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Xochitl Gonzalez's new book 'Anita De Monte Laughs Last' takes on art and personal history


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Geoff Bennett: A new novel takes on art and personal history, using fiction to explore the lives of both the author and an important art world figure.

Jeffrey Brown has the story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

(Cheering and applause)

Jeffrey Brown : It was a celebration of a local writer. Xochitl Gonzalez grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Brooklyn and was now surrounded by fans and friends at the Center for Fiction, a nonprofit literary organization, as she released her new novel, one that comes with some big questions at its heart.

Xochitl Gonzalez, Author, "Anita de Monte Laughs Last": There's that adage, like, history is told by the victors. That includes sometimes art history. I think that now we have to start questioning, what are the ways in which we decide that something has value?

Jeffrey Brown : "Anita de Monte Laughs Last" is a tale of two women, parallel lives, a generation apart, Anita, a Cuban-born rising star in the New York art world, Raquel, a Latina student finding her way at an Ivy League college, the latter, Gonzalez told me at her Brooklyn apartment, very much based on her own experience.

Xochitl Gonzalez: You know what's funny? I really thought that we were going to be very different. And then, as I was walking her through a day, I realized that some of the things that maybe I felt in college were inevitable.

That kind of change and not really being able to expect it and then not being able to maybe explain it to your family, like, your baseline, it results in a little bit of isolation.

Jeffrey Brown : It's you bumping up against issues of class and race and...

Xochitl Gonzalez: Yes, class and race, and I think just sort of conditioning, to some extent.

Jeffrey Brown : Gonzalez, daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and Mexican-American father, was raised by her maternal grandparents.

She attended public schools and then, through scholarships and loans, Brown University, where she struggled at times with feelings of dislocation, whether she was prepared enough and belonged there, and whether others thought so, all captured later in her fictional character Raquel.

Xochitl Gonzalez: I felt that I hadn't seen what I knew to be a pretty broad experience of having this triumph. Like, you get into this amazing college, and then it is personally just so difficult.

And I have said this to a college administrator maybe 10 years ago. I was like, we were invited to the table, but nobody set us out forks and knives.

Jeffrey Brown : That's how it felt?

Xochitl Gonzalez: Yes, that's how it felt. And so you're sort of oscillating between being really frustrated and looking around and being like, I need to eat and how do I not embarrass myself?


Xochitl Gonzalez: I need to figure this out, and how do I do this without embarrassing myself? And I just felt there was a swathe of people, Latinas always first, but a swathe of people, of people of color, people from lower-class experiences that I know had walked this path that Raquel had walked.

Jeffrey Brown : In fact, it would take Gonzalez herself almost 20 years after graduating before she took up writing. She built a wedding planning business for, her term, rich hipsters, an experience that found its way into her breakout debut novel, "Olga Dies Dreaming."

Xochitl Gonzalez: I had to make a living first. There were a lot of loans.

Jeffrey Brown : Yes. Yes.


Xochitl Gonzalez: I walked out and there was a lot of loans. And I think it felt to me a little daunting.

And then my grandmother, who was sort of the inspiration for Raquel's mom, when she passed away, I just felt like, I think now I can kind of do whatever I want. It just happened right before I turned 40, which is always a good time to decide you can do whatever you want.

And I was like, I'm just going to start writing. I'm just going to start writing now.

Jeffrey Brown : You took the leap at around 40?

Xochitl Gonzalez: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown : Yes.

Xochitl Gonzalez: And I'd say because I came from such a working-class background, and I have had a nice run through a bunch of different experiences, I think I'm able to come at things with a slightly different angle.

Walking through life from the outside of the perimeter gives you a lot of different perspectives on the inside of the circle. There's a lot less sense of neighborliness and connectivity, I think, as things change, and that's probably the thing I'm the most obsessed with.

Jeffrey Brown : She's also now bringing that perspective to cultural change in her city and others, writing essays on gentrification, race and class for "The Atlantic." Last year, she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her commentary.

The new novel's dedication gives a clue to its other main character. Anita is based on the real-life Ana Mendieta, a performance artist, sculptor and painter best known for incorporating her own body into her work, often set in nature. Tragically, she's also known for her death in 1985 at age 36, when she fell or was pushed out of an apartment window.

Her husband, Carl Andre, older and a major figure in the art world when the two met, was charged with her murder, but acquitted. His place in art history is assured, but what of hers? Gonzalez wondered why she herself had barely heard of Mendieta, even studying art history in college, and only learned of her by accident outside the classroom.

Xochitl Gonzalez: The discovery of Ana Mendieta, the discovery of kind of Caribbean art and Puerto Rican art, it was my first time realizing that I have to seek out legacy and what can I do to learn my own history and talk about it and give it some space?

And I think it made me just realize that you can't just take everything at face value. My youthful presumption was, oh, well, then it mustn't be good enough to not be in this classroom. And, suddenly, I was like, oh, well, maybe that's not quite the case, and I have to just work and try to nudge in the narrative and add people in.

Jeffrey Brown : In a recent New York Times article, the family of Ana Mendieta raised concerns about fictionalizations of her life and death, including this one. Her estate refused to let us show photos it owns of the artist or her work.

For her part, Gonzalez says this of her decision to give Mendieta a fictional voice.

Xochitl Gonzalez: I don't think that artists should ask for permission to make their art. To me, I felt that I was respectful to the story. I was very clear about how I felt about what happened to her legacy in the aftermath.

And I felt it was also about the influence that she's had on other generations, including myself and my generation. And so, to me, that was the highest form of respect that I could probably pay.

Jeffrey Brown : Novelist, essayist, she's also eager to work in TV and films including, a possible adaptation of her first novel.

Gonzalez says there's one clear thread in all her work.

Xochitl Gonzalez: What I always try to center in all of my pieces, like in "Olga" and in this book, is, this is a Latino experience, but it's an American experience, and these are American women, and I want to see those experiences reflected.

Jeffrey Brown : All right, the book is "Anita de Monte Laughs Last."

Xochitl Gonzalez, thank you very much.

Xochitl Gonzalez: Thank you very much.

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