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What should Latino literature be?

By Sergio Troncoso

Last week I introduced the writers Francisco Goldman and Ilan Stavans, one primarily a novelist and the other a critic, at the Hudson Valley Writersí Center.What followed was an illuminating discussion and debate about this term 'Latino literature.'What happens when writers contributing to American literature pigeonhole themselves as writers of 'Latino literature'?Do they marginalize themselves to a harmless, maybe even second-class status?Do they accept the public and publishersí expectations of what is 'proper American literature' and what is not?Does acceptance of this term, not only as a word but also as literary product, encourage American Latinos to write stories primarily for entertainment, about our familias, for example, while eschewing works about ideas?

There is not enough space here to detail the individually complex answers to these questions given by Francisco Goldman and Ilan Stavans.But my sense of their literary work is that they are redefining 'American' literature.Their redefinition focuses on the juxtapositions, conflicts, bonds, and finally intermarriages between the United States and Latin America.It is not an 'America' of the Anglo Northeast, nor an 'America' of the Old West, nor an 'America' whose primary intellectual inheritance comes from the European enlightenment.Their new 'America' straddles Spanish and English, the Mayan Popul Vuh and Emersonís "The American Scholar," and even Mexico City and New York City.In this new 'American' home they are redefining, the word 'America' is finally being liberated from its exclusive reference to the United States, to a once dominant Anglo culture, and even to the English language.

Francisco Goldman, for example, argued that he sees himself, first, as an American writer of the English language.But he also remembered, during his first book, The Long Night of White Chickens, how he did not have the confidence to resist his publisherís desire to italicize the Spanish words in his epic novel.This despite the fact that the reality of language use in the United States is that many of his readers, whether their heritage is Latino or not, speak in a mixture of Spanish and English.Italicizing Spanish words separates them as being foreign, an 'other.'But is that true of the United States today?Ilan Stavans added that writers should never underestimate the intelligence of readers of modern American literature.They donít need a glossary that immediately ossifies terms.Instead, we should communicate that certain rhythm and understanding of readers who combine Spanish and English in the same sentence.And for those readers who donít understand a word of Spanish, they should look it up, go to the bodega next door, or ask their friends.That is the new 'America.'

I know that those comments may make some people in New York, and beyond, a little nervous, maybe even angry.But one thing that was clear was that Francisco Goldman and Ilan Stavans had happily accepted the English language as their primary mode of literary expression.What this acceptance implied, however, was not just a one-way understanding of 'American literature.'It implied that they would change it too, by their participation in it.

The reason to read Francisco Goldman, for example, is for his mastery of narrative.The drama of the story.The complex humanity of the characters.The rich language, at once excellent and free.And as for Ilan Stavans, he is an honest critic with the courage to keep opening up new ground in American literary thought.He urges writers to stop putting themselves in literary ghettoes.In his astonishing memoir, On Borrowed Words, Stavans follows Borgesís valuable lesson: literature ought to be a conduit of ideas.

But if you read these writers, if you take them seriously, then you will upend a cozy world, you will take a step back from your assumptions about 'American literature' and question them.You will see, again, with fresh curiosity how the literature of America is reinventing itself.You will explore, as these writers do, this idea of home.What is it to have a cultural or linguistic home?What about an amalgam of landscapes and languages and experiences?How can a writer create the place where he belongs, and take it with him wherever he goes, through his words and stories and reflections?The continual exploration of these questions, instead of providing didactic answers at the end of the road, are themselves answers.Uneasy answers.Infuriatingly imprecise answers.Answers that tolerate not one bit of exhaustion or ache.But through these explorations, in words, we will find and briefly revel in this ephemeral place to be.


This newspaper article appeared in the Sunday Books section of the El Paso Times on October 20, 2002.