Monday, August 04, 2008

Collection shows Rivera's genius in Chicano genre

Tomás Rivera: The Complete Works edited by Julián Olivares (Arte Público Press, $19.95 paperback)

Book review by Daniel A. Olivas

[This review originally appeared in the El Paso Times]

In a critical essay published 37 years ago, Tomás Rivera offered a series of provocative questions:

"What is, then, the principal intent of Chicano Literature: to exchange one stereotype for another? To destroy stereotypes? To verify that which is Chicano and to conserve it? To commit the Chicano to social change? To provide a vehicle for self-reflection, a proper mirror, a proper labyrinth?"

Rivera offered an equally provocative answer: "Why not all of this? All of this has value. All of these encompass the totality of the Chicano being."

Arte Público Press has now published Tomás Rivera: The Complete Works ($19.95 paperback), which, for the first time, brings together all of Rivera's fiction, poetry and essays in one volume.

Combined with a well-researched introduction and annotations by the University of Houston's Julián Olivares, this landmark volume fulfills Rivera's deep desire to place Chicano literature within its proper artistic, social, political and cultural context.

Rivera is best known for his 1971 novel, ... y no se lo tragó la tierra / ... And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, which Olivares notes "gave considerable impetus to Chicano writers and brought wide recognition to the Hispanic creative presence of the United States." This slim work of fiction consists of elegant but realistic vignettes of migrant farmworkers' post-World War II lives. It is a literary achievement that, to this day, packs an emotional wallop. The sentences seem effortlessly rendered, as if the novel had no choice but to be written.

But Olivares explains that Rivera, in fact, slaved over each sentence as well as the sequence of the novel's chapters. If anything, we learn that Rivera was nothing less than a craftsman in the mold of Ernest Hemingway.

Also included are chapters that never made it into the novel. One of the most remarkable stories is "Las salamandras" ("The Salamanders"), which concerns a family of migrant workers that agrees to camp out in a rain-soaked field in the hope of being able to pick beets once the ground dries. In the middle of the night, their tents become filled with salamanders "as if they wanted to reclaim the foot of the field." This is a heartbreaking and brilliantly crafted story of despair and near hopelessness.

While Rivera assumed that his fiction would be read by a larger audience, he viewed his poetry as somewhat more personal. "His fiction he wrote for his people; his poetry he wrote for himself," Olivares observes. This does not mean that Rivera's poems are in any way inaccessible or unreadable. Quite the contrary: His lyricism is intact, fully realized and potent.

The collection concludes with critical essays that showcase Rivera's intellectual rigor, creativity and curiosity. With such titles as "Chicano Literature: Fiesta of the Living" and "The Great Plains as Refuge in Chicano Literature," Rivera laid the foundation for how we study and read Chicano literature today.

Because Rivera himself had been a migrant farmworker, he could draw upon his experiences in describing the hardships of such lives. Yet despite the odds, he went on to earn college and post-graduate degrees, eventually becoming the chancellor of the University of California at Riverside.

Simply put, Tomás Rivera: The Complete Works is a milestone in Chicano literature that should grace the shelves of every academic and personal collection.

Other Fugitives and Other Strangers (Tupelo Press, 2006) by Rigoberto González is this year’s recipient of The Poetry Center Book Award from San Francisco State University. The annual Poetry Center Book Award has been given by The Poetry Center, based at San Francisco State University, since 1980 to a single outstanding book of poetry published in the previous year. The Poetry Center Book Award carries a cash prize and an invitation to read, along with the award judge, at The Poetry Center in San Francisco.

This year's judge, Bhanu Kapil, writes:

I was incredibly interested in the combination of structural coherence and a content that kept transgressing/distending – through the force of what was being said, of the physical moment being opened up – the conceptual membranes of the writer’s identity, a figuration linked with cross-cultural trajectories. Inside the poems, for example, a body is “pierced,” “dilate[d],” “burst like an appendix,” and overwhelmed by a “passion so dangerous it’s fatal.” Yet, the book does not break. The formal constraint of a lyric mode, whether González selects for prose or a progression of a traditional ode verse structure, does not break. González is asking us to imagine a body that remains intact. Why? The answer, at least in my reading, comes on the last page, when the book’s language selects for the body’s futurity, a survival that’s both ephemeral and strongly marked.

To visit the Poetry Center Website, go here. And for a list of previous winners, visit here.

◙ Speaking of by Rigoberto González, he reviews Yxta Maya Murray’s new novel, The King's Gold (Harper). He notes, in part:

Lola Sánchez, the charming bookworm turned "biblio-adventurer" -- refreshed after a death-defying escapade through the jungles of Central America in the novel "The Queen Jade" -- returns for a second outing in Yxta Maya Murray's page-turning "The King's Gold" (Harper, $14.95 paperback)…. Readers with a strong affinity to complex literary riddles and exhausting chases through striking locales have much to celebrate in "The King's Gold," but so, too, do those who want to know of the history of Italy's renowned artifacts. Murray's research is seamlessly incorporated into her energetic prose.

◙ The new issue of Tertulia Magazine is now live. According to the magazine, in the late 1700s, rooms in the local theaters in Madrid were reserved for men of letters to engage in intellectual discussions. Since most of these men were Catholic clergy, their discussions many times revolved around the Church Father Tertullian. Thus, the tertulia was born. In 2003, Tertulia Magazine was founded by Rosa Martha Villarreal, An H. Nguyen and Bernardo Salinas to continue the tradition of independent, non-ideological discourse through art and written word in cyberspace. Poetry, fiction, art, and essays are published on a quarterly basis. I am proud to say that I have a wee little story in this issue.

Melina Palacio tells us that her short story "That Last Time" that is featured in Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature (Bilingual Press, 2008) will be read at Wordtheatre by actor Gregg Henry on August 23. The evening will feature works by PEN Emerging Voices fellows. You can see a list of the stories, the writers, and actors selected so far by visiting here.

◙ All done. So, until next Monday, enjoy the intervening posts from my compadres y comadres at La Bloga. ¡Lea un libro!

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