The Washington Post
February 28, 1999
State of the Art: Latino Writers

                  By Francisco Goldman

                  Sunday, February 28, 1999; Page X01

                  "State of the Art" is an occasional series of essays by literary figures on
                  literary trends.

                  Last fall I spent a few days at Southwest Texas State University, where a
                  terrific Chicano-American writer, my friend Dagoberto Gilb, teaches
                  creative writing. I was there as a "visiting writer" myself, and one evening
                  several classes -- a mixture of Freshman Comp and creative writing
                  classes -- merged for a question and answer session, which Dagoberto
                  ably guided and prompted along with questions of his own. One of his first
                  questions to me was, "How are you different as a writer from John

                  I had to admit I'd never read Grisham, but I responded with banter about
                  respective bank accounts and genre. And so it went, for about an hour.
                  Towards the end, Dagoberto asked, "So, how are you different as a writer
                  from John Grisham?" I said, "Didn't you already ask me that?" and the
                  students giggled. Dagoberto said, "Yeah, but how?" and nodded as if
                  urging me on in a game of charades towards some answer that should by
                  now have seemed obvious. Later I asked him what had been up with that.
                  Dagoberto can be kind of a nut, his reasoning as hermetically associative
                  as some highly imaginative child's. He is a fiction writer, a poet to the bone.
                  His explanation staggered me. He'd repeated the question because he'd
                  wanted me to answer that the difference between me and John Grisham is
                  that I am Latino.

                  In those classes there were several Latino kids for whom it would have
                  been good, he felt, to hear such an affirmation. He wanted me to show --
                  for them -- pride in being a Latino, and a sense of its being part of who I
                  am as a writer. And he wanted that to be a source of identification and
                  even pride for the Latino kids in his class, who, he seemed to be telling me,
                  were experiencing their status as a minority in that overwhelmingly Anglo
                  school in sometimes discouraging ways. I felt terrible, because as I listened
                  to him, I was angry at myself for being self-conscious about assertions that
                  perhaps really could or should be that simple. But I wasn't even at all sure
                  that I considered myself a Latino writer, though not because I didn't think
                  of myself as "qualifying" as one. I was undecided about the term "Latino
                  writers" -- indeed, about all such plural designations when applied to work
                  as solitary and individual as fiction writing -- words seeming to affirm an
                  affinity with other writers of certain backgrounds, and that might instead be
                  obscuring what I was trying to do was a novelist rather than illuminating
                  any aspect actually worth taking note of.

                  When I first began to write fiction with some seriousness, I was already an
                  avid reader of Latin American writers, but writing by U.S. Latinos -- the
                  mainly Chicano, Puerto Rican and Cuban predecessors of the Latino
                  writers becoming prominent today -- was certainly never even mentioned
                  in the literature or creative writing courses I took when I was in college.
                  I've always believed that the great commercial success of Gabriel Garcia
                  Marquez and then Isabel Allende -- varnished by the worldwide literary
                  prestige of Latin American writers of the famous "Boom" in general --
                  initially made U.S. mainstream publishers receptive to the idea that our
                  Latino authors could tap into a non-Latino reading market that the
                  popularity of those two writers had helped to create. Oscar Hijuelos's
                  extraordinary Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love was the first
                  "homegrown" book that succeeded at that level, winning the Pulitzer Prize
                  and becoming a bestseller. He was soon followed by the steady
                  emergence of successful, critically acclaimed and prize-winning authors
                  such as Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Cristina Garcia, Elena Castedo,
                  Ana Castillo and quite a few others. While all these authors were certainly
                  unique talents, they had certain affinities that did make them seem
                  descendants of those two Latin American predecessors I've mentioned.
                  That contributed to the widespread idea that a new school of Latino
                  writing in the United States had taken wing, and that the fiction shared
                  certain traits that had come to be identified as an "authentic" Latin
                  American and Latino approach to fiction: magical realism, a certain
                  exuberance and sensuality, accessible story-telling, and, in the case of the
                  U.S. writers in particular, a certain quality of sometimes bereft nostalgia for
                  the homespun and/or folkloric aspects and flavors of life in former

                  Of course it was natural and inevitable that American writing should begin
                  to reflect the extraordinary phenomena of the huge migration of people
                  from Latin America to this country. There were perhaps more Latino
                  fiction writers -- and actually had been for a long while -- being published
                  than was generally realized, in both mainstream New York houses and
                  excellent regional, independent houses such as the renowned Arte Publico
                  Press of Texas. The emergence of Dagoberto Gilb and the young Junot
                  Diaz, both adamantly un-exotic, the one Chicano and the other a
                  Dominican from the immigrant stew of urban New Jersey, fusing their
                  vibrant voices to the classical American short-story form, revealed some of
                  the variety of Latino literature.

                  Some years ago Salman Rushdie published an essay titled "
                  'Commonwealth Literature' Does Not Exist." He confessed that he wasn't
                  even sure what that then-popular designation meant, though he took a stab
                  at defining it as writing "in the English language, by persons who are not
                  themselves white Britons, or Irish, or citizens of the United States of
                  America." He found the term patronizing and distinctly marginalizing, an
                  attempt to reduce an immense body of extraordinarily diverse writers to a
                  category -- "a ghetto" -- apart from mainstream English literature. "It would
                  never do," he wrote, "to include English literature, the great sacred thing
                  itself, with this bunch of upstarts . . . the term is not used simply to
                  describe, or even misdescribe, but also to divide . . . At best, what is
                  called Commonwealth literature is positioned below English literature
                  proper." Rushdie wrote that sometimes the writers collaborated by
                  conforming to this ghetto mentality themselves, trying to produce
                  "authentically" ethnic or exotic literature as if to conform to the demands of
                  a new market.

                  While the situation of Latino writers is distinct from that of so-called
                  Commonwealth writers in many obvious ways, Rushdie's insights were
                  similar to what I often hear whenever I discuss this subject with friends
                  such as Dagoberto Gilb and others. "I am equally proud and irritated by
                  being called a Chicano writer," Dagoberto wrote to me the other day. "A
                  writer offers possibility, shows there is power that is not money alone. And
                  it is a way of showing pride against a dominant culture that does not
                  respect us . . . Irritating because it's so often used against -- a Chicano
                  writer, not an American writer, as if 'Chicano' is a genre of writing, like
                  mystery or romance. Like somehow it's an exotic category of storytelling
                  rooted somewhere other than 'mainstream' culture."

                  The other day I was having dinner with another fiction writer, an Anglo,
                  who was complaining about the lawyers in Clinton's defense team at the
                  impeachment trial, the make-up of which he saw as a cynical, politically
                  correct, multicultural ploy. Earlier, he'd said the same about Clinton's
                  cabinet. I've heard such complaints many times before, and I gave my own
                  by now weary and rote defense; and then it dawned on me that the team of
                  lawyers he was complaining about was actually made up of three white
                  male lawyers, a white female, and one sole black woman who had
                  disarmed the nation with her elegance, youth and brilliance. I have to
                  admit, that I exploded. Our literary culture is no more open-minded or
                  generous or less racially self-conscious than the culture at large; in some
                  ways, it seems to be even more reflexively segregated (especially in New
                  York!). My friend's complaints were a revealing echo of those which I've
                  often heard directed at Latino and other minority or even female writers
                  whenever they win or are nominated for literary prizes or grants or are
                  otherwise singled out for recognition.

                  In that classroom at South West Texas State University that evening, least
                  I'd answered one question -- it was one I had no problem defining myself
                  in relation to -- in an appropriately helpful way: A young Chicana had
                  asked my opinion about incorporating Spanish words into her stories.
                  She'd taken a lot of grief for doing so from the solely-English-speaking
                  kids in her writing class. Of course Spanish mixed with English is for many
                  of us the language of our homes, of our most exuberant and eloquent
                  friendships and loves, the language of the streets and many workplaces --
                  not a separatist conceit, but, like it or not, a living, breathing, ever-evolving
                  new American vernacular. I remembered being a university student myself,
                  submitting my stories for a prize and being admonished by the judge not to
                  despoil English with Spanish, and the sickening, lonely frustration I felt.
                  And so I'd told that student that yes, she should use Spanish, though of
                  course that implied fundamental decisions. I told her that in my case, at
                  least, I wanted the solely-English-literate reader to be able to understand
                  what I was writing, while also intending that reader to feel just a little
                  outside of certain passages, just to remind him a little of how he might feel
                  when overhearing Spanish or Spanglish speakers in the street . . . only less
                  so, since after all, I've invited that reader into my book -- mi casa es tu
                  casa. Jose Marti, the great Cuban poet and revolutionary martyr who
                  spent more than half of his life in exile from Cuba, mostly in New York --
                  that great Latino universal ancestor and patriarch (and the actual abuelo of
                  Cesar Romero) -- wrote that a man without a home is like a ship without
                  an anchor. For me, at least, building that casa, that home for myself, is
                  what writing novels is all about.

                  A brief story. Several years ago in New York, horsing around with friends
                  in a bar, I made-up a movie: Latino, black, white gay, and "jewlatto" U.S.
                  soldiers stationed in Germany covertly take on the local neo-Nazis, and so
                  on. A friend passed my "idea" on to a producer and within days I was
                  being offered enough money to fund six months of fulltime novel writing.
                  Only in America can such a failure of imagination be so wondrously
                  rewarded, though I did have to write a movie treatment, and after months
                  of procrastination I flew to Veracruz, Mexico, to hole up and do it. Most
                  mornings I worked in my hotel, at a shaded table in a patio overlooking the
                  port, and within days, neo-Nazis were falling like owl pellets.

                  Soon my concentration was floating away on recurring strains of harp
                  music, while young women with strikingly long, shapely arms began
                  popping in and out of the patio, and filling hotel corridors. Harp music was
                  everywhere, and so were music conservatory students and professional
                  and amateur harpists from all over Latin America. In Veracruz -- home of
                  the harp-driven music son jarocho -- the first ever Latin American Harp
                  Festival had just convened. Soon I was trailing harpists all over town, to
                  recitals and jarocho dancing in the plaza and even lectures. One afternoon
                  I listened to a Mexico City professor explain his theory -- for all I know,
                  highly eccentric -- on the origins of Latin American-Caribbean dance
                  music. In the 16th century, as plundered wealth began flowing out of the
                  mainland to be shipped to Spain, port towns throughout the region
                  exploded into existence almost over night. Most of these, such as
                  Veracruz, were swampy, fever-infested miasmas that even the Indians
                  avoided as much as possible, keeping to higher and cooler ground. The
                  only people who didn't succumb so easily to the climate and
                  mosquito-borne diseases had come from Africa: slaves, who, of course,
                  brought African music; but also Jewish traders who'd lived in Portugal's
                  African colonies, and who, with their string instruments and
                  Iberian-Sephardic musical traditions, had also absorbed the music of
                  Africa. The Mexican lecturer evoked that brief period, when the Inquisition
                  had not yet established its control over the Spanish Main, as a fleeting
                  vision of paradise on earth: a Caribbean stew of heresies, rampant
                  miscegenation, and irresistibly licentious new dance music, all circulating
                  from port to port. I remember that lecturer imitating a previously desolate
                  Spanish friar, finally unable to resist, lifting the hem of his cossack to dance
                  the cachumbe in the steamy mud of a Veracruz street. And he said that
                  with the men usually away on ships or traveling with mule trains, Veracruz
                  was a town run by women who mixed Spanish, Indian, African and Jewish
                  folk wisdom to cast spells and potions to protect their seafaring, wandering
                  men and impose order and health at home. But the Spanish Inquisition
                  finally asserted itself: "witches" and Jews were tortured, killed or
                  converted, Africans unrelentingly enslaved, dance music repressed. New
                  Spain sank into its long, well-mannered colonial sleep, though of course the
                  new rhythms lived on, nibbling at the edges of courtly music, subverting
                  and transforming.

                  Throughout my writing life I've searched out models or metaphors for
                  home, for that one place that could be all my places, the place the novels I
                  wanted to write could be both from, and an aesthetic expression of -- in
                  Salman Rushdie's perfect phrase, I've searched for that "imaginary
                  homeland." So that Mexican musicologist-historian's vision of an
                  Inquisition-free Latin Caribbean became one such metaphor for me.
                  Another has always been Miami Airport -- Jews flying down from the
                  North, Latin Americans from the south, and there intermingling -- or rather
                  the idea of a literary equivalent. In other words, the fact that I'm the
                  American offspring of two immigrant parents, one Russian Jewish and one
                  Guatemalan mestiza Catholic, eventually led to the idea that a coherence
                  not necessarily available -- or desirable or even looked for -- in life might
                  be an interesting condition to aspire to in a novel. What if I took very
                  seriously the idea that a novel could be the offspring of two distinct literary
                  traditions: North American-Jewish, driven by the "I," from Augie to Holden
                  to Portnoy; and the so-called total novel of the Latin American Boom, in
                  which entire societies speak, fabulously or grittily, from Macondo to Santa
                  Marta, Lima to Mexico's Distrito Federal.

                  Anyway, that's how my first novel very slowly took shape, bogging me
                  down for years, a little of this mixed with a little more of that, in a doomed
                  search for a flagrantly perfect new hybrid. I understood that books are
                  supposed to beget books, that "making it new" is always a matter of
                  re-imagining and abducting traditions. Though of course life "takes place,"
                  weighing you down with obsessions and conflicts and self-consciousness. I
                  had been spending the greater part of a decade living in, fully immersed in,
                  Guatemala and Central America. That decade was the '80s, when, of
                  course, much of the Isthmus was plunged into war and gruesomely violent
                  political repression. What lessons! On the human scale, searing,
                  unforgettable and eternally humbling. There were also the lessons of family,
                  and of everything else that comes your way as you move through your
                  twenties into your thirties; lessons on the reality of U.S. power and political
                  betrayals generally and the illusions and strengths and sometime corruption
                  of the weak. All of that helped form an interior landscape of sorts that
                  stories sometimes come from. At least for now, if I find myself imagining a
                  love story, it will almost always be set in Central America or the
                  Northeastern United States and preferably somehow both.

                  Is a Latino anyone from the Spanish-speaking peoples and countries of the
                  Americas who lives in English-speaking North America? I suppose a
                  person disposed to could make endless distinctions, inclusive or exclusive.
                  The English-speaking child of Zapotec immigrants in Oregon; the
                  Nuyorican mulatto; the Jewish cinematographer from Mexico City, now
                  living in Hollywood; the Argentine, descended from Italians and living in
                  Queens; the blonde and green-eyed Cuban millionaire in Miami and the
                  black family who floated over from Cuba on a raft; the just-arrived, almost
                  solely Ixil-speaking Mayan from Nebaj, Guatemala; the Californian with an
                  Hispanic surname whose family has lived there since long before it was a
                  territory of the United States; and so on and so on -- are all such people
                  equally Latino? I think so. On the other hand, there are many who regard
                  Latino as primarily a racial and class and certainly political designation --
                  referring to the peoples, probably the majority among all of us, who have
                  overtly and historically lived with the consequences of American racial
                  discrimination in all its social and economic manifestations, all those millions
                  being targeted now by legislation against bilingual education or affirmative
                  action or access to public schooling and health care and other
                  anti-immigrant measures in some states or in the U.S. Congress. Both uses
                  of Latino are legitimate, the one cultural and extremely general, the other a
                  matter -- for someone like me -- of conviction, solidarity and respect.

                  One and a half million Guatemalans -- more than a tenth of Guatemala's
                  entire population -- are currently living in the United States, almost half of
                  them illegally; if I narrowly sympathize with any single American sub-group,
                  it is that one, though I might be among the very small percentage who is
                  college-educated and middle-class. No Guatemalan -- well, certainly not
                  among the poor -- comes to this country hoping to find the social
                  pathologies of la patria perpetrated here. I recently read an article in
                  Miami's El Nuevo Heraldo about South Florida's large Guatemalan-Mayan
                  immigrant community, in which a number of Mayans were quoted as saying
                  they felt freer to be themselves, to be openly Mayan -- culturally, socially,
                  religiously -- there than they do in Guatemala, where, despite their status as
                  the country's ethnic majority, they've been so repressed and persecuted. A
                  Mayan cultural flowering in the United States! The confluence of this latest
                  twist in the nearly millennium-long epic of Mayan survival within the briefer
                  epic of a United States constantly re-shaped by immigration is wonderfully
                  indicative of what a startling historical moment we are living in. South and
                  Central America's great novelists have long nurtured their literature on their
                  immense continents' tantalizing absence of written and official history: their
                  past a great blank, waiting to be imagined into existence and named by
                  novelists and poets. But it seems to me that we are living now with an
                  equally tempting and "unwritten" present: a United States -- I'm suggesting
                  simply one metaphorical way of looking at it -- whose literary heritage now
                  also includes, for example, the Popul Vuh, "the Mayan Bible," a classical
                  Native and Latin American text, now on its way to becoming a North
                  American one. It is of course specious to suggest that that would represent
                  a diluting of any American canon; like suggesting that an American Jew
                  should not look for inspiration to the Kabbalah. The example of the Popul
                  Vuh is there for the American Jew just as the Kabbalah is there for the
                  new U.S. Mayan, both joining Proust's Madeleine cookie in an arsenal of
                  literary time-travel and divinatory techniques.

                  Then how exactly is a Latino writer different from a Latin American writer,
                  or any other kind of American writer? Does it really imply any sort of
                  meaningful affinity among all writers who might be considered Latino?
                  Perhaps being "Latino" or "Latina" implies someone who feels separate
                  from -- not always in a hostile way -- the United States mainstream, simply
                  because his culture -- his innermost sense of being, of family, perhaps of
                  language, of intimacy -- is a different one. And so maybe a Latino writer is
                  someone who is aware, when he writes, of that Otherness, and usually is
                  even expected to take it as at least part of his theme. Even if all of that is
                  so, that does not mean that as a suggestion of intrinsic literary significance,
                  that the term Latino writing has any real meaning. Of course in some ways
                  we've seen it hyped in the manner of any other publishing marketing term,
                  as was the "Boom," used to describe so many disparate and great Latin
                  American literary talents of a certain generation. And of course it is good
                  that there be more opportunities for Latinos to be published. And it is
                  extremely good to see, as I often do, young people on the New York
                  subways, the children of immigrants, or immigrants themselves, reading
                  such wonderful and obviously beloved young novelists as Junot Diaz,
                  Cristina Garcia, and the Haitian-American Edwidge Danticat and others.

                  When I was a kid, I certainly didn't know of writers whom I could look to
                  for a reflection of my place in the world, for a literary experience that also
                  included characters who came from similar backgrounds as my own. (I
                  realize that if my background had been, say, Chicano, my parents or
                  teachers might have exposed me to a Rudolfo Anaya, or to someone else.)
                  I remember being so confused about my identity in just that way that as a
                  young child I stalked into my mother's room and angrily flung across the
                  room a book about Davy Crockett and the Alamo -- heroic gringos
                  against treacherous, bloodthirsty Mexicans -- and demanded that she
                  never again to tell me that I was "Guatemalan too." I wanted to be
                  American and nothing else! I was home from school with the flu -- I must
                  have been in high school -- when my mother read me a chapter of Garcia
                  Marquez's Cien Anos de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude),
                  translating whatever words I didn't know. And I remember that she talked
                  to me about the book in a heartfelt way, telling me that it was the saddest
                  and most beautiful book she'd ever read. She meant the sadness of
                  solitude, the novel's central theme, so many of the images and settings and
                  stories and characters and moods recalling Guatemalan solitudes burned
                  into her memory and heart. The book had the effect of connecting me to
                  myself, to earliest childhood memories, and from there to landscapes,
                  flavors and certain matters of life, which I obsessively returned to time and
                  again; and the book also gave me something, a world, to connect my
                  highest literary ambitions to. It led me to new ideas about writing. And it
                  freed me from definitions that hadn't fit me before.

                  The truth is, not every Latino writer has to be a self-aware Latino; there
                  are probably many writers of Latino heritage who feel trapped or stifled by
                  an obligation to write as one. Not every writer experiences being a Latino
                  as a blessing, or as a hardship. Some experience their "Latino-ness" as a
                  defining part of their internal or external struggles as human beings and
                  citizens, and others less so. There is no authentically Latino way of
                  expressing oneself in poetry and prose. As far as what is actually written,
                  being a Latino writer shouldn't preclude anything, and the only thing it
                  should never be is limiting. It would be limiting to judge writing by political
                  expectations and prejudices that others have about Latinos and what they
                  "are supposed to write," just as it would be limiting to judge distinguished
                  black writers of past generations -- I'm thinking of James Baldwin -- by his
                  stance on civil rights.

                  Latino writers have had a different, yet just as excruciating, set of
                  expectations placed on them; some seem to have even placed them on
                  themselves. To be read, for example, as having taken some kind of
                  political stance on immigration in a novel that happens to have immigrant
                  characters in it, but is actually primarily about, say, romantic heartbreak, or
                  a certain manner of telling a story. Especially pernicious is the notion that
                  magical realism is an authentically and uniquely Latino form of literary
                  expression -- magical realism as a kind of ethnic propaganda, a claim to
                  specialness based on the idea that Latinos are magical, more sensual,
                  childlike, folkloric, unthreatening, so pleasing to read about, if not to have
                  to actually live next door to, or to share a school district with.

                  Of course the idea of Latin American magical realism as positive literary
                  comfort food is rooted in an inane misreading of the enormously influential
                  Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the stereotyping of all Latin American writers
                  -- writers as amazingly diverse as Juan Rulfo, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio
                  Cortazar, Juan Carlos Onetti, Jose Mutis, Manuel Puig, Carlos Fuentes,
                  Jorge Luis Borges, G. Cabrera Infante, Reynaldo Arenas, Isabel Allende,
                  Diamela Eltit and Carmen Boullosa -- as happy folkloric "exotic" magical
                  realists. The Martinican writer Patrick Chamoiseau offers this justification
                  of the literary technique in his wonderful novel Texaco: "rubbing the real
                  with the magical (as practiced in Haiti since the moon was born) has added
                  to the ways of apprehending human truths." As practiced in North
                  America, too often it is a matter of trying to have the magic "rubbing" while
                  avoiding both the real and human truths.

                  Every Latino writer is an heir to great literary traditions -- from Latin
                  America as well as from the United States -- which personal identification
                  may or may not make more accessible and eloquent. The Boom writers of
                  Latin America coincided in their repudiation of all literary prescriptions,
                  from the kitschy representations of folklore in the prevalent literary
                  regionalism of the time (Borges once cracked that you can tell that the
                  Koran is an authentically Arabic book because it doesn't have a single
                  camel in it), to the pressures to write novels of political denunciation and
                  Soviet-style Social Realism or to write only positively about the poor and
                  so on. In those times the political pressures writers such as the ones young
                  Garcia Marquez faced were much more difficult to withstand than the
                  spoutings of any campus literary ideologue today. Some of those writers
                  were committed revolutionaries themselves, and all around them, people
                  were being killed for political reasons. And yet they knew as Garcia
                  Marquez stated in an essay written nearly two decades before writing his
                  most famous novel, "that the last thing Latin Americans need from a novel
                  is a mere description of the reality they already know too well."
                  (Remember that the next time you're told that you should appreciate this or
                  that writer for "exposing the emptiness of celebrity culture.")

                  These writers understood that the most revolutionary thing they could do
                  was exemplify freedom and excellence in their work, through their
                  language, through the imaginativeness and narrative mastery of their stories,
                  and even through a condescension-free compassion which truly knows
                  how to love. Just as William Faulkner influenced the great Latin
                  Americans, the examples of Garcia Marquez, Cortazar, Vargas Llosa or
                  Puig are there for any younger writer, living anywhere in the world. But
                  when I remember what it meant to me the very first time my mamita read
                  out loud to me from their books, I know that they, and their example, are
                  especially ours. When I truly take that example to heart, I have no trouble
                  saying that the way I am different as a writer from John Grisham is that I
                  am a Latino.

                  Francisco Goldman is the author of "The Long Night of White Chickens"
                  and The Ordinary Seaman."

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