The Art and Practice of Mexican American and Chicano Fiction
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
The English Dictionary defines “fiction” as “the act of feigning, inventing or imagining; that which is feigned, i.e., a fictitious story, fable, fabrication, falsehood.” In The Language of Fiction, Margaret MacDonald informs us that “fiction is often used ambiguously both for what is fictitious and for that by which the fictitious is expressed” (in Perspectives in Fiction, Edited by James L. Calderwood and Harold E. Toliver, New York: Oxford University, 1968, 55). Indeed, “fiction” is opposed to “fact” as what is imaginary to what is real. But this is not an absolute boundary. How is one to know where fiction begins and reality leaves off? Fiction is a contrivance “but the content of very little fiction is wholly fictitious” (67). Perhaps the expression “truth is stranger than fiction” says much about fiction. That fiction often reflects reality; and reality often reflects fiction. Odd as that may sound, fiction is meant to reflect the imaginary, the “not real.” But the touchstone of fiction lies in the real world and ergo actuates the fiction. The worlds of fiction in the short story and the novel (and other forms of fiction) are created by the storyteller with details and personages that may or may not correspond to the real world. In the Star Wars stories, for example, the world of those stories has some general correspondence with the world as we know it. There, fact and fancy are mixed in a blend that covers a canvas we seem to recognize–almost. That which we don’t recognize on the canvas is “invention”–perhaps the key ingredient of fiction. Fiction is thus never 100 percent invention. It’s a blend of the real and the made up. The story. To work, fiction requires the willing suspension of disbelief, as T.S. Eliot called that process of getting into a story. MacDonald adds: “one must be able to enter imaginatively into its (fiction) emotional situation though its emotions need not be felt” (63), adding: “To create a story is to use language to create the contents of that story,” closing with “characters play a role; human beings live a life” (65). Texts tell us about stories; sometimes they tell us about people. Always they reveal more about the writer than he or she imagines. Subtexts and intertexts are like scalpels in the hands of literary critics in their efforts to anatomize fiction. Fiction is a verbal construction; life is not–except when we seek to explain or describe it to someone else. Despite fiction being life-like on occasions, it is not life in vivo. Fiction is not life but an image of life as created through the filters of the storyteller. Many times those filters give us a fiction of perplexity, leaving us wondering what the point of the fiction is/was/can be. In large part, social realism has dominated much of fiction since the 19th century. But for some time since World War II, fiction has undergone a transmogrification–a breaking out of or breaking away from the traditional bounds of the genre. One such effort has been “magical realism,” a technique merging fantasy and realism. Another emerging technique in fiction is “minimalism”–spare prose with a minimum of details. There are still writers of fiction who use the technique of density–giving readers a plethora of information. Gustave Flaubert believed in giving readers the maximum amount of details in order for the reader to really “see” the scene. He believed that in fiction the writer had to be both objective and unobtrusive. Guy de Maupassant, on the other hand, believed there was no such thing as objectivity. Subjectivity was everywhere in the fiction, in the selection of words, the architecture of the story. The hand of the author was everywhere visible. What seems to characterize much contemporary fiction is its search for new forms, new boundaries, and new ways to engage the reader in the story. Aristotle first laid down the dictum of fiction in his theory of drama: unity of action, place, and time. Any response to a literary work presupposes a relationship between the reader and the text. By and large, any response is predicated on what the reader brings to the reading. For example, a 12th century text in Old English requires of a reader some facility with Old English and some understanding of the times that engendered the work. A response to a literary work must be more than “I didn’t like it.” That’s certainly a legitimate response. But such a response should be shored up by concrete considerations. Perhaps the plot was weak or too contrived, the characters too wooden or stereo-typed, the point of view too disjointed. There is no right or wrong in a response to a literary work. Important to bear in mind, however, is that a literary work is the way it is and not the way it is not. The strongest part of the literary equation lies between teller and tale, both of which must link up successfully with a reader or auditor. As story, fiction is always colored by the teller just as a joke succeeds or fails depending on the teller and the details of the story. In the main, writers of fiction work with material they know. A good story is one in which the writer knows his or her stuff. Some writers focus more on description, others on narration, while others prefer to have the story develop through dialog. Short fiction is a craft of its own. Practitioners of the longer form find the short form restrictive, characterization being difficult within the bounds of the short form. Fiction doesn’t always start at the beginning–it may start in medias res, the middle, which William Saroyan, the Armenian American writer from California, described as jumping in the middle of the river and starting to swim. In addition to plot, setting, point of view, and characterization, fiction also includes style, theme, mood, atmosphere, and tone. While verisimilitude was once an important feature of fiction–is the work believable–it has become less and less a consideration of contemporary fiction. More important now in fiction is novelty and the brilliance of the writer in terms of his or her style. In literature, style is usually defined as the habitual manner of expression of an author, choices made consciously or unconsciously about such things as vocabulary, organization, diction, imagery, pace, and even certain recurring themes or subjects. Most often style is identified in terms of an author’s language and its intellectual use. The French define style as l’homme–the man, recognizing that style is by and large a personal characteristic unique to the individual. Which is why we can recognize the style of particular writers like Hemingway, for example, or Steinbeck, or Thomas Wolfe. Mexican American Short Story
Thomas M. Leitch contends that “everyone knows what stories are–fortunately; for it is excessively difficult to say just what they are” [emphasis mine]. Brander M. Matthews, the best known philosopher of the short story as a genre, articulated some of the key features in what constitutes a short story. But Edgar Allan Poe’s definition of the short story has become the more popular. According to Poe two things were essential to the genre: (1) that it shall be short and (2) that it shall possess coherence sufficient to hold the reader’s or listener’s unflagging interest from beginning to end. Immediately the length of a story becomes a problematic, such that the genre has been subdivided into (1) the short-short story, (2) the short story, and (3) the long short story–sometimes: the long story, of novelette length. Story may be as old as humankind–from the earliest times of language which enabled one human being to transmit some piece of information to another human being. Story is the tale, the telling and the teller. It is also audience, ready for the story, able to understand the story, and able to appreciate it at once as information and as invention. In antiquity, story tellers wielded considerable power, not just because of their ability to tell stories dramatically but because a repertoire of stories was a reflection of learning and of more than passing knowledge and facility with language. He who knew language was thought to have some special relationship with the gods. In Africa, the Griot, the storyteller, is a revered person. In the main, the short story is actuated by the dicta of Aristotle’s theory of drama: unity of action, place and time. But much has changed in short fiction as it has in long fiction. No longer just the mode by which to tell a short tale to raise a moral point nor the format through which history was kept alive at the tribal fires or clan gatherings, the short story has acquired literary dimensions that have transcended its historical functions. Writers of the short story do not engage in the genre because it is short and less difficult to write than the longer form, say, the novel. Indeed, not. The short story is a craft of its own. Many practitioners of the longer form find the tight form of the short story restrictive, complaining that characterization is difficult within the bounds of the form. But Raymond Chandler qvels with the short story. For Chicanos, the short story lies rooted in the cuentos (stories/tales) of Hispanic culture, told and retold orally as part of the “folk” lore, the memories of times past. Hispanic tale tellers were always welcome at the table, the hearth or festivities. Legends, myths, and stories of the macabre were told countless times to audiences that seemed never to tire of the tales.Cuentos were the stock-in-trade of every family’s repertoire. From infancy, Hispanic children learned about brujas (witches), calaveras (skeletons), and la Llorona, the weeping woman looking for her children. Hispanic cuentos tell of lost gold and silver mines, of saints, and of things that go bump in the night. Essentially, the cuento is designed to be instructive, to teach a moral lesson. By and large, though, Mexican American writers made the transition from Spanish to English during the period from 1848 to 1912, and in the period from 1912 to 1960 were busy producing literary works in English. But the allure of the cuento, focusing on the mythic past, was strong in Mexican American literary production as evidenced by the creative works of Mexican American writers like Arturo Campa, Fray Angelico Chavez, Juan Rael, Jovita Gonzalez, and Aurora Lucero during the period between World Wars–1920 to 1940. The stories of this time were characterized by themes and motifs of the past in which Mexicans or Mexican Americans were cast as gentle, peace-loving, and wise with the knowledge of God and things of the earth. Breaking free of the “pastoral” bonds of the cuento does not occur until after World War II with short stories like those of Mario Suarez. But the real break with the cuento tradition in Mexican American literary production comes after 1960 with the Chicano Movement and the Chicano Renaissance. It’s not a clean break, however, for threads of the cuento are still visible in early modern Chicano fiction from 1960 to 1970 and still visible in some Chicano literary production since then. Like Chicano poetry of the Chicano Renaissance, Chicano fiction of that period is equally strident and shrill in its fictive posture and ideological thrusts. It wasn’t mainstream American fiction to which Chicano writers gravitated but to Third World models. Like black writers of the Civil Rights Movement, Chicano writers wielded the pen as a sword to thrust the Chicano agenda and to parry what they perceived to be mainstream threats aimed at Chicanos. In Chicano Movement fiction Anglos became bad guys and Chicanos donned white hats. More importantly, though, in Chicano fiction of the Movement the focus of the story was on Chicano life as it was lived both within the parameters of Chicano existence and within the parameters of existence in the United States. Chicano fiction after 1960 was full of sound and fury signifying everything. The full range of Chicano particulars sought expostulation in public and in the media, particularly in print. Waves of Chicano publications emerged to press for “demands” or “redress” and then faded. Literary publications like El Grito, Con Safos, and De Colores came into existence for Chicano writers as alternative for mainstream publications which had long excluded them. Here and there, Chicano writers like Daniel Garza found their way into mainstream magazines but, by and large, Chicano writers were absent from those pages. Chicano publications like La Luz(first national Hispanic public affairs magazine in English) published scores of works by emerging Chicano writers as well as works by already established Chicano writers. Chicano short story writers whose works appeared in El Grito were thought of as theQuinto Sol Writers, while Chicano writers whose works appeared in Con Safos and Caracol were considered Chicano Wave Writers. Chicano writers whose works appeared in publications like De Colores, La Luz and Revista Chicano-Riqueña in the 70's to mid 80's were thought of as New Wave Writers. And Chicano writers of the later 80's to the present whose works have appeared in publications like ViAztlan are talked about as Third Wave Writers. The distinctions are nominal but the distance between the Quinto Sol Writers and theThird Wave Writers is a matter of function versus form. One was a literature of liberation, the other a literature of consciousness looking for the best artistic form for Chicano expression.
Mexican American Novel
The word “novel” is a term difficult to define, but in the main it refers to an “extended” work of prose that employs the techniques of fiction: plot, setting, point of view and characterization. As fiction it also employs various approaches associated with fiction–psychological approach, sociological approach, archetypal approach, etc. Just as the short story is short, so too the novel is long–longer, that is. One could say the novel is an extended short story, but that isn’t quite accurate because the short story is bounded by particular elements of unity that do not inhibit the novel. Analogously, the short story is like a backyard; the novel is a ranch. There’s considerably more room in the novel to tell the story, elaborate more pieces of the story, space to develop character(s), plumb their being(s), exposit relationships, span generations. The novel is a canvas; the short story, a snapshot. Like people, novels come in all sizes, shapes and forms. While Bocaccio’s Decameron is a series of stories told by narrators hiding out from the plague, the work has been variously identified as a novel. In many ways, the word “novel” is a catch-all term for a variety of prose manifestations. The origin of “the novel” is hard to place, but in English the novel had its beginnings in the early 18th century. It takes 100 years for the novel to migrate to the United States. And given the character of America, the American novel grows self-consciously from the genteel traditions of New England, giving way to novels of social commentary. Emulating first “the romance,” the American novel evolved through naturalism to realism. After the Civil War, the American novel was regarded as an instrument for social commentary. Richard Chase explains that “the American novel tends to rest in contradictions and among extreme ranges of experience.” (The American Novel and its Tradition, Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1957, 1) Generally, our assessment of American novels has focused on those contradictions and extreme ranges of experience. Henry James defined that range of experience as “what happens to us as social creatures.” (Ibid, 21) That has been the general canvas of the American novel– what happens to us as social creatures. For this reason American novelists have tended to create in their novels a verisimilitude of the society in which their characters move, patterned in terms of human relationships and the human predicament. Since 1945 the American novel has tended to reflect the uncertainty and ambiguities of modern life. Some critics of the novel suggest that as a consequence the American novel has become too stylized, too personal. The large vistas of traditional American novels have given way to narrow perspectives and a banality of language, say many critics of the genre. The upshot is that the American novel provides a range of critical assessment, depending on what we think the function of the novel ought to be. Lionel Trilling thought the novel was “a kind of summary and paradigm of our cultural life.” (“Art and Fortune” in The Liberal Imagination, 1950) While there is some controversy about some forms of short fiction–whether a short work is a piece of folklore, a tale or a short story (something more fictive than the novel)—the novel as a genre has raised more questions as a literary form than any other of the literary genres. Discussion of “cataloging” the novel is much like the story that the only thing one can be sure of when the person driving a car in front of you puts his or her hand out the driver’s window to signal a turn in the old-fashioned way is that the window is down. There is, of course, the meaning of the word “fiction.” What exactly does it mean? Is a “novel” still a “fiction” when it is so apparently autobiographical or patently realistic in the details about the characters that their live counterparts are easily recognizable? In The Four Forms of Fiction, Northrop Frye points out the distinction between fiction as a genus and the novel as a species. Of course, none of this sheds light on what the novel is, except to say that as a species, it is not short, otherwise it would be a short story. Few critics would call a short story a short novel. Origins of the novel as a genre are obsolete. And trying to date the novel historically leads us back to the chicken-and-the-egg question about fiction. Though as Frye argues, the novel should not be constrained by the strictures of fiction. In loose terms we can say that The Decameron is a novel–an episodic novel–much the same as Tomas Rivera’s work, And the Earth Did Not Part is a fragmentary novel. The structures of the two novels are pretty much the same. But if we allow that The Decameron is a novel, what do we make of The Canterbury Tales? Is it an episodic novel as well? Do purpose and intent help us ascertain when a particular work is a novel? Henry Fielding conceived the novel as a “comic epic in prose,” a definition that cuts out most “novels.” To work around the constraints of definitions some works have been called “romances,” a term older than the term “novel.” The distinction between the two is that we do not find “real people” in the “romance.” However the novel may have come into being, we know a lot about its evolution after the Renaissance. Generally, though not conclusively, we can place the novel first in Italy, then in Spain, and identify the Spanish influences in the early English novel. In the 19th century, the strongholds of the novel were in France and Russia, giving way to its ascendancy in the United States toward the end of the 19th century and continuing until well into the third quarter of the 20th century. Since World War Two, however, the stronghold of the novel seems to be in Latin America. It’s a genre that migrates with ideas and with the imagination. The current trend of “magical realism” in the novel is of Latin American origin, though that origin springs from the tradition of the fabula (fable). The Chicano novel dates from 1959 with publication of Pocho by Jose Antonio Villarreal. There were Mexican American novelists before 1959, however, unfortunately, we do not have a record of all the novels written (or published) by Mexican American writers between 1848 and 1959, although the University of Houston project, “Recovering the Hispanic Literary History of the United States” is uncovering that trove. By 1969, ten years after publication ofPocho, there were only eight novels published by Chicano writers. Later scholarship would reveal five novels by Mexican Americans produced between 1892 and 1928, all in Spanish. Research into those forgotten pages of American literature continues, and other novels by Mexican Americans produced between 1848 and 1959 will surface. From the perspective of the 21st century and four decades of Chicano fiction, it’s easier to make historical and critical judgments about Chicano writers and the art of the novel. To begin with, one of the major obstacles in Chicano critical theory about the novel has been one of nomenclature: namely, how does one define “the Chicano novel?” Is Famous All Over Townby Daniel James, for example, a Chicano novel since the work deals with the Chicanos of East Los Angeles and all its characters are Chicanos? Some Chicano critics dismiss as Chicano novels works by Chicano writers because they are not “movement” novels or don’t address themselves to the social or political issues affecting Chicano communities or barrios. For example, in her commentary on the Chicano novel, Carlota Cardenas Dwyer excludes as Chicano novels the works by Villarreal, Rechy, Salas, Barrio, and Vasquez on grounds that their novels do not promote a specific social or political issue unequivocally Chicano. Rafael Grajeda excludes the works of Villarreal and Vasquez in his selection of Chicano novels on grounds that “the works do not confront clearly and honestly the implications of their premises,” namely, that the central characters arrive at an understanding and acceptance of themselves as Chicanos. In 1970 with publication of Y no se lo trago la tierra by Tomás Rivera, Chicano literature bifurcated along language lines–Chicano works in English and Chicano works in Spanish. These forking paths did not (and do not) signal a philosophical rift between two camps of Chicano writers. It means, rather, that there are some Chicano writers who prefer to write in Spanish or English or are more comfortable in one or the other language. However, many Chicano writers work in both languages, like Rolando Hinojosa or Alejandro Morales, to name but two. This raises again the question of linguistic realities for Chicanos who may be monolingual or bilingual and/or may participate to varying degrees in Chicano English and/or Chicano Spanish. Manifestations of these linguistic realities crop up in all the genres of Chicano literature. The question is: are these linguistic manifestations congruent with the realities of Chicano existence? Or does the language of choice predicate a particular perspective or point of view? In his essay on “Contemporary Chicano Prose Fiction: Its Ties to Mexican Literature,” Charles Tatum raises an important point in getting at the wellspring of Chicano literature, particularly Chicano prose fiction. While Chicano fiction–in this case, the novel– has obvious connections to Mexican literature, it also has obvious connections to American literature. Chicano literature is not simply an extension of Mexican literature in the United States, anymore than it is simply an outcrop of American literature in a distinct region of the country. One cannot talk about Chicano writers in the same way one talks about “Southern writers,” say. While both are geographically bound, more or less, the latter is part and parcel of American culture, the former still shares a culture with Mexico. Ultimately, the assessment of the Chicano novel will be in terms it brings to the discussion, much the way Louis Gates talks about Black literature.