Fiction / Spanish / Teaching / Translation

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.

Tomb of Rosario Castellanos in the Panteon Civ...

Tomb of Rosario Castellanos in the Panteon Civil de Dolores cemetery in Mexico City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Argentine writer Luisa Valenzuela (born 1938),...

Argentine writer Luisa Valenzuela (born 1938), VIII Simposio Internacional de Literatura: Literatura del Mundo Hispánico, Universidad San Francisco de Quito (Ecuador) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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 mobile.me 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.

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