top of page
  • Mariela Pinilla

Chicano Frankenstein: Sci-Fi Fantasy or Gritty Everyday Realism?

Daniel Olivas’s powerful new novel, Chicano Frankenstein, takes place in a semi-futuristic— yet very present—United States. In this sci-fi storyworld, advancements in technology are used to bring back to life deceased individuals. Reborn from the dead, this individuals’ sole function is to work. Olivas’s story follows a nameless man who desires to know more about the past that was wiped from his memory upon his reanimation.

 

With Chicano Frankenstein Olivas explores themes of identity, culture, and politics, while paying homage to Mary Shelley’s 1818  Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. I was fortunate enough to speak with Daniel Olivas about Chicano Frankenstein.



Mariela Pinilla: The world you create in this novel, Chicano Frankenstein, is very interesting. The concept of reanimated people serves as a metaphor for the Chicano experience. Where did you get the inspiration for such a unique concept?


Daniel Olivas: During the 2022 midterm election cycle, I grew extremely angry at the anti-immigrant political rhetoric that was being displayed. I had already written several short stories as my response to that type of rhetoric, but I wanted to do something bigger. I had been toying for a while with adapting a classic monster novel from my youth, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein seemed to be the perfect vehicle for that.


I had read the novel in high school, and I’ve seen various movies based on Frankenstein over the years. There are multiple versions including funny ones like Young Frankenstein, but the most famous one is the 1931 Universal Pictures Frankenstein film directed by James Whale with Boris Karloff as the monster. During the spring of 2022, I re-read Frankenstein and watched various movie versions of the novel, and started to plot out my world. I thought about how I could use Frankenstein and my reanimated being as a metaphor for what was happening in present-day politics. I was also watching a lot of political news on CNN, MSNBC, and elsewhere. I decided that I wanted to create a novel that had two different planes of action. One would be focused on the main characters in their personal, very private lives. And the other would be the political, public side which plays out in the novel on MSNBC, CNN, television commercials, and White House transcripts of presidential meetings with the communications people and the vice president.

I thought about how I could use Frankenstein and my reanimated being as a metaphor for what was happening in present-day politics.

Can you tell me more about these two different planes of action?

I started to map out my novel by having two different planes of action occurring simultaneously but switching off as the novel progresses. I wanted to create a main character that remains nameless throughout the novel in the same way Mary Shelley never names the reanimated being in Frankenstein. The creature has no name, and I think that is a very fitting metaphor for how politicians dehumanize us.

 

Nameless?

Whether or not you're an immigrant, if you look like an immigrant—the way you and I look like immigrants to many people—we're a nameless mass without individuality, the kind of individuality bigots refuse to acknowledge in those who are considered “invaders.” We're just a threat. That's how I tried to capture that treatment of the “other” by keeping my reanimated protagonist a nameless person.

 

The media certainly perpetuates negative stereotypes of Latinos.

When you turn on the TV, and you see these horrible things happening in the news–yet another anti-immigrant commercial or politicians busing migrants to Democratic cities–and in rhetoric of certain politicians, and you feel like you don't have control. You feel like people who look like you and your family and your community are being attacked, and you don't know what to do. As a writer, my response is to write and give some agency to those under attack, and to tell a story that demonstrates how absurd that kind of bigotry is.

 

That's how our lives play out in our very personal interactions every day with our families and community, and all of that is played out against a political backdrop. Again, we are constantly living in these two different places.

 

There’s a deep contradiction: we’re seen as repulsive yet we’re used for our labor.  In the story, we see how people are equally disgusted, but also reliant on the work that reanimated people do.

In the end, it really is not self-serving to attack those who do so much work for the country. As we all know, our population is aging. In every country that has an aging population, there's really only one way to bring in workers at all levels for the economy to survive. That is through immigration. We have seen time and again here and elsewhere like Europe how anti-immigrant sentiment rises up around immigrant workers, with some claiming that they will displace citizens and steal jobs.

 

In the end, every country needs immigrants to keep the population young and growing so that the economy can be healthy and even expand. For example, in California, if you removed every undocumented person, four or five industries would collapse immediately. Restaurants, construction, the farms in California, hotels, any place where you need people to do things to keep the city and towns running would collapse.

 

The anti-immigrant rhetoric is dangerous on many levels. If people who are anti-immigrant were to think selfishly, they would realize that they actually need these folks. But they don’t think rationally. They are driven by hate and fear.

For example, in California, if you removed every undocumented person, four or five industries would collapse immediately.

There are many issues that Chicanos face, such as issues with discrimination, assimilation, and even isolation.

The concept of isolation is key to my creation of the main character, the unnamed man, who has a white arm and leg stitched onto his brown body when he’s reassembled. There are running scenes where his limbs work well together, and other times where they’re not in sync. These scenes illustrate his struggle to feel like he's a whole person. At one point in the novel, he wishes for a day when he would feel ordinary and not be singled out for being what people call a stitcher–an epithet that is thrown at the reanimated community. He wants to be able to walk down the street and not have kids pointing at the fact that he has mismatched arms and hands. He wants to disappear into the background. His solitary existence as a reanimated person whose past has been wiped by the reanimation process begins to get shaken because he starts to fall in love with a Latina lawyer named Faustina; he’s drawn to her culturally rich Mexican American family and community. He begins to desire that for himself, and to know who he was and where he came from.

 

My next question is about how politicians are portrayed in your novel. Their speech is straightforward and unfiltered. In other novels, some authors would choose to go for a more subtle approach. Why did you choose to portray politicians in this way?

That's a good question. I think the MAGA movement, Make America Great Again political movement, has torn apart the rulebook and subtlety is no longer even attempted. In my novel, Mary Beth Cadwallader is a right-wing president who wants to pump up her midterm numbers. In the transcripts with her communications people, she's rude, crass, and very blunt about how she wants to use the reanimated population as a political football. When she gets interviewed by Anderson Cooper, on the other hand, she's a bit more subtle, and more political, if you will. But behind the scenes, the reality of what she and her supporters are doing is very clear.

 

I think in the current political atmosphere, certain politicians are just saying the quiet part out loud: Let's not have any kind of immigration solution now because we want to use it against the other party in the general election. . . .

 

It's easy to draw the connections between real life and what's happening within the novel.

Sometimes it's difficult to satirize what is already so plainly ridiculous in our world, but hopefully I succeeded. For example, the president in my novel is running on a platform of Make America Safe Again, or MASA. For some of us, we get the joke. Others might not, but that's okay.

 

When I create fiction I know that not everyone is going to get every reference or nuance I put in. I want to write stories that have a lot to offer. If readers don't get all of my references, that’s fine as long as they enjoy the novel or short story and get something out of it, it makes me happy as a writer.

 

Is there an audience you have in mind when you write?

I think it’s important that I use Spanish in ways that appeal to many of us Latinos who move between a dominant use of English and Spanish. That's how my grandmother spoke and that's how my parents spoke. It's important to try to reflect our community accurately. So, there's a few words and sentences here and there in Spanish, and you can tell what they mean by the context. It's important to represent the community I grew up in, and the way my family, friends and community communicate.

 

There was one scene in particular that spoke to me; it was the one where he's cutting the tortillas up in triangles. As soon as I read that sentence, I immediately knew he was trying to make chilaquiles. It’s my favorite breakfast food, and I make it almost every day. I really loved how immediately, just from that one detail, I was able to tell what was going on.

That was my late father's go-to dish. I'm the middle of five kids. When my mom would get sick and couldn't cook for the family, my dad would jump in to cook something and chilaquiles was one of the big dishes he could do, and he did it very well. I wanted to pay homage to him in that scene by putting that as a plot point, because my unnamed man is relearning some of his cultural touchstones. One of the big cultural touchstones for many of us is our food. There are certain foods we grew up with that as adults, we go to as comfort food. This food warms us not just physically, but also emotionally.

 

Speaking of community, one of the things I noticed in your novel is that there's a lot of references to landmarks within the location of the story. There's references to museums, gardens, and art within the area. What was the choice for grounding it to this specific location?

I always situate my stories and novels in places that I know, where I grew up or lived in. When my wife and I lived in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles for many years raising our son, many of the landmarks in the valley became parts of my fiction. We currently live in Pasadena, so I ended up putting in Pasadena landmarks that my wife and I have enjoyed, like Vroman’s Bookstore. In fact, the book launch for this novel is going to be at Vroman's, which is kind of funny. There's Arlington Garden in Pasadena that appears in my novel, which is a place that my wife and I have gone to. Also, there’s the Norton Simon Museum with the Rodin statues that become a key symbolic point in the novel. That's a place that we love going to. What it does, for me as a writer, is it makes it all very real. When I have my unnamed man running down a certain street, and then turning on another very specific street, I can envision it. If it feels real to me, and I've situated my action in actual streets and places in Pasadena, I think it's going to mean a lot for those people who know this city.

 

For those people who don't know Pasadena, that's fine, it still will feel real to them. In the same way I might read a novel that's situated in a country I've never been to, like Vietnam. If it's by a writer who knows Vietnam, and has lived in Vietnam, you can get that sense. It comes through in the writing.

 

On the topic of references to real life, one of the many things you reference in the novel are other Latin American authors. It's important to the development of the main character, especially in the latter half of the story. I want to ask if that was chosen because you believe it's important to read about your culture, or even about Latinx literature in general?

Yes, and in some ways, it ties to Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, where the creature teaches himself how to read and speak by reading books and watching other people. I wanted to honor that part of her novel as well as honor Latinx writers whose works are important to me. These books are the kind of literature I think can enrich any life. You don't have to be Chicano/Chicana to appreciate them.

 

One of the writers I reference in Chicano Frankenstein is Tomás Rivera and his iconic novel, And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, about Mexican farmworkers in the southwest after World War II. It is one of the books that my unnamed man is given. In fact, there's an epigram at the beginning of my novel from Rivera’s book: “One time he stopped at mid-turn and fear suddenly set in. He realized that he had called himself. And thus the lost year began.” Rivera’s novel focuses on a year of an unnamed boy who witnesses all of the injustices visited upon his migrant community. I felt that losing a year of your life because of harsh circumstances and bigotry is similar to what my reanimated people go through. They’re hated, they've lost their identity, they've been assimilated, and in an extreme way, their culture has been wiped out.

One of the writers I reference in Chicano Frankenstein is Tomás Rivera and his iconic novel, And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, about Mexican farmworkers in the southwest after World War II.  

I was going to say, as a lover of the original Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, it was refreshing to see this modern take on the story, especially one that relates to my community.

Great works of literature can be amazing works of inspiration for other writers. That's how art works. We're not writing, painting, or creating in a vacuum. We have been exposed to the artistry of others. As a writer, almost anything can inspire me to write. Sometimes, a great novel like Frankenstein can bring with it so many different elements of inspiration. It's almost impossible not only to be inspired to do something in honor of that novel, but also to make it my own.

 

I wanted to ask, in this process of writing the novel, was there anything new you learned?

One of the things that was new to me, in terms of writing, was using film to inspire the writing of certain scenes. There are scenes within the novel that I envisioned as if they were filmed. I envisioned how the scenes where my unnamed man is running would look on film, and how those scenes would serve as a recurring motif in a movie.

 

That's because I love the storytelling of film. It's quite different from writing a novel or a short story. While writing this novel, I watched two movies by the South Korean filmmaker who goes by the name Kogonada. He did two beautiful films: Columbus and After Yang. His films are so gorgeous. They're very subtle, and there's a lot of internal quiet time in them. After Yang in particular, is almost like a Frankenstein story in some ways. It takes place in the future and there's a couple where the husband is white and the wife is black. They've adopted a Chinese girl, and in order to give her Chinese culture, they purchase an android, Yang, to serve as an older brother for her that is programmed to know Chinese culture. There are some scenes in After Yang that are breathtakingly beautiful. I tried to capture some of that filmmaking imagery and style in how I created certain scenes within my own novel.


What’s next?

I have a short story collection coming out in August with the University of Nevada Press. It's titled My Chicano Heart: New and Collected Stories of Love and Other Transgressions. It includes stories going back 25 years, as well as five new stories, all on the question of love and addressing different kinds of love: between siblings, between a parent and child, between lovers.

 

I might also work on a sequel to Chicano Frankenstein. It’s been optioned by a major television studio, Universal Television. It's fitting because Universal Pictures produced the 1931 classic Frankenstein. I don’t know if my novel ever will make it to the small screen, so I am keeping my fingers crossed.

 

I really look forward to seeing how that develops. I also look forward to your collection that comes out later this year. I love themes of love and family, so I'll have to check it out. Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. It was a joy speaking with you.

Thank you for your thoughtful questions. It was an honor to be interviewed by you.



234 views1 comment

1 Comment


iriswhispers
Mar 04

Great interview - just asked my library to order the book!

Like
bottom of page