Diversity Means Nothing If the Stories Are the Same

in The Salon by

What’s the purpose of launching a publishing imprint for Latino and Caribbean authors, and going onto NBC Latino and proclaiming the need for stories outside of the immigration and identity narratives in order to expand the representation of Latino authors, if so many of these submissions I am reading cover the same damn stories and perspectives? I am speaking, specifically, of stories about the Cuban Revolution, which I should reject out of hand for them having a component of immigration to them, but I realize a larger issue is at work. The stories could be pro-Castro and be set entirely in Cuba and I would still be rolling my eyes — is this the only story that ever came out of that island?

Even a cursory knowledge of Cuban history says otherwise. Slave revolts, the Spanish American War, Martí, the various coups carried out by the US in the 1920s and 30s. And what about the early Spanish settlers, the wiping out of the Taíno people, the beginnings of slavery and the fusing of Ibero-African culture to create a new society, or the efforts of Bolívar to recruit Cuban elites to rebel against Spain and join the wave of independence wars? And those are still broad strokes, highlights, and yet all anyone can ever talk about is 1959. And in the same way. Were you on the side of the wealthy or the poor? Did you support the Revolution and then become disenfranchised? Did the communists steal your family farm? The same. The same. The same. It’s not like an inventive way of chronicling that time period is impossible; I have two friends with planned Cuban Revolution books that take different and fascinating approaches. Ones that push stylistic grandeur and contain themes outside of merely capitalism versus communism, themes that are more concerned with humanity than making a political statement.

So, it’s not that stories can’t be told about that time. It’s that so many are, while whole swaths of history, including modern times, is overlooked. I read these submissions and think about Carpentier’s The Kingdom of this World, about the Haitian king Henri Christophe, who most non-Haitians don’t even know about, since the country, its culture, and its history are clouded in a perception of universal misery by outsiders (many of you dear readers may even be shocked that Haiti had royalty). Even my own The Feast of San Sebastian, about human trafficking in Puerto Rico, was depicting a world even Puerto Ricans don’t largely know about or ignore. Nelson Denis, another good friend, wrote War Against All Puerto Ricans, about the 1950 Nationalist uprising, and in doing so gained widespread readership and acclaim in large part because of how ignorant people are about that event. Our peoples are full of stories, often remarkable and horrifying ones, yet all you know about Mexico is poor people crossing the Rio Grande or getting kidnapped by cartels, the DR is the land of Trujillo, and Argentina is Perón, or really, Evita, and if we are really honest, Madonna’s depiction of Evita, and nothing more.

So why bother signing Latino artists if no one is telling the stories less travelled? There is a very real attitude, amongst writers young and old, black and brown and white too, that the stories audiences are interested in are limited. That if you veer too far off into unknown territory, nobody will follow. We seem to agree that the prevailing narratives are limiting in their Euro-centrism and pro-capitalism and pro-American Dreamism and the answer for too many is that you just tell the same story with extra melanin then you have achieved diversity, but Death of a Salesman with a black cast is still Death of a Salesman.

And what it comes down to is intellectual laziness. Glance over a Wikipedia page of any country in the world and you can find a hundred stories that haven’t been told. Artists are not reading outside their comfort zone, we have our bubble and stay firmly within it. Without even much thought I can come up with several: the Jamaican struggle against the British, the War of the Triple Alliance, British interference in Central America, the 1968 massacre of students in Mexico City, the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz by the CIA, police corruption and abuse in Puerto Rico, the black experience in the Caribbean, Tupac Amaru II’s revolt against the Spanish… on and on and on. Even in a topic that is as overdone as the Conquest of the Americas, nobody ever talks about how the Spaniards had just come off 700 years of being occupied and colonized themselves. Why have none of these writers and intellectuals thought to use that context for some real soul searching about the human condition, about what 700 years of warfare does to families, to individuals, and then the psychological effect of finding a new path for achieving glory. Not to mention the historical ellipsism of the Incan and Aztec empires being in the exact same state of disarray and civil war as the Visigoths had been when the Moors conquered Spain, meaning history repeated itself and we are now perhaps in the doubleback portion of the loop where the conquered world we have created over 500 years is about to collapse under a new master, and the cycle begins again.

That would be an incredible book! I would sign that book. I would champion that book. It would be the very definition of epicness and grandiosity that literature was meant to capture. How is it a region so rich with stories and ideas seems to be completely bypassed by Latino authors? Are MFA programs to blame? Are writing conferences that promote a very narrow white-centric view of art and audiences to blame? Are writers lacking in curiosity about the world now that Facebook and Twitter feeds offer all they think they need to know? Is it because writers have become an introverted, insecure, anti-social group that is out of touch with the real world?

Whatever the case may be, if we are going to tout diverse books we do need diverse narratives that go beyond the same three time periods that people think are interesting. What is more, why are we relying on trends to dictate what is or is not interesting? As the storytellers, we should be telling the audience what they need to hear, not what we think they’d possibly like.

And maybe that is asking a lot, after all, the writing world is notoriously conservative and risk averse, but it wasn’t always that way. Literature used to be the realm of rebels and badasses and troubadours, as recently as the mid-20th century until academics and their accompanying neuroses ruined it. But it can rise again, and be the art of the misfit, the social outcast, the observer and the critic, writing in their own voice, speaking truth to power, and not giving a crap if you love it or not.

That is the diversity we truly need.

 

Featured image: Dean Hochman/Flickr

Jon Marcantoni is a Puerto Rican writer and performer, advocate for the arts, and publisher at La Casita Grande Press. His newest book, 'Tristiana,' is due for release in Fall 2017.

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