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A Man of Many Voices

Daniel Olivas draws on the denizens of L.A. for his fiction.

Pablo Serrano

SPEAK OF THE DEVIL: Olivas brings surreal elements into his latest short stories.

By Laura Shin

At age 3, Daniel Olivas stopped speaking for an entire year. When his parents took him for tests, experts told them that growing up in a bilingual home was too confusing and advised them to stop speaking Spanish to him. Olivas did start talking again, but when it came time for school, other kids teased the “little white boy” for not knowing the lingua franca of his neighborhood, Pico Heights in Los Angeles.

So there’s some irony in the fact that today, Olivas, ’81, finds himself an emerging voice in Chicano fiction. First came his novella, The Courtship of María Rivera Peña (Silver Lake Publishing, 2000), then a book of short stories, Assumption and Other Stories (Bilingual Press, 2003). He published a second collection, Devil Talk: Stories (Bilingual Press) last summer, and his first children’s book, Benjamin and the Word (Arte Publico Press) is due out in April. Although he writes in English, his works center on Latinos in Los Angeles, and Spanish expressions pepper their dialogue. Olivas confesses he’s not fully bilingual: “I struggle with my Spanish dictionary and call my mom about the best phrase to use.”

A lawyer for 20 years, Olivas says taking up creative writing six years ago at age 39 was a natural progression. For one thing, as a child he loved reading. “My father in particular was a voracious reader, always pushing books at me and my siblings—things by Joyce and Twain. I remember reading Don Quixote in fifth grade—the English translation—because my dad just loved books,” he says. His father also wrote poetry and a novel Olivas regrets he never had the chance to read because the manuscript “never sold and he destroyed it.”

Olivas majored in English at Stanford, but he never took any creative writing courses, “because I thought that would be a frivolous thing to do,” he says. But he was always working on a publication, from the Chaparral, where he was staff artist and art director, to UCLA Law School’s Chicano Law Review, which he edited.

Writing turned out to be crucial to his career. Olivas is a deputy attorney general with the California Department of Justice, where he specializes in environmental enforcement and land-use issues. “You win half the battle in court with high-quality brief writing,” he says.

“Writing a good brief is like writing a good story,” the author adds. He chides lawyers who think doing a brief is formulaic—“forgetting about the human side, forgetting that a person is going to read the briefs, forgetting that there’s a story behind every case and behind every person involved in every case. So that’s how I approach brief writing: like story writing. Not that I put fiction in my briefs,” he asserts quickly, recalling the quip of an opposing counsel who said of his books, “Oh, now you’re making money on the side doing something you’ve been doing all along.”

In fact, that’s a fair observation, but not quite the way his colleague meant. By bringing his real-life experience to his fiction, Olivas creates characters who ring true. A Los Angeles Times review of Assumption and Other Stories noted, “Though some of the stories are little more than sketches running two or three pages, Olivas is adept at establishing character in a sentence or two; he creates an image, a moment of self-deception, in which we come to know these characters intimately.”

Some of his stories have strong autobiographical elements. In Assumption’s “Summertime,” a white supremacist sniper shoots children at a Jewish summer camp. Olivas’s son, 13-year-old Benjamin, who is Chicano and Jewish like one of the characters, witnessed such an incident at his own summer program. Another story, “New Year,” tells of a man whose wife has just had her fifth miscarriage, echoing the story of how Olivas first turned to writing fiction.

In 1998, Olivas’s wife, Susan Formaker, suffered the fifth of six miscarriages. “I was helping her and my son with their grief, but I wasn’t dealing with my grief very well at all,” he explains. “So I started to write.” That effort became The Courtship of María Rivera Peña, “loosely based on my family history—my dad’s parents’ migration from Mexico to L.A. in the 1920s. And the reason that story came out of me is that it dealt with all the good things in life, but also all the bad things, the things where you don’t have control.”

Having made a start, Olivas decided that to continue writing fiction seriously he needed to catch up on Latino literature, which was absent from the curriculum when he was studying Woolf, Shakespeare and Lawrence at Stanford and during his time at Stanford’s overseas program at Cliveden, in England. “I read House on Mango Street [by Sandra Cisneros] and I just fell in love with that book. It was a sock between the eyes. I read Victor Villaseñor, and I grabbed Bless Me, Ultima [by Rudolfo Anaya],” he says. “That’s when I really started reading Latino literature.”

Olivas captures diverse points of view in his stories—he calls it the writer’s equivalent of character acting. “Creating voices for characters very different from himself is Dan’s specialty,” says Linda Thurston, his editor at Bilingual Press. “For example, in Assumption he takes on voices of an ordinary man, a lesbian, a female criminal who has just committed a murder, a criminal who is planning a hate crime, a priest, a nun and many others. He seems to be able to use any voice he wants and make it convincing.” Not a bad outcome for someone who was once mute.

LAURA SHIN, '97, lives in New York and frequenty writes on arts and entertainment.

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