She said if you’re from Texas, son,
Where’s your boots and where’s your gun?
“She Never Spoke Spanish to Me,”
One might expect the editor of such a volume as this to begin with bold assertions about the power and range of fiction in Texas: as virile as a Texas bull, as varied as the Texas landscape—that sort of thing. I will spare us. Whenever fiction from this region is presented as in this volume, it is inevitably attached to the word Texas: Texas Fiction. Texas Literature. And off it goes into the back room to be shelved with the Texana between the boots and the spurs. I would like to fight that.
Most writers in Texas couldn’t give a hoot about historical Texas, and many readers (like me) often find the idea of Texas either unimportant or distracting. So if you have heard quite enough about Texas, quiet your fears. These 23 stories, works by some of Texas’ best-known writers and by several newcomers, grow from a Texas unlike the one we thought we knew.
Certainly in our history, Texans are a singular people, causing some of us to suffer from a nationalism that obscures our critical senses, but Texas has always been an evolving state, creating and discarding its sense of identity fairly regularly, and these stories catch the state at one of those moments of transition. The old mythologies have lost their evocative power; new realities are being explored. Focusing on characters, on real people, these writers have dismissed the brave cowboys who never blink, the ruthless oil magnates who steal you blind, the whores with hearts of gold, the noble heroes who die for freedom, and the cruel patriarchs whose sins are visited upon their sons. In many of these stories Texas figures as no more than a place name.
For this reason, these stories represent new growth for writers in the state. After a lengthy flirtation with Sunbelt narcissism — encouraged by New York nightclubs and Hollywood producers — Texas writers are returning to the rootstock of the story: telling tales about people living their lives however they must. The state where these characters live is a new and varied one.
The fact is that the old Texas is almost gone. Time and Place, those barbed wires around the regional soul, no longer bind us. Texas as an idea is grounded in a sense of place, but in an era when more people are living in fewer locations and these locations appear more the same, place has lost its importance in the Texas psyche. If it weren’t for fajitas, fad beers, and kitchy cacti in turquoise and pink, the heart of Texas—that is, the suburbs of Dallas, Houston, Austin, Fort Worth, even San Antonio—could be successfully transplanted into the empty chests of Anywhere, USA.
Nor does our history sustain us. Texans, like everyone else, find it easier to maintain loyalties to football teams and legislators than to anything so abstract as the history of a people or their literature. If our nation is so culturally illiterate that we have trouble remembering when FDR was president, how important for most Texans could Stephen F. Austin or Charlie Goodnight be? Calling a new subdivision the “Circle C Ranches” or “Chisholm Trail Estates” is as anachronistic as were all the Hyde Parks and Tarrytowns of a century ago. In all cases, the names grow from the nostalgia of rootless people and their inability to live fully in contemporary culture.
In a recent book, The Waning of Humaneness, Konrad Lorenz worries that human culture has ceased evolving, one reason being that our perception of time has shortened. Identity for youth is now determined, worldwide, by generational influences more than by geographical ones. The young in New York, for instance, have more in common with youth in Berlin than with their own parents. A couple of years ago, I witnessed an example of this in Conroe, Texas, when a nephew insisted on completing his farm chores with only one work glove a la Michael Jackson. This eleven-year-old boy was born in Texas, but his soul belonged not to the Alamo.
Even if Texas can no longer be known for its singularity, its plurality still makes it compelling. Among the first to understand this was the writer William A. Owens. In his third volume of autobiography, Tell Me a Story, Sing Me a Song, Owens tries to dispel the idea that Texans are a single community. We are Blacks, Hispanics, Germans, Czechs, Italians, Swedes, Anglos. Owens describes the Texan as un pocho, discolored, no longer pure anything. The novelist Marshall Terry, in an essay on “The Republic of Texas Letters,” * remembers how as a youngster arriving in Texas from Ohio, he loved the state “for its vitality and diversity.” Today, many more Texans accept and appreciate their multicultural heritage.
Our economy no longer relies on cotton, cattle, or oil, but has diversified into microelectronics, med-tech, wines, exotic game, and organic veggies. Our culture, too, changes in curious ways. Hispanics in San Antonio blend conjunto with heavy metal. Middle-aged hippies from Rhode Island learn Spanish and aid illegal aliens. Refugees from Vietnam win our spelling bees.
In such a place, exciting literature is made, but defining it becomes an exercise in random exclusion. The beginning of these comments features lyrics from a song played by Texas musician Joe Ely on an album recorded in England when his band opened for the punk group The Clash. If Joe Ely plays “Texas music”, what did Scott Joplin, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bob Wills, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, and The Thirteenth Floor Elevator play? What common ground for John Denver, Mac Davis, Ornette Coleman, Little Joe y la Familia, Huddie Ledbetter, Van Cliburn, Willie Nelson, and Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians? Literature from Texas, like music, is too diverse and too influenced by the rest of the world to define neatly.
The stories collected here (and most of the nearly 300 stories that were submitted, read, and not included) reflect the dispersals and shadings that are contemporary Texas. All of the stories have been written in the last five years. Over a third have not been published before: none has been published before in book form.
Since the eighties have not been prosperous years for Texans, loss and change fig-are greatly in many stories. Carolyn Osborn opens the volume with an affectionate farewell to the working cowboy. Roland Sodowsky writes of a man razing his family home. James Hannah’s story is a particularly frightening account of our reactions to political change.
The variety of characters and settings is striking. Clay Reynolds depicts a redneck beer drinker who learns a surprising lesson in character. Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey finds drama in the careful lives of upper-middle class suburbia. Miles Wilson travels the state with a drunken poet. And Ewing Campbell recreates the voice of “Sister Love”, coming to us over border radio, in a pitch-perfect rendition of a contemporary oral tradition.
Although Texas’ various minorities are not represented fully here, the increasing importance of Hispanics appears throughout the book. The stories by Dagoberto Gilb, Edward Swift, Rogelio R. Gomez, Lionel Garcia, Guida Jackson, Pat Ellis Taylor, and Naomi Shihab Nye explore the textures of daily life where two cultures meet.
Over and over, characters find solace in individuals, not histories nor ideologies- A man finally understands the life of his deceased aunt and her importance to him. A photographer finds more hope in the homeless than in the geometric architecture of her photographs. A woman embroiled in domestic trials finds the music of violinist Pinchas Zuckerman closely intertwined with her life. Throughout these stories, boundaries are crossed, old definitions ignored.
Short story anthologies in Texas have tended to fall in two categories, focusing either on history or demographics. In one we see twenty-five or fifty years of the short story in Texas. In the other, we bundle together fiction by Blacks, Hispanics, or women in Texas. This collection creates a new category by attempting to capture only the present moment in a diverse state.
To all these writers I extend my gratitude for allowing us to include their stories here; to them belongs the full credit for the pleasure this volume brings to you. I hope it will unite these writers with readers who know that neither time nor place need imprison us.
*In Range Wars. Heated Debates, Sober Reflections, and Other Assessments of Texas Writing, edited by Craig Clifford and Tom Pilkington, SMU Press, 1989.