Ed.'s note: This issue went to press before the announcement in early September that Edgardo Vega Yunqué passed away at age 72. We join the literary world and Vega Yunqué's beloved Lower East Side neighborhood in mourning his untimely loss.
Novelist Edgardo Vega Yunqué has donned a myriad of hats. As a teen, he arrived in New York City from Puerto Rico, to live far uptown among the Irish; military service soon sent him into the Cold War world. Family man, teacher, community organizer, he later became chairman of the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center, the five-story Lower East Side haven for the arts which hosted the first Fringe Theater Festival; Vega Yunqué got it pulled off the auction block three times during the Giuliani administration. For almost two decades, Vega Yunqué, 72, and possessed of a politicized ardor that might accommodate multiple pieces of headgear, has devoted himself to fiction. His books include the novels Blood Fugues (HarperCollins, 2005) and No Matter How Much You Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Because Bill Bailey Ain’t Never Coming Home Again (FSG, 2003). The latter weighs in at about 800 pages (its cover reads: “A Symphonic Novel”) and earned Vega Yunqué a Washington Post book-of-the-year award.
Bill Bailey had a troubled publishing history: bought by Ballantine in the late 1980s, the book was killed after the author nixed the publisher’s plans to put it out on a new imprint, One World, established to market to “people of color.” This summer, Vega Yunqué hit another snag in his publishing progress, when his new novel, Rebecca Horowitz, Puerto Rican Sex Freak, was cancelled by Overlook Press, which in 2004 published his caustic, sharp-witted, and zany satire, The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow Through the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle (the first panel of a mostly completed White House trilogy). Overlook purchased Rebecca Horowitz over a year ago, securing world rights to the novel. Listed in Overlook’s catalog for July publication, it has been advertised internationally on Amazon.com and reviewed by industry stalwarts including Publisher’s Weekly. The cancellation came a month before scheduled release. Overlook declared that the author and his agent mistreated their art department over proposed covers. Vega Yunqué never received page proofs, but has since acquired an advance copy, in which disputed edits had been included in the design. He surmises that the publisher may’ve balked at paying for a new layout. (Requests to Overlook for comment went unanswered.)
It’s a loss that Rebecca Horowitz isn’t on the shelves. Even a cursory glimpse into the advance copy reveals the blithe verve that propels Lamentable Journey, with Rebecca (or Zoraida, in her Puerto Rican phases) providing snapshots of monkeys peeping in her bedroom window on the Lower East Side, linking her directly to Omaha Bigelow’s outlandish, climactic conversion, after he’s bumbled through a penis-enlargement ceremony far, far from the urban hothouse. (Lamentable Journey also features multiple pregnancies, and super-powered grandmothers on either side of the cultural divide, not to mention a stealth Puerto Rican navy). "I shooed the monkeys away,” Rebecca writes, “pulled down the Venetian blinds and never again opened them while I was nude. It’s bad enough having men ogle you, but when simians start you know you’ve gone too far in your allure.” Both novels veer hilariously into the promised land of independent film. But where Omaha flirts with the upper bastion of this nation’s power structure, the fatted calves of Rebecca’s adventure are the literary world’s hierarchy. PEN takes particularly hard hits, pulled straight from Vega Yunqué’s experience with its Open Book committee, chaired by Walter Mosley, and is lacerated throughout the novel.
The setback has led to a creative outburst for Vega Yunqué, who is completing a work of nonfiction, Spic, Writing Under the Threat of Censorship in the United States: A Jeremiad. In a recent interview in the courtyard of the Olive Tree Café in Park Slope, the author spoke of Overlook’s cancellation and the pervasive bane of what he describes in Spic‘s third chapter as “corporate dictatorship.” Asked if the new novel might appear one day, he said that his agent had tried big and small domestic publishers before landing it at Overlook. “None of them wanted the book,” he said. “It was too controversial, too explosive. So it’s not likely, unless there’s a big hullabaloo around Spic, that anybody would want this in the United States.” Once Spic is completed, his agent, Tom Colchi, plans to send it to an English publisher along with the new novel, which will again bear the author’s title: How That Dirty Rotten Charlie Maisonet Turned Me into a Puerto Rican Sex Freak.
I first met Vega Yunqué at a Brooklyn Historical Society lecture this spring, given by community historian Ralph Mendez on the Puerto Rican steamship companies that docked at downtown terminals once the Jones Act of 1917 had given Puerto Ricans their status as non-voting citizens. Vega Yunqué joined his family here in 1949, and he was stationed in the Azores in the 1950s, where he saw a squadron of planes fly into a seaside mountain during an Atlantic storm. The G.I. Bill took him west to Santa Monica State College. Back in New York City with his young family, he organized rent strikes, food co-ops, drug prevention, trained vista volunteers, then developed curriculum at Hostos College in the Bronx, where by 1970 he was teaching a course he’d named “Six Twentieth-Century Revolutions” (Russia, China, Algeria, et. al). He analyzed U.S. involvement in Vietnam in another class that was attended by returning vets; he found that some could talk of their experiences and others could not. This led to a short story, “Casualty Report,” which gave the title to Vega Yunqué’s 1991 collection published by Arte Público, the press that brought out his first three books.
At the Olive Tree, Vega Yunqué discussed his brief appearances in the new novel, which led Overlook to edit out one chapter, ostensibly for talking about his own books and those characters who intrude themselves into the life of Rebecca Horowitz. “I am dealing with the memoir as a faux reality in American letters,” he said. “Rebecca reads Bill Bailey, having moved from Park Slope to the East Village with this Puerto Rican guy who’s making her feel like the Queen of Sheba. Then she reads that I’m going to appear with Colson Whitehead and Jonathan Lethem at the 92nd Street y on January 6, 2004, where I’ll read from Bill Bailey [an actual reading]. She goes, and there’s about 800 people including my daughter, Alyson, to whom I dedicated the book. When I start going off on Stephen King, whom she reads, she’s totally appalled and embarrassed. She gets to the table with Vega signing books, he asks her name, she asks for his card and eventually says ‘I’m writing a memoir, is there any chance you’ll be my mentor?’ He says ‘It’s a stupid idea for 25-year-olds to write a memoir.’” He sees that she’s sincere, they establish a relationship including dinners at Odessa on Avenue A and her apartment, where extra servings of her flan put the diabetic author into Lenox Hill Hospital—on dates that he was actually in that hospital.
Vega Yunqué’s derives his farcical attack on the contemporary memoir from a refined literary comprehension. “One thing I go into in Spic is that the United States has devolved into a binary society when it comes to fiction. Fiction now has become only entertainment; the novel of ideas has been relegated to the elite. It was once a bastion of social action and criticism of power. Think of John dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Pearl S. Buck, James N. Cain, and John Steinbeck, a hero of mine. Now all novels are entertainment—but how can you read The Grapes of Wrath and not connect it to what happened in New Orleans after Katrina? What’s at stake? Producing another generation that would vote a person like George Bush into power for eight precious years of my life, and yours. Now nonfiction has become the truth, which leads us to a J.T. LeRoy, and a Margaret Seltzer, whose book is supposed to be a memoir. I’m writing to satirize this whole thing, and of course I’m in it. Rebecca asks me, ‘Can I include your photos?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, sure.’”
With the new novel scuttled, Vega Yunqué’s agent has his latest story collection at Random House, with the working title A Place of Remembrance on an Island Called Regret. Last month at a theater in midtown, the author read excerpts from the cancelled book and from Spic, and he’ll do a similar presentation at Yale in September. In parting at the Olive Tree, Vega Yunqué said, “If you’re going to be a mountain climber, why be afraid of the mountain? Respect the mountain.” Considering the disaster that transpired atop K2 the week we met, his seemed a pointed and sage perspective.