Friday, November 27, 2015

Guest Opinion - Latina/o Literature and the Literary Establishment: A Study in White Privilege

The first time I read today's guest article I knew that it belonged on La Bloga. Michael Nava's perspective mirrors and expands on many of the positions taken by La Bloga's contributors over the years. In fact, it can be said that La Bloga was created as one response to the problems described by Nava that, unfortunately, continue to plague the Latina/o literary world. Thank you, Michael, for allowing us the opportunity to offer your analysis and observations to our readers.


Michael Nava is an attorney and writer. His debut novel, The Little Death (1986) introduced readers to Henry Rios, a gay Latino criminal defense lawyer. Six Rios novels followed — Goldenboy (1988), Howtown (1990), The Hidden Law (1992), The Death of Friends (1994), The Burning Plain (1996), and Rag and Bone (2000). The books were awarded a total of six Lambda Literary Awards and in 2000 Nava was given the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement in gay and lesbian literature. With Rag and Bone, Nava announced the end of his career as a mystery writer.

When Nava began a novel that would tell the story of the Mexican Revolution, the near-genocide of the Yaquis, and the rise of silent film, he quickly realized that the story was too big for a single book, so he conceived a series of novels called The Children of Eve. The first novel in that series is The City of Palaces (2014), which is set in Mexico City in the years before and at the beginning of the 1910 Mexican Revolution.

Nava has had a distinguished career as an appellate lawyer in the California court system. He has been a tireless advocate for greater diversity in the legal profession.

He currently is at work on the second book – as yet untitled – in The Children of Eve series.

The following essay is adapted from a keynote speech Nava delivered in San Antonio to a sectional meeting of the American Literature Association on the Latino/a literary landscape in February 2014.


My thesis is a simple one: the literary establishment rests on structures of white privilege — which in turn reflects white supremacist beliefs — and, accordingly, neglects, ignores and trivializes the work of Latino and Latina writers. In the process of doing so, the literary establishment is closing its doors to an enormous audience of potential readers — the growing Latino and Latina population. Like the Republican Party, the literary establishment seems willfully unable to understand and adapt to the dramatic on-going demographic shift that will, by 2043, see whites lose their majority status and Latinos become the largest population in a “majority/minority” America. Consequently, just as Republicans appear to be doomed to political irrelevance, the literary establishment seems intent on achieving cultural irrelevance.

Let me begin with some definitions. Latinos/as are not a monolithic group and neither are their writers. When I speak of Latino/a literature I am referring mainly to Latino/a writers descended from the immigrants of Latin American countries that are the most racially mixed, particularly Mexico. It is these communities — Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican and Central American — that, in this country, are the most impoverished and which suffer the greatest discrimination because, simply, they are visibly the most “non-white.” Also, because I am the grandson of Mexican immigrants and Mexicans comprise the largest group of immigrants to the United States from any country, I will be speaking in detail about Mexico and Mexican-Americans. By literary establishment, I refer to the New York publishing industry, the New York Times book review section and its echo chambers, libraries and MFA programs all of which, collectively, continue to exert enormous, if decreasing, influence on which writers and which books are published, reviewed, distributed and read.

Let me speak for a moment about race. Race is as much a fiction as national borders, but like national borders, people have come to believe that race is a real thing that demarcates human beings into specific categories and that one racial category -- the so-called white race – is intellectually, morally, and perhaps even physically superior to other races. This latter belief is the false but pernicious and persistent doctrine of white supremacy. Let me quote Samuel P. Huntington, the chairman of the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, who writes: “American was created by 17th-and 18th-century settlers who were overwhelmingly white, British, and Protestant.” According to Huntington, these Northern European immigrants created a culture whose key elements were “the English language; Christianity; religious commitment; English concepts of the rule of law . . . individualism, the work ethic, and the belief that humans have the ability and the duty to try to create a heaven on earth, a ‘city on a hill.’ ” There you have it; the archetypal white self-definition at its most self-congratulatory — fair-skinned, hard-working, God-fearing, Northern Europeans infused with a sense of fairness and self-reliance. This definition of white virtues can only exist in contrast to the perceived lack of these qualities in other races. Professor Joe Feagin writes: “The system of white-created racism divides human beings and separates those defined as the ‘superior race’ against those subordinated as the ‘inferior race.’” We have seen florid examples of this white supremacist doctrine in the recent statements of Donald Trump and in the positive response to those statements from a sizeable portion of the Republican Party.

The charge of racial inferiority against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans probably first originated in the nineteenth century doctrine of “manifest destiny” whereby the white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite set out to fulfill what they asserted was God’s plan for the United States to appropriate the North American continent to its greater glory. What was called in my grammar school history books the Mexican-American war is known in Mexico, more accurately, as the U.S. Invasion. Much like George Bush’s war against Iraq, the war against Mexico was invented on a pretext. Its purpose was to annex what were then the northern states of the Mexican Republic. As an editorial in the newspaper, El Republicano, thundered: “A government . . . that starts a war without a legitimate motive is responsible for all its evils and horrors. The bloodshed, the grief of families, the pillaging, the destruction . . . . Such is the case of the U.S. Government for having initiated the unjust war it is waging against us today.”

The shamelessness of the American invasion of a peaceable, non-threatening neighbor was justified in part by white supremacist beliefs in Mexican inferiority. For example, Stephen Austin, a founder of Texas, viewed Mexicans as a “mongrel Spanish-Indian and negro race,” while Senator John Calhoun worried that annexing Mexican territory would mean the incorporation of a “colored and mixed breed race” because “ours is a government of the white man,” and “in the whole history of man . . . there is no instance whatever of any civilized colored race, of any shade, being found equal to the establishment and maintenance of free government."

These beliefs in the racial inferiority of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans continue to this very moment and are, of course, most dramatically reflected in the xenophobia that surrounds undocumented Mexican immigrants. That xenophobia is clearly propelled by white supremacist beliefs expressed with only slightly more subtlety than they were in the nineteenth century. For example, in his book Alien Nation, Peter Brimelow writes that “the American nation has always had a specific ethnic core. And that core has been white.” He contrasts this with what he characterizes as the “alien” immigrants pouring in from Mexico. More to the point, a California legislator justified denying the children of undocumented immigrants public education because such immigrants “are perhaps on the lower scale of humanity.” I could go on but I think I’ve made my point: there remains a persistent belief among whites that Latino/as and, specifically, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are racially inferior.

Of course, individual whites will, with absolute conviction and in utter good faith, deny they entertain this belief and maintain, therefore, that they are not racist. They would be appalled to be grouped in with Trump and his followers. This is the sticking point in conversations about race between whites and Latino/as and other people of color. Most whites view racism as a matter of individual beliefs while most people of color see racism as the product of deeply held and persistent attitudes that infect the entire structure of American society whether or not individual whites consciously entertain those attitudes. But I would go farther and challenge whites who say they do not harbor racist beliefs to ask themselves, truthfully, what are the first images that spring to their minds when they think about Mexicans or Mexican-American?

Do they see someone like me, a Stanford-educated lawyer and published novelist, or do they see maids and gardeners speaking pidgin English or a cholo, tattooed gangbanger or perhaps small brown people picking tomatoes? I would put my money on the latter; for these stereotypes are so deeply ingrained in the culture that even those whites who sincerely believe they are without prejudice against Mexicans subscribe to these narrow and ultimately racist depictions. As Professor Feagin explains: “Throughout United States history, ordinary white Americans have usually learned their stereotype views of the racialized ‘other’ from those in authority, including parents, politicians, teachers, clergy, business leaders, and media authorities.” To judge people based on false and negative stereotypes whether individually or institutionally is racist whether you do it consciously or unconsciously. White racism is never that far below the surface, particularly among so-called progressive or liberals; witness the controversy over the confrontation between Black Lives Matter activists and the Sanders and Clinton campaigns.

And this brings me to my point about the racism of the literary establishment which, in turn, is based on the principal of white supremacy. This principle is expressed in various ways: by the racial composition of the literary establishment which is overwhelmingly white; the unspoken but very clear assumption that the experience of white, middle-class writers is universal while that of people of color is parochial and of limited interest to publishers, reviewers and readers; and attitudes that expose the establishment’s belief that Latino/as are constitutionally inferior to whites.

With respect to the first point, let me start with some statistics. The first come from The Culture and Commerce of Publishing in the 21st Century published in 2007 by the Stanford University Press. Looking at 2002 data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the authors found that 81.8% of people employed in book publishing were white and only 18.2% were people of color; of this number only 6.2% were Latino/as. The authors observed: “What is clear is that . . . minorities are underrepresented in the industry relative to their proportion of the population, which is 30.9%.” Moreover, “whites tend to be more represented in the higher-paying, decision-making categories, while minorities are proportionally more represented in the operative and laborer categories.”

The under-representation of people of color in editorial positions in publishing reflects, in part, the fact that entry level wages are so low. Thus, those entry level workers require family financial support that is simply unavailable to a Latina from a poor family who is the first in her family to graduate from college. The authors of the book quote the-then CEO of Henry Holt who said, “The system of assistant editors is a self-recruiting system for the cultural establishment of this country . . . . You can only get a job if your parents subsidize you or pay your rents.” Then, too, of course, publishing is an old-boy and old-girl system where contacts are crucial; the authors quote the director of a program at CUNY dedicated to bringing diversity to the industry who said, “it is hard to place interns because the business is so clubby . . . The children of editors and writers get most of the internships.”

The same situation prevails among librarians who are, of course, crucial to book sales. In a February 2013 editorial entitled Diversity Never Happens, the editor of the Library Journal wrote: “African-Americans and Hispanics are some of the strongest supporters of libraries, and yet they continue to be thinly represented among the ranks of librarians.” He noted that while data shows blacks and Latinos are more likely to use libraries on a monthly basis than whites, of the 118,666 credentialed librarians in the country, 6,160 are black and only 3,661 are Latino or, collectively, about 8 percent. “That number,” he wrote, “is lamentable,” and “hurts the profession and, more important, hurts our society.”

Now, let’s look at who gets reviewed. In a 2012 study of book reviews published by The New York Times in the preceding year, African-American author Roxanne Gay concluded that 90% of books reviewed in the Times in 2011 were written by white writers. Gay was attacked for her unscientific methodology even though she herself acknowledged that her data was incomplete but no one has seriously challenged her underlying conclusion: white writers are vastly over-represented both as reviewers and as the subject of book reviews in proportion to the percentage of whites in the population to the detriment of reviewers and writers of color.

It is interesting that except for librarians, evidently no other branch of the literary establishment keeps statistics about the diversity, or appalling lack of diversity, in its composition. I was unable to find any statistics about the racial make-up of literary agents except for an anecdotal study from the late 1990s in an article called Dearth of Hispanic Literary Agents Frustrates Writers by Ivan Diaz. Diaz reported that neither the literary agencies listed in the Literary Market Place nor the roster of agents in the Association of Authors’ Representatives listed a single Latino/a agent. I was also unable to find any statistics about the racial composition of students or faculty at the nation’s MFA programs in creative writing. This statistical silence is itself an indictment of the literary establishment which purports to be more than just a collection of affiliated professions but a cultural gatekeeper. Diversity is not, ultimately, simply about numbers but it begins with numbers. The failure of the literary establishment to submit to any kind of self-examination regarding its racial composition is, to my thinking, simply an aspect of its unwillingness to look at its own systemic racism and the effects of that racism on the larger culture.

Nonetheless, I say with complete confidence, that if such statistics were available about agents and MFA faculty and students they would demonstrate that those groups, like editors, librarians and writers who get reviewed in The New York Times, are overwhelmingly white.

The racial composition of the literary establishment has two profound consequences for Latino/a writers and other writers of color. The practical consequence is obvious: if virtually every agent, editor, book reviewer and librarian is a member of the white middle-class, then Latino/a writers are going to have a much harder time at getting representation, being published, reviewed and recommended because their experience will not resonate at a visceral level with these agents, editors, book reviewers and librarians. A secondary consequence is that, to the extent these white members of the literary establishment relate at all to the Latino/a experience, it will be to stereotypes. Thus, Latino/a writers who do not treat their material in stereotypical manners to which white people relate – for example, the big, happy Latino family saga or magic realism – will not find sympathetic readers in the white literary establishment. Laura Atkins, an editor of children’s books who worked at American and English publishing houses, touches on both these issues in her on-line essay: What’s the Story? Reflections on White Privilege in the Publication of Children’s Books. She notes that what drives the acquisition and publication of children’s book is the “perceived market requirements” that led publishers – even those who were ostensibly committed to multicultural children’s books – to alter texts “often by making them conform to a more general market: one which represents the dominant and traditional expectations of children’s literature.” She concludes: “The question here is not about particular racist individuals who work in the publishing industry, rather, this is an institutional problem. The way in which the acquisition, development, distribution and marketing of children’s books currently takes place is a system based on patterns so pervasive they seem to become natural, inevitable and justifiable. I would argue that most children’s publishing houses currently exist to serve the interests and the needs of the white majority culture.”

Although Atkins is writing about children’s publishers, I would argue that her observations are true of the publishing industry as a whole and of the other branches of the literary establishment. Indeed, the appeal to the perceived market is a frequent justification by white editors for rejecting works by writers of color.

My recent experience with my last novel The City of Palaces is not unusual. Now remember, I had published seven novels, the last five with New York houses, and my books had been widely reviewed and won awards. The City of Palaces is an historical novel set in Mexico City between 1895 and 1913, the years just before and at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. The central characters are a married Mexican couple as are all the important secondary characters. There are no Americans in the book except in cameos. The book traces a particularly complicated period of Mexican history, which saw the collapse of the 40-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, the election of the liberal president, Francisco Madero, and the army coup that deposed and killed him. It is, shall we say, extremely mexicano in theme, scope and message.

My former agent, a long-time respected figure in New York publishing circles, tried for a year to interest various New York editors in publishing the novel. Half of them did not bother to reply; the other half turned it down. They didn’t turn it down because it was poorly written or uninteresting. They turned it down because they could not imagine anyone who would want to read such a novel. Or, as one of them said in his rejection letter, “While the novel’s conceit is smart and Michael Nava is an insightful writer . . . I simply can’t say that I see the readership for this novel . . . ”

There are 33.7 million Latinos of Mexican descent living in the United States so I must assume that what this editor meant was that he couldn’t see a white readership for the novel. The view expressed by this editor, who undoubtedly and in good faith would reject the label of racist, is, nonetheless, racist. First, it reflects a view that Latinos do not constitute an audience for serious literature, which, in turn, is based on stereotypical and racist views of Latinos. Second, it does a grave disservice to white readers by assuming they would not be interested in works that do not cater to their immediate experience. My story had a happy ending: I was published by the University of Wisconsin Press, which has a deep and serious commitment to Latino/a literature. Moreover, the novel was a finalist for the 2014 Lambda Literary award for best gay novel and won the International Latino Literary award for best novel. But there must be many first time Latino/a writers who are simply unable to penetrate the systematic racism of the literary establishment and to get a fair hearing.

The white supremacist foundation of the literary establishment is also evident in the belief, unspoken but clearly pervasive, that the experience of the white, middle-class writer has universal significance while that of Latino/a and other writers of color does not. On this point, let me quote an interview that Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Junot Diaz gave a couple of years ago when he was asked the question, “Do you think you’ve gotten through and away from that marginalized ‘immigrant’ [writer] niche?” He said: “ I don’t think you transcend white supremacy. You don’t need to be a cultural anthropologist . . . to understand that systems of aesthetic evaluation are over inscribed by white supremacist ideologies. White supremacy does everything possible to erase its own . . . tiny minority status by attempting to argue that this is universal, that this is indispensable; when in fact it is just another minority literature.” He goes on: “What we are talking about is racialized privilege. The invisible hand of inequality, which turns the pages, which cranks the movies . . . mixes the ink. A writer like [Jonathan] Franzen, with each coming generation looks more and more . . . like exactly what he is . . . a white minority writer.”

Finally, the white literary establishment harbors attitudes towards and beliefs about the Latino/a community that seem superficially paradoxical but are, in fact, motivated by the same racist attitudes. The first is the one expressed by the editor who rejected The City of Palaces in the letter I quoted above: Latino/as don’t read, therefore, publishers assume that books with themes of interest to that community will inevitably fail. This in turn seems to be based on the notion that Latino/as are poorer and less well-educated than whites are. While it is true that many segments of the Latino/a community face economic challenges, it is not true that we are a simple race of maids and gardeners whose main entertainment is the telenovela. Among the millions of Latino/as there is an emerging middle class. Indeed, a 2013 study by the Pew Hispanic Center reports that 69% of Latino/a high school graduates in the class of 2012 enrolled in college, two percentage points higher than their white counterparts. As the first person from my family to attend college, I do not minimize the many financial, psychological and cultural challenges that lie ahead for these students, but this trend underscores the determination of the Latino/a community to achieve what used to be called the American Dream. Yet the literary establishment persists in its stereotypical beliefs that we are an uneducated people who do not read.

At the same time, publishers wring their hands about how to appeal to the Latino/a market. Often, the question becomes how to appeal to Spanish-speaking Latino/as using the Spanish-language media in the United States. But this itself reflects a profound ignorance of the Latino/a community. Although the retention of Spanish is a point of pride for millions of Latino families, the fact is that English is the main language for the Latino/a community. For example, a recent Pew Hispanic Center study revealed that 82% of Latino/a adults consume their news in English. Both these beliefs – Latino/as do not read, but if they do they read in Spanish – demonstrate the underlying racism of a literary establishment that cannot be bothered to examine its assumptions about the Latino/a community much less to bring them in line to the facts on the ground.

What should be the response of Latino/a writers and readers to the racism of the literary establishment? Well, one response is to keep calling it out, as I have tried to do here. The kind of flaccid liberalism that prevails in the precincts of that establishment does seem to respond to guilt. So, yes, we should shame them at every opportunity, hold them accountable for their choices and demand explanations. On the whole, while this might result in some expanded tokenism, I am pessimistic that the literary establishment can reform itself so that it starts to look like the emerging, multiracial culture. This is because real diversity requires an actual and meaningful surrender of privilege. One column of review space in the New York Times Book Review section devoted to a Latina writer is one less column available to a white male writer. It seems unlikely to me, when push comes to shove, that that’s going to happen.

What we Latino/a writers and readers need to do is to create an alternative literary establishment that brings together writers and readers. The outlines of this alternative establishment already exist, some in more embryonic form than others. There is a young generation of Latino and Latina scholars at the country’s colleges and universities who recognize in a visceral way the importance of Latina/o literature and who are and will produce important studies of that literature. There are on-line Latino/a writers groups and literary festivals that celebrate Latino/a literature. There are a handful of publishers like Arte Publico in Texas and academic presses like the University of Wisconsin Press that give Latino/a writers a place for their work in the face of indifference from the NY publishing industry.

I would also like to see the Latino/a equivalent of the Lambda Literary Foundation. The LLF nurtures, promotes and preserves LGBT literature in a number of concrete ways. It annually presents the Lambda Literary Awards; it sponsors an LGBT Emerging Writer retreat where young writers come to be taught and mentored by established writers; it publishes a monthly on-line magazine that comprehensively reviews LGBT writers; and its Writers in School program brings LGBT writers into the public schools. A similar Latino/a literary organization could become a clearing house for all the individual efforts that are now slowly creating our own literary establishment.

When I think of my Latino/a community I am always reminded of the passage from the Gospel of Mark where Jesus says: “Have you not read this Scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.’ ” We Latino/as are the stone this culture has, in so many ways, rejected but our time is coming, indeed in places like California and Texas, it is already here. We will be the cornerstone of a new and invigorated United States. And, as part of that new and invigorated country, and, notwithstanding our treatment by the literary establishment, we are and will continue to create a literature that reflects, celebrates and explores our culture and our history. It is a great honor to be a Latino or Latina writer at this moment in history; now let us go out and do our work.


Thanks again, Michael. 

I've said it before -- Latinas/os will save the U.S.

Happy Birthday, Feliz Cumpleaños to La Bloga.  A grand 11 years old on November 28.  ¡Ajua!

Also on Saturday, Nov. 28 - Indies First - part of Small Business Saturday. Support your independent bookstores wherever you are. I'll be at the Tattered Cover, Colfax store, Denver, Saturday morning as an "honorary bookseller." Drop by - promote literacy.




Never kid yourself into thinking that they're going to play fair.

Mario Acevedo said...

Whew! Quite a post. Well said.

Viktoria Valenzuela said...

Damn! Thank you.

Carla said...

Thanks for writing this Michael.,

Emily Perez said...

Awesome post. I'm excited to read your novel.