The New Latino Boom in the United States and Se habla español: An Interview with Mayra Santos-Febres
The poet, fiction writer, and academic Mayra Santos-Febres (PhD, Cornell, 1991) is known for her novels Sirena Selena (translated by Stephen A. Lytle)—a finalist for the Rómulo Gallegos Prize in 2001—Any Wednesday I’m Yours (translated by James Graham), and Our Lady of the Night (translated by Ernesto Mestre-Reed). Her narrative work explores African heritage, the marginalization of Afro-Puerto Ricans, the social status of women in Puerto Rico, the urban and technological underworld, and the new imperialism of North American culture. In 2010 she was named by the Spanish newspaper El País as one of the most important Ibero-Americans of the year, and in that same year, she won a medal from UNESCO for founding the Festival de la Palabra in Puerto Rico. She is currently a professor at the University of Puerto Rico where she is director of the creative writing workshop.
This interview is centered on her identity as a Puerto Rican writer of African descent, her relationship with the United States, her literary generation and its relationship with literary anthologies, as well as the collective generational project. It was conducted on the basis of her involvement in the anthology Se habla español: voces latinas en USA [We speak Spanish: Latin voices in the USA] (2000), which represented a starting point for what is gradually being recognized as a New Latino Boom in the United States.
Thomas Nulley-Valdés: Could you share a little about your life? Who is Mayra Santos-Febres? And how did you end up living and studying in the U.S.?
Mayra Santos-Febres: I am Puerto Rican and for Puerto Ricans our identity is a very strange case because our country is considered a free associated state, but, the truth is, we are neither a state, nor free, nor associated. We all have United States passports. This allowed me to go to the U.S. to study at Cornell University for a little over three years. Since then I have been coming and going to the United States and other Caribbean, European, and Latin American countries. I can say that I come from this bordering country which is part of the U.S. but at the same time is not; that is part of Latin America but at the same time is not; and that is clearly part of the Caribbean. What happens with Puerto Rico is very much like what happens with Martinique or Guadalupe in relation to France, or what happens with Aruba or Curaçao with Holland. I can’t—and at the same time I do—call myself Latina by migration, but I am rather Latina by default, because it’s one of the many names which is “applied” to me according to the classifications of United States’ censuses. The situation is further complicated because, furthermore, I am of African descent. For that reason, in a project like Daughters of the Diaspora (2003), which is an anthology of Afro-American and Afro-descendent women, I appear.
The topic of the struggles for civil rights which have occurred in the U.S. also position me in a very liminal social space. I am Latina and not Latina, and Afro-American because being Black is transnational. I live in a country which functions entirely in Spanish, but I come from two global communities, one from the North and another from the South. I am Caribbean in three languages, and Latin American in only one. As such, I don’t really know how to answer your question about my identity. Let’s say it’s complicated. I like to define myself as Mother-in-Chief and as a negra letrada.
T.N-V.: In a sense your literary generation has defined itself by and through its use of short story anthologies. How did those generational links begin to establish themselves? And what role did these anthologies play? Not only do you participate in Se habla español (2000) but also in Líneas aéreas [Airlines] (1999), and both anthologies are in dialogue with McOndo (1996), how are these related?
M.S-F.: I don’t know exactly when everything started, but I think it was at the beginning of the 1990s, in 1993, more or less, when the Primer Foro Iberoamericano “Literatura y compromiso” was celebrated in Málaga, Spain. They invited sixty emerging Latin American writers. And some evil mastermind—I don’t know who—put us up in a drug-addict rehabilitation center in a town called Molilla. There began relationships between narrators and poets from across all hemispheres: Fernando Iwasaki, Marcelo Birmajer, Malú Urriola, Nadia Prado. And among that group of the sixty writers who were chosen, I was there too.
Later on, another summit was celebrated, put together by Casa de América in Madrid in 1998. There I met Carlos Cortés, Edmundo Paz Soldán, Jorge Volpi, and various other members of my generation. I remember we met with Eduardo Becerra in Madrid where he invited us to participate in an anthology which would come to be called Líneas aéreas (1999).
After that, Julio Ortega, who was the Peruvian critic who had published Antología del cuento latinoamericano del siglo XXI: Las horas y las hordas [Anthology of the Latin American short story of the 21st century: Hours and hordes] (1997), called together a group of us to participate in the Guadalajara Book Fair. And soon enough, writers from Paz Soldán to Volpi and many other writers, began to work in festivals and literary fairs and in universities. Little by little, a generational fabric was formed.
As I work as a university lecturer, I was interested in the new proposals of Latin American and Caribbean literatures. So, I would call my friends. And the same would happen if they called me to ask for recommendations about new Caribbean literature. It was Volpi who introduced me to Guadalupe Nettel before she had her explosive success, to give you an example. We were always looking for new voices, different texts, which weren’t repetitions of Magic Realism, but texts which were in dialogue with technology, with the city, with gender, with race. In other words, McOndo and Líneas aéreas are emerging projects of what would soon become Se habla español and other anthology projects. We have been working intensely in many anthologies, each one of us creating them in our own spaces, but at the same time with the same vision: to amplify the perspective of what Latin American literature is. I read them as part of the same project to present a more pluralistic face of what Latin American literature was—including the diasporas, women, Black writers, straight and gay—expanding and interconnecting the literary project of our regions.
T.N-V.: How do you perceive this collective generational vision to amplify and pluralize the perspectives on what Latin American literature is?
M.S-F.: The project of our generation has been to open the world view about what was thought to be a Latin American writer and the themes which one ought to discuss. I absolutely believe that literary projects needn’t be ideological. That said, my intention when I write is to intervene and strengthen the culture of dialogue which belongs to open societies. I have my ideas and opinions like a civil citizen but, literarily, I’m not interested in the notion that literature ought to declare itself as Leftist to be respected. The Left has also put their foot in it and has been responsible for lots of censorship. I’m interested in a literature that explores its limits wherever a writer wants to explore them.
I also don’t want Latin American literature to be exclusively configured by the creole project, that is, by “representatives of the creole and patriarchal high class.” The writers of the Boom, in poetry as much as in novels, were all white men. There were women Latin American writers, but they operated in a separate sphere. And all these people I mention—Paz Soldán, Sergio Gómez, Alberto Fuguet, Iwasaki, Volpi, Rosa Beltrán, Nettel, Rita Indiana—and I, are very committed to including, at the same level, male and female writers, Blacks, creoles, Garifuna, Native Americans of all other ethnicities, people from the LGBT community, as you have seen in the anthologies. I think that, in this way, the generational project has been very successful because the face of what is known as Latin American literature has been multiplied.
T.N-V.: So did the fact that the editors of Se habla español, Fuguet and Paz Soldán, had been classified (rightly or wrongly) as “McOndiano” writers —and all of the negative associations which that supposedly implied: of being anti-Magic Realist, parricides of García Márquez, neoliberal rich kids— influence your decision to participate in Se habla español? What is your opinion of McOndo?
M.S-F.: The need to break with Magic Realism arose from different literary locations. Magic Realism was an important force of induction, it was the most important writing of the second half of the 20th century for the whole world. So much so that Salman Rushdie, Paul Auster, and Toni Morrison ended up saying at some stage that Borges, Cortázar or García Márquez were among their literary teachers.
However, the publishing world ended up using Magic Realism as a form of marketing and demanded of Latin American writers their circumscription to what would soon become a literary formula. The influence of Macondo and Magic Realism reached those heights.
As such, for the subsequent generations to the Boom, we began to feel we only had the option of continuing with Magic Realism or die. The literary resistance began to show its fruits with the Ibero-American police thriller (Leonardo Padura Fuentes, Rolo Diez, Antonio García Molina, etc.). In the 80s, women strongly attacked with their own narrative proposals, which are many and varied —from the rewriting of Magic Realism by Isabel Allende, Ángeles Mastretta and Laura Esquivel, to Elena Poniatowska’s toying with the historical and testimonial novels, the experimental novels of Damiela Eltit or the “fantastic” ones of Carmen Boullosa.
Younger writers toward the end of the 20th Century—both men and women—didn’t have any other option but to take a side with the Crack movement or McOndo or whichever other movement. We had to break the bubble of Magical Realism and its “folklorization” which was asphyxiating for us, and which didn’t account for the other literary explorations which always existed in Latin American and Caribbean literature. There was thirst for renewal.
T.N-V.: Returning to Se habla español, to what extent did you agree or disagree with what was articulated in the prologue? I am referring to the ideas therein regarding the Inter-American fusion in this country and the attempt to recover Spanish as a legitimate language both spoken and written in the U.S.
M.S-F.: I completely agree with the prologue, because history has shown us to be right. Spanish is an important language in the United States. By the year 2050, the country with the second most Spanish-speakers in the world will be the United States. There are bilingual schools at elementary, middle, and high school in Spanish, entire university programs in creative writing in Spanish. Let us look at Trump’s reaction to the Central American immigration to the United States and let us understand the deep transformations to North America from this perspective. It’s true that Spanish—even though it is not of pedigree—has become, more and more, a predominant language in the U.S. And I, who am very close to the United States am absolutely in favor that it be that way.
At the demographic level, history is showing us that the U.S. is being Latinamericanized. But having said that, we will have to see whether new bilingual programs continue to be created, and also what happens with Anglo literature. I can tell you that, as the director of the Narrative Program at the University of Puerto Rico, I have had students from the U.S., white with blue eyes from Texas, New York, and Chicago, who come to Puerto Rico to take classes in creative writing and who write fabulously in Spanish. I don’t see any reason why in very little time writers from the U.S. won’t decide to write principally in Spanish.
T.N-V.: What do you think of the supposed phenomenon of globalization or, as some have called it, the Americanization or Anglobalization of the world?
M.S-F.: I think that it is almost impossible that cultures not end up coming together. I also think that in a hundred more years it will be less and less possible to find “cultural/racial/ethinc purity” in any part of the world. That fills me with joy. I love that there are people with Chinese, Hindu, White, Irish, and Black grandparents. I think we will advance a lot as a species, that more parts will continue to be added to the great dance of genes which will strengthen us as humans and thinkers. I believe in that mix; I am Caribbean after all. I am a product of those mixes.
I believe that people who demonize the Anglo/Americanization also have to ask themselves: “And doesn’t there also exist a Latinamericanization of the U.S.?” When you walk along each corner of each city in the United States, there are restaurants for sushi, for Mexican food, Boricua food, Colombian food, Peruvian, and people from all of those countries cohabitating on North American soil. Globalization supposes an integration of cultures. Purity had ended!
What I think doesn’t happen, and that is what worries me, is the distribution of power. Even though all of us are mixes, where decisions are made about how to organize capital, and how to invest, in how we recognize medical and technological knowledge, and in political movements, we return to the supremacy pyramid of racial, gender, and class. Increasingly there are more of us hybrids with access to education, to discourses, to capital; but, at the same time, the decisions at the global or financial or political levels continue to be made by certain white men.
The globalization of neoliberal capitalism is the sequel to imperialism. Another version of the same. Culturally, I applaud globalization. Politically, I declare war with it. The day in which decision-making and the investment of capital is socialized, I believe we will have finally arrived at a space of true social justice, racial and gender equality. While globalization is administered by the patriarchy and the effects of racial supremacy, we will have the same lot.
But you also don’t have to pay too much attention to what I say. I’m only a writer.
Translated by Thomas Nulley-Valdés
Thomas Nulley-Valdés is an Australian-Chilean who lives in Canberra, where he works as a lecturer in Spanish Studies at the Australian National University. His principal research interests include macro and micro level analysis of Latin American literature, authors, and contexts; contemporary Latin American literary anthologies; and world literature theories and methodologies. For his doctoral research he has conducted around thirty interviews with contemporary Latin American authors and editors and has published some of these interviews in literary magazines and recently one in the edited book McCrack: McOndo y el Crack y los destinos de la literatura latinoamericana [McCrack: McOndo and the Crack and the fates of Latin American literature] (2018).
Puerto Rican Mayra Santos-Febres is the author of some twenty books of poetry, fiction, and literary criticism, including the novels Sirena Selena, which was a finalist for the Rómulo Gallegos International Novel Prize, Our Lady of the Night, Any Wednesday I’m Yours, and, most recently, La amante de Gardel. A Guggenheim fellow, she is the recipient of the Juan Rulfo prize for short story, and Puerto Rico’s National Literature Prize. Currently, Santos-Febres is a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, where she directs the creative writing workshop and the Festival of the Word. In May it was announced that she will be a writer-in-residence at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center Residency Program in Italy.
In our twelfth issue, we pay homage to two giants of Latin American letters: Ida Vitale of Uruguay, winner of the 2018 Miguel de Cervantes Prize, and Julio Ramón Ribeyro of Peru, whose work we celebrate on the ninetieth anniversary of his birth. We also feature poetry, interviews, and stories that range from the Caribbean to the Andes and from Central American to Brazil, exclusive book previews and reflections from translators, and a special section dedicated to the work of Edwin Lucero Rinza, a young poet who recently published the first ever verse collection in Kañaris Quechua.