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Bringing the Dead to Life

From an early age, Arturo Islas had an eerie understanding of his own mortality. He experienced several life-threatening illnesses and, as a child raised Catholic in a Chicano family in El Paso, was constantly reminded of the precariousness of bodily existence. To survive not only a religious culture of death but also his personal sense of mortality, Islas learned to use language creatively, to ironize and thereby transcend death. As he designed psychological spaces within which to manipulate temporal categories, he reshaped linear time into a more dynamic helical framework. These fictional realms vitalized and enriched his fifty-two years in the world. For Islas, ghosts (especially those passed down through family legends) lived in the present as part of life's continuum.

The title of this book—Dancing with Ghosts—alludes not only to Islas's approach to life/death but also to this biography's approach to its subject. Like Islas's novels, poems, and short stories, which hybridize both time (past, present, and future) and space (north and south of the border), the chapters of the biography are thematic clusters that speak across time and space, unrestricted by linear causality. They unfold in a kaleidoscopic manner that captures the way Islas wrote about and experienced the world. The story I tell dances, so to speak, between childhood and adulthood, past and present, thereby sidestepping conventional biographical teleologies and highlighting the fact that Islas lived as if time were nonlinear. In the dynamic of this biography, as in Islas's life, memories behave irrespective of chronology and a single life holds a multiplicity of living selves.

More practically speaking, Islas's sense of mortality also led him to use language to preserve everything he thought and felt. He sought to slow down time by creating vortexes of textualized experience. He kept journals to chart the deep psychological conflicts he felt as a closeted gay college student at Stanford in the late 1950s; he documented virtually every thought and event, on one occasion transcribing his coming-out phone conversation with his parents. He absorbed and reflected on paper the pain and ecstasy of inhabiting in-between spaces: Spanish/English, white/brown, gay/straight, institution/family, San Francisco/El Paso, and academic/Chicano activist, to name a few. From these many worlds Islas drew a complex and irreducible network of selves.

Novelist, Poet, Professor

This book could have been a hagiography, given Arturo Islas's achievements. He studied his way out of El Paso, Texas, to become the first Chicano to graduate (Phi Beta Kappa, no less) from Stanford in 1960. It was not until long after the post-civil rights 1960s that Stanford's affirmative action policy turned its sights toward Mexican Americans and African Americans. Affirmative action in Islas's day included a laissez-faire move to diversify along lines of gender, religion, or race. Islas's BA with honors in English (and minor in religious studies) proved his mettle. He went straight into the PhD program in English and, after taking some time off in the late 1960s (he worked as a speech therapist at a Veterans Administration hospital), became one of the first Chicanos to earn a doctorate in English. Soon after a brush with death that left Islas without a colon and with what he called a "shit bag" at his side for the rest of his life, Stanford's English department hired him on as a professor. Launching into a career as a teacher, scholar, and creative writer, he wore the garb of a Stanford faculty member and remained the only Chicano professor in English until his death. He worked actively to clear a space for new Mexican American undergraduates, developing proto-Chicano-studies courses and Chicano-friendly administrative policies. Along with the few other Chicanos in academia—Renato Rosaldo, Al Camarillo, and Tomás Ybarro-Frausto—he would help build the Chicano Research Center to fund and support young Chicano/a scholars.

Islas, however, did not exactly follow a 1970s brown-power ideological line. He made efforts to keep politics separate from cultural-aesthetic endeavors, though he understood why traditionally marginalized groups identified the personal as political. He saw in many of the poems, novels, and short stories Chicanos wrote (at the time few works by Chicanas were published) an overreliance on a mystical raza-Aztlan spirituality or folklore without a lasting, aesthetic quality to redeem them. We must remember that Islas trained as a critic and poet largely under the aegis of the aesthete Yvor Winters. He was one of the first to articulate an aesthetic that would bridge Anglo, Latin American, Chicano, and European storytelling styles and voices; he theorized a writerly tradition of forms and bodies both white and brown, Spanish and indio, to rupture divisions between cultural paradigms. Islas's first literary endeavors—his short stories, poetry, and the 1976 draft of a novel, "Día de los muertos" (Day of the dead; box 5, folders 4-7)—also blurred boundaries between straight and queer sexual identification. In "Día de los muertos" Islas invented one of the first narrator-protagonists who were overtly gay and Chicano (the most notable earlier one is in John Rechy's 1963 City of Night ). As this work splintered into "American Dreams and Fantasies" (intended as a series of vignettes; box 12, folders 1-8) and what would become his first published novel, The Rain God: A Desert Tale (1984), it gave subtle texture to a queer Chicano narrative voice. It broke with the formulaic migrant-farmworker or out-of-the-ghetto mold. To this day, Chicano/a authors celebrate Islas's effort to challenge the mainstream publishers' stranglehold on "ethnic" fiction. For the author Denise Chávez, Islas's overcoming the obstacle of publishing The Rain God helped pave the way for writers "with passion and energy" to emerge and for the general public to encounter the "power of Latino literature" (interview with Chávez, March 2001).

Complicated Textures

This laundry list of "firsts" tells only part of Islas's story—the part that reads like an exemplary resumé or a possible hagiography. But Arturo Islas was much more complex than a series of academic honors and glossy surfaces. The biographer's task is to see beyond Islas's sensational and melodramatic "up-from-the-bootstraps" story and its tragic denouement; his conflictive impulses, desires, and feelings are at once uncommon and common. He responded instinctively and not always rationally to a world marked by grand paradox, irony, and injustice. He was gentle, soft-spoken, and generous; and he carried a deep love for his friends, lovers, and family. He was also narcissistic, self-pitying, temperamental, moody, unpredictable, and manipulative. Many clichés might apply to Islas's life: polio as a child, a scrape with death in his early thirties, and the fatal struggle with AIDS in the late 1980s. Hence my task is to acknowledge the complex layers—both ordinary and extraordinary—of his life.

Irreducible to a unified self, Islas existed within different public and personal spaces. In the San Francisco 1970s S&M and bathhouse scene he was queer and preferred being "dominated." As a professor of English literature at Stanford, he was quite at home in the liminal area between white-establishment expectation and racialized politicking. The different chapters in this book explore some of Islas's fundamental selves—Islas as a son and brother, Islas as a body subject to a variety of epidemics, Islas as a same-sex-desiring being, Islas as a Chicano—to trace how his sense of the private shifted within larger historical and social movements. How does Islas define himself as a Chicano in the 1970s and the 1980s, or in a Stanford classroom and again at his family's dinner table in El Paso? Sexuality, racial identification, and political personality all intersect to different degrees in differently constructed public spaces at different junctures. This biography seeks out these highlighted modes of being within which Islas's life unfolds.

Concerning his racial private/public persona, Islas embraced the 1970s Chicano rhetoric of brown power, knowing that a certain amount of essentializing had to be done to make Chicanos/as visible. Yet he was also cautious of the Chicano movement's us/them, white/brown binary and queer-unfriendly rhetoric (his own sense of self as a gay man found sanction and support among a white San Francisco crowd). As a professor at Stanford, he was well aware of his cultural and academic power to help shape a new reality for Chicanos/as. He helped push affirmative action through at Stanford and persuaded the university to replace a white, male-author-dominated "Western Culture" course with "Cultures, Ideas, and Values," which included writers and thinkers of color. He was the first to create Chicano literature courses—ex nihilo. He helped mold a second generation of Chicano/a creative writers (the novelist Ben Saenz as well as the poets Francisco Alarc{oa}n and Bernice Zamora) and professors (José David Saldivar, currently at UC-Berkeley, and Rafael Perez-Torres, currently at UC-Los Angeles, for example) to cultivate a legacy of Chicano letters that would live and grow. Yet he did not want to endorse hierarchies of racial difference. For Islas, it was always better to build bridges than barricades. Thus he began to articulate a worldview where forms (racial, aesthetic, and political) jostle and mingle to reflect complexity.

Islas turned to literature (and not science, as he had originally intended) to dislodge the heteronormative, racially essentialist categories (white/Spanish as pure vs. brown/Chicano/indio as impure) that delimit our experience in the world. Islas's bridge building carried over into a crafting of his own aesthetic. From his early short stories, written while he was an undergraduate, to his mature novels, written toward the end of his life, Islas invented worlds where fact blended with fiction, southwestern border towns alternated with San Francisco city spaces. Islas worked to create an aesthetic that both reflected his life and represented the complex array of epistemological and ontological influences on him and others around him. His novels, poems, and short fiction hybridized form (southwestern gothic, pre-Columbian myth, and Latin American magical realism), language (Spanish and English), and sexuality (gay, straight, and bisexual). They depicted that unstable place of "the bridge [where] home is a temporary pause on the way somewhere else" that would unsettle readers' categories of being and knowing (fifth annual Ernesto Galarza lecture; box 30, folder 1).

Islas had written much fiction and poetry by 1976, when he finished "Día de los muertos," but planned that "Día" would be his first publicly visible work to reflect the "pause" between different racial, sexual, and social spaces—a textual borderland. (His other writings had only circulated among his colleagues, friends, and workshop attendees.) But Islas's gay/straight, El Paso/San Francisco scenes made mainstream editors so uncomfortable that they refused to publish the novel. A mid-1970s New York publishing climate had not caught up with the change in the ethno-sexual climate. By the time Islas did publish a version of "Día," he had received letters of harsh rejection for over a decade. Those that overlooked the same-sex sexuality pointed to an overreliance on Spanish; in fact only a handful of Spanish words appear in this manuscript. Islas transformed "Día de los muertos" into the more "sanitized" The Rain God (published in 1984 by a small house, it achieved a word-of-mouth success), but his borderland fictions continued to disconcert. Publishers also refused his second novel, La Mollie and the King of Tears. (It was rejected, ironically, by the very house that would publish it posthumously.) Islas made his breakthrough with Migrant Souls, a follow-up to The Rain God that William Morrow finally published in 1990.

For Islas, writing was not just about articulating an aesthetic that spoke to an in-between way of being and knowing. It was a form of healing. Writing became Islas's way of understanding and gaining control over his past and present traumas—especially his destructive relationship with his great love, Jay Spears. Writing also offered the possibility of returning to his place of origin: the southwestern desert. In his writing, Islas returned to the desert again and again because of its emancipating anonymity and because it lacks markers separating language and body. Islas used his writing to find the barren place that nourished his soul. (Even in the city-based Mollie, the narrator-protagonist is from El Paso.) The desert was an enduring presence for Islas—both in his writing and in his psyche. Through multifarious avenues of expression, he would constantly refresh his thirst for the desert.


Islas's life story, sketched above, could fuel a sensationalist biography that would mar rather than enrich an understanding of Islas's many identities and experiences. I seek instead to detail the contours of Islas's life in ways that go beyond clichés (macho father traumatizes son, who experiences sexual "confusion" during puberty and dysfunctional relationships and drug addiction as an adult). Each chapter considers Islas's identity as a self with an artillery of responses to specific stimuli. This biography, therefore, responds to the different moments and selves that make up Islas. It employs a variety of critical prisms—humanistic, psychoanalytic, and sociohistoricist, for example—according to the contextual demands.

Islas was a scholar who believed that theories and frames for reading grow out of close textual analysis. In this spirit, I respond to the facts and fictions of his life and narrate them as accurately as possible. Sometimes a psychoanalytic reading percolates to the surface and at other times a borderland theory of racial identity emerges. The narrative of his life and the critical framing of his work inform each other.

Islas's story reflects the changing tides of the sexual politics and culture of late twentieth-century gay liberation and oppression in the United States. It also moves between the realms of individual memory (personal journal entries) and a larger American mainstream's multicultural revision of white, male memoirs. For example, Islas responded with vitriol (privately and publicly) to Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory, published in 1982, because as far as Islas was concerned, Rodriguez's anti-bilingual education and anti-affirmative action politics reductively essentialized an otherwise complex Chicano/a experience of ethnicity and class in the United States. Here Islas's visceral reaction distances him from the first ethnic attempts to justify a system that still disenfranchises those who have traditionally been at the political and cultural margins.

This is not to say that Islas was against the mainstream. He was a gay Chicano who identified strongly with the canonical bodies of knowledge and culture and the most widespread values in America. He enjoyed watching the Superbowl as much as he enjoyed watching a documentary such as The Times of Harvey Milk; for him, reading Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby was as pleasurable and inspiring as reading Ron Arias's Road to Tamazunchale. And Islas had his fair share of 1980s Yuppie abandon: he snorted many a line of cocaine, he took part in "purification" rituals and spent money (often in the form of a gift from his friend Ethel Hoffman ) on "authentic" New Age health-spa retreats in New Mexico's Santa Fe and in California's Santa Cruz mountains.

As I already noted, Islas conceived of writing as a blurring of private with public, fiction with fact. This was the case even in his journal's most private entries, where he invented an older-brother character, Beto, who was the object of the father's affections. Also, he designed the many selves fiction presents for specific audiences. Conversely, the facts of everyday life—historical events like the murder of his closeted uncle Carlos by a "straight" white soldier the night of February 19, 1967—would find their way through fault lines of emotion onto the pages of his novels, short stories, and poetry. His life was a performance that constantly melted fiction into fact and fact into fiction; in a sense, he wrote fiction and fiction wrote him. He defined his novels, for example, as autobiographical fiction. With this in mind, I move fluidly between the facts of his life and the fictions he created, mindful of the ways in which each realm created and was created by the other.

Some of the material I use might reveal sensitive truths about family and friends: details about family affairs, Islas's experimental sexual activity, and so on. I'm careful to reveal the private only when it enriches an understanding of Islas. As Díane Middlebrook candidly wrote of her use of Anne Sexton's therapy session transcripts, "The dead cannot have wishes, they can only have wills, and wills delegate the responsibility for making decisions" (1996, 127). When Islas donated his records to Stanford, they became the property of the larger Chicano and American public record. While the most private documents—journals, epistolary exchanges, and letters of recommendation—were to remain sealed till the year 2009, he nonetheless gave them with the idea that they would help document his life so the public could understand it better. Access to the contents before the 2009 date certainly allowed for the earlier publication of this biography. But it did not change certain ethical rules of engaging and making public such private material. For example, I left out details such as people's names—and in some cases, even private correspondence—that might defame or hurt individuals who are still living. While some of this information might add to our understanding of one aspect or other of Islas's life, its potential to harm these individuals proved too great.

Biography is both a subjective and objective performance. Its task is to balance empathetic engagement with the distance necessary to look critically at an individual's life. In this dual process—critical and absorptive—I believe I succeeded, moving back and forth between the "subjective," which anchors the story in the local and personal, and the "objective," which might appeal to an audience beyond myself or Islas.

This biography makes visible the participation of those at the margins—gay and Chicano/a—in the continued formation of American history and culture. Islas's story has the traditional Horatio Alger story elements but follows a sexually and racially outlawed subject's struggles to succeed on an everyday local level and far beyond. Islas's shape-shifting story expands our cultural memory and denaturalizes hierarchies of ethnic and sexual difference. Islas's life invites the reader to reexamine the social prejudices that still prevail in the United States.

"Nothing is ever ours," Islas writes in a journal entry (June 20, 1974). To tell Islas's story is not to shine a single light that completely exposes him but rather to illuminate a web of vibrant hues and shades that mix to suggest impressionistically an array of complex details. Dancing with Ghosts retraces the trajectory of a writer, scholar, and teacher who believed in the act of recovery (narrating, remembering, and forgetting) as he hybridized genres and invented subjectivities to express a manifold queer Chicano/a poetic self.


1. Journal citations that include box and folder information are from the Arturo Islas Papers; journal citations not including such information are from Paul Skenazy's collection of journal entries.