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  • Zachary J. Schloss

Gente, Folks: A Review & Conversation with Norman Antonio Zelaya

Black Freighter Press | $20 | 2022 |

ISBN: 9781955953009


A Review of Gente, Folks

Every cigarette trampled on the sidewalk is the ghost of lips and smoke, the artifact of fingers and tongue, and a moment of human breath unnoticed even in its occurrence, alone on the curb. Norman Antonio Zelaya brings the periphery into view: the embers of a long draw, the cough into a sweater sleeve, the shoe grinding ash into concrete. Gente, Folks is Zelaya’s second book, published by Black Freighter Press in 2022. His stories are linked by the shared setting of San Francisco’s Mission District, bringing forward a multiplicity of voices, fine hairs clung wet to the face of the neighborhood, each curling across its own crevice or contour. They are unseen but itch the skin. These are the kinds of stories Zelaya tells—ones of noticing. 


But in noticing comes an exchange: Zelaya sometimes trades the active protagonist for the passive observer, giving more focus to the characters that surround his first-person narrator (consistently named Tonio, sometimes unnamed). During my interview with Zelaya, he described the core of this narrative style: “It’s how we live life. It’s how we experience. It’s the voices coming through the apartment wall. You hear those every night.” In de-centering his narrator, he replicates the witnessing that occurs in life—on the bus, in the bar, on the street. “You know something about those people now,” says Zelaya. “You can’t unhear those things.” In scenes like the one in the laundromat—the opening of the eighth story in the collection—Tonio makes room for characters like Don José Rogelio and Úrsula. Tonio makes space for “the middle-aged Tejano” to crowd and pester and serenade her as she folds her clothes: a real yet surreal moment that a reader might uncomfortably witness in life, something to tell their friends.


Yet even when Tonio is positioned as an occasional observer, his voice remains strong. It is the ping of a metal bat on asphalt, sharp and clear, a singing bowl hum vibrating through your teeth like a playground cuss. Zelaya is in the room with us, leaned real close, and he’s hitting our shoulders with a backhand slap, telling us that kind of story, an oral story told with the language someone would use with friends: “it was cold-blooded, fuckin unkind, and dudes had to be ready to snap, handle themselves, cuz fuckheads always cappin, shit talkin and starting static every fucking minute of every fucking day.” In moments of witnessing, he peels back his voice like a candy wrapper, lets it fly and skitter down the road. Scenes of private moments emerge outside the narrator’s thoughts, almost as if captured on camera: “A cleaning woman bends over in an awkward position, reaches for something just beyond fingertips, under a stool, a sponge mop leaned against a piano, the whole scene crammed into a picture window.” 


Zelaya frequently plays with intimacy and distance, sometimes juxtaposing third-person and first-person perspectives within the same story. In our interview, he called his narrator “not just omniscient but a narrator that lives among” his characters: “My narrator is deeply invested in the people he narrates about.” Omniscient yet invested on a personal level, the narrator is embedded within the Mission’s community. He observes and reacts with care: “I don’t act like it, but there’s a sadness in me about him. Something like grief.” The stories come through in a way that requires internality and voice but often also a disconnected third-person view to “bring these outside characters into the story,” as Zelaya stated in our conversation. This flexibility allows him to structure his stories beyond the linear, based instead on people in particular moments at varied levels of closeness. His eyes become convex mirrors, dilating past their borders, blooming into fractals. Each reflection haunts: “The old man tucks his books carefully under his body, flattens himself so they’re protected as the hose sprays everywhere, soaks his ankles, bruised and yellowish.”


The characters of the book are oftentimes rendered in fleeting scenes. Zelaya gives each corner of the Mission and the people passing through a transient quality. In one flash fiction story, the narrator encounters a character named Juriel, who he calls “a ghost of barrio past.” Half the story is the narrator’s memory of Juriel in his youth set against the current Juriel, whose “steps are choppy but quiet,” who looks “exposed” with an “unshaven face” and “an uncertain stare.” After he asks the narrator for a dollar and is rejected, he leaves: “he walks on, strangely, hovering over the sidewalk.” Many of Zelaya’s characters are written almost as apparitions, appearing and then disappearing, like smoke puffed into the night, illuminated beneath a streetlamp. Eventually, it dissipates as though it had never been blown.


Gente, Folks is a book about witnessing, seeing the collective neighborhood through the polyvocal. Norman Antonio Zelaya’s voice is twine unbraided into many fibers, the voices of the Mission District. Each strand dangles from clenched teeth, suspended above the pavement, as one by one, their ends are taken up by cracked fingers and threaded through a needle’s eye—people caught through time in joint memory, tangled and knotted and twisted, a new string.


A Conversation Between Zachary J. Schloss and Norman Antonio Zelaya about Gente, Folks

Zachary J. Schloss (ZS): What immediately stuck out to me while reading were the specific spaces within each story: the laundromat, the pit where the apartment building had burned down, the playground structure and its view of backyards, the school building where the old man shelters himself within the cutout and the more open corner and sidewalk where he is forced to move. Each feels like a hyper-focused fragment of the Mission District, and they are all confined to a brief, particular moment of life within that space. What was your intention behind giving these settings and the characters within them this transient quality?


Norman Antonio Zelaya (NAZ): The intention comes from the idea I had for the manuscript. So, brief backstory: Tongo Eisen-Martin is the poet laureate of San Francisco, and he co-founded Black Freighter Press, and when he did that a few years ago, he asked me—you know, we’ve read several times together, and we’re friends—he asked me if I had a manuscript. I didn’t. But I had an idea I’d been hanging on to for like twenty years. I spoke to another poet friend who’s from San Francisco, and he’s from the Bayview, and we talked about writing poems about characters in our neighborhoods. We both had people that defined an archetype. So, I’ve been holding on to this idea. And then I fleshed out about twelve [poems] for Tongo for his approval if he wanted to follow through with this idea, and he did, and I got to twenty. And for me, walking through the streets all my life, I’m in my fifties now, and I’m thinking about people that I’ve seen or have known since I was a kid. And some of these people are tied to specific places in the neighborhood, and I think part of that, that specificity, the pit in the corner, or another particular corner for the young prostitute, that’s how I saw things as a kid. You know, passing by these neighborhoods, passing through, these people lived in certain places—outside that liquor store, in that laundromat, which is a big part of life with neighbors. So, in order to write about these people, I had to establish those places, and place for me has always been a character. I think about other authors that describe place in a way that not just is the setting but speaks to a lot of the people in those settings. So, I’ve always done that with the Mission. It’s really important for me to do that. I’m also thinking about the changes that the Mission’s gone through over the last twenty-five, thirty years, especially with gentrification, how it’s important to document the impact of these places but also, for these particular people, how those changes haven’t impacted their lives very much. Y’know, they’re still the same people I knew then, thirty-five years ago, and I still see those same kinds of folks in the streets today.


ZS: That actually leads to another question I have. You mentioned “to document,” and I’m wondering, in your writing process, when does the autobiographical, the non-fiction, or the real world converge with both the construction of your characters and your version of the Mission District in story?


NAZ: I mean, I think it’s important to note that I am constructing characters based in a real place. I don’t need to fictionalize the Mission as a place. And I need to be very honest about what it was and what it is and what it’s becoming. And again, the Mission as a place is the grounding piece for my work. The place allows me to think about these people and develop them in kind. But if it’s autobiographical, it’s an autobiographical fiction. Some of the people I think about definitely have big, big influences on who I write about, but it’s about the stories that I want people to remember. It’s the kind of stories that I want people to know of. But I’m also mindful that some of these stories aren’t just my own. I know there are people that grew up with family that know exactly where that incident came from. I’m not interested in that kind of truth-telling or reporting. I’m interested in people’s responses to that incident, or how that incident influenced the characters in those stories, or what we might glean from those incidents as Latinos, and how we change, or how we need to change, or how we adapt or need to adapt. But the Mission is always real, and these are characters that are, I think, real representatives of what living in this Mission has been for me and people like me.


ZS: My next question steers more toward your craft or your style that I became interested in while reading. I noticed that your use of perspective and voice is very flexible, and sometimes, you will even shift between a first-person perspective character and a third-person perspective character in the same story. What was your thought process behind choosing a third-person perspective for some characters and a first-person perspective for other characters? And how do you believe these different uses of perspective affect voice and internality in your writing?


NAZ: Over the years, I’ve been actively developing a narrative that is efficient, effective enough to reflect what it’s like to walk through the neighborhood. I remember early on, like even back in high school, I would get feedback about my narrator and how my narrator couldn’t possibly know certain details about the characters, and I’ve always pushed against that. My narrator is deeply invested in the people he narrates about, and I think that’s also reflective of how we share stories. When we’re hanging out on the corner with our friends and stuff, we all have a version of the story. We all got our take: “Nah, nah, nah, you got it all wrong. I was there. No, you don’t know. It was like this. Nah, dude. It wasn’t like that. It was like this. Well, let me finish, let me finish, let me finish.” Right? We all have a take on that story. So, I needed a narrator that understood those perspectives and was not just an omniscient narrator but a narrator that lives among those characters. Take the story about Joey. My narrator is friends among the kids in the neighborhood who play football, but here’s Joey who’s somebody different. He’s outside of this group. So, I couldn’t take the same approach with Joey because that narrator just doesn’t have the details. But I can take a third-person perspective and give a broad vision of who Joey is because Joey’s not just next door; he’s also very important. So, my narrator allows the reader some very intimate experiences and insight, but I also have to be able to allow or bring these outside characters into the story and also in a very intimate fashion but also distinct. 


ZS: Yeah, I noticed that use of distance for some characters and that use of intimacy for others, and there’s a wide array of characters, and giving them those different perspectives felt distinct as I read. So, I really enjoyed that. 


NAZ: And I like that use of the word “flexibility,” because thinking about the sounds and the rhythms and the sights and all the sensations of being in this neighborhood, we need to have that kind of flexibility. Some things need to be kind of suspended in order to create an authentic—I don’t want to say authentic—but create a portrait that people could get into. Right? You don’t just have to be from the Mission to understand what I’m talking about, but if you’re not, I want you to get a sense of what it’s like, and I think that’s what the writer is supposed to do. I think that’s what we appreciate about some fiction work or some poetry that we revere as Americans is that it speaks to people across affinity. It speaks to people across cultures and places. And it stands the test of time, and I think that’s important too. 

ZS: I don’t remember what quote I read [it was M. NourbeSe Philip], but it was about “the polyvocular,” “the multiplicity of voices,” and how, through particularities, we can find universality. Through the specifics of the lived life of a specific character, of their perspective, we can gain universality through particularity, and I think that’s what I feel in your work.


NAZ: I also have to admit that I’m heavily influenced by that one sentence in Gabriel García’s The Autumn of the Patriarch. My high school teacher told me that there was a sentence that went on for forty pages, and I was, like, well, how does that work? You know, craft-wise, how does that work? And I found it, and it’s just blocks and blocks and blocks and blocks of text for dozens and dozens of pages. And studying that sentence, it’s like García Márquez does all of that. Right? He’s wandering. He’s walking through the city, through the neighborhoods, through the market, and it’s first-person the patriarch, and then he sees this young girl in the market, and all of a sudden, this third person describing the young girl, and then that person gets into a conversation, and the conversation doesn’t break away from the sentence like it never breaks up into quotations. It just continues. It’s brilliant. I mean, it requires a lot of colons and semicolons, but…


ZS: But it’s art.


NAZ: Yeah, man! And I appreciate that. I appreciate it, too, as an artist. You know? Challenging myself. 


ZS: That long sentence example gives me kind of parallel vibes to film, where they do the continuous shot. And that in itself is an art form, and it’s extremely difficult. And to do that in prose, I feel like, would be even more genius.


NAZ: It’s that narrative tunnel. 


ZS: You had a lot of very short stories and some longer-form stories in the book. Most of the longer-form stories seem to steer away from a linear progression and instead juxtapose themselves with multiple voices and different moments in time. So, what made you decide to focus on multiplicity and a non-linear chronology to structure these stories?


NAZ: The original idea for the manuscript was forty poems, about forty separate characters in the neighborhood. And poetry is a big influence also on my narrative and what I write and how I write. I’m very concerned about the line. So, the book—I mean, even in my first book—I still write with wider margins to shorten the line on the page, because it helps maintain that tempo that I need to move the story forward. So, that’s one thing that I use, constantly thinking about the line, constantly thinking about longer blows that might be more like prose poem kinds of blows; I think about the rhythm and the musicality of the work because it has to be there too; the repetition of lines and even lists, like all those things, I think of poetic devices that I use to my advantage and deciding what pieces to kind of sit on because that’s what I came up with. I realized I’m at twenty, I think I’m good at twenty. So, I was also thinking within this timeline, when I need to get this book out. But you mentioned earlier not just these people live in specific places within the neighborhood but these moments. And sometimes that’s how you experience people. Like, sometimes that’s how you experience life. Right? You’re just walking to the corner store to play a video game and then run across a crowd around somebody that just got stabbed. That’s all that experience is ever going to be for that person, for that kid. That’s the end of that narrative, and that’s all it needs. But, like, what about people’s responses? You know? Like people not trippin’. Like no one going for help. People beginning to criticize why he got what he got. That speaks more about the people than whatever happened to that victim in that sense. But that’s all I needed to say in that brief space. But then there was somebody like Henry; Henry and Úrsula, they just demanded more time. I really wanted to bring in things that spoke to them that didn’t exist in this country, so I had to go back to Nicaragua for some of them because that’s big parts of their development as people. So, thinking about these two places has me going back and forth, the present tense and the past tense: what these people are bringing, the baggage they’re carrying across the border into this new country, and then what allows them to thrive and what their continuous struggles are once they’re here. So, none of these details about these characters lends itself to an A-to-B narrative or trajectory. Right? And also, it’s just not the way that I see things. My family is from Nicaragua, and as a Latino and the way we tell stories, it’s never strictly linear. It’s never like just one outcome. I think about growing up and listening to the jokes. The jokes that my uncle told–or other friends of the family–were these blows, man, these five, six, seven-minute jokes with multiple punchlines along the way until you get to the actual resulting punchline. And, again, people have versions of the same joke and can land the same joke even if you just heard a different version of it. So, those things are always in play. I mean, I hear all these voices. You know? So, for certain characters, I need to bring in all of that. I think also what I want to do is, I want to bring out the complexity of these people that might just be dismissed because all you do is see them on that corner. So, the young prostitute, the young girl in the early hours on this corner, has a deeper story. Right? Because I’m also thinking about me growing up here and things that I’ve read over the years in media and how dismissive media or the bigger culture has been about people in the Mission, especially when I was growing up in the seventies and eighties. And that’s a little part of me as a kid that I guess I held onto with some resentment, and now here is an opportunity for me to bring some light to these characters and the depth that they actually carry with them, and they’ve always had with them. So, I need to be true to those characters and articulate who they are in the best way that I can. And this is what I’ve come up with to do that. I love these people. I want to honor them. I care for them deeply.


ZS: I have one more question, but you’ve kind of answered it through this last answer in some way about the complexity of these people and in previous answers, but I’m going to ask it anyway because I want to see if there is maybe any further insight to be gained from it. So, I noticed that in some of your stories, your narrator is almost in the position of an observer. A great example is the story in the laundromat, where the narrator focuses more on Don José Rogelio and Úrsula. And so, I wonder what the significance is of decentering the narrator, placing them in a more passive role in these moments to focus on surrounding characters?


NAZ: It’s a way, again, for my omniscient narrator to be more invested, more intimate with the stories that the narrator tells because your typical omniscient narrator is completely disconnected from the character that it’s describing in the stories. Right? And again, I think about how—as a culture or here in the neighborhood—how we learn stories or how we experience stories. We don’t always have to be the main character or the protagonist or the central antagonist in the story. Sometimes it’s just like that. Like there’s Tonio, who knows but doesn’t know Úrsula, but it’s taken in. In the laundromat, you can’t help but overhear that story. You can’t ignore what’s happening in that intimate space. I mean, that’s a part of you now. You saw all of that. That really happened. But also, there are things about Tonio and his relationship to Úrsula that I think also speak to the relationship among Latinos and all the things that we can be. Some of us are more liberal. Some of us are more conservative. And here’s Úrsula, who makes Tonio a little bit embarrassed. He’s shy about her. And there’s something that he’s discovering about himself. As somebody who thinks he’s hip, like why is Úrsula making him so embarrassed? And for me, too, as a writer, that process was difficult in developing Úrsula as a character. The first drafts were utterly just failures. I failed, and the failure was in realizing what assumptions I made about myself. It’s like, man, I’m not as cool as I think I am. Let me keep on working on this. You know? So, it’s kind of also reflective of the work that we continue to do in order to get to the best interests of our people. But in a very simple way. When I was first writing at fifteen, it was “Write what you know.” Well, that’s another way of writing about what you know. It can be indirect like that. But at the same time, I think it can be a powerful way to write in a narrative. And, again, it’s how we live life. It’s how we experience. It’s the voices coming through the apartment wall. You hear those every night. Like, “god dammit!” That’s a part of what you’re living. You know something about those people now. You can’t unhear those things. So, yeah. It’s just another way for me to get really close to those characters. But my intention isn’t to write Tonio’s experience. My intention is to know more about Úrsula and write her experience.


ZS: It’s inherently more empathetic too. None of your characters feel isolated from the world. They’re always surrounded by other people, and other people kind of almost swallow up the narrative of the narrator, and I love that. 


NAZ: I mean, what are the assumptions that we make about who belongs in certain places? What are the assumptions we’re making about, like, who is a member of this community, who is a citizen of this community, and who doesn’t belong here? And that’s another part. Coming from my first book, I think a lot about the homelessness. My regular day job—I’m a public school teacher, and I’ve had students that go from having a home in May to being in shelters in August. And then hearing all the critiques about what people think about the homeless and “they’re a problem,” the dehumanizing narratives about these people. So, again, I see these characters. I’ve seen them all my life. And they’ve always belonged here. They’ve always been a part of this landscape. They’ve always been a part of this soundscape. They’ve always been a part of this community. They had just as much right in belonging and added just as much, for better or for worse, as anybody else that just walked in and bought a condo. If anything, they might be more impactful from what I’ve seen every single day on the streets in this neighborhood. So, yeah. They’re here. They’re home. 


Norman Antonio Zelaya is from San Francisco, CA. His writing is inspired by his Nicoya heritage and his lived experience as a SF native and Mission District homeboy. He’s the author of two collections of short fiction, Orlando & Other Stories (Pochino Press, 2017), and most recently, Gente, Folks (Black Freighter Press, 2022). His work has appeared in ZYZZYVA, Apogee Journal, NY Tyrant, 14 Hills, and Cipactli, among other journals. Mr. Zelaya has read and lectured throughout California, and across the country. Also, he’s appeared on stage, in film, and in the squared circle as the masked luchador, Super Pulga. He lives and works in San Francisco, where he’s completing a debut novel.

Zachary J. Schloss is a writer from Washington state whose stories deal with small-town confinement, rural spaces, and the mundane as myth. He graduated with a BA in Professional and Creative Writing from Central Washington University.


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