By Frederick Luis Aldama
My head’s spinning, and with dizzying wonderment. In method, approach, and focus, the sheer volume and variety of scholarly books being published that enrich my understanding of all the Latinx fictions that spill from bookshelves and that are scattered in babylonic stacks around my house. And while I’m completely catholic in where I derive my theoretical pleasures, I’ve always been especially excited to learn and write about how Latinx creators shape their fictions in ways that make new my perception, thought, and feeling about the world. Within this mind-blowing abundance of Latinx lit. crit. scholarship published today there’s much that speaks specifically to this interest.
As an undergraduate at Berkeley I tucked myself under the wing of the late Barbara Christian and Alfred Arteaga—and not the hugely popular Avital Ronnel and Jean Luc-Nancy, for instance. I did so because Barbara and Alfred allowed me to relish in the pleasures of African American and Latinx literatures; to acknowledge the intentionality and artfulness of creators like Morrison and Cisneros. They showed me ways into and through Black and Brown fictional worlds: how these worlds were built and how they moved readers like myself. I augmented Barbara and Alfred’s attentive and compassionate tutelage with Bob Alter’s tutorials on style and Seymour Chatman’s on the devices used to shape the story (content) and discourse (form). As a PhD at Stanford, Ramón Saldívar, Shirley Brice Heath, Robert Warrior, and the late Gilbert Sorrentino cleared spaces for me to continue on this path of critical inquiry.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved theory, especially as it informed the path-blazing books as first encountered in Ramón’s Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference (1990) and his brother José David’s The Dialectics of Our America (1991). Ditto for other scholarship that appeared rapid-fire during my graduate school days such as Rafael Pérez-Torres’s Movements in Chicano Poetry (1995), Alfred Arteaga’s Chicano Poetics (1997), Karen Christian’s Show and Tell (1997), José David’s Border Matters (1997), José Muñoz’s Disidentifications (1999), and Ellen McCracken’s New Latina Narrative (1999).
This period of the mid- to late- 90s proved a watershed for me. These and other scholars showed me that there could be other ways to approach the study of Latinx literature than the erstwhile moribund New Critical methods and the over-zealous theory-for-theory-sake and too often muddled multiculturalist approaches. My real mentors modeled ways that showed how one could carefully attend to the texts and their making and consumption both in time (history) and place (region and culture). They also showed me that one could write about Latinx literature in ways that enriched understanding of its politics as thrumming vitality.
As an out-of-the-gate young prof, I put all this to use in the writing of my theory trilogy and my biography of Arturo Islas. And, after discovering that the early development of cognitive sciences had given way through leaps and bounds to many decisive findings concerning our mind functions, and that there where new insights into how we exercise our counterfactual capacities to create stories, I began adding this field of studies to my alchemical mix. This move helped me drive deeper into understanding certain foundations of Latinx creativity as situated in time and place. Moreover, it allowed me to sharpen my sleuthing in order to bring to the surface those resplendent devices in Latinx narrations that give shape to extraordinary storyworlds across all the storytelling modes, genres, and forms—comic books included.
I have to say that during this period of the early 2000s I felt a bit of an odd duck out. I don’t today. Talk of cognitive and affective representations, narrative theory and its endless contacts with neurobiology, aesthetics and history, politics, culture, and identity can and do co-exist seamlessly. Ramón’s current work is a case in point. In two influential essays published in 2011, Ramón deploys the story (fabula) and discourse (syuzhet) distinction to formulate an aesthetic of postrace storytelling modes identified as “historical fantasy” and “speculative realism” (See “Historical Fantasy, Speculative Realism, and Postrace Aesthetics in Contemporary American Fiction” and “Speculative Realism and the Postrace Aesthetic in Contemporary American Aesthetics”).
In The Social Imperative, Paula Moya moves with graceful ease between insights from social psychology on schema theory (cognitive-affective structures that direct us to see, behave, and think) and analysis of narrative fictions that give shape to “historically-situated cultural and political tensions” (9). Fictions that reach across racial or other divides, can, like meaningful friendships, expand “emotional horizons” and complicate and improve “racial schemas” (51).
While Ramón and Paula come readily to mind because of my intellectual formation at Stanford, there are today many other scholars drawing on narrative theory as well as cognitive and affective cultural studies to expand the field of Latinx lit crit. studies. In 2019 alone we have books hitting shelves like Doug P. Bush’s Capturing Mariposas, Ariana Vigil’s Public Negotiations, Martha Sánchez’s A Translational Turn, and Elizabeth García’s Healing Memories.
I will turn my attention briefly to a few of the books that run us up to our contemporary moment. They include: YlceIrizarry’s Chicana/o and Latina/o Fiction: The New Memory of Latinidad (2016); Christopher González Permissible Narratives: The Promise of Latino/a Literature (2017); Stephanie Fetta’s Shaming into Brown: Somatic Transactions of Race in Latina/o Literature (2018); and, Ralph Rodriguez’s Latinx Literature Unbound: Undoing Ethnic Expectation (2018). One way or another, these Latinx scholars seek to enrich our understanding of Latinx literary history and the materiality of [work] production and distribution along with the creative processes that shape Latinx fictions, the reader’s co-creative encounters—and genre, style, and narrative device.
In Chicana/o and Latina/o Fiction, Irizarry finds useful concepts from rhetorical narrative theory in building a historically grounded, racially attentive analytic scaffold. For Irizarry, stripped down to its essence, Latinx fiction is a site-specific communication act that persuades readers to think about Latinx cultural memory in new ways. Each narrative act communicates different site-specific elements as shaped by racial, gendered, linguistic, economic, migratory, and religious experience.
So the communication act by a Chicanx (Mexican ancestral heritage) author will differ from that of a Latinx author of Cuban ancestral heritage, for instance. Each will communicate differently cultural memories of loss and reclamation. Each will communicate different sets of new memories today and tomorrow. Irizarry also seeks to generate new understandings of a shared past and knowledge by coupling seemingly disparate Latinx communication acts—And the Earth Did Not Devour Him with Drown or So Far from God with Soledad, for instance—creating what she identifies as a Latinx letters formed by an ever “shifting literary aesthetics” (9).
In Permissible Narratives, Christopher González also seeks to create productive couplings. His couplings, however, are more conceptual: Latinx author, text, and reader. His focus: post-1960s Latinx letters. By analyzing authors such as Acosta, Anzaldúa, Thomas, Braschi, Cisneros, and Díaz, González formulates the twin concepts: “narrative permissibility” and “challenging reading situation.” For González, while Latinx authors could use the full periodic table of shaping devices and techniques generated by authors the world over, the fictions that publishers and editors permit Latinx authors to use is limited and limiting.
Du jour storytelling modes like magical realism or the out-of-the-barrio journey become straightjackets to Latinx creativity, for instance. There is a history of Latinx literature that pushes against and challenges such industry ordained prescriptive mandates. And these fictions build into their narrative designs ideal Latinx readers—the ones who get all the nuances of form, language, and cultural experience. For González, close readings of fictions that cognitively challenge readers in their use of intertextual reference, metafictional maneuvers, dizzying point-of-view shifts, and code-switching styles, among others, trace a complex and layered Latinx literary history and anever evolving Latinx reading community that defies industry prescripts.
While cognitive cultural studies hums in the background of González’s Permissible Narratives, it is very much heard in Stephanie Fetta’s Shaming into Brown. Fetta draws on bioenergetic and affect theory to build an analytic framework that articulates how Latinx narratives reconstruct everyday violence of racialization and racism experienced physically, cognitively, and emotively by Latinx mind/bodies, or “somas.” When we read narratives by authors like Anzaldúa, Moraga, Díaz, Cisneros and others, we engage a somatic mirroring of real racial shaming acts. These mirroring encounters trigger our mind/body responses in as intense a way as the real encounters; they also provide safe spaces for the Latinx mind/body to unlearn the violence of “being racialized” (xvi). So, in contrast with Piri Thomas’s mirroring of a racial shaming moment when a cop emotionally assaults him, with Oscar “Zeta” Acosta we see a mirroring of a Latinx subject who internalizes racial shaming to such a degree that he sees himself only through the lens of “suspicious disgust” (89).
Fetta complicates her articulation of a “somatic aesthetic” (89) by considering how a series of other Latinx authors reconstruct racial shaming in and around the senses of sight, smell, and hearing. These sites of somatic mirroring, according to Fetta, “induce a heightened immediacy and an efficacy to approach these social issues of the harm habituated in scripted sense perception” (65). Finally, for Fetta, the somatic mirroring of instances of racialized shaming asks the reader “to somatically mirror and affirm the social worth of characters who are similar to those in our lived experience who have harmed us and our families” (163).
In Latinx Literature Unbound, Ralph Rodriguez wants to trouble the commonplace indexicals— author, fiction, reader—used to identify Latinx literature. For Rodriguez, these indexicals too restrictively “circumscribes what we talk about when we talk about Latinx literature and how we talk about it” (2). So, while “Latinx is a politically efficacious label” (52), it is not a “clarifying, aesthetic one” (52). To argue his point, Rodriguez focuses on a number of narrative fictions that push against common ways of identifying and evaluating what counts as Latinx literature. Instead, he identifies genre (novel, short story, poetry) as a more generative way to cluster and analyze (Latinx) narrative fictions. For Rodriguez, genre not only leads to a deeper understanding of the “complexities and nuances of what we have heretofore considered Latinx literature” (3), it liberates Latinx literature by creating “compelling connections to literatures that fall out-side of the Latinx parameters” (3).
Like González, Rodriguez is excited by exceptional narratives cases. For instance, in an analysis of Anglo author Daniel Lewis James’s publishing of All Over Town under the cover of a Chicanx penname, Danny Santiago, Rodriguez troubles use of biography as marker of Latinx literary excellence. And, by putting into conversation Salvador Plascencia’s People of Paper alongside with Paul Auster’s City of Glass, Rodriguez evaluates the former based on its redeployment of the shared metafictional aesthetic practice. By putting these two texts together he sheds light on how People of Paper uses the metafictional form to challenge how readers “think of narrative, narrative voice, and the construction of possible worlds” (75). And, like González, we see here also an interest in the reading experience. Rodriguez draws on the work of Stanley Fish to demonstrate how the readers emotively and cognitively create in their active engagement with a given narrative’s design. He writes, for instance, how these narrative designs in a series of short stories differently render “affective intimacy and distance” (96); how atypical narrative points of view shape “a range of complex emotional textures” that grow from traumas such as “rape, eating disorders, and a miscarriage” (97).
As you can imagine, all of these scholarly works speak directly to my interests. They also build on and complicate scholarship in other ethnic lit. fields. Off the cuff, I think of David Treuer’s Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual (2006), Kenneth Warren’s What Was African American Literature? ( 2010), Sue J. Kim’s On Anger: Race, Cognition, Narrative (2013). I should mention, too, that already back in 2009 with the publication of A User’s Guide to Postcolonial and Latino Borderland Fiction I, too, troubled categories “postcolonial” and “Latino”. While author biography, themes, settings, and characters can be useful for us to delimit a corpus of texts taught or analyzed in our books, if we use such categories to create “special” standards to judge the quality of our fictions by equally “special” standards, then perhaps we are doing a disservice to our authors and their fictions. I suggested then that perhaps a more productive path forward might be to consider how a given author chooses from that vast periodic table of narrative shaping device to build challenging storyworlds that make new our perception, thought, and feeling about the world.
I should mention that while nowadays I spend much more of my time analyzing Latinx comics, films, and pop culture as well as writing fiction and co-creating graphic novels and children’s literature, I still teach fiction. Recently at Stanford I had the pleasure of reading and learning with a gaggle of middle schoolers. We read Monterroso, Borges, Kafka, Cortázar, Morrison, Kincaid, Baldwin, Alexie, Woolf, among others. Together we explored how fiction can take us to radically new and unpredictable places, to the most surprising locations where all sorts of questions are posed and offered to our scrutiny, leading us to reflect about things like memory, intersectional identities, gender and race oppression, aesthetics, ethics, and metaphysics from standpoints constructed in remarkably unsuspected ways.
Together at Stanford we explored and put into practice a few basic narrative devices such as the shaping and generative ones of syntax, imagery, point of view, and tense. We used as our models: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” or “When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.” We debated the usefulness of divisions between the narrative act, the story (the chains of actions or events), and the narrative (the product of the narrative act). We dug deep into issues concerning the usefulness and also limitations of categories like genre. What might be the interpretive value to labeling both of the above one sentence stories a “flash fiction”? Maybe identifying texts such as those as a “prose poem” would be more intellectually productive and theoretically accurate? Is there here a difference that really makes a difference in terms of both production and interpretation of narrative texts?
Our discussions led us to look deeper into the questions posed by the concept of genre as a unit of interpretive meaning. In the last analysis, does it always fulfill not only a useful role but a theoretically foundational one? To better puzzle through these questions we analyzed a passage from Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch. It’s entirely written in an invented nonsense language: Gliglico. While the syntax is recognizably standard and the morphology of the words point to identifiable grammatical categories, the words are mostly invented and the text has a meaningful interpretation although apparently belonging to a foreign and mysterious language.
Inserted in the otherwise ordinary mannerisms of everyday prose, the Gliglico passage requires a special kind of reading to evince its hidden meaning: it must be read out loud, at a certain speed, with a cadence of its own, recreating its internal rhythm, as if a poem. Only in capturing the measured cadence of a poem does the meaning come alive. So, from the point of view of the artist Cortázar and of us in our roles as readers and therefore as co-creators, the meaning of the texts can only be perceived and elicited when we use the generic concepts of prose and poetry according to their real nature, i.e. as writing and reading devices that are actually fluid and possess shifting forms and boundaries, this most obviously in the Gliglico text but also in the rest of the novel, though perhaps less visibly.
We ended this deeply satisfying discussion by bringing Ludwig Wittgenstein into the mix. We referred to the final paragraphs of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus where he talks about concepts and categories as mere rungs of a ladder to be climbed to see things as wholes and then to be discarded. At 6.64 he writes this intriguing paragraph: “My [philosophical] propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, after he has used them—as steps—to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed it.)”
In literary analyses and theory, categories and concepts are useful only in so far as they sharpen our eyes to see texts in all their complexity and richness. They are to be grasped as fluid, ephemeral, evanescent, and disposable. They are means to get us to the top of the ladder so we may better see the whole picture and the whole landscape; then, the ladder must be kicked away and the literary phenomenon must appear naked with all or almost all its affective and cognitive power. That is why a genre approach to flash fiction, short stories, novels, or poetry could only ever be provisional and never be petrified into substance or essence and deemed foundational.
We continued to push on this notion of genre by considering why Jamaica Kincaid uses the second person narrator and the semi-colon sign to shape her story “Girls,” and how she creatively appropriates the stream-of-consciousness device deployed by Woolf in “A New Dress”. We deliberated over whether Cortázar’s use of grammatical devices to shape “Continuity of Parks” places the story within a temporal and spatial network of world fiction that now includes authors like Jorge Luis Borges, Augusto Monterroso and Ana María Shua. We also deliberated over the mental mechanisms used to imagine, create, and actively co-create fictions that can and do lead to intellectual wakefulness and material transformation of our world. In other words, and without having this explicitly front and center in our readings, we synthesized the insights of multiple intellectual disciplines—narrative theory, ethics, aesthetics, cognitive science and cognitive development—to explore, widen, and deepen our concepts and formulations of why literature matters.
Of course, what’s proposed above is not the only way to shake up how we have typically categorized, evaluated, and analyzed Latinx literatures—and African American, Native American, and Asian American literatures. We should all read and relish in any and all theoretical approaches that shake us up and generate new knowledge. There’s so much new Latinx theoretical and practical scholarship being published, even as I write this. Indeed, every time I look up, there’s something new and exciting published on Latinx literature. I’ve only here touched the tip of this proverbial iceberg.
This current super-wave of scholarship is not only throwing open all the doors and windows to move us toward a deep understanding of the form and content of all variety of Latinx literary phenomenon. It pushes against and away from all delimiting categories. It recognizes that Latinx literature is infinitely generative in its quest to build and complicate. It throws resplendent light on how we create, perceive, process, and transform in and through our Latinx literary encounters.
Aldama, Frederick Luis. Formal Matters in Latino Poetry. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
—. Analyzing World Fiction: New Horizons in Narrative Theory. Editor. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011.
—. A User’s Guide to Postcolonial and Latino Borderland Fiction. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009.
—. Brown on Brown: Chicano/a Representations of Gender, Sexuality, and Ethnicity. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.
—. Postethnic Narrative Criticism: Magicorealism in Ana Castillo, Hanif Kureishi, Julie Dash, Oscar “Zeta” Acosta, and Salman Rushdie. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.
Arteaga, Alfred. Chicano Poetics: Heterotexts and Hybridities. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Bush, Doug P. Capturing Mariposas: Reading Cultural Schema in Gay Chicano Literature. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2019.
Christian, Karen. Show and Tell: Identity as Performance in U.S. Latina/o Fiction.Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.
Donahue, James J., Jennifer Ann Ho, Shaun Morgan. Eds. Narrative, Race, and Ethnicity in the United States. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2017.
Fetta, Stephanie. Shaming into Brown: Somatic Transactions of Race in Latina/o Literature. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2019.
García, Elizabeth. Healing Memories. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018.
González, Christopher. Permissible Narratives: The Promise of Latino/a Literature. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2017.
Irizarry, Ylce. Chicana/o and Latina/o Fiction: The New Memory of Latinidad. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016.
Kim, Sue J. On Anger: Race, Cognition, Narrative. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013.
McCracken, Ellen. New Latina Narrative: The Feminine Space of Postmodern Ethnicity. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999.
Moya, Paula. The Social Imperative: Race, Close Reading, and Contemporary Literary Criticism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016.
Muñoz, José. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
Pérez-Torres, Rafael, Movements in Chicano Poetry: Against Myths, Against Margins.Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Rodriguez, Ralph. Latinx Literature Unbound: Undoing Ethnic Expectation. New York: Fordham University Press,2018.
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—. “Historical Fantasy, Speculative Realism, and Postrace Aesthetics in Contemporary American Fiction.” American Literary History, vol. 23, no. 3 (Fall 2011), pp. 574–599.
—. Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.
Sánchez, Martha A Translational Turn: Latinx Literature into the Mainstream. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018.
Treuer, David. Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2006.
Vigil, Ariana. Public Negotiations: Gender and Journalism in Latina/o Literature. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2019.
Warren, Kenneth W. What Was African American Literature?Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2010.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.Trans. C. K. Ogden. Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/files/5740/5740-pdf.pdf