by Joe Jiménez
I started my Young Adult novel Bloodline with a question on a single pale yellow Post-it: Does a boy need a father to be a good man?
For much of my life, I grew up without a father, so that question matters to me. When I was in first grade, my father left our family for a life more appealing than the one he had with my mother and with us, and though he came in and out of our lives after that, my mom’s the one who held it down. When I was nineteen, home from college, I ran into my father and his new wife and their son at a Wal-Mart, near the beer aisle, but he didn’t see me, or if he did, he didn’t recognize me, or perhaps he just walked by, all of them pretending I wasn’t there. Maybe I was twenty. Maybe this didn’t hurt.
Asking questions is the way I write.
I start with a question, not so much as a prompt. More as kindling. That’s the comparison I’ll use.
I think of Socrates: Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.
Questions matter, I tell my students. How we arrive at a question, that matters, too. Over the years, boys in my classes have asked me questions that sometimes blew my mind.
What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?
You ever get sad?
Do you take a pre-workout or just protein?
Do you think people can change, like go from bad to good?
Why does my dad hate gay people?
The turmoil we live through manifests in the questions we hold. Sometimes, we tuck them away, deep in the waters of our hearts. No one ever sees them. Sometimes we might even forget they are there. Other times, we let these questions stick to us, like splinters, buried in our hands and feet. There is real pain in people’s lives. There is real triumph, too. A question might disintegrate, might lose its parts, but sometimes, we come to an answer. Other times, we come to more questions.
When I feel stuck with my words or misfire, I come back to these questions. In my notebook, I keep a list of them. I also keep lists of favorite words, odd words, words whose sounds and spellings fascinate me. I keep lists of how writers I love start their sentences. In a folder I keep these Post-Its, scraps of long paper, pages from journals, writing on the backs of receipts—papelitos.
Do you own a gun?
In a zombie apocalypse, would you opt out or put up a fight?
What do you think is more important: street smarts or book smarts?
What’s the worst way to die?
Is it scary getting old?
How did you tell your parents you were gay?
Why does my dad hate me?
As I was writing Bloodline, I regularly looked at my collection of Post-Its, and I thought of questions—what if? why? how? I questioned: Why does Ophelia have to die? Why else might she climb a tree? What if Hamlet was alive in San Antonio and his father was a cholo? What if we really are destined to be men like our fathers? Is it true that some of us might be genetically predisposed to violent behaviors? How do you become a good man when all the men around you are twisted?
“The answers you get from literature depend on the questions you pose.” Margaret Atwood said this. I put this quote on one of my handwritten posters right near my desk. It’s one of the first things you see when you walk into my classroom. I want my students to know that their questions matter. And the questions keep coming.
How do I know when I’m in love?
Can guys be feminists?
Who gets to decide who are the “good guys”?
Do you think it’s fair that I work harder than most kids and I can’t get money for college because I don’t have my papers?
Why does Trump want to deport us?
Questions. Power. Love. Possibilities.
Questioning is an anchor for the learning of consciousness, of the molcajete inside the woke corazón. Rasquache, that’s the Chicanx aesthetic for making beauty and fierceness from what we have available. So much of my life is handmade. I’ve learned to make the best out of what I have available to me. Perhaps that’s a result, a triumph of growing up working class. I’d like to believe it is. If readers and my students leave their time with me with anything, I hope it’s a commitment to questions—and to the belief that each of us has a right to ask them.
Below, Joe signs books at a Barnes & Noble event. One of his fans is his niece, Sophia Jiménez.
Joe Jiménez is the author of The Possibilities of Mud (Kórima 2014) and Bloodline, a young adult novel (Arte Público 2016). Jiménez is the recipient of the 2016 Letras Latinas/ Red Hen Press Poetry Prize and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles. The short film “El Abuelo,” based on Jiménez’s poem, has been screened in Belgium, the Netherlands, Mexico, France, Argentina, Ireland, England, and the US. He lives in San Antonio, Texas, and is a member of the Macondo Workshops. (Bio taken from Joe’s official website.)