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Literary Candor, Straight From Latin America

April 09, 2001|TIM RUTTEN | TIMES CULTURE CORRESPONDENT

Literature is the other great migrant north from Latin America. As the recent census confirmed, the movement of Spanish-speaking people into North America during the last decade has transformed the United States' demography. So too the translation of Latin American poets and novelists into English has exercised a profound influence on many U.S. writers and readers.

But Latin American literature has been undergoing its own transformation: The long-dominant genre of magic realism--with its distinctive mixture of the fantastic, discursive and arcane--is giving way to a bracing realism, at once gritty and elegant. Historicism, linguistic frankness and a willingness to engage sexuality and eroticism realistically are hallmarks of this style, examples of which are being translated into English in increasing numbers.

Earlier this year, for example, Farrar, Straus & Giroux brought out a striking translation of one of the new realism's classic texts, Elena Poniatowska's "Here's to You, Jesusa!" originally published in 1969 as "Hasta No Verte Jesus Mio." It is an extraordinary novel that recounts a harrowing half-century in the life of Jesusa Palancares, an aging Mexican Indian woman who is both a participant in the Mexican revolution and a victim of its aftermath.

"We write the way men leave their names carved on the walls of their cells," Poniatowska, the grande dame of Mexican letters, has said. "We write in order to explain to ourselves what we cannot understand. . . . We write so as to be seen, so as to be part of the human vision of the world, so as not to be erased so easily."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 11, 2001 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 2 inches; 70 words Type of Material: Correction
Dropped line--In a story Monday about three Latin American authors, the last line of Elena Poniatowska's quote was inadvertently dropped. Her quote should have read: " . . . I have had young Chicana writers introduce themselves, and within two minutes declare to me that they are lesbians. I wouldn't come up to anyone and say, 'I am a heterosexual and a grandmother.' This happens only to people surrounded by a culture trying to destroy them and who have created themselves out of this destruction."

Like Poniatowska, many of this new Latin realism's leading advocates are women. Recently, the Mexican writer and two of her colleagues, Cuban-born Mayra Montero and Mayra Santos-Febres, a Puerto Rican, talked jointly about their work. The three were completing an American reading tour sponsored by Latina, a bilingual monthly magazine, and the Assn. of Hispanic Arts.

At 68, Poniatowska is the eldest of the trio and the author of more than 40 books. The Paris-born daughter of a Polish nobleman and a Mexican aristocrat, she spoke only English and French when she returned to Mexico with her mother at the age of 9. Her first knowledge of Spanish was acquired from the household servants. She is a journalist and political activist, as well as a novelist. Her best-known works, "Here's to You, Jesusa!" and "Tinisima"--the fictionalized biography of photographer, communist agent and revolutionary heartthrob Tina Modotti--draw deeply on the traditional Mexican testimonio--spare, chronological personal stories of survival.

Montero is 20 years Poniatowska's junior. Born in Cuba, she now lives in Puerto Rico. She is the author of "In the Palm of Darkness" and "The Messenger"--an imaginative reconstruction of an actual incident in the life of Enrico Caruso. Her most recent novel, "The Last Night I Spent With You," has been widely praised as a classic of graceful erotic fiction. Its protagonists--Fernando and Celia--are a middle-aged couple who attempt to recapture their marital passion on a Caribbean cruise only to find themselves involved with a third party.

Younger than Montero by a decade, Santos-Febres is also a poet and professor of literature at the University of Puerto Rico. The protagonist of her recent novel, "Sirena Selena," is a transvestite cabaret singer looking for the main chance on the Dominican hotel circuit.

In conversation, the three tend to finish each other's sentences--sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in English--though the two younger women leave the last word to Poniatowska.

To most North Americans, contemporary Latin American literature is synonymous with the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes and many others, yet there is nothing of it in any of your work. Is that merely coincidence or does it suggest something distinctive in your common identities as women writers?

Mayra Santos-Febres: Magic realism is not part of my work because I am not interested in the fantastic. I'm interested in Latin America's cities as places where power of all kinds is negotiated and exchanged. I'm interested in them as places where the meeting of exiles--of all sorts--occurs. To me, these realities are more magical than an imagined realism.

Mayra Montero: We Latin Americans now are beyond magic realism. I want to tell readers what our realities and our countries really are like. If they sound exotic, it still is a reality. One reason North Americans are only now beginning to understand this is that our literature draws on oral traditions that Americans haven't discovered until now. Americans' exposure to other popular Latin American cultural expressions, such as music, has helped in this. I'm sure many readers have come to our work because they have been seduced into it by Latin American music.

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