Saturday, August 24, 2013

Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson. Cultural appropriation.

Next week I'll be at one of the two biggest SciFi/Fantasy conventions, which this year is called LoneStarCon, in San Antonio. Because of the location, the Con organizers have included a "Spanish strand" to include more Mexican, South American and U.S. latino authors and topics. That's a good thing. You can go here for a list of what are called the "Spanish language" panels.

To prepare for ones I'll sit on, I've especially collected background for one called Latino Characters by Mainstream Authors: Diversity or Cultural Appropriation? Next week I'll post material I'll use that Friday, 7:00pm. I have too much material, so today I share some things I learned about mainstream author's Chicano characters and Chicano writers getting their work published.

Manuel Ramos started this in his post yesterday about Beatrice Kozera, the person who Jack Kerouac portrayed as "Terry" in his novel On the Road.

I contacted Tim Z. Hernandez, author of Mañana Means Heaven, and what I found seems to me a significant example of cultural misappropriation. Here's more details:

"For the six years prior to its publication, Kerouac received countless rejections of his famous novel, On the Road, and it might never have been published. But when the excerpt entitled The Mexican Girl was published as a short story in The Paris Review, it received rave reviews, and was included in the Best American Short Stories of 1956 anthology."

Because of the publicity, the novel was published by Viking Press. Tim informed me that people like Jerry Cimino, owner of The Beat Museum in San Francisco, Kerouac scholars Paul Maher Jr. and Rick Dale, and others concur that it was The Mexican Girl story that led to Kerouac's novel becoming an instant hit.   

So, what's the big deal? Why should I, we, get upset about Kerouac, a mainstream author, including a mexicana in his novel? What's so MISappropriate about that?

Kerouac became a literary icon, using a two-week affair with una pobre mujer as his first step to fame. As Ramos noted, the woman spent her early life picking grapes and cotton. Only those who've done the work know the physical and economic hardships she underwent. Every day. For decades. And never knowing, until later, about Kerouac's book. Or about her "contribution" and, assumedly, never financially benefitting from the book's success.

Jack Kerouac
I'm not suggesting anything specific that Kerouac should've done. I don't know what I would've done in his place. But it grinds me. Me molesta. Kerouac ate in restaurants where figuratively the salad he ate was made possible by esa mujer. He paid his rent and traveled with money that began flowing from The Mexican Girl, while the real one's family lived on at poverty level.

If I raise this example at the Con next week, I won't be surprised to hear someone claim that I'm engaging in "the whiny victim ideology that sadly permeates so much of ethnic literature." That's a phrase I ran across in my research. It's typical of certain Anglos paranoid about the benefits they receive from White Privilege. Ignorant where their good life came from.

Ilan Stavans' biography of Oscar Zeta Acosta, Bandido, provides an example of one Chicano who made the most of being culturally misappropriated. (Yes, Acosta was infamous for his own macho chauvinism, among other things.) Stavans (born in Mexico) writes about Hunter S. Thompson's use of Acosta in the novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

"Thompson wrote down every single detail about his and Zeta's excursion to Las Vegas. Every dialogue between him and Acosta was recorded on a portable tape recorder. He often plays it for visitors and over the phone. In Acosta's circles, the certitude remains that Thompson was only marginally the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. When Acosta read the manuscript, he said, 'My God! He has stolen my soul. He has taken my best lines and has used me.' " (p. 99)

There's more about this worth reading in Stavans' book, but, to summarize it, after a feud, demanding half the proceeds and co-author credit, carving his name with a knife in the Rolling Stones magazine's office, threatening to sue for libel, Acosta signed a waiver in exchange for a two-book publishing contract. That's why we have Acosta's novels, Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo and The Revolt of the Cockroach People.

In my view, the legal agreement doesn't erase the cultural misappropriation. Theft, plagiarizing by someone considered a great American author of a great American novel. A novel a Chicano didn't get credit for. Me whining? Shit, I won't go further with this.

My collection of other people's research has uncovered much more that I'll share on this blog and at the Con next week. That post will concentrate more on SciFi/fantasy than mainstream lit. And it's not all just about "whiny victim ideology that sadly permeates so much of ethnic literature."

If you want to help me with next week's gauntlet, think about this quote from an Anglo panelist commenting on the title, Latino Characters by Mainstream Authors: Diversity or Cultural Appropriation?

He states: "Turn this around and ask this rhetorical question: Is it OK and not politically incorrect for a non-American [latino] writer to use American [Anglo] characters? ‘Nuff said!" Those are his words, really.

Es todo, hoy,



So, this is the role of Chicanos in American literature, and the counterculture. Reminds me of when I first sold Cortez on Jupiter -- I was told how was so brave to write about "minorities" because "They get offended, you know . . ." They ever suggested I use a "slightly Hispanic" psuedonym. I kept saying I was a Chicano. By the time the word got around they were treating me like an illegal alien. Maybe I should have tried to "pass for white" and told them it was the result of a few research trips into the barrio . . . ay! That's so absurd! Good luck at the con. I'm not sure if a lot of these Anglo-Americano sci-fi folks are ready for this, but the futuro beckons . . .

Unknown said...

Hey Rudy:

You forgot to mention my piece that appeared in 2008 in La Bloga and The San Antonio Current. It later was put on the Hunter Thompson website.

Hope to catch up with you in San Anto next week.


Also I might mention that Tennessee William appropriated the character of Stanley Kowalski from his Tejano muse Pancho Rodriguez. La Bloga interviewed me in this regard after my play Rancho Pancho was produced.

See also Jesus Treviño's interview w/me at Latinopia:

Anonymous said...

GREG Barrios: qué lástima I forgot your great piece. I'll use it this week. See you in San Anto.
NESTO: I'll share your note with the panel.
Much appreciated.