Every Night is Ladies' Night
A profile of author Michael Jaime-Becerra
For Michael Jaime-Becerra, the trip from working class El Monte to the sprawling campus of UC Riverside is a bi-weekly ritual wrought with the rememberance of his private sojourn from barrio bookworm to published author.
Published on LatinoLA: January 13, 2005
Jaime-Becerra's lauded debut collection of short stories, Every Night Is Ladies' Night, generated an impressive amount of buzz in literary quarters this past year and warranted the attention of critics, booksellers and publishing insiders.
In March, the New York behemoth HarperCollins-through its Latino-oriented imprint, Rayo-will release the paperback trade edition of Every Night Is Ladies' Night, reintroducing the reading public to a work signifying the arrival of a notable new voice.
?Jaime-Becerra's affection for his characters is contagious,? wrote USA Today. ?He has the wisdom to let them be what they are and he makes us miss them when they're gone. This is his first book, and it's a lovely one indeed.?
A passion for interesting characters, living or fictional, can come quite naturally to anyone spending time in the vibrant blue collar community of El Monte, where Jaime-Becerra was raised and currently resides.
?I was born in San Gabriel,? he says, almost apologetically. ?There was no hospital in El Monte at the time.?
Thirty years later, his father, a meat cutter and immigrant from Chihuahua, and mother, an elementary school clerk born in the U.S. to a family from Sonora, still live in the home where Michael, 31, and his younger sister grew up. ?The only thing that's different is the area code,? he laughs.
As a youngster, Jaime-Becerra was an avid reader. ?In elementary school, I was gifted at reading and writing,? he recalls. ?I was placed one grade (higher) up. I got to hang out with people older than me.?
Like most of us, Michael's world view was colored by his hometown experience during much of his youth. The uniquely festive aura that envelopes El Monte was constantly reinforced by an unmitigated stream of neighborhood pachangas; family celebrations and backyard barbecues accompanying the parade of birthdays, anniversaries and quinceaneras that punctuated the weekly calendar.
?I took it for granted,? he observes of those years. ?It wasn't until college that I noticed the world was different. I went to public school until the eighth grade. My dad, being a tradesman, wanted me to have a trade, too, so he sent me to Bosco Tech. There were two white people at my junior high. Everybody else was Mexican, Mexican-American or Vietnamese. It wasn't until after that, when I was in college at Riverside, that I became aware of class distinctions.?
It was also at Riverside-forty-five miles from El Monte-that Michael began to miss the environment in which he had grown up. As a self- described 'floundering English major' he began to define his own emerging literary persona by writing prose poems that incorporated themes and images from the world he knew best.
?I started getting good responses in the writing workshops I was taking,? he reflects. ?I was writing about home, childhood and adolescence; specifically focusing on places in the community that were disappearing. It was my first shot at writing about home.?
The undergraduate writing program at UC Riverside required students to enroll in courses in which multiple genres would be studied. ?I was petrified,? Michael remembers with a shudder. ?But I began to take classes in fiction. I discovered that my poems were essentially scenes with line breaks.?
Novelist and UC Riverside professor Susan Straight was particularly taken with Jaime-Becerra's potential. She responded encouragingly to stories like the ones in which an interracial couple attends a punk rock concert and a young man steals a bicycle to help defray the cost of getting in trouble with his girlfriend.
Today, Straight has effusive praise for her former student's work. ? If you think southern California is a landscape you already know,? she warns, ?think again and then read Michael Jaime-Becerra. He writes of riverbeds and body shops, of tamales and Aqua Net, of heartbreak tattooed on his El Monte people, of hope fluttering in their chests as they drive and drive. His stories are the ones people need to know, and his craftsmanship is impeccable. The journey to El Monte is worth every moment when you are taken there by a wonderful writer like this.?
In 1996, Jaime-Becerra emerged from UC Riverside with a B.A. in Creative Writing. His early work was featured in The Chicano Chapbook series that same year. In 1997, a collection of Jaime-Becerra's prose poems entitled The Estrellitas Off Peck Road was published locally by Temporary Vandalism press.
Despite the promise hinted at by these early successes, Michael remained connected to the community and lifestyle he had always known. For six years, he clocked-in punctually at 3:30 AM, first in Riverside, later at Baldwin Park, to load trucks for UPS before heading on to the classroom.
In the meantime, he attended to his craft. When several former teachers urged him to consider pursuing a master's degree, he thought seriously about graduate school for the first time. ?I didn't know what the abbreviation stood for,? he confesses when recollecting his first encounter with the possibility of enrolling in an M.F.A. program.
Eventually, Jaime-Becerra was one of six graduate students accepted into UC Irvine's Master of Fine Arts in Fiction program. He studied under the novelists Geoffrey Wolff and Michelle Latiolais, as well as with Ann Patchett, when she was a visiting professor one quarter.
The graduate writing program at UC Irvine offers its students the chance to participate in the annual writer's conference at Squaw Valley, CA. Jaime-Becerra attended the gathering for three years, networking with literary agents, book publishers and other movers in the tightly-knit print world.
He came away from the graduate school experience with a strategy for contacting a 'hit list' of literary agents, one of whom he hoped might facilitate the publication of his master's thesis, the collection of short stories that became Every Night Is Ladies' Night. Eventually, Michael obtained representation and the quest for a publisher commenced, leading to the deal with HarperCollins' Rayo imprint.
In time, a faculty position at Jaime-Becerra's alma mater, UC Riverside, became available. Armed with an M.F.A. from UC Irvine, four years of classroom teaching experience and a crisp new publishing contract, Michael focused on securing the job.
?I got to the campus at 7:30 A.M. and I talked until 7:30 that night--- talking, teaching and talking some more,? he chuckles. As for the role reversal that comes from returning to his undergraduate turf, he simply says, ?It's thrilling.?
Today, Michael is in his second year as Assistant Professor of Creative Writing. ?It's great to come out of programs with high standards and come back with proof that the standards are working,? he says, clearly enthused about the scholastic environment in which he works. ?UC Riverside is the most diverse system. We have the largest percentage of Chicano students in the UC system and the only stand-alone creative program in the UC system.?
He has written the syllabus for two new courses: the graduate level Stories As Collections, which examines short story groupings as a whole, rather than individually, and Craft Of First Generation Literature, an undergraduate class which asks questions like ?How do writers create dialogue for characters who don't speak English??
Jaime-Becerra is at work on the follow-up to Every Night Is Ladies' Night. He envisions a second set of ten short stories. They will be from the same world and same time period as the previous collection, with some minor characters from Ladies' Night taking center stage. They will contend with earthly dilemmas similar to those that plagued the characters from the first book. One man, we are told, will struggle with whether to buy a much-needed washing machine for his daughter or an engagement ring for his girlfriend.
The rigors of bringing this second project to fruition, coupled with his teaching and administrative duties, have placed Jaime-Becerra's historical novel on temporary hiatus. He is understandably reluctant to divulge too much about the novel-in-progress. ?It's about a norteno musician in northern Mexico and south Texas in the 1950's,? he confides. ?The first third of the story is set in a mining town in Chihuahua. The protagonist is an accordianist.?
For Jaime-Becerra, who composes his fiction on computer, the challenge is finding time to translate his literary vision onto paper. ?I prefer to write at night whenever I can,? he says wistfully. ? I'm probably writing seven hours a week this quarter, if I'm lucky. I try to find pockets of time. I'm fighting for it.?
He should be renewed by the accolades earned so far, especially from people whose opinions carry a great deal of weight. Ann Patchett, best-selling author of Bel Canto and an early admirer of Michael's writing, has said of Ladies' Night, ?These stories are full of pain and struggle and joy, but what makes them so extraordinary is that the joy wins out every time. That is not to say they all come to happy conclusions, but each one is so full of the vibrancy and passions of life that you come away from them feeling a sense of victory. Michael Jaime-Becerra is a rare and beautiful writer.?
There are worse things to ponder during the commute from El Monte to Riverside and back.