hasn’t happened yet. You and your editors have read the latest, but even after sending it to you, I have continued to add small things. I don’t have much to do, just tinkering here and there, developing characters a bit more, adding scenes. I think that I need a week to fully finish it (I’m thinking Christmas Break), and after that I am going to have to force myself to leave it alone. I don’t know that a piece is every really done, I think it happens when someone finally publishes it and you can’t change the copies out there being sold in the world.
Mimi Ferebee: When we have authors one-on-one, we always reach out to them to give fresh advice/tips to our novice and experienced writers. Speak for a moment to our writers who are interested in writing pieces for our minority youths. Your main character refers to this as “Straight street-speak from the cracked lips of the sidewalk.” What does this mean for a writer? And if we are writing inevitably withpublishers in mind, how does this change the process—how do we do so without compromising our characters, our scenes, our plots?
Mateo Amaral: I think Stephen King said readers want the writing to be true. They want it to feel like real life. I think that if you can get to a point where your writing is good enough that the reader believes you are telling them the truth, about life, about people, about relationships, then you can get a publisher to follow you anywhere. I think that is a hard truth in itself. It means you have to be a great writer. There are no gimmicks, no golden ideas, no unique plot structures—there is good writing and there is not. I think if you have a novel you want to write and it is coming from the truest place inside you then you write it, and then research publishing houses after. You can’t force yourself to write a book. Write it, and if it is good, they will come.
Mimi Ferebee: What advice do you have for individuals looking to publish their novellas? You have first hand experience, being at that point in your journey right now. What are a couple things that you would have done differently? Or what have you changed recently to make for a better outcome? Please share any resources that you are using, or avoiding.
Mateo Amaral: I think it is important to build relationships in your writing life. I think you need to put yourself out there, get to know editors, authors, and others who can help you on your journey. This is something I always want to do more of. I want to send more queries, get to know more editors, meet other writers. Every person you meet has a new idea, a fresh perspective, or heck, maybe a literary agent’s email address, and not the one that goes straight to their slush pile either. I love my email inbox. It is a fascinating place that daily carries inside of it many of my hopes. It also disappoints me frequently. But networking and putting yourself out there may be easier than it has ever been. You need to work at it, because your email box is your best friend. Although while I would tell you to get your email to work overtime for you, that still means you need to create personal relationships. Those email addresses have people on the other end of them, and if you want to network your way to success, you need to treat them like people, and get to know them on a human level in some way. That is easier said than done, but worth mentioning.
Mimi Ferebee: This is your spotlight, talk to readers. Where should we hope to see your work in the upcoming months? Feel free to speak about The Darkness Inside Me is Sparking as well as any other literary projects.
Mateo Amaral: You can always find me at Teach 4 Real <www.teach4real.com>, my blog for Real Teachers in our Toughest Schools. I write weekly posts about urban education and really have gained quite a following. My articles expose how life is on the campuses of our low-income public schools. Things are a lot worse off in our schools than most people know. I write to shine light onto those problems in the hopes we can move education in the right direction. My last post was about how a student punched a colleague of mine three times and was not expelled, and hardly reprimanded in fact. It is the normal course of our day in these schools, where neither the adults nor the students feel safe. Most of my work this year is going to focus around my blog and articles on education in places like Education News/Education Views where I am a columnist, and New America Media where I am a contributor. Aside from the Darkness Inside Me is Sparkling, I haven’t been sending out too much of my fiction and poetry lately. I will be seeking publication for my novel very soon, and hope to dedicate a lot of time, effort, and emails into making that a successful endeavor. Hopefully you will see it on bookshelves in a year. My ultimate goal is to bring it into my classroom and teach it to my students. They already want signed copies. In fact, a lot of my toughest boys have even said they’d buy it—go figure.
Excerpts from THE DARKNESS INSIDE ME IS SPARKLING
by Mateo Amaral
Sometimes it seems like my pen is spilling my own mixed blood across the pages of my life. It’s like the words I splatter can’t decide how they want to flow—poetry or prose.
My prosetry flows.
Often I rhyme. The pulse of my pen bounces line after fine line in perfect time. Then, in the next breath, I write to the rhythms of regular life—no rhymes or repetition—straight street-speak from the cracked lips of the sidewalk.
Life is beautiful and real, like my blood congeals from the flow of fifteen fountains down the slopes of fifteen mountains to pool in the sea of me. It is this mixed red reservoir that feeds my pen. My blood, a mixture of a dozen immigrant dreams, bleeding poetry and prose.
My prosetry goes.
Sometimes the ghetto can be good.
Sometimes it’s more than a hood, pulled up around shady faces.
So when my mind can’t wind down enough to sit my legs still I text Lukas.
He hits me back in ten seconds flat. Chillin
Meet me on the street
Lukas lives in the next building, so two minutes later we’re standing on the shore of a black ocean, baggy clothes saggy, earphones plugged in bumping something hip-hop. The empty lot across the street is hairy with dead weeds, protected by a hunched over chain-link fence that looks down and depressed.
“Where you wanna go?” I ask Lukas.
He shrugs, and before the words are out his mouth I join him, and together we say the same thing in one double voice:
“Ain’t nowhere to go in the ghetto.”
It’s one of our jokes that ain’t really funny but keeps us from getting down on our broke-ass town.
We start walking into the nowhere.
Street light lampposts line the concrete like tree trunks without branches—leafless, lifeless—grey skeletons standing in line along the edge of a dead forest. Black rivers of blacktop flow unrippling to meet at right angles at loud intersections.
Liquor store. Pawn shop. Bar. Fast food. Boarded up windows and burned out buildings. The sidewalk smells like stale beer and fear—passing cars we hear outside our earphones.
But the ghetto can be good.
Sometimes it’s more than a straight hood.
The ghetto got this beauty, like a dying flower that looks dried, like it already died, crumpled with its head on its chest—but if you put your nose close it smells like rain clouds.
And as you walk along you sometimes think maybe if you pick up an empty beer bottle and put it to your ear for one quiet second, you might hear the ocean coming in.
Young girls jump rope, tap-tapping childhood away, and you pretend they won’t turn angry this year, and start screaming like their mommies.
A brown puppy pit-bull sniffs by your feet, so young its tail hasn’t even been clipped yet, and it wags all sloppy and squiggly like a question mark written on wet paper, and you look up at the owner’s face and pretend like he ain’t about to train the little guy to fight for his life in dark basements surrounded by screaming stacks of rolled up cash held tightly by fast hands.
You pass the old guys sitting outside the donut shop and for a little minute it seems like everyone could live that long, sing just as many songs, and sit on the sunset as it disappears slowly behind the orange horizon of pointy skyscrapers.
You even see some homies walk by, happy and high. And they don’t stop you and stress you today and you think someday you might actually make it away from here. From the stale fear. The clear sky makes you think ain’t nobody dying or crying in the windows you walk under.
Liquor store. Bail bonds. Fast Food. Fast Food. Fast Food.
Eventually you get hungry, and you only got like three bucks and some change. And the food comes just as fast as they promise, and for today it don’t seem strange you’ve been raised on nothing but French fries and ketchup. Your straw gurgles around the ice cubes in the bottom of your big red cup. You wipe your mouth with the back of your sleeve, avoiding the place where you wiped your runny nose earlier.
Then you walk home.
You say bye to your one friend.
Then you’re alone.
You ain’t got no cousins.
You don’t got no dad.
But you still have somewhere to go. Your mind is wound up tight and your legs feel ill from all the sitting.
And the anger is always there, spitting.
But then you remember you been everywhere you could be. You’ve gone to the only places to be went.
Ain’t nowhere to go in the ghetto. Maybe I’ll make a song about that. Maybe I can fit that in a rap.
I heard someone on TV call it Wilding, but no one I know calls it that. We don’t call it anything. We do wile-out though, to put it mildly. But for us it ain’t nothing special, it’s not, like, a thing, nawmean? It’s just life. Just another day.
It’s like those tribes in Africa where a boy don’t become a man until he’s killed a lion. In the hood we got to hunt what we can cuz we already killed off all the wildlife. To be a man here you got to jack someone, attack someone, shoot loot and ransack something, get jumped in, have some breezy hump you in, to be a man here you finna fight mightily to be a chief.
So when I get the text blast that says the time and place, I hop on the bus trying not to be late.
I grab the greasy metal bar above my head and stand with my feet apart as the bus lurches away from the curb. The engine whines high and I stare out the window with my earphones blistering beats, trying not to think about Mama in the hospital bed, tied down with tubes threading through her. I nod my head through the dark night as the bus stops blur by with all the faces passing on my left, right. People sit and stare at their hands like they trying to figure out if they really here. I’m aware of nothing but the bass that matches my heartbeat, cuz if I think about Mama I’ma explode.
Twenty minutes later the bus wheezes to my stop downtown and I step out into a surging crowd in the night. The woman behind me stops on the last step, and when she sees the writhing bodies of forty black hoodies she stops and steps back up.
These boys are the darkness in the deepest part of night. Their eyes gleam out from inside their pulled up hoods—wide open and mad-looking. None of them can stop moving and they hop from foot to foot and jump up and down like a track team before the gunshot. Like me a lot of them are plugged in through their ears, hands waving up and down to unheard rhythms, lips mouthing words like hurricanes.
I don’t even see Nay-Nay and Tank, just pull up my hood and wait. Without a sign, like a flock of ravens we’re flying through the street. We swirl through the street, we are one with the wind. We are a tornado.
Everything we come to is consumed.
Trash cans end up bashed through storefront displays. Dark heads bob around me, plumes of breath blossom from our open mouths, hiding our faces. Our mob flashes by like your eyes are playing tricks in a fog. We come out of nowhere.
I run over a car in giant steps, the hood and windshield crack in loud metallic clacks, I run dents into the roof, break the back window too with my shoes.
Our footfalls patter in a hundred pitters. People in the street flee before our feet, but most ain’t fast enough—who is? A dude gets hit in the face and is stepped on by ten pairs of size tens. His lady is knocked over and dragged by her hair crying and dropped in a gutter. The storm passes over her sobbing figure.
And all of a sudden we’re in a liquor store wiling in the aisles. I kick over a magazine rack and it falls on some other boy’s back. When he tries to get up someone stomps on his neck with both feet from above. Nay-Nay’s face turns to me with a vicious grin, his eyes insane—the same as mines.
The guy behind the counter is gone and I’m grabbing whiskey bottles from the back. Two dudes next to me are knocking them off the shelves with elbows, and a sea of bitter booze and broken glass forms around our kicks.
Then I’m running running between trunks of black trees in a dark park, the wind whooshing past my wet eyes. I slide and glide through the wet grass away from the slow sirens behind. I feel like I’m in someone else’s dream but I scream into the night because it feels like life, it feels so right.
You wonder why we do this. You wonder why we make others cry. But you give us nothing to do and nowhere to go in the ghetto and we liable to make our own ceremonies in this windy desert. We scavenge for flow. Cuz we got nothing—none of us. And when you got nothing you got nothing to lose. In the ghetto, we gaffle booze.
We all got the anger—us—every single one. Not that we chose it, or chased it. We didn’t ask for it and don’t even know why it’s here, but the anger’s inside us—that much is clear. It’s the guns and the drugs and it bugs us, the nothing we got, so we’re stuffing our pockets—we’re connecting our own dots.
It’s the darkness inside of us all, and it’s sparkling.
Lighting us hopeless.
It is a flashlight with a black bright.
We’re young with nothing, but we can run. Our lives are broke, but we got knives. We’re wiling out—to put it mildly.
It’s the only time we feel alive.
RECENT REVIEW OF MATEO AMARAL’S PROSE COLLECTION
THE DARKNESS INSIDE ME IS SPARKLING
“Mateo Amaral’s “The Darkness Inside Me is Sparkling” is a prose compilation that at its core sparkles in itself. On the surface, the language of this piece captures the tone of its dark, conflicted protagonist and can mislead a reader who is not willing to work a little to reach the beauty that lies at the crux of this work. A lazy reader will sell this piece short, undermining the narrator’s voice. Showcasing a population is that often overlooked and underrepresented, Amaral snatches the film off of some young, multi-ethnic males in this country, presenting the trials that they experience as they work to secure identities in both their psychosomatic and physical worlds. This piece is an acquired taste, for sure, existing as a treat for those who enjoy cultural explorations and criticisms. It is a reflection of a small populace whose voice has been tragically muted. Thank you to Amaral for giving these boys volume through his work. And thank you to readers to who can appreciate the beauty of this author’s effort.”
-Mimi Ferebee, RED OCHRE PRESS
Published with the permission of Red Ochre Lit