AMERICAN BOOK AWARD ACCEPTANCE SPEECH – OCTOBER 30, 2016, San Francisco, California
Thank you, Justin Desmangles, Ishmael Reed and members of the Before Columbus Foundation for the vision to see what was needed and the follow through to make it happen, to reclaim what is ours. To make events like today a reality. It is, indeed, an honor to be in company of such a distinguished group of writers, activists, storytellers. And isn’t that what we all fundamentally are: storytellers?
I begun my storytelling career in 1968, as a student activist, brandishing a super-8 camera on a picket line in East Los Angeles. It was heyday of the emergent Chicano civil rights movement. I learned to tell our stories using film and television. These were stories mainstream society didn’t want to hear, stories of oppression, stories of struggle, stories of overcoming, stories of victories in the face of defeat.
For fifteen years I was a documentary filmmaker. Then I shifted, becoming a narrative storyteller–directing episodes of prime time television programs like ER, NYPD Blue, Star Trek, Criminal Minds, Law and Order and others while continuing to write short stories and a memoir.
Throughout, I’ve struggled to find a balance in my storytelling, a balance between documenting and telling the dark side of our troubled past–and we know it all too well. The history of discrimination, rape, lynchings, the murders, the genocides that have been committed against people of color. But I also wrestled to find hope amid this backdrop of horror. For to relegate our storytelling only to these atrocities, ignores a past that is also filled with steadfast resistance, with fierce struggles, with irrepressible victories.
Perhaps the most difficult challenge for me has been to focus beyond the immediate and visceral. It’s easy to focus our storytelling on the political, especially when the times demand it. Harder to find quiet time to write when we know brothers and sisters of the Standing Rock Sioux nation and so many others are today taking a stand, or we confront the sordid realities of a potential Trump nation.
Much harder to find the time we need to be quiet, to reflect, to ponder, to muse. But it’s only when we do this, when we overcome our anger, allow our creativity to simmer, to distill, to nurture deeper insights into who we are, that our craft as storytellers can truly come to the fore.
We must be bold and courageous enough to allow ourselves time to think.
My latest short story collection, Return to Arroyo Grande, is filled with alternate universes, optional mirror images of who and what we might be–for the good or the bad. I have a character who has fallen at a construction site and wakened with an indisputable memory of living in an ominous, terrible world. A world where there is only suffering, where all her friends are enemies, and despair is the order of the day. She is so convinced of her abhorrent past–what the doctor calls “false memories.”– that she can’t accept the possibility that another, more positive world might exist. Yet, her doctor insists its all due to the peculiar cerebral shock arising from her accident.
“But what if these false memories really took place, she questions? Aren’t I cheating, I mean aren’t I denying the validity of these events?”
“Jeannie,” the doctor replies, “the point is you must not allow the bad memories of a terrible past to cripple you and your future. It’s a simple as that.”
So as storytellers, let’s not allow ourselves to be paralyzed. Let’s open the door to those alternate visions of whom we might become. Let’s go forward, breaking barriers, and telling stories of purpose, stories of resilience, stories of hope.
Thank you for your time, for the work of the Before Columbus Foundation, and for this great award.
Copyright 2016 by Jesús Salvador Treviño.