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Latino Fiction &
T
he Modernist Imagination

By John S. Christie, Ph.D.
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Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

WORKS
CITED PAGE

 Part I Part I Part I Part 1 Part I Part I

Part II

Part II

Part II

Part II Part II Part II

 

Part III

Part III

Part III   Part III


Chapter One (Part II):  The Narrative Techniques of the Border

 

            A second example of narrative fragmentation is Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban, in which the protagonist Pilar (named after Hemingway's boat, the character maintains - 220 -  although one suspects Garcia has more the Spanish republican in For Whom the Bell Tolls in mind) is confronted with the task of reuniting herself with her Cuban heritage.  Divided into three sections ("Ordinary Seductions," "Imagining Winter," and "The Languages Lost"), the disjointed narrative moves through three general time periods (1972, 1974 and 1980), and is told from multiple points of view.  Interestingly, the younger generation Cubans reveal their thoughts and ideas through first person narrative while sections devoted to the older generation are written in third person.  As in Face, the reader's task parallels that of the protagonist's, in this case, Pilar, as she pieces together the events and personalities that shape her identity.  She reads her grandmother's fragmentary lyrical letters and juggles her divided family's multiple perspectives.  It is a process that hergrandmother goes through in order to understand the reasons for her son's delirium, as she "pieces together his story" (156), and one that her aunt Felicia attempts when she "awakens" from her amnesiac carnival life and must "assemble bits and pieces of her past" (154).  Like Celia's piano playing, "each note distinct from the others yet part of the whole," Pilar's life is a collection of conflicting and confusing cultural memories and beliefs, and along with the reader who gathers in the individual sections of the book, she constructs her own identity as she sifts through her family's past.  Pilar, as an artist, recreates herself in similar fashion to the narrator of Rivera's classic ...Y no se lo trago la tierra where, according to Bruce-Novoa, "the need to display the loose images in a coherent manner, relating them and unifying them, is thematically central" (Bruce-Novoa Retrospace 108).  The result for both characters is an "intercultural state [that] negates the unacceptable extremes and affirms the synthesis process (117).

            The formal stylistics of modernist works often prompt readers to reevaluate the way they read and to consciously monitor the systems they use to interpret the world around them.   Much of the high modernist emphasis upon the education of the reader exists in Latino works as well, yet it is interesting that some of the most didactic Latino literature displays the least affiliation with a modernist style.  Eliot's and Pound's complexity (accompanied by overtly didactic essays and instructional guides like The ABC of Reading) were intended to steer literature away from what they considered to be simplistic romance geared toward a female audience.  In Latino fiction, however, the most formally complex works are often those by woman and yet, in the sense that they offer ambiguous truths, are the least overtly sententious.  At the same time, the most blatantly didactic Latino works are also by women, but written in either a realist mode (i.e. Mary Helen Ponce, Graciela Limon), slightly disguised autobiography (i.e. Judith Ortiz Cofer), semi-realist style (Alma Villanueva, Margarita Engle) or straight polemical essay (i.e. Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua).  

 

            If Gilbert and Gubar are correct in arguing that "a male-female sexual dialectic impelled the construction of what we have traditionally understood as modernism" because alternative perspectives on life made sense to marginalized women ("Female Imagination"), it seems clear that such a "dialectic" is equally important to recent modernist Latino/a fiction.  Latinas continue to find modernist experiments valuable in their "reeducation" of the reader.  It would be fruitless to argue that Latinos tend to preach more than Latinas, just as it would be to claim that Latinas experiment more in their narratives, yet the role of gender, as one component of fiction that revolves around the conflict of oppositions (of class, race, ethnicity etc.), is certainly a dominant force in literary creativity.   Considered from non-gender perspectives, one can conclude that the most innovative Latino writers, men and woman, tend to preach the least, and that rebelliousness of thought often parallels stylistic innovation.   Given the extent of nostalgic desire to reach the island paradise of old, to reconnect oneself with a lost tradition and comprehensible order, one can easily see a connection between many male Latino writers (like Hijuelos or Candelaria for example) and what Ellen Friedman argues is a predominant characteristic of male modernist / Postmodernist fiction in general.  Women writers, Friedman claims, "look forward, often beyond culture, beyond patriarchy, into the unknown, the outlawed" (244) and rely less upon either the Oedipus "master narrative" of a search for the missing father/identity/origin (i.e. Rodriguez's Spidertown) or its variation: a preoccupation with the loss that the futility of that search creates (Martinez's Voice-Haunted Journey).   Having recognized the flaws of male society in the past and present, liberated women writers would necessarily lean toward, at least partially, removing themselves from the traditions of the past.  In Latina literature, one must be attuned to the Latina writer's difficulty in both recognizing her past, her "culturally constructed self" and moving "beyond the border of culture" for a sense of individuality and self worth (Friedman 243).  In this way, Latino fiction is exemplative of Friedman's point.   Nostalgia for past order and the security of tradition is less a preoccupation for the modernist imagination of Latina writers than it for Latinos.  One could point to characters like Cesar and Nestor Castillo in Mambo or Mickey Acuna in Gilb's The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuna and then consider any of the women in the works of Ana Castillo in order to clearly demonstrate the male writer's attention to the demons of nostalgia and the Latina writer's search for something quite different.    In any case, beneath this important divergence, lies the modernist quest to, as Gonzalez Echevarra puts it, "search for a vision of the world different from, if not opposed to, that provided by Western culture" (117).

            Though all fiction, it can be argued, teaches something, a general trend in recent Latino fiction suggests that the more varied and subtle (and stylistically sophisticated) the prose, the less conclusive the argument and the more pluralistic and polyphonic the work.  The realism of a Piri Thomas has given way to the metafictional playfulness of Ed Vega just as the obvious borderland themes and linear, chronological narratives in Chicano writing of the 60's and 70's have been replaced by the lyrical sketches of Sandra Cisneros and the narrative fragmentation of Helena Viramontes, writers whose works establish their cohesiveness through associations and juxtapositions as modernist fiction does.  This could signal a decline of the Latino writer as spokesperson for a particular ethnic community (The Chicano writer, the Cuban-American writer, etc.) and, in fact, does suggest that Latino writers are simply becoming more versatile U.S. writers.  It may just as well indicate that, as the spaces for creative expression widen for Latinos, those that choose to tell the stories of their lives are doing so in purely autobiographical forms while others are taking advantage of the multi-dimensional possibilities of fiction.   Whatever the reasons, their experiments with fractured authorial point of view, ellipses and gaps connected in the mind of the reader by allusion and symbol, and non-linear, non-chronological plot lines present an intricate view of space and time which is decipherable only through a recursive process of discourse analysis.

           Compare, for example, Viramontes's short story "The Cariboo Cafe";  and Graciela Limon's novel In Search of Bernabe  Both contain mothers searching for lost sons, and revolve around the fractured lives of war torn El Salvador during the 1980's.  At one point, Limon gives an extended explication of how Bernabe's memory of Picasso's Guernica painting relates to the panicking survivors of a right wing death squad attack: "As Bernabe marched in the cortege, [following the death of Archbishop Romero], he realized that these people around him were really fragmented: faces, eyes, cheeks, and arms. They were broken pieces just like in Picasso's disjointed painting" (22).  Viramontes achieves an even more powerful sense of fear and loss and disjointedness through her narrative fragmentation where the reader shares with the frightened characters the struggle to connect illogical events as he or she balances the three intersecting pieces of the story and imagines the contents of the gaps between them.  Characters see each other in pieces.  The cook characterizes Delia's by her "unique titties," one larger than the other (Moths 65) and Sonya by her "poking eyes" (66) while the Salvadorian woman sees the cook as little more than "shrunken cheeks" and "hands of a mechanic" (72).  Their fragmented perspectives of each other leave these "displaced people" in a maze of tragic misunderstandings, a "zero zero place," what Debra Castillo labels "that quintessential symbol of negativity" (93).  For Limon, the fragmented lives of innocent people might well be repaired if only the horrors of civil war were to end.  For Viramontes, the situation is more complex (the war is in the past, the psychological effects remain in the woman's mind, the racial prejudice exists) and certainly more disconcerting, partly because of her refusal to shape the story into a monological argument.  Hearing the voices of these marginal individuals, the reader's sympathy goes out in various directions, toward the cook who has lost his son Jojo (note the double zeros), toward the lost children of illegal aliens, and toward the devastated mother who has also lost her son (again, two lost sons, two zeros) to the Salvadorian military.     

            The modernist distrust of language manifested itself especially in the use of multiple narrative points of view.  There are traces of  Woolf's The Waves or Faulkner's Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying in those Latino stories and novels which deny authoritative conclusiveness by fracturing the reader's perspective with multiple narrators.  Several of Helen Viramontes's stories alternate from first to third person narration, sometimes, as in "The Long Reconciliation" or "Birthday" slipping back and forth without warning.  Similarly, Cisneros switches without warning into a gossipy first person narrative voice in her story "Woman Hollering Creek."  Cle?ila's thinking, at first revealed from without, gradually takes over and we are inside her head, hearing her enthusiastic summary of a favorite telenovela: "Did you see Luc? Mendez..." (Women 44-45).  All the episodes which make up Ed Vega's Mendoza's Dreams need to be filtered through the distorting mirror of the central narrator, a man visited by "The Three Stooges."  Julia Alvarez divides both her novels into chapters which reflect the perspectives (directly or indirectly) of the character named at the onset, encouraging the reader to understand each daughter as an individual.  This is especially important in In the Time of the Butterflies where Alvarez is combating the reader's tendency to lump the Mirabal sisters together as mere victims of Trujillo's sadism. Instead, her switches from first to third person, her shifts of focus from the revolutionary Minerva to the religious Patria or the girlish Mar? Teresa immerses us in the complications of their lives and the tragedy of their deaths.  The writer, in a sense, creates a mosaic of voices which tell the story piecemeal, a technique which further accents the notions of flexibility and ambiguity that underlie Latino fiction. 

            Though in a different way, narrative point of view is equally complex in a novel like Ana Castillo's So Far From God since the single narrative voice casually swings in and out of limited omniscience.  Castillo's narrator sounds at times like the Brazilian writer Jorge Amado's, sympathetic, but distanced and authoritative.  At other times, folksy Chicana twang rings loud and clear.  The long discursive chapter titles remind us of those in Amado's Tieta  which recall in turn those in Fielding's Tom Jones.  Chapter fifteen for example is entitled (described) as follows: "La Loca Santa Returns to the World via Albuquerque Before Her Transcendental Departure; and a Few Random Political Remarks from the Highly Opinionated Narrator."   Despite the authoritative tone of these titles, it isn't long before the narrator's folksy speech takes over, complete with strings of cliche, double negatives, fillers and asides like "well," "so to speak" or "come to think of it" (46).  At some points our code-switching narrator slips in a bit of Cal?or Chicano slang as in  "just outside ese [this] village" (121) or "like esa Hamlet said" (124), but elsewhere sounds like a preachy storyteller: "But there are still those for whom there is no kindness in their hearts for a young woman who has enjoyed life, so to speak" (33).  Castillo creates an informal and jumbled perspective.  At another point someone, unnamed, but labeled the "comadre," seems to take over the story.   One passage that begins describing Sofi's feelings turns in on itself so that Sofi herself might be speaking to us directly:

 

In fact, Sofi seemed a little absentminded about things like that lately, you know? Like she actually forgot to charge the comadre last month for her purchases at the carnecer? [meat market]. For years, the comadre had been buying every week from la Sofi and because times were sometimes a little harder than others and they were comadres and one never knows when she'll need her troca [truck] jumped some cold early morning and the compadre down the road never minds too much being woken up to give it a jump, or you might find your comadre's grown daughter with the child's mind wandering down by the acequia [ditch or sewer] barefoot in the snow, so you run to tell her where she is and things like that happen between neighbors all the time, it all evens out. (131)

 

By incorporating interlingual slang ("troca")[10] and Spanish vocabulary until the English

structure nearly deteriorates, Castillo produces an oral quality to her prose, and her story is free to reveal a Latino world of obscure, unexplainable fragments and complications.  The unofficial, the gossipy and the outcasts are highlighted, and the logical causal elements of life (i.e. the plot, the grammar) dismissed.  She insinuates here that Chicano life cannot be told in a coherent and rational manner, that prose must be distorted by a chatty, agrammatical, anecdotal voice if the vitality of the Chicana folk world is to be communicated.

           Such polyphonic fiction, according to David Lodge, as a result of its "indeterminacy of meaning leads to an increase of meaning, because it demands more interpretative effort by the reader than does traditional narrative" (Bakhtin 143).  As the reader works harder to decipher who speaks, through whose mind the information must be filtered, the possibilities for meaning increase.  Take for example, Mickey Acuna, in Gilb's novel, The Last Residence of Mickey Acuna whose story is seemingly told from an omniscient point of view.  Yet Gilb manipulates the reader by filling the narrative with phrases like "Mickey would say" and "Mickey said" indicating that the narrator could be merely retelling the story from Mickey's version of events.  Despite the occasional conversational tone, we never know the narrator to be a character within the novel.  We sense gaps in the speaker's omniscience, and like Mickey himself, we begin to doubt the difference between reality and illusion.  At times, we are certain the events are Mickey's inventions.  The problem of distinguishing reality from fabrication, truth from illusion, or what genuinely occurs and what is said to occur permeates the work.  No one in this claustrophobic YMCA setting (similar in many ways to Harry Hope's saloon and rooming house in O'Neill's Iceman Cometh),[11] is straight with anyone else, and each degenerate has a tale to tell.  None can speak clearly: the beer drinking Butch talks so softly Mickey hardly ever hears him; the drunken Omar screams so loudly about his lost love, Lucy, that everyone dismisses him as harmless until his violent side reveals itself in the barroom scene and his duplicity becomes clear when he steals a car loaded with Butch's gifts for his children.  Fred the desk clerk refuses to confide in anyone, Charles Towne mumbles constantly and macho John Hooper regards himself above all the crazies.  There is no communication here, and everyone, including Mickey, is waiting for mail that never arrives.  One blind man dies and no one knows how long he's been dead, and the psychotic Blind Jimmy, desperate for a sex change, is carried away by men in suits.  Preachers are violent, and the boss, known as "Big Ears" never listens to anyone.  Adding to this dysfunctional world, this halfway house of dreamers and losers is a narrative form that precludes definitive understanding of the actions and characters.  We never know who is responsible for Mr. Fuller's death: Charles, who gets blamed for it, the sleazy New Yorker Mafia men who might have been looking for Mickey, or Mickey himself who has at this point lost contact with the difference between "true and real things" (209) and his own memories, dreams and "Wild West" visions.  

            Polyphonic fiction parallels Rachel Duplessis notion of an insider/outsider position where the writer's "double consciousness" refuses to allow a reliance upon dualities, and while she speaks of women's writing, it is clear that Latino works by both men and women, by combating the simplicity of a monological view, and by embracing the nonauthoritative voice "incorporate contradiction and nonlinear movement into the heart of the text" (78).  One notices a tolerance for multiple types of characters, and a generosity and sympathy toward them in works as different as Dreaming in Cuban and Bless me, Ultima.  As an example, one could cite the refusal on the part of both Garcia and Anaya to narrowly confine their characters by judging their folk oriented spirituality.  Just as important, neither writer exhaults the mystical at the expense of a rational view of life; rather the two views exist at once. 

 

            The trend toward polyphonic fiction is a fairly recent one among Latino story tellers.  For example, the Chicana writer Portillo-Trambley attempts to complicate her work when she puts stories into her overall narratives in order to divide perspective. In her novel Trini, however, the effect is minimal since the voices of distinct story tellers all sound the same.  Her stories within the story only tighten authoritative control.  Rather than relish what Jay Clayton refers to as the "pleasures of Babel," the mutifaceted thrill of a country as a "babel of competing cultures" (101), Portillo-Trambley flattens out perspective into a single voice.  For example, when Sebastiana tells Trini about Sabochi's killing of Hector the rapist (Trini 120-122), the voice is indistinguishable from the narrator we have heard throughout.  The same is true for a later embedded story, told by a character known as Tio Pancho using an identical tone.  Similarly, Helen Ponce (Taking Control) and Alma Villanueva  (The Ultraviolet Sky) rely almost exclusively on a monological point of view in which the voice of the implied author clearly dominates whatever alternative positions exist.   Their characterizations tend to reduce minor figures into mere "blocking" characters (to use Frye's term) or one-dimensional obstacles to their heroines' quests.   Villanueva rarely allows her reader into the minds of minor characters, except at those moments when their ideas and beliefs fully concur with Rosa Luj?'s, the protagonist's, and thus merely echo the authority of the writer.  In Ponce's stories, the flashback narrative device only adds to her intrusive didacticism which deprives her writing of the complexity her plot situations deserve.  To some extent, Portillo-Trambley, Ponce and Villanueva, have succumbed to what William Carlos Williams warned against: devoted themselves too much to subject matter over form (Essays 288).  Intent upon revealing the plight of Chicana women, they ignore the stylistic finesse necessary to make their women interesting enough for a reader to care about.  Their stories, because they lack narrative complexity, tend to cram their characters into one-dimensional traps where readers can do little but pity their situations.[12]  One need only think of Cisneros's Cle?ilas from "Women Hollering Creek," or Viramontes's Arlene from "Miss Clairol" and "Tears on my Pillow" to be reminded how Chicana women's complicated lives can be portrayed in such a way to engender vital interest and sympathy.  For these types of portrayals, the reader must turn to texts that probe those lives with variation and creativity. 

            Among Latino fiction writers, not only Chicana writers are capable of didactic prose.  Margarita Engle's Singing to Cuba and J. Joaquin Fraxedas's The Lonely Crossing of Juan Cabrera both present a highly distorted picture of Cuba from the reactionary, right-wing, political perspective.  Though Engle divides her story into present events interspersed with pieces of a continuous flashback (always printed in boldfaced type, and usually beginning: "On the morning of his arrest"), the uncomplicated plot is consistent with her conservative views.  Fraxedas's simplistic view of recent Cuban history has Castro, a man eating shark (described in shark guide-book vocabulary - 65), and the "crossing" to Florida in a rubber raft a journey from "darkness to light, from death to life" (69).  Cuba is nothing more than "a suffocating blackness" (26).  The cliche ridden prose: "the harsh light from the bare bulb...two of his teeth were missing, had got in the way of a rifle butt" (12) and bits and pieces of a Florida Keys travel guide make this condescending work sound like a double parody of  The Old Man and the Sea and Jaws.  By sacrificing the dialogic potential of innovative, modernist, narrative technique, both novels disintegrate into one-dimensional simplifications of the Cuba vis a vis the United States.  The obvious comparison to these Cuban-American novels would be Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban where the reader is never allowed to judge any character solely on the basis of political stance.  Lourdes, for example, in spite of the harshness of her anti-Castro rhetoric, is still a multifaceted woman, both practical and "tacky," tortured by a horrific past, wronged by her adulterous husband, hated and loved by her rebel daughter, caught between two cultures, and absorbed by her loyalty to her father's ghost.   Unlike Fraxedas who inexplicably feels the need to explain at length an allusion to Icarus (146), Garcia's subtle references to Lorca, for instance, suggest the connection between her characters' feelings and the things she describes, a dreamy relationship between inner and outer reality important in Lorca's emotional poetry.  Lorca, like Pilar's abuela is a poet of the moon, sadness, solitude and death, and his poems are quoted throughout the novel.  In "Gacela de la Huida," the poet surely speaks for Celia:

 

me he perdido muchas veces por el mar.

Ignorante del agua, voy buscando

una muerte de luz que me consuma.

 

[I have lost myself in the sea many times.

Ignorant of the water I go seeking

a death full of light to consume me. (trans. Stephen Spender and J.L. Gili). 

Celia's daughter Felicia learns a "florid language," words strung "together like laundry on a line, connecting ideas and descriptions she couldn't have planned" from her mother when they'd sit on the porch reciting poems and the sea "had metered their intertwined thoughts" (110).  Her lyrical letters even fall into iambic pentameter (51), so strong is the poetic element in her being, just as art will be for her granddaughter.

            In 1958, Chicano writer Americo Paredes set down an important pattern of narrative reconstruction with his influential, anthropological exploration into the life of the renown turn-of-the-century outlaw, Gregorio Cortez Lira:  With his Pistol in His Hand.   Gathering fragments of oral border ballads ("Corridos"), Paredes pieced together the man's life, the narrative stylistics of the ballads that kept his memory active, and the lives of the people who sang and remembered him.[13]  His story of the outlaw pointed out the ruthlessness of the "heroic" Texas Rangers, but perhaps more importantly it documented and authenticated a narrative style that would seep into the writings of Chicano fiction to come.  In numerous Latino stories we see a similar ethnographic investigation of old pictures, and family histories: the "snapshots" of an elderly lady in the Viramontes story of that name, or a Tejano family's photo albums in Roberta Fernandez's Intaglio, or the Cuban family pictures in Oscar Hijuelos's novels.  The displaying of pictures and pieces of the Latino past is, in the words of the chicana critic, Rosaura Sanchez, "an effort to recuperate oral texts, memories and recollections of past events that have long been ignored, erased, denied and dismissed" ("Discourses" 74).  In grainy black and white photos, lives of people, otherwise forgotten can be reevaluated and lessons learned from remembering.[14]

            Hererra-Sobek and Viramontes, introducing Denise Chavez's collection "Novena Narrativas y Ofrendas Nuevomexicanas" (a work which splices together a crowd of Chicana voices into a series of dramatic monologues) mention that her work was influenced by the cultural traditional of "ofrendas," the collections of pictures, cards, clay figures and other objects assembled in shrine-like fashion for the purpose of honoring the deceased (Hererra-Sobek 85).  Chavez's narrative style, here and in The Last of the Menu Girls, is meant to mirror these mosaics, to capture piecemeal the essence of the people of her cultural past.   No wonder then that modernist fiction's tendency toward a discourse of fragments connected by pattern, allusion, image or symbol occupies such a central position in Latino fiction, as it did in the fiction of James, Conrad, Joyce or Woolf when the British modernists first experimented with French Symbolist poetry. 

            Certain Latino writers employ multiple perspectives and odd chronologies not as mere literary devices, but because they often wish to present the Latino world nonjudgementally in all its complexity.  Monological prose becomes as destructive as any stereotypical reduction, because it demands a uniform discourse which many Latino writers adamantly oppose.  The movement toward displaying the liveliness of the Latino community's vicissitudes and intricacies sometimes leads Latino writers toward a piecemeal narrative design which results in specific structures.  One group of works, which would include Alfredo Vea, Jr.'s La Maravilla, John Rechy's The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez, Roberto Fernandez's Raining Backwards, or less successfully, Louie Garcia Robinson's The Devil, Delfina Varela and the Used Chevy, depicts a marginal community glimpsed through the course of a short period (a day or a week), where the reader experiences (almost as voyeur) the "fringe dwellers" who reside there.  This somewhat cinematic technique (cf. Spike Lee's films or John Sayles' "City of Hope"), permits numerous personalities and interconnecting relationships and establishes a multi-dimensional mosaic of the community.  The opening image of Robinson's book, for example, is of a church scene while the author/camera pans the congregation, introducing the characters one at a time.  The chapter breaks neatly mirror TV commercials.   This panoramic, diverse cross-section of Latino life allows the writer to zero in at any particular point, upon any specific character, and still maintain for the reader a sensation that he or she is entering a much larger and more complicated world of opinions and actions.  The sheer number of characters leaves the reader with more a sense of indeterminacy and variety than any conclusive conviction. 

           An extension of this general pattern common to Latino fiction is the use of interconnected short stories which combine to form a subgenre of the novel.  Perhaps first used by Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio, the best examples of this narrative format are those of writers directly under Anderson's influence: Faulkner's The Unvanquished and Hemingway's In Our Time.  More recent works include Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John, and Lucy, and Alice Munro's The Beggar Maid while, in Latin American, the pattern was used for the Azuela's classic Mexican novel, Los de Abajo [The Underdogs].  In this type of fiction, as in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the prose often develops along side the consciousness of the central character, and each story intertextually depends upon another.  As subsequent events shed light upon previous ones, the reader goes through a necessary process of re-reading, and re-understanding.  Kenner saw this process part of the modernist "aesthetics of delay."  Lodge explains it as a style that  "plunges [the reader] into a flowing stream of experience with which we gradually familiarize ourselves by a process of inference and association."  Gina Valdes's 1981 novel There are no Madmen Here is perhaps the first experiment of this kind in Latino fiction.  Beginning with three seemingly unrelated short episodes, the novel's fourth section -- the story of the central protagonist, Maria Portillo -- ties the people and events together.  The design, therefore, neatly emphasizes Maria's importance to her family.[15]   Despite Valdes's novel,[16] it is Tomas Rivera's highly acclaimed ...Y no se lo trago la tierra which is usually held responsible for influencing later fiction molded on a similar narrative pattern, works like Roberta Fernandez's Intaglio and Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street.   The latter work, reminiscent especially of Joyce, has been criticized by Shorris because of its simplicity and the childlike voice of its narrator, which is as ludicrous as condemning Faulkner for his Bengi, or Joyce for the moocow (Shorris 390).  Cisneros's narrative builds toward a sophistication that goes deeply into the class and gender realities of urban Chicano life and presents it in a narrative that, while seen through the eyes of a young girl coming of age,  breaks down the stereotypes Shorris accuses her of prolonging.  In both Rivera and Cisneros, it is the reader's job to splice together the vignettes.   In other works, the action is similarly broken into segments, as in the case of Virgil Suarez's Welcome to the Oasis or Pineda's first two novels.  Here the sections are cohesively progressive and dependent upon each other to form a continuous narrative.   For Viramontes and Cristina Garcia, the gaps and ellipses between sections are deliberately obtrusive, forcing the reader to juxtapose events from distinctly opposite points of view.  The gaps between chapters of Fernandez's Intaglia create what Chapman sees as a narrative discontinuity that can only be reconciled by the reader as he or she meanders through complex family trees and bits and pieces of family history (71).   Denise Chavez in The Last of the Menu Girls splices seven stories together with one central writer/narrator, Roc? Esquibel.  Slightly more involved is Sandra Benitez's A Place Where the Sea Remembers, which ties together various stories from the small Mexican coastal town of Santiago and intersperses lyrical vignettes which center upon the rituals and powers of a curandera [healer] figure named Remedios.[17]  It is her centrality in the work which melds the various characters into a community, her "remedies" which at least partially unite a pair of feuding sisters.  That the shape of her vignettes was suggested to Benitez by Hemingway's In Our Time is perhaps confirmed by the striking stylistic similarity between The Old Man and Sea and the segment about the widower Pescador and his young son, Beto.  

 

Out on the boat, the sea was leaden.  There were times when the sea was very blue and the water was silky to the touch and it gleamed and you could look down into it, seeing quite clearly the fishing nets ballooning down into the deep, seeing the schools of haddock or sea bass or dogfish heading in the silent rush for the nets.  But today the north wind threatened, and the sea was dense, and you could not look past its surface. (93)

Beneath the simplicity of the description, the exactitude of information (haddock or seabass or dogfish), one senses a deeper level of significance, something unsaid, a glimpse of the "dignity of movement of an iceberg" (Hemingway Death in the Afternoon 192).  As with Intaglio, and Alvarez's novels, each chapter of A Place Where the Sea Remembers follows the character named in its title in the pattern of Faulkner's As I lay Dying and the network of family and personalities criss-crosses the interconnecting stories, purposely forcing the reader to reconstruct the whole.  What is missing from the Benitez novel, and what is central to Faulkner novels is the change of language as we shift from person to person or as we progress in the chronological sequence of the plot.   This is mostly the result of Benitez's consistent third person point of view.  Though the perspective shifts as we view La Curandera, El Ensaladero, El Fotografo, La Recamarera etc., none of these characters is given an individual voice.   Unlike in Faulkner or Joyce or Cisneros or Alvarez, there is no change in narrative style which might signal a character's psychological disintegration (as with Darl) or some sort of maturation (as with Stephen Dedalus or Esperanza of The House on Mango Street).  Julia Alvarez even invents a picture filled diary for the youngest Mirabal sister in order to suggest her youthful creativity, sensibility and linguistic inarticulation.   Yet the lyrical nature of the individual stories in the Benitez novel keeps her characters static. Though told in the third person, the stories are filtered through the mind of the central figure, the curandera.  Unlike with another central storyteller, Vega's highly opinionated and fallible Mendoza, we never doubt the truthfulness of this woman for Benitez equates her with the constancy of the ocean, the element which figures in all the stories and holds the people of Santiago together.   Remedios listens to the people and recounts their tales, a mystical "earth woman," "sea-woman" to whom everyone returns in search of solutions to the complications of life.  She is the visionary healer, "she who knows" (23).  The result of such reliability, however, smoothes out Benitez's story until something of the possible medley of styles and voices is sacrificed.

            Helena Viramontes is particularly good at sliding from one narrative point of view to another as she complicates the situations her characters find themselves in.  The reader is pulled closer and closer to their individual thinking by the gradual movement of perspective.  The vision of the reader is paramount in her novel Under the Feet of Jesus where we begin watching the migrants in their Chevy Capri station wagon from afar, as if circling above them, and as the novel progresses and the action of plot slows, we gradually enter their minds.  Sometimes Viramontes discards omniscience entirely and we enter a stream of consciousness or interior monologue.  For instance, this is true in the short story "Snapshots" or in "Birthday" though here Viramontes slips away from the first person for a paragraph or two.  "Birthday" is an interesting twist on Elizabeth Bishop's poem "The Waiting Room" about a young girl in a dentist's office and her epiphanic recognition (via National Geographic) of her own individuality and sexuality.  The waiting room of the story is some sort of makeshift abortion clinic and Alice, the young pregnant woman, is struggling not with the recognition of her being a woman, but with the dramatic decision to forgo motherhood.   Alice's monologue proceeds like Stephen Dedalus's in Ulysses, in David Lodge's words, "by perceived similarities and substitutions" (Bradbury 485).  Her mind moves from thinking "the room was probably a kitchen before" to a previous conversation in a kitchen.    Where Bishop writes: "But I felt: you are an I / you are an Elizabeth / you are one of them," Alice begins her monologue with "At the moment, there are only two things I am sure of: my name is Alice..."(Moths 41).  The name is repeated numerous times in the short story suggesting the confusion of Lewis Carroll's Alice and a young girl's attempt to make sense of what she doesn't understand.  Yet, paradoxically, the repetition of the name reinforces the character's own desire to remain who she is ("Would I like to stay Alice, or become a "mama"? - 41), and convince herself that she is right to make the decision herself  ("The decision was ultimately hers" - 42), and therefore maintain her individuality. 

           Latino writers, especially those who are also poets (Alvarez, Cisneros, Rios, Saenz, Cofer) because of their modernist concerns for the form and sound of their prose employ certain systems of incantatory repetition in syntax and vocabulary.   These musical experiments --  repetitions of rhythmical prose with only slight variations -- owe something to the innovations of Gertrude Stein.  As in her fiction, such techniques tease readers into a continuous search for meaning that keeps escaping, constantly moving further and further ahead, word by word.  We find that Cisneros's stories, for example, rely heavily upon this type of lyrical musicality.  The counting in Spanish in her story "Tepeyac" produces this effect: the young girl climbs the stairs, the years go by.   In a much more obvious example, Margarita Engle's novel Singing to Cuba has the phrase "On the morning of his arrest" to begin each section of Gabriel's story.  While Engle varies the phrase slightly as the story progresses, it is difficult to know what purpose the repetition accomplishes.  Perhaps the intention is to suggest the oral nature of this Cuban tale in that, like a classical, storytelling pneumonic device, the phrase keys the speaker's memory.  Certainly, the central narrator is gathering her information from an unwritten history, from unofficial sources. 

            One rather involved example will demonstrate this kind of modernist contribution to Latino fiction. In the highly fragmented Postmodernist novel Voice-haunted Journey, for example, Eliud Martinez uses repetition rather than explicit explanation to draw the reader into an active response to his work.  The novel opens with the corpse of Alejandro Velasquez (the narrator's brother), sitting up and smiling and laughing.  Martinez's weaves certain repetitions into his opening paragraphs:  Alejandro was "smiling...a beautiful smile...He was smiling...tossed his head back and laughed...laughed joyfully...playful spirit...the gift of laughter...he would laugh...he saw and smiled...his brother's smile...to be playful and mischievous... his brother's laughter...his brother's laughter...the gift of laughter" (4-5).   The extent of this musical iteration suggests the book's dominant thematic and stylistic difficulties by requiring the reader to question reality as the narrator reveals it.  Is the man really dead (the novel's magic realism will be dealt with later), or is the scene an imagined memory ("Only Miguel heard his brother's laughter" -5)?  The stylistic shift emphasizes a need to juxtapose, at the level of character, the authenticity of the narrator with the actual memory, while at the level of discourse we contrast the death and sadness (and the family mourners), of the opening paragraphs with this joy and laughter present somewhere, if only in the mind of the narrator.  The pounding incantatory emphasis upon the "laughter," following so closely the scene of death and crying, presents the contrasts that reverberate throughout the book: that of life and death, memory and fact, fiction and reality.  Voice-haunted Journey blurs the line between memory and reality by confusing what is memory with what is fiction.  This particular repetition furthermore presents a thematic motif central to Miguel Velasquez's psyche.  He is not a funny man, and his dead brother was.  Much of the novel captures the dour, humorless solemnity of its narrator (or at least Miguel's obsessive side since the entire book is ostensibly his own), though we see, through irony and metafictional twists, that Martinez has intentionally deprived his novelist narrator of an ability to see the humor in his world.  "You gotta get a little humor into it" says one particular voice in the penultimate chapter (243), and we recall the dead brother laughing.  It is again the opening repetition that is in part responsible, for it signals to the reader the importance of humor and comic deflation (i.e. the burro eating his grandfather's ponderous notebooks, his father arguing that reading will make him go crazy) that will follow.  Alejandro Velasquez's "playful spirit" (even in his coffin) mirrors the playful narrative of this self reflexive novel.        

            Modernist techniques of personas and individual voices, each telling separate, but related versions of the same story suit writers whose oral culture surpasses their written records.  Because the voices of, for example, Cristina Garcia's novel are individualized, each contributing a different sort of color to the entire picture, the resulting mosaic exemplifies the borderland's (and North America's) "plural, syncretic, sometimes conflictual nature" (Clayton 109).  Latino writers who self-consciously divide their works into multiple personas reflect the vitality of such a complicated world.  

            Dagoberto Gilb's collection of stories The Magic of Blood establishes his ability to genuinely sympathize (in a way reminiscent of Raymond Carver) with working class people, in this case southwestern Chicanos. The down-and-out protagonist of "Look On the Bright Side," for instance, is so optimistic that his decline toward homelessness becomes logical, justifiable and somehow commendable, until that is, the reader considers the narrative device of persona and calculates Gilb's irony.  In "Nancy Flores" the voice of a boy "thirteen years old going on fourteen" (Magic 31) comes clearly in the prose: "Nancy Flores was the most beautiful girl I or anyone else had ever seen -- and she really was, really she was, it was true, it was true, and nothing I did or thought or imagined could possibly not include her" (31).  One feels the youthful persistence amid the idealistic and naive notion that he alone, child of a wandering working class mother, can experience superlative love.  He sees things in sports terms -- her words to him are "strong, deep tosses that landed close and loud" (30).  The story traces how a working class boy from a dysfunctional single parent household can win out over time in the battle for the girl.  Matched against the high school hero, the "preppy" Trey, whose reputation "soared skyward like a God's" (41), Richie's persistence is rewarded, not with the girl, Nancy Flores (who, after dumping the narrator for Trey, disappears from the story), but with the knowledge that Trey's post high school career had faltered, that his school status once as "heroic as a TV star's" had been tarnished.   Built on the age-old tradition of town-gown rivalry, the story celebrates the "common" Chicano's victory over privileged rival Trey.  Trey, a sort of hare to the narrator's tortoise, winds up a pimply faced stockboy, his hair showing "only the greasy residue of its heroic gloss" (47).

          Gilb's first person narrative voices echo the sensitive intelligence and humility of a Raymond Carver character, as well as the cynical objectivity of a Hemingway male.   The driver at the mercy of a peculiar uncommunicative mechanic in "Al, in Phoenix" is savvy and capable about cars even as he slowly loses control of the situation.  He walks into a bar thinking "It's not much of a place, a hangout for real unattractive people who wouldn't think that about themselves" (86).  The construction worker "churchgoers" in the story of that name, comes to us through the eyes of an accomplished "tradesman" with years of experience building high-rises and a vocabulary to match: "The men weren't speechless, but sentences faltered, words spilled like nails when a man tried to grab too many" (116).  

            The most elaborate persona in Latino fiction to date might be the Mendoza character/narrator of Ed Vega's novel Mendoza's Dreams.   Mendoza sets out to tell the "dreams" of his Puerto Rican friends and acquaintances up and down Manhattan's Spanish Harlem.  Stories within stories and frames around frames issue from the mind of this teller of "amusing anecdotes," a Chaucerian jokester and comedian whose author, like Chaucer himself, accepts not a particle of responsibility.  The opened ended indecipherability could be said to reflect the complex nature of multidimensional, "divided" Nuyorican identity.  Beyond that, such a device allows Vega to ridicule and satirize, not only the high society of New York, but the marginal Puerto Rican population as well.  His long novel The Comeback which mocks the prototypical Puerto Rican inner city bildungsroman (i.e. Thomas's Down These Mean Streets) is perhaps the reason Vega's works seem to carry so little weight among Latino critics; this despite Vega's formal expertise and humor.  In order to avoid the attacks from righteous organizations, Vega turned to the Mendoza persona and the complicated frames of the book.

            In a post-modernist mode, one could cite the frame that surrounds Eliud Martinez's metafictional novel Voice-Haunted Journey.  Billed as the first of a series called "The Notebooks of Miguel Velasquez" (2), the novel is thus framed as a would-be fiction writer's fragmented collection of ideas.  Yet the story begins with a third person narrative explaining a passenger named Miguel Velasquez on a plane recalling the death of his brother, a perspective clearly separate from Miguel Velasquez's own point of view.  The story gets increasingly self-reflective as we learn that this character, Miguel is creating a novel based upon the events of his own life.  We see these events in a montage of glimpses as either actions Miguel will use in his book or as his own inventions.   We are never sure which is which.   Whatever he thinks becomes material for the autobiographical novel he has been writing for years, turning fact into fiction (166).  His main protagonist is a surrealist painter named Lorenzo Correa most of whose characteristics are derived from Miguel.   Yet Miguel attributes "his own introspective discoveries to his fictional character" (26).  What Miguel dreams or invents (mentally transforms into language) blends with his memories, so that what actually happened and what is his fiction is unclear. The reader is reading a novel about a novelist creating the same novel.  No wonder that Martinez uses so often the phrase "wending in and out" (25.50.83,167,233) for a work whose interwoven stories, dreams, and events resemble a fictional mobius strip, intertwining and becoming each other.  It is clear by the end that there will be no sequel since this is mere wishful thinking on the part of the protagonist, and no trilogy could suffice to please its creator. 

            Cecile Pineda's more loosely metafictional novel, The Love Queen of the Amazon, takes its reader on a similar journey between fiction and reality.  Pineda's heroine, Ana Magdalena, is married to novelist who is writing a book based upon the events of his life.  His work has the same title as the novel we are reading.  As a result, the entire story becomes a part of one character's imagination, and the reader is left pondering the borders between reality and art.

            Critics such as Ray Gonzalez have begun to disparage what they see as overuse of narrative fragmentation in Latino fiction[18] which creates, in his words, "novels...shaped by so many quick jumps" (101), but in the hands of Pineda or Cisneros or Islas, such a technique is key.  The momentary images and the patterns that develop as they are flashed in front of the reader distinguishes these works as reflective of the modernist narrative mode, and it is through such a style that many Latino writers reveal their creative imagination.  If Rebolledo and Rivero are correct in detecting a move toward more straight forward realist Chicana writing, toward essay and autobiography,[19] there is just as certainly a need for Latino writers to continue experimenting with narratives devices.  It is a sign that the themes and ideas may reflect the Latino experience, but the form may finds its roots in Cortazar or Vonnegut or Joyce.        

[10]For more on "interlingualism" see Chapter Four.

[11]The novel could be compared to other works as well, most notably Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, or the more violent and disturbing play Short Eyes by the Puerto Rican playwright Miguel Pinero. 

[12]It should be mentioned here that these particular writers may show more stylistic versatility in genres other than fiction.  In fact, Portillo Trambley's central work is dramatic, Ponce is now working in the fields of autobiography and Children's literature, and Villanueva's central focus is poetry. 

[13]For the most detailed and involved discussion of Paredes's book, see Ramon Saldivar's critical work Chicano Discourse (1990), 26-42.

[14]This accounts for the devastating betrayal of the migrant workers in Rivera's work when a con-artist "borrows" the only existing photographs of their sons killed in Korea and then reneges on his promise to have them enlarged and elaborately framed.  When the ruined pictures are later discovered in a ditch, the reader senses the migrants' frustration in maintaining a connection to those lives undocumented elsewhere.

[15]My interpretation here depends upon a reading of There are No Madmen Here as a novel divided into four parts.  This is how Latino bibliographer Marc Zimmerman and critic Kay Thurston see the book.  An earlier essay, however, by Rosaura Sanchez, explains that Valdez wrote the novela Maria Portillo (the fourth part) in 1976 and that the three stories are separate, later works which simply revolve around the same characters ("Chicana Prose Writers" 64-66).   Sanchez's familiarity with Gina Valdez's career indicates this to be true, but the book is published without reference to any stories and thus encourages the reader to tie the segments together.  

[16]That this small, innovative novel continues to be ignored by readers is a source of frustration to critics like Kay Thurston. See her article "Barriers to the Self-Definition of the Chicana: Gina Valdez and There are no Madmen Here."

[17]Numerous Chicano scholars have discussed the importance of the curanderas in southwestern and Mexican culture.  See Rebolledo's Woman Singing in the Snow.

[18]See his review of Luis Alberto Urrea's In Search of Snow in The Nation July 18, 1994

[19]Autobiographical accounts of Latino women in general do seem to be published with more and more frequency.  Gabriella De Ferrari's Gringa Latina (1995), Esmeralda Santiago's When I was Puerto Rican (1994) Pat Mora's book of essays Nepantla (1993) are some examples.  

[20]Eva Margarita Nieto has claimed that influences upon Arias's writing extend back to Don Quixote and the episodic character of the picaresque novel and the novel of chivalry.  See "The Dialectics of Textual Interpolation in Ron Arias' The Road to Tamazunchale" in Lattin, Vernon E., ed.  Contemporary Chicano Fiction: A Critical Survey. Binghamton, NY: Bilingual Press / Editorial Bilingue, 1986.
 

Continue: Chapter 2 Part I

 


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February 26, 2011
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Last Updated: February 26, 2011