Tuesday, June 3, 2008

American authors with funny last names are kicking some (literary) ass by writing about the immigration experience (I)

The loooong title almost summarizes this whole series of entregas, but if you feel like reading some more, we could go on to say...

Immigrants narratives are taking over English Literature in America could be just about the right scholar title for this series of posts, but that would sound too Letras-Libres-y. Why? 'Cause we're gonna discuss here the work of some critically-acclaimed and reading-worthy foreign-born authors such as Junot Díaz, Jhumpa Lahiri and one of my (new) favorite authors: Daniel Alarcón.

I just finished the reading of War by Candlelight, Alarcón's debut collection of short stories first published in 2005, and I enjoyed it a lot. It is one of those books that haunt you long after you finished them. Its characters are always about to collide with reality, but then, Alarcón refuses to give the last word and empowers the reader to flow with whichever feelings, desires, dreams or nightmares his storytelling detonates in everyone.

What I most relish on Alarcón's work is the way he defies the concept of Latin American author. Born in Perú, he moved with his family to Alabama when he was three, and he's lived most of his life in the U.S. ever since. Alarcón writes in English--in many interviews he's said the only pieces he writes in Spanish are e-mails--but speaks Spanish at perfection [listening to him he reminds me of my dear Miraflorino friend Alfredo Giraldo] and most of his work is centered on some of Perú's --and of all Latin America, to that extent-- most deeply-rooted-in-history social events: la guerra de los ochentas, the poverty, the nightmarish aftermath of a natural disaster in a place impacted by poverty and corruption and, of course, the immigration experience.

Alarcón talks (in Spanish) about his first novel Lost City Radio, and the topics that haunt him most.

Fortunately, Alarcón is acclaimed in his native Perú, where along with other young writers such as Santiago Roncagliolo he's considered part of a new generation of powerful storytellers. Here in the States, he's considered one of the most brilliant new voices in American Literature (Alarcón was named one of the best young authors in 2007 by the prestigious magazine Granta and achieved an accomplishment few writers have done before turning thirty: publishing a story, the marvelous City of Clowns, in The New Yorker at age 26).

So, Alarcón has come to epitomize the immigrant's utopia: to belong in and to be beloved in both his country of origin and his new home.

I would like to end this post with a couple of excerpts from War by Candlelight. The first one is from Absence, a piece that tells the story of Wari, a Peruvian painter who takes advantage of an invitation he receives to exhibit his work at a less-than-well-known small art gallery in New York City to adventure in what could possibly be a new life:

"Leaving is no problem. It's exciting actually; in fact, it's drug. It's the staying gone that will kill you. This is the handed-down wisdom of the immigrant. You hear it from the people who wander home, after a decade away. You hear about the euphoria that passes quickly; the new things that lose their newness and, soon after, their capacity to amuse you. Language is bewildering. You tire of exploring. Then the list of things you miss multiplies beyond all reason, nostalgia clouding everything: in memory your country is clean and uncorrupt, the streets are safe, the people universally warm, and the food consistently delicious. The sacred details of your former life appear and reappear in strange iterations, in a hundred waking dreams. Your pockets fill with money, but your heart feels sick and empty."

The second one is from the homonymous story that lends its title to the whole book, War by Candlelight. In it, Alarcón recreates Peruvian childhood friends Fernando and José Carlos' path from Communism to Terrorism:

"Maruja brought home a map one day, and they tacked it to their bedroom wall. That evening, once the baby was asleep, they stood hand in hand to marvel at the size of the world. It was comforting to see how little their war was, and to think there were places out there where their struggles were not news."

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