Monday, June 18, 2018

Lisa Sánchez González interviews Frederick Luis Aldama about his new book, “Latino/a Children’s and Young Adult Writers on the Art of Storytelling”

Frederick Luis Aldama is the author of Latino/a Children’s and Young Adult Writers on the Art of Storytelling (University of Pittsburgh Press). This guest interview is by Lisa Sánchez González.

Lisa Sánchez González: In your introduction, you mention what I’m now in the habit of calling “decolonizing” public school curricula. You do a wonderful job reviewing the existing resources and scholarship on Latino literature for younger readers. Then you write: “Taken as a whole, this scholarship ultimately defends the inclusion of Latino literature (and diversity literature more generally) in K-12 curriculum and libraries, where social and political pressures continue to gate-keep, as with Arizona’s House Bill 2281, which banned the teaching of ethnic studies” in the state’s public schools. (5) Many of us share your sense of urgency in this project of curricular diversity, which seems so simple and easy to do. Arguably, the curriculum is the beating heart of institutional racism (and a host of other -isms). Yet there is so much resistance to including voices of subaltern communities in public schools—and I would add the college classroom too.

Do you see any way forward in this? What more can we as scholars and students do to ensure the next generation of school children and college students have ample and diverse windows and mirrors in their reading materials?

Frederick Luis Aldama: This is an incredibly important question, Lisa. Indeed, our interventions can and do happen on several levels. In the college-level classroom, we can assign Latinx children’s and young adult fiction for our students to read closely and carefully; and this, not just in terms of their educational merit: how they inform and educate about the complexity of being Latinx in terms of language, culture, history, social, economic and geographical environments, ancestral heritage and its evolution(s), as well as gender, sexuality, class, and so much more.

Yes, including Latinx children’s and young adult literature on our syllabi to edify (in the sense of the German bildung) is important. Just as it is important for us not to end their journey there. For literature (novel, short story, flash fiction, poem, drama, etc.) is not just information or representation of the world. Literature is art, and what we hold in our hands are a special kind of artifacts: they are intentional objects, stories imagined and materialized by specific means and with specific purposes that involve their recipients simultaneously in their special circumstances and their universal human nature. That is why literature is such a powerful engine of empathy, one that allows us to understand and enjoy all works of artistic writing from all over the world and in all times, from The Iliad to the latest Scandinavian crime novel or the latest “autofiction” by a Latinx author.

That is also why it is so important to also guide our students to understand how stories are built and function; how the authors as artists and the artists as writers work together to distill then represent in awe-inspiring ways the complexity of lived Latinx realities. How, for instance, artist Angela Dominguez works to geometrize the verbal story imagined by Monica Brown to give birth to a story that balances nicely the visuals with the textual, both incessantly acting as dynamic propellers in the Lola Levine series of stories; how Angela Dominguez visually exaggerates the characteristic morphology of children (big heads and small body frames) while including the phenotypic Latinx variation of brown skin and brown colored saucer eyes; and how Monica Brown develops the story in her carefully crafted prose and use of point of view in order to furnish Latinx children with a compelling narrative populated by characters that share physical, cultural and behavioral traits with them while bringing about in them feelings of empathy that are shared by readers generally, whatever their age.

What it means to be a Latinx teen in prejudiced, oft-homophobic, macho and heterosexist spaces variously at home, school, community, and nation is narrated in its quintessence in the fictional worlds brought into existence by Julia Alvarez, Malín Alegria, Ben Sáenz, Daniel José Older, Manny Martínez, Jenny Sanchez, Francisco Stork, among many others.  However, again, this aspect of reading is not the end of the journey for our students. We would want them also to understand how Alegria chooses a specific narrator slant and character filter to shape her Border Town series of books, and we would like them to grasp how Alvarez uses narrative tempo, tense, and mood to guide our thoughts and develop our feelings.  In the complex behavior of reading, with all its joy and rational absorption, both teachers and students shall aim at perceiving how a given Latinx author and artist thinks about the inner and the outer worlds, how they may be conceived not only in their immediately visible or subjective reality but also through the powerful lens of counterfactual reasoning, images and affects, thus making of the storytelling act a drawing out of the quintessence of our microcosm. To read thus is to embark on a passionate journey that can and does open eyes to issues of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality and disability—and pretty much sans the shackles of prejudice borne by family, community, and the mainstream doxa. 

That is, in the teaching of Latinx children’s and young adult fiction I want my students to read critically and to set in motion their limbic system to the tune of their deep seated lifeworld (what the Germans, notably Edmund Husserl, called the Lebenswelt or the preconceptual experience of the world as shared by humans in their particular circumstances in space and time.) Why? Because literature, all literature and all art is connected to both our understanding as well as our affective experience of our common world. Artists use a myriad of shaping devices to reach this goal, and Latinx artists are particularly inclined to apply those devices to the exploration of that “shared experience” or lifeworld as it manifests itself in our Latinx world and spreads into and out of the mainstream US. But to understand this more fully it is necessary to explore further and more deeply the concept of “culture”, which the literary and cultural critic Raymond Williams (notably in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society) characterized in 1976 as “one of the two or three most complicated” words in the English language.

Indeed, it is impossible to delve here through the complexities of concepts as central in today’s thought and action as are the key concepts of “culture,” “transculture” (as conceived by Fernando Ortiz, the great Cuban polymath), and “interculturality,” in addition to “world or global culture,” “ethnical culture” and “cultures by political divisions of the world,” “pop culture” and “highbrow culture,” “mass society” and “social alienation,”  etc. What we must retain here is that, complexities notwithstanding, culture is inseparable from lifeworld, and both are powerfully linked to the concept of worldview (Weltanschauung in German) and its everyday application. What we seek with our students is to identify these phenomena and the technical and artistic means Latinx authors use to convey them.

I used the same impulse and approach when my daughter Corina (now nearly 12) was learning how to read, guiding her from word to word (and image to image) as well as asking her questions about how the art would interact with the written text as well as questions about selection of words and point of view. As I did and continue to do with Corina, I want my students to think about how Latinx creators use their “will to style” to create extraordinary narratives. I want to guide them to understand that reading a Latinx children’s or young adult book is something special, and not ordinary; how the willful distillation and reconstruction of a slice of Latinx reality by one or several creators aim to provide the reader (and reader-viewer) with new perspectives, thoughts, and feelings about the world we inhabit.

There’s another important part that I’d like to mention here, Lisa. Often my students ask the same question: what can we do to make a difference in order to ensure that future generations of readers (of all walks of life) have more windows, mirrors, doors into what makes up our world literary canons.  I’m always very careful to avoid a prescriptivist stand in my writing and my teaching, so I am careful to not be prescriptive with my students on this score. There’s a reason that many if not most Latinx creators of children’s and young adult literature seek to affirm Latinx culture as well as to distill and reconstruct the quintessence of the everyday struggles of Latinxs living in a racist, homophobic and in many ways oppressive environment; this is especially the case in Latinx YA literature. Latinx YA authors seek to distill and reconstruct in aesthetic narrative form the injustices and exploitation that informs the everyday lives of Latinxs (especially women, children, and the elderly) because this is the barbarism of today. And the discussion of this aspect of our study usually spurs my students to ask: how might we help ensure a better tomorrow for Latinx literature, readers, and creators? I mention that we must take a stand together and with millions of others to defend our rights; that it’s necessary take a stand when we see libraries, schools, clinics, post offices, hospitals close in already under resourced neighborhoods.

The multiple-pronged work that I do in the classroom may be summarized thus: a) to attend to the slice of reality that our Latinx creators choose to explore, distil, and give shape to in their narratives; b) to provide the critical tools for understanding how these creators give unique shape to these narratives; c) to show how the narratives guide our thoughts and feelings; d) to understand that while Latinx children’s and young adult creators today may choose to give artistic shape to such and such a slice of Latinx reality, tomorrow the  target of the embodiment or quintessence they choose might be different; that is why Latinx creators must have total freedom in their choices concerning subject matter and techniques of expression; and, e) to explain in a declaratively nonprescriptive way how and why the present situation in the country calls for as many Latinx boots as possible on street protests and mobilizations to defend our rights and the rights of all other oppressed segments of our society.

Frederick Luis Aldama

LSG: Another “gatekeeping” issue you broach in the introduction concerns the publishing industry. Many of the authors you interviewed, such as Monica Brown (46), Lulu Delacre (64), and Meg Medina, share their concerns about tacit forms of racism in the publishing industry. As Meg Medina gracefully puts it:

[W]hen you don’t have a variety of voices in the editorial room, in the marketing room, in the acquisitions meeting, you run the risk of not knowing your own blind spots. You run the risk of publishing work that may be well intentioned but appropriated or inauthentic. Publishers need to figure out how to do the whole pipeline over, how to really encourage interns and programs and scholarships and how to open the literary arts to groups of people that they have not considered otherwise. (131)

I can’t tell you how many times I have been at conferences, especially when our Reforma colleagues are in the room, and participated in conversations about what a dire problem this is. Getting a book for young readers published is difficult for any writer, but it seems to be exponentially more difficult for diverse writers. The numbers cranked out annually by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center and other research hubs show a dismally small portion of books have authentic multicultural content. As you point out, though “Latinos are nearly 17.6 percent of the US population, we are only represented in about 2 percent of children’s books published annually.” (10) This is such an enormous problem with very high stakes for young people. Do you see any potential long-term solutions on the horizon?

FLA: The obvious solution, Lisa, and one that I mention in the book is to have more Latinxs in the industry: from acquiring librarians and book reviewers to editors and publishers. Chances are that the more proximate one is to Latinx experiences the more likely one will be to see and value the presence of Latinx realities in the artistic world building in Latinx children’s and young adult literature.  Of course, non-persons of color who choose to step out of identity comfort zones can also help here, but at the present moment these seem to be few and far between.  I recall the 2016, Lee and Low Books report on the children's book publishing industry with an overwhelming percentage of protagonists as white, straight, and able-bodied. And, we know well the history of gate-keeping with the big awards like the Caldecott and Newberry. While the Newbery Medal has been around since 1922 it was not until 2009 that a Latinx author received it; and, while the Caldecott was established in 1937, it’s only in the 21st century that less than a handful of Latinxs began picking up the award.

Perhaps our classrooms will produce librarians, reviewers, award committee members, editors, publishers who will change this rather monotone, sterile and monolithic landscape. What we do know for a fact, and this gets me back to a point I just made, Lisa, is that the only way we can have more Latinx writers, reviewers, librarians, editors, publishers, and the like is by mobilizing en masse for better working conditions and jobs (including for our undocumented hermanxs), for universal health care coverage, for better pensions—and for a much broader access to better education, where teachers are paid well and have access to educational resources: text books, technology, and the like. We can do a lot in our classrooms and in our scholarship. Now, to be completely candid, all proposals devoid of mobilization are a band-aide. The tried and true way of opening pipelines is to march in solidarity with boots on the street, to assemble as much people as possible for each specific goal, to mobilize all resources, including social media and all forms of artistic expression and representation.  We need more Latinx authors, artists, editors, reviewers, publishers, and the like. But to reach this goal we need a healthy social tissue, and for this, we need to mobilize for all rightful and freedom-oriented causes.

LSG: I admired the challenging question you asked Meg Medina about the negative representation of Latino men in her fiction (129-30). I confess I find this problem vexing. On the one hand, I appreciate and respect her choice (and the choice of other Latina authors) to focus on women characters and to focus on sexism. And, as she explains, in her lived experience, the men were largely absent. But on the other hand—and this by no means only concerns Medina—we have so few positive images of Latino men in Latino fiction! I’m not saying that all Latino characters have to be role models (that would be boring fiction) but it’s almost as if we have nothing but a trove of flat Latino characters—the uncaring father, the absent father, the abusive uncle, the abusive boyfriend, the thug, the addict, etc. Stereotyping always produces undynamic characters.

What do you make of this negative male image in Latino literature? Do you think it’s a symptom of what publishers expect from Latina creative writing, and therefore privilege those types of narratives in making decisions about what gets published? Or is there something else going on? How can we address this problem as literary critics without criticizing certain strains of feminism in fiction? (Personally, I find that difficult in my teaching too, but perhaps that’s because I have a lot of lived experience with loving, supportive, kind, and funny Latino men in my family, and I don’t see them in the books I read (and you know I read a lot of Latino literature). It’s a tough nut to crack!)

FLA: Gosh, this question of Latinx fiction and gender representation is one I remember puzzling over as an undergraduate at Berkeley, but in reverse form: the negative representation of Chicana/Latinas. I’d read Oscar Zeta Acosta’s Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo. Then I read the adverse reaction of some Chicana authors and critics to it, objecting to its negative representation of Chicanas. The same happened at that time when I was also reading Ishmael Reed. Today these issues have reared their ugly head once again; Junot Díaz is being called out for his misogynistic portrayals in his fiction. The flipside is that there are Latina authors who choose to focus on women characters and sexism, often creating not-so-nice (abusive, dead-beat, or absent) Latino characters.

As an undergraduate I found my way out of this paper-bag by upholding the commonsense doxa: that Latinx authors and creators generally are free to distill and recreate any and all slices of life. I would never think to tell Julia Alvarez, Meg Medina, Junot Díaz, Matt de La Peña, Daniel José Older, or any of the other authors in my book what they should or shouldn’t write about.  When creating the flash fictions that make up my Long Stories Cut Short: Fictions from the Borderlands I never had a censoring mechanism in my mind. I looked at things, I did my best to distill them according to my artistic inclinations and wishes, and I reconstructed all sorts of Latinx characters—some mean, racist, and exploitive; others innocent, vulnerable, and affirming. That’s how authors work.

Art cannot tolerate fetters of any kind. There must be total freedom in Latinx art. Only thus will we be able to create conditions in which Latinx authors and creators generally may willfully craft true and compelling characters—male or female, straight or queer, young or old. Only thus may they feel adventurous and avoid slipping into lazy clichés and stereotypes (think Dirty Girls Social Club), but on the contrary will recreate living, breathing fully dimensioned, morally complex characters that move us readers to see, think, and feel about the world in remarkable, new ways. This is the literature I want to spend time with. This is the literature by Latinx authors who spend their time, energy, and skill to shape the myriad of experiences of young Latinxs in the US that I want my students to spend their time with.

LSG: Finally, I really appreciate the way you frame the debate about why Latino literature matters as an art form. You suggest in the introduction that our literature is nothing less than what I would call a sovereign existential terrain. As you so gorgeously put it;

all the creators gathered in this book give rich and layered texture to characters and themes that touch on issues such as connection and phantom disconnection to the land, nation, and language; intergenerational hardship and healing; fractured and rebuilt selves and communities; biological and non-biological kinships; a social tissue ripped apart by the violence of racism and sexism; the power of art and story to heal; and situations of deep shame and trauma, along with wondrous affirmation and happiness. (20)

You know I’m working on a book about apocalyptic futurisms. In this, I’m beginning to think that Latinos are truly what Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos called the “cosmic race” (1925), though in ways I consider different from his. Our communities form the kind of “nonuniversalizing diversity” that Caribbean philosopher Edouard Glissant theorizes in his work, or a truly globalized identity. In this sense, in all our rich homogenized heterogeneity, we are the future of the human race. At this stage in my career—knowing what I know and having seen what I’ve seen—and given all the trauma of the present moment unfolding, this is how I conjure hope. It’s my philosophical antidote to genocide, which is the only term that fully describes the situation in Puerto Rico right now. Reading your book, I think we share a similar kind of hope; that meaningful art and social justice will prevail in the future, because they have to!
Would you please share your thoughts on where we, as literary critics committed to a hopeful future, should go from here? Is it enough to chronicle Latino literary history or do we need to envision some kind of epistemological shift, imagining a brand-new terrain—and terminology—for the future?

FLA: We are struggling through some pretty horrific times, Lisa.  I just read, too, that as a result of the lack of a systemic, proper response to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria hit, in addition to the massive deaths—and all largely due to a lack of adequate medical response as well as the FEMA granting the electrical reconstruction to a 2-person company out of Montana, among other factors—there is the permanent closure of over a third of the country’s schools.  Here on the mainland, we have the twin epidemics devastating our youth: gun violence and the collapse of public schooling. Teachers working in under-resourced schools across the country are working additional jobs and taking out loans just to get by. Our undocumented brothers and sisters exist in total paralysis, afraid to get on buses, walk to the grocery store, check in to health clinics, attend school. In 2017, Texas passed the draconian Senate Bill 4, banning any of its cities from declaring itself a sanctuary, handing out Class A misdemeanors (including schools and the like) for helping undocumented Latinxs, and allowing the police to check one’s immigration status. Trump regularly declares us to be animals and our children as criminals in the making—and this as families are ripped apart and children lost. The social tissue is ripping, and fast.

Lisa, there’s so much at stake here, including the pulling of the rug from under all of our work to increase access to education for Latinx youth.  In Puerto Rico, a third of the public schools have closed permanently. In Columbus, I see the same trend: closing of public schools, with charter schools taking their place.  And, the public schools that remain up and running often push-out and lock out Latinx youth.  On this basic level, how will we ever be able to clear a way for more Latinx authors if this horrible, homicidal trend continues.

I chose one very local solution. I created LASER/Latinx Space for Enrichment & Research that seeks to expand the presence of Latinxs in higher education. The Latinx population in Ohio has jumped more than 76% from 2000-2013. This is a young population. One way or another, this population is being pushed out of education.  LASER creates a robust net that sets this young Latinx demographic on a pathway to higher education. It seeks to create pathways for future generations of Latinxs in Ohio to realize their full potentialities as authors, artists, scientists, anything imaginable.

To relate this answer more squarely within this book on Latinx children’s and young adult literature, we need to clear the way in whatever fashion for future generations to become, if they should so choose, authors or artists; to become the next Julia Alvarez, Monica Brown, Meg Medina, René Colato Laínez, and Alex Sanchez. Our role as teachers, critics, scholars and fellow creators is to help open the way for these future generations.

I should mention that while in the past LASER has set its sights on bringing to the OSU community Latinx authors to read from and speak about their work, this fall LASER will launch the Latinx Book Club, with an especial focus on children’s and young adult fiction. This will largely be an online forum moderated by myself and LASER Coordinator, Carlos Kelly. The Latinx Book Club will provide books to read and topics to consider as well as guide online discussions that will likely touch on all aspects concerning life for us Latinxs in the US.

In addition to LASER, I’m about to launch a Latinx children’s and young adult tread-press series with University of Pittsburgh Press. I hope this will provide pathways for current and future Latinx creators. 

We need to continue to work hard to haul the garbage away from the road in order to clear a path that’s visible for Latinxs to write children’s and YA literature—or any kind of literature, art, you name it.  Our most creative and active role in the clearing of this garbage is to provide critical tools in our classrooms and, if one so chooses, to be also politically active in the world beyond academia. As we know from our past, this is our means for clearing paths and for holding back the tide of barbarism. These are our means for helping transform the world into a better place tomorrow.

[Lisa Sánchez González is a Professor in the Department of English at the University of Connecticut. She is the author of several books including Puerto Rican Folktales / Cuentos folclóricos puertorriqueños (2Leaf Press, 2014).]

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