Friday, August 05, 2005

The Strange Cases of Danny Santiago and Amado Muro

Manuel Ramos

Last week, the Moorishgirl blog posted a link to an article by Margaret Drabble entitled Only Correct. The article provided a history of the road to publication of Drabble's novel, The Red Queen, and the author's defense of her book against "accusations of Orientalism and cultural appropriation, of ignorance, cynicism and plagiarism."

Drabble's essay got me to thinking about cultural appropriation in Chicana/o Literature, and that thinking eventually led me to reading again about the strange and sad cases of Danny Santiago and Amado Muro.

Here's what Joyce Carol Oates wrote about the Danny Santiago affair in "Success and the Pseudonymous Writer: Turning Over A New Self" in the New York Times Book Review, December 6, 1987:

"In 1984 the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters awarded one of its distinguished fiction prizes to a new and presumably young Chicano writer named Danny Santiago, for his first novel, Famous All Over Town. Subsequent to the award it was revealed, with some embarrassment, that the newly discovered Chicano writer was not Chicano at all: 'Danny Santiago' turned out to be the pseudonym of seventy-three-year-old Daniel James, author of several previously published books, and better known as a playwright and screenwriter; and a former Communist Party member who had been blacklisted by Hollywood in the 1950s. By his account, James wrote Famous All Over Town as a consequence of his experience doing volunteer social work in Mexican-American districts of Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s, and chose to publish it under a Hispanic pseudonym because he had lost confidence in his own writing ability. Yet it is plausible to assume that he chose 'Santiago' over 'James' because, while writing the novel which is narrated by the fourteen-year-old Chicano boy he felt closer to 'Santiago' than to 'James.'

(Though Famous All Over Town alone should have been the issue, and not its author's identity, the awards committee confessed that they might have had second thoughts about giving the novel their prize, had they known its author was 'Anglo' and not 'Chicano.')"

The Simon & Schuster editor who bought Santiago's book stated that the author had hidden his identity and masqueraded as a Chicano (using Chicano slang in his letters to the editor) and, even after his identity had been exposed, expressed his intention to continue writing as Danny Santiago. He died before he completed another book.

Famous All Over Town is still in print and still for sale.

Amado Muro presents a slightly different situation. Muro was really Chester Seltzer, Kenyon College educated and son of Louis B. Seltzer, editor of the Cleveland Press for a number of years. When Seltzer was not riding the rails, he lived in El Paso with his Mexican wife and his two sons, where he died suddenly in 1971. It was not until 1977 that The Collected Stories of Amado Muro was published.

Muro incurred the wrath of Chicano poet/icon Ricardo Sánchez. He wrote at least two articles that blasted Muro and Muro's pretense. In fairness, Sánchez delivered a good deal of criticism at "Chicano academics" who had embraced Muro as a shining star of Chicano Lit, when, according to Sánchez, it was obvious Muro was not a Chicano. Here's a bit of what Sánchez wrote:

"Chicano literature can only be written by Chicanos, for only Chicanos understand the nuance of the Chicano way of life from a living/feeling/existential/experiential perspective-others can write about how they observe us, but they cannot possibly know why and how we valuate life, for that is a cultural/linguistic process. Muro made cultural/ linguistic mistakes that any Chicano from the barrio-or even from academe should have heuristically picked up and exposed: in one of his better known short stories about Chihuahuita sitting down at breakfast to eat mondongo, which he alludes to as being a traditional breakfast for them. Any Chicano who knows something about Raza foods and regionalizations in regards to customs, language, etc., would immediately recognize that cultural fallacy-for mondongo is not Mexican nor Chicano, IT IS PUERTORICAN! Having traveled among Bori­cuas in New England in 1970, I had been introduced to mondongo, which is a stew. Now Seltzer née Muro (whose wife was Amada Muro, which is where he acquired the name) probably meant to talk about menudo, but figured that mondongo and menudo being stews and both had Spanish names, why no one would know the difference. Not too many in academia, which is the only place where he was widely read, realized that the great short story writer from El Paso was really another rip off artist passing himself as brown and trying to be just as greasy as us regular meskins. That was a real trip, a quemada maxima; the kind of trick that coyote/pí­caro types can appreciate."

Drabble certainly never hid her identity, nor did she pretend that she was Korean. In today's publishing world, the accusation of appropriation usually is not aimed at such blatant examples as Santiago and Muro. Now we are confronted with authors of all races and ethnicities who openly write characters from other races and ethnicities, often with some claim to sensitivity and accuracy, and, occasionally, as Drabble has done, as part of the fight against "American political correctness" and the "multicultural censor." Excellent and not so excellent writers have circumvented Dr. Sánchez's rules that "Chicano literature can only be written by Chicanos" and that "only Chicanos understand the nuance of the Chicano way of life."

My own view is that anyone can write anything he or she wants. Go ahead and include that ethnic character in your book so that it has the feel of authenticity. Throw in a couple of Spanish swear words and a bit of Caló. Make your protagonist a single, Latina female because your agent assures you that is what the NY editors are looking for - but be ready for heat if you get it wrong. Stereotypes, subtle racism, paternalism, and naiveté are products of bad writing. If one prefers, call the bad writing cultural appropriation or exploitation or simply "another rip off artist passing himself as brown and trying to be just as greasy as us regular meskins." Just don't call it Chicano Literature.


daniel olivas said...

manuel, i don't disagree with anything you've said. as i was reading your post, i kept thinking of one book: kazuo ishiguro's "remains of the day." if you're going to do it, do it well and avoid stereotypes; if you do it right, you get the kind of kudos ishiguro received. if you do it wrong, watch out!

Anonymous said...

Interesting. A publication "The Bridge" published a piece on "reverse assimulation" focusing on Charles Melzter. Francisco Lomali and another scholar coined this literature: "literaturo chicanesa." They included in this catagory: John Nicoles, Amaro Muro-Charles Seltzer, Gordon Kahn. There are others like Frank Bonhams ("Viva Chicano"), William Cox ("Chicano Cruz"), Richard Bradford ("So Far From Heaven"). Being put in this genre did not necesarily mean you put yourself out as a Chicano writer as Seltzer did.

I'm very skeptical of Ricardo Sanchez claims that he knew Seltzer was an imposter. Felipe Ortego was the first to "expose" Seltzer when trying to get permision from him to use his stories in a Chicano anthology ("We are Chicanos"). This was in the late 1960s. Though Sanchez claims he knew, there was not much Sanchez was doing (other than writing) before the early 1970s being that he was in prison for kidnapping and robbing a store. Most of Sanchez rambling were on Muro/Selzter 5-20 years after the fact.

One writer that some claim is "chicanesca" is Jim Sagel, but check his this interview:

Lorna Dee Cervantes said...

Jim Sagel is a Chicano writer y presente. I think it helps to make a distinction between acculturation & assimilation, the difference between love and ambition.

I was the first to declare and publish him as such back in the late 70's before Gary Soto took over as editor (chief bad guy) of the Chicano Chapbook series.

Thanks for these last few posts. Keep the blogazos coming.

Lorna Dee Cervantes said...

I was also the first to coin the term "Chicanesque" applied to Jim Sagel as opposed to just plain Santiago phony, but I never wrote it down. One I did write down is Xicanerati, just so I wouldn't have to type so much, and it accounts for race, class and gender & National identity.

Another Chicano writer is Phil Goldvarg. Stone Chicano. But don't go looking for no Brown Buffalo there. Just as Jim was always what he was: a white boy from the flat plains of Fort Morgan, who acculturated, and wrote what he loved in the language that was speaking to him.

P.S. I liked Deborah's list of bullets for writers to bite. or at least chew on them. Good book, that one seems. I heard part of it in a plane. I'll have to buy it soon. I'm so sorry I couldn't make her reading.

msedano said...

"authenticity" and similar questions about writing have troubled my attitude for the longest time. probably since the superintendent of schools patted my head and declared me "a credit to my race" in 4th grade because i'd played a violin ditty for him and the other kids had danced a jarabe tapatio. was it my fault i didn't have moves? (i was crowned king kamehameha in 3d grade 'cause i couldn't dance the hula hula).

it's the question rudyg asked when he launched la bloga. he's not the first. "what is chicana chicano literature"?

i remember being stopped in my tracks by that bowl of mondongo. i had to look the word up. puerto rican? the only think i knew about puerto ricans was the actors in blackboard jungle, and how i thought the sharks in west side story sure looked like mexicans, and "America" sure hit home.

ever since then, i think, i stopped reading author bios and let the words do all the talking. case in point, la castillo's peel my love like an onion. carmen la coja the one-legged flamenco dancer is mexicana-chicana, isn't she? so what's with the iberian terpsichore and roma lovers? yes, it's gotta be chicana lit, what else would--or could-- castillo write? then there's friends of pancho villa. the writer's name doesn't hit me as latino, except for the "carlos". i dug it anyhow. then there's oliver mayer's blade to the heat which i saw at the taper and read in the playbill he is mexicano, and thought, why couldn't a superb obviously chicana work like ""Black Butterfly, Jaguar Girl, Pinata Woman and Other Superhero Girls Like Me" make it off the Taper's workshops and onto the main stage?

thanks, manuel, for a thought-provoking question. i'm off now to view the booty robbed from the tomb of the fabulous chicano boy-king Tut.

Anonymous said...

Nice post, Ramos.


Anonymous said...

When I read Famous All Over Town, I could tell that the author was not a Chicano. Something about its syntax and rhythm reminded me of the East Coast, particularly the phrase 'on account of.' I didn't fall for it.

Anonymous said...

I stumbled on your "bloga" while looking up Danny Santigo after recently reading FAMOUS ALL OVER TOWN for the first time. I'd already heard a little about the "hidden" identity of the author, and that was part of what drew me to the book. Regardless of "Santiago's" identity, the book was a pretty good read as a "coming-of-age" story. I'm an assimilated third generation German-American working with a children's mental health program in El Paso, Texas. For what it's worth I also have a B.A. in Mexican-American Studies. My diploma was signed by Ronald Reagan. Go figure! Anyway I'm putting FAMOUS ALL OVER TOWN on my list of recommended reading for adolescents coming to terms with the hypocracies of the adult world. I think the "hidden" identity of "Danny Santiago" just enhances the value of FAMOUS ALL OVER TOWN for my purposes. By the way - regarding mondongo, as a former Peace Corps Volunteer I know it as a Colombian dish similar to what we in El Paso call caldo de res. No reason there couldn't be a Puerto Rican version.

Anonymous said...

Why would or should anyone at all care about the ethnicity of the author of such and I do mean such an incredibly wonderful book as Famous all over Town?

Anonymous said...

And what do you mean by your comparison of K I's Ro the Day? I am familiar with his book, which I loved, but what do you mean by your comparison?

Anonymous said...

If we're ever going to have books that reflect the multicultural/multi-ethnic social realities of places like Los Angeles, authors are going to have to step into the shoes of people different than them. I think the works mentioned, and the critiques of them, are steps towards doing that and doing it better. But still, naming yourself Santiago or Muro shows some shallow thinking around the issue of (so-called) reverse racism

Anonymous said...

i read the book Famous all over town when i was in 9th grade, a teacher recommended i read it and to my surprise i actually read it, i was going through some rough times and i loved this book because i felt like if every time i opened the book i was living chatos life not mine, it was like leaving all my problems behind. im in tenth grade now and i live in the BAY AREA in cali. so L.A isnt that far from here and i felt like i related alot to Chato even though im not Mexican.Im Nicoya and for those who dont know what that is it means nicaraguense and i really dont think an author should be criticized by there race mas bien they should be judged by there work. This book inspired me to ferget about my past and concentrate on the present and future, the realty is that no one really cares what you do because the only person that can decide your future is yourself and the chooses you make in life dont effect anyone beside yourself and i didn't realize that untill i read Famous all over town so who cares if danny santiago was is really a white man HE HAD THE SOUL OF A CHICANO!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I'm Asian, and we've been represented and misrepresented so much, it's sometimes just too much. The problem is not quality but quantity - there's not enough material out there that's authentic. People are hungry for genuine self-representation. Until there's enough "real" material, white (or other) writers who represent the culture should do everyone the favor by not dressing up in yellowface to get readers to suspend their disbelief.

There's plenty of fake Chicanos, fake Asians, and fake whatevers doing their writing without hiding their real roots. That's the fair, right way to do it.

Anonymous said...

Does it make any difference in opinion to know that Daniel Lewis James,aka Danny Santiago, was a cousin to the American outlaw icon Jesse James? Does it also make a difference to know that the reason why Dan James used the pseudonym Danny Santiago was because he had been blacklisted and forced underground as a professioanl writer by the American government during the infamous McCarthy anti-Communist hearings?

I'm a writer who is writing about Daniel James, and would welcome replies.

Anonymous said...

One of my cousins lived with Mr. James and his family for a time. I'm guessing this came about as a result of Mr. James' social work in the barrios of East Los Angeles. Daniel James began to write a story about my grandmother, who ran a boarding house for migrant workers in Boyle Heights (East Los Angeles). As I understand it, my aunts were very unhappy that my grandmother was talking to Mr. James about "family business" and put a stop to it. Still, I know some of my cousins have a copy of the unfinished script (book?).

Anonymous said...

In light of recent events in Arizona that pits immigration reform against social bigotry and injustice, the James family of Daniel Lewis James, aka Danny Santiago, has posted a blog on their web site addressing "What would Jesse James' cousin Dan James do about Arizona?".