The Texas Institute of Letters elected six new writers into their prestigious group of literary talent, and three are from San Antonio. Gregg Barrios, Nan Cuba, and William Jack Sibley will join ranks with existing members, including Rick Riordan, John Phillip Santos, and Naomi Shibab Nye.
Barrios, who was born in Victoria, Texas, is a widely published poet, playwright, and journalist. Cuba founded the nonprofit literary center, Gemini Ink, and recently published her first novel, “Body and Bread.” Sibley is a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and journalist.
Established in 1936, the Texas Institute of Letters awards membership to “recognize distinctive literary achievement,” including writers who have published outstanding books on Texas. The organization also supports the Dobie Paisano Fellowship Program for writers. The Texas Institute of Letters writers cover a wide range of genres, including essays, poetry, fiction, theater, history, and journalism. Members may nominate a new member, who must then be approved by a council and elected by active members. Other 2015 inductees include two historians, Benjamin H. Johnson and James Crisp, and journalist, Michael Berryhill.
When speaking at the organization’s founding in 1936, J. Frank Dobie observed, “great literature transcends its native land, but there is none that I know of that ignores its own soil.”
By honoring Texas writers, this group acknowledges the importance of literature as a transformative, unifying art. These San Antonio writers rise up out of the clichéd murk of the River Walk, bluebonnets, and puffy tacos. Their perspective transforms their experiences into authentic art – at times hilarious and intriguing, insightful and surprising.
“It all comes down to the fact that all the rich material of your work winds up being in your own backyard. That’s why this anointing is so special,” Barrios said. His recent play, “I-DJ,” produced locally and Off Broadway in New York, features the character, Mofomixmaster, a gay Mexican-American DJ.
Barrios began writing book reviews at the age of 15 in Victoria, Texas. He was hand-picked for the job because local librarians knew him to be a great reader. When his father asked him how much the paper was paying him, Barrios explained, more than money.
“He was giving me a voice in the paper. The only other time you’d see a Latino name was if there was a death or marriage, or if someone got arrested, but never a byline,” Barrios said.
Today, Barrios carries this guidance forward in many ways. He sits on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, where he personally endows the award for “Best Critic” with a cash prize each year. In New York City last week, Barrios presented the award to Alexandra Schwartz of The New Yorker.
“I feel that book critics are very important to the success of our literary lives, and book publishers and writers, and yet they seem like the low people on the totem pole as far as getting paid,” Barrios said.
He has continued to maintain a strong presence as a Chicano, joining El Movimiento in Crystal City during the 1970s, where he worked as an educator and playwright. His 2013 op-ed piece in the Texas Observer went viral; it pointed out how the selection of writers for the Texas Book Festival was lacking in Chicano talent, and provided a rich list of authors who had been overlooked. Barrios has since met with the director and is happy with the most recent selection. He also lauded the San Antonio Book Festival for its inclusion and balanced representation of Texas writers.
Barrios is currently teaching a class at Gemini Ink. He has a book of poems, “La Causa,” and two plays, “Rancho Pancho” and “I-DJ” published by Hansen. This fall he will be Visiting Writer at Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU).
William Jack Sibley
“It’s the greatest accolade that Texas bestows on a writer,” Sibley said, who has written more than 15 screenplays and published two novels, “Any Kind of Luck” and “Sighs Too Deep for Words.”
Sibley is currently working on the third book of his Texas Trilogy. His queer fiction has received multiple accolades and awards, including the 2013 National Indie Excellence Award and USA Best Book Award. “Mean,” a play based on his experience working for a famous abstract expressionist painter, was performed by Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn in New York.
Sibley can change the familiar into the funny with his refreshing, witty take on life. In his series, “The Great Eccentrics of SA” published in the San Antonio Current, Sibley describes one of is subjects as “cool as a bowl of iced kumquats,” and another character drives his Buick Super “as if he were leading his own Battle of Flowers Parade.”
He laments that King William is “as iconoclastic as a cup of decaf,” and wonders what happened to “those little gray-headed grannies we used to see tottering up and down Southside streets, in diaphanous nightgowns, brandishing flyswatters and whispering confidences into oleander bushes.”
Sibley has two screenplays under option right now.
“Where are the producers with cajónes? I have a story that happened on my father’s ranch that’s been optioned six times, and we can’t get the damned thing done,” he said.
Cuba teaches a graduate fiction workshop, with a focus on social justice, at OLLU, where she is writer-in-residence. Her first novel, “Body and Bread,” won the PEN Southwest Book Award in fiction and the Texas Institute for Letters Award for Best Work of First Fiction.
She is currently working on “He Didn’t Kill Nobody But Mom,” a tragic-comedy.
“(It’s) very different from the first novel. It’s set in Texas, and loosely based on an experience I had as a journalist. Before I got my MFA degree and started writing fiction, I naively jumped into the freelance world,” she said.
Cuba spent one and a half years interviewing and writing about Henry Lee Lucas, a serial killer from Georgetown. Working with a psychologist, Cuba wrote about “the origins of extraordinary violence,” using Lucas as a case study.
“As a result of that experience, I’m very sensitive to the subject of violence … I teach my students about how we are ethically responsible for its treatment,” Cuba said.
Cuba said the comedy element of her new book is tricky.
“It’s my intent to show the absurdity of what happened when there is a very seriously mentally ill person who committed extraordinary violence, but because of the system or the process he turned the criminal justice system inside out,” she said.
“We should be very proud,” she said of the extraordinary writers in San Antonio and Texas. “I’m discovering new Texan writers every day, and I’m so amazed at the quality of work … It’s not a small community, it’s huge and the quality is very high.”