The Imaginative Engagement of Latina/o Writing with the History and Practice of Science
By María DeGuzmán
Still nascent and relatively unexplored by critics is the imaginative engagement of Latina/o writing with the history and practice of science. What exploration exists focuses more on how Latina/o writers, visual artists (filmmakers in particular), and performance artists have employed science fiction or aspects of it to advance critiques of colonialism and unmask the dangers of a new colonialism spawned by the “progress” of globalization.
Latina/o science fiction is largely dystopian–given the imbrication with militarization and war, ethno-racial genocide, social control, and technologies for the extraction of human and natural resources–of what is often viewed as Euro-American colonizer science. Lysa Rivera (“Future Histories and Cyborg Labor: Reading Borderlands Science Fiction after NAFTA”), José David Saldívar (see the edited volume Junot Díaz and the Decolonial Imagination), Ben Olguín (“Contrapuntal Cyborgs?: The Ideological Limits and Revolutionary Potential of Latin@ Science Fiction”), and many others have published excellent articles and/or book chapters about Latina/o science fiction as cultural critique and incisive, creative confrontations with colonialism and neocolonialism, exile, migration, etc.
Those interested in Latina/o literature and science fiction will find a plethora of articles on Dominican American writer Junot Díaz’s 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Díaz himself has talked extensively in published interviews (see BOMB magazine, no. 101, Fall 2007) and elsewhere about his interest in science fiction and its uses as a form of cultural critique.
However, Latina/o science fiction and speculative fiction has a history much older than Díaz’s relatively recent 2007 novel. Consider, for example, Ana Castillo’s 1990 novel Sapogonia as well as her 1993 novel So Far From God, or Alejandro Morales’s 1991 novel The Rag Doll Plagues. In fact, Latina/o writers have been writing in the vein of science fiction for decades. One could easily go back as far as (if not further than) Chicano activist Oscar “Zeta” Acosta’s doomsday undated text-flick “To Whom It May Concern: A Solicitation” (written sometime between 1961 and his mysterious disappearance and likely death in Mexico in 1974) about the horrors of radioactivity emanating from the Trinity test conducted July 16, 1945 and others subsequent to it. This “Solicitation” is certainly one of my favorites, perhaps because it seems less like science fiction and more like a critique of actual ongoing science practice.
Despite this long history of science fiction and speculative fiction by Latina/o writers, it has taken until January 2017 for the supposedly “first anthology of Latina/o science fiction [my italics]” to appear. For anyone interested in a critical mass of Latina/o science fiction and speculative fiction, I recommend the anthology Latin@ Rising: An Anthology of Latin@ Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by Matthew David Goodwin (Assistant Professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey, central Puerto Rico) and published by San Antonio’s small but groundbreaking Wings Press.
The anthology, with an introduction by Latina/o Studies scholar Frederick Luis Aldama (Professor of English at the Ohio State University), features writers such as Kathleen Alcalá, Ana Castillo, Diana Chaviano, Junot Díaz, Daniel José Older, Sabrina Vourvoulias, Carmen María Machado, Giannina Braschi, Marcos S. Gonsalez, Steve Castro, Alex Hernández, Alejandra Sánchez, Richie Nerváez, and others, all quite contemporary.
But, what about Latina/o writers in relation to the history and practice of science, with more of an emphasis on the history of science and the actual practice of science rather than on an imminent or more remote future extension of yesterday’s or today’s science? I may seem to be splitting hairs here and, indeed, these hairs are not so easily or even desirably split since, obviously, the past informs the present and future.
What is “futuristic” is usually a reiteration of past practices with a new twist. And, of course, science fiction sometimes engages with the history of science, if not overtly, then implicitly. Nevertheless, I would argue that there are many literary ways of imaginatively engaging with science other than science fiction and speculative fiction (granted these two categories are not synonymous either) as modes and genres.
One of these other ways of dealing with science that intrigues me is through the writing of poetry. After all, both poetry and science spring from keen observational skills and wonder, rely on precise detail, and, ironically, also depend upon the transports of form and metaphor. Form and metaphor help us to cross the abyss between the conceived and the inconceivable, the known and the unknown, even the unknowable. In fact, many writers and critics, particularly those who favor poetry, have stated in one way or another that perception is form-dependent and that no new perception can truly happen without the discovery and/or invention of new forms.
And, yet, while “science” and “fiction” are so recognizably allied that their conjunction is considered “genre fiction,” like romance and detective fiction, and this conjunction is categorically and spatially accommodated in libraries, bookstores, and print and electronic catalogues, no such alliance is assumed, especially in US culture, between science and poetry. However, the assumptions of US culture can be notoriously ahistorical.
In fact, historically, poetry, oral and/or written, was the form/ the medium through which ancient civilizations (Babylonian, Greek, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, Mayan, Incan, Arab, Persian, Native American, etc.) addressed and debated questions about the nature of reality and the cosmos and people’s relationship to “nature” and the “cosmos” philosophically, politically, practically.
Furthermore, there is a long tradition of “science poetry” proceeding from the “ancients” (I mean this term in a global, not merely Western sense) through the age of exploration, discovery, and colonization, through “modernity” to postmodernity and the Anthropocene (the age defined by massive human interference on planet Earth) right up to and inclusive of the first couple of decades of the 21st century.
Therefore, I ask, what about Latina/o writers and “science poetry” rather than “science fiction”? And, what about “science poetry” in relation to the history of science and its actual practice rather than or in addition to the imminent or remote future of scientific practices? Are Latina/o writers engaged with physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, ecology, biology, botany, agronomy, oceanography, and so forth, as scientific and social practices, both historical and contemporary?
And, more importantly, are critics paying attention to these efforts? I would say that right now the critics are paying more attention to Latina/o science fiction (both as mode and genre), but that will change, is already changing even though, in US culture (unlike in most Latin American countries including Mexico, technically part of North America), fiction tends to get far more attention, in the popular media and in the academy, than poetry. Are Latina/o writers writing “science poetry” or poetry that incorporates “science poetry”? If so, who are they?
Though certainly not true of all Latina/o writers, they tend to be postmodern and somewhat avant-garde or quite avant-garde like the Argentine poet who lives in New York City, Lila Zemborain, with her 2007 Mauve Sea-Orchids (Belladonna Press) who, according to Forrest Gander, “brings into relationship the viscera of the body and the spill of the universe.” Or, like the late Chicago-born queer poet of Puerto Rican heritage, Rane Ramón Arroyo (1954–2010), whose last book of poetry before his death, The Sky’s Weight, was published in 2009 with Turning Point Press (Cincinnati, Ohio).
During his lifetime, Arroyo published at least eleven books of poems, one book of short stories, and had a number of staged plays, some of whose texts can be found in Dancing at Funerals: New & Selected Plays (Ahadada Books, 2010). He taught creative writing at the University of Toledo, Ohio and served as a board member of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs.
Speaking of science fiction, the book of poems he published in 2008, titled The Roswell Poems (WordFarm Press), was based on mysterious crash debris found July 1947 in the New Mexico desert. The debris in this desert became “ground zero for theories of government conspiracies, space alien sightings, and science vs. religion debates” (Intro., 17). So, we should keep in mind that there is also “science fiction” poetry or, more precisely, poetry that takes up many of the themes typical of science fiction.
Arroyo’s 2009 The Sky’s Weight is divided into two parts: I. Each Place is a Mystery and II. Solar Constant. The first section is focused on earthly experiences. Via the medium of an extended poetic séance summoning “dead scientists” who actually lived and practiced their science (solar scientists, in particular), the second section concentrates on investigations of heavenly, astronomical phenomena, culminating in the study of our solar system’s sun. Arroyo’s “Solar Constant” poems alchemically combine the following elements: bird augury; astronomical observation; Platonic and Aristotelian debates about the nature of the cosmos in relation to constancy and change, eternity and temporality; geocentric versus heliocentric models of our solar system; Kepler’s celestial physics of the birth and death of stars that undermined the doctrine of the immutability of the heavens accepted since the Greeks; Galileo’s study of sunspots that earned him the wrath of the Inquisition; Isaac Newton’s experiments with optics that split white light into its constituent colors; Einstein’s theory of general relativity; and clever representations, not only of our aging and, presumably, dying sun, but also of Edwin Hubble’s telescope that has provided evidence of an expanding, accelerating universe, fleeing from itself, of both visible and invisible matter and energy. “Solar Constant” traverses an impressively wide yet ultimately tightly intertwined set of historical debates, events, and phenomena, earthly and cosmological, lying at the foundations of a very contemporary sense of precarity and uncertainty.
In their pithy, playful way, the twenty “Solar Constant” poems might even be said to rival English scholar Robert Burton’s 1621 Anatomy of Melancholy that challenged Platonic Ptolemaic cosmology, theology, and epistemology. Informing the movement from certainty to uncertainty in Arroyo’s collection of poems is an emphasis on eccentricity over uniformity and normativity, decentering over any centralizing power (God’s, natural law’s, empire’s, the poet’s own ego), and an embrace of darkness, the obsidian-black period the sun will become when it dies, the universality that awaits us: “… Nothing and / no one is deprived of becoming darkness” (84).
At the same time, the poems do not let us forget the colonial and neocolonial history of empire that has shaped Arroyo’s earthly experience of light and darkness, death and life. Through links established in the poems of “Solar Constant” between the poet’s queerness and a larger cosmological queerness (causing us endless questions), Arroyo advances a new materialist critique of narrow notions of “Nature” and “natural law” as well as of what it means to belong “here”—on earth and in the so-called “New World,” in the Americas, in the United States—as a queer poet of Puerto Rican descent.
Why does this kind of science poetry matter? It matters for many reasons, not least of which that it teaches us both science and history and illustrates the historical fact that science is as much a question of epistemology (ways of knowing), power relations, and perspective as it is of big data and robotics. This kind of poetry helps readers to become more informed and thoughtful assimilators of science and consumers of the products of science, seeing science (scientia or knowledge) as a human endeavor with complex, fraught histories involving fallible human observers with seemingly god-like yet very precarious technology for observation and measurement (first and foremost our own eyes), for creation and total destruction, “Adam and his twin, Atom” (85).
This science poetry makes an implicit argument for the central importance of the arts and the humanities in querying facile narratives of scientific progress or progress through science while also stoking a commitment to learn how the history of science has shaped and continues to shape our everyday lives on planet Earth. For Latina/os, one of the fastest growing populations in the United States and now (in 2017) more than 18% of the nation’s people, learning about the history of science and Latina/o writers’ engagement with it is key to the creation of a wiser society.
María DeGuzmán is Director of Latina/o Studies- www.lsp.unc.edu -and Professor of English & Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has authored two scholarly books, Spain’s Long Shadow: The Black Legend, Off-Whiteness, and Anglo-American Empire (University of Minnesota Press, 2005) and Buenas Noches, American Culture: Latina/o Aesthetics of Night (Indiana University Press, 2012). She has published many articles on Latina/o cultural production as well as some of her own short stories and poems. She is also a conceptual photographer and a music composer/sound designer.