Best of Latino Sci Fi: Junot Diaz, Giannina Braschi, Ana Castillo

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Matt Goodwin compares “Latin@ Rising,” the new anthology of science fiction from San Antonio’s Wings Press, to an eclectic literary mix tape or playlist “in which there is an ebb and flow as you move through the loud and the brash, the quiet and the thoughtful.”

The latter might be Carmen Maria Machado’s “Difficult at Parties,” a first-person, present-tense story told as if through a camera lens about a woman struggling to return to some semblance of normal life after a sexual assault. As tension builds, she discovers she has developed a disturbing new psychic power.

On the other hand, Giannina Braschi’s “Death of a Businessman” is the cacaphonous opening to a novel titled “The United States of Banana,” which is the author’s response to 9-11: “I saw the wife of the businessman enter the shop of Stanley, the cobbler, with a pink ticket in her hand. The wife had come to claim the shoes of the businessman. After all, they had found the feet, and she wanted to bury the feet with the shoes.

Goodwin, an assistant professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico in Cayey, began thinking about the book while earning his doctorate in comparative literature in 2013 from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

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“Science-fiction is not really on the radar of most Latino Studies programs,” he said in a recent interview at the King William home of Wings Press publisher Bryce Milligan. “I started looking around, and realized there was no anthology, no book like this. But there are a lot of Latino writers writing science-fiction and fantasy.

“Latino writers tend to get pigeonholed as Latino writers; they are seen as coming from sort of a primitive place,” he continued. “But the reality is that young Latino writers grew up with Tolkien and ‘Star Wars,’ too.”

As Ohio State University professor Frederick Luis Aldama — a rock star in the field of Latino pop culture, notably comics and sci-fi — puts it in an introduction to “Latin@ Rising”: “I have a confession to make. Science fiction in comic books, TV and film got me into world literature … Of course, with the veneer of seriousness that envolopes the academy and that generally considers sci-fi lowbrow, it takes some huevos to admit that this was instrumental in my coming of age as a professor.”

Funded primarily by a $10,000 Kickstarter campaign, the 246-page “Latin@ Rising” features 24 stories and poems (yes, sci-fi poetry!) by 20 authors.

They range from such well known writers such as Ana Castillo and Junot Díaz, who won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” to talented newcomers such as California writer Alejandra Sanchez (“The Drain,” a disturbing story about a strange addition to a morning shower ritual) and Brooklyn writer Richie Narvaez (“Room for Rent,” about a space alien in search of a safe place in the city to give birth).

“I think it’s incredible how rapidly Latino science-fiction writers have developed,” said Milligan. “If you would have tried to put together this book 15 years ago, you may have been able to identify three or four writers. Now, there are more than enough for an entire anthology.”

Goodwin acknowledges that magical realism “haunts” any discussion of Latino literature, but that only one or two stories in “Latino Rising” might fall within the bounds of that “wonderfully rich genre.”

But “magical realism” — see classics such as Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” — can be double-edged, Goodwin said, in that it forms a boundary around Latino literature for the general reading public.

“It has been common among readers to unthinkingly categorize a story written by a Latin@ as magical realist when there is just a hint of something strange or even when the story is flat-out science fiction or fantasy,” Goodwin writes in “Latin@ Rising’s” foreword. “At its worst, this imposed magical realism is a way to relegate U.S. Latinos and Latinas to the realm of the irrational, the mythological, effectively cutting off the ability to engage science and technology.”

Immigration is a subject dear to Goodwin’s heart, and many stories in “Latino Rising” are politically themed, dealing with issues of English/Spanish code switching, colonialism, conflict between Anglo and Latino groups, and homeland, migration and dislocation.

“One of my main concerns — and one that directs my creative endeavors — is undocumented immigrants,” said Goodwin.

Science-fiction, he argues, is “a natural fit”: Often, writers invent two worlds that only come into contact when one group migrates to the other.

“I like things that are being born,” he said. “I appreciate the intellectual underpinnings of the whole idea of immigration in a sci-fi or technological setting. It’s just a very natrual fit, and I think it is an imporant genre for Latino writers. Plus, it’s just good literture.”

As Aldama notes, the authors of “Latin@ Rising” “throw us into the middle of hot-zone apocalyptic plagues, shape-shifting robots, inergalactic skinwalkers, preColumbian holobooks, cyberpunkistas, hybrid inverterbrate/human mestizos … Latina cyborgs born of recycled parts and cybernetically wired patron saints.”

As a Latino on “an intellectual journey,” he concludes, “Science fiction is me.”

sbennett@express-news.net

 

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