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The Social Conscience of Latin American Writing

The Social Conscience of Latin American Writing

Naomi Lindstrom examines five concepts that are currently the focus of intense debate among Latin American writers and thinkers.

Series: Texas Pan American Series

April 1998
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199 pages | 6 x 9 |

Literature in Latin America has long been a vehicle for debates over the interpretation of social history, cultural identity, and artistic independence. Indeed, Latin American literature has gained international respect for its ability to present social criticism through works of imaginative creation.

In this comprehensive, up-to-the-minute survey of research and opinion by leading Latin American cultural and literary critics, Naomi Lindstrom examines five concepts that are currently the focus of intense debate among Latin American writers and thinkers. Writing in simple, clear terms for both general and specialist readers of Latin American literature, she explores the concepts of autonomy and dependency, postmodernism, literary intellectuals and the mass media, testimonial literature, and gender issues, including gay and lesbian themes. Excerpts (in English) from relevant literary works illustrate each concept, while Lindstrom also traces its passage from the social sciences to literature.


A Choice Outstanding Academic Book

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • One. Autonomy and Dependency in Latin American Writing
  • Two. Postmodernism in Latin American Literary Culture
  • Three. Testimonial Narrative: Whose Text?
  • Four. Literary Intellectuals and Mass Media
  • Five. Latin American Women's Writing and Gender Issues in Criticism
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index

Naomi Lindstrom is Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the Universityof Texas at Austin and is affiliated with the Program in Comparative Literature.


This study has as its purpose to present and discuss five concepts useful to readers who would like to approach Latin American literature in a more analytic spirit. It is not primarily a book to assist those wishing to specialize in the more technical aspects of literary criticism. It is for those who are interested in Latin America as a region and in the literature it has produced, readers who would like to acquire a set of concepts that can be utilized to read this literature critically. Another presupposition is that readers will be interested in Latin American literature principally because it is from Latin America, and also, but only secondarily, because of its formal characteristics. They will have a concern with the social and historical dynamic that has made the region's literature unique, such as the effects of conquest, colonization, and subsequent difficult relations with economically and politically stronger powers. Care has been exercised to make the book accessible to readers who do not read Spanish.

Following these assumptions, the emphasis in this study will not be on developing in full the intricacies of the analytical concepts set forth. The point is to show why the concepts are important and useful in the actual reading of Latin American literature. While many of the issues discussed here are applicable to virtually any literature, one goal of the book is to focus attention on the ways in which literature has assumed distinctive forms in Latin America because of the historical dynamic that has produced it. Both the unique characteristics of Latin America's literary history and the features of individual literary texts will be important in this regard.

In accord with the aim of engaging a general, well-educated readership with a Latin-Americanist interest, little space goes to issues that would principally attract professional literary specialists. There are few references to the academic questions of Latin American literary studies that might strike nonspecialists as hair-splitting. For example, debates over the most accurate starting date for Latin American literature will not be discussed. Nor will such related questions as exactly which works and traditions constitute Latin American literature and whether the term itself should be questioned and possibly replaced. For the purposes of this book, Latin American writing is literature originating in Brazil and the Spanish-speaking New World countries. (Mexican-American or Chicano literature lies virtually beyond the scope of this discussion.) The use of a single term for writings from such diverse countries is justified by long-standing practice. Also bypassed is the potentially all-consuming search for precise definitions of terms often applied to Latin American writing, such as modernismo, magical realism, neobaroque, indigenist novel, the marvelous real, neofantastic, and new novel.

The two terms that do figure prominently in this study—documentary literature, or testimonio as this type of writing is often known in Spanish, and postmodernism—will not be seen primarily as terms requiring precise definition but more as concepts at the center of discussion. Documentary literature is here considered important because it accords the status of author, or at least identified speaking subject, to members of less literate groups. Postmodernism will probably never be unambiguously defined. Though unwieldy, it cannot be disregarded. Discussion of this concept's relation to Latin American cultures has become widespread, generating so many articles and books that only a sampling can be surveyed here. For the purposes of this study, the debate concerning postmodernism in Latin American societies merits attention both because it has involved many Latin American intellectuals, including distinguished innovators, and because the discussion illustrates clearly the struggle to adapt terms and concepts of largely U.S. and European origin.

Throughout this book, the specialized terminology of literary critics is used as sparingly as possible. The goals of this book do not include the resolution of long-running debates over Latin American literature; indeed, the issues treated are most likely perennial problems that will be developed but never solved. Nor is the point to unveil radically different analyses of these problems. Rather, this book seeks to familiarize readers with the main arguments currently being put forward and to allow them to follow the discussion. The chapters of this book are intended to survey the critical discourse that has arisen around these questions. It is first and foremost an overview.

After this introduction, each chapter of the book will present one issue currently important in the analysis of Latin American literature. These problems, such as the disproportionate dependency of one region upon others and the notion of a postmodern society, generally have their origins in the social sciences or in social criticism. Each chapter begins with an orienting discussion of the general issue under examination. Then the discussion turns to the transformations the concept has undergone to apply to literature from Latin American countries. In some cases, ideas have originated among intellectuals based in Latin America. In others, a tendency that first became evident in European or U.S. thought has been reworked to have relevance to Latin American societies. Ideas from the social sciences and cultural criticism have necessarily undergone reworking to be of use in literary studies.

While the primary focus of each chapter is a concept, the chapters at times include discussion, sometimes quite brief and other times more extensive, of works of Latin American literature. These are intended not to be fully developed textual analyses but rather to illustrate the application of the concept. Special attention will go to analytical problems that bring to the fore characteristics of writing from Latin American countries, the relations between this literature and social history, and the special considerations involved in the analysis of Latin American literature. Features that demand attention from students of this literature will receive exceptional emphasis throughout the book. This is not a book dedicated to covering the major movements in literary theory and criticism. The emphasis is not on presenting literary-critical thought as such but on the application of concepts to the discussion of Latin American literature.

One such far-reaching concern is the irregular synchronization between Latin America's literary history—with its succession of schools, tendencies, and movements—and that of Europe. The categories that literary historians have devised to describe European literature correspond sufficiently to Latin American literature to be applicable, but differences stand out clearly. For example, to say romanticism with reference to Latin American literature is not the same as to apply the term to European writing. Latin American romanticism runs on its own timetable, persisting, in various forms, well beyond the nineteenth century. Moreover, in Latin American writing, the manifestations of romanticism often commingle with those of realism, naturalism, and Spanish American modernismo, producing heterogeneous literary variants that have no equivalent in European literature. In Europe, the baroque manner in art, architecture, and writing is generally associated with a particular era (largely the seventeenth century) so that one can speak either of the baroque style or the period of the baroque. The baroque also flourished energetically in seventeenth-century Latin America. What is distinctive about Latin America is that unmistakable signs of the baroque continue to appear to the present day, although their form undergoes continuous renovation. The enduring presence of this mode gives rise to the often voiced suggestion that a baroque tendency is inherent in Latin American expression.

Clearly, Latin America's historical development, including its troubled and unequal relations with Spain, other Western European powers, the United States, and multinational corporations, has resulted in an erratic pattern of development and modernization. The uneven rate at which progress has occurred in Latin America affects literature as much as other activities. Latin American literature stands out simultaneously because of anachronisms, such as the persistence of stylistic conventions long after they have been discarded in Europe, and because of groundbreaking innovations in literary language, narrative construction, and treatment of subject matter. The irregular rate of development is especially evident during campaigns to modernize Latin America. For example, during the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, Latin America rapidly strengthened its ties with the industrialized nations. The region became much more a part of the world system of international exchange, including not just intensified trade relations but also a more rapid communication of artistic trends from area to area. Many technological advances occurred, while Latin American literature produced the determinedly up-to-date modernist movement. At the same time, though, other sectors of Latin American life and letters appeared scarcely affected by the struggle to attain modernity.

A related preoccupation is the tension between the effort on the part of Latin American intellectuals to internationalize and modernize culture by following patterns first established by Europe and the United States, and the drive to draw fully upon the unique regional and ethnic cultural resources of the New World. Angel Rama (1926-1983) hypothesizes that the originality of Latin American literature arises from a struggle between these two simultaneous tendencies. The effort by cosmopolitan intellectuals to bring Latin America up to an international ideal of modernity cooccurs with the insistence, most clearly exemplified by back-to-the-roots cultural nationalists, on a "more vigorous and persistent source of nourishment: the cultural uniqueness developed within" Latin America. Rama disparages a single-minded devotion to being at the world forefront of narrative innovation if it entails a disregard for the home region's unique features. At the same time, though, he sees a puristic dedication to regionalist writing, ignoring the twentieth-century transformations in the writing of fiction, as "a defensive backtracking" that "doesn't solve any problems." Rama singles out for approval those regionalist writers who were able to benefit from the changes that recent decades have brought about in the construction of narrative. He cites with some pleasure the Brazilian thinker Gilberto Freyre (1900-1987), author of the influential Regionalist Manifesto of 1926, who upon later reflection described what he had sought as "a movement as modernist as it was traditionalist and regionalist, revolutionizing the norms of Brazilian art."

Many Latin American writers and artists have been zealous in their pursuit of a cosmopolitan ideal of modernity. Indeed, their extreme dedication to being up-to-date by international standards often seems to be the factor that sets them apart from European and U.S. contemporaries. At the same time, there has always been a sharp awareness of the special repertory of references, themes, beliefs, and expressive traditions found exclusively in Latin America. This consciousness is most readily evident when authors deal with the non-European currents in Latin American society. Indigenous cultures—both the high civilizations of the Aztec, Maya, and Inca empires, and current-day native groups—have long proven both attractive and problematic as a source for Spanish- and Portuguese-language literature. Latin America presents numerous cases of mixed groups, such as mestizos; the African-Latin syntheses of the Caribbean and Brazil; and populations combining African, native, and European backgrounds. The existence of these hybrid cultures is one of the clearest signs of Latin America's originality, and writers have turned to them as markers of the region's distinct identity as well as for their intrinsic fascination.

Whatever the sources of the ideas and terms, this book presents them in the context of the study of literature. An examination of Latin American literature that draws elements from dependency theory, generated in the 1960s by political economists, cannot truthfully be called an economic or political-science reading. An analysis of a literary work that utilizes ideas generated in the social sciences can only loosely be called a sociological or anthropological reading of that work. Stanley Fish, remarking on the changes that ideas undergo in moving from field to field, once suggested "the impossibility of the interdisciplinary project." This study is interdisciplinary in its sources, but it has an undeniable primary loyalty to literary studies. It is less important to use a term or concept exactly as social scientists do than to take part in the discussion of issues in literature. Though the textual analyses presented must make sense first and foremost as literary commentary, the book owes a strong debt to sources outside literary criticism, especially to the traditions of sociological and anthropological thought.

A word is in order concerning the selection of the works used as exemplary texts. Some works of poetry are mentioned, but the texts from which actual quotations are taken are all prose narrative, including autobiographies and eyewitness accounts of historical events. The principal reason for this choice is that, on the whole, readers not specialized in literature, especially those utilizing translations, have been most likely to turn to fiction. While outstanding poets, such as Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz, have enjoyed international respect, it is prose writers whose actual works (or, in some cases, their cinematic adaptations) have come in for discussion by a public well beyond the literary world. Translations of poetry, especially in brief excerpts, frequently fail to convey why the original is considered significant. Since all quotations in this study are in English, the greater translatability of prose was a consideration. Finally, the uniformity provided by selecting all prose texts permits comparative cross-references between one chapter and another.

While literary works from all periods since the Spanish and Portuguese conquest are used as examples, the lengthier analyses, including quotations, are from twentieth-century works. Again, the goal has been to select works that have become available to a wide, international public and to cite only from those texts whose special features will be readily apparent in English translation.

This book owes a great deal to the thought of Angel Rama, as well as to other critics who have studied Latin American literature in its social context: Noé Jitrik, Joseph Sommers, Jean Franco, as well as to such students of society as Néstor García Canclini. It has also made use of readings of Latin American literature carried out by less overtly social critics who nonetheless have a good eye for literature's historical context, such as John S. Brushwood and Seymour Menton.

The organization of the book, as noted, involves a series of chapters, each presenting one concept and its application in the discussion of Latin American literature. What follows is a brief description of the issues presented in the various chapters.

In this overview, one major focus is the adjustments that concepts require to keep pace with the times. Perhaps the most striking example is that of dependency theory, examined in Chapter One. As formulated in the 1960s, the theory has become outdated. Accelerated global movement of capital, goods, and people, the rise of transnational firms, and the internal problems of economically strong nations have complicated the opposition between the powerful metropolis and exploited periphery, upon which the original theory was constructed. In addition, as soon as the theory became widespread, observers began to object to its oversimplification of what would later be known as the world system. While dependency theory was attracting negative criticism, it could not be abandoned because it dealt with issues still of great concern. Even those who viewed the theory itself as a relic of the 1960s continued to use its central terms and ideas. Concepts of dependency and autonomy have had to become more sophisticated in response to both critical objections and increasingly complex global interrelations.

In addition, the application of elements of dependency theory to the analysis of literature presents an unusual case of interdisciplinary transfer since the study of the economy is so unlike the study of literature. Concepts of dependency sprang up in a mode of analysis unlike anything employed by literary critics; to become part of literary studies, they had to develop into forms often very unlike their original ones.

Some of the analysis in this chapter will be not so much of individual works but rather of long-standing problems in the history of Latin American literature. Although dependency is really a long-term, almost intractable problem that affects all of Latin America's cultural development, it is still possible to analyze its manifestations in a particular text. The 1968 novel Betrayed by Rita Hayworth by the Argentine Manuel Puig lends itself to such discussion. Because Rita Hayworth clearly brings out the issues discussed in Chapter One, this novel comes in for more extended analysis than any other literary text discussed in this book.

As dissatisfaction with dependency theory continued, despite continual refinements, the concept of transculturation has provided a somewhat different way of focusing on the relations between the cultures of dominant groups and those of less powerful regions and peoples. Transculturation, a term and concept originated by the Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz and since adapted to literary studies, will be discussed at the end of the chapter on dependency and autonomy. While it is not in any direct line of descent from dependency theory, it is one manifestation of an undiminished concern with Latin America's place among the world's societies and cultures.

Chapter Two, on postmodernism, begins with a general introduction to this phenomenon. By its very nature, postmodernism will probably never be characterized with any precision. In the present survey, the emphasis is on features of postmodernism that have most excited debate. Chapter Two provides more coverage to European and U.S. scholars than the other chapters because the term postmodernism was undeniably developed outside Latin America. Indeed, the foreign origin of the word and concept has been an issue in Latin American discussion of postmodernism.

Then the chapter turns to the discussion of the application of the term and concept postmodernism to Latin American culture. The use of postmodernism has been controversial, in great part because it is such a clear case of a term developed to describe U.S. and Western European social changes transferred to another set of realities. There has been much doubt as to the applicability of the term. Some scholars argue that Latin American societies have never experienced any thorough, overall modernization and therefore cannot be postmodern in the usual sense. Many observers believe that the region has always exhibited what appear to be postmodern features. Some of those involved in the debate reject the term as an ill-fitting foreign imposition. Still, the discussion of postmodernism inevitably has spread through Latin America. Its importance in the discussion of late-twentieth-century culture has been so great that the term cannot be artificially excluded from the critical examination of Latin American societies. Yet, scholars continue to question its relevance and to make adjustments in the concept of the postmodern to suit Latin American societies.

The examples discussed in Chapter Two are, on the one hand, works of Spanish American and Brazilian essayists who have debated the application of the term and concept and, on the other, creative writing. Selected Latin American prose fiction of the period from the 1970s forward is considered as presenting a case of postmodernism.

Chapter Three treats the issues raised by documentary narratives authored by members of native groups. Testimonial or documentary literature is one category in which Latin American writers have produced notable innovations. Not only have significant texts appeared and excited discussion, but the very category of documentary literature has provoked a good deal of analysis and debate, both among writers themselves and among academic literary critics. The growth of documentary literature is at times seen as necessitating a vigorous effort of redefinition, including a rethinking of the boundaries of creative writing itself. In this chapter, though, the search for a definition of the phenomenon will not be pursued in any exhaustive manner. While documentary literature involves many types of authors and speakers, this book focuses specifically on the place that Spanish American and Brazilian literature accords to information coming from speakers who are from less literate ethnic subpopulations. Part of this chapter is a general overview of the lengthy transition from the custom of regarding Indians, African-Hispanics, and persons of mixed ancestry as informants or sources to the present practice of assigning author or at least senior-collaborator status to the poorer and ethnically distinctive narrators and autobiographers. Several texts come in for consideration in this chapter, but especially the 1966 Biografia de un cimarr-n (translated as Autobiography of a Runaway Slave) by the Cuban Miguel Barnet, who worked with the ex-slave Esteban Montejo, and Me llamo Rigoberta Mencbú (I, Rigoberta Mencbú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala) by Elizabeth Burgos Debray with Rigoberta Menchú (1959), the latter the winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize.

According to long-standing convention, the sole credited author of ethnographic or regionalist narratives was generally a highly educated person responsible for gathering the material and seeing it through the publication process. The author often had gathered information by speaking with informants from indigenous groups or isolated communities. The concept of the native informant is most closely associated with anthropology and with the study of living Amerindian languages, which outsiders cannot master without assistance from native speakers. Yet writers of indigenista or Indian-themed novels have also often emphasized to their public the confidential relations that they had established with members of native communities. Having drawn out from real-life Indians their experiences and cultural information gave these writers a special entitlement to treat indigenous life in fiction. Clearly, by the late twentieth century the public was eager to read the first-person accounts, as little mediated as possible, of people who would not ordinarily publish their life stories. Many readers are looking for a positive answer to the question Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak poses in the title of her much-cited essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?" which is hardly sanguine on the point. Identifying Indians as authors appeals to the current-day campaign to recognize the creative and inventive talents of native peoples and other disadvantaged populations. Yet the image of the Indian-authored text is complicated by the assistance, of some sort, needed by nearly all Indians, so far, who have published in Spanish or Portuguese. Someone more at home in the mainstream culture assumes responsibility for the actual writing of the text in Spanish or Portuguese, using as a basis conversations or tape-recorded reminiscences. The collaborator who is sophisticated in the dominant culture may well be the one to shape the narrative according to the conventions of the autobiography or the eyewitness report and to add such elements as chapter titles, epigraphs, glossaries of words in the native language, and notes explaining folkways unfamiliar to outsiders.

In Chapter Four, whose topic is the relations between Latin American literary intellectuals and the mass media, a central problem is how to think critically about modern mass culture and its effects on both society and art. Many Latin American scholars and social critics have published examinations of twentieth-century commercial pop culture, and an effort to survey all of their writing on the topic would result in, at the least, a book. This chapter is specifically on literary intellectuals and how they have reacted to, and become involved with, mass media and cultures. This chapter is not primarily concerned with researchers' theories and findings about popular and mass culture, although there is mention of the Frankfurt School and alternatives to it as well as the innovative analyses of Ariel Dorfman. The chapter concentrates not on research but on creative responses to the rise of commercial popular culture. Some literary creators have sought to join the makers of mass culture, hoping to bring about renovation from within. Others use their essays and creative writings to deliver a critique of mass culture and its passive consumers. The example examined in most detail is that of the Argentine novelist and essayist Julio Cortázar, who maintained a sanguine belief that mass culture could be refashioned to increase awareness of social forces.

Chapter Five treats the related topics of women's writing from Latin America and critical efforts to examine gender issues in Latin American literature. It is inevitable that, in the construction of a gender-studies approach to Latin American writing, there will be some use of elements from European and U.S. feminism. At the same time, many scholars are eager to point out the differences between the Latin American nations and the areas in which present-day feminism was formulated. Considerable discussion has gone to ways in which international feminist thought may be transformed and adapted for Latin American literature. Clearly, critics of Latin American literature have another source to tap besides feminist theory: Latin American literature itself, especially imaginative writing and essays by women.

While many works by Latin American women writers have been translated into English, especially in recent years, it is still difficult for English-language readers to glimpse the full historical range of literature by women authors from the region. For this reason, as well as because of the importance of Latin American women's writing in the shaping of a feminist criticism applicable to it, the chapter includes a brief survey of this literature.

The development of a criticism centered on issues of gender first manifested itself in feminist criticism. Other related investigative fields began to establish themselves later. The most important of these other types of gender-based research is gay and lesbian studies. While the chapter on gender issues is predominantly occupied with the study of women's writing and feminism in literary criticism, its final section follows the more recent development of gay and lesbian studies as applied to Latin American writing. While this newer field as yet has produced much less criticism than the better-established feminist approach, it is one of the most quickly expanding areas in the study of Latin American literature and culture.

The choice of critical sources to quote reflects, beyond the inherent relevance of the material cited, two criteria. On the one hand, a major point of the book is to present critical thought as elaborated by Latin American intellectuals. This goal makes it desirable to cite the work of authors from Latin American countries. At the same time, this book is meant to accommodate readers not able to read Spanish; there should be at least some sources that this audience can use to pursue further reading. The ideal citation is one from a Latin American author's work for which a published English translation already exists. When this ideal solution is not possible, the citations either come from Spanish-language materials or from works by European and U.S. researchers that summarize or continue the ideas of Latin American thinkers. All English versions of Spanish and Portuguese citations for which no translator is credited are my own.



“On one level, this is a brilliant scholarly answer to the bedeviling question asked by non-Latin Americanists, 'What is Latin American literature like?' On another level, it coordinates and clarifies, for specialists, the complex of current issues that are often confusing and even discouraging because they are incompletely understood..”
John S. Brushwood, Roberts Professor Emeritus of Latin American Literature, University of Kansas


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