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Writing and Reading the Latin American Other

Fiction writers often find themselves pulled in opposite directions. On one hand, many of them want to portray reality as carefully as possible in order to expose injustice. On the other, they have to cater to what their readers expect that reality will look like – otherwise, their work will not sell. That tension has played out in a big way in recent novels about Latin America.

By: Andres Amerikaner, Rock Ethics Institute Humanities Dissertation Fellow

Why do we read novels? Often, it has to do with the thrill of walking, briefly, in someone else’s shoes. If that journey takes place far away from home, all the better. It’s partly about escapism and excitement, sure, but also about expanding our worldview by learning something about others.

This helps account for the popularity of travel writing. A prime example is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, where Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty cruise across the U.S. and then, when they run out of road, down south to Mexico, past whorehouses and marihuana plantations. There, they stop to consider the isolated existence of what they call “mountain Indians” or, in present-day speak, indigenous agricultural workers. “How different they must be in their private concerns and evaluations and wishes!” Dean declares.

In this moment, the text’s scaffolding reveals itself: Sal and Dean might not know much about Mexicans, but they need them to be different, as they need Denver to appear in stark contrast to San Francisco and to New York City. The Mexicans, in Dean’s imagination, are driven by mysterious, inscrutable motivations. Our curiosity, as readers, is piqued.

My work focuses on the way that contemporary inter-American migrant writers lean on difference, as Kerouac once did, to attract the interest of readers. In the U.S., for example, stories of miscommunication, abuse and rejection have flourished starting in the early 1990s. They tell us about the plight of migrants from Latin America trying (and usually failing) to enter or settle into the country. Among them: Maria Full of Grace, Fast Food Nation and Sin nombre in film; Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying, Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Jorge Franco’s Paraiso Travel in fiction.

What we see here is what I call “disarming difference,” a charming, pleasing sort of difference. It allows the reader to feel righteous indignation for the treatment of immigrant-victims while simultaneously presenting them as Other; it offers a vicarious, exoticized form of poverty tourism; and it shields the reader from confronting the expansion of U.S. hegemonic culture throughout the continent. In these narratives, peripheral subjects are struggling to enter the center. In actuality, the center has already entered their lives, chipping away at the alleged difference that these authors so skillfully fictionalize.

Latin America is still home to a variety of unique cultural legacies, but the neoliberal processes determining life in the region today are rarely portrayed in fiction. As a consequence of improved communications, the spread of U.S.-centric pop culture and, most of all, increasing mobility, the region’s inhabitants find themselves subjected to homogenizing forces, where their “private concerns and evaluations and wishes,” as Kerouac puts it, flatten under a thin layer of regional particularity. Subtitled reruns of Two and a Half Men light up TV screens from Mexico City to the southernmost stretches of Argentina, English becomes the de facto language of Facebook interaction, and CNN-style news broadcasts shape daily political realities.

Thanks to support from the Rock Ethics Institute, my ongoing dissertation project studies the representation of migrants in contemporary novels by English-language authors in the U.S., such as Junot Díaz, a Dominican-born Pulitzer Prize winner, and Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-born writer, alongside works in Spanish by Latin American authors such as Martín Rejtman, a writer and film director from Argentina, and Alberto Fuguet, a Chilean writer and co-founder of the McOndo literary movement. Comparing views from the north of the American continent, where the emphasis is largely on difference and inequality, and the south, where we read about characters that lead indistinct urban lifestyles that could easily take place in the U.S., tells us something about varying reader preferences – what kind of text is perceived as “realistic” or “urgent”? – and about the effects of neoliberal reform throughout the continent. Most centrally, it leads us to a series of ethical questions: How can writers productively represent the suffering of others? Is triggering empathy or denouncing wrongdoing enough in an era of voracious cultural consumption? And at what point does an emphasis on difference cross into patronizing exoticism?

It is hard to know what Kerouac’s “mountain Indian” would have made of Sal and Dean’s road trip, and whether a novel from his viewpoint would have attracted the same amount of interest as the original. But one thing is certain: the well-intentioned drive to speak of and for Latin American subjects may prevent us from tackling, with sensitivity and realism, many of the most urgent social problems resulting from migratory movement across the continent today.

Andres Amerikaner is a Ph.D. student in the Comparative Literature program and a current Crawford Fellow. Among the courses he has taught at Penn State are Human Rights and World Literature, Latin American Literature, and Intermediate Spanish. He is a former reporter for the Miami Herald.