Putting the I in Speculative: Looking at U.S. Latino/a Writers and Stories

Spanish designates the letter Y as “i-griega”—literally, the Greek i—to mark its difference from the letter I, which Spanish-speakers understand to be from the Latin even when we don’t say “i-latina” as we recite the alphabet. In choosing the title for this blog post, I reveled a bit—as only a bilingual language nerd can—in the hidden layer of significance I could give that not-so-simple I.

Until the end of July 2014, if you looked at the Wikipedia entry for “speculative fiction by writers of color” and scrolled down past the lists of African and African-American writers, Asian and Asian-American writers, etc., to the category for “Latino writers” you saw no list, just one line: “see Magical Realism.”

To add insult to injury, if you happened to click on that “see Magic Realism” link, you were taken to a list of Latin American writers of the speculative, with not a single U.S. Latino/a representative among them.

The Wikipedia entry no longer looks like it did in July, because Matthew Goodwin, a comparative literature professor and editor of the upcoming speculative fiction anthology Latino/a Rising (Restless Books, 2016), added an entry for U.S. Latino speculative fiction writers. But the omission he corrected is emblematic. The U.S. Latino/a speculative fiction writer is largely invisible to the speculative mainstream editor, publisher, reviewer and anthologist.

U.S. Latin@s are writing anyway. Fictions haunted by mestizo, Afro-Latino/a and indigenous ghosts, legends and magic. Fictions of future cities built on the foundations poured by Latino/a immigrants and Mexicans whose roots in the United States go back more than 400 years. Fictions populated by sinuous and spiky sentences in English mixed with Spanish, with Spanglish and Nahuatl and Chicano Caló.

The thing is, to experience the tradition and sheer range of U.S. Latin@ speculative writing, you have to venture out of the usual neighborhoods and cross into the liminal borderland between genres; into the barrios of small press and website; and onto momentarily unfamiliar streets.

Identity. Introduction. Inclusion.

Let me introduce you to a few Latino/a authors whose stories you may not have read, and show you around some of the (perhaps unfamiliar) markets that have published their work.

Chicana writer Sandra Cisneros is the author of one of my all-time favorite speculative short stories: “Eyes of Zapata” (from the collection Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, Vintage, 1992). In it, the protagonist, Inés, prompted by love both intense and proprietary, shapeshifts into an owl so she can protect and guard over her lover, the charismatic (and historic) revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, and through him, Mexico itself:

If I am a witch, then so be it, I said. And I took to eating black things—huitlacoche the corn mushroom, coffee, dark chiles, the bruised part of fruit, the darkest, blackest things to make me hard and strong.

Cisneros has said that all of her work is informed by fairy tales—particularly those of Hans Christian Anderson—but her Mexican and Mexican-American protagonists are complex, heirs to magic and myths that reflect the mestizaje of those with roots on both sides of the border.

Like her peer and colleague, Ana Castillo (whose novel So Far from God is a magical realist tale), whether Cisneros is writing literary or speculative, she is always writing Latina. Her Macondo workshop was built on the vision of creating a homeland for writers working (across genres) in underserved communities, and she is quick to say that there are many as talented as she is. “But because we are published through small presses, our books don’t count,” she said in a 1993 interview with the Seattle Times.

One of those small presses, Broken Sword Publications, has published a number of Gina Ruiz’s speculative stories. The first, “Chanclas and Aliens,” appeared in BSP’s 2012 anthology ¡Ban This! In it, the cholos (Chicano young men, usually lower-income, who are associated with low-rider culture) and sandal-wielding grandmas of an East Los Angeles neighborhood deal with space aliens that have invaded their park:

The last taco stand shut down for the night and a group of cholos from across the tracks gathered in the now-still park eating chile relleno burritos, drinking some Coronas and just hanging. If you were looking, you would occasionally see the flare of a lighter or the red-tipped ash of a cigarette illuminating one of the guy’s faces. Handsome young men, all of them, with the stances of Aztec warriors of old.

They were fierce and dangerous looking to some, comforting and homey to others.

The aliens above watched from their strangely shaped ship wondering what manner of creature these tattooed, brown gods were….

It is a story that manages to be funny, charming and pointed, all at once, and introduces characters that recur in “Dopey’s Ride” and in the harsh and moving “Lorca Green” (which first appeared in BSP’s 2014 anthology, Lowriting: Shots, Rides & Stories from the Chicano Soul) which I truly believe ought to be on the ballot for a Nebula.

“People often ask me why (I write about cholos) and to be honest, I don’t know really,” Ruiz wrote for my blog series—Nuestras Voces, Our Voices—in 2013. “I grew up in barrios […] they’ve always lived around me and I around them and they are the guys that actually stand and give me a seat on the bus. […] I’m comfortable with the gente and so I write about their imagined hopes and dreams. I give them unlikely heroes that defeat aliens, speak to ghosts and rise above what they are given.”

Bilingual Review Press is associated with Arizona State University, but its books, too, are overlooked when talking about Latino/a work. Daniel Olivas’ collections of short stories were published by Bilingual Review, as well as his Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature. A Mexican-American, Oliva writes magic realist stories; one, “How to Date a Flying Mexican” (published in Exquisite Corpse) takes the classic magic realist moment—a character levitating—and builds the whole narrative around it:

When Conchita finally broached the subject with Moises—about his flying, not marriage—he held up his right hand, palm out to his new love, and corrected her: “I do not fly, mi amor,” he said softly. “I levitate.”

Kathleen Alcalá’s story, “Ghostwriting for the Archbishop,” appeared in her first collection of stories “Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist,” published by a small feminist press, Calyx, in 1993. Her story of an Archbishop mired in the duties of correspondence seems to fit neatly into the category of magical realism:

Raising his arms, the Archbishop finds that he can soar upward, and he passes low over the spires of the cathedral as workmen on the roof gape up at him. The Archbishop circles once and heads out over the lake. He is having a wonderful time.

But Alcalá, a Mexican-American living in the Pacific Northwest, isn’t altogether comfortable being described as a magical realist (though no less a personality than Ursula Le Guin has done so), she considers herself a historical fiction writer.

Riverhead Books published Manuel Gonzales’ collection of short stories, The Miniature Wife and Other Stories, in 2013. But it’s the shorter pieces he publishes on his website (prompted by a photograph or video) that best exemplify the Tejano’s odd but compelling voice. “All We are Left,” for example, is a Rashomon-like triple retelling of a short narrative that certainly culminates in violence, perhaps in murder—part one is from the p.o.v. of the ghost witnessing it, part two the woman experiencing it, and part three the psychopath driving the action. From part one, then:

What makes for the ghost’s lack in confidence we cannot know because we are living and it is not. We can personify, perhaps. We can say that the ghost is having a crisis of faith, maybe. We can go on to say that perhaps the ghost is reconsidering the act of being a ghost, is reconsidering the rigmarole of making itself visible and known and a nearly physical presence.

Another of Gonzales’s short pieces, “The Princess,” is a fairy tale that plays with cadence, rhythm and repetition in a way that reminds me, improbably, of a sestina.

Another writer of short narratives is Puerto Rican and Pennsylvania Dutch writer, Rosalie Morales Kearns. Two of her flash stories “Come Hither” and “Sludge-Man Gets to the Point” were published by Red Rose Review in 2012. Her collection of magic realist stories, Virgins and Tricksters (Aqueous Books, 2013), opens with a story, “The Associated Virgins,” which first appeared in Witness:

Elihu Wingate is alone in his large, sparsely furnished office. Late afternoon sunlight is streaming through the windows, and Elihu Wingate is watching the light and starting to feel an odd sensation, like he’s outside himself, or larger than himself. He feels a sense of oneness with the old building, an awareness of its granite-and-glass skin. Through the soles of his feet he can feel the foundations of the building rooted in the earth.

You need to go one of the premiere showcases of literary fiction, Granta, to read Carmen María Machado’s slipstream story, “The Husband Stitch.” The Cuban-American’s writing is the star of this erotically charged, first-person story. It is a period piece, a story about consent, narrated by a woman whose body is the fulcrum of the narrative:

My son touches my ribbon, but never in a way that makes me afraid. He thinks of it as a part of me, and he treats it no differently than he would an ear or finger.

Machado’s extraordinary work can be read in more usual speculative markets as well: “Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead,” at Lightspeed, for example, or “Inventory,” at Strange Horizons.

The speculative mainstream sometimes feels like a “gated community” to me, but venues like Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and of course, Tor.com, have showcased other U.S. Latino/a writers of note: Tom Greene and José Iriarte at SH; Carlos Hernandez at CG; Alberto Yañez at BCS; Daniel José Older at Tor.com, (which also published a story of mine last year and is slated to publish another in April of this year). Podcastle has featured Julia Rios; early fiction by Lisa Bradley can be heard on Escapepod, and anthologies like We See a Different Frontier and Kaleidoscope have included the short fiction of Ernest Hogan and William Alexander, respectively. (Silvia Moreno-García, a Canadian Latina, is also included in WSDF.)

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Cuban writer Daína Chaviano—one of the “female trinity” of the most famous Spanish-language Fantasy and Science Fiction writers with Angélica Gorodischer of Argentina and Elia Barceló of Spain—also lives and writes from Miami since 1991. Chaviano is a prolific writer who has won almost every international SFF accolade there is, and yet her work is often left out of conversations about Latino/a speculative fiction in the United States.

Only one of Chaviano’s books has been translated into English: The Island of Eternal Love (Riverhead Books, 2009). A short piece of hers will be included in Goodwin’s Latino/a Rising anthology in 2016, so hopefully her writing will gain a wider U.S. speculative readership.

I get a special charge every time I can help readers discover the unique voices of the many U.S. Latinos contributing to this genre I love. There’s a lot of variety in this listing, something for every speculative taste, I think. I hope you find something that surprises and delights you. I hope you find something to engage and move you. And I hope you are still reading long after you’re done here.

Sabrina Vourvoulias is the author of Ink (Crossed Genres, 2012), a speculative novel that draws on her memories of Guatemala’s armed internal conflict, and of the Latin@ experience in the United States. It was named to Latinidad’s Best Books of 2012. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres and in a number of anthologies, including Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. She is the managing editor of Al Día News in Philadelphia, and was the editor of Al Día’s book 200 Years of Latino History in Philadelphia (Temple University Press, 2012). She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Twitter @followthelede.


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