By Rich Villar
I’m a poet. I talk a lot about poems. I realize that the argument is about literature in general.
You will also notice a lot of politics in this essay.
These are not apologies, just recognitions. There’s not a damn thing wrong with any of that. My argument is about influence, and who’s listening, and why, and why not.
Listen. Here are some things I have told people recently.
1.) William Carlos Williams was Puerto Rican. “But he didn’t claim it,” some Williams scholars will tell you. Actually, he did, but the fact of his claiming or not claiming does not change his parentage, or the fact that it was thus a Puerto Rican poet who wrote the introduction to Howl, invented the variable foot, championed the American idiom in poetry, and constructed a modernist epic known as Paterson. Important poet. Puerto Rican. End of text.
2.) You can make the case that Hart Crane and William Carlos Williams were responsible for championing the American idiom in English-speaking poetry. In 1932, however, one of their contemporaries was recording a different kind of American idiom: that year, Sterling Brown published Southern Road, a book of poems which captured African-American voices, in dialect, in the South. His contemporaries included Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, and his students included Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, and Kwame Nkrumah. All of them spoke, speak, English.
3.) The Harlem Renaissance was not limited to Harlem. Langston Hughes and the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillen were lifelong friends. Guillen and the Puerto Rican poet Luis Pales Matos introduced Afro-Antilliano, a genre of poetry expressing African life in Cuba and Puerto Rico, also in vernacular speech. In Spanish.
4.) The Harlem Renaissance was not limited to Harlem. In conversation with the American poets of that movement, there rose a French movement called Negritude, which expressed anti-colonialist and native African voices from a region of the world that had come to be dominated by France. One of those poets, Leopold Sedar Senghor, became the president of Senegal. Another of them, Aime Cesaire, was given a state funeral by France in 2008.
5.) The Harlem Renaissance was not simply a literary movement. Selah.
6.) Walt Whitman’s picture hung in the study of Pablo Neruda. Jorge Luis Borges and Federico Garcia Lorca praised Whitman, as has the current president of Venezuela.
7.) The Cuban intellectual Jose Martí wrote essays on Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman, using their ideas as the basis for his writings extolling the virtues of a free Cuba. Martí was also a poet.
8.) The Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos, considered by Neruda to be the greatest of her generation, died in East Harlem. Her grave remained unmarked for three months.
9.) The Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca lived and wrote in New York City. As did de Burgos, Martí, and the Puerto Rican poet Clemente Soto Velez.
10.) Pachuco culture, characterized by the zoot suit and spreading westward to El Paso and Los Angeles largely during the 1940’s from (yes) Harlem, was written about by the Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz; as well as by Luis Valdez, in the play Zoot Suit, which debuted on Broadway in 1979. Valdez also directed the film La Bamba in 1987.
11.) Every Spanglish poem written in America owes as much debt to the Caló dialect and Sterling Brown’s Southern Road as it does to Leaves of Grass, imagism, or Howl.
12.) Before the Harlem Renaissance, and before Afro-Antillano poetry, Cubans and Puerto Ricans were fighting against the Spanish, and a Puerto Rican named Ramon Emeterio Betances suggested the idea of a Antillean confederation, or a union of Caribbean islands, as a bulwark against domination by the Spanish, or by the United States.
13.) Martí, having lived in the United States, wrote the following in 1889: “What is apparent is that the nature of the North American government is gradually changing its fundamental reality. Under the traditional labels of Republican and Democrat, with no innovation other than the contingent circumstances of place and character, the republic is becoming plutocratic and imperialistic.”
14.) Literature is not just pretty stories. Literature is the written history of the nation. And writers, poets, and essayists influence world politics.
15.) Everything you just read is American history.
16.) The New York Times Book Review, and much of the literary world, suffers from the same disease that is killing the United States: amnesia. And a touch of delusion.
There must be books. The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin; The People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn; Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman; and two titles in the political science section: Blowback, by Chalmers Johnson, and Racism in U.S. Imperialism: The Influence of Racial Assumptions on U.S. Foreign Policy, by Rubin Weston. There are enough divergent views of the United States in these books to peel back the wig of even the most ardent patriot — or at the very least make a very discernible frown appear on his face. Read these, or read them again.
You’ll have to color me unsurprised when I read that the New York Times Book Review found a grand total of nine books by Latino authors, one of whom was a woman, to read in 2011. This is not to say that I don’t have a vested interest in seeing more of our names in print, or more of our books being reviewed. But I am a Latino writer, and I have read the books above, and I understand that this culture has not been trained to receive what I do as literature. I can’t even be sure that literature is ready to be received as literature.
Or perhaps it is. What is literature, anyway? Do we view literature as the place we turn for our values, for our conversations on the American way of life? Or do we view it as escapism? Do we read books to connect to humanity, or disconnect from it? Do we get our philosophy from the great novelists and memoirists and poets of our time, or do we get it from the television? Even more relevant: are you more likely to read a novel or a self-help book? Will you pick up philosophy from the fiction and literature section of Barnes and Noble, or from the section marked philosophy, or self-help?
I’m anticipating the counterargument for what I’m about to suggest. Literature is the mirror by which we view society. If this is true, we can be cynical and say that the American book business, like American entertainment in general, loves to cater to American society in all its excessive, hyped-up meta-reality, with books as companion pieces to blockbuster movies, or the place where HBO gets the material for its original series, or where self-help and diet gurus find their niche. Or, we can look to literature as we people of color have seen it: as a mover of history, a shaper of politics, and the place where ideas spread, even beyond our borders, ha, ha.
Of course, if I mention the American book business, the metaphorical giant bookstore, and forget the fact that we are talking about a business, I miss a rather large piece of the argument. When the marketplace demands, the marketplace receives. The bookstore makes room for Latino literature if we demand it. And it will make room for African-American history, women’s studies, children’s books, self-help, comedy, CD’s, Blu-rays, and a large selection of moleskin notebooks.
It’s been suggested elsewhere that the New York Times Book Review is a vehicle for the sales of books, that it serves the American book industry more than it does the American Latino, or more broadly, American culture. But I don’t think I buy that. Not if you peruse just a few of the choice phrases describing entries from this week’s NYT Book Review website:
- Books that are considered “Editor’s Choices,” broken down by editor.
- A new book by Paul Krugman about the world economic slowdown.
- A review of Boleto, by Alison Hagy, a novel about a horse being trained for polo.
- An interview with the author of Eat, Pray, Love.
- A review of a new book about Michelle Obama’s family, by Times reporter Rachel Swarns.
- A review of a book about life in the suburbs: Dan Gets A Minivan.
- A review of The Syrian Rebellion, by Fouad Ajami.
- Essays on slavery, the world economy, American leisure, and e-books.
Yes, there are sections broken down by sales category, but this is not one mere section of a metropolitan newspaper. This is the Books section of a prominent publication, one that has worldwide distributions, one that clearly has an editor interested in books that examine both life and politics in the United States and abroad. This is an institution attempting to serve as a representative for the literate culture — a culture, it seems, interested in seeing society not as a group of customers, but as an entity with a history and current pulse. That pulse, according to the New York Times Book Review, is a white pulse.
The facts don’t lie. Of the 742 reviews of books in 2011, 655 of them were of Caucasian authors. Of the eighty-seven writers of color, nine of them were Latino. Of the nine Latinos, one of them was a woman. This is not the society I live in, and this is certainly not the literature I know and grew up with. This is not American history. This is a travesty. If the Book Review is telling us a story, the story is incomplete. The story is stuck in the past. It’s the story of the conquistadors.
But Rich. We should make our own shit, then. To hell with the New York Times. They’re not for us.
Wrong. Of course we make our own way, our own institutions, and we have succeeded, but there are 50 million Latinos in the United States. We will be the majority by 2050. Please understand that those institutions that keep America blind are already your institutions. You will run them. You will say what goes. Please understand that American history is a large and complicated thing, and your stories are not only necessary, but inevitable. And we are, by and large, here as the result of large-scale thinking by large-scale thinkers, some of whom were born here, and raised here, and had their ideas tentacle throughout the larger América, whether those ideas were poetic, expository, or political. There are so many different barrios, with so many different characters, large and small, rich and poor, with a thousand different backgrounds, a thousand different points of view, all of which could potentially carry the label “Latino” or “Latina.” We must define these things, and we will, but no power structure—even one as silly, quite frankly, as the American literary culture—is going to concede your story to the center of its existence. Certainly not when your history is largely unknown, stereotyped, mass-marketed, and/or misunderstood.
We must define the world we live in. I believe it starts with words, and thus it must include the literary cultures and subcultures that produce it. If we truly wish to have our stories in the world and have them represent and mirror the real world we live in, let us start with those institutions charged (or self-appointed) with keeping the literary gates. A good way to start would be to find those organizations that deem themselves national, or even simply general, and either ally ourselves with them, or call them out on their failures: The National Book Foundation. The American Library Association. The New York Times Book Review. The L.A. Times Book Review. The PEN American Center. The Poetry Foundation. The Poetry Society of America. The New Yorker. Best American anything. The Pushcart Prizes. The Pulitzer Prizes.
Because to fail to define your world, your nation, means disappearing from it. Latinos, they’re banning your books in Arizona, and no one is saying anything about it. They’re failing your children in cities across the nation. Your elders are dying off, and are being forgotten. They want you gone, forgotten. They don’t want to hear your voice, because your voice complicates the story. Who’s they? You tell me. A complicated story is a true story. And you are not at the margins. You are a Latino writer. You are the mainstream. Be heard.
Rich Villar directs Acentos, an organization fostering audiences and community around Latino/a literature. He has been quoted on Latino literature and culture by both The New York Times and the Daily News. He is currently at work on a book of essays and his first collection of poems, entitled Endomorph.