Latino Fiction Literature Analysis Chapter 2 Part 1
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Latino Fiction &
he Modernist Imagination

By John S. Christie, Ph.D.

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6


 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 Two (Part I):
The "Magic" of Influence Upon Latino Narrative

       The poet and short story writer, Benjamin Alire Saenz, in an essay entitled "I Want to Write an American Poem," argues cogently that it is inaccurate for literary scholars to assume that Chicanos are "necessarily and by definition working in the Anglo-American tradition" (525)   Claiming that "there are many literary and cultural traditions that coexist in America," Saenz seeks to disassociate himself from Anglo-American literature (Pope and Eliot, Frost and Stevens) and lay claim to a space related to writers like James Baldwin, Eduardo Galeano, Langston Hughes, and James Joyce.  The aesthetic traditions of British literature alone provide insufficient criteria in exploring the cultural heritage of U.S. Latino art.  By even suggesting narrative literary influences upon Latino writers, the critic then falls into the trap Saenz wishes to avoid.  That is, by connecting works intertextually (highlighting allusions for example, or marking traces of stylistic similarities between writers), we might reduce Latino literature to a product belonging solely to the "society of the academy," where it is often judged on purely aesthetic grounds and, according to Saenz, detached from native cultural and historical realities.  Yet, while Saenz doesn't see himself as a "true heir" of Walt Whitman or of William Carlos Williams, their ideas have been filtered through his thought: he searches, like Williams for "an American idiom...not merely North American but pan American" (535) and like Whitman he wants to "sing himself into America" (536).  What Saenz seems to be saying is that to focus exclusively on literary influence is to ignore political and historical realities, and to dogmatically claim that an Anglo-American tradition is somehow responsible for the literature coming out of the U.S. is ridiculous.  Because he wishes to document the lives of the people he knows and values, he sees an acceptance of this Anglo-American tradition as one more means of keeping Latinos "mortgaged to European culture and European standards" (535), of maintaining a state of "cultural and historical amnesia" (534), when in fact the history of English political influence upon the Americas is partly a record of destruction and genocide.   

            It becomes the task of the critic, therefore, to trace and discuss influences upon Latino fiction with both an understanding of European narrative traditions and a willingness to recognize Latin American and indigenous cultural and literary contributions.  The criteria used to evaluate Latino writers needs to be expanded beyond European traditions.  In this way, readers can perceive not only the aesthetic ties between Latino fiction and past canonical writers (British or not), but also those qualities of the writings that remain unconnected and unique, those for example that refer to indigenous Indian populations in the Southwest or Mexico or the African traditions of the Caribbean.  Thus while one cannot deny, for instance, the influence of Virginia Woolf upon Garcia Marquez to overemphasize this tie is to run the risk of simultaneously overlooking something distinctly Latino (often a political factor) and subordinating Latino fiction to a sub category of European literature.  Like Latino writers themselves, the critics that explore their works for influences must cross cultural borders just as readily. 

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        Jose David Saldivar has used the term "double-voiced writing" to describe how Latino writers borrow and learn from both Latin Americans and European Americans, and that this range of influence creates a "cross-cultural hybridization."  He looks at the works of Arturo Islas, for example, whose novels contain links to various writers across the spectrum of the Americas stretching from Faulkner, to Stevens (in his anti-religion themes), to Rulfo, Cather, Stegner, Garcia Marquez, and even Maxine Hong Kingston (108).  In addition, Islas's novel The Rain God refers to the Aztec god Tl?oc, the Mayan Ch?, and thus Islas's cultural heritage is extended into the non-European realms as well.   Latino artists are often vehement about denying an exclusive allegiance to either Latin American or European American literary traditions.  In a 1980 interview with critic Juan Bruce-Novoa, Chicano writer Ron Arias was quick to point out that the Mexican novelist Juan Rulfo was not the only novelist to which Arias felt a literary debt, and he cited a list of writers including Faulkner, B. Travern and Dostoevski as all impacting his "style and substance" (245)[20] 

             Once the door is opened to allow non-European artistic traditions to exert their influence upon Latino writers, the possibilities become endless.  First of all, the thematic and stylistic roots of Latino writers depend upon their own individual, emotional, and political relationships with various traditions.  That the connections reach across the borders of first and third world countries makes for a complicated network of influences.   It would seem impossible and unnecessary to determine conclusively all the influences upon any given writer, let alone upon a group as broad as the one covered by this study.  It may be that most modern literature reflects a hybrid influence as the world's creative works become more and more accessible, but Latino writers especially, because of their dual cultural backgrounds, require some degree of cross-referencing.  What is possible is to suggest linkages and similarities between individual writers which could then become the focus of subsequent, less general approaches.   Secondly, the critic must first narrow his or her focus in hopes of discovering a chain of influence of particular importance upon specific writers.  The narrative mode known as magical realism (for the moment, loosely defined as a mixture of the fantastic and the real), serves as one broad, overarching area of intersection between Latino fiction and preceding works, both inside and outside the Anglo-American tradition.  Because it concerns the straddling of borders between cultures and the blurring of distinctions in reality, magical realism easily accommodates the essentially hybrid quality of Latino fiction, becoming, for this reason, a valuable starting point in a discussion of influence.      


The earlier comparison of European modernism and its Latin American counterpart, modernismo emphasized stylistic and formal similarities between both literary movements.  Yet, as Naomi Lindstrom has explained, among the modernistas, there also existed an interest in the bizarre, in, for example, "the transmigration of souls and mystically perfect numbers and vibrations" (Lindstrom 21).  Though both European and Latin American modernism "ransacked the cultural past in search of reusable and adaptable themes and forms..." (22), the mystical interests of the modernistas, influenced no doubt by their exotic natural world and their alien indigenous cultures, would help steer Latin American writers away from European tradition, toward a new form of literary expression. 

            Magical realism has been called the central characteristic of Latin American fiction since the publication of Rulfo's Pedro Paramo.  Though not all Latino writers of fiction use its narrative techniques, it would be impossible to dismiss its importance for a number of reasons which can be more effectively detailed after a closer look at what is meant by the term.   Of special importance as well, is the fact that magical realism encourages us to apply a dual, non Anglo-American perspective for our study, since in itself, the technique reflects a mixture of European and Latin American literary energies.

            Tzvetan Todorov's discussion of the Fantastic literary genre predates most references to the term magical realism, yet his categories often coincide with those aspects of magical realism relevant to Latino works.[21] Todorov's claim that the fantastic "occupies the duration of...[an] uncertainty" (25) where the reader "hesitates" between  "types of natural causes and supernatural causes" (26) is not substantially different from Angel Flores's definition of "Magic Realism" as an "amalgamation of realism and fantasy" (189) in which, as Young and Hollaman explain, the "domination of any one way of looking at things is, at least temporarily, placed in jeopardy" (2).   Examining Todorov's narrative grid (Todorov 44), we find, on one side, the "Uncanny" (or merely "strange") which, because it ultimately presents rational solutions for supernatural occurrences, corresponds to "the real."  On the other side, Todorov's "marvelous" which ultimately denies rational explanation thus parallels the "magical" (or "marvelous" if we retain Alejo Carpentier's term).  In this schema,  magical realism coincides with Todorov's "Fantastic," the border (a potent term for Latinos), between and overlapping into this pair of narrative classes.  Todorov argues extensively that the Fantastic exists in works like James' The Turn of the Screw, where the reader is left with ambiguous events unresolved, (is it dream or reality, a ghost or madness?).  The Fantastic, he states, is "a particular case of the more general category of the 'ambiguous vision'" (33).   Young and Hollaman claim a similar criteria for magical realism since in it there must be an "irreducible element, something that cannot be explained by logic" (4).  They refer to magical realism as "a hybrid [form of narrative] that somehow manages to combine the 'truthful' and 'verifiable' aspects of realism with the magical effects we associate with myth, folktale, [and] tall story (2).   As Chanady explains, this is to consider magical realism a "narrative mode" and not as a genre or attitude toward the world (2).  One finds, for example, the use of magical realism throughout literature in writers such as Sterne, Poe, or Kafka, and in works like Gogol's "The Nose" or Virginia Woolf's Orlando The bizarreness of supernatural elements is, in these works, grounded in concrete realism as magical events (a nose going out in search of its face, a man/woman living hundreds of years) coexist with the plausible and are left unexplained.  Though Gregory Samsa's transformation is fantastic, the details of his environment are believable to the point of being mundane.  Todorov relates the Uncanny (the Real) with the knowable past, the marvelous with the unknowable future, and the fantastic with the "pure limit between the past and the future:" the present.  The "strange interlude," between real and unreal, between past and future, leaves the reader questioning, and this open-ended, polyphonic quality of magical realist narratives accounts, in part, for their popularity among Latin American (and subsequently Latino) writers.  Employed as a tool with which to examine the conflicting truths of "New World"/"Old World" concepts, magical realism becomes essential, so much so that critics since the 1960's have seen it as the principle characteristic of 20th Century Latin American Fiction. 

    Early magic realists, like Miguel Angel Asturias, combined the stylistic devices of European modernism with an interest in ethnology or the study of human races and their relations.  While Asturius portrayed the Mayan farmers of Guatemala in the 1930's, a decade later Lydia Cabrera composed her "Transpositions" (the name she gave to her compilations of Afro-Cuban folk tales).  In the late 1940's and early 1950's, Alejo Carpentier traced the cultural and political lives of ex-slave Africans in the Caribbean in works like The Kingdom of this World.   Throughout the region, Latin American writers expressed interest in indigenismo, the study of native American indigenous cultures,[22] one component of their gradual shift in emphasis away from the self, often apolitical  absorption of European modernist thought toward the cross-cultural dimensions of a New World environment.


As Latin American writers continued to express their own vision of the world around them, the literature began to reflect a focus upon an "interior reality" as opposed to the outer (Martinez  "Ron Arias" 12).  Veering away from realism, but concerned with the political and cultural vitality of their environments, the "Boom" generation of writers worked within a "New American Reality."  According to critics in the mid 1950's, La nueva novela hispanoamericana (The New Hispanic American Novel) came about with the publication of Juan Rulfo's Pedro Peamo and Agusto Yanez's Al filo del agua (Guizado 135).  As Fuentes's book makes clear, the New Hispanic American Novel also owes a debt to European critical thinking, specifically to Robbe-Grillet. 

            Robbe-Grillet saw the "new novel" as one that visually describes and measures characters and objects without instilling the objects with human meanings, or the characters with morality.  The writing is therefore a scientific, objective approach which, (while never completely possible) makes objects and people "real" again; that is, uncontrolled by the author's borders or interpretations, unbiased by his or her traditions and perspectives.  Such writing serves to "free us from our own conventions" (Robbe-Grillet 468 - 470).   Presenting characters, objects, or gestures as they are, without interpretation or moral judgment makes them newly "real," because to instill meaning in every object is to make only the significance of that object important and thus the object itself disappears.  Hence, the "new reality" and a "new novel," less involved with "passion."  In poetry, Pound's imagist doctrine calling for the "direct treatment of the thing" in order to "make it new" parallels Robbe-Grillet's idea.  The distinction being that for Pound, the object becomes "the adequate symbol," the "luminous detail" while Robbe-Grillet dismisses the significance or symbolic level entirely.   This sort of attention to scientific detail, coupled with the modernist desire to avoid what Flores calls "mawkish sentimentalism," or what Pound labeled "poppy-cock...emotional slither" (Essays 12) and a general appeal to a sophisticated reader "versed in subtleties" became central to mid-twentieth century Latin American fiction (A. Flores 191).

[21]Critical debate over the nature of magic realism has been going on for over 20 years among scholars like Flores and Luis Leal in Latin America and in the US .  The debate is perhaps most succinctly summarized and explained  in Amaryll Beatrice Chanady's Magical Realism and the Fantastic: Resolved Versus Unresolved Antinomy.  New York & London: Garland Pub. Co., 1985.

[22]Concerning Cabrera's work, see Rosa Valdez-Cruz's article "The Short Stories of Lydia Cabrera: Transpositions or Creations? in Latin American Women Writers: Yesterday and Today, Latin American Literary Review Press, Miller and Tatum eds. 1977.


Continue Chapter 2 Part II


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Last Updated:
July 06, 2009
Copyright 2006 design and content by John S. Christie and Jose B. Gonzalez
Copyright 2006 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature, Pearson Education, Inc.
Copyright 2006 Latino Fiction and the Modernist Imagination, John S. Christie