Interview: Mario Alberto Zambrano, author of Loteria

Mario Alberto Zambrano

Mario Alberto Zambrano started as a contemporary ballet dancer for seventeen years. He travelled and danced around the world with a variety of dance companies like Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Nederlands Dans Theater, Ballett Frankfurt, and Batsheva Dance Company. He transitioned into writing, became a Riggio Honors Fellow, received his BA at the New School, and completed his MFA at the Iowa Writers Workshop as an Iowa Arts Fellow, where he also received the John C. Shupes Fellowship for Excellence in Fiction.

loteria game

This a traditional Mexican game sharing similarities with Bingo.

Loteria is Mario Alberto Zambrano’s first novel blooming into the literary world. Loteria is seen through the eyes of a little girl, Luz, who unfolds her family’s story through a classic Mexican game, Loteria. The game Loteria shares similarities with the game of Bingo, but instead of letters and numbers a deck of cards provides characters to be called out. These same characters are mapped out on each player’s game card, similar to a Bingo card, as the payers attempt to find and fill each characters space. Similar to how Luz attempts to find the spaces in between her drunk dad, lost mother, sister Estrella, and herself.

CJLH: In past Interviews you have covered the question of your transition from Ballet dancer to writer, stating that you are still trying to answer that question. So what is it about literature that you fell in love with? For example, do you admire any authors, pieces of work, or the act of writing?

MZ: I read very little when I was younger, and though I enjoyed listening to stories, they seemed flat to me. What I read was often a sequence of events held together by a chronological line, and there was no feeling of dimension in what I was reading. Back then I hardly considered language—tone, style, cadence—as a means to make music on the page. It might’ve been my experience as a dancer but when I came back to reading stories in my late twenties, I was astounded and in awe of works by Italo Calvino, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Virginia Woolf, because here were authors playing with the potential and possibility of what a book could be. “The Waves” by Woolf is my all time favorite. I remember when I was reading it in the back of my mind it seemed to draw out a sketch of circular and continuous architecture, one in which music was playing. This wasn’t something I had to activate on an intellectual level, it just happened. It drew itself in the back of my mind as I read the novel. When I realized that a book could do that, be a sculpture and/or musical score, I was hooked.

CJLH: In your novel Loteria, the eleven year old female narrator, Luz, lives in a house that is like a falling house of cards made from a deck of Loteria cards.  What process did you undergo in creating Luz, especially from a male perspective?


Take a peek inside the book and learn more.

MZ: I love how you stated that: “A house that is like a falling house of cards.” Sometimes when I was turning down a dinner party to work on the book I’d tell my friends that I was busy at home trying to build a house of cards. But that idea, that a narrative could be pieced together and built as delicately as a house of cards, yet, with one single, brief mistake, can come crumbling down, was what I was attracted to. As a metaphor, I loved the idea, which was why I chose to use the cards to write the novel.

But it started as a memoir. I was the writer who shuffled the deck and turned the top card over to see what it inspired. I was writing about my family, but the more I worked on the book the more I realized how many empty spaces were in my family’s past. I felt as though I was invading their privacy, so I backed away. When that happened, Luz showed up. It was as simple as that. I kept the setting I was working with, but invented a fictional family where Luz was as its center.
In regard to being male and writing with a girl’s POV, I just did the best I could. I don’t know if there is a secret answer other than trying to deeply imagine what it would be like to be her. It’s somewhat like being an actor, practicing empathy and compassion, then impersonation.

CJLH: Alcohol, abuse, neglect, abandonment, and racism are current and pressing horrors. In the case of your novel, these issues are in the context of a Mexican-American, Latino, or Spanish speaking community. How did you approach these sensitive realities while writing Loteria?

MZ: The themes that arise in the book came up organically through Luz’s story. I didn’t set out to write about them beforehand. But while writing the novel what I was trying to do was reveal the complicated relationship a daughter might have with a father who turns to alcohol to assuage a deep depression he’s unable to acknowledge. The fact that Luz is dark-skinned is a truth that is confronted when she lives in south Texas and she’s going to school with white americans. That her mother disappears is a result of years of abuse from Luz’s father (whether we know what happened to her or not),  and that abandonment is a result of the narrative, not necessarily a preconceived design of what I wanted the book to be “about”.

When we talk about horror we’re talking about fear, and there’s something seductive in that word because it draws us to it. It’s human nature to look at tragedy, devastation, and turmoil. How many times have you been on the highway, backed up in traffic, and come to find that there was a car accident. When you inch your way up to the site and finally have a clear path to speed ahead, you don’t speed ahead, you slow down and turn to see if there’s someone injured. All the cars in front of you do the same. We’re intrigued by what we’re afraid of.

Like when Luz creeps down the hall in the card El Alacran to see what her parents are doing, even though she knows they’ve been fighting, that’s an act of horror.

CJLH: Since Loteria deals with primarily Mexican-American, Latino, or  Hispanic speaking community would you consider this novel Chicana/Chicano?

MZ: I wouldn’t say it isn’t, but I wouldn’t say it is, either. But that’s just me resisting labels. I was at a conference recently and a moderator asked, “Do you represent yourself as a Latin American Writer?”

“I’m a writer,” I said.

Call it whatever you want. It is what it is. I am who I am.

It’s a book told through a deck of cards.

CJLH: This has been your first novel. It is well received, and was most likely an incredible amount of work. What did you learn from this process, and do you have any advice for other aspiring writers?

MZ: What worked really nicely was that each card turned out to be a vignette. When I had them all written out I’d lay them on a table and move them around. By then I had memorized each card, each scene, what sort of dramatic tension it had, and so in a sense I was constantly restructuring the novel until I found an order that worked. In some ways, it was a nightmare. But in other ways it showed me another aspect to revision that wasn’t on a line level but on a structural one. I don’t think I’d ever lay out chapters like that if I were writing a different kind of book. But why not?

Oh, if I had great advice I’d try to give it to myself. But I’ll say this. Yes, writing is hard. Not because you can’t write, but because it takes a lot of precious time spent all alone at a desk where no one is beside you. And even when you have 300 words, you have to accept the cruel truth that you will likely have to rewrite those 300 words. And again, you do it all alone. It takes persistence, determination, and a lot of guts to keep at it everyday, because if you just dream about it it’s never going to be realized in actual form. So it’s all on you. You have to believe in yourself, you have to show up, you have to care about it more than anyone else, and by doing so you make your writing significant. The only thing that’s going to get you through is your heart and your passion. If you find something deep inside of you that you love more than anything—not just the beautiful, but the gritty, disgusting, shameful, embarrassing, and tender experiences of your soul—then that will be your fuel. And so you have to make sure you have a full tank, then get in the car and drive as fast as you can.