By March 22, 2018 0 Comments Read More →

A Poet’s Novel: Jon Pineda talks LET’S NO ONE GET HURT

Even a poetry dullard like me recognizes poet / memoirist / novelist Jon Pineda’s ability to do something spectacular with language. His lean sentences are surprisingly dense, as if to defy their brevity. Surely publishing three award-winning books of poetry helped Pineda hone the exactness of prose—first in his memoir, Sleep in Me (2010), which explores the tragic car crash that silenced his vibrant sister, then in his debut novel, Apology (2013), which chronicles the aftereffects of a tragic accident on both victim and perpetrator.

Jon Pineda. Photo via

Pineda’s harrowing new novel, Let’s No One Get Hurt—out this week—is another gorgeous accomplishment. In the contemporary American South, where race, class, and gender can predetermine a child’s future, 15-year-old Pearl comes of age in a ramshackle boathouse she shares with her disgraced professor father, an African-American musician, and his veteran son. She meets wealthy “Main Boy,” who caravans around in golf carts with his gang of over-privileged buddies Pearl dismisses as “the flies.” Main Boy has everything Pearl doesn’t, including ownership of the land on which Pearl’s family-of-sorts is squatting. As the lone girl, with only the fading memories of a lost mother to guide her, Pearl will need fierce resilience to survive. I spoke with Pineda about poets, personal tragedy, and making a path out of sadness.

 

TERRY HONG: Your books have moved from poetry to memoir to novels. Did you intentionally make this progression?

JON PINEDA: I knew I wanted to start writing poems at a very young age, and I had aspirations of one day writing novels, but I didn’t know what that would entail. So I just stayed with poems because I thought they were the easiest way to access images (they can and can’t be). Once I wrote poems, I found that I was able to piece together individual moments that would, I’d hoped, sometimes compound. The line was the most important thing to me—that and the music it produced.

From there, I had to figure out a way to turn off my internal censor so that I could write longer lines. Once that happened, I started writing short stories. It was never an intended trajectory, but now that I look back, I can see the progression from the initial interest in the compressed moment, via image, to the expanded moment of sustained characterizations.

 

You’ve infused Let’s No One Get Hurt with others’ writing—sometimes named (Rimbaud and Valéry, Marianne Moore), sometimes implied (Huck Finn, Lord of the Flies). How did you assemble this literary village in creating your novel?

Verlaine (l) and Rimbaud (r), certified jerks

I was reading lots of Valéry and Rimbaud, and Rimbaud’s work, especially, left me feeling very unsettled. Rootless, at times. I also read Graham Robb’s wonderful biography RimbaudThe relationship between Verlaine and Rimbaud, as it affected those they encountered, was something I wondered about. . . namely, that the two seemed to wreak havoc on those who were supposed to be their friends and family. No one went unscathed, it seemed to me, and there was a freedom they possessed, and yet, with it, a cruelty, too. I’m thinking here especially of Rimbaud’s desire to prank friends of his. Out of my attention to this work grew Pearl’s mother’s obsession with them. It was a love / hate relationship. I had, some years prior, returned to reading Huck Finn and Lord of the Flies, and both books did so many interesting things—things I hadn’t noticed when I’d first read them many years ago. I especially loved how the landscapes and setting in each of the novels factored so prominently in the way the stories functioned. I felt like I wanted (or hoped) something like that to happen in my own novel.

 

Where did you find Pearl’s story in your imagination?

Pearl was hiding. I had spent a few years (!) writing a close third-person POV through Pearl’s mother’s perspective. I remember I’d written a scene with Pearl’s parents having an argument, and it was as if I had suddenly glimpsed through their bedroom wall and saw Pearl there, with her ear to the wall, listening. I realized the true life of the story wasn’t the difficulty that the adults were living, at least not necessarily, but that it was the innocence of Pearl, the last bit of fire inside her. I basically threw away everything I had written and started writing the story in first person, through Pearl’s POV.

 

Pearl describes herself coming of age: “I know I’m not a woman yet. But I’m also not a girl. I’m a poem no one will ever translate.” Surrounded only by men (and not-yet-men), is Pearl doomed to a difficult future because she’s not one them’? What would it mean for someone to ‘translate’ her?

These are great questions. And difficult ones, too. I think Pearl has found a way to take what she needs in order to survive, to discover herself on her own terms. The world of these broken men serve as a contrast to the spirit of her emerging as a young woman. I think Pearl’s idea of ‘translation’ is so rooted to her mother’s absence, that to be ‘translated’ is to allow herself to believe that her mother could be there, could be with her. It’s a bittersweet thought, given that her mother is only a memory now. I’m not sure what it would mean for someone to ‘translate” her in the way that we might understand translation, but for Pearl, it means having to give up a part of herself, a part she might never get back.

 

I believe this is your first book that doesn’t draw on your Filipino-American background—except for the Filipino-American doctor who appears for a brief sentence. Is this a significant shift in your writing?

I wanted to write a book that could address my ‘mestizo’ experience without naming things specifically ‘Filipino’ or ‘Caucasian,’ etc., and I felt like placing a character in a situation where they have to live within multiple realities would get me close. Pearl allows me to explore those ideas in less direct ways, though it sometimes becomes very explicit. I do see this as a shift in my writing, but I’m not turning away from my desire to explore my Filipino-American identity—I’m just trying to stretch the boundaries of what that might mean.

 

This is also your first book in which your late sister doesn’t haunt the pages, at least overtly. Was that liberating? Were you surprised?

I started out thinking maybe this could be a book where no one would get hurt. So I used that idea as a kind of constraint. It didn’t last long; it lasted for maybe an hour. That said, it was very liberating. I wasn’t expecting to resist the pull of writing about her, but over the years, I’ve decided that I want to be a person who can survive tragedy without having it be my full identity. It’s definitely made me someone who cares deeply about communication, especially writing, and because my sister was unable to talk those last years of her life, it’s made me care deeply about voice and how that resonates. Pearl’s voice is, in some ways, connected to my sister’s, but it’s different, it pushes past her. It lets me know that there’s a path out of sadness.

 

And, of course, your devoted readers MUST know: What’s next?

I’m working on a novel. It’s in the same area, just not the same location. I’ve filled three journals so far, and I haven’t gone back to transcribe anything. Once I type up everything, it begins to take shape, to announce itself. I’m not ready for that to happen just yet. I want to give Pearl a little more time.

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About the Author:

Terry Hong created and maintains Smithsonian BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. She was the writer wrangler for the film Girl Rising. She taught for Duke University’s Leadership in the Arts in NYC. She co-authored two books, Eastern Standard Time: A Guide to Asian Influence on American Culture from Astro Boy to Zen Buddhism and What Do I Read Next? Multicultural Literature. She reviews extensively for many publications. Follow her on Twitter at @SIBookDragon.

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