In the Time of Trump, a Look at Latin-American Lit

Donald Trump this month cruelly and disgracefully decided to deport nearly 800,000 law-abiding children of undocumented immigrants. Those “Dreamers” were brought to the U.S. at a young age by parents mostly from Latin America — where the rich cultures include many examples of amazing literature.

So I thought I’d make today’s blog post about some of that literature, which is perhaps most known for magic realism (portraying fantastical events in a down-to-earth way) but obviously includes works written in all kinds of styles. I’ll also mention U.S. authors of Hispanic descent (some “Dreamers” could eventually be among them if allowed to stay) and even mention Spain’s Miguel de Cervantes, whose Don Quixote was of course written in Spanish.

Today’s blog topic is a bit ironic because the incurious Trump is notorious for (among other things) not reading novels or nonfiction books — though the word “Don” in the name Don Quixote might interest America’s narcissist-in-chief for a New York minute.

I have some personal interest in this because my younger daughter was born in Guatemala. But I’m hardly an expert on Latin-American literature, or an expert on Spanish- or Portuguese-language literature from anywhere, or an expert on literature by U.S. writers of Hispanic descent. Still, I’ll mention some of the fictional works I’ve read — including those by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia), Isabel Allende (U.S. resident of Chilean descent), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru), Jorge Amado (Brazil), Laura Esquivel (Mexico), Junot Diaz (U.S. resident born in the Dominican Republic), Julia Alvarez (U.S. resident of Dominican descent), and others.

Garcia Marquez’s magic-realism-infused One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) is rather challenging but often mesmerizing — and is deservedly considered one of the 20th century’s greatest novels. The 2014 New York Times obituary of the author observed: “In following the rise and fall of the Buendia family through several generations of war and peace, affluence, and poverty, the novel seemed to many critics and readers the defining saga of Latin America’s social and political history.” Garcia Marquez, who put his journalism career on hold to work on One Hundred Years of Solitude for 18 months as his family went deeply into debt, later authored various other novels — including the more straightforward Love in the Time of Cholera depicting one great romance and various other less-enduring liaisons.

Allende’s also-magic-realism-infused The House of the Spirits (1982) was obviously influenced by One Hundred Years of Solitude, yet is quite different in many ways — more female-centered, and more readable while still satisfyingly deep and sweeping.

Other excellent novels worth mentioning include, among others: Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (not “Don, a Trump, and His Three Wives”), Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (set in the U.S. and the Dominican Republic), and Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies (about sisters opposing the DR’s brutal mid-20th-century Trujillo dictatorship).

Then there are memorable works in forms other than novels — the superb short stories (such as “The Aleph”) of Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges (who did magic realism decades before Garcia Marquez), the masterful poetry of Chile’s Pablo Neruda and Spain’s Federico Garcia Lorca, and so on.

And there are Anglo writers who include Hispanic characters or settings in some of their novels — as did Marge Piercy with her Connie Ramos protagonist in Woman on the Edge of Time; Cormac McCarthy with the Mexican segments of his Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain); Graham Greene with his Mexico-placed The Power and the Glory; Paul Theroux with his mostly Honduras-set The Mosquito Coast; Ernest Hemingway with his The Old Man and the Sea starring a Cuban fisherman and his For Whom the Bell Tolls taking place during the Spanish Civil War; and so on. Also, one can’t forget John Steinbeck, who included Hispanic-American characters in several novels such as Tortilla Flat and The Wayward Bus.

Your favorite authors and fictional works with a Latin-American connection (those I’ve mentioned and/or the many I didn’t mention)? Other thoughts on today’s topic? Whether they end up numbering eight or 800,000, no comments will be kicked out.  🙂 😦

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, with a back-to-school theme, is here.

37 thoughts on “In the Time of Trump, a Look at Latin-American Lit

  1. Here’s another try at posting:

    Off-topic as well, but I’ve spent the past week dealing with my piano, because it had a “sticky key.” We finally determined that it was caused by the humidity in my home, so I went out and purchased a dehumidifier yesterday just for my bedroom, so I hope the problem is now resolved.
    I’ve also spent time in finding inexpensive frames for the Andrew Wyeth prints I bought last week and framing them myself. My bedroom has turned into a music room/artist’s gallery (of mostly Chester County painters, including my own mother — not that she ever sold or exhibited her work). I think my favorite piece that I bought at the Wyeth exhibit is a poster announcing the exhibit there of the Helga Pictures. It was interesting to learn that my sister, who taught elementary school in Chadds Ford, had one of Helga’s daughters in her class at some point, and that Helga used to bring in fresh baked bread every week (though I think they had to nicely say, please don’t do this anymore).
    Sorry to go on so long, but I haven’t even read any books lately because I’ve been so consumed by music and art, which I guess is not a bad thing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Keep those interesting off-topic posts coming, Kat Lib! 🙂 Hope the dehumidifier un-sticks that piano key; those Andrew Wyeth works sound terrific; and thanks for that Helga anecdote! Music and art are good excuses for (temporarily) not reading books!

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  2. A FIRST:

    When I was a teenager, now a mere half-century ago, my father gave me a book, which in itself was not at all unusual– can’t say the same, given my prior reading experience, about the book: “The Itching Parrot” by José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi, published in Mexico in 1816. (The title is now most often translated as “The Mangy Parrot”.)

    This picaresque novel, told as from the deathbed of the sadder but wiser wastrel narrator, is considered to be the first novel written and published in Latin America. It is also a scathing, though often humorous, indictment of colonial Mexico and its caste society. Pedro Sarmiento, narrator, whose nickname from school days provides the title, is a criollo gentleman of more pretension than money, whose doings as chronicled in the novel have been accurately characterized in its wikipedia entry as “endless attempts to make an unearned living.”

    The novel entertained, amused and amazed me then, though I now see it as part of a Spanish literary tradition– still, it holds pride of place in my heart, after having read a couple of other picaresques over the years.

    The edition I read (titled in English “The Itching Parrot”) was published in 1942 by Doubleday, and is but a partial treatment of the whole, in which much political commentary was left out, so as to emphasize and strengthen the appeal of the narrative. Its translator was Katherine Ann Porter(!), who, among other things, wrote “Ship of Fools” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.”

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    • Fascinating! To think that the first novel written and published in Latin America (late in Jane Austen’s life) is just a bit over 200 years old. And it sounds like quite a book — the unabridged version, anyway. You can always be counted on, jhNY, to mention notable novels many of us aren’t familiar with — until we see your comments.

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  3. Years and years ago I did a piece for “New Letters” in which I used “Love in the Time of Cholera” as a superb example of what I called “moral fiction.” I probably can’t find that old piece, but if I do I’ll send you a copy, Dave. In the meantime, what do you consider moral fiction? And why not write about that?

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    • Good question, Bill. I’m not sure what “moral fiction” is — is the definition as simple as a story that has a moral/lesson, and/or shows us characters acting morally and treating other characters humanely? In “Love in the Time of Cholera,” Florentino Ariza is moral in the sense that he never loses his love for Fermina Daza over five decades, yet Florentino doesn’t always act morally during that long period.

      If you do find that piece you wrote, I’d love to see it. As of now, I’m not sure I could pull off a “moral fiction” blog post, but maybe your piece would help. And even if you can’t find that piece, I’ll give the topic some thought.

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  4. Thanks again, Dave, for another thought-provoking literary post aimed at keeping me from being stupid and lazy. I’ve found on my shelves and dusted off my copy of Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros for a re-read. I also intend to read The House on Mango Street. It’s received such acclaim, yet I neglected it because, as mentioned, I’m stupid and lazy. Thanks for the guilt!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! Thank you, Dave! As I might have said before, you’re FAR from stupid and lazy; quite the opposite (the canine presence in your household vouched for that 🙂 ). And when I go to the library tomorrow, “The House on Mango Street” is on my list!

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  5. It’s nice to have an expansive set of criteria for the week’s topic, in that it gives us more books to discuss. But it is something of a stretch to cite books whose settings are Latin American as ‘Latin American literature’. It’s sort of like calling “A Passage To India” an Indian novel– set there, yep, but the author and his point of view, though insightful and sensitive to the Indian characters he creates, nonetheless remains British overall.

    But heck, I confess I too can probably name more fiction set in Latin America than written by Latin Americans, and one of them, set in 1930’s Mexico, remains in my memory more than most things I’ve read, though I haven’t revisited the book in decades: “Under the Volcano” by Malcolm Lowry, published in 1947. A thirty-something British consul, relieved of his duties in the field, is left to his own desperate devices in a Mexican town, where he begins in earnest to do what he had been doing more than the job he lost: drink. He has over the course of his drinking life, lost more than his job– his wife, most of all. There is an attempt at reconciliation, ill-starred, but death comes first.

    The novel is very much a post-Joycean piece of work, and there is a great deal of interior activity behind the sweating brow of the consul– sometimes it is hard to follow, and sometimes, more than one character is busy at it– but mostly it is deep, and funny and rueful and wild and rewarding to the sympathetic reader.

    I don’t believe it’s my conception, but I embrace it: the novel begins slowly and stays there for around 70 pages, but then things pick up, and eventually, everything is going faster than you can easily keep up with. The conception: that “Under the Volcano”‘ s structure is dynamic, like water, as it circles then disappears down a drain. Lowry’s descriptions of Mexico of the time, its placid menace, riotous wilderness and quicksilver violence, are knowing, well-drawn and even subtle, given point of view. As are his depictions of alcoholic regret and cunning, the British songwriting and sheet music trade, and many varied exemplars of local color and expat.

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    • Thank you, jhNY!

      I top-loaded the column with authors who were born in Latin-American countries and went on to live some or all of their lives in Latin-American countries — and who set many of their novels in those nations. But I realize my piece was “all over the map” in some ways. As I noted, I’m not an expert in Latin-American literature. I have a good amount of knowledge of many kinds of lit, but very extensive knowledge of only certain authors and genres. The wide-but-not-always-deep thing… 🙂

      That said, “Under the Volcano” (which you described WONDERFULLY) has been on my list a long time. One of these days it will actually be in my local library the same day I visit — the next day being tomorrow!

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      • “But heck, I confess I too can probably name more fiction set in Latin America than written by Latin Americans…” Guess I buried the lede.

        Fortuitously, when I went outdoors today, I found one of my booksellers had a Lowry first edition– his last, “October Ferry to Gabriola”, finished after his death by his wife. I will now, should I ever find the two of them where I can get at them at the same time, replace the old paperback with this hardback. Set in Canada, by the way… I also have a small New Directions edition of Lunar caustic, a collection of his poems.

        As long as you’re headed to the liberry, I will plug Dinesen’s Gothic Tales again. If you can’t find it, I will, once Mandy relinquishes my paperback reading copy, send it along to you. (Bought the first edition a few months ago, and for cheap. Probably the best thing I’ve read in years, and certainly a tour de force of a self-introduction by an author who intended to write literature, and succeeded. Utterly.)

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      • Dave I have not been here lately. disturbed by losing a dear friend.
        Then another childhood friend and relative now connected back again in FB, is also a prolific writer as his Father was.
        Suddenly he suffered 2 strokes, then wrote a couple of days as if back home. Then another day wrote some gibberish and have gone silent.
        I feel abandoned and consumed by this of not knowing. Every day I go to his page to check any action.
        None…hope he comes around, he wants to LIVE !
        Could of years ago he suffered a stroke then came back with fully functional mentally !!

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        • bebe, so sorry to hear of your friends and what they are now dealing with. In November it will be two years since I lost one of my best girlfriends to bone cancer, and while it does get somewhat easier, it still is so hard to deal with. Thoughts with you and your friends’ families!

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          • Thank you so much Kat LIb, we were childhood friends and lost touch just was reconnected a few years ago. Hope he will funny recover, the other friend was 93 and half lived across the street. We became very close ,
            with only one day stay in the Hospice center. Her husband passed a couple of years ago after 70 years of marriage.
            Survived with three children all in town, grand children , one great grand children on the way.

            Till the end she was as sharp as a tack and with an independent mind. Drove all over town.

            Way to go…..

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              • Kat Lib you are absolutely right about her !!!
                Her Husband was away with work and She basically raised her 3 on her own. Originally from N.J and mom in law did not like her , we discussed all these not long ago every time I visited her. After his retirement they got their house built and she lived in there until her death. Her eldest daughter said to me ” a stubborn German lady ” she was.

                How is your Willow, the little pup ?

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    • Yes I remember that movie and read it as well. At least they did not get a white DT like dude painted the face dark to act as an India. Victor Banerjee was the actor in the movie.

      That brings me to the current topic of this alt right ( white) movement. Sometimes it brings back the past and non whites to lash out….hey, you too came from elsewhere.

      Just imagine

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      • This cartoon is GREAT, bebe! It’s so galling when some descendants of immigrants become anti-immigrant. Of course, MUCH of that has to do with recent immigrants often being people of color. Racism, pure and simple. 😦

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  6. Dave, somewhat off-topic, but it’s been amazing to watch the coverage of this hurricane, along with Harvey, and I sometimes wonder if we’re over the saturation level of what we can process in our brains. I was glad to see that The Rachel Maddow Show spent time last night covering what was happening in the Caribbean, which was just as, or more horrific, than happened there. Are our brains so wired that we’re unable to process catastrophic events happening in only one place? I’d think that people have already forgot about Hurricane Harvey, or have we become so cynical that we only remember the last thing we saw on Evening News?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Excellent observations, Kat Lib. Some people definitely have short attention spans, or are suffering from information overload. Plus much of the U.S. media is extremely biased toward covering events in the U.S. rather than in other places.

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    • And during our stormtime in the Gulf, I believe out of the corner of my eye I spotted a storm or two flooding everybody and everything in parts of Asia, and a big fire on the outskirts of Loss Angeles. (boy o boy– that was a Freudian slip, that ‘Loss’ bit, but seeing it in print, I’m liking it for present purposes, so it’s staying in!)

      I have an old friend who lives in St Martin– hope she’s all right, but nearly nothing on that island remains standing, so far as I can tell. Then there’s Haiti, which was in bad shape indeed before the latest batch of apocalyptic weather smashed into them…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well said, jhNY! Yes, horrible stuff outside America and inside America. Plus the major-contributor-to-climate-change U.S. mainland undoubtedly made Hurricane Irma more severe — which of course made things worse in places like St. Martin, Haiti, and Cuba (in addition to Florida).

        “Loss Angeles” — now that’s a masterful typo!

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  7. Hi Dave, I realized how few books I’ve read that are mentioned in your column: “The House of the Spirits, “The Old Man and the Sea,” and “The Mosquito Coast.” The only other novel that I could think of is Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.” I found it fascinating, and I often think about it when it comes to wondering why only certain people die in major catastrophic events, whether it be weather-related, terrorist attacks or whatever. I once attended a church where the pastor talked about this — he related how he hated flying and would look around at the other passengers and would be reassured if he couldn’t pick out anyone that he thought God would have chosen to die that day. I think it was the theme of Wilder’s novel that he wrote about the five people who died on that bridge that day in Peru and that there may have been a master plan of God’s, or as he explained the topic as “Is there a direction and meaning in lives beyond the individual’s own will?” I myself am now a non-believer, so to me the question answers itself quite well.

    As you may know, the issue of DACA is extremely close to my heart, living where I do in the midst of many mushroom farms, which rely heavily on Hispanic labor. I just deleted a long sentence that ended up sounding patronizing, so I’ll quit for now, but will be back later on this subject.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”! Wish I had remembered that! A unique and haunting book. And, yes, it really does wrestle with the question of why some people die and some don’t in disasters. Like you, I feel it’s just random/awful fate, but I know some others feel differently.

      Trump’s DACA decision, despite his alleged waffling and his bogus “admiration” for the “Dreamers,” is one of the cruelest things he’s done. And there have been MANY cruel things.

      Thank you for the comment, Kat Lib!

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      • I meant to also mention those killed on 9/11/2001, but I think it’s another example of what you call random/awful fate. Around that same time, I was promoted to another job, bought a new car, and purchased my first real home. I remember driving home from work one day and saying to myself, “I love my job; I love my car; and I love my condo.” All the while feeling terrible about all the lives lost on 9/11. It was such a happy time (oh dear, now I sound like Trump!) for me, yet I would have given it all up if it could bring back any of those people killed on 9/11.

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        • Well said, Kat Lib. Yes, nearly 3,000 people died who just happened to work in or be visiting the Twin Towers, while life — happy (as in your case then), not happy, or in between — went on for everyone else. Someone I had met a couple of times — the son and only child of a man I knew — was in one of the towers for a business event and died. 😦

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    • Thank you, Kira!

      I just put Cristina Henriquez’s “The Book of Unknown Americans” on my to-read list — based on your recommendation and the Wikipedia description looking very interesting. “The House on Mango Street”? On my radar for at least a couple of years. 🙂

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    • Thank you, Shallow Reflections!

      I should read more of Isabel Allende — I’ve only gotten to her “The House of the Spirits” so far. I’d also like to eventually read Sandra Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street” and Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist” — both of which are perpetually absent from my local library’s shelves. 😦

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