INTERVIEW BY DANIEL A. OLIVAS
Leslie Schwartz's first novel, Jumping the Green (Simon & Schuster 1999), won the James Jones Literary Society Award for Best First Novel. Her second novel, Angels Crest (Doubleday 2004), was a Los Angeles Times bestseller, translated into nine languages, and optioned for film. In 2004, she was named Kalliope Magazine’s Woman Writer of the Year.
Schwartz teaches creative writing at Juvenile Hall, in under-served middle and high school communities, and at Homeboy Industries, an employment referral center and economic development program for at-risk and gang-involved youth. Schwartz is editor-in-chief of The Homeboy Review, a new literary journal published by Homeboy Industries. The first issue of the review, which is Schwartz's brainchild, was published this spring. Schwartz kindly agreed to chat with me about her involvement with Homeboy Industries and its literary journal.
LESLIE SCHWARTZ: In early 2006, when I was president of PEN USA, we received a grant from the California Council for the Humanities to do an oral histories project at Homeboy Industries. I was hired through the auspices of the grant to teach a ten-week creative writing class while my colleague, Celeste Freemon, taught a journalism class. The homeboys and homegirls who were part of the program interviewed each other on their life stories, and the poetry that came out of my class, as well as some of these “oral histories,” were collected in a small anthology. After the class culminated, I asked Fr. Greg Boyle [founder of Homeboy Industries] if I could stay on as a volunteer to continue teaching creative writing to the clients of Homeboy Industries. I have been there ever since.
DO: Why did you think that a literary journal would be a good fit for Homeboy Industries?
LS: At the culmination of the Oral Histories program, the homeboys and homegirls were given a chance to perform their poetry out loud at a public reading. Most of the poets from the class could not stop crying as they read their work. Later in the evening, one of the homies, now a good friend of mine named Agustin Lizama, stood up to read his poem. The problem was he had to hold a mic and the poetry anthology but he's missing an arm from a driveby shooting that occurred when he was twelve. For a few moments, he struggled and juggled the book and the mic and then very quietly and graciously, another poet named Hector Verdugo got up and held the magazine open so Agustin could hold the mic and read his poem. On the streets, these guys might well have been rivals, but here under the community of peace engendered by poetry, they were friends and partners. At the end of the evening, Agustin said that poetry gave him back his soul. It was at that moment that the idea came to me that Homeboy Industries should begin publishing literature.
DO: Does your work on The Homeboy Review relate to how you view your Judaism?
LS: You know my sense of my Judaism comes from my dad who had this really otherworldy sense of justice and fairness. He could get along with anybody regardless of their ideology, their creed or color. And he taught me that through compassion and understanding it is possible to mend the wounds of prejudice and injustice. And not in some phony liberal way, but in a deep God-centered way that transcends politics. To me the idea of justice is a very Jewish, Talmudic idea and I do believe that all of my creative endeavors, whether they be my own writing or the creation of this journal (or raising my children) is deeply embedded in this God-centered ideal of justice.
DO: What did you learn from putting together this first issue?
LS: I learned first of all, patience, patience, patience. Because of the particular clientele at Homeboy Industries (many of our employees really need second, third, tenth chances), I lost one of my staff to a probation violation arrest. This happened right in the middle of the rush and deadline and it was pretty challenging. So I’ve learned to have some back up staffers for sure. But I also learned that we are going to make mistakes. On some level you have to trust in that mysterious thing that happens above and beyond your own earthly efforts.
DO: Has your work with Homeboy Industries influenced or otherwise affected your own writing?
LS: You know, I’m just never going to write about gangs and violence and stuff that I have no business writing about. I am a white girl from the suburbs and my frame of reference just doesn’t include that and I am very testy about co-opting other people’s experiences. However, and this is a big however, I would say that working at Homeboy Industries has completely changed me as writer, in so far as it has opened my heart. Being around people who have had to be, in some ways, fearless all their lives, but who also have learned to reveal their vulnerabilities has been a life-changing experience for me. It has taught me to become more comfortable with the vulnerability that comes with writing and more equipped to approach it without fear. I can tell you not many people get to say this and really mean it.
To purchase a copy of The Homeboy Review, visit www.homeboy-industries.org.
Daniel A. Olivas is the author of four books and editor of Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature (Bilingual Press/Arizona State University, 2008). His new collection of short stories, Anywhere But L.A. will be published this fall. Olivas’s first full-length novel, The Book of Want, will be published in 2011 by the University of Arizona Press. He shares blogging duties on the Chicano/Latino lit blog, La Bloga. By day, Olivas is an attorney with the California Department of Justice in Los Angeles.