Wednesday, April 17, 2024

An Interview with Ralph Inzunza, Author of Xopan Brooks’s "Border Citizen"

Ralph Inzunza is the author of The Camp and Border Citizen. Armed with political experience as a Democratic political consultant, his books focus on struggles against the political system. "Border Citizen" is published and available for sale on Amazon or directly through Xopan Books our new young adult imprint. This interview was conducted in February of 2024 by Toki Lee, senior editor and marketing associate of SDSU Press. This is a lightly edited version of the interview; a full, unabridged version can be found on YouTube.

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SDSU Press: Please introduce yourself and your new book in as many or few words as you'd like.

Inzunza: My name is Ralph Inzunza, and I am the new author of this book right here called Border Citizen [editorial associate holds up book] yeah! there you go! Toki has it! It's a great project that I was lucky enough to do with Dr. Bill Nericcio from SDSU Press and with Nayeli Castañeda-Lechuga, who was my editor, who also is an alumn of San Diego State and has worked for Dr. Bill Nericcio. So, we put out this young adult book; it's the first with the Xopan Book imprint—that is the young adult series for SDSU Press—and I'm very proud of it and very proud of the team. I think we did a good job.

SDSU Press: It's a very lovely book, I've had the opportunity to read it and the dialogue is very snappy, the characters are very well-characterized; it was nice reading a YA book in a long time—this was a great introduction back to the genre.

This is your second novel, with the first being The Camp. Border Citizen differs in a couple of ways—like I just mentioned, it is a YA novel. I wanted to know how this being marked as a YA novel changed your writing experience; was it difficult writing a younger character as opposed to The Camp? Did you use any personal references?

Inzunza: The Camp is an adult fictional book, and—so, you know—you can just write like the age that you are. When I wrote The Camp, I was 48 years old and so I wrote it like I was, you know, 47-48 years old and the language is there—and it's colorful language, not really appropriate for teenagers, and so when I started writing this book, I was cognizant of the fact that I want this book to be in classrooms. I want this book to be in high schools and middle schools, maybe colleges. I didn't want to have a bunch of tough language or cursing or sex or violence. So, yeah, you take a different approach when you know—hey, these are 14 to 15 year olds that are going to read this and you want to get a message across, but you want to do it in a manner that's respectable to them, their parents, and the teachers.

SDSU Press:
That's something I've noticed when you bring up
classrooms: the main character's father of this book—the one who's running for office, I believe—is a schoolteacher and I've also noticed from the back of the book that your wife is also a schoolteacher. Was education and getting this to classrooms a big focus of the novel?

It is, and it's the primary reason I wrote it, for it to be in classrooms. I do not believe this is going to be a bestseller at Barnes and Noble, or even on Amazon—you know, selling one book at a time from people in Wisconsin or Florida. Stephen King has nothing to worry about!

SDSU Press: [laughs]

Inzunza: That wasn't the reason I did this. I did it primarily because I have 2 kids that just graduated from high school and, as they were going through middle school and high school and I would look at their literature or history books, I didn't see a lot of books that talked about the Latino experience, or that were multicultural enough, whether it dealt with African-Americans, or Asians, gay, Latinos—I didn't see enough of those books. So, I wrote this book based on some experiences I had, but also to educate some younger minds about how things used to be; the discrimination that took place along the border, and the people, and how Latinos eventually entered the political arena and decided to run for office. That's why I wrote it: I want the next generation to at least have a base as to how things occurred and why things are the way they are today. So yes, I wrote it with the idea that this book would be in classrooms.

SDSU Press:
Speaking of Latino representation, both politically and in the literary field, I think—I'm not sure if, for the audience, this is a well known fact—but you were in the political field for quite some time, and in terms of politics and the literary field, did you find that representation and fighting for representation in both were similar, or were they different? Did you have to incorporate different ways of representation into one or the other?

Inzunza: Yes and no. I think the one thing I told Dr. Nericcio—and I might have told Nayeli, my editor—is that I don't think I'm a good writer. I'm a good storyteller. I'm a politician—a recovering politician. When you're a politician, you're telling stories all the time—most of them truthful—but you are telling stories, and you're out there, on the stump, giving speeches, trying to get elected, trying to get votes, sway people… So, I basically took some of the storytelling ideas I have, and I just started writing. I think I got mainly C's, maybe a couple of B's, in high school and college English and Literature. So, I'm not a writer. My wife, on the other hand, she's an educator—she's very good at grammar and she can write. I'd like to see her write a book, to be quite honest. I think she'd write a much better book than me.

But I started writing, and I just started writing the way I talk, and the way I would tell a story. So, my idea was to take the protagonist, Carlos Reyes, and he's going to take you through a journey as to what he's experiencing and seeing as a 14 year old growing along the border and trying to figure things out as a new guy who's watching his dad and his parents who are struggling in the activism of the day. At the same time, he's going to school in Mexico, where he's a bit ostracized. He's not accepted as a Latino here, and then when he goes to Mexico, they sorta see him as an American. That's an experience I had growing up. I went to school in Tijuana for 2 years, and I didn't feel like I fit in either side of the border—hence, the title Border Citizen. We don't really feel like we're US citizens or Mexican citizens—we're border citizens. We're Chicanos that try to create our own pathway along the US-Mexican border.

SDSU Press: That's a good point, and I definitely see that reflected in some Asian communities too. If you're born in the United States rather than in Korea, in my example, you're definitely seen more as American than Korean, or even Asian. I think it's a point that definitely resonates with a lot of communities, but especially the Asian and Latino communities you've been talking about.

Inzunza: I have friends in the Asian community who are Korean and gone back to Seoul, Filipino and gone back to Manila, or Japanese and gone back to Tokyo, and their cousins and their families and friends, they try to say "oh, well, you know, you're Americanized. You're from America. You don't know how to eat the food or speak the language. You don't speak Korean perfectly." They make fun of you, and it's supposed to funny, but after a while, it's like "okay, I get it." So, I felt that. I felt like I wasn't Mexican enough, but I got through it.

SDSU Press: For me, definitely reading this book resonated with my own experiences, which is very beneficial for education. Even children who aren't on the border or necessarily Mexican can definitely relate to this book in their own ways, which is just beautiful and fantastic.

I think what we're looking at right now in California—and hopefully across the United States, eventually—is to have ethnic studies at the high school and college level. What I told some of the superintendents and school board members that are starting to purchase this book and putting it into their schools already, is that this is not the only book. This is one of, I hope, to be 30 or 40 books. I want to see the African-American books, and the Asian books, and the feminist books, and the gay books—I want to see a representation of all walks of life. So, this is one in the pile. This isn't the only one by any means. There's a lot of stories by a lot of us in our diverse communities that need to be addressed.

SDSU Press:
It's only one book of the big, hopefully growing, syllabus.

Going back to dialogue, you mentioned that you kind of write like you talk, and I've noticed that a lot of the dialogue is snappy and very realistic. It's very back and forth—did you ever struggle with trying to make dialogue sound realistic or feel realistic?

I am not one to take credit for this book—I did lay out the stories, and then Dr. Nerricio right away saw "okay, you know, there's some things we can work on, some things we can make changes on." Nayeli, my editor, was a tremendous help. She had a lot of good ideas. She really added things that made a difference. My wife also would proofread it and proofread it. It was a team effort. Yeah, the ideas were mine and so was the story in my head, but in order to make it smooth—to be able to transition the dialogue or the different settings or different locations—it's a team effort. There is no good writer out there that doesn't have a good editor, a good publisher, and a team behind them. That's why you always have, at the end of the book—even the best writers!— they're thanking like 17 people, because they know it's an effort. You don't do it by yourself.

SDSU Press: That was fantastic, I think that because the author's name is the first name on the page, the other editors and publishers are neglected, so thank you for mentioning that.

I mention them in my book, I thank them. Right away, if you go to the author's note, you'll see I didn't take all credit for this book.

SDSU Press:
Pivoting ever so slightly, for anyone who doesn't know, this book focuses on, for me, a lot of love, a lot of family, but also about politics and Latino representation about politics, which I know is reflected in your own life. Growing up in a political family, did you find it harder or easier to write this book? Did you find it was easier because of all the personal references, or harder to get all the intricacies correct?

Inzunza: It was both. It was easy in the sense that this was what I lived. If I had lived in, let's say, Hawaii, and I grew up in a surfing community since I was 4 years, and now I'm 50 years old and writing a surf book, people would say "obviously, you know everything about surfing, you know who the legends are, you know the best surf spots," and go on and on.

For me, I grew up in politics. I didn't know any better; both my parents ran for the school board of San Ysidro, where they beat two incumbents, when I was 5 years old. I was in Kindergarten. Since then, I haven't looked back. I'll be 55 this year, so I have 50 years of looking at this. I did want to get a lot of it right, because it really does explain something that happened that is really critical and important to San Diego's history, and for that matter all of the Southwest United States. For a long time, Latinos—as well as so many other groups of people—were activists, and they wanted to change their community. They wanted to stop police brutality, the immigration rage, some of the jobs they weren't able to qualify for, and they did that for many many years. I went to some of those protests and marches with my parents. Eventually, there comes a time when something so dramatic happens that you feel "hey, we have to now take power into our own hands, we just can't rely on others—we have to have one of our own up on the city council." So, they decided to enter the political arena, and so about half of this book is the activism, and then there's an incident that happens—I won't spoil it for our readers—and then we kick off into the political arena. So, all of that is taking place, and that really is how my life was. I mean, this book is based on many realities I lived.
Inzunza at a book signing.

SDSU Press:
Beautifully said. It's grounded in a lot of historical context and political context too, and I'm really happy that none of that was simplified or dumbed down just because it's a YA novel. Other than that, is there anything else you wanted to say or touch upon? Any closing remarks you have?

Inzunza: I feel that I'm really excited about the outreach I've gotten from school boards and teachers. We've sold quite a few books, and we're gonna sell a heck of a lot more. I'm supposed to have about 2 or 3 thousand sold by the end of this year, which is pretty good for a YA book. They say if you can sell a thousand, you can get people's attention and they like it.

The only thing I would say is that I have a third book in the works, which is a sequel to this book. It's Carlos Reyes, and Carlos Reyes is now four years older, and he's entering his first year in college. So, it's about the trials and tribulations that a young kid goes through when entering college, and he's still political, so he's going to get some people to run for office and get involved, and do a whole bunch of different things. I hope to have that book completed and maybe out in a couple years—two or three years,we'll see.

I still have a life trying to pay the rent and pay the mortgage. I run political campaigns for a living, so this is a very busy time of the year for me—the primaries coming up in a couple of weeks, you have the general November… In between running these campaigns, I try to be disciplined and write a couple pages a day and all that. The next book—which I'm calling The Society—which I'll explain in the book, is about Carlos Reyes's first year in college and some of the politics and discrimination issues that go on being a young Latino student, or a person of color in a major university campus.

SDSU Press: Do you think that will also be a YA novel, or do you think it'll grow with your audience and evolve into an adult novel?

I think this one will still be a young adult novel, but on the older aside. I was asked the other day by a teacher what the 2-3 year target age is for Border Citizen, and I said 8th, 9th, and 10th grade. If you forced me to pick one year, I would say 9th graders. I think it's perfect for 9th graders. The next book, I would say 11th, 12th, and first year of college. But, I'm writing it for seniors in high school. The ideal thing would be there are some 9th graders that start school this Fall, and they read it, and by the time they start their senior year, they'll have my next book to read. Here I am wishing for things—you can't control everything—but if I had my druthers, that would be it. There would be a bunch of Fall freshman in high school that will read Border Citizen, and three years later, they'll read The Society. That would be really ideal.

SDSU Press:
We'll be looking out for it, certainly. I hope that SDSU Press will be the ones to be involved in it,

Inzunza: Me too! Tell Dr. Nericcio! You tell Dr. Nericcio!

SDSU Press:
I will, me personally! Thank you so much for being with me, it's been a pleasure talking to you. Anything else you want to say?

Inzunza: I love what you're doing, I think it's so good that you have this blog and put things on YouTube, and you get people talking a little about literature. In this day and age there's so much social media, it's so easy to get caught up on Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat, but every now and again, it's okay to open up a good book and enlighten yourself on a subject you may not know all that about. I think what you're doing is healthy and I really thank you for it.

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Purchase "Border Citizen" now through Amazon!