The Rad Dad Moves on to Fiction 

The first novel from former zinester Tomas Moniz explores family life in Berkeley.

click to enlarge Moniz remembers the early years of his career as precarious.

Photos courtesy of Acre Books

Moniz remembers the early years of his career as precarious.

Tomas Moniz is the original "Rad Dad," but the Oakland author has moved away from 'zine-making and essay writing to focus on full-length fiction.

Moniz's first novel, Big Familia, captures the joys and uncertainties of family life in modern-day Berkeley. Published by Acre through the University of Cincinnati, it's a sharply observed exploration of empty nesting, gentrification, and intercultural intimacy.

In the late '90s, Moniz's partner maintained a hectic schedule running a new restaurant, which left the father of three with many of the parenting duties that inspired his writing. "I was really struggling with being a parent, and I wanted to do it differently from how I had been (raised)." So he began looking for writing about parenthood that avoided cliches and offered fresh insights. His quest led him to 'zines, rough-shod pre-internet publications devoted to niche reporting, often on alternative topics. "In the zine world, if you have an idea, you can put out a call," Moniz recalled in a recent interview. "That's how I reached Ariel Gore, who did Hip Mama in the early '90s."

Inspired by Gore and others, Moniz established Rad Dad, a 'zine with the motto: An Action Not a Label. As writer and editor for the project, Moniz solicited essays that conveyed truth about living with children, especially from a male perspective. Rad Dad evolved into Rad Families, "because parents are so much obviously more than biology."

Born in El Paso, raised in Hawaii, educated at UC Santa Barbara, and having brought up kids in Berkeley's Lorin District, Moniz now calls Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood home. He has taught English at Berkeley City College for more than a decade. He recalls the early years of his career as precarious.

"I became a parent at twenty," he said. "Partly I stayed in school because I could get financial aid and loans, and that helped support me before I got a job teaching."

In the '90s, Moniz went from renting in San Francisco to home ownership in the East Bay. "My partner at the time [and I] had three kids living in a two-room apartment in San Francisco," he recalled. "I had just gotten a full-time teaching job. I think we just lucked out. ... I don't think I'd even been to Berkeley, because I was so caught up in no-car living in San Francisco, parenting, and teaching. We ended up buying a house in South Berkeley in 1998. It was one of the better decisions we ever made financially."

Rad Dad didn't shy away from the messiness of family life. As they grew older, Moniz's three children had more say in what and how their father wrote about them. "It was an interesting experience to share those stories with them and have their input, like 'Nah, I'm not OK with having you talk about this' or 'This is wonderful,' or 'This happened differently. What are you talking about?'"

Of Rad Dad, the magazine, and the two paperback collections it inspired, Moniz said, "It was a positive experience that forced me to have conversations with the people in my life. 'How can I raise my son and daughters and deal with racism and sexism?' I grew as a person, as father, as a writer through the process."

Many of the resonances of Rad Dad echo throughout Big Familia. In the novel, self-employed single parent Juan Gutierrez isn't sure he's ready to settle down with his boyfriend, Jared, just at the time his daughter is making plans to leave for college. Juan spends a couple nights a week at Nicks Lounge, a semi-divey establishment in Berkeley, and gradually learns more about the people in the community. Those connections ultimately help him find balance through friendship.

Big Familia doesn't dish out big, steaming heaps of drama. Rather, it recounts the smaller moments where a few ill-chosen words can have far-reaching repercussions, such as filling out financial-aid applications with a former spouse or dealing with lacy underwear left on the bathroom floor. Juan wants to be a better parent, lover, and son, but isn't sure how. His miscalculations about romantic and familial love give the book a bittersweet undertone that mixes well with the narrative as a whole.

Moniz began the novel before his two daughters moved away from home. "It gave me a nice opportunity to prepare for how to let go, how to accept the changes that were so clearly coming."

Big Familia takes full advantage of its Berkeley and Oakland settings, name-checking elementary schools, restaurants, and other sites familiar to locals. Through dialogue that's funny without feeling forced, the book paints a vivid picture of life in the East Bay — smart, sexy, and heartfelt.

"I wanted to capture my experiences moving through the streets and the areas that I love," Moniz said.

Don't be fooled by every reference in Big Familia. There is, indeed, a Lorin District bar matching the description of Nicks in the book, but Moniz applied some artistic license.

"The [missing] apostrophe is a fake story," Moniz said. "I was needing something to create that tension I wanted, so I came up with that one."

Another career landmark for Moniz was Lyrics and Dirges, a monthly reading series at Pegasus Books in downtown Berkeley that he co-founded with M.K. Chavez and Sharon Coleman. The program was designed to bring together new, emerging, and established writers in a supportive environment. Moniz no longer coordinates the event, partly in order to focus on his longer work.

"I met a lot of writers and was inspired by what they were doing," Moniz said. "That really allowed me to think about what I want to do as a writer."

Other recent work by Moniz includes a children's book, Collaboration: Ways We Work Together, illustrated by Alicia Dornadi. He also has a new novella forthcoming from Mason Jar Press.

Moniz said he has another novel in the works, this time focused on being an elder.

"As I'm getting older, I'm doing what I did with Big Familia, writing about something I'm about to experience. What does it mean to age and grow old?"

Readers will have to wait for any answers, but Moniz said, " I wrapped up a first draft, which I'm really happy about."

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