Over the summer I highlighted 9 books by emerging Latino voices, but it’s as important to acknowledge that Latino literature’s more familiar names are also gracing the covers on display on bookstore shelves in 2015.
Many of these prominent writers produced the foundational texts that shape the Latino literary canon such as The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros), The Latin Deli (Judith Ortiz Cofer) and The Devil’s Highway (Luis Alberto Urrea). Others listed here include the Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Herrera, and three younger writers (Joy Castro, Lorraine López and Urayoán Noel) whose prolific and stellar output has earned them a place among these legends of Latino letters. In celebration of Latino Heritage Month, I invite readers to consider the following new books from these established Latino authors.
1. How Winter Began by Joy Castro (University of Nebraska Press)
The startling range of these 28 stories (many of them, at two pages, poignant examples of flash fiction) bring depth and dimension to the complex lives of women, mostly Latina and mostly working class. Castro’s compressed narratives are as fulfilling as the longer stories and their purpose is to mine the rich interior of women whose roles in society are usually overlooked, whose voices are seldom heard. A stand-out story is “Independence Day,” a piece of historical fiction based on the little-known life of Josefa Segovia, whose lynching in 1851 was the first recorded hanging of a woman in California.
2. A House of My Own: Stories from My Life by Sandra Cisneros (Knopf)
This hefty volume of what is aptly being called a “jigsaw autobiography” gathers three decades of Cisneros’s nonfiction writings that showcase her talent as a lyrical essayist. Long-time fans will recognize her inimitable style that frequently spirals into lush sensory language. But the real gift here is in learning about Cisneros’s creative process, her early struggles as a “migrant writer,” her literary influences and the difficult life-changing moments in her personal journey. The house that Cisneros built with this generous book is welcoming and deeply gratifying.
3. Beautiful Wall by Ray Gonzalez (Boa Editions Ltd.)
“The desert is sick of being written about,” declares the speaker in Gonzalez’s fifteenth collection of poems, yet ultimately what Gonzalez does is allow the reader to experience this expansive American terrain through his image-driven verse. The U.S.-Mexico border is where histories and stories converge, not always pleasant but not always tragic, and certainly worth considering. Magic awaits the keen observer, the careful listener. Each poem encourages the visitor: “Look.// Put your hands here./ This is a beautiful wall.”
4. Notes on Assemblage by Juan Felipe Herrera (City Lights Publishers)
The incoming Poet Laureate of the U.S. affirms his reputation as the conscience of the Americas with this collection of poems (many in bilingual versions) that considers such charged subjects as Ayotzinapa and the Charleston church shootings. To provide an emotional balance to this troubled landscape, he also includes heartfelt tributes to beloved poets recently passed, including José Montoya, Wanda Coleman, and a former Poet Laureate of the U.S., Philip Levine. Herrera’s voice is reflective and wistful as he sifts through the damage of violence and loss in order to come to terms with the hard-won path towards solace.
5. The Darling by Lorraine M. López (University of Arizona Press)
López’s latest novel takes Chekhov’s short story of the same name and reshapes its themes to reflect a more free-spirited protagonist who celebrates her intelligence, her Latina identity, and her sexuality. Caridad loves to read the classics so much that she turns to them for inspiration and guidance, but she’s also aware of their shortcomings, particularly with their representations of women. So she sets out to experience her own narrative in this edgy and humorous novel that will send new readers to explore her previous books.
6. The Island Kingdom by Pablo Medina (Hanging Loose Press)
Medina’s poetry is always attuned to the nature of beauty and longing, particularly for his native Cuba, and for the wondrous journeys (and emotions) he has experienced or imagined. The burning questions of spirituality and fulfillment weigh heavily on this latest collection as the speaker grapples with the melancholia of doubt, desire and despair: “Panther, panther, let the slaughter come,/ let the truth be learned, let the bullet/ blossom in you like the flower of forgetfulness.”
7. Buzzing Hemisphere/ Rumor Hemisférico by Urayoán Noel (University of Arizona Press)
Noel’s poems are so full of energy and wit that they don’t sit still on the page. Indeed, this dynamic Puerto Rican poet navigates his verse is both English and Spanish, surprising the reader with challenging structures, linguistic leaps and arresting word play. The hemisphere is the Americas, where the voices of the immigrant, the traveler, and the exile (among many others) come together in polyphonic song to celebrate this troubled yet beautiful mass of contradictions we call culture—and home.
8. The Cruel Country by Judith Ortiz Cofer (University of Georgia Press)
The bittersweet homecoming to Puerto Rico after receiving news that her mother was on her deathbed is the impetus behind Ortiz Cofer’s beautifully-rendered memoir. Suddenly, language fails her, and yet it’s also the thread that helps her piece together her roles as daughter and writer in order to make sense of the loss of her mother and of the motherland that inspired so much of her prose and poems. The cruel country of grief is a place we all eventually inhabit, Ortiz Cofer tells us, but it’s a shared experience, which makes it a little less lonely.
9. A Small Story About the Sky by Alberto Ríos (Copper Canyon Press)
The magic in Ríos’s poetry is in the love and respect he exudes for the desert landscape of his native Arizona, where he is currently serving as the state’s Poet Laureate. Despite the dangers, the severe climate, there’s still much beauty to behold: “Coyotes baying at midnight are broken hearts with teeth.” For Ríos, the imagination of poetry is the most effective method of coping with the painful truths, and of turning misery into mystery. To conjure water to quench your thirst, for example: “You must dream it into the glass you think you hold.”
10. The Water Museum by Luis Alberto Urrea (Little, Brown and Company)
Urrea’s characteristic mix of tragedy and comedy give emotional weight to these 13 stories set mostly in working class spaces in which their inhabitants attempt to reconcile with their hardships or with each other’s cultural differences. “Amapola,” “The National City Reparation Society” and the title story are a few stand-outs among this varied collection by this popular author whose shorter prose is as plush and poignant as his beloved novels.