Monday, December 13, 2010

From Guillermo Cabrera Infante to Mario Vargas Llosa: The Language of our Childhood

There are probably few periods of time in our lives as indelible as the years we spend with a group of friends, siblings, cousins, a group of original beings about the same age, whose speech is unique, and with whom we share a language created and understood only by ourselves. If we are fortunate, we can look upon that time with a kind of proud nostalgia for the features that defined our identity and gave us refuge from the larger world.

In Latin American literature, writers such as Cabrera Infante, Donoso, Cortázar, Vargas Llosa, to name a few, captured a time in their respective countries when their generation played a role in defining popular culture by portraying these memories. They and other writers portrayed the shadings of class, as did Manuel Rojas-- in the late 20s, with El delincuente, and Hijo de ladrón, and much later, the cruel language of dictatorships, as Luisa Valenzuela in the 70s with Los censores, and Cambio de armas. If it weren't for writers who see themselves as part of a unique generation and want to express somehow, the subtleties of their collective youth, and eventually growing into adulthood, perhaps we would not have these sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant portraits today.

It is widely agreed that in his novel, Tres Tristes Tigres, Guillermo Cabrera Infante attempted to capture the speech and the consciousness of a Cuba that was disappearing. Set on the eve of Castro's victory in Havana, the language shared by a group of friends represents the blending of the Cuban vernacular which was Afro-Cuban, with a sprinkling of American and waning European influence. The wordplay that twists and reshapes meaning until something new emerges, was later translated by the author along with Donald Gerdner and Suzanne Jill Levine, in 1971. But this book, retitled Three Trapped Tigers became, of necessity, a new book-- translation becomes transformation.

Mario Vargas Llosa, meanwhile, far more prolific if less experimental, displayed the agility of his prose in scenes with a great number of people interacting, often speaking to the narrator as well as to each other, creating the effect of documentary film at times-- but with a tight plot. In the early short story, "The Challenge," from Los Jefes (1959), and later The Green House (1966), the motif of the fight that cannot be stopped and ends with somebody's death is observed as it develops through the particular speech of the characters. In the 1962 novel, La ciudad y los perros, the young men from a rising middle class also function in an environment of violence and machismo, using their own coded language to denote power and hierarchy. The result in each instance is sometimes a dizzying cacophony, always rich and fascinating.

In the Latin American literature course I taught this fall semester at the JSM Institute for Labor Studies/CUNY (from the present, beginning with Coelho and Bolaño and going backwards to excerpts from the Popol Vuh) I assigned a special task to my class: to write a brief piece about a remembered event from youth or childhood, in a realist-fictionalized style, that would show the way they and their contemporaries used language and communicated in their own, unique way.

People came through with fantastic pieces of writing, energetic, evocative, conscious of having lived in a particular culture-- whether African American, Caribbean, South Asian or Latin American in the U.S. What follows, in the page titled "Student Writing: The Literary Style of Reminiscence," is an experiment in teaching Latin American literature in English. The individual authors are credited with bylines above each piece, and can be contacted through this blog. Please make comments, and enjoy!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Julio Cortázar: Narrador y protagonista - or, Actor/Director?

La noche boca arriba (The Night Face Up) [Seix Barral, 1983] is one of Cortázar's best-loved short stories. The majority of his short fictions are so well known, in fact, that one could have a conversation with friends fondly recalling plots and characters as if reminiscing about a friend's exploits during his wilder days (...remember the man who was murdered by his own sweater? And the guy who burped up bunny rabbits in the elevator?). So often does Cortázar's voice tickle the consciousness of the reader with his inimitable humor that this tonal commentary carries over from story to story. It is the author's tone of voice as narrator that at times colors the protagonist's, and at the same time one could never fault his writing for breaking the contract between writer and reader so that one might abruptly stop reading and, disenchanted, back up to find the thread of the story again.
In "Final del juego," (End of the Game) the 1st person narrator is an unnamed adolescent girl who, with her sister and cousin, Holanda and Leticia, play an intricate game of statues and attitudes by the train tracks in Argentina's countryside. All three girls are smitten with Ariel, a schoolboy who rides the train and is captivated by their imaginary theater. But it is Leticia, who suffers from a debilitating illness, who captures his heart in the end. Cortázar's wit and imagination completely inhabit the perspective of the narrator girl, and she is as insightful and real as Horacio in Rayuela (Hopscotch). Cortázar's essence is always in conversation with the reader, whether he is a rare Mexican salamander in an aquarium in "Axolotl" or the criminal narrator in "Los amigos," a man about to shoot an old mafia friend, in one of his shortest and most compact stories. By creating fiction with characters that hopped worlds and planes of existence, the writer was free to transgress the boundaries of control-- characters could direct, authors could be actors, and readers were invited even more effusively than in Borges' world, to participate, to share in the irony of writing, and still walk away amused.
This is the relevance of teaching his work today, to students of literature who are not necessarily writers, or who may be taking such a course in order to fulfill a curriculum requirement, yet still want to read something meaningful to them. (For writers, I think the key is to revel in the paradox he offered with that irony; one has to drop the self-importance of writing before writing anything meaningful.)
Cortázar's restlessness in his fiction portrayed classic shifts in perception that today are the basis for contemporary narratives in literature as well as film. Consider the motorcyclist who crashes his bike in Paris and straddles the reality of the man running away from ritual Aztec sacrifice, in "La noche boca arriba." This story is so tightly written one looks for the seams in every line-- it is the same story of Jacob's Ladder, forty years later and in another language. The photographer in "Las babas del diablo" whose chilling darkroom discoveries did, in fact, become film in Antonioni's Blow-Up. Many years later, the formal hopscotch of Rayuela, with his directions to hop around from chapter to chapter, is echoed by Ana Castillo in The Mixquiahuala Letters. And, so, the quintessential Latin American male writer who once alienated 51% of readers by referring to "passive" readers as-- lectores hembra (female readers)(!)-- learns his lesson (he did apologize). His fiction has gone viral.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Teaching Latin American Literature-Undressing Your Pedagogy

Teaching Writing to Writers:

When I taught in the MFA Creative Writing program at Goddard College,  one of my specialties was to give the Critical Writing workshops that students would attend to learn how to write their long critical thesis (at least 20 pp) and the weekly annotations on all the books they read throughout the semester (about 30 books). Ah, those days were invigorating for the intellect! It was gratifying to have people in my classes who were enthusiastic about digging deep into the literature to come up with original insights of their own, and then produce brilliant critical articles for publication. But, even if not a single word were published, the process of breaking through the blocks that everyone had about critical writing and then to see the gems that emerged, was exhilarating-- and this is not an exaggeration. This process was essential, and somehow a bit magical, because it led directly to revelations the student writers would have about their own work and they lost no time in applying them.

Teaching Literature to Non Writers: At the CUNY/JSM Institute for Labor Studies, however, I teach literature-- comparative literature of the Americas, sometimes of Spain in the glorious siglo de oro (don't you love Edith Grossman's translation of El Quijote? It's exquisite--), and every other semester or so, I teach the required course that is fondly known as "Great Books," because it's about the great books of antiquity and the way they have influenced us through the ages.
My approach is to teach people to read critically even if they never plan to jot a word in their lives because I know that this intellectual process I demand of them in the middle of all their courses about Labor, NYC Government, Policy, Social Service Agencies, Statistics, etc, in the Urban Studies program,  will become in a small way a key to understanding ourselves in society.

But, how to teach this to New Yorkers with full lives and full schedules, families and children, in a way that will be relevant and enjoyable? At Goddard, the great advantage is that we are teaching writers, people who take a break from their lives for two years to devote themselves entirely to the study of the craft (;)). Here in the City, my students are exhausted by 8pm, and if I don't stay on my toes they'll be asleep before the end of class. What I've done is to streamline my method of teaching to its bare and brilliant essentials-- I used to title my critical writing workshops "Undressing Your Thought"-- well, now I have undressed my pedagogy.

The last few writers we've studied this semester have been José Donoso, Blanca Varela, Nélida Piñón, Julio Cortázar, Octavio Paz, and Nicanor Parra (except we had no time for his "Poems and Anti-Poems" last week). You can see what a rich pool of talent there is to explore. We are now right in mid-Twentieth Century, the literary period I adore after the global lit explosion of the 1930s. As we discuss in class what they've read the week before, we structure the discussion to organize comments into three categories-- themes, literary devices, and opinions. Of these three, opinions seems the least consequential category, and the list that fills up faster but, actually, it is from here that we eventually generate what professors everywhere simply go ga-ga over: a clear, concise, thesis statement.

In fact, most people begin with an opinion about a book-- they loved or hated it; they thought the protagonist was wrong or unethical; the mother in the story was a terrible parent; the rich guy was a sexist, racist pig. Fair enough. Next, we talk about what took place in the story, what the poem was about, and finally, whether the author succeeded or failed to achieve what we think he or she was trying to do. Once we get these comments out of the way, we get serious. No more vague comments. It's like therapy: But what did you really feel when you were reading Paz's poem, "Blanco"? Or, What is Varela talking about-- death? Oh, that's a theme-- how does she do it? Aha! A literary device-- let's take a closer look.

By the time we can identify literary devices, I think everyone in my class deserves a degree in psychology. I'm serious. What has happened is akin to standing under a group of trees in Central Park at the beginning of autumn and watching the leaves stir. Feeling the ripple through the oaks and the ginkos and as the day becomes cool and we shiver, realizing that something has happened in the park and that this something was caused by the wind. We felt it happen, we saw it happen even though we cannot see the wind, only the subjects of its movement-- leaves on trees, jacket sleeves, the banners on the Museum of Natural History. That is when reading becomes about feeling something happen, noticing what it was and when it was, and then identifying how the author made it happen. By the time students get to this point their reading (on the subway, on the bus) has changed. And their comments begin to change and to reflect what they notice, to be specific, to be locatable within the text: here, here, this is when we see the transition of Cortázar's protagonist between Paris and Buenos Aires. And here-- this is where Paz is talking about love-as-death. Exactly. And this is the point where simply talking about a book becomes critical thought, undressed, unencumbered, and ready to take flight.

Next: Is There Relevance Today To Cortázar's "La noche boca arriba" (The Night Face Up)? Discuss.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Teaching Latin American Literature

The syllabus for my survey course on Latin American Literature has not varied greatly in the past ten years, but undoubtedly it is not the one under which I came of age in the 1970s. What was great about that syllabus was the careful way that Prof. Luis Eyzaguirre organized the authors along the world literary currents, so that modernismo and vanguardismo made sense in a global scheme of people writing. Of course, we read the books in Spanish, and so we could keep current. We read Balún Canán (The Nine Guardians) in 1974, the same year Rosario Castellanos died in an accident, but it was just as timely and relevant as several of Borges' works of fiction published in collections up until then.
 By the time I abandoned writing and activism for teaching in the early 1990s, I had to create a virtual anthology in English that would become part of the comparative literature I taught at Goddard through creative writing. Every semester I sat on the floor surrounded by books and began excitedly to weave new currents out of the standard, canonical greats, but just when I thought I'd drawn a string of meaning from Borges to Cortázar and Valenzuela, to the Mapuche poets and Diana Bellessi-- for instance-- I'd realize with some shock that I was looking at texts written in Spanish for a curriculum in English.

And so it went. I did a lot of translating. The days I spent on Marta Brunet's "Piedra callada" meant we could look at women's lives in the southern cone through Bombal's surrealist upper class narrative as well as Brunet's naturalist realism anchored in the peasant countryside.

But today, that is the past couple of years, this is not enough of a solution for working students who must budget not more than two books per course, and hopefully-- to have internet access to articles and interviews with authors, free copies of translations I come up with at the last minute, and little time to research actual critical thought if it does not already exist online. I construct a survey that utilizes the Oxford Latin American Short Stories and the Borzoi Anthology, volume II, and hope for the best. (The "best," is that people get excited enough about Latin Am Lit to keep reading as new, younger writers emerge and their work is translated. If it weren't for the Catalonian publishing industry that produced Bolaño's entire oeuvre in several languages two years after he died, English-only readers would simply be ten years out of date. [Luckily, Roberto Bolaño lived in Barcelona])

So, what I've done this semester is to turn my course syllabus around, 180 degrees to begin in the present with what we know of Latin Am literary reality (thanks again, Barcelona and New York for ANTWERP and Paulo Coehlo for your free website) and to read backwards towards the early 20th century. The results are amazing, surprising, because there is no time-warp needed to read Luisa Valenzuela's "The Censors" or Nélida Piñón's "The Warmth of Things." By the time we get to García Márquez, everybody is comfortable enough with his welcoming accessibility that they fall willingly into his labyrinths of time and politics. They understand the musical rhythms in Cabrera Infante's jargon, and when they reach the weird 1960s of Carlos Fuentes "The Doll Queen" with its bizarre, shrunken little monarch they simply conjecture, "Oh, maybe Amilamia was suffering from progeria, you know, the premature aging disease." I wonder what they'd make of AURA. Aura was a practicing Wiccan?

But this week my students are reading the only short story by Rosario Castellanos that appears in one of their anthologies, "Housekeeping," (where the voice of the housewife sounds like a stoned Martha Stewart) and an excerpt by José Donoso from one of his novels. I am less worried about Donoso because his world remained steady no matter the flight of fancy. But Castellanos-- there is no feminine Mexican literature without Balún Canán to portray Chiapas before it erupted. If it hadn't been for Castellanos in 1957, white-skinned Latin American Lit might never have been shaken out of its complacency.

I'll let you know how it goes until the end of the semester. I'm teaching the Global Classics (or, "Great Books" as it is euphemistically known at JSM) again next semester, so that will be another type of quandary: How can we spend three weeks on Homer and still cover the rest of the world?

At any rate-- I will be doing some translating this coming weekend, and posting to my public folder. It's the best way I've found to share my love of literature as a professor and keep a realistic eye on how much my students will read. First, I purchase the books. I want the authors to be remunerated, of course. But fragments of my unedited, unpublished translations become the lick of frosting that may drive them to the ultimate click-- buying the entire book online. Walking to the bookstore no longer seems like a virtuous if archaic jaunt-- but eventually purchasing e-books-- I have no quarrel with that.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Writing at Night

....any time of day or night. After having quite a time setting up this blog I'm hoping the messages for errors or "service unavailable" will cease. But here we are. Just wanted to be able to tell friends about the work I've been doing on and to follow the ever more brief comments on Twitter.

I've got 4 books in the works-- Residence on Earth, the novel that I'd put off for so long until in dreams, it finally started to make sense-- as well as a collection of short stories now titled Juxtapositions b/c you'll find severe non-fiction crashing up to definitely-fiction creating-- I hope an interesting tension between the two (but we all know that there are at least 3 if not more, genres.... :)

Besides, and for sure besides, because there's hardly any time left at the end of the day, I've been working on reformatting Speaking like an Immigrant and Living at Night so they can be published as e-books.

More news later-- and hopefully, a lot of images from my brother's artwork (he doesn't know it yet!)