Friday, March 30, 2007

The Postman and the Mex - Part Two

Manuel Ramos

I continue with an article originally published in Hopscotch, Volume 2, Number 4 (2001).


By Manuel Ramos, all rights reserved.

Or, and this he didn't like to admit even to himself, perhaps he had become a private investigator because in his daydreams he saw himself as a hero. -- Rudolfo Anaya, Zia Summer

Lucha Corpi’s poetry and an early novel are much admired for their Chicana perspective and their critical role in the definition of Mexican American literature. A teacher of English to adults in the Oakland, California, public schools, Corpi had written consistently in Spanish until she embarked on longer fiction pieces. In 1992 she turned to crime and published the award-winning Eulogy For A Brown Angel. Cactus Blood followed in 1995, Black Widow’s Wardrobe in 1999, and Crimson Moon in 2004. All of her books have been published by Arte Público Press.

These are truly Chicana mystery stories. Corpi’s heroine, Gloria Damasco, is a veteran of the Chicano civil rights movement, educated, smart, ambitious and possessed of a mysterious ability to "see," to use strange visions that appear incomplete and oblique even to her. In another type of story Damasco might by called a curandera, perhaps a bruja. In Corpi’s novels she is a Latina private detective, one of only two in the San Francisco Bay area (she teams up with the second one, Dora Saldaña, in Black Widow’s Wardrobe.) Corpi’s plots flow from cultural, historical and political events in the Chicano community. Eulogy For A Brown Angel opens with the disturbing discovery of a murdered child amid the violence of the riot that erupted in Los Angeles during the August 29, 1970 National Chicano Moratorium, the largest antiwar demonstration ever organized by Chicanos. Cactus Blood centers on Damasco’s investigation into the murders of three former activists from the seventies who were integrally involved in the struggle of migrant farm workers. Black Widow’s Wardrobe is nothing less than a retelling of the legend and myth of La Malinche, Cortez’s mistress, branded forever a traitor. In Crimson Moon, Saldaña assumes the major role in the story as she and her partner, Justin Escobar, investigate two cases that eventually involve the F.B.I., the Crusade for Justice, the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, a discarded manuscript, and even Luis Móntez, the Denver lawyer.

The use of La Malinche as the plot's fulcrum signals a deepening of the trend of the past several years to rewrite La Malinche’s story in order to overcome its inherent sexism and racism. Although Black Widow’s Wardrobe takes place in modern Northern California and in the Valley of Tepoztlán, Mexico, a complete understanding of the book must come from knowledge of historical events and people outside the limits of the book. La Malinche, or Malintzin Tenepal – her "true" name according to Damasco -- is the target of betrayal, not its purveyor, and she definitely is not her husband’s victim. Corpi also flips the myth of La Llorona on its head. The ancient tale of the woman who murdered her children and was forced to cry forever along riverbanks, a tale used for centuries by madres and abuelitas to instill good behavior in unruly children, is completely reworked in Corpi’s novel: the children are the possible murderers of their mother, and it is they who must suffer the consequences.

Corpi’s novel has only the obvious in common with the hard-boiled stories of Cain, Raymond Chandler, or Dashiell Hammett. In Black Widow’s Wardrobe gunplay and ambushes do light up the night sky, but the murder, if there is one, takes place years before the story starts and is entirely offstage. The heroine is a tough biscochito, but she’s no Sam Spade, not even a V.I. Warshawski. Black Widow’s Wardrobe is not a detective story like many have come to expect from the overflow churned out by authors of mystery or detective fiction. It is a Chicana tale of discovery and reaffirmation, a cultural reclamation project whose protagonist just happens to be a detective.

The book opens with the Día de los Muertos procession in San Francisco, during which a mysterious woman in white is attacked. Damasco witnesses the attack and “sees” a duo of armor-clad conquistadors involved in the incident. Her natural inquisitiveness and the nature of her profession eventually lead her to Licia Lecuona, the Black Widow, a woman recently released from prison after serving a sentence of several years for killing her abusive husband. Before the story is finished, Damasco has traveled to Mexico in search of details about La Malinche, of whom the Black Widow claims to be a reincarnation. Damasco becomes involved in a plot that includes stolen Mexican artifacts, a wild chase and a shoot-out in a labyrinthine cavern, and at least two domineering husbands. By the end she is recovering from a serious bullet wound, the victims of domestic violence have had their revenge, and the artifacts are safe. However, the true identity of the Black Widow has not been resolved.

The Case of the Genre Within a Genre

Fans and critics of and publishing house publicists for the mystery novel, an already pigeonholed literature, have delighted in classifying the genre even further: cozy, noir, police procedural, legal thriller, medical thriller, gay, historical, hard-boiled, ethnic ... . Then there are the subcategories: locked room, soft-boiled, redneck noir, African-American, Native American, and so on. Obviously, these are convenient marketing terms, signals to the reading public, but they also are reflections of the rich, deep promise of crime fiction, of the notion that as beautiful and ugly as humanity can be, as uplifting or downgrading our existence eventually turns out, there are writers who can use the format of the mystery novel to tell a gripping story. The abundant variety of crime itself, from the intricate plotting of Conan Doyle's Moriarty to the spontaneous, greedy and lust-driven spree of Frank and Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice, requires writing that reflects the diversity of crimes and criminals that have plagued this planet since Cain mumbled his excuses and feigned ignorance of his brother's whereabouts. There is no mine as rich for writers to dig into as the psyche of the murderer, and because murderers and their victims come from all classes and in all colors, writing about crime has to be diverse and multicultural.

This is where Chicano and Chicana writers come in, a few years tardy but now cruising the same literary landscape as Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie. Just as Philip Marlowe could never solve a crime without tasting the bitter fruit of his jaded, lonely life, a Chicana or Chicano detective cannot finish an investigation until the Chicano culture somehow has been upheld or even enriched. The duality of the Chicano experience, the hyphenated existence of Mexican Americans, has been at the core of several Chicano and Chicana novels and now has made its way into crime fiction. The search for roots, for history, for identity motivates, some would say plagues, the Chicano and Chicana detectives. Sam Spade’s angst-driven loyalty to his murdered partner makes him turn over to the police the woman who has offered him love in Hammett’s classic The Maltese Falcon. Although loyalty to the community, rather than an individual, is a recurring theme in Chicano crime fiction, there also is the idea that Chicano and Chicana detectives carry the weight of history on their backs. The end is not merely the showdown, the last shoot-out, the ironic denouement with the killer cleverly unmasked. These tried-and-true devices must be tinged with Chicanismo.

Although Chicano crime fiction attempts to re-create an acutely defined genre, it can and does fall prey to many of the criticisms leveled at crime fiction in general. This literature can be formulaic and clichéd. Obvious endings are a disaster in this type of story. The author has to generate suspense and fear in readers and keep them guessing about the outcome. Conversely, the ending has to make sense in the context of the story, or the readers will feel cheated. Mystery readers prefer solutions based on good old-fashioned detective work, as opposed to dreams, serendipitous visions, or miraculous coincidences. Some mysteries contain too much action, at the expense of character development; others lose the plot in the maze of a character’s self-analysis and emotional havoc. The cozy mysteries can be too cute, too sterile in their portrayals of death and violence, and, with a subtle touch of irony, therefore, heartless, while the hard-boiled authors are too violent, too graphic, too visceral for many readers.

These and other criticisms have been made against all of the Chicano and Chicana authors who are writing in yet another subgenre. But the special nature of Chicano crime fiction also makes it susceptible to criticisms not usually associated with the broad category of crime fiction. The stories can be accused of paying too much attention to Chicano politics, culture, or history. In other words, the author’s Chicano agenda can get in the way of a good story. The folklore and spirituality of the Chicano community can be misinterpreted, and an author has to be careful to not patch plot holes with timely curses from a bruja or unexpected appearances of El Koko. Chicano and Chicana authors also have been criticized because their writing is not “Chicano enough,” that is, does not contain enough political or cultural references to be called a Chicano novel.

Chicano and Chicana literature reflects the continuous changes and development undergone by a people that claims an ancient history but that, politically, is fairly new to the world. Chicano crime fiction, too, is growing, finding itself, and its authors so far have only touched the edge of what is possible in it. Whether this fiction will continue to develop and whether its authors will firmly establish themselves in the crime fiction genre are questions that time must answer.

Many of these writers have been praised for their talent, their creativity and for injecting new life into a format that may have grown tired. Anaya’s Alburquerque won the PEN Center West Award for Fiction, while Corpi’s Eulogy For A Brown Angel was awarded the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award. The Ballad Of Rocky Ruiz won the Chicano/Latino Literary Award and the Colorado Book Award and was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America. Limón’s Jade Lady Burning was a New York Times "Notable Book of the Year." Several of Nava’s books have received the Lambda Literary Award for Best Mystery. After all is said and done, of course, good writing is still the essential requirement. Authors have to be serious about their craft, willing to guarantee that good stories are written, and that the communities in them are honestly, not stereotypically, depicted.

What Chicana and Chicano crime writers have done should be regarded as an evolutionary leap for the mystery genre. From police procedurals to character studies, from cozies to hard-boiled, these writers have spiced up the mystery story, added a bit of chile to the recipe, and created huevos rancheros.

I want to thank the knowledgeable denizens of Rara-Avis, the Internet hard-boiled discussion group, for their many leads concerning some of the authors mentioned in this piece. -- MR

Well, that's it for me for awhile. Beginning next week my Friday space here on La Bloga will be taken by guest contributors, each one offering a unique perspective about literature, culture, the writing life, and a few surprises. Check out my friends Mario Acevedo, Linda Arroyo-Holmstrom, Jesse Tijerina, and Lucha Corpi. Let them know you appreciate their efforts. Don't be shy with the comments. See you again around Cinco de Mayo.



jcorral said...

yeah, we should write more mystery and crime fiction, thanks for the idea, it simply hadn't occurred to me. by the way, we are some no-comment-leaving raza.

Anonymous said...

Looks like a great line-up you got for us while you're gone, Ramos.

Lisa Alvarado said...

You're KILLING me here, Manuel. This writing's so good it makes me want to grind my pencils into nibs. The line up you got us is stellar, but their light no more brighter than yours.

BTW-- When are you going to do the full length piece for NPR on your take on all this?

s said...
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Anonymous said...
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Chus said...

This is what I think: The postman

Anonymous said...

This a great lit review of detective fiction. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

This a great lit review of Chicano/a detective fiction. Thanks.