Monday, July 28, 2014

INTERVIEW OF THELMA REYNA, POET LAUREATE & AUTHOR OF NEW BOOK

Today, author and blogger Maria Ferrer, host and editor of "Latina Book Club," published an interview of me regarding my recent literary activities:

  • Being selected as Poet Laureate of Altadena Library District in California. My term goes from 2014-2016, during which I'll edit an annual poetry anthology and promote local and regional poets in various literary events.
  • My new book (my 4th), Rising, Falling, All of Us, which I introduced in Lake Como, Italy at an international writers' conference this month. I conducted my "debut" reading from this book at the conference in front of an audience including Pulitzer Prize winners.
  • Taking workshops from Pulitzer Prize winning authors at this conference for an intensive week alongside published authors from throughout the United States, as well as one from Italy and another from Australia.
My thanks to Maria for her kindness in interviewing me. You can read the interview at this link:
Thank you for checking it out, for "liking" it on Maria's blog, and for re-tweeting it if you'd like.

I'll soon be updating this blog with information about new authors, established authors publishing new work, and upcoming events. I had fallen behind, and I apologize to my readers for this. Thanks for coming back, or for dropping by on your first visit here. I hope you'll become a fan and learn alongside us. Best wishes to you!

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Monday, July 01, 2013

THE BOOK REVIEW SERIES CONTINUES: MODERN LATINA AUTHORS

Welcome back, readers. I took some time off from blogging but have continued to read outstanding books by our American Latina/o authors and write book reviews. For new visitors to this blog, I've been focusing on modern American Latina authors who "broke the glass ceiling" in literature, whose books have won notable awards, whose works are often taught in literature classes in the United States, and who are often considered to be among our best.

The series--which I call "Pioneering Modern American Latina Authors"--reviews books published in the U.S. in the 20th century, from 1974-1996. These reviews include novels, poetry, nonfiction, and mixtures of these. Most of these books were "break-out" books, or books that brought recognition to the authors. Almost all of the books won the prestigious American Book Award, or at least one other award similarly important in the literary world on a national level.

So far, the ground-breaking books reviewed here were written by these authors, in this order: Nicholasa Mohr (1974); Estela Portillo Trambley (1975); Lorna Dee Cervantes (1981); Cherrie Moraga (1983); Sandra Cisneros (1984); and Pat Mora (1986). Included in today's post are three others: Gloria Anzaldua (1987); Ana Castillo (1987); and Alma Luz Villanueva (1989).

Many of these women authors were, or are, considered "feminists" because of their advocacy of women's rights and their speaking out against the discrimination against and devaluing of women in the U.S., especially Latina women. The writings are often taught in light of the women's rights movement in America, but continue to be universal in their depictions of Latina/o characters in our country. These books appeal to men and women across cultures and across the generations. Let's enjoy them again!

[All these book reviews were originally posted in a prior version in http://www.Latinopia.com , owned and hosted by the author, director, and filmmaker, Jesus Salvador Trevino.]
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BOOK REVIEW #7:

Borderlands Book CoverBORDERLANDS: LA FRONTERA, THE NEW MESTIZA
by Gloria Anzaldúa (1987)
203 pages
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This book is written by a deeply wounded soul, an author whose pain and grief are almost palpable from start to finish. Borderlands: La Frontera, the New Mestiza is a powerful, highly polished collection of cultural and personal essays, mini-memoirs, and poetry that prick and prod our emotions and makes us think deeply on all the borders Anzaldúa deftly describes to us.

It is a dual story of traumatic conflict told in parallel tracks: the borderland assaults on Mexican and indigenous peoples by the White culture throughout recorded history; and the cultural assaults that Anzaldúa, as a woman of color, and as a representative of women generally, endured in establishing her autonomy and worth as a human being in a chauvinistic world.

Born in Texas just north of the Mexican border, Gloria Anzaldúa was a sixth-generation American, “a border woman,” as she calls herself, someone never comfortable with the American culture but who was instead keenly bonded to her identities as Indian, Mexican, española, Chicana, Tejana, and mestiza. Her usage of code-switching throughout this book, as well as entire portions written in Spanish, reinforces this cultural split—between American and Mexican, English and Spanish primarily—that consumed and defined Anzaldúa till the day she died in 2004 at the age of 61.

Borders and Their Pain

“I have been straddling that tejas-Mexican border, and others, all my life,” she says in the Preface to her book. “It’s not a comfortable territory to live in, this place of contradictions. Hatred, anger and exploitation are the prominent features of this landscape.” Toward the end of the book, after we have seen the immensity of her cultural turbulence, she states in a poem: “To live in the Borderlands means you/…are carrying all [the] races on your back/ not knowing which side to turn to, run from;/….you are at home, a stranger,/…you are wounded, lost in action/ dead, fighting back” (p. 194).

Added to these complex mixtures of identities are Anzaldúa’s lesbianism and—according to some reports, bisexuality—as well as her staunch rejection of male dominance. Anzaldúa writes: “I made the choice to be queer (for some it is genetically inherent)” (p. 19, Anzaldua’s emphasis).” The book examines these sexual and gender conflicts at length. Anzaldúa’s poem, “Creature of Darkness,” describes the personal yet universal battles that rage inside her as a “deep place/ this underplace/ this grieving place/ getting heavier and heavier/ sleeping by day creeping out at night….I want not to think/ that stirs up the pain/ opens the wound” (p. 186).

A rebel since early childhood, Anzaldúa straddled symbolic borders even within her family, as she renounced expectations handed down through generations of women: that she do domestic chores instead of studying, that she marry and demur to her husband and males in general, that she live and work in Texas. Instead, she earned college degrees, remained single and childless, and became the first person in her family’s history “to leave home so I could find myself, find my own intrinsic nature buried under the personality that had been imposed on me” (p. 16). She lived life on her own terms, moving to California and the east coast, but paid dearly with rejection by her mother and others.

Racial Conflicts: Natives vs. Encroachers

Borderlands is heavy on history. It recounts how the ancient ancestors of Mexicans and Texans—the Cochise, Aztecs, and others—peopled the Southwest for centuries, only to have White “invaders” steal their lands, terrorize, expel and defeat the native peoples, and institute oppression that continues to this day. The border fences built by Whites between the United States and Mexico starkly symbolize the separation of races and relegation of Mexicans to undesirable, inferior status. Anzaldúa describes the border as “una herida abierta (an open wound) where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds” (p. 3).

The theft of lands is personal to Anzaldúa, since her own family and neighbors, who had owned ranches in the Rio Grande Valley for many generations, lost theirs to greedy White encroachers. Anzaldúa decries the gringos’ “fiction of white superiority” (p. 7) and recounts how her people were “jerked out by the roots, truncated, disemboweled, dispossessed, and separated from our identity and our history” (p. 8). In the poem, “We Call Them Greasers” (p. 134), she describes the brutal rape of a Mexican tejano rancher’s wife by a White man who stole the ranch, assaulted the woman in front of her husband, brutally killed her, then lynched her husband.

Anzaldúa’s clear-eyed but mournful retelling of her antecedents’ history represents a deep cultural trauma to her and the Tejanos, who have never recovered their sense of belonging in their own ancestral lands. Her inability to identify as “American” is unquestionably linked to this. In the poem “Don’t Give In, Chicanita,” Anzaldúa says: “yes, they’ve taken our lands./ Not even the cemetery is ours now…./ where they buried your great-great-grandfather./ Hard times like fodder we carry/ with curved backs we walk…./ But they will never take [our] pride/ or our Indian woman’s spirit” (p. 202). The author’s voice is grieving but defiant.

Being “Queer,” and Other Inner Struggles

Anzaldúa’s exploration of gender and the subjugation of women may seem like a tired topic in the 21st century; but in 1987, iniquities against women were more pronounced, and Latina voices writing against this were rare. The author discusses female archetypes familiar to Latinas—La Malinche, Coatlique, La Virgen de Guadalupe, and La Llorona—and she lashes out against being boxed into any of these or any other stereotypes by chauvinistic expectations of men and Mexican tradition.

Anzaldúa also discusses the loss of native spirituality among her people and others of color. She takes organized religion to task, especially the Catholic Church, as vehicles of oppression, primarily toward women, and as denouncers of any spirituality besides their own ideology. She also decries “machismo” as representing men’s fear of tenderness and their excuse to abuse and demean women. Mostly, however, Anzaldúa delves into her own fears of inadequacy, of not being “normal.”

Many other writers have explored these issues, as well as the ostracism of homosexuals and “others”—but hardly anyone has done this more eloquently, more passionately, and with greater poignancy and genuine pain than Anzaldúa does. She is a complex woman who lived these subjugations and marginalizations, beginning her life with medical and physical deformities, skin dark like an Indian’s, and culminating in her decision to be “queer” (lesbian).

The New Mestiza

The 25 years that have passed since this book’s publication have not diminished its relevance. This is a sad statement to make, but the issues Anzaldúa rails against are still raw and present, especially for contemporary women. In her lengthy discussion of “the new mestiza,” the author depicts this racially mixed woman (part Indian, part Hispanic), her hero and savior-to-be, thus:

“The new mestiza copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity….She learns to juggle cultures. She…operates in a pluralistic mode….The future depends on the breaking down of paradigms,…the straddling of two or more cultures. By creating a new mythos—that is, a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves, and the ways we behave—la mestiza creates a new consciousness” (p. 80). This description sounds like the multi-tasking career woman of today.

The new mestiza, through centuries of cross-breeding, has the best of many different genes, is stronger, and thus better able to survive. Anzaldúa confers her surest bets for a more enlightened, progressive society on this Latina, who can effectively navigate different cultural environments and who “could, in our best hopes, bring us to the end of rape, of violence, of war” (p. 80).

Anzaldúa’s Place in Literary History

Better-known as the co-editor of the ground-breaking This Bridge Called My Back : Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981), (with another pioneering Latina author, Cherrié Moraga, previously profiled in this series) Gloria Anzaldúa was one of the first feminist, lesbian Latina authors published in the 20th century. This Bridge won the prestigious Before Columbus American Book Award in 1986. Borderlands was named one of the best 38 books in 1987 and one of the 100 Best Books of the Century by three prominent literary organizations. Anzaldúa also won other awards for her literary accomplishments.

A university professor on the east and west coast, Anzaldúa influenced generations of young thinkers for over 30 years and contributed significantly to academic theories regarding Chicanos, feminism, homosexuality, racism, and multiculturalism, especially regarding mestizaje, or the state of thinking in dualistic rather than unitary terms due to mixed heritage. She was awarded a doctoral degree posthumously by the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 2005.

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BOOK REVIEW #8
 
Mix Letters coverThe Mixquiahuala Letters
by Ana Castillo (1986)
138 pages

Ana CAstillo headshotANA CASTILLO is one of those rare authors who makes a name for herself across genres. She has published well-received poetry, short stories, essays, novels, a play, a children’s book, and a memoir. She defies categorization primarily because of the high quality of her work, with admirers in each genre claiming her for their category above all others.

But the truth is, despite poetry being her first love—with her first publication being a collection of her poems in 1977—Castillo’s fame has been cemented more by her novels than by any other work she has done. She was asked by an interviewer once how she saw herself: “As a fiction writer who also writes poems? A novelist or a short story writer?…an essayist who writes plays?” She replied simply: “Writer.” Yet it was her first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters, which catapulted her onto the literary radar. It received the prestigious American Book Award in 1987 and set Castillo on her path to fame.

The book is an epistolary novel (one told through letters), with the letters all written by one of its two protagonists. The letter-writer, Teresa, is a poet, an American Latina of Mayan descent, a young woman accustomed to discrimination based on her dark skin, slanted eyes, and humble roots. The recipient of her letters is Alicia, a pale, evanescent woman of mixed heritage, with Spanish gypsy blood in her, but basically considered an Anglo from a privileged background. Alicia is an artist who loses herself in her watercolors, other artwork, numerous doomed love affairs, and long stretches of silence and withdrawal in which she sometimes appears disembodied.

Plot and Characters

The two women are 20 years old when they meet in Mexico City in a summer cultural study program sponsored by an American group. The six women in the program are basically “California blonds and eastern WASP’s, instructors who didn’t speak Spanish” (p. 24), so Teresa—with her “Indian marked face, fluent use of the language, undeniably Spanish name” (p. 25)—soon absconds and chooses to absorb and learn Mexico on her own. Alicia, immediately attracted to Teresa’s earthiness, goes with her. The two vagabonds, low on cash but high on living life on their own terms, traverse Mexico, off the proverbial beaten path, to savor the rusticity and authenticity of the nation’s past and its unpredictable present.

Their encounters in that summer of wanderlust might prick the sensibilities of conservative readers, especially mothers, as the two young women are verbally and physically accosted, sexually harassed, almost raped, robbed, and humiliated. Yet Teresa and Alicia manage to hang on to their dignity, starting with a memorable weekend in Mixquiahuala, an ancient village of Toltec ruins, no street lighting, lamb barbecues, and pushy men who promise marriage in exchange for sex. The young women live meagerly among peasants and native women washing clothes in streams, fishermen battling elements, and a motley crew of men indistinguishable one from the other for their ingrained belief in female inferiority. Yet the elemental aspect of life in untouched nature, the kindness and generosity of strangers, the fluidity of time, the solitude and introspection that their journeying evokes, feed the women’s spirits sufficiently to keep them trekking despite hardships.

Teresa and Alicia return to their colleges and turbulent lives after that first summer, Teresa facing a disastrous marriage and Alicia a tormented love affair. Throughout the decade spanned by The Mixquiahuala Letters, the women stay in contact with one another as they battle societal expectations they cannot accept and struggle to find a balance between what’s in their hearts and what the world dictates they must be. Teresa describes it thus:

“I was no longer prepared to face a mundane life of need and resentment, accept monogamous commitments and honor patriarchal traditions, and wanted to be rid of the husband’s guiding hand, holidays with family and in-laws, led by a contradicting God, society, road and street signs, and, most of all, my poverty.” (pp. 28-29)

The novel is not linear. Though the letters are presented in a semblance of chronology, from 1-40, they swoop in and out of time, taking the women from Mexico to Chicago to California and New York, and back to all these places again, from lover to lover, from crisis to crisis, with highs and lows. The women travel to Mexico again a year after their first trek, with Mexico seemingly their touchstone as to who they really are, and how they are fully authentic with one another only in that ancient land, though Mexico is a “country where relationships were never clear and straightforward but a tangle of contradictions and hypocrisies.” (p. 60) Ultimately, these contradictions color these women’s friendship as well.

The women are constant, though antithetical to one another. They complement one another: the yin and yang, strength and frailty, with Teresa strong, defiant, coarse, courageous; and Alicia “mystical….the ocean, immense and horizontal, your hair the tide that came in to meet the shore,” as Teresa described her. (p. 27) It is a friendship deeper than marriage, stronger than blood, yet more painful than star-crossed lovers. Teresa and Alicia are an odd couple embodying the dynamic tension that prevails, ironically, even in a relationship of equals.

Themes and Historical Significance of the Book

The American feminist movement was still toddling when this book was published in 1986. Though readers today, especially Latinas, might feel that the themes of male oppression and suffocating Mexican traditions are passé, we must keep two things in mind: (1) oppression still exists, and (2) it’s a matter of degree. When Castillo’s book emerged, the issues the author railed against were more immediate and raw. Still, we are sometimes amazed at the relevance today of Castillo’s comments in her book, such as:

“When a woman entered the threshold of intimacy with a man [marriage], she left the companions of her sex without looking back. Her needs had to be sustained by him. If not, she was to keep her emptiness to herself.” (p. 35)

“Love…describes in one syllable all the humiliation that one is born to and pressed upon to surrender to a man.” (p. 117)

“I had left [my husband] because I thought I was fighting a society in which men and women entangled their relationships with untruths.” (p. 133)

Throughout the novel, Teresa and Alicia, but especially Teresa, fight to maintain their humanity, their uniqueness as women, apart from men in their lives. Teresa aborts her baby rather than be under the thumb of her oppressive lover and risk never being rid of him. Alicia’s resistance to the parasitic clinging of another lover ends with his suicide. Both women are traumatized by these events, but the episodes were inevitable in the toxic ambience of their relationships. When this book was published, Castillo was hailed as a feminist, and her book continues to be read in women’s studies classes throughout the U.S.

Castillo’s Inspiration and Tribute to “the Master”

The book was inspired by the brilliant Argentinian author, Julio Cortázar, who wrote the 1963 “interactive novel” Rayuela (Hopscotch), an experimental 500+ page masterpiece whose chapters and sections can be read in different sequences for different effects and interpretations. Cortázar’s book was a tour de force, with its integration of stream of consciousness, philosophy, music, art, politics, and existential threads questioning “the conundrum of consciousness,” as one reviewer has called it. Cortázar’s cast of characters spanned two continents, with most of the interactions set in Paris and Buenos Aires. It is often considered an intellectually heavy, pioneering novel.

Castillo’s novel, on the other hand, is more modest in scope. It centers primarily on the two women, and their “conundrum” is one of sexual/gender identity amidst misogyny and social barriers. Teresa and Alicia are predictable in the traps they fall into: pushing back against machismo, yet succumbing again and again to the same brand of male—entitled, arrogant, dismissive toward women. One wonders when each woman will learn from past errors and make better choices. But perhaps Castillo’s message in 1986 was that there are no men available outside this chauvinistic mold.

At times, Castillo’s epistolary structure is too contrived, too stilted to be believable, and some letters, such as Letter 30, interminably recounts the meeting between Alicia and her last lover, something which the letter’s recipient (Alicia) of course knew already. Serving as the driver of the novel’s plot, the letters must, of course, provide details and conversations. Sometimes this seems authentic (e.g., Letter 39), primarily when Teresa, the letter-writer, focuses on her own events rather than recounting what Alicia had experienced.

Like Hopscotch, Castillo’s novel can be read as the author organized the chapters, or the reader chooses to sequence the chapters, with the author’s suggestions. Another similarity in the two works is the vivid language. Castillo’s birth as a poet is clear in her descriptions, be they images of feelings, conflicts, events, or landscape. Her language is often powerful, as in Teresa’s description of her abortion: “I erupted, a volcano of hot wine, soft membrane, tissue, undefined nerves, sightless eyes, a miniscule, pounding heart, sightless flesh, all sucked out in torn, mutilated pieces. How long does death take? My drugged head was heavy and oblivious to time.” (p. 114) Some of the letters are actually poems.

Castillo’s Legacy

Born in Chicago in 1953, Ana Castillo continues to be an active, highly influential writer. She lives in New Mexico after having resided in California, New York, and other states. She has published 7 novels, including the famed So Far From God (1993), and The Guardians (2007); a short story collection, Loverboys (1996); 6 volumes of poetry, including Women Are Not Roses (1984); a play, “Psst…I Have Something to Tell You, Mi Amor”; and a seminal nonfiction work, Massacre of the Dreamers (1994), which she created in lieu of a dissertation for her Ph.D. degree.

Of her future, Castillo said in an interview in 2008: “Our generation [the Baby Boomers] fought the establishment and saw us through extraordinary times. We most assuredly won’t simply go off into the good night without a whimper….So, as a writer, I continue to portray unprecedented literary characters, independent, fiery Latinas….I am also able to write cross-generationally.”
It is precisely these attributes that maintain Ana Castillo in the top tier of American authors today and will hopefully continue to do so for many more generations. Visit her website at www.anacastillo.com .
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Book Review #9
 
The Ultravioletn SKy book coverTHE ULTRAVIOLET SKY
by Alma Luz Villanueva (1989)
379 pages
From the outset, defiance runs through this book—not like a thread, but like a surging river. It is a stubborn defiance, rock-hard and take-no-prisoners style. It’s also vulnerable, collapsing in tears and castigations. It’s a defiance that stabs us with discomfort, that makes us see ourselves in painful recognition, or that makes us weep to remember the times we wrestled with those demons, too. It is a defiance built of granite and wolves, built of clouds and angels. But it is a defiance that has no choice but to exist.

Alma VillanuevaWhat else could we expect of Alma Luz Villanueva, one of the first prominent Latina feminist authors in the U.S.? A poet, essayist, and short fiction writer as well as a novelist, Villanueva has devoted her artistic life to exploring and exposing the ugly terrain of misogyny, of misguided oppression and abuse of women, of the destruction of our planet by militaristic patriarchies, the violence of war, and the obliteration of spirituality that springs from connection to natural life and the forces of the earth. Villanueva is the voice of the voiceless, and defiance in the face of destructive forces is her weapon.

Rosa, the Novel’s Hero, and Her Battles

When we first meet Rosa Luján, we recognize her immediately as a woman who will not be subjugated. She’s arguing bitterly with her husband Julio regarding their infant daughter, car repairs, schedules, and typical trivia that unhappy couples often quarrel about. The first few dozen pages of the novel are saturated with her fury and defiance against Julio’s attempts to impose his will upon her. Her stubborn resistance is, in fact, too heavy for a contemporary reader, with Rosa baring her teeth like an animal, clutching a knife, threatening her reclining husband with a sharp fireplace poker, and risking her safety by sleeping outdoors late at night when even she realizes it’s dangerous. Whatever she can do to resist Julio, to make him squirm, to show him that he doesn’t own her, she does. In the beginning, being sympathetic toward Rosa is a bit difficult. The reader wonders if she can tone it down, if she can be less domineering herself, less preachy about female oppression and machismo, and if she can get that gigantic chip off her shoulder.

But then we learn more about this 35-year-old artist, teacher, and mother of a teenage son. We learn that she was abandoned by her mother as a young child and raised by an aunt and grandmother. We learn that Rosa became pregnant as a young teen, that she is half-German and regrets this heritage because of what Germans did to humanity, that she raised her son Sean alone and has struggled mightily to survive. All she has known is barriers and male expectations that she bow down to stereotypical roles and that she—especially as a Latina—must accept her status in life. We see how her aunt and grandmother were trapped thus in servitude to the dominant men in their lives.

Rosa describes the “Mexican Man,” or “M.M.,” (p. 243) as she sometimes jokingly refers to him, an archetype she has vowed never to marry: “He’s the man I’ve seen women make the endless piles of tortillas for, as he grows fat and stupid while his brain shrinks to fit his narrow mind that dictates boys are better than girls, boys become men, girls become wives, men have moments of freedom, release, women count the tortillas and the children. Men have affairs, women become whores. Puta. La Puta. You know, that word used to send shivers down my spine.” Rosa tells her husband about M.M. and why she fights for her freedom and independence. Julio is no M.M., but he often seethes against her stubbornness to do things as her soul dictates, such as when she leaves him to go live alone in the mountains.

The Mountains and Their Symbolism

Rosa’s spirituality and connectedness to nature, to Earth, is a theme throughout this book. She is part Yaqui and also knows about the history of the ancient Mexican people: their gods and goddesses, especially “the infinite, ever-present Quetzalpetlatl,” whom she often invokes. Rosa’s dreams elucidate many of her struggles, with goddesses and animals often the source of revelations for her waking life. It is in a dream that Rosa “sees” a cabin in a remote part of the mountains six hours away, surrounded by wolves and other creatures. Rosa seeks that mountain, that cabin, and finds it.

She realizes that she must sever all tethers to status quo: leave Julio, leave the city, leave the trappings of civilization to find her inner core, to establish her independence fully, to allow her art to flourish unbounded. She wants this need to be understood and accepted by people close to her—her husband, son, friends—and is disappointed when their concerns for her safety and their ties to stereotypes trump their embracing of her journey. But her power struggles with Julio, his jealous possessiveness of her, especially regarding her platonic male friends, overwhelms her spirit, and she buys the cabin and moves alone to the mountain.

She wonders: “If he loves me, why does he continue to insist that I relent and relent and relent. As though that would be proof that I love him. This is why people kill each other….This is why nations war.” (p. 286) But Julio—a Vietnam War veteran often tormented by his experiences, a Nativist with Mayan roots, and a polished professional—is yet too bound by his culture to understand Rosa’s rebellion and support her quest. Though he, as well as Sean and Rosa’s friends, visit her at the cabin, maintaining their ties to her, each of their visits is a battle to make Rosa return home. Rosa feels alone and fights even harder to prove them wrong.

Rosa’s Evolution

Some of the most important events in Rosa’s evolution as an independent human being occur in the mountains: giving birth to her and Julio’s unplanned baby, raising her alone, having her first extramarital affair after she and Julio agreed to an open marriage while Rosa decides whether or not to return to him. But most important: Rosa’s art flourishes, and the title of the novel comes into play: Rosa’s most cherished painting, one in which the exact color of a lilac sky long eluded her, is completed, with “an ultraviolet sky.” In a flash of insight, Rosa says: “That’s the color of the lilac sky. That’s why I can’t see it. I’ll never be able to see it. I can only witness what it does. The way it births us, the way it kills us…the ultraviolet light, like love.” (p. 378)

One particular incident captures Rosa’s soul and view of life. While her neighbor and son are visiting her one day, an immense hawk accidentally flies against a window of her cabin. Stunned, the hawk lies on the ground, and Rosa instinctively goes toward it. Both men shout at her to stop, saying the hawk’s talons will rip her apart. Still, Rosa slowly picks up the hawk, its talons jabbing against her palms, and she speaks soothingly to it, carrying it gently to a hollowed stump, where the hawk slowly gathers itself, looks at Rosa, and flies away. Later, Rosa admits she had been afraid, “but I had to pick him up anyway.” (p. 368) Rosa’s life has been a continuous battle against her own fears as well as dangers, but it is a fight she faces, with a faith in the life forces of nature and her own instincts.

The Importance of this Novel and Villanueva

Besides Julio and Sean, almost all the male characters in this book hew the line regarding the subjugation, overt or subtle, of women: the husbands and lovers of her friends, the men who live in the remote mountains near Rosa, and even the doctor charged with saving Rosa’s premature baby’s life and Rosa herself. Rosa therefore has ample, recurrent confirmation of how women must fight for their identities and self-esteem. The female characters, with few exceptions, are connected to one another through their love of nature, of being together in natural elements, and believing in their dreams.

The sociopolitical flailings against male chauvinism in this book thus sound overwrought at times. But readers must read Villanueva’s words in their historical context: The modern American feminist movement was relatively young, and the cultural shifts that have enabled many attitudinal and social changes regarding women at this point were hardly in sight in 1988. Also, Latinas openly embraced the feminist movement later than their non-Latina sisters, so the issues Rosa faces were raw and hurtful ones when this book was published. A winner of the prestigious American Book Award in 1989, The Ultraviolet Sky is still considered significant in feminist fiction and is often deemed Villanueva’s most popular work.

Alma Luz Villanueva’s focus in almost all her writings has been giving women a voice, shining the spotlight on “poverty, the mistreatment of women…painful issues in women’s lives, such as drug abuse, rape, incest, prostitution, and murder.” (p. 1607, Norton Anthology of Latino Literature) Having had a traumatic childhood and highly difficult, turbulent adolescence herself, Villanueva often interweaves autobiographical elements into her poems, stories, and novels. She writes from the heart because her heart has experienced much of what she describes.

Villanueva’s body of work includes seven collections of poetry, with her most recent, Soft Chaos, published in 2008; one short story collection, Weeping Woman: La Llorona and Other Stories (1994); and three novels, with The Ultraviolet Sky being her first. Prior to this award-winning book, Villanueva, first and foremost a poet, had published four of her poetry books. Testimony to the pre-eminence of poetry in Villanueva’s arsenal of talents is the poetic language that is often interwoven into the descriptions in The Ultraviolet Sky. When we read this novel, we know we are in the presence of a mighty poetic soul.

Alma Luz Villanueva has taught in various colleges and universities, the latest one being Antioch University in Los Angeles. Villanueva has won numerous other literary awards, including the PEN Oakland fiction award; the Latino Literature Prize, New York; the Best American Poetry Award; and the 1976-1977 Chicano/Latino Literary Prize. Her website is http://www.almaluzvillanueva.com/

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Sunday, October 07, 2012

BOOKS #5 AND #6 IN MY BOOK REVIEW SERIES

Series Continues with a Novelist and a Poet

For those of you new to my blog:  In March 2012,  I began writing a series of reviews of famous books written by modern American Latinas. The series was designed for Jesus Trevino's outstanding blog, Latinopia (www.Latinopia.com). With Jesus' permission, the reviews are then cross-posted here. We call the series "BOOK REVIEWS: MODERN AMERICAN LATINAS' ICONIC BOOKS."

These books are all award-winning, trailblazing books written in the 20th century, starting in 1974 and continuing into 1996. There will be a total of 12 reviews. The selected authors are highly regarded and have won numerous honors, most of them being recipients of the vaunted American Book Award, a prestigious prize. The books I review are considered to be modern-day classics in ethnic and American literature, many of them taught in schools across America. These Latina authors were pioneers in various ways, and they serve as role models, inspirers, and standard-bearers for millions of people across our nation and in many parts of the world.

On this blog you can read the first four of my reviews. These are as follows:
  • Nilda, by Nicholasa Mohr (published in 1974)
  • Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings, by Estela Portillo (1975)
  • Emplumada, by Lorna Dee Cervantes (1981)
  • Loving in the War Years, by Cherrie Moraga (1983).
Numbers #5 and #6 highlight a Chicago writer now living in Texas (Sandra Cisneros, author of the breakthrough novel, House on Mango Street) and Pat Mora, an El Paso native now living in New Mexico and the author of Borders.

Please feel free to leave a comment after each review. I hope you'll be stirred to read the books featured in this series and to learn more about each of these authors. (Books are available through your favorite bookseller or amazon.com). Also, please spread the word to your friends, colleagues, classmates, and neighbors about these inspirational women. Tweet, post to Facebook, or use any other social media...or good, old-fashioned conversations to bring attention to our authors.
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BOOK REVIEW #5:
THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET, by Sandra Cisneros

“La Sandra,” as Sandra Cisneros has sometimes been called by her fans, is perhaps the most famous American Latina writer alive today and possibly of all time. Her books have been translated internationally and are taught in grade schools and universities across our nation. As a multiple award-winner in her long, distinguished career, Cisneros has had a tremendous influence on the contemporary renaissance and evolution of Chicano/Latino literature in the United States.

Born in Chicago in 1954, Cisneros created stories and poems since elementary school. She knew early on that she wanted to be a writer and, as a young graduate student in the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the late 1970’s, already had a vision for her work: “to write stories that ignore borders between genres, between written and spoken, between highbrow literature and children’s nursery rhymes, between New York and the imaginary [Mexican] village of Macondo, between the U.S. and Mexico.”

This she wrote in her eloquent “Introduction” to the 25th anniversary edition of her break-out classic, The House on Mango Street. And this—all of this—she accomplished beautifully in her book.

A Book ‘Between Genres’

This book is difficult to categorize. It’s called a novel, but it’s a collection of tiny vignettes, many of them barely a page long, most of them a snapshot of someone who lives on Mango Street, someone whom the book’s narrator, young Esperanza Cordero, knows directly or indirectly. Mango Street is in a poor section of Chicago (modeled after Bucktown pre-gentrification, according to Cisneros). The houses are cramped and rundown, with peeling paint and little or no yards. The children play on porches and streets, amidst a motley crew of poignant, disgusting, endearing, and enigmatic neighbors and storekeepers who run the gamut from drunken bums to nuns.

Unlike a novel, the book does not have a plot in the traditional sense. The thread that holds this book together is the recurrence of various characters—most of them Esperanza’s peers and family—from section to section, though many characters appear only once. Cisneros calls this “story cycles” and purposely chose “little stories...connected to each other.” Each “chapter” (not traditional chapters either, but “a little story” instead) can be read as a stand-alone. The vignette may be as simple as a child’s description of clouds, or as complex as girls mocking a dying woman.

Cisneros states in her book’s Introduction that she wants to make her writing accessible to all, wants her readers to see themselves in her writing. The House on Mango Street is formatted to be read in one or two sittings and is something that Latinos/as can indeed relate to. It deals with issues at the heart of many adolescents’ evolution—gender roles, family dynamics, biculturalism, sexual identity, social responsibility, prejudice, domestic abuse, and poverty. The narrator, Esperanza, in the space of one year, learns about these issues either personally or through the suffering of friends and neighbors on Mango Street.

The Simple Complexity of People

Like a deft artist, Cisneros paints pictures of her characters in tight, economical brushstrokes. She says little about them in restrained, simple language, and picks unobtrusive details to show us their essence. Darius the fool chases girls with firecrackers and sees God in cloud formations. Marin sells Avon, wears tons of makeup, and dances alone under the streetlights when her family goes to bed.

There’s Aunt Lupe, crippled and bedridden from a diving accident or a fall (nobody knows), who lives an abysmal life lying limp, head tossed back, blind, waiting to die, yet nurturing Esperanza’s writing ambitions. Through Lupe, Esperanza learns about compassion and the frailty of life.

The many characters who appear only once are amazingly memorable. Often females young and old, they endure indignities and abuse at the hands of males who restrict and dominate them. Yet Cisneros describes these females as an unbiased journalist would, without judgment or anger.

We see Esperanza’s Mexican great-grandmother, her namesake, only long enough to know she was kidnapped as a young girl and forced into marriage, living out her life in bitterness toward her husband, who squelched her individuality and potential. She serves the young Esperanza as a symbol of what not to be.

Then there’s Esperanza’s incredibly beautiful classmate, Sally, who is beaten cruelly by a domineering father who fears she’ll run away like his sisters did long ago. After a while, Sally, stoic despite her bruises, defiantly engages in sex, knowing her father’s rage awaits her. She chooses a desolate path as an escape, teaching Esperanza the urgency of forging her own identity before it’s too late.

The Primacy of Poetry

Those who didn’t know that poetry was a first love of Cisneros would guess this from the book’s imagery. The simplest things are endowed with little grace notes that surprise us, for Cisneros’ language is not what we ourselves would have invoked. Thus, the house on Mango Street has “windows so small, you’d think they were holding their breath.” Neighbor girls have “popsicle lips” and laughter “like shy ice cream bells.” A neighbor woman’s feet are described as “plump and polite, descended like white pigeons from the sea of pillow.”

But the most poetic portion of the book, near its end, is the chapter titled “Four Skinny Trees,” which is a prose poem from start to finish that symbolizes what Esperanza is and plans to become. A young woman about to embark on her own future, Esperanza describes “the four raggedy excuses planted by the city” thus: “Their strength is secret. They send ferocious roots beneath the ground. They...grow down and grab the earth between their hairy toes and bite the sky with violent teeth and never quit their anger. This is how they keep.” The young girl’s final analysis of the trees is a description of her own resolve to follow her dreams and succeed: “Four who grew despite concrete. Four who reach and do not forget to reach.”

Cisneros’ Place in Latina Literature

As this series about pioneering, modern-day American Latina authors has shown, Cisneros was not the first to be published. She was not the first to receive a coveted literary award. She was not the first to be acknowledged by non-Latinos as a writer whose work cut across cultural groups. Other Latinas whose books have been reviewed here—Nicholasa Mohr, Estela Portillo, Lorna Dee Cervantes, and Cherrié Moraga—beat Cisneros to those accomplishments.

But Sandra Cisneros was the first modern American Latina to be published by a major mainstream publisher. She is thus often credited with opening the door to other Latina/o authors’ acceptance by the mainstream. So it is her name which oftentimes pops up first on the topic of Latina authors. It is Cisneros whose work is widely anthologized in multi-cultural books, whose work is selected for literature curricula across American schools. It is Cisneros who embodies the melding of two cultures, the Mexican and the American. With many prestigious awards for her talent, Cisneros has set a standard of excellence that awes. She is, after all, “La Sandra.”

Her other books include the novel “Caramelo” (2002); the short story collection “Woman Hollering Creek” (1991); the poetry books, “My Wicked, Wicked Ways” (1987) and “Loose Woman” (1994); and the anthology of excerpts from her works, “Vintage Cisneros” (2004). Her website is www.sandracisneros.com .

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BOOK REVIEW #6:
BORDERS, by Pat Mora

Pat Mora’s poetry book, Borders, sets its tone immediately, with the title poem placed alone just before the thematic sections of the book unwrap themselves. Mora makes a distinction between men’s and women’s communication right off the bat, citing a researcher who says, “...men and women may speak different languages that they assume are the same.”

Thus, the first border is laid down by Mora: the line separating how the sexes communicate. “So who can hear/ the words we speak/ you and I, like but unlike,/ and translate us to us/ side by side?” the poet asks. She establishes a framework of contiguous separations—borders—where “like” is “unlike,” and we are “similar but different,” existing “side by side,” but still needing translations for comprehension. She’s speaking about all of us, of course.

Her book goes on to evoke and explore borders large and small, known and unknown, old and new, faint and glaring. The poet draws on her lifetime of living on and near borders, beginning with her birth in El Paso, Texas, her home for most of her life before moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, Mora has straddled the border between cultures and languages, has navigated the “like” and “unlike” for her entire life. As her book depicts, borders can be cruel or innocuous, but they ultimately reveal us to ourselves.

Cruel Borders of Hardship

Her book is filled with snapshots of people from all walks of life, people identifiable for their hardships as much as for their triumphs. Mora starts with the famous pioneering author and university leader, Tomás Rivera, whose hands “knew about the harvest,/ tasted the laborer’s sweat” but also “gathered books at city dumps...began to hold books gently, with affection.” Then, his hands “wrote the books/ he didn’t have, we didn’t have,” and hugged “the small brown hands” of children gathered round in admiration, “his hands whispering his secret/ learn, learn.” Rivera was the consummate cross-over, a migrant child of illiteracy who won prizes for his books and inspired legions of modern Latinos/as to demolish obstacles. Again, Mora establishes her framework with this, the second poem in her book, showing us how inhumane borders can be erased.

Other people, however, struggle with the limitations and discrimination imposed by borders. In “Immigrants,” Mora describes the lengths immigrant parents go through to “Americanize” their children, as they “wrap their babies in the American flag,/ feed them mashed hot dogs and apple pie.” Always, the fear of rejection and marginalization haunts them. In “Echoes,” the poet practically speaks through clenched teeth as she recounts how a party hostess insisted that her guests “just drop the cups and plates/ on the grass. My maid/ will pick them up.”

In “The Grateful Minority,” the poet describes Ofelia “scrubbing washbowls.../ mopping bathrooms for people/ who don’t even know your name.” The poem’s narrator cannot understand how Ofelia, as well as other “brown women,” can “whistle while/ you shine toilets, smile gratefully/ at dry rubber gloves, new uniforms,/ steady paychecks...content in your soapy solitude.” These women “bloom/ namelessly in harsh countries.” Perplexed, the poem’s speaker says: “I want to shake your secret/ from you. Why? How?”

The Subtle Borders of Life

But other borders—symbolic, emotional, or spiritual—are more subtle and often less painful. Section II (untitled) of Mora’s book speaks of family love, of the generations, and the passage of time. In “To My Son,” the border between childhood and adolescence is symbolized by the worn-down swing set, now sitting silent in the backyard, abandoned years ago. The border between doting affection and tough love is embodied in the word “no” repeated like a litany in “The Heaviest Word in Town.” The border between security and fear strikes the poet in “Waiting Room: Orthopedic Surgery,” as she waits nervously for her broken child to be made whole again.

Some borders transcend time, and Mora, particularly fond of elders, captures these poignantly. In “Pajarita,” the “small, gray Mexican bird/ brittle of bone, flutters at ninety/ through the large American cage/ all the comforts/ except youth.” The saintly grandmother straddles life and death as each day passes. In “Los Ancianos,” the poet describes an old couple holding hands as they traverse the plaza, “both slightly stooped, bodies returning to the land.” Walking the fine line between the present and eternity, “They know/ of moving through a crowd at their own pace.”

Our Individual and Collective Borders

Since borders are demarcations, there are always two sides, and marginalization is unavoidable. There is “us” and “them,” “their way” and “my way.” With this duality, prejudice and stereotypes become fact, and it takes concerted efforts on each person’s part to blur the borders traversing our lands and our interactions, so people can become simply one huge expanse of humanity.

Pat Mora’s heartfelt, spiritual book is a paean to how these borders imbue our lives, but how hurtful borders can be eased, or removed, when we embrace how everything is interwoven and we are, ultimately, one. Mora the poet is the sum total of her parts. As she has said in interviews, she cherishes her cultural heritage and often imbues her writing with it. Her writing is her attempt to facilitate communication and understanding among diverse peoples. She communicates with evident warmth, love, and compassion.

Known nationally for more than 30 books of poetry, essays, and children’s writings, Mora has received numerous literary awards, including the National Hispanic Cultural Center Literacy Award, the Southwest Book Award (4 times), Premio Aztlán Literature Award, and the Pellicer-Frost Bi-National Poetry Award. She has also received two honorary doctoral degrees and is best-known for instituting the nationally-celebrated event, “El día de los ninos/El día de los libros” (“The Day of the Children/The Day of Books”). Advocacy for children’s literacy is an abiding passion of Pat Mora. Her website is www.PatMora.com  .

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Wednesday, August 01, 2012

FOURTH BOOK REVIEW IN MY SERIES: ICONIC MODERN LATINA AUTHORS


Dear Readers:

As you know, in the past few months, I've been writing a series of book reviews of iconic, pioneering literature written by modern-day, American-born Latina authors. These were written, and are being written, as a guest reviewer on Jesus Trevino's dynamic blog, www.Latinopia.com . Some of these reviews have also been, and/or will be,  cross-posted on another awesome Latino literary blog, Mike Sedano's and Daniel Oliva's www.LaBloga.blogspot.com . I urge you to visit these two blog sites, bookmark them, "like" them, and keep up with them. It's a great use of your time!

With Jesus' kind permission, I've also been cross-posting my reviews on this blog as well. All of them appear below as prior postings.

As a recap: These are the iconic authors, their ground-breaking, award-winning books, and the year of publication of their books:
  • Nicholasa Mohr: Nilda (novel; 1974)
  • Estela Portillo Trambley: Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings (short stories, one novella; 1975)
  • Lorna Dee Cervantes: Emplumada (poetry; 1981)
The fourth in this series, a look at Cherrie Moraga's barrier-breaking book, appears below.Writing as an openly gay Latina, Moraga opened the doors to debate and dialogue about homosexuality, but--more important--about women's issues more specifically, and about social justice and the oppression of people of color more broadly. Now out of print, the book is still available on amazon.com and through other online booksellers.

I welcome your comments on this. Thanks for dropping by!

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BOOK REVIEW:
Loving in the War Years, by Cherríe Moraga (1981)

This is a brave book, of a type that had never before been published in the United States. This is a timeless book that has one foot firmly planted in the 1980’s and the other just as solidly rooted in 2012. This book could, in fact, have been published yesterday, for its pain and truth and observations on humanity ring just as true today as when it first saw the light of day.

This is a trailblazing work that dared give public voice to something lying dormant throughout the literary history of American Hispanics: Latina sexuality broadly, and Latina homosexuality specifically. But though this book deals in large part with a topic that is still taboo for many Latinos, let no reader shy away from Moraga’s work. Doing so would be a lost opportunity to open our eyes and souls to understanding humanity better. Through essays, poems, brief stories, and journal entries, Moraga forces us to think deeply on why men and women interact as we do, why we follow traditions blindly, why social injustice is so globally entrenched, and why we hardly ever stop to examine our lives to understand what it is that our spirits truly need.

Loving in the War Years is at once Moraga’s intimate, autobiographical reflection on love in all its senses and nuances; and a treatise on man’s inhumanity to man. It is at once yin and yang, at once left-brain, right-brain, at once heart-wrenching and coolly analytical. This book was written by a poet...by a scientist...by a spiritualist...by an atheist...by a heterosexual...by a lesbian. And yes, all of these are Cherríe Moraga. The book is such a pot of delicious stew, filled as it is with the flavors and aromas of multiple genres and perspectives, that it must have driven librarians nutty upon its publication. How to classify it?

Like Moraga herself—who is half-White and half-Mexican—Loving in the War Years is full of life’s contradictions. Moraga’s immigrant, farm-worker mother is the linchpin in her life, the one who taught the author everything about authentic love. It is she who insists on a strong education for her children, and who sacrifices mightily to enable Cherríe to attend top-notch schools and avoid the hardships and discrimination that she, an illiterate laborer, suffers. Yet the mother-daughter relationship is also tainted by the mother’s unpredictable aloofness and disregard for Cherríe’s individuality and worthiness as a woman. This tension sometimes leads Moraga to feel angry and hateful toward her, though she loves her mother above all.

Moraga’s White father is her ticket to a life among privileged people, the cause of her light skin, and ability to “pass” as White; yet his passivity and inability to love anyone render him irrelevant in her life. As Moraga evolves in her understanding, she realizes that it is her “Whiteness” that has spared her much of the prejudice and marginalization that her Latino schoolmates and neighbors endure. It is her “Whiteness” that got her into the best classes, the best colleges, and helped her rub elbows with the advantaged folks. But she also detests this Whiteness that made her an unwitting participant in the game of classifying people and thereby taking advantage of them. She feels like she betrayed her people.

This theme of being “la vendida” (“the sell-out”) runs through Moraga’s book and helps title its most compelling section: “A Long Line of Vendidas.” Moraga explores the various ways in which she was a “vendida”: leveraging her Whiteness for her academic and professional advancement; turning her back on schoolmates who weren’t in her elite classes; turning her back on lovers who created discomfort in her life; turning her back on Latino men as she defied her culture’s dictates. Her sell-out, however, is tempered by recollections of how her Latino culture turned against her throughout her early life: She wasn’t brown enough. She was half-White. She didn’t quite belong in their groups. Decreed guilty prematurely like an unlucky criminal, Moraga ultimately had no choice but to lean on her Whiteness as she became more independent, because her White half led her to greater personal freedom than her Chicana half did.

Freedom and oppression are major themes for Moraga. Her sexuality is an integral part of her identity, as she feels is the case for all women, especially Latinas. Yet it is her sexual identity as a lesbian that simultaneously frees and oppresses Moraga: she is freed from the Mexican culture’s mythical view of women as penetrated and depraved; and she is oppressed by society’s rejection (especially her Latino culture’s rejection) of homosexuality as depraved and “queer.” Through her poetry, essays, and heartfelt stories that lay bare her soul yet are not self-pitying, Moraga shares with us her painful journey in recognizing her “queer”-ness at the tender age of ten, hiding this part of self from her family, fighting it by engaging in heterosexual affairs for several years, then accepting her lesbianism as her authentic sexuality. It is a touching journey that meanders in non-linear recollections throughout her book in and out of childhood, in and out of adolescence and young adulthood. She finally settles on intellectual discussions of women’s issues delivered professorially toward the end of her book.

Women, she says, are defined by our gender, and sexual politics rule our lives, with male supremacy controlling our access to freedom. Moraga describes marriage as man-made for the purpose of controlling women’s sexual activity. She focuses laser-like on women’s reproductive issues and sounds amazingly like the women activists of 2012 in her denouncement of patriarchy: “Female sexuality must be controlled, whether it be by the Church or the State....Patriarchal systems...determine when and how women reproduce.”

Echoing current political campaigning, Moraga wrote in her 1983 book: “In the U.S., the New Right’s response to a weakening economic system...is to institute legislation to ensure governmental control of women’s reproductive rights.” She went on to condemn Conservatives’ “advocacy of the Human Rights Amendment, which allows the fetus greater right to life than the mother. These backward political moves hurt all women, but especially the poor and ‘colored.’” Crediting the Black Feminist movement’s Combahee River Collective for her inspiration and perspective on oppression, Moraga adamantly sees global oppression of any people as being rooted in a toxic mix of racism, sexism, and classism. We can’t address one without the others.

Loving in the War Years has ample artistic merit simply because of its poetic weaving of words and feelings. Moraga speaks from the heart. Its status is heightened, however, because this was the first book written and published in the United States by a Latina lesbian. Also one of the first modern American Latina feminists, Moraga’s career has been marked by university teaching assignments across the U.S., prestigious literary awards and fellowships, and solid recognition of her playwriting talents. Currently an Artist-in-Residence at Stanford University, California, Moraga is the author or co-editor of more than a dozen books, chief among them the prize-winning collection of feminist writings titled This Bridge Called My Back. Visit her website at http://www.cherriemoraga.com  .

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TAGS: Latinopia, Cherríe Moraga, Loving in the War Years, feminist writers, gay authors, Jesus Trevino, Nicholasa Mohr, Estela Portillo Trambley, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Daniel Oliva, Michael Sedano,Thelma T. Reyna.





Tuesday, June 12, 2012

THIRD IN SERIES OF MY BOOK REVIEWS:

This is the third book review in my new series spotlighting the works of modern pioneering American Latina authors. The 12 iconic works selected for this series cover the time span 1974-1996, beginning with the modern Chicano "renaissance" in literature, in which American Latinas/os began publishing in greater numbers than ever before in our nation's history. The other authors and their classic, award-winning books previously featured are Nicholasa Mohr's Nilda (1974), and Estella Portillo's Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings (1975) [see below].

These book reviews were originally posted in Latinopia (http://www.latinopia.com/ ) and are cross-posted here with permission of Latinopia's host, author Jesus Trevino. The fourth book review, to be published this month, is of Cherrie Moraga's ground-breaking Loving in the War Years (1983). Stay tuned!

Emplumada
by Lorna Dee Cervantes

Lorna Dee Cervantes (b. 1954) is a California native of Mexican-American and Native-American heritage. Her impact on Chicana poetry prior to and since the publication of her iconic, American Book Award-winning collection of poems, Emplumada (1981), has been tremendous. Her fellow Latino poet, Alurista, once referred to her as “probably the best Chicana poet active today,” and others consider her to be one of the pre-eminent Chicana poets of the past four decades. During the Clinton presidency, Cervantes was invited to a special White House event honoring the top 100 poets in the United States at that time.

Her path to fame began with the Chicano activism and literary movement of the 1970’s. In 1974, she began reading her poetry publicly and now counts over 500 readings, poetic performances, and lectures in venues including the top universities in America: Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Brown, Vassar, and Cornell. Besides the American Book Award in 1982, Cervantes has won over 20 notable prizes, fellowships, and other honors, such as the Latino Book Award, Latin American Book Award, Patterson Prize for Poetry, and two Pushcart Prizes. Cervantes is a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley.

As an academic for most of her career, Cervantes continues to exert a major influence on American Latina poetry, despite authoring only three poetry collections besides Emplumada. These are: From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger (1991); DRIVE: The First Quartet (2006); and Ciento: 100 100-Word Love Poems (2011). She founded the literary review Mango in the 1970’s and was co-editor of the multicultural poetry journal Red Dirt. Her poems have been anthologized since the 1990’s and have attracted wide critical study since the 1980’s.

Emplumada –which means “feathered” as well as “pen flourish”—treats the social issues of Cervantes’ day that still rattle our sensibilities: poverty, domestic and drug abuse, sexism, racism, classism. We relive these through the eyes and heart of a 27-year-old Latina clarifying her place in life. Cervantes occasionally spices her 39 poems with Spanish words and phrases that resonate with her Hispanic readers yet do not detract from the universality of her clear-eyed observations.

Her poetry makes us weep in recognition. Or weep for the deep slashes to humanity that she lays bare in her unvarnished way, capturing the pain we often inflict on one another in unconscious or purposeful ways. Her book begins with one of the more powerful poems, “Uncle’s First Rabbit,” a compressed retelling of 50 years of misery. At the age of 10, Uncle is forced by his drunken, violent father to shoot, then bash to death, an innocent rabbit. The rabbit’s dying cries remind the child of the night his father kicked his pregnant mother till her aborted baby died, his tiny sister’s cries like the rabbit’s. Throughout his military years and his own marriage, the Uncle is haunted by his father’s abuse, and he can’t escape the “bastard’s...bloodline” within himself, a man tormented by demons who one night “awaken[s] to find himself slugging the bloodied face of his [own] wife.” The Uncle’s humanity gasps its last breath as he watches his dying wife in bed and thinks: “Die, you bitch. I’ll live to watch you die.”

The theme of abuse runs like an unavoidable snake through several of Cervantes’ poems. In “Meeting Mescalito at Oak Hill Cemetery,” a 16-year-old girl “crooked with drug” momentarily escapes her family life by drinking alone in a cemetery but then, at home, “lock[s] my bedroom door against the stepfather.” In “Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway,” spousal abuse strikes multiple generations of a family: Grandma, who “built her house, cocky disheveled carpentry, after living twenty-five years with a man who tried to kill her.” Mama endures “glass bottles shattering the street, words cracked into shrill screams” when her man “entered the house in hard unsteady steps, stopping at my door, my name...breath full of whiskey.”

In “For Virginia Chavez,” one of the more gentle, evocative poems of the book, the speaker describes her loving relationship with a young woman, a kindred spirit whose path in life splits from hers. Years later, they reunite, and the speaker sees the abused Virginia “with blood in your eyes, blood on your mouth, the blood pushing out of you in purple blossoms. He did this.” Embracing, the two women, whose lives have evolved in diametric ways, lean on their bond of friendship for sustenance. As in other poems, it is the inner strength and solidarity of women that help them prevail.

Cervantes also celebrates love, often by weaving this with nature, with the natural rhythms of existence that are often overlooked in harried lives. For her, nature is a balm that opens eyes and rekindles the spirit. In “Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway,” the speaker describes her partner thus: “Every night I sleep with a gentle man to the hymn of mockingbirds, and in time, I plant geraniums.” In “For Edward Long,” she salutes an old mentor, writing: “You taught me to read all those windsongs in the verses of Stevenson....I still gaze at the fall winds you once taught me to describe.” In “Como lo Siento [How I Feel It],” lovemaking becomes allegory: “[An owl] lifted from the palm. She showed me how I rose, caught in the wind by your skin and tongue. I feel scooped from the banks like clay....I’m paralyzed by joy....I’m a shell in the cliffs, a thousand miles from sea. You tide me and I rise, and there’s no truth more simple.”

Emplumada is timeless and will continue to be. Its strength flows from the beauty and unpredictability of Cervantes’ phrasing. She takes the ordinary and holds it up for us to see, dressed in descriptions that we ourselves could not conjure. Her language is simple, direct, deceptively unadorned, but it is disarming in its precision: “In rarefied air, absent as lovers, objects are blanched and peppered to gray” ; “I dust pebbles, turn them to sheen”; “our time was mooning away from us and leaving us in mudflats”; “the great peacocks roosted and nagged loose the feathers from their tails.” And always, Cervantes’ imagery enhances and drives home her points.

Cervantes is, in the end, a poet who prefers to see the proverbial glass half-full but whose life experience has shown her the half-empty part in sharp focus. In perhaps the most autobiographical piece in the book—“Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, an Intelligent, Well-Read Person, Could Believe in the War Between Races”—she explains clearly how conflict indeed exists: “I’m marked by the color of my skin. The bullets are discrete and designed to kill slowly. They are aiming at my children. These are facts....I am a poet who yearns to dance on rooftops, to whisper delicate lines about joy and the blessings of human understanding....but the typewriter doesn’t fade out the sounds of blasting and muffled outrage. My own days bring me slaps on the face. Every day I am deluged with reminders that this is not my land and this is my land....in this country there is war.”

The passage of time will only cement Lorna Dee Cervantes’ place in the literary tapestry of America. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Arts from San Jose State University, and attended the Ph.D. program at University of California, Santa Cruz. You can learn more about her on her Facebook author page and on her website: http://lornadice.blogspot.com/

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Monday, May 14, 2012

MY NEW SERIES OF BOOK REVIEWS--

Starting a New Series for Multiple Blog Sites:
Reviews of Pioneering American Latina Authors

Last month, at the invitation of Jesus Trevino, outstanding author and host/writer of the esteemed blog Latinopia.com (http://www.latinopia.com/ ), I began writing book reviews of modern American Latina authors who are now regarded as "pioneers" in modern American Latino/a literature. My intent is to write one book review per month for a 12-month period. These reviews are aimed for Latinopia.com and may be posted on La Bloga as well (http://www.labloga.blogspot.com/) as on my site here.

In choosing the Latina authors for this series, Jesus and I collaborated, starting with his recommendations. Then I reviewed lists of Latina winners of the famed American Book Awards beginning in the 1960's and checked other prestigious national awards given in the United States. Almost all of the women in this series received the American Book Award, with a couple of them winning other major awards instead. I shared this list with Jesus, and we agreed on the 12 books to consider. In the spirit of modern "pioneers," we also limited our list to the time period spanning the 1970's-1990's, when the impact of Latinas publishing in English began in earnest, prior to the year 2000. The reviews will be presented in chronological order according to the books' publication dates.

The selected group of pioneer Latinas represents various genre: short fiction, novels, poetry, and nonfiction. Geographically, the authors come from across the United States: the Northeast, Southwest, the West, and other parts of our nation. All these women have one very important commonality: They blazed trails in bringing the Latina voice to the tapestry of our evolving Latino literature in the modern era. They have thus enriched our literature and expanded our horizons of human understanding. These women are artists in the greatest sense of the word.

It is Jesus' hope, as well as my own, that--after this series of pioneeer Latina authors--the spotlight can shift to contemporary American Latina authors; for, as the years pass, the list of top writers continues to expand. Book reviewing is fun and enriching for a number of reasons, and I hope to share my enjoyment with you.

The first of the series was published last month (see below): Nicholasa Mohr's autobiographical novel, Nilda (1974). The second book review will be posted soon: Estela Portillo Trambley's Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings (1975). All the reviews will appear first on Latinopia.com, then possibly on La Bloga, then definitely on this blog. Thanks so much for tuning in each month.


Monday, March 26, 2012

BOOK REVIEWS:
Two Iconic Authors: A Latina Pioneer; and First Hispanic-American Pulitzer-Prize Winner

My two book reviews below first appeared in Jesus Trevino's amazing, enlightening blog, Latinopia.com. He granted permission for cross-posting these reviews here.
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NICHOLASA MOHR:
Author of Nilda (1974)


Nicholasa Mohr (b. 1938) has been described as the most prolific and renowned Puerto Rican-American novelist. Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, Mohr represents the “Nuyorican” writers (“New York Puerto Ricans”), a group that first rose to national prominence for their considerable talents in the 20th century and who continue to attract readers today.

Since Puerto Ricans officially became American citizens in 1917, Mohr’s antecedents, though strongly tied to their island culture, were not immigrants, but migrants rather, in the often-alien, unwelcoming American city. Mohr grew up in the 1940’s, with World War II a gauzy backdrop, and suffered the proverbial slings and arrows of prejudice and discrimination.

That Nicholasa Mohr became a published writer when she did is a stroke of luck for Hispanic-American literature. As a young woman, she was first and foremost a visual artist. By chance, her art agent once asked her to write 50 pages of childhood reminiscences for a possible book project. Although he subsequently rejected this writing in a humiliating critique, she shared this small manuscript with a chief editor who had solicited her artwork for someone else’s book. Mohr’s illustrations for that book were turned down, but the editor liked the 50 pages of reminiscences and contracted Mohr to write a novel based on those. Mohr completed the novel, NILDA, that same year. The rest, as they say, is history.

With the well-received publication of NILDA in 1974, Mohr cemented her place in American literature. She was one of the earliest Hispanic-Americans to publish her writings in English in the United States and one of the first to write a young adult book in English. Mainstream America at that time had little interest in publications about Latino people. But Nicholasa Mohr’s book successfully crossed the divide. Since 1974, she has been the most productive and most renowned Nuyorican novelist, earning numerous major awards and publishing in a variety of genres: novels, short stories, novellas, and nonfiction. Her influence in other authors’ development has been significant, not just through her 10 published books, but also through her workshops and university teaching.

Nilda recounts the life of a Puerto Rican family in the Bronx from 1941 through 1945, as seen through the central consciousness viewpoint of the only daughter in the family and the youngest child, Nilda. Her family is poor, large, and as diverse in personality and outlook as her neighborhood. But these nine people, with their varying degrees of dysfunction and tension, are the source of stability and love that enable Nilda to navigate her childhood intact. She, as well as other Puerto Ricans, regularly encounters naked racism and marginalization, often at the hands of authority figures who should, paradoxically, be protecting and nurturing her: neighborhood policemen, nuns and priests at a Catholic summer camp, her teachers at school, and social service workers allegedly providing economic assistance for struggling families like hers. Worse, these perpetrators of racism are seemingly oblivious to their cutting words and actions. After policemen abuse her kind-hearted neighbor, Nilda notes that these cops “loomed larger and more powerful than all the other people in her life.”

The novel begins when Nilda is 10 years old and ends when she is 14. In this span of time, World War II begins and ends. Also, Nilda finds and loses religion; loses her stepfather; learns that her beloved brother Jimmy has impregnated and abandoned a young woman who is then sheltered by Nilda’s mother; helps care for her mentally unbalanced aunt; witnesses a policeman falsely accuse her friend of a crime and almost beat him to death; and endures other calamities that would have destroyed a lesser child. Through it all, Nilda is alternately petulant and carefree, defiant and obedient, aloof and moved to tears, frightened and resolute. Her best friend becomes pregnant and drops out of school. But Nilda exhibits the resilience of her mother and moves forward despite the biggest loss of all.

The Ramirez family is the broad backdrop of this narrative. Nilda’s mother, Lydia, is the matriarchal rock, an interminable font of patience, practicality, and initiative. She shepherds her family through quarrels, sickness, and despair and somehow manages to keep food on the table and consejos always flowing. Her strength comes from a deep religiosity that she tries to impart to her children, especially to Nilda, and from an almost martyr-like acceptance of her hard life. Her dreams are pinned on her children, especially her daughter, whom she constantly exhorts to study hard and make something of herself.

Nilda is tugged between her mother’s spirituality and her stepfather Emilio’s communistic, nihilistic rejection of faith. The parents’ polarity symbolizes the contradictions in the family members themselves: There is Jimmy—handsome, dashing, and utterly charming—yet embroiled with drugs and thugs and breaking his mother’s heart. There is Victor, the scholar and gentleman most suited for success, who is first to enlist in war and dash his mother’s dreams. There is Aunt Delia—old, deaf, and caustic—whose obsession with ghoulish newspaper reports is trumped by her vulnerability, which engenders the family’s loyalty to her. In a poignant scene toward the end of the book, we learn that Nilda’s mother, whose devotion to her family was the engine that drove her life, had deep regrets that embodied the most heart-wrenching contradiction of all.

People are the main ingredient of storytelling. People drive the plots and themes and embody the heart and soul of the structure we call literature. When people as literary characters are authentic and speak to us in voices we recognize, in voices that resonate with our own experiences, the written piece is successful. And if these characters engage in self-examination and reflection and share their insights with us, thus expanding our own self-knowledge as they reveal their own…well, the literature soars and takes us up with it.
Perhaps because Nilda is a young adult novel, or perhaps because it is a debut novel, it falls short in the latter criterion of excellence. Although the child Nilda is sympathetic and authentic, she rarely engages in reflection, even as a teenager, and this renders her less multi-dimensional than she could have been. The central consciousness viewpoint of the book does not allow us to enter the minds of the other characters, but Nilda’s thoughts could have been explored further.

Literary critics of ethnic-minority works have pointed out that early writers often focus on their personal minority experiences, which often include prejudice and various levels of cultural and racial oppression. It is the evolution of these authors’ art that eventually expands their creativity outward, to broader, more universal themes. Nilda, as a pioneering novel, captures the unique cultural experiences of New York’s Puerto Ricans in the 1940’s and therefore secures a solid place in the history of our literature as such. It still resonates decades later because its cultural depictions of family, love, individual pride, and resilience in the face of hardship still matter.

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OSCAR HIJUELOS:
Author of Beautiful Maria of My Soul (2010)

Oscar Hijuelos, acclaimed Cuban-American author of eight books, wrote Beautiful Maria of My Soul (2010) as a prequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1986). In the prequel, Hijuelos gives readers the back story of the supremely beautiful woman who broke musician Nestor Castillo’s heart in The Mambo Kings. And what a back story it is!

The book covers 45 years, starting with Maria in Cuba at the age of 17 and ending with her in Miami, Florida, at the age of 62. In this span, we see the pre-Castro island nation in all its glory, beauty, and seediness. We learn about the decline of life for Cubans once Castro assumed power, and we follow Maria and her toddler daughter, Teresita, when they emigrate to America with hundreds of others and struggle to build a new life.

In this span, Hijuelos lays the seeds for his themes and slowly unwraps each one like gifts we anticipate but also dread: the fleeting nature and complexity of love, even true love; the losses and suffering that even the good endure; the seeming indifference and cruelty of God; the importance of memory in our lives; and the essential role of family.

Beautiful Maria Garcia y Sifuentes is a 17-year-old naïve, illiterate country girl living in extreme poverty in a tiny village in western Cuba. Her two brothers, teenaged sister, and beloved mother have one by one died untimely deaths, leaving her broken-hearted and alone with her sometimes-abusive, sometimes-tender father. In 1947, Maria decides that she must seek her independence and leaves the only world she’s ever known to travel to Havana, a bustling, frightening city filled with goodness, coarseness, and evil. She becomes a dancer in a rundown nightclub and alone must navigate the dangers and temptations of the city’s night life.
Her gift—extreme beauty of face and body that draws barrages of attention—is likewise a curse. She tires of men trying to seduce her, trying to impose their coarseness upon her, and wonders if it’s possible to find a good man who can love her for more than beauty. She appreciates her gifts, however, and uses them to advance her career, rising to be the featured dancer in the club and working as a model.

Virginal Maria eventually takes up with an older man, Ignacio, who has a shady reputation as a small-time gangster but who is generous with his attention and money and provides her with respectability and stability. Like her father, however, he sometimes beats and denigrates her; and Maria decides to leave him. During a violent argument with Ignacio, she meets Nestor Castillo, a poetic, soulful, handsome musician who rescues her from Ignacio’s rage. Nestor’s humility and saintliness, as well as his physical beauty, immediately appeal to Maria; and she and Nestor soon become lovers. Their passion is intense and endless, depicted by the author in highly graphic, explicit detail.

Nestor, for all his talents in and out of bed, is poor and simple. His gifts—besides the anatomical ones well-documented by Hijuelos—lie in his songwriting and his undying commitment to Maria. But Maria, accustomed to luxury after living with Ignacio, can only imagine a life of poverty if she marries Nestor, who proposes to her repeatedly, each time being rebuffed. Although enamored of Nestor sexually, she is not sure she truly loves him, plus her financial comfort trumps life with Nestor. She thus returns to Ignacio, and the broken-hearted Nestor eventually leaves with his older brother, Cesar Castillo, for New York to start a new life. (The Mambo Kings depicts the brothers’ lives from this point forward.)

Maria takes pride in her rise from poverty and learns to read and write. As the years pass, her father, her last surviving family member, dies. Maria feels the loss of this last link with family very deeply. She also misses Nestor and realizes that she made a mistake in rejecting him. He writes her wistful letters of undying love, and reminds her of a song he’s perfecting in her honor: “Beautiful Maria of My Soul.” Regarding Ignacio, she discovers several secret affairs. Each loss oozes a layer of hardness on Maria’s soul. Once devout, she now questions God and mocks him. She realizes that even love is “ephemeral and useless....like air.” The sweet, soft-hearted girl has become taciturn, critical, and jaded.

Maria comes to believe that having her own child will bring her happiness, and she wants Nestor to be the father. Although she learns that Nestor is now married and has two children, she believes Nestor still loves her, since he’s been writing letters to her since his departure to New York. She travels to New York to reunite with him and, hopefully, to be impregnated by him. Despite great qualms, Nestor agrees to meet Maria secretly and proceeds to ravage her like in old times. What happens after this secret reunion changes their lives forever and leads to great tragedy for both of them.

Hijuelos’ book is beautifully poetic in language and insights. He writes in a conversational style, filled with Cuban dialect, slang, and code-switching (alternating between English and Spanish), which makes his writing full of color and authenticity. Hijuelos creates memorable characters who are imperfect, who fill us with admiration and with revulsion. We can admire the tender-hearted Maria, but we can’t admire the young woman who chose money over love, or who, at the age of 50 and 60, is vain and largely unemotional. Nestor’s modesty as a young Cuban fills our hearts with respect, but his sexual foray as a married man shows his weakness. Still, these characters are human, and we can relate to them and learn from them.

Hijuelos has been criticized in the past for filling his books with too much sex, oftentimes in crude depictions. In this book, he can indeed be faulted for this. Although some sex scenes are described in evocative, literary language, the book could easily be reduced by dozens of pages with the elimination of redundant erotica that sometimes seems gratuitous. Hijueolos can also be faulted for his relentless repetition of “beautiful” throughout the book, and his descriptions of Maria’s beauty so oversaturated to the point of caricature. Again, this book could have been slimmer and still have been convincing.

No book is perfect. The importance of Beautiful Maria of My Soul is the author’s deft, unique treatment of how loss and unrequited love cut mercilessly into the human spirit; but also of how extremely humanizing family connectedness is, and how time and memories can mellow us out, if we remain open to possibilities, and we can find love in the most unexpected places. Hijuelos’ book expertly convinces us of this.


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TAGS: Oscar Hijuelos, Pulitzer Prize, Cuba, Cuban-American, Mambo Kings, Beautiful Maria of My Soul, New York, Nestor Castillo, Cesar Castillo, musicians, Thelma T. Reyna.