Monday, November 30, 2009

Vastly different books shed light on Latino experience

Review by Daniel Olivas

Three new books approach Latino experiences in vastly different ways. But each offers something of interest to readers.

In her debut collection, Crazy Chicana in Catholic City (Ghost Road Press, $13.95 paperback), Juliana Aragón Fatula is unflinchingly honest, even raw, in depicting the experiences of Chicanas and Native American women. In “A Real American Hero,” she begins:

I met my grandson
when he was twelve years old.
His mother was fourteen.
He was born in San Francisco.

The narrator’s unadorned eloquence follows her grandson’s inevitable spiral into a life of pain. Yet, despite it all, he shows a simple and affirming affection for his grandmother: “He threw his arms around my neck / so gently; he looked deep into my eyes / for a long time.” But it is the narrator’s pain we track as she gives form to her grandson’s plight. This collection will get under your skin. But it will also remind you that many of us struggle to find sustenance and meaning from our family and history.

Similarly, Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s new novel, Gringolandia (Curbstone Press, $16.95 hardcover), explores one family’s desire to rebuild after horrific experiences suffered under Chile’s military regime in the early 1980s. Most readers know Miller-Lachmann as the editor-in-chief of the MultiCultural Review and of the well-received anthology of Latino short fiction for young people, Once Upon a Cuento (Curbstone Press). But she is also a ferocious novelist and her new book does not disappoint. Miller-Lachmann tells us of a teenager named Daniel Aguilar who has fled Chile to Wisconsin with his mother and younger sister. He has nightmarish memories of when the military police broke into their home and abducted his father, Marcelo, a journalist who bravely wrote about the abuses of Chile’s regime without much concern for what might happen to him or his family. But then Wisconsin-based political activists succeed in obtaining Marcelo’s release. He is severely damaged, both physically and mentally, after years of torture and deprivation. Complicating matters is Daniel’s girlfriend who wants Marcelo to restart his political writing. Miller-Lachmann’s novel superbly captures the tension between commitment to one’s family and a desire to attack oppressive governments. It is a tension that keeps us reading.

What a wonderfully inventive and (at times) disturbing ride we encounter with the bilingual anthology, Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction (Dalkey Archive Press, $34.95 hardcover; $15.95 paperback), edited by Álvaro Uribe, with Spanish editing by Olivia Sears. (The left page of the open book is in Spanish which faces the English translation.) Uribe notes in his introduction that people often say that “Mexico is a country of poets.” He then posits that “[o]ne could say with equal veracity -- and equal neglect of our estimable novelists, essayists, chroniclers, and playwrights -- that Mexico is a country of short story writers.” He begins the anthology with a hilarious piece by Vivian Abenshushan entitled “Lukin’s Bed” which concerns a man (Lukin) who starts a movement of men who disavow relationships with women. He builds a huge bed where the men in his community could sleep, safe from female companionship. It is a wry commentary on gender roles and human desire. Other stories explore human brutality, sexual desire, cultural hierarchies. The anthology’s narratives steer clear from gentle storytelling; these tales are lean, mean and brilliantly woven depictions of modern life. If Franz Kafka were a contemporary Mexican writer, he’d be included in this collection.

Some many great books, so little time. What a terrific dilemma we find ourselves in, no?

[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times.]

The San Antonio Current published essays by some of its staff in honor of Thanksgiving. You must read the piece offered by Gregg Barrios. It’s not only moving, but it also gives a historical snapshot of one Chicano’s journey from Vietnam to college to activism to the writer’s life. The Barrios essay is the seventh one from the top and is entitled, “Canto Y Grito a San Antonio.”


I am honored and delighted that Reyna Grande and I will be doing a joint appearance this Saturday at Tía Chucha's Café Cultural in celebration of the fact that we both published new books within a few weeks of each other. Reyna will read from her wonderful new novel, Dancing with Butterflies (Simon & Schuster), and I will read from my new short story collection, Anywhere But L.A. (Bilingual Press). Q&A and a book signing will follow our reading. Details:

DATE: Saturday, December 5

TIME: 1:00 - 3:00 p.m.

PLACE: Tía Chucha's Café Cultural, 13197-A Gladstone Ave., Sylmar, CA 91342 (phone: 818-528-4511)

◙ The new issue of Somos Primos is now live online. Edited by Mimi Lozano, Somos Primos is "Dedicated to Hispanic Heritage and Diversity Issues" and is published by the Society of Hispanic Historical and Ancestral Research. Check out book news in the new issue.

◙ The Letras Latinas blog has been covering the Guadalajara International Book Fair. I was surprised and very happy to learn that Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature (Bilingual Press) was featured in the Los Angeles Pavilion! The other book featured was The Art of Exile (Bilingual Press), the poetry collection by William Archila. Thank you Francisco Aragón for being an ambassador of Los Angeles literature at the book fair.

◙ My story, “Kind of Blue,” appears in the debut issue of Antique Children, an online literary journal edited by Jim Lopez.

◙ That’s all for now. In the meantime, enjoy the intervening posts from mis compadres y comadres here on La Bloga. And remember: ¡Lea un libro!


msedano said...

facing page translation, now that is the way to go. wonderful.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

Thank you for your wonderful review of Gringolandia. I look forward to reading the other books, too. And good luck with your reading with Reyna Grande. I hope you get a huge crowd this weekend and wish I could be there.