The seminar 21st Century Fiction from Latin America, which took place on Wednesday 12th February 2014 at Senate House, was organized by ACLAIIR (Advisory Council on Latin American and Iberian Resources), the Institute of Modern Languages Research, the Institute of Latin American Studies, and the Instituto Cervantes in London. It discussed current trends in Latin American literature, translating Latin American fiction, the contemporary Cuban novel, digital media and new literary genres, alternative literary formats such as the graphic novel, and the landscape of the UK market for Latin America.
Some of the contributions aimed to challenge the literary canon, presenting new approaches to literary tradition with a wider range of authors and new literary genres.
Dr. Joanna Page, Lecturer in Latin American Studies at CLAS, Cambridge, centered her talk around Argentina and Chile. She talked about a growing body of 21st century literary works depicting the following themes:
- degeneration of society, chaos, crisis and its aftermath (Damiela Eltit, Mano de obra; Pedro Mairal, El año del desierto)
- memory and the coming of age of new generations moving away from testimonial approaches, where the past becomes a reinvented fiction and autobiography is mixed with fantasy (Argentinan film Los topos; Alejandro Zambra, Formas de volver a casa)
- writings about militant experiences during the 21st century (Carlos Gamero, Un yuppie en la columna de Che Guevara; Federico Lorenz, Montoneros o la ballena blanca; Arturo Fontaine, Vida doble)
- rewriting of the myths and heroes of history (Washington Cucurto, La revolución vivida por los negros and Eduardo Galeano, Espejos)
- violence and philosophy in the 21st century (Roberto Bolaño, Nocturno de Chile and Pola Oloixarac, Teorías salvajes)
- new technologies and new subjectivities, showing characters between the real and the cyber worlds, strange worlds that are familiar to us in some way (Jorge Baradit, Trinidad; César Aira, El juego de los mundos; and Marcelo Cohen, Casa de Ottro).
Cherie R. Elston talked about her collaborative online project Palabras errantes. The project grew from the current lack of Latin American literature in English and the realisation that the internet could play a part in making it more accessible. Although English translations of Latin American literature have been steadily proliferating in the UK publishing market, there seems to be a lack of information regarding what has been published in Latin America.
The Palabras Errantes project was launched by Cambridge students in 2011 with the aim of publishing contemporary Latin American literature in translation, trying to keep away from celebrated authors and topics. The project aims to explore how Latin American literature has been introduced across the world (e.g. in New York). Writers are asked for original work which is then selected for translation. The site is bilingual: it presents the original texts in Spanish with parallel English translation. The internet has allowed the network of translators and writers to expand. So far, the project has 87 writers from across the continent represented, and 47 translators.
Dr. Maria E López explained how homosexuality still exists in Cuban literature as a destabilizing weapon against the regime. The authorities see homosexuality as a social problem, a pathology that needs fixing. Homosexuals are marginalised and accused of being extravagant and strange. Some representative works include El rey de La Habana, by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, a good example of “dirty realism” reflecting a culture with no sense of belonging, without voice. Secondly, Látigo, an example of the literature of disenchantment; and finally, Máscara, illustrating the isolation and stigma suffered by homosexuals.
Dr. Claire Taylor presented her project Literary Heritage and Digital Media, which aims to speak back to the rich Hispanic literary tradition by exploring new hybrid forms such as Twitter poetry, electronic ballads and blog aphorisms. She stressed the possibilities and also limitations of the media, the need for a continuing dialogue between print and digital formats, and the role of the user in activating works.
She indicated that Twitter poetry is growing and becoming popular. This type of poetry uses the formal aspects of Twitter (e.g. message restricted to 140 characters). An example is Eduardo Navas’ Poemita.
She then moved on to talk about electronic ballads, a new genre exemplified by the work of Belén Gache, a Spanish/Argentinian novelist and experimental writer. Her work Radikal Karaoke re-mixes voice, sound, images and special effects drawing on Hispanic heritage.
Finally, in the category of blog aphorisms she showed Eduardo Nava’s Minima Moralia (2011-), a selective remix of Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia collection of aphorisms.
Other new genres include hypertext short fictions, exemplified by Belén Gache’s WordToys (2006).
Dr. Edward King, affiliated lecturer at the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Cambridge, presented a syllabus for an imaginary course of graphic fiction, mostly drawing on examples from Brazil. He arranged the syllabus in four broad topics:
- Word and image : characterized by an interplay between text and image, where literary texts carry the image as the image helps frame the text. Two examples: Mário de Andrade’s Turista fotógrafo aprendiz (1993) and Julio Cortázar’s Fantomas contra los vampiros multinacionales (1975).
- Space and time: shows how visual and textual strategies are employed in the narrative. The construction of space and time was exemplified by O catador de batatas.
- City comics: the great structure of comics mimics the great structure of the city. Techniques of collage may be used to present the city. Examples: André Diniz’s O morro da favela (2011); Operación Bolivar (2010)
- Comic book culture in network society: exemplified by Turma da Mônica Jovem
The final panel of the day was chaired by Rory O’Bryen and discussed issues of translation, publishing and marketing.
The literary agent (Laurence Laluyaux). The aim of the agent is to get authors translated in as many languages as possible. The network of contacts is essential for the agent. The publisher develops trust with the reader or translator, and the agent involves publishers, readers and translators. Translators tend to be actively involved, but the question is how to create an actively involved readership. The problem is finding a readership and raising its expectations. UK publishers have tended to follow other European publishers regarding what they translate. This is gradually changing.
The translator (Nick Caistor). The chain a translation follows before entering the UK market starts with the author, followed by the agent, and then the foreign publisher (translations rights from foreign publishers are bought by UK publishers). France and Italy have helped the dissemination of Latin American literature in the UK. Unfortunately, there is a lack of communication between all intellectuals of the trade, and some degrees in UK universities don’t necessarily require reading literature.
The publisher (Bill Swainson, Bloomsbury). Literature is international and interesting authors can be found anywhere in the world. Bloomsbury tends to focus on authors who are alive and relatively young, with more than one book published and with an established reputation. The sense of a network of contacts as a source of writers is essential. For the publisher, the sense of being able to create a reputation for a writer is also a major drive. The selection process aims to cast the net wide, but always having a clear idea of what you’re trying to achieve.
Sonia Morcillo is the Hispanic Specialist at Cambridge University Library and a member of the ACLAIIR committee.