The Hispanic Reader will be on hiatus until July. Until then, explore some of the features of the blog:
Cuba declared its independence from Spain on May 20, 1902. The Caribbean country has had a turbulent history – making it a rich topic for its writers.
• Nicolás Guillén (1902-1989), once the national poet of Cuba, is known for his poems about social justice that he wrote in the 1920s and 1930s. The country’s winners of the Miguel de Cervantes Prize, given to Spanish-language writers, are playwright Alejo Carpentier, poet Dulce María Loynaz and novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante.
• Oscar Hijuelos, who was born in New York City to Cuban parents, became the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with his 1989 book The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, about two Cuban brothers who pursue their musical dreams in New York City. Hijuelos also wrote the novels Our House in the Last World and Mr. Ives’ Christmas and the memoir Thoughts Without Cigarettes.
• Two writers who were born in Havana and immigrated to the United States have used Cuba as a setting for their novels. Cristina García, left, showed one family’s life in Dreaming in Cuban and describes the effects of dictator Fidel Castro’s regime in the just released King of Cuba. The Castro government plays a key role in the characters’ lives of Elizabeth Huergo’s The Death of Fidel Pérez.
• California-raised children’s writer Margarita Engle draws on Cuba’s history for her free verse books, including The Lightning Dreamer, Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist, about Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda; The Surrender Tree, about a nurse who helps those while war rages in Cuba in 1896; and The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano.
• Carlos Eire was airlifted from Havana during Operation Pedro Pan, a CIA operation in which thousands of Cuban children were taken to the United States in the early 1960s – an experience he wrote about in Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy. His follow-up book was Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy.
Cristina García’s King of Cuba (Scribner) is a wickedly awesome book.
The novel features two aging Cubans who went to college together and took two separate paths in life. El Comandante, based on Fidel Castro, became the country’s dictator, and Goyo Herrera ended up living in Florida and yearns to assassinate the man – or at least see “that son of a bitch in Havana to die first.”
After all, like many Cubans, Goyo has been through a lot.
“His brother had died in the Bay of Pigs, his father had shot himself from grief, his first love had hung herself over that tyrant. Goyo’s hatred was incontestable, lavish beyond measure.”
While Goyo also has to deal with an unruly son and health problems, El Comandante has to face political prisoners and other assassination attempts.
The book, at 235 pages, is easy to zip through because of Garcia’s great voice, which captures the bitterness of Goyo, the arrogance of El Comandante and the agony of old age. The book features generous amounts of profanity and sex and descriptions of their bathroom problems and penises. (Yes, you read that right.)
Aside from the foibles of the two main characters, the novel is a serious book – featuring anecdotes by everyday Cubans describing their struggles to make a living. King of Cuba makes a good companion to the recently released The Death of Fidel Pérez by Elizabeth Huergo, which also showed the effects of life under Castro’s regime.
Despite all he and his fellow Cubans have been through, Goyo still loves his homeland, as displayed in this beautifully written passage:
“ … the skies were embossed with the same moon and stars. The older he got, the more vividly his memories of Cuba returned – its dialects, its minerals, its underground caves, its guajiros, its hummingbirds, its fish, its chaos, its peanut vendors, its Chinese lotteries, its cacophonies, its myths, its terrors. Maybe this was what happened when a man approached death; senility and longing conspired to overtake reality. Perhaps Cuba had become nothing but an imaginary place, unrelated to any truth.”
King of Cuba is a book that will leave you thinking and laughing at the same time.
Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.
On May 14, 1811, Paraguay declared its independence from Spain. The South American country’s turbulent history has made it a great topic for its writers.
• Augusto Roa Bastos (1917-2005) won the Miguel de Cervantes Prize, given to Spanish-language writers, for his body of work about life in his country. I, the Supreme depicts the life of dictator José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, while Son of Man covers the Chaco War. Bastos lived in exile from Paraguay for most of life. Read more about him in The Culture Trip and BBC News.
• Poet Josefina Pla (1903-1999) was born and raised in Spain, but she lived in Paraguay for much of her adult life. Another poet, Hérib Campos Cervera (1905-1953), became the leader of the “Generacion del 40” literary movement along with Bastos, Pla and others. The Spanish-language website Los Poetas features the works of Pla and Cervera.
• And check out American Lily Tuck’s novel The News from Paraguay, which shows the relationship between dictator Francisco Solano López and his Irish mistress in the 18oos. The book won the National Book Award in 2004. Tuck received such a great response from the country that she established the PEN/Edward and Lily Tuck Award for Paraguayan Literature to honor the country’s writers.
Sources: CIA Factbook, Encyclopedia Britannica, Amazon.com, The Culture Trip, BBC News, Wikipedia, Los-Poetas.com, National Book Foundation, NYCityWoman.com
May is Short Story Month. When it comes to this particular form of storytelling, Latino authors have produced some memorable and diverse collections.
Jorge Luis Borges: Considered a master of the short story, Borges’ works in the 1949 collection The Aleph will take you from the ancient times to the 20th century, from Argentina to the Middle East, from wars to personal revenge. One thing is certain – the ending will surprise you.
Sandra Cisneros: In her spectacular 1992 collection Women Hollering Creek: And Other Stories, Cisneros writes about everyday people’s struggles – a 11-year-old having a bad day at school; a woman in love with Emiliano Zapata; a group of people who pray to the Virgin de Guadalupe (a story that inspired a play) and, in the title story, a woman who compares her troubled life to La Llorona, the weeping woman.
Junot Díaz: Yunior de las Casas, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, is the main character in Díaz’s two collections, 1997′s Drown and 2012′s This Is How You Lose Her (and Díaz’s novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao). You may not always like Yunior’s bad language and misogynistic attitude, but you can’t stop reading about his ordeals with love and life.
Dagoberto Gilb and Manuel Gonzales: These two Tejanos have produced two wildly different collections of short stories in the last two years. Gilb’s 2011 Before the End, After the Beginning shows the gritty lives of men facing tough decisions. Gonzales’ 2013 The Miniature Wife and Other Stories features men dealing with unicorns, werewolves and zombies.
I first read Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead) when it came out in 2007 for a selfish reason – I was excited the main character, Oscar de León, had the same last name as me.
I reread it again this year and rediscovered the awesomeness of the book.
Most of the book is narrated by smart-ass Yunior de las Casas, who also appears in Díaz’s other books, Drown and This Is How You Lose Her. As with those books, Oscar Wao’s big strength is Díaz’s voice, in which the characters tell their stories as though they are talking to you over a beer.
The focus is on Oscar, the youngest son of a single mother who has immigrated from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey. He loves science fiction and hasn’t kissed a girl. His nerdiness may stem a family curse – or fukú – his family has been under since Oscar’s grandfather offended Rafael Trujillo, their homeland’s dictator.
“It seemed to Oscar that from the moment (his classmate) Maritza dumped him – Shazam! – his life started going down the tubes. Over the next couple of years he grew fatter and fatter. Early adolescence hit him especially hard, scrambling his face into nothing you could call cute, splotching his skin with zits, making him self-conscious; and his interest – in Genres! – which nobody has said boo about before, suddenly became synonymous with being a loser with a capital L. Couldn’t make friends for the life of him, too dorky, too shy, and (if the kids from his neighborhood are to be believed) too weird.”
Yunior goes on to describe Oscar’s further exploits as they room together in college. Just when Oscar may have found love, the curse comes back to haunt him.
The book put me through many emotions. I laughed out loud many times, especially during the opening pages. I nearly cried as I read the portion narrated by Lola, Oscar’s sister, as she recounts the struggles with her verbally abusive mother, Beli – although this passage, when she runs away from home, made me laugh:
“I kept waiting to run into my family posting up flyers of me on the boardwalk … but the closest I came to any of that was someone had put up for a cat they lost. That’s white people for you. They lost a cat and it’s an all-points bulletin, but we Dominicans, we lost a daughter and we might not even cancel our appointment at the salon.”
I also was fascinated by the sections about the lives of Beli and her parents in their native country – stuff I didn’t learn, as the book says, during “your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history.” Díaz weaves in other bits of Dominican history seamlessly – a minor character always seems to have a connection with someone in the Trujillo regime.
Some caveats: Some readers may be offended by the vulgar language and frequent use of the “N” word. Non-Spanish speakers may need a dictionary to keep up with the Spanish phrases. And many readers, such as myself, may not get the references to The Lord of the Rings (a series I’ve successfully avoided all my life).
But don’t let those things deter you from reading the book. Even if you don’t get the Gollum reference or a Spanish phrase, Oscar Wao is a brilliant book that successfully combines history, tragedy and humor.
Source: I check this book out of the library.
This book is part of my series of classic Latino novels. Up next: Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz.
May brings out plenty of books, ranging from historical biographies and fiction to new novels from Linda Rodriguez and Cristina García.
• Already out: Bolivar: American Liberator by Marie Arana, author of American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood, explores the life of one of South America’s most iconic figures. Arana talked about the book to NPR and The Huffington Post.
• In the novel The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico Garcia Lorca Ascends to Hell, Carlos Rojas imagines the Spanish poet in hell.
• May 7: Pura Belpré Award-winning author Duncan Tonatiuh uses immigration as an allegory for his children’s picture book, Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale. The book was featured in US News and World Report.
• May 30: Journalist Alfredo Corchado describes life in his native country in Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness.
• The nominees for the 2013 International Latino Book Awards have been announced. Nominated authors include Joy Castro, Leila Cobo, Reyna Grande, Linda Rodriguez and Gwendolyn Zepeda, as well as the anthology Count On Me: Tales of Sisterhood and Fierce Friendships.
• Alex Espinoza, author of The Five Acts of Diego León, talked to NPR about how Tomas Rivera’s book … And The Earth Did Not Devour Him influenced him. He also discussed his book to the Los Angeles Times.
• Eight Latino poets shared their favorite poems to NBC Latino.
• Got an ereader? Now you can download Sandra Cisneros’ books on there, according to Publishers Weekly.