“Hector Tobar is our new hero,” a close friend of mine, a well known Chicano writer, proclaimed to me last week. I was back home in Austin. We were at the Whitehorse. He said it as if it were up for discussion in the first place. “I’m totally with him,” he said. This conversation in reaction to a quote Tobar gave to the Latin Post in an interview earlier this month:
“I really believe we are living through the beginning of a Latino Renaissance that will one day be compared to the Harlem Renaissance. Having said that, every literary culture produces mediocrity. Our mediocrity is populated by Isabel Allende imitators and lots of magical realism rehash written by authors who sell a vision of Latinos as colorful people of simple (and predictable) pleasures, a kind of shallow exoticism. I think our readers are way ahead of the game in their tastes, which explains the popularity of novelists like Roberto Bolaño, who a decade ago would have been seen as a fringe writer.”
The quote not only hit on the third rail of contemporary Latina/o literature. It struck it with an iron sledgehammer.
“The problem with latino letters after 2000,” my friend said, “is that it’s all written with so much heart. So much heart; so little substance.”
“Where is the virtuosity?” he asked. “The hard-mined narrative grit? The incredible research? The complex latina/o characters that aren’t cardboard victims? And this is really gonna hurt,” he said. “Where is the editing?”
It was as if he’d sliced the air in two. Or shattered crystal glass on tile. Or asked my mom out on a date. And then said he was going to be my dad.
“Are you simple or something?,” I said to him.
“Really be honest with yourself,” he said. “Is some of this stuff great literature? Does it hold water? Is it going to stand the test of time?”
Dang, I thought to myself. You don’t ask those questions.
You’re not supposed to. Even inside the ivory tower of academia—especially not inside the ivory tower of academia. You’re only supposed to whisper those questions between yourself and your friends. And even then, you whisper softly.
My friend’s questions made me think, instantly, of the boom writers from Latin America who have obviously stood the test of time: Carlos Fuentes, Gabo, Julio Cortazar, Mario Vargas Llosa. But I thought of my favorite journalists too, many of whom are writing out of the United States for fear of their own lives. What’s their deal? What did they have in common? I wondered.
This is the difference between U.S. Latina/o letters and Latina/o Letters from Latin America: In the United States, writing is a business. In Latin America, writing is life and death.
In the U.S., we’re polite writers because we have to be. We get along, we praise each other’s work, we retweet what needs to be retweeted. We don’t make waves. We don’t ask questions like, Is this stuff great literature?
In Latin America, novelists, bloggers, but most oftentimes journalists are killed for asking simple questions, for being impolite, for writing the wrong thing. It happens every week between Ciudad Juarez and Tierra del Fuego. And this makes the stakes of writing all that much higher.
In Latin America, squabbles are aired, questions are asked, feelings are hurt, golden geese of publishing are challenged, indie presses are created. Latin American writing then becomes a way of being because it is an extension of one’s own mortality.
The tropes surrounding such an existence are why a lot (though not all) of the best Latin American writing is naturally complex. They are also part and parcel of why my generation of U.S. Latina/o writers—a generation that came of age post-9/11, oversaw two American wars–in addition to a drug war in Mexico that has claimed 120,000+ lives so far–experienced the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, witnessed the militarization of the border, and watched record deportations under the Bush and Obama administrations–fell so hard for the likes of Roberto Bolaño, a Chilean writer.
Life and death in Bolaño’s 2666—as fundamental as Shakespeare and as recent as Ciudad Juarez–resonated with us. The wandering bildungsroman-style narrative of The Savage Detectives was, in so many ways, our narrative, post-graduation and post-economic collapse.
The tropes in that kind of literature are the kinds of things I think my friend was talking about when he asked me if a lot of U.S. Latina/o narrative would stand the test of time. Is this stuff what the future needs? I think I remember him asking. What I think he meant to ask is Is this what we need? Does our own literature even speak to us?
I’d say, by and large, yes. In fact, I can see many U.S. Latina/o writers staying relevant for decades if not longer: Daniel Alarcon, Kirsten Valdez-Quade, Francisco Goldman, Jenine Capo Crucet, Jennifer Clement, Cristina Henriquez, Alfredo Corchado, Dagoberto Gilb, Nelly Rosario, Manuel Muñoz, Alex Espinoza, Luis Alberto Urrea, Natalie Diaz, Patricia Engel, Junot Diaz, Sandra Cisneros, Helena Maria Viramontes, Julia Alvarez, Ernesto Quiñonez. Oh yeah, and Tobar too.
But bluntly put, Tobar is right. There are a lot of Isabelle Allende imitators. There is a lot of Magical Realism rehash. There is a lot of stuff that, as Latina/o writers, we’re expected to love and write unconditionally.
There does exist a script that we’re fed. And it’s for this reason that you don’t find complexity in a lot of the commercial fiction of those U.S. Latina/o Literature writers who try to capitalize on publishing industry expectations: exoticized, cardboard Latina/o narratives that serve as a kind of walking tour of our culture.
From the beginning, we’re taught that this kind of tour sells: Here’s the cocina; here’s a rebozo; here’s Frida’s blue house or something like it; here’s some day of the dead stuff; here’s a three page description of colorful food and isn’t it colorful?; here’s a bunch of dead bodies; here’s a loose woman; here’s some magical realism just because; here’s a hyper-violent brown man; here’s a hyper-violent brown man who drinks rum/tequila (never anything else) and can’t control his urges; here’s a Cadillac because Cuba; here’s some day of the dead stuff in April; something with Che on the cover because motorcycle diaries, right?; have you seen that volcano yet?; here’s the Virgen de Guadalupe; cholos.
These things might sound like hyperbole, but these are really the tropes. The scripts. Cartoonish, sometimes offensive, always base.
I don’t know if anything on this list applies to those who Tobar calls the “Isabelle Allende imitators,” (except magical realism of course) but I do know that he’s hit at the core of a significant truth: so many of us U.S. Latina/o writers—and I include myself in this—want so badly to be successful that we’re willing to disconnect our own literature from the people we write it for.
Part of it is that we’re muscled—we don’t want to make waves. Part of it is that we just need tenure—we need that book publication, we need to sell now. I’m sure someone could even write something about the MFA system at large too, though that’s not my essay.
When I think of Tobar’s observation of a Latino Renaissance in writing, I think of that Susan Sontag quote: “The function of writing is to explode one’s subject—transform it into something else. (Writing is a series of transformations).” That is to say that writing is an evolution, which Sontag believed was catalyzed by subversive, rude writing that pushed back against something—misogyny, censorship, homophobia.
Sontag, like so many great writers of her generation, took cues from the radical avante-garde. To explode one’s subject was to decenter it so that the subject could not be pinned down, pigeon-holed, simplified.
When I think of a Latino Renaissance in writing, I think too of so many of my counterparts here in Mexico. I think that if they are willing to die for their writing, the least we could do is be impolite for ours.