Thursday, March 17, 2005

Cuentos de Fantasma (essay)

by Daniel A. Olivas

A few years ago, I read the following call for submissions for short stories by Mexican American writers:

“Written in the spirit of the cuento de fantasma, the stories should include some element of folklore, superstition, religion, myth, or history. This supernatural element may be subtle or it may be prominent in the story. I am not looking for simple retellings of folktales or ghost stories, but I am interested in reinterpretations of such tales, particularly if they are placed in a contemporary setting.”

The “I” in the call for submissions was (and still is) Rob Johnson, associate professor of English at the University of Texas-Pan American University. It seems that Johnson got the idea for the anthology when he was teaching a creative writing class in 1996 and asked the students to take a folktale and retell it as a contemporary short story. What he got back from his students, many of whom were Mexican American, surprised and confused him. He read wonderfully strange stories based on traditional Mexican legends spun with modern-day jargon and sensibilities. Were these simply ghost stories and urban legends or was he being exposed to a “specific kind of typical writing?”

I’ll return to Johnson’s query shortly…back to that call for submissions. I had been writing short fiction for about two years when I saw Johnson’s ad. At that point, I had produced about twenty or so short stories most of which were based on my experiences as a Chicano growing up in a working class neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles. But I had also produced a few oddballs. These stories sometimes mixed ancient Aztec gods with modern Christian entities, or simply offered a bizarre other-reality as a given. I blended contemporary slang and sentiment recklessly with traditional Mexican concepts of good and evil. A couple of print and online journals published these strange, hybrid tales including one entitled, “Don de la Cruz and the Devil of Malibu” which Andre Codrescu published in Exquisite Corpse.

Well, I had a little story, “The Plumed Serpent of Los Angeles,” that I figured fit Johnson’s call for submissions. I sent it in and, happily, Johnson accepted it. The final result was Fantasmas: Supernatural Stories by Mexican American Writers, published in 2000 by Arizona State University’s Bilingual Press. The anthology includes stories by twenty writers including Alcalá, David Rice, Stephen D. Gutiérrez and Elva Treviño Hart. Now back to Johnson’s musings. In his foreward to the anthology, Johnson observes that the fantasma has its roots with the magical realists such as Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Máquez and Julio Cortázar. But there was something else happening with the modern stories included in his anthology: a belief that the supernatural is a part of reality, not separate from it. Further, he saw issues of race and class addressed under cover of spirits, el Diablo and ancient gods.

In the anthology’s introduction, novelist/short story writer Kathleen Alcalá asserts that cuentos de fantasma serve “as a bridge between traditional storytelling and pulp fiction, incorporating elements of both.” Alcalá identifies four elements common to these stories: (1) basis in oral tradition; (2) influence of folk religions; (3) use of vernacular forms; and (4) influence of life and culture from the United States side of the border. She also notes that the fantasma “has been used as a vehicle for conveying political and social truths that could be fatal if presented more baldly.” Thus, dictators “have been transformed into packing shed bosses, abusive husbands, and the turbulent desires of the heart.”

Though my contribution to the Fantasma anthology could have been written without any fear of governmental retribution, the “roots” of the story are clearly embedded with the tradition Alcalá and Johnson have identified. “The Plumed Serpent of Los Angeles” (which first appeared in the online journal Southern Cross Review before ending up in the anthology) does address issues of European conquests and the imposition of foreign belief systems on indigenous people. But it does so with humor, allowing ancient Aztec gods to wrangle with the Christian god of evil, the Devil (here la Diabla, the female version of that entity). Thus, if I lived in a totalitarian regime where the government feared the expression of contrary political sentiments (no knowing chuckling, folks), my use of the fantasma form would likely protect my message from being used against me in a kangaroo court.

But not all fantasmas need to be political. For example, in my story “Monk” (which was accepted and edited by the remarkable writer James Sallis for the online journal In Posse Review), I tell the tale of one man’s midlife crisis as he confronts the expectations of his parents and his assumed expectations of his much younger girlfriend. A recurring element in the story is the protagonist’s dream life. Sallis introduces the story with this observation:

“We live our lives ever divided: tangible reality of the world outside us, our perception of the world. It’s at the juncture—at the collision of that world and our inmost attempts to explain it to ourselves, i.e., our fantasies—that our personalities are formed and our destinies defined.”

Heady stuff! But Sallis correctly describes the essence of the story which is in line with the commentary of both Johnson and Alcalá. “Monk” is included in my most recent collection, Devil Talk (Bilingual Press, 2004). In a review published by the El Paso Times, poet and novelist Rigoberto González says: “In a stunning departure from the social realism of his previous collection...Olivas takes readers into a disarming otherworld of the surreal and the supernatural....The quick succession of 26 narratives covers a wide territory of moods, from the strangely elliptical to the whimsical.”

Though the review certainly delighted me, I was startled by the description. I considered the stories to be fun, a little different, sometimes a bit dark. But I think that the fantasma form lends itself such a response. When you mix the supernatural with reality as freely as you mix a martini, the results could be just as intoxicating.

[This essay first appeared in The Elegant Variation. Feel free to visit Daniel’s Web page at]

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