Friday, January 20, 2017

The Mystery of the Missing Mystery Writers

About a week ago I officially became a member of the board of directors of Mystery Writers of America (MWA).  I’ve belonged to this organization since I published my first crime fiction novel back in 1993 – so, I have a lot of years, and dues, invested in MWA.  Occasionally, I attend one of the monthly local chapter meetings (the Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America [RMMWA]). Over the years, I’ve participated in RMMWA reading events and presentations. I read the newsletters and watch for the Edgar® Award announcements, on the off-chance I will know one of the finalists.  I’ve never held office locally or nationally, until now.  In other words, I’ve been a loyal member, with base-level activity.

This past weekend I traveled to New York City for a board meeting, which also included a subway trip to the Mysterious Bookshop (the only mystery book store left in NYC), a couple of dinners at Manhattan restaurants with the board and administrative staff, and a four hour orientation on board duties and responsibilities, and the ethical and legal limitations on board members.

View from the airport shuttle on the Queensboro Bridge

The main reason I belong to MWA is probably the reason other writers join:  the organization provides a convenient networking forum with other writers and writing professionals, plus it’s an excellent resource for news about the genre, writers, and publishing trends.

Some of the crowd at the Mysterious Bookshop
I belong to other writing organizations, for much the same reason, but the MWA is the only one where I’ve assumed more responsibility than simple membership.  Although I’ve been on the board for only a few days, I think I’ve already learned a few things.

My overall impression that the number of Latinos or Latinas who write crime fiction is small has been reinforced by my time in NYC.  As far as I could tell, I’m the only Latino on the board.  I'm not the first Latino to serve on the board, but there can’t have been very many before me.  The same kind of paucity is found in the overall MWA membership. In the RMMWA I am, again, one of very few. 

I don’t “blame” MWA for this.  Within MWA leadership I think there is a belief  that diversity is a good thing, and nothing would please the leadership more than an increase of membership, regardless of race, ethnicity, or nationality. I've been told that the theme for this year's Edgar® Award booklet is Inclusion and Representation - that's a good sign.

No, the problem goes deeper – frankly, where are the Latino or Latina mystery, crime fiction, thriller, or detective writers in general?
Years ago (2001), I wrote an article about the then state of Latino crime fiction.  I entitled it The Postman and the Mex: From Hard-boiled to Huevos Rancheros in Detective Fiction and I published it in the academic/literary journal Hopscotch. You can find that article here on La Bloga at this link and part two here In the article, I summarized the history of Mexicans, Chicanos and Latinos in crime fiction, and I highlighted the writers who were active in the field at that time, including Rudolfo Anaya, Lucha Corpi, Rolando Hinojosa, Martin Limón, Michael Nava, Ricardo Means Ybarra, Max Martínez, and myself. The article was optimistic.  I declared that Chicano and Chicana writers had made an “evolutionary” leap in the genre; that, basically, we had created a new sub-genre.  The feel of the article was that we (Latinos) had only just begun and that we would change the crime fiction landscape with our work.

Today, I’m not quite so optimistic.  Of the writers listed in the article, only three of us continue to write crime fiction (Limón, Nava, and Ramos).  Anaya, Corpi, and Hinojosa continue to write, but not crime fiction, although these excellent writers could easily return to the genre if they so chose.  Oh, I believe there are more Latinos and Latinas writing in the genre today than when I wrote the article, but still, looking at the vast array of mystery books published every month, the numbers are small.  Only a few names come quickly to mind:  Carmen Amato, Alex Segura, Henry Perez, Mario Acevedo.  Who else is out there?  Contact me if you write crime fiction.

On a more encouraging note,  a few weeks ago, National Public Radio aired the program Latino Noir: Private Eyes And Really Bad Vatos,  which featured five international Latino/Latina writers who delve into noirish tales of crime and deceit. Two of the five writers were U.S. Latinos (Carmen Amato and myself.)

I don’t have a definitive answer as to why this situation exists.  New Latino and Latina writers are introduced every month – a quick look at back issues of La Bloga demonstrates the wide range of writers emerging onto the literary scene almost daily.  And the Latino literary community is a thriving, organic, ambitious body that encompasses all manner of creativity, from poetry to graphic novels.  It appears that Latinos (writers and by logical extension readers) are just not into crime fiction.  Is this really true?

This is not to disparage the current writers who engage in the same crime and detection exercises that I experience daily.  They are good writers with exciting talent.  There simply aren’t that many of us.

These are some of the thoughts lurking within me as I begin my term on MWA’s board.  If you have suggestions for me, advice, names of writers who might be interested in MWA, books I should read, or anything else that you think a board member of MWA should know or be aware of in regards to the Latino reading or writing communities, pass them on to me.  I’ll appreciate hearing from you, and, who knows, maybe at a future board meeting your suggestion will be on the agenda.

Grand Central Station


Manuel Ramos is the author of several novels, short stories, poems, and non-fiction books and articles. His collection of short stories, The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories, was a finalist for the 2016 Colorado Book Award. My Bad: A Mile High Noir was published by Arte Público Press in October, 2016


Anonymous said...

Nice summary of a genre I'm only slightly familiar with.
Might there be a collective, Raza consciousness averse to cop/detective/lawyer heroes because WE have usually been the villains in this societal paradigm, whether we were or not, ala bandidos? No sé.

Manuel Ramos said...

Interesting perspective from Anonymous. I suppose this could be the case in some individuals, but I wouldn't go as far as a "collective" consciousness. But the commentator is on to something about negative raza images. These stereotypes often are used in much of current fiction and drama, whether books, TV, movies, even some music. Without begging the question, isn't that a good reason for Latino or Latina writers to create this kind of fiction?


Despite all the talk about diversity we get these days, publishing -- especially, from New York -- sees the mystery genre, books in general, and even culture itself, as something of, for and by the white middle class. They also assume if you're not writing about the white middle class, that only your ethnic group will be interested your work, and they know we don't read . . . My whole career has been struggling with this. It looks like the struggle will go on for at least another four years. My detective novel will remain unpublished. Oh well, I have sci-fi guerrilla/bandido stuff to do.

Manuel Ramos said...

Ernest - your struggle has been mine. I've had the same experience. Some things just won't go away. We talked about these things in early La Bloga posts and we continue to have similar conversations. Sometimes I think all I can do is write and wait for something to happen.

msedano said...

Lucha Corpi writes in her book burner memoir how gente, women in particular, discouraged her mystery writing based on their view that people, mujeres specifically, do not read detective fiction. Yet, it's a big part of the market. My library has a shelf for new books, a separate shelf for new mystery books.

Manuel Ramos said...

Em -- As you know, crime fiction is very popular, worldwide. The gente that discouraged Lucha from writing detective stories were so wrong,as she proved. Mario Acevedo on Facebook commented about the academic snobs who won't regard genre fiction as Latino Literature. These same snobs are the ones who envy genre book sales numbers. Thankfully, there are others who welcome such fiction under the umbrella of "Latino Lit".


There are still barriers that need to be smashed.