Three Questions for Bryan Allen Fierro Regarding His Debut Short-Story Collection, Dodger Blue Will Fill Your Soul

by Daniel A. Olivas

Filed under: Blog, Interview |

Bryan Allen Fierro earned an MFA from Pacific University in Oregon.  He grew up in Los Angeles but now splits his time between L.A. and Anchorage, Alaska, where he now works as a firefighter and paramedic.  Fierro is the recipient of the Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award in Fiction, as well as the Rasmuson Individual Artist Award for literary and script works.

Fierro’s debut short-story collection is Dodger Blue Will Fill Your Soul published by the University of Arizona Press in the press’s Camino del Sol series.  In truth, these stories will fill your soul: Fierro’s characters and their very human frailties ring true, and he presents them with just the right doses of humor and affection.  Fierro kindly agreed to answer a few questions for Prairie Schooner about his first book.

Choosing a book’s title can be a tricky—and for some—painful process.  Why did you decide to title your collection after the story, “Dodger Blue Will Fill Your Soul”?

It’s funny to me that this question leads many of the interviews I have done, not in a negative way, but as if my explaining will help with the reader’s ingress into the work.  Believe me, I did my best to change the title in the early stages, but the magicians at the University of Arizona Press politely insisted that Dodger Blue Will Fill Your Soul will stand the test of time.

I have been looking at this title for so long that I thought a change might be refreshing for me, as to how I envisioned the collection as this enduring love letter home.  I had suggested Shangri-LA and Fortress of Solitude as possible substitutions but they only captured the spirit of a few selected stories, whereas Dodger Blue Will Fill Your Soul embodies the work on a level that speaks to how I feel about my own ingress into my community, or rather, my return.  The notion of the Dodgers has always been my connection to the Latino community I grew up in.  My grandparents spoke Spanish in the house, as did other relatives of their generation.  The gap came with my mother and subsequently kept language out of my mouth.

The one constant in the greater Latino Los Angeles (San Gabriel Valley) community was always Dodger baseball.  You could share the love for Vin Scully and the 1970’s infield that always played ball with me in my head growing up.  I used to sit on the patio with Tata in Monterey Park listening to Dodger games on a transistor radio.  The static forced you to pay attention, to recognize and understand the stakes in the game.  It is device well suited for opening doors when language is not available.  You can share a game, break bread, and eventually begin to share stories in varying and dynamic ways.  The Dodgers appear in my stories in light brushstrokes—whether someone is wearing a Championship t-shirt, the critical game playing on the radio, or the team making their move into Chavez Ravine [from Brooklyn] for the first time [thereby displacing a well-entrenched Mexican-American community].

I am aware of the sordid history and also the unconditional love for the organization.  It is a high-wire act to write about Dodgers history and Latino community.  There are many Angelenos who still will not attend a game or show any sort of support since the decade long Battle of Chavez Ravine.  The story is fascinating and necessary.  I am ashamed that I did not know about it until I was an adult.  And it seems as though every year it dissipates a bit more.  It was the reason I had wanted to change the title to Fortress of Solitude, the title of the last story in the collection, which takes place in 1959 Chavez Ravine, when George Reeves—Superman came to the barrio.  A community in need of a hero.  I was hoping to point to that Los Angeles historical shift before I applauded any sort of lasting successes by the organization.  The Los Angeles Dodgers time stamp specific peoples and very specific place, and the interpretive vision of both.

In “100% Cherokee” and “Las Palmas Ballroom” (which appear back-to-back in the collection), you humorously but with great sensitivity delve into how people confront family members’ disabilities.  Could you talk a little about your literary approached this issue?

Beyond those two stories, disabilities run through the entire collection, which was surprising to me when I first spoke to my editor, Kristen Buckles at the press.  Aside from the deficits that accompany any developing character running their course along an arch, many of mine were missing a leg, or milky-eye blind. In the story “Homegirl Wedding,” the sickly-looking girl quite honestly just appeared on the sidewalk with the perfectly healthy girl standing next to her.  It was these peripheral characters that lifted much of the weight and responsibility in the collection, pointing to the much larger and debilitating deficits in the protagonists.  Some were more successful than others, but in case, when they appeared, I did not fight them off the page. Instead, I asked, What is it you want me to see? In “Homegirl Wedding,” I never intended the upstairs scene at the wedding reception between the astronomer protagonist and sick girl, but it ended up being the scene I most enjoyed writing in the collection.

Disabilities will peel back the layers of those around you, revealing their true nature and inabilities.  Working as a paramedic for twelve years, it made sense that disability would find it’s way into the work.  I don’t always deal with what I see or do in my fire department environment for various reasons, but I am certain it rises up as my way of having to look it in the eye and recognize that there’s much to wrestle with.  I imagine that is where many of the ghosts come from.  Writing fiction is the place where I can be at my best as a person.  That doesn’t mean my characters are exemplary citizens, but it does mean that I have the space to practice the most important gift in fiction—the greatest martial art of them all: compassion.

Growing up, I had a grandmother who told me to always give to those less fortunate, to always show compassion and help others.  This woman was the left hand of God.  Once I told a nun at a Skid Row soup kitchen that I wasn’t poor because I wore a Member Only jacket.  I even pointed to the label and urged her to move along and find another sucker to scoop soup. My grandmother materialized from thin air.  She pinched my arm and guided me out the front door back to the car.  We drove a mile or so before she pointed out the homeless person that I would have to forfeit my jacket to.  These are the lessons of compassion, the lessons that steer a young boy into the life of public safety.  It really seemed like the obvious choice, aside from priesthood, which I had considered for some time (I am clearly NOT priest material.)

Aside from employing the page to work for me to help people, it also allows me to know them, to spend time with those in the caretaker role.  Trust me when I say the caretaker role has built in its own impossibilities and pain—it’s gut-wrenching to watch someone you love physically change and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.  I don’t care how much schooling you may have had on how to fix people, how heal people, how to advocate.  When you can’t alleviate the pain and deterioration of a loved one, and all the five-year plans disappear, and you forget who you are because every part of you is cold to the touch and only a distant memory that disappears like a finger of smoke, you begin to question just how good of a person you are.  As a caretaker, you replace much of who you’ve been with the guilt of being healthy—that is its own disease.

I think that is why you see the characters in my story “The Healing Caves of Marrano Beach”the shameful badge-wearing protagonist who is trying to navigate his poor decisions and orchestrate his own redemption, if it really ever ends up being important enough that he finds redemption.  Sometimes guilt is enough, especially when the only medication to take is a bolus of forgiveness.  It’s clear to me now that my disabled characters are heroic in their own right, or at the very least, teachers.

Several of your male characters are “pochos”—somewhat assimilated Chicanos who, while proud of their heritage, struggle with the Spanish language and Mexican cultural touchstones.  It seems to me that this circumstance is making its way more often in literature written not just by Chicanos and Chicanas, but also writers from other ethnic groups.  Thoughts?

I feel like this is the place where I have to qualify my experience.  I must admit that when I saw the word, pochos, I had to reach out to some other Latino writers to ask how they felt about the term.  Some objective, Chicano culture historians understood its origin, and that the word resides along side Chicano.  Some Latino writers embraced the word as a pillar of power, that somehow being pocho is unique—it’s our own experience within the experience.  Another fought it off with her heart outside her body, that’s the N-word for our people.  It certainly was not a word I thought about in any way when putting together my collection.  Its direct translation is actively rotting and discolored fruit.  This does not sound anything close to what I wanted for my characters.  I made many conscious decisions about my protagonists based on some of my own cultural deficits.  My protagonists don’t speak Spanish simply because I do not.  I wanted my characters to be proud of the touchstones they did have, however faint or distant.  They do not lay claim to Aztlán, but they are from somewhere.

Perhaps that is the Dodger Blue in it all for me.  It is my stake in place and person.  I remember sitting with Rigoberto González in a New York pie shop, and how he said that my voice is a unique and necessary presence in the letters.  That was a pivotal moment for me, a permission slip of sorts to walk through the door, that though my experience had been a splinter cell of sorts, it was important to record as a component to the complete story of us.  Simply, my stories will provide ingress for another group, another experience.

I guess it is ironic that I did not know the term pocho, but it seems like a subcategory to the Mexican-American experience.  If I had to counteract it, I’d say it’s another example of internalized oppression within a group, especially when it becomes widely accepted as moniker to divide a people within a people.  It’s funny, even now, writing pocho, my software underlines it in red.  I keep right clicking to “ignore,” and not to “learn.”  I remember reading Nami Mun’s Miles from Nowhere and David Bezmozgis’s Natasha, thinking that these were two books that informed me about my own culture in how I was to approach story.  Both works seemed to observe from a place that was patient but not always a safe perch.  I returned to those books a few times when writing Dodger Blue Will Fill Your Soul, not just to read the words, but to hold on to the feel of the book, listen to its sound.

So when people tell me that they can hear my collection when they read it, that it has a snap to the sentences and music, that deeply satisfies me, that the experience was full for the reader.  I recently had the opportunity to lecture and read at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.  Professors, Emmy Perez and Britt Haraway, were teaching Dodger Blue in the undergrad and MFA creative writing programs.  It was easily the single most rewarding experience I have had to date as a writer.  First generation Latina/o students coming up to me after class to thank me for giving them permission to write about a world and experiences they thought no one cared about, changed how I perceived my own work.  It didn’t even seem real to me that my work could prompt them to account for all the beauty in their lives, that we were together in this great effort to preserve story.

Daniel A. Olivas is the author of seven books and editor of two anthologies. His books include the award-winning novel, The Book of Want (University of Arizona Press, 2011), the landmark anthology, Latinos in Lotusland (Bilingual Press, 2008), which brings together 60 years of Los Angeles fiction by Latin@ writers, and Things We Do Not Talk About: Exploring Latino/a Literature through Essays and Interviews (San Diego State University Press, 2014). His forthcoming books are The King of Lighting Fixtures: Stories (fall 2017, University of Arizona Press), and Crossing the Border: Poems (Pact Press, 2017).