Monday, March 28, 2011

The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature

By  John Pluecker
Title: The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature
General Editor: Ilan Stavans
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Year: 2010 

The new Norton Anthology of Latino Literature has already unleashed and will undoubtably continue to provoke signigicant debate, brow-beating, anger, emotion, territorial defense, criticism, passionate displays of righteousness, tears, boredom, gossip, scrutiny, love and enlightenment (among other things).  This process of upheaval is positive.  A Norton anthology has a certain weight to it, both physical (2,600+ onion-skin pages in this case) and intellectual (as a tool of canon-formation). While there have been other solid, rigorous anthologies of U.S. Latino literature by respected critics, Norton anthologies have always held a special place in American literary in-fighting, perdón, discussion.  Though the anthology took Ilan Stavans and the other capable editors thirteen years to produce, the journey is only just beginning.  Now that the book has been released, the inevitable discussion of its merits and issues has ensued; in the end, the series editors will hopefully take into account these comments and queries as they put together subsequent editions of the book.  
Perhaps, it would be useful then to review some of the debates that have already begun to emerge in regards to this anthology.  In a survey of on-line commentary about the book, I found a number of concerns and complaints, among them: 1) there are no Chicana/o poets born after the 1950s, 2) some have questioned why writers commonly thought of as Latin American, like Isabel Allende or Octavio Paz, are included, 3) a number of specific complaints about the exclusion of particular writers, for example José Montoya and John Phillip Santos.  However, the storm that has kicked up the most dust is the notable absence of Sandra Cisneros in the anthology.  The preface states that Cisneros was not included due to permissions issues; however, the story seems to be a bit more interesting though, as a recorded conversation on a local Houston Latina/o radio show, Nuestra Palabra, seems to indicate that Sandra Cisneros did not allow for her work to be anthologized due to Ilan Stavans' previous criticism of her work in several of his books.  
Despite these inevitable concerns, the book is a solid and compelling survey of U.S. Latino literature over the course of the last five centuries.  Just like a number of other notable U.S. Latino anthologies (particularly Herencia edited by Nicolás Kanellos), this book is important evidence that Latina/o literary production is nothing new to the United States.  Even educated people in the U.S. are often quite unaware that this literature did not emerge in the 1960s with the ethnic nationalist movements in the Chicano and Puerto Rican communities.  Anthologies like this one show just how rich and deep U.S. Latino literary history is, spanning centuries from the colonial period to the blossoming of production in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  This mission is clear in the organization of the anthology into chronological sections: Colonization (1537-1810), Annexations (1811-1898), Acculturation (1899-1945), Upheaval (1946-1979) and Into the Mainstream (1980-Present).  This broad historical perspectivefrom Cabeza de Vaca to Ricky Martinis crucial to defeating the lie that books by Latina/os are something new to this country.    
As a critic though, I do have questions about several elements of the book, particularly with the preface by Ilan Stavans.   This preface is distinct from the introduction, which was presumably written jointly by the editorial committee of the book.  The preface and the introduction are quite different.  The preface by Stavans makes large, often quite general, pronouncements about the nature of U.S. Latino literature.  Of course, Stavans is well known for his scholarship and criticism, which often seeks to bring an awareness of Latino cultural production to new audiences.   This ability to make lit crit sexy (see his book Spanglish) is both his strong point and his Achilles heal.  His pronouncements are often polemical and controversial, but, on further examination, many of his generalizations in this preface do not hold up to critical scrutiny.  Stavans claims that Latino literature--all of it--is about the tension between double attachments to place, to language and to identity.  At root, this "double loyalty" is the constant presence in Latino literature.  Stavans also goes so far as to say that all of Latino literature is "invariably framed around the topic of belonging."  The question then becomes: is work by Latinos that is not framed around the issue of "double loyalty" or "belonging" not really Latino?  How do we understand so much contemporary literary work by Latina/os that is covering new ground and exploring different pathways?  
Another example is Stavans' multiple assertions of Latino uniqueness, independence and exceptionalism.  He asserts that, unlike Africans or Asians, Latinos are not of one racial background; as a point of face, scholars in African- and Asian-American studies are continually discussing the vast pluralisms and ethnic and racial diversity contained within these categories as well.  Stavans also argues that "unlike some other ethnic literatures in the United States," Latino literature is divided into two due to its multilingual identity.  The truth is that American literature in all of its varieties has been decidedly multilingual from its very origins, a fact amply illustrated by a number of important anthologies of multilingual American literature.  Stavans wants Latino literature to be recognized as exceptional and unique, but in doing that he erases important complexities fundamental to the literature of the territory now called the United States. In general, Stavans' preface stakes big claims while the editorial introduction is more nuanced, specific and precise with its argument.
Beyond the introduction, I had other questions and concerns as I read the anthology.  One of my main concerns was the fact that no Spanish-language originals are included.  If a work was originally in Spanish, only a translation into English is provided.  Obviously the book was already extremely long, but for many authors, this seems like a real loss--particularly with authors like José Martí, Daniel Venegas, and José Kozer.  The absence of any of these Spanish originals marginalizes Spanish and downplays the force of U.S. Latino bilingual production.  
In reading the footnotes and translations of work, I was struck by Gloria Anzaldua's requirement that anthologizers neither translate nor annotate her work.   Anzaldúa seems to be saying that to do this would be to violate her border-spanning, language-mixing mission.  Some of the other authors who mix the two languages would have benefitted from a similar dictum.  The footnoting can at times seem distracting or seemingly random as some Spanish is translated and at other times it is left alone.  However, these are difficult decisions to make and overall the decisions are sound.  Except for a number of radically bilingual exceptions--Anzaldúa, Chávez-Silverman, Braschi--a monolingual English speaking reader would almost always have the translation included in the footnote.
Guillermo Goméz Peña states in an essay in the book that concepts like "high culture," "ethnic purity," "cultural identity," "beauty," and "fine arts" are absurdities and anachronisms.  He pushes us to move beyond these old terms.   It's interesting to read work that pushes beyond these boundaries and old categories within a Norton anthology, one of the most conservative literary spaces and a crucial tool of canon formation.  So much work by U.S. Latinos (much of it included in this anthology) questions these inherited concepts.  
I wonder what an anthology that took some of these criticisms into account might look like. The canon is perpetually being contested and redefined.  In the end, all of the questions, concerns and complaints expressed will hopefully contribute to an even better revised anthology in subsequent editions.   

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review. I'm mentioning the NALL controversy on a short piece for PMLA and will cite this...