Charlie Vasquez: I grew up in the Bronx, and although people typically cringe at the thought of such a thing and during the 1970s-1980s no less, my childhood seems typical in many ways. I had a traditional family structure. My parents divorced eventually but not until I was eleven. We had a TV and went on family vacations. The only thing that was missing was a car and a dog. It was as traditional a childhood that I will ever know. We lived on the south, west and northeast sides of the Bronx Zoo/Botanical Gardens, which are located at the heart of the Bronx, so I had a lot of greenery in my everyday life as a kid, as compared to most New Yorkers. I used to play in the native forests in the Botanical Gardens at least once a week.
Aside from that it was an exciting time, I had friends of all races and backgrounds at school, and I watched hip-hop grow out of soul, funk and early electronic music—it happened right before my eyes. Never did I think that this music would revolutionize music the world over, but never underestimate the powerful art generated in the poorest county in the nation at the time and one just miles from the global finance capital!
I am so proud to have grown up in the Bronx. The only problem is, is that I often feel the urge to punch people in the head and especially lately but I’m learning to suppress those feelings. Maybe I should invest in boxing gloves?
RF: What were your parents like? Do you have any siblings?
CV: My mom is a typical and adoring mom; she ironed our clothes, made sure our homework was done, clothed and fed us. We are lucky to have such a fantastic woman for a mother.
My father really tried during my early years, but unfortunately, he was one of those unlucky people who was challenged from the beginning and kept sinking deeper as he got older. My father grew up really poor in Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico. He would used to bathe in the local river and they would catch their own fish. He and his family came to New York during a great migration and encountered a lot of racism, discrimination and crime. He was a very sensitive person who grew up in a culture that didn’t except sensitivity. He was a very conflicted person and that is what I meant by unlucky. He battled chronic drug addiction for most of his life, until he died two years ago. He tried to deal with it as best he could. But he was instrumental in teaching me about the music and culture of Puerto Rico, where he was born and raised. He was my connection to lots of things that are important to me now, but didn’t seem so at the time.
I have two sisters and two brothers. I’m the oldest. We generally get along fine.
RF: Has your family approved your career choice?
CV: Career choice? While I’ve had a book published, that doesn’t mean much for money, as I still have a day job. I’m a DVD exporter for a high-profile adult entertainment business. Basically, I’m a warehouse manager for smut that is daily spreading the sexual revolution around the world. I think my family finds my dedication to writing a little strange. They are very family-oriented and traditional, yet open-minded. I got the impression they suspected it and have largely been supportive. The men had a harder time with it, but then again they have their own problems. You can’t please everybody.
They probably wonder why I spend so much time and energy on something that isn’t paying what it should, but let’s see how things unfold in the future. Some writers have writers’ block but I don’t. I have so many ideas in my head and so many of them I won’t get to because I don’t have to time. In terms of writing in the future, I have to balance that out because I am also a literary coordinator. And plus, I’ve never been one to seek approval from anyone. Had I turned out that way I would’ve been a very different person. I’d be working on Wall Street and having affairs with men behind my wife’s back.
RF: When did you realize your passion for writing?
CV: I remember writing funny stories in grade school, only because we had to, but I started writing on my own when I was in bands, in Portland, Oregon, during the late 1980s-early 1990s. When I was seventeen, I moved to Oregon to live with my aunt. I am one-quarter Cuban and in the 70s the United States placed a lot of Cuban immigrants in Oregon. I played the electric guitar in those bands which is the instrument I used to write music with. I wrote lots of lyrics and that evolved into poems and short stories and then novels. After I self-published my first novel Buzz and Israel in 2004, I realized I would continue no matter what.
RF: Have you been published anywhere else before?
CV: I’ve had stories and articles published in newspapers, magazines, and anthologies, namely erotica, but I don’t write erotica anymore. It was a great way to get started as an openly queer writer, but I got tired of the “seduction formulas” of erotic writing. It can become very cliché. It is always the same script but with different characters, different locations but the formula is how the writer draws you in with the sexual tension, the mystery, the chase. I didn’t want to be known as just an exotica writer. I still enjoy reading it at times, however. The late John Stahle published me in Ganymede Journal twice and I’ve been published online by a number of entities.
RF: How did you arrive at the concept for “Contraband”?
CV: Contraband’s plot boiled in my head for about a year before I even began writing it. I wanted to write a story that fused two elements: an internal, psychological upheaval of the main character that coincided with an external, political revolution of the world and how the two are really the same thing. And now with all the anti-Latino sentiment making its way onto the news—this is the best time to make a political statement through art and writing. And I really wanted to explore a paranoid protagonist (and narrator) that is aware of his paranoia and doesn’t always know what is really happening.
There are also real events in queer history that come into play in the plot—the Nazi abuse of gays, the McCarthy Pink Scare, and the persecution of gay journalists and artists in post-revolution Cuba. The anti-Mexican fiasco that is now happening in Arizona seemed like a faint possibility when I began writing Contraband, but these trends are going to escalate in my opinion. If you’re going to close the borders fine, I get that. But this demonizing of Latinos affects us all—and I hear anti-Latino statements right here in New York. My family has been in America since the 1940s—and in New York in particular. Understand why I want to punch people now?
RF: Do you think you have unresolved anger issues?
CV: I was exaggerating on this matter. Most of my anger issues stem from my childhood and I spent 17 years in beautiful Oregon to heal them. I do see a lot of unfairness and gross materialism in the world and find it unfortunate. People piss me off, but I am an optimist in the end
RF: Are you working on publishing more books?
CV: Toujours, mon ami (Always, my friend) I’m reworking my third novel with the hopes of securing an agent. I won’t talk too much about it, but I also have a couple of short story collections in the works, so hopefully by this time next year I’ll have a new book out. I’ve also been commissioned to write a book about a pioneering Nuyorican poet, so I’m researching for that now.
RF: Do you feel that there should be more openly gay and lesbian authors? If so, why?
CV: Yes there should, but we shouldn’t be expected to write only gay material necessarily, because closeted queers, and otherwise, have been writing books of all kinds since the invention of literature. Our presence in the world literary canon is immense and we should be able to speak honestly about the things that matter to us. When we do and others read it, we will be better understood. But publishers don’t always agree here—it astounds me that literature from the Harlem Renaissance, for example, can be marketed toward general readers, but queer work hasn’t. Most general readers can’t identify with having been black in the 1920s, but writing is writing, right? Why can’t queer work be presented in a similar way? Homophobia still runs deep in our sexually-oppressed society. People will not fully understand queer literature until they shed their fear of sexuality. It is sad.
RF: If you could be any vegetable in the world, which would it be?
CV: I would say a beet. It was my first thought on the matter. It would be that or a yucca. Why? Because they are grown underground, earthy, nutritious, just like me. I was being arbitrary. I’m a writer you know. I do eat lots of fruits and vegetables however, for any interested cannibals out there.
RF: Is there anything else we should know for the purpose of the article?
CV: I curate a reading series in the East Village called “PANIC!”, which features queer writers from all tentacles of New York’s massive literary world. I am a retired musician and photographer and all my info can be found at my website.