BEING A LATINO WRITER IN AMERICA
by Jonathan Marcantoni
Being a Latino comes with a myriad of complications. Your relationship with the U.S. and your native country depend heavily on how many generations your family has been here, your family’s attitude toward your native culture, and also your personal exposure to your native country. As an artist it is your natural inclination to look as much inward as you do outward, and how much you investigate your Latino identity, the more it will influence your work.
I’ve met many minority artists, whether they are African, African American, Asian, and Latino, who don’t want to be defined by their ethnicity. Who would rather just write stories and keep their personal culture outside of them. I’ve met just as many who spend all their time exploring cultural themes, finding ways to incorporate their cultural worldview into just about any kind of story. Both methods are equally valid. Your ethnicity should not dictate the stories you like to tell, and the fact is that those minority artists who don’t focus on their culture need just as much support in the publishing world as those who do.
Even if you are the lightest skinned Latino out there, speak with a Middle American accent and don’t know any more Spanish than a Taco Bell commercial, if your parents named you Ignacio Fulgencio Matamoros de Rivera, the publishing world will look at you a bit sideways. You may integrate with them, but you’ll never fully be in that inner circle. So while you may write a traditional Sci-Fi novel with no Latino references in it, that literary agent or editor will look at your cover letter, read that difficult name, and decide to go with the book by Aaron Jones. And the problem only gets worse if you focus on Latino themes in a way that doesn’t cater to American audiences (more on that later).
Latinos need unity, and that message cannot be stated enough. We are guests in a strange land, and so I believe that when a Latino makes some strides in any industry, they owe it to their community to give back and to educate and open doors for their fellow Latinos. I have been writing and editing professionally for eight years, and am now in a position where I can give back, through Aignos Publishing, where I am Editor in Chief, and also through my blog http://www.newerawriters.blogspot.com/.
Being that we have two cultures, one North American and the other Latin American, I feel it is best to embrace both cultures (although it is not necessary, but as I will explain it is highly beneficial to do so). In order to do that, I recommend for any Latino author, new or veteran, to learn Spanish.
Really, you should learn it, and not because of the reasons your abuela nags you about when you visit her and still can’t say more than ‘Buenos dìas, tengo mucha hambre’ and ‘Te quiero’ and ‘Yo quiero Taco Bell’. So many Latinos in this country don’t speak more than basic introductory Spanish. I was one such Latino, I knew just enough to order food and ask for directions when I visited the island until I finally became fluent at the age of 21. When those abuelitas and viejos nag you about how you need to know the language of your people, it’s not just to give you grief.
Being mono-lingual is a distinctly U.S. preference that is also one of this country’s major failings. Being bi-, tri- quadruple-lingual, teaches you new worldviews. Even when you read translated works, you are reading it through two filters—the personal interpretation of the translator and the cultural worldview that influences the translator. A good example is Dostoevsky’s BROTHERS KARAMAZOV. The book is highly religious, and is full of deep, thorough philosophical debates about God and the nature of existence, and these philosophical discussions, in Western translations, have until very recently used Roman Catholic terminology. The problem is that Dostoevsky was Eastern Orthodox and the original Russian used Orthodox terminology. So because the translator came from a Western European or North American background, the translation reflected that instead of reflecting the original Russian cultural standpoint, which is Orthodox. Another disadvantage to translations is that you lose a lot of humor and nuance.
These are small examples, but it’s just a taste of how much you miss out when all you can read, write and speak is one language. And if the esoteric reasons aren’t enough for you, consider this, the top three most spoken languages in the world are 1. Mandarin Chinese, 2. Spanish, and 3. English. Those three languages make up over half the world’s population (3 billion and counting), so if you learn Spanish, you will be able to communicate with roughly forty percent of the world’s population. Do you realize how many potential readers that is? And Spanish is not a difficult language to learn, it has less words than English, is full of cognates so it is easy to memorize, and it is widely used in this country so it’s not like you’ll find it hard to meet other Spanish speakers.
But learning Spanish has another quality that can’t be taken for granted. You will, in fact, feel more at home with other Hispanics. When you go to a Latin American country, whether it is the one of your origin or a different one, you won’t be treated like a foreigner. I know this from experience. Latin Americans are very big on unity, and when they see that even though you’ve gone to Gringolandia, you’re still staying true to your culture, and you will be respected for that. You also get to learn about the wide, varied world of Spanish and Hispanic literature, and you’ll find like I did how watered down Anglo writing is in this country. What is common in Latin America, style wise, is experimental in the U.S. Spanish speakers are voracious readers. Guess what city has the most book stores in the world—Buenos Aires. While books are dying in the U.S., they are still a hot commodity both in Latin America and in Spain.
And because literature is still respected and sells well over there, you will find that many of the things you can’t get away with in U.S. publishing you can get away with overseas. American writing in this day and age is dull as hell. It’s dull because it is formulaic. It’s formulaic because of the prevalence of creative writing classes that teach students that there is a set way of writing books in order to get a mass-market publisher to buy them. It is dull because writers are writing their books with the purpose of making them marketable to Hollywood studios, so they write books with thin plots and thin characters that are easy to convert into screenplay format. Many literary agents appreciate this, in fact, because it allows them to market the book to several outlets. The point of literature in this country is to become famous and get rich, rather than creating art. The art of literature in the U.S. is not dead, but it is definitely neglected. What you have instead are a bunch of publishing houses filled with editors and Editors in Chief who learned about books from those creative writing classes I mentioned earlier. Those creative writing classes are run by English teachers who emphasize grammatical correctness, so publishing houses seek out writers who stick to traditional grammar and style. If you asked an American writer his choices on how to write dialogue, he’d probably look at you funny.
“There is more than one way to write dialogue?”
—Yes there is more than way.
He scratches his head. How do I explain this properly? Then he realizes exactly how to express it and says, Well, you can use quotes, but you can also use dashes, like many non-U.S. authors do. Or you can just combine narrative, thought and speech without any indicators aside from common sense. Because dialogue has a particular rhythm and sound that distinguishes it from narrative and dialogue. So you can switch up all three and the reader can still follow it, albeit with some initial difficulty.
“That’s not what my creative writing group says.”
He sighs, —Well, that is typical of a bunch of douchebags, but you don’t want to be like them, do you?
So like I was saying, you can write dialogue in different ways, and if you read non-U.S. books and especially if you read them in their original language, you would know that. Non-U.S. literature allows you to explore more themes in a more experimental, innovative way, and guess what, you’re a Latino, even if you were born and raised here, you still have a connection to somewhere else, and that somewhere else happens to be fascinating, and not only that, but they love the arts, so you being an artist should take advantage of that fact.
Realizing this, when I was given the opportunity to be Editor in Chief at Aignos Publishing, I immediately stressed the importance of bringing in Hispanic writers. What all minority writers have to come to terms with is that the U.S. is a white dominated country with an Anglo-Saxon aesthetic. I’m not saying that as a negative either. If you were writing in Italy, they would have an Italian aesthetic, same with Turkey, China, Spain, wherever, the dominate culture will dictate what kind of art is popular. As much as the U.S. tries to act all inclusive and multi-cultural, the dominate culture is Anglo-Saxon, and as a Latino, unless your family is so far assimilated that the only thing Latino about you is your last name, your aesthetic is going to be different. I’d like to share part of an email sent to me by an African American author who is self-published but also has a decent following. He lays out the way the publishing business views anything non-white:
“It goes without saying that if your work is "culture rich" (referring to heavy Latino/Hispinac references), then a self-publisher is the best way to go:
"Gustavo and Isabella eating flan in San Juan"
If your work has a "cultural slant" (referring to moderate Latino/Hispanic overtones) then a Independent Book Publisher is best.
"Gus and Isabel eating tortilla's in Los Angeles"
If your work is "culture neutral" (any culture can be imagined) then a traditional Trade Book Publisher may choose to pick you up:
"Gus and Izzy eating at Taco Bell in San Luis Obispo"
The personal advice I give writers who invite me to speak at panels (like San Diego Comic-Con and USC Campus) is to expand your target audience with your writing as big as it can get!! Learn to write "culture neutral" until you become famous, then write whatever you want afterwards. Now, I have plenty of friends, like David Flores and Luz Camacho who will only write "culture rich" and they are very popular in San Ysidro, CA and Tijuana, MX. But, I doubt you've heard of them anywhere else. If that is the kind of writer you want to be then self-publishing is the best way to go, keeping in mind that this is the least popular way of getting your work out there and gives you a very small audience pool to sell your book to compare to the entire book reader population.”
Now, let me first say I don’t agree with everything he says. A self-publisher is never the way to go for any self-respecting writer. My saying that might anger some people, but self-publishing means throwing your dignity out the window, it shows the world that you aren’t confident enough in your work to go the traditional route, and it is a lazy way of becoming an author, in my opinion. The other thing I don’t agree with is that you have to sacrifice your cultural identity in order to be a successful author. But what he is absolutely correct about is that big time publishers will be less interested in your work the more ‘ethnic’ it appears, and the same goes for Hollywood.
Publishers want material that can be sold to the largest audience possible, and that audience is predominantly white. Usually, this audience is interested in only one kind of minority-based story: Minorities chasing and achieving the American dream. Yes, if you make your black and Hispanic characters immigrants or poor people who fight through adversity in order to embrace the American (read: white) way of life, then a big time publisher will want to publish your book. Whites like nothing more than being reminded that they are so awesome that people come from all over the world to be just like them. Whites also like minority based stories where a white person saves the day (see The Help, Ghosts of Mississippi, really any slavery or Civil Rights movie except for Beloved and Malcolm X, Blood Diamond, Salvador, The Killing Fields, the list goes on). So, as a Latino who wants to write about Latinos, and have the heroes be Latino and largely not have white people at all in the story, or have Latino centric stories that don’t play to prevailing stereotypes, you will be at a disadvantage.
This is where Aignos comes in. It has been my dream for years now to establish a publishing house for Puerto Rican authors that helps their books obtain international exposure. Puerto Rico has publishing houses, but they don’t tend to distribute or promote books much outside the Caribbean. It is telling that the most world renowned Puerto Rican novel, LA GUARACHA DEL MACHO CAMACHO, was first published in Buenos Aires and not in Puerto Rico. Aignos was not my idea, it was my friend, editor and co-owner Zachary Oliver’s idea. He asked me to come on board as an owner and as Editor in Chief to build up the editorial department. So while it is not my own house, and it’s not entirely geared toward Latinos, I still have the freedom to seek them out and create an environment that promotes Latino literature free of the Anglo cultural bias that restrains us. I want to find authors who have a distinct voice. They don’t have to write about other Latinos, we aren’t beholden to only write about ourselves. I’d love to find a sci-fi or fantasy book by a Latino author. I’d like to see more speculative fiction from Latino authors along the lines of Jorge Luis Borges, or even a really good (emphasis on GOOD) horror story.
I also want Aignos to educate readers on subjects they may not know about or have misinformation about, particularly in regards to Latin America and Hispanics. I want to know more about life in Nicaragua, for instance, or political movements in Peru and Bolivia, or the struggles of indigenous people in Guatemala and Mexico. I am a Puerto Rican Independentista, so books that reflect that view or tell of our struggle appeal to me, but I am also willing to consider books that argue for the other side. We aren’t solely a liberal press, and whether your views are liberal or conservative, I would scrutinize your writing just as much (though, admittedly, if you sent me a book praising General Pinochet, it would have to be pretty amazing for me to overlook my personal feelings of the man).
Aignos publishes books in the following genres: General Nonfiction, Crime Fiction, Literary Fiction, World Literature, and Sci Fi/Fantasy. In all those categories the #1 thing I am looking for is books that offer a different world view than what you would expect. Our first book is called THE DARK SIDE OF SUNSHINE by Paul Guzzo. It is not the first book about crime in Tampa, Fl, but it is one of the few that doesn’t focus on the mob, but rather on how crime and hypocrisy has permeated the city’s long history. It begins with violent crime and then political corruption and then finally moral corruption. I honestly haven’t read a nonfiction book with that sort of arc, which is why it appealed to me. Our first Spanish book is EL DIARIO DE BATANCES, a literary fiction about a group of people who hunt rare and antique books much like an archaeologist would hunt lost treasure. The particular book they are searching for is the lost diary of Emeterio Betances, one of Puerto Rico’s greatest thinkers and freedom fighters. The fact that the book has characters with a unique occupation and it teaches readers about a segment of Puerto Rican history that many people don’t know about, appealed to me.
Being a Latino author, especially when you put your culture front and center in your work, is difficult when you are in the U.S., but not impossible, and I hope to make the journey a little less difficult for my fellow Latinos.
For more on Aignos Publishing, visit: http://www.aignospublishing.com/.
For more on writing and publishing tips, visit Jonathan's blog: http://www.newerawriters.blogspot.com/.
For The Latina Book Club's Chat with Jonathan on his book TRAVELER'S REST, click here.
here. He is also Editor in Chief for Aignos Publishing, a new bi-lingual independent press specializing in experimental and innovative literature. Jon is the co-author of COMMUNION with author/playwrite Jean Blasiar, which was published in October 2011 from Savant Books and Publications. He lives in San Antonio, Texas with his wife and three children, where he is currently working on his next novel.