Each week, the My America blog series introduces you to one of the writers featured in our special exhibit My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today, which can now be explored virtually. The exhibit is designed to elicit thoughtful dialogue on a wide array of issues with contemporary immigrant and refugee writers delving into questions about writing influences, being multilingual, community, family, duality, otherness and what it means to be American. Check back every week to learn more about these writers and their thoughts on these themes, as we highlight select quotes from the exhibit as well as reading recommendations. This week, get to know Chicago-based poet José Olivarez, the son of Mexican immigrants.
At first, José Olivarez wanted to be a rapper. That was his dream. But, as he says, “I was really terrible at rapping. So luckily for all of us I quit that and became a poet.” His poems still have that hip-hop sound to them though, as Olivarez cites rappers like Tupac and Common as early influences on his poetry. “I wanted to play with words, with language the same way my favorite rappers did,” he says. “I wanted to be able to convey meaning, but I also wanted to have my poems have the style of hip hop. I wanted people, even if they felt like emotionally I was tugging on their heartstrings, to still be like but why does this also kind of make me feel good? Why do I also want to bounce to this?”
In addition to hip-hop, Olivarez says he also owes a lot to the Black communities in Chicago, specifically Black mentors in Chicago who taught him about Afro poetics and Afrofuturism and opened his mind up about the potential of Latinx stories. Traditionally, Olivarez only saw three options represented for Latinx stories: death, deportation, or assimilation. It wasn’t until he heard Krista Franklin, a Chicago-based poet, talk about Afrofuturism that he thought, “Well, let me answer that as a Latinx person. Let me try and imagine what a future might look like for us that doesn’t end in death, assimilation or deportation.”
And as the son of Mexican immigrants these themes have been prevalent throughout Olivarez’s life. His mother and father are from Cañadas de Obregón in Jalisco, Mexico, a little town about two hours away from Guadalajara. They crossed the border in the trunk of a car while his mother was pregnant with him, headed for Chicago because his father heard there was permanent work in the steel mills. Eventually, they landed in Calumet City, Illinois, a working class suburb of Chicago, where Olivarez developed a working class mentality toward writing. “I think of myself as a plumber. I have to show up and do my job. A plumber, if they’re not feeling inspired they can’t look at a toilet or a bathroom and say, ‘I’m gonna go and I’m not gonna touch this toilet today, I’ll come back later.’ I try to take that same approach to writing. I always have to show up, even if I don’t feel any particular inspiration.”
So far, with that mentality and approach Olivarez has garnered much-deserved acclaim for his work. His debut book of poems, Citizen Illegal, was a finalist for the PEN/Jean Stein Award and a winner of the Chicago Review of Books Poetry Prize, as well as being named a top book of 2018 by The Adroit Journal, NPR, and the New York Public Library. He is also the co-editor of The BreakBeat Poets Vol 4: LatiNEXT along with Felicia Chavez and Willie Perdomo. Watch and read excerpts from Olivarez’s contributions to My America below, and explore the exhibit virtually at my-america.org.
Selected Quotes from My America
“I think of writing as a very powerful act. I take writing very seriously because it gives me a chance to frame the conversation the way I want, and for who I want the conversation to take place for.”
On Connecting to Characters
“Before I became a writer, I was an avid reader. And I especially loved fantasy novels. As a young person I don’t think I was making the connection between people that traveled to different worlds with my parents’ own experience of migrating to the United States or with my experience of feeling like I was from a different planet. But now, looking back, I think maybe that was some of the appeal. I think it’s why I immediately gravitated towards characters like Harry Potter, just this kind of feeling of out of place-ness really drew me in as a reader.”
On Being Bilingual
“I think being able to use both languages helps me get more precise, and it helps me call upon precise experiences and textures and moments and images, as opposed to just kind of the rough caricature of them.”
On Humor in Poetry
“I get a lot of my humor from my family and from my community. I think one of the underrated facts about Mexicans is that we are an incredibly funny people. We are very boisterous. We love to laugh and make fun of everything. So I grew up, you know, getting made fun of and making fun of people. And the spirits of laughter and of jokes is something I try to infuse into my poetry.”
“The place that makes me feel the most at home is any apartment in Chicago where they’re playing really loud hip-hop, preferably, if it’s my party, a little more old school. If they’re serving Harold’s Chicken with lots of mild sauce and I have my closest friends near me, and we’re playing Spades, and my brothers are cracking jokes. To me that’s the place that feels most like home.”
Selected Works by José Olivarez
MY AMERICA: IMMIGRANT AND REFUGEE WRITERS TODAY