Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Is Chicana Chicano Literature "Ghettoized"?

michael sedano

Linked above is an interview with Salvador Plascencia in the Los Angeles Times (registration required). The interview will attract more readers to People of Paper. Felicidades, Salvador. A great P.R. coup.

My eye was drawn to the novelist's answer:

"There are many Latino culture collectives. Why did you publish with McSweeney's, home to an aesthetic associated with white writers such as Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace?
The Latino imprints never called when it was going around. McSweeney's called. But I'm very happy because now the book doesn't get reviewed as a "Latino imprint" book, but as a book. As a writer, I align myself with aesthetics, not ethnicity. Why is Jonathan Safran Foer not published by a Jewish American press? Should John Edgar Wideman and Toni Morrison be published only by black presses? There is something comforting in the fact that these ethnic collectives exist, but they can also have a ghettoizing effect."

I'm a bit offended by the idea of a literary "ghetto," especially used to describe anything chicana chicano. Call it a barrio, ese, or call it a colonia. When I think of "ghetto" a couple of images come to mind. The Warsaw Ghetto and Watts. The Warsaw Ghetto constituted a large city, literally walled-in by the pigs running the city. An ugly place of desperation and history. During the Watts riots in 1964 or thereabouts, a racist joke made the rounds that the "solution" to the problem of Watts' unrest would be to build a big wall around the area and once a week toss meat over it.

More recently, scholars coined the concept of the "internal colony" to account for the daily lives of multicultural gente like imigrantes and chicanos. We go by day into the anglo-unitedstatesian economic culture where, chameleon-like, we don neckties and similar disguises, speak English, say stuff like "how nice," and "lovely," and take two-hour martini lunches. At 5:00 we return to our neighborhoods, kick back with una chelada listening to Freddy Fender and Los Tigres Del Norte, chow down on nopales bean sandwiches lavished with chile, and ogle the blondes on Televisa.

In other words, we are culturally different. Different doesn't imply deficient. Hence, the pejoration that attends the word and concept of "ghetto" strikes me as, if not a form of cultural misappropriation, then perhaps as a form of cultural submission.

Write, raza!


Anonymous said...

Sedano, I go with part of what you say: he shoulda said barrioization. Maybe he don't know the word or maybe, like some Hispanos, he tends to lapse into the Black/White dichotomy. A casualty of assimilation?

Fact is though, America has a new form of failed integration for us. The so-called gentry finagle charter school money from public schools leaving the mexicanos with the most under-funded schools. (Surprise--brown kids then under-perform educationally.) The gentry buy the old homes and apts., tear 'em down and build condos only they can afford. (The mexicanos' rents climb, forcing them out.)

As a class, the gentry don't accept assimilation, especially if it means sending their kid to sit in class with a mexicanito. Private/charter school's how they keep their kids "pure."

That a lot of Anglos won't buy "ethnic" books is another sign of failed integration--they tend to avoid the Other, even in aesthetic choices. To give Plascencia a break, he recognizes the economic consequences of certain ethnic-genre tags. His book might sell better coming from Sweeney's than one of the Chicano presses he says never responded positively.

I'm not taking his side on everything, especially: "As a writer, I align myself with aesthetics, not ethnicity." Why the dude thinks it has to be one or the other, and can't be both, just reflects a myopic view of reality. He should ask Gabriel Garcia Marquez if a writer can be both aesthetic and ethnic.


Manuel Ramos said...

Ah, Salvador, ... I think I understand his use of the term "ghettoizing effect" - a condition of isolation, separation, cut-off from the mainstream, all more or less forced on the inhabitants. When we speak of our barrios, we don't quite mean the same thing, no? In fact, we have a certain sentiment for our home barrio - not sure anyone gets sentimental about a ghetto. In any event, "The People of Paper" may not have the "Latino imprint" tag, but it certainly carries others - "magical realism" for one. You're tagged no matter what, Salvador, and in today's publishing world you can't escape that fact. I've heard the same lament from all kinds of writers - mystery and crime; sci-fi; Chicano Lit. "Don't put a label on my writing!" Authors don't want their audiences minimized - we want everyone to read our books. Labels and tags help sell books but they also cull the audience, and that is what can be upsetting. "The book may be written by a Latino, it may be about Latino life, but please don't call it a Latino book because then it will be read only by those who already read such books." I agree that Latinos should not have to be published only by Latino publishers; which was certainly an implication in the question. And I take with a grain of salt your comment that you "align with aesthetics, not ethnicity." Please. RudyG observes that the two are not mutually exclusive and that the two can be the same thing, in the hands of a good writer. I'm not sure I understand how that works, but writers, like all other artists, bring to their art the entire background of their lives and experiences - in my view there cannot be writing that is "aesthetically pure", i.e., devoid of culture, politics, and, yes, ethnicity. Toni Morrison said that "I don't believe any real artists have ever been non-political. They may have been insensitive to this particular plight or insensitive to that, but they were political because that's what an artist is - a politician." As an aside, I think it was Toni Morrison who also observed that she consistently gets asked about writing "African-American" literature, but white authors never get asked about writing "white-American literature".

Raymundo Eli Rojas said...

The aura of ghettoizing, or such related terms and pigeon-holing an author or book, change from book to book. I was recently looking at the last interview Ramon Renteria did with John Rechy. Looking through the history, first he wasn't Chicano, then he wasn't, they he was again, and now he's in the "don't put la

Raymundo Eli Rojas said...

opps, got cut off...

any way he's in the "don't put lables on my literature" catagory, at least for now. Actually, I don't remember if that interview was with Ramon Renteria or not. Got to look.

But I think Manuel is right. Selling books is a major factor. I know people that got published in New York (not by a Latino) imprint, but a main publisher. Then their next book would not even get pick up and they had to go back to the small publishers and then to the ethnic publishers. One their Chicano, one time their Latino, another "I'm just a writer."

Labels and identity can change from book to book.

daniel olivas said...

though i loved salvador's novel, and though i was so impressed that he showed up at one of my readings to say hi, i did wince at his comments in the times. why? i'm published primarily by arte publico press and bilingual press. why? because they understood what i was doing. i had larger houses and "big" name agents tell me to write a chicano version of "waiting to exhale." why? because it worked for an african-american writer, why not a chicano writer? they never asked me to write a chicano "great gatsby" (hey, that sounds like an idea!). i've got too many ideas to get down right now. too tired. must get sleep. soon.

Anonymous said...

I am most proud that this dialogue is taking place. While I am (too) aware of labels--in every sense--I for one am more excited about those writers who do embrace the communities from where their voices are born.

Chicano. Writer. Siempre.

cindylu said...

Nice post. I took the quote to mean he was wary of being pigeonholed like other authors. This doesn't only happen with writers. It happens with all kinds of other professionals. As a Chicana academic in training, I'm expected to study certain thins and if not, then I'm perceived as not doing something to help better my community. I don't really have a problem with this since my interests align and I chose to identify with a label.

Raymundo Eli Rojas said...

Then again, he mentions he sent his book the imprints. I guess he means all the imprints that have sprung up lately from the bigger presses. I don't think Arte Publico and Bilingual Press fall into the catagory or know if he was including them in his "imprints."

In a way its a victory for him because if the imprints rejected his book and then this press accepted it, he can relish in the victory. I'm sure I would.

Let's remember, that Arte Publico and Bilingual Press publish some of the writers who later become our star writers. Sandra Cisneros first published with Arte Publico. "House and Mango Street" and "Rain of Gold" were first published on Arte Publico, then later picked up by New York.

If I remember correctly, nobody wanted to touch "Rain of Gold" before Arte Publico published it.

Furthermore, Dago Gilb's first book was with a small press: Curbstone. I could go on.

Let's face it though, publishing big (whether it be New York) or elsewhere is a big dream for many writers and quite of an achievment if they make it.

But in looking at the whole picture, all of them (New York, the ethnic publisher, and the imprints) publish alot of GOOD STUFF and a lot of BAD STUFF. I worry about all the young writers getting a big contract in NY and then disappearing. Diego Vazquez, Jr. is one example. What the hell happened. He wrote a damn good book.

In a bigger picture, it is weird who many think are the best novelist and poets in Chicano(a). Putting my hear to the post, many tell me Lorna Dee Cervantes (Pittsburg, Wings) still is up on top, though she only publishes one book a decade.

In Europe, the Chicano(a) lit scholar seem to think Alejandro Morales (Bilingual Press, Maize, Arte, Chusma House) is our best novelist.

Others here in the mainland, have pointed at Alfredo Vea (Dutton, Plume). This just whos, good stuff is being published by a variety of publishers, big and small, ethnic and not.

What the big publishers are staying away from is poetry. They don't seem to like that genre. But the small presses are publishing a lot of poetry lately. Not all of it is good and I'm growing wearing of some, but it's all good.

Daniel, I like your comments on the "Waiting to Exhale" bandwagon. I think alot of bad books are yet to come out, adding to the list of bad books by Latinas who have written in this genre.

Shit, save us please, Denise Chavez, Ana Castillo, Maya Murry, we need more good stuff like theirs.

Not Chiklit, but I'm reviewing the "Tequila Worm" by Viola Canales. Another lawyer writer, Manuel! God save us! It's a age 12 and up book. There are some nice gems in it, but many, many old cliches that have been overdone in by other Chicano(a) writers.

You'll have to see my review later.

Lorna Dee Cervantes said...

see my comments to this on my blog

Anonymous said...

All the angles covered here. As usual, Latinos all over the place, the main theme being no denial of ethnicity while rooting for mainstream success. Have the book, haven't started it yet. Anybody have an idea what the sales figures are for it?

Anonymous said...

****He should ask Gabriel Garcia Marquez if a writer can be both aesthetic and ethnic.***

Ethnic just means "other." Where Marquez comes from his writing is not "ethnic."

I think what Plascnecia meant is that when you think of yourself as "ethnic" you think of yourself as "other" and knowingly or not, you begin to impose limits on yourself because you've internalized society's notion that you are permanently different from everybody else. Once you think that way, you will do anything to hold on to that outsider identity, and will not grow or seek new experiences.

Society doesn't have to limit somebody who thinks this way. He will limit himself.

And if others step outside of this box, he will try to bring them back into the fold, with accusations like "sell out."

America is a mosaic of people with different backgrounds and experiences, and ours is part of it.