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Antonio Diaz Oliva Connects Latinidad Academia With ‘Campus’

Written by on October 20, 2022

After attending and teaching at U.S. universities, Chilean writer and professor Antonio Díaz Oliva felt there was a lack of Latinx representation in college novels — so he wrote his own.

Antonio Díaz Oliva, or ADO, grew up in Chile hearing about Chicago — both the bad and the good, manifesting in the forms of news reports on the infamous Chicago Boys and VHS tapes of the spectacular Chicago Bulls. He would end up moving to the city eventually, but at the time, Oliva, a child of the ‘90s, was just focused on reading comic books and skateboarding. 

That is, until an injury in his teenage years forced him off the board. During his recovery, Oliva picked up the novel Los detectives salvajes, or The Savage Detectives, by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño, who spent most of his life outside of Chile. Los detectives salvajes would change the trajectory of his interests, and ultimately kickstart his career.

“[Los detectives salvajes] really touched me,” Oliva recalled. “After that, I never went back to skateboarding and I kept reading and writing.”

Antonio Díaz Oliva stands on DePaul’s campus, where he is currently a professor.
Photo by Morgan Ciocca, Vocalo Radio / Chicago Public Media.

About five years later, after the publication of his first novel, Oliva came to America to earn an MFA in creative writing at New York University. There, he noticed the higher education sphere’s monolingual emphasis on English.

“I was like, ‘We’re in New York, but we’re doing only writing in English, and in this country, there’s so much Spanish,’” Oliva recalled. “The variety of Spanish is amazing.”

Now an award-winning author, professor, father and dog owner living in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, Oliva has dedicated his work to expanding conversations around U.S. multilingual culture. A bilingual professor of creative writing at DePaul University, formerly at Chicago’s Saint Xavier University, Oliva strives to both reconnect generations of Latinx students to Spanish and increase English proficiency for Latinx students new to America.

“It’s something, I guess, every university in the city should have,” he said. “Someone who can help to connect both kinds of Latinidad, in a way.”

Oliva’s newest book, Campus, centers itself in the monolingual-multilingual conflict of American academic environments. With his novel, Oliva is filling a hole he noticed in novels about academia: the majority center on English departments and English-speaking students. Published this February, after seven years of writing, Campus is a dark satire about Latinx educators fighting for permanent faculty positions in Spanish departments at U.S. universities. 

“Well, I don’t feel seen by these books,” he recalled thinking. “I’m gonna write my own campus novels about Latinos.”

For this installment of This Is What Chicago Sounds Like, Atonio Díaz Oliva discusses his roots in teaching and writing, the importance of bilingual representation and how he embraces the absurd in his works.

¿De dónde eres? Where are you from?

I’m originally from Chile. In Chile, we had this dictatorship, and the economists that pretty much messed up the Chilean economy and destroyed all the social programs were from the University of Chicago, and they’re known as the Chicago Boys. That was the first time I heard Chicago in my life. It’s like, “Oh, these economists, they studied at U Chicago, and then they’re messing up everything. They cut all the social programs.”

But then, I also grew up in the ‘90s and I would remember every time a friend was like, “Hey, I have the latest VHS with the Chicago Bulls.” And me and my brother, we loved watching those over and over, so Chicago was always there, around. And in those years, I was reading comic books a lot.

Through his courses, Oliva strives to facilitate conversations about Chicago’s multilingual culture.
Photo by Morgan Ciocca, Vocalo Radio / Chicago Public Media.

How did you get into writing and teaching?

I had an accident while skateboarding and I couldn’t do more skateboarding, and I grabbed a book. And that book, which was by Robert Bolaño, a Chilean writer who lived most of his life outside of Chile, really touched me. After that, I never went back to skateboarding and I kept reading and writing. And then, I guess like five years after that, I wrote my first novel, which got published in Chile when I was 23 years old. I was pretty young. And then, thanks to that novel, I got a scholarship to come to the U.S. to get my MFA in creative writing, in New York. 

That’s the first time I saw these problems-slash-opportunities, because I was like, “We’re in New York, but we’re doing only writing in English, and in this country, there’s so much Spanish.” The variety of Spanish is amazing. So I… thought about doing something bilingual with writing, which is what I do now, here in Chicago. I teach writing in Spanish, in English and I also help different generations of Latinos to reconnect with Spanish, because they grew up in an environment that wasn’t really welcoming to speak the language of your parents, because you’re supposed to quote-unquote “assimilate,” which is a term that I’m not sure I like at all. 

I also help Latinos that just arrived to the country and they need to succeed in an academic environment, and their English writing is not good. I help them to learn how to think and write in English. It’s something, I guess, every university in the city should have, someone who can help to connect both kinds of Latinidad, in a way. 

Photo by Morgan Ciocca, Vocalo Radio / Chicago Public Media.

What do you love about Chicago? ¿En que barrio vives?

I’ve been living in the U.S. for more than 10 years. Falling in love with the city, I really like the city — and, among other things, because my daughter was born here, so Chicago is always going to be in me. Y me gusta mucho the block parties, the street parties that they do over summer. 

Vivo en Bucktown y me gusta mucho… Me gusta mucho Chicago porque se puede caminar en Chicago. Y el parque, la piscina, the public pool. I love it during summer, to see everyone sharing [the] same communal space. It’s like our country club, you know? We don’t have money, but we have the swimming pool every summer. 

What is something you try to focus on in your bilingual studies courses?

One of the things I do is to try to open the conversation, or continue the conversation, that this is not a monolingual city, it’s very multilingual, but still it’s hard to see that, to hear that… Stories in español or like, películas en español, and all the other languages spoken in this city, so there’s some of that. 

For me, both Latinidad and Chicago, too, it’s like the Nirvana song, “Come As You Are.” We’re gonna welcome you as you are.

Oliva’s latest novel ‘Campus’ took seven years to write, and was published Feb. 25, 2022. He published his first book at 23 years old.
Photo by Morgan Ciocca, Vocalo Radio / Chicago Public Media.

Can you tell us about books you’ve written?¿Qué libros has escrito?

Mi último libro es una novela que se llama Campus. Y es una sátira sobre los Spanish departments, Latinx departments in the U.S. Porque hay muchas novelas de campus, campus novels en inglés sobre English departments pero no hay sobre los departamentos de español. No hay sobre latinos. [Cuando] hay muchos latinos que trabajamos en universidades. Entonces dije, “Well, I don’t feel seen by these books. I’m gonna write my own campus novels about Latinos.” Campus, the novel that I just published, that took me seven years of writing. It is a big novel, almost 400 pages, and I’m really proud of the book. 

It’s taken me places now, to talk at different universities. Here in Chicago, and other places. It’s a satire. Me gusta mucho que sea eso, qué sea una novela que uno se ría, que uno se pueda ver representado, pero que no sea simplemente un manifiesto, ¿no? Y tiene que ver porque lo que yo escribo está muy relacionado con el absurdo; what I call the unreality of reality, which is like waking every day and saying, like, I’m alive, how weird it is to be alive, life is pretty trippy.

So eso mis libros siempre exploran eso, that reality of just being alive. As a writer, you can always get what’s in the air and try to shape it. 

I’ve gone from books about losing innocence to the absurd. The week when my daughter was born, I also had an accident, the same week. I had life, and then a near death experience in the same week. And I ended at the emergency room, and had to do emergency surgery and everything. 

One night at the hospital, waiting for the doctor at the ER, I started to write a book. And the idea was to explore fake nostalgia, because I was waiting for the doctor and I started to watch YouTube videos. And I ended into this rabbit hole that took me to city pop, which is Japanese music from the ‘80s.

I suddenly felt nostalgic, but I was like, “I’ve never lived in Japan, I’ve never lived in the ‘80s in Japan. So why am I… trying to grab on to this feeling of fake nostalgia?” Y ese fue el comienzo para empezar a explorar esto.

¿Qué otros tipos de escritura haces? Do you do other kinds of writing?

Escribí el guión para el music video clip of the Chicago artist, Gabacho. It’s called “Try.” They filmed it in Pilsen and it’s about two Latino skateboarders, and that was really fun. 

I love to collaborate with other mediums. I love Latinx music from Chicago. I have some friends, too, besides Gabacho: Rudy De Anda, KAINA, and I think there’s something happening there. Because they go from Spanish to English and they mix different sounds, and they also connect with older Latino music that now, because of the internet, is easy to access. They’re doing something interesting. I get inspiration from music, too, a lot. 

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Why is bilingual literature important?

I think if you put a lot of books in translation, or if you put a lot of artists that sing in Spanish and in English, within Chicago you have a lot, it’s going to help a lot of students to realize that there is more than whatever they’ve been exposed to. And that, in a way, is going to help them to find their own voice, too, their own narrative voice. Their own voice as a writer. 

Photo by Morgan Ciocca, Vocalo Radio / Chicago Public Media.

Keep up with Antonio and learn more about his work on Instagram.

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago — enriching us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Photography and written introduction by Morgan Ciocca

Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca, Ari Mejia and Rocío Santos

Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia

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