Monday, March 28, 2005

Nothing italic about Devil Talk

by RudyG

If you could cross Stephen King with Albert Camus, and the milkman Zeta Acosta snuck a dab of his in, either you'd get an ugly, disturbed boracho or you'd get Daniel A. Olivas, writing stuff like Devil Talk: Stories. (Bilingual Press. 2004)

As I've said before, I don't know how to review lit, Chicano or otherwise. I know what I like. I like Devil Talk.

Unlike Rudy Anaya's Serafina's Stories (Sedano's review Wed. 1/26/05, "Friday End of January"), don't plan on reading many of them to younger kids. At the same time, as Olivas informs me, some could be great material for high schoolers. So after you buy the book, keep it with your stash so young ones don't get their hands on it. It might mentally cripple them, and then they'd turn, not to crime, but to wanting to destroy the world.

The DT stories are creepy. The book's Chicano. It's weird. That's why I like it. Plus, I write this stuff, except mine don't get published; figure it's 'cause I write like I review.

Enough de mí, though. Read what Olivas says about his own book ("Cuento de Fantasmas"- essay, March) if you want a real review. I got otros pescados to fry.

There's 26 chingos of short stories here, running the spectrum from the existential to Chicano adaptation of folklore. They vary in pace, topic, genre and mood--from lightly dark to as much as there is inside your culo.

Para mí, it's refreshing to see a Chicano writing the Unreal, the urban folklore noir, the Absurd of East L.A. I've gotten muy cansado de Chicano characters written by the Non who portray us as Spanish-surnamed, brown-looking tokens and quota-meeters in meager attempts at non-Eurocentric literature. To that type of author, I say, please don't use me/us or my surname if you don't know what you're talking about, anymore than you would when portraying a Frenchman or Hmong.

In Devil Talk we get Chicanos. Real ones. Imaginary ones. Lots of evil or sick ones. Plots are twisted, sordid, fantastical, gruesome. It's worth the cover price and makes a fine gift for someone who likes horror, "ethnic", literary, or speculative lit in general. With more than a dash of dark, remember? I might not buy it for my priest, if I had one, or my mom, which I do, but a mature reader will enjoy it.

What I don't like about the book has nothing to do with the stories. I wanna bitch about the fact that Spanish & SpangliCH are not in italics. According to Olivas,
"It is Bilingual Press's editorial policy (and mine now) that Spanish should not be in italics. As I understand the policy, it emphasizes the idea that Spanish is as valid a language as English and also de-emphasizes the "otherness" of non-English languages. In my encounters with other fiction writers who come from non-English speaking cultures, this is the trend and prevailing philosophy. In essence, it is a political statement."

I understand the point and can agree with its intent as a political statement. As I see it, it's comparable, in some ways, to using he/she, which also makes a political statement.

Now me, I got no problem. I'm bilingual enough that my SpangliCH brain can make the switch back and forth if Spanish isn't italicized (comprehension level excluded, in either idiom).

Still, I have a different take on the practicality of this trend. We Chicanos are "italicized" in real life. We stick out as different (and are often treated suchly by many non-Chicanos), and I say our "special" status in America should be acknowledged. Yeah, we're a part of here, but not generically like regular typefaces, or people.

Spanish is validated worldwide as language, in part due to Lorca, Garcia Marquez, Neruda and others. Its "otherness" in America is a special problem, mostly a vestige of the U.S. stealing the Southwest. Today's Spanish-speaking Chicanos and mexicanos are the Other reminder of that. I say, that should be remembered; we are the Other. To bring us in from the frio, the U.S. should change everything that keeps us on the fringe of society. Eliminating italics seems like a light swat at a rampaging elephant.

What would be next in such a trend? Should italics be eliminated for all "Muslim languages", Vietnamese, Korean, Aleut and Sioux? Would it even prevent the U.S. people from invading Iran, Korea or Cuba? No, 'cause there's BIGGER problems at the root.

I don't recall seeing Ebonese or Brother-speak ever italicized, but how much better off are they for that?

Plus I got practical problems with the non-italics idea. Readers of Devil Talk and similarly formatted books read this line from DT, for example:

"Yes, hombre. Pinche heavy."

If you're the monolingual gringo (or agabachado Latino who lost his Spanish), do you read "hombre" and sound like John Wayne or definitely assume the character's speaking Spanish? More importantly, what about "Pinche heavy."? Do you read it like "pinch" and think it's maybe a typo and not understand Olivas isn't really talking about using two fingers and that the word has a profane edge?

If "hombre" and "pinche" are italicized, it's a clear sign to that gringo (and agabachado) that it's in Spanish and time to pull out the diccionario. Easier for them to grasp, no? If you want to keep and teach them to become literate readers, that is.

Some might say books like Devil Talk aren't intended for that gringo. Apparently not. But I say, why not? In this part of the country we will outnumber them, eventually, and we need to start now on their bilingual literacy. Otherwise we're gonna wind up with a bunch of monolingual fringe elements of society. We don't need to carry them anymore than we already have and do.

Sure there's a lot of SpangliCH in DT and other books that would need italicizing. So what? How's a gringo gonna learn?

Anyway, check out Olivas's Devil Talk. I did, and I can still sleep at night. But I get these strange dreams I'll tell you about another time.

© Rudy Ch. Garcia


msedano said...

This time the comment is at the right place!

¿Sabes que? You know what? You and Manuel are gonna hacer me broke with all these reviews--yes, reviews--of titles I have to own.

That italicizing thing is a wonderful policy! Now if all publishers would only lose the pinche appositional translation, where every Spanish phrase has to be follwed by a comma English translation comma phrase. ¡Escrew that! It's not that the work is NOT addressing the not-spanishh-reader; the work is addressing the yes-spanish-reader. There's a huge difference.

ate, mvs

Manuel Ramos said...

As I mentioned to RudyG earlier, I also agree with Bilingual Press and Daniel Olivas on this one. In my own writing I've tried to eliminate the italics when another language or particular idiom is used by a character or the narrator. Publishers have reinserted them. Yes, we are the "other" - I don't know what "special" status we enjoy but I do believe that italicization of foreign words is a subtle method of minimizing or invalidation of those words.

Anonymous said...

So, Ramos, would you say italicized French words (the language of the Russian court, i.e., rulers) in Tolstoy's War & Peace were "a subtle method of minimizing or invalidation"?
Or what about Kandell's La Capital (a history of Mex. City written in English), where Spanish is italicized?
Does either indicate belittling of a foreign language?

Anonymous said...

Apples and oranges? I thought we were talking about 21st Century publishing practices regarding Chicano/a fiction. In any event, I haven't read either of the books you ask about so I can't answer your question. (DO you really think that Tolstoy wrote his original manuscript with italics?) I will remind you that the use of italics in this manner comes from the grammar rule that "foreign phrases should be italicized. ... There is no need to italicize or use quotation marks for foreign words that have become part of the English language."

Here's one site for such rules:

As I said originally, I think it is a good thing that at least one publisher is willing to discard that rule because of the political and cultural implications of the rule.

Anonymous said...

BTW (that's e-speak but not italicized) Cormac McCarthy has been filling his books with unitalicized Spanish for years, and no cute little appositive translations. A todo madre.

Anonymous said...

That's how James Carlos Blake's Borderlands is done, too. But what do they know? They just honorary Chicanos.