Lecture Hop: the Planeta Lecture

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In which Bwog daily editor Alexandra Muhler sits in on a discussion about Latin American literary identity.

voxLast night, Columbia – or should I say, co-LOOM-bee-ah – hosted the Planeta Lecture: Spanish-Language Literary Voices and the United States.  The event’s four featured authors explored the relationship between New York City and Latin America, far beyond elucidating the pronunciation differences between our university and their continent’s country.  The lecture was sponsored by Grupo Planeta, a Spanish-language publishing house; by the Fundacion Jose Manuel Lara; and by the Hispanic New York Project of the Columbia American Studies Program.

The authors, though not especially different from one another in terms of race (all appeared to be of European descent) or geographical origin (all are South American), have diverse literary pursuits.  Roberto Ampuero, a Chilean, writes detective stories and teaches at the University of Iowa.  Jorge Franco, from Colombia, writes novels invariably described as “gritty” and “urban.”  The two Argentineans are Pablo de Santis, who went to film school and has written thrillers and young-adult novels, and Maria Negroni, who writes poetry and teaches it at Sarah Lawrence.

“Lecture” is not an appropriate label for the Planeta event.  Each speaker gave a five-minute talk.  The most English-deficient of the bunch, Mr. de Santis, relied heavily on notes while Professor Negroni spoke extemporaneously.  Later, the facilitator, Professor Claudio Remeseira, head of the Hispanic New York Project, asked questions.  After that, an audience dominated by Latin American amateur writers joined in.  In sum, the format was muddled, and it was often difficult to see what the questions, whether asked by the audience or elicited by the lecture topic itself, and the answers had to do with each other.

As far as I could tell, the subject of the night was what it means to be a Latin American author, especially in the United States.  Mr. Franco was the most direct in trying to define the term.  He asked, but could not answer, whether “authors who speak Spanish, who have Spanish names,” but who write in English, are Latin American writers.  Ms. Negroni added that she had fallen in New York because it is “the center of the world and the best catalogue of the Third World,” at once very different and very similar to Latin America.  Mr. Ampuero offered a field report on literary exchange between Latin America and the United States.  Through the University of Iowa, he teaches a Spanish fiction writing workshop to both native and non-native Spanish speakers and a creative writing class for recent Mexican immigrants.  Mr. de Santis, however, did not speak on the link between literature and society.  Rather, he gave, in the most lyrical terms, a “Reading Rainbow”-esque schpiel on the silent moment that exists when a reader is transported by a book.

The question of a Latin American literary community was further probed in discussions of the transformation of the global perception of Latin American novels after the Boom of the ’60s.  Nearly all the authors spoke of the influence of “Gabo” (Franco was consistently introduced as the man who “Garcia Márquez has described…as ‘one of the Colombian authors I would like to pass the torch to'”) and of the expectation of magical realism.  Franco jokingly pointed out that Colombian reality was so bizarre that its realism and its magical realism are not so different.  The group’s three novelists also noted that the small publication houses of yore did a much better job of circulating books, mainly through hand-to-hand passage, throughout the Spanish-speaking world than the multinational corporations that dominate the business do now.  Mr. Ampuero remarked that it has been easier for him to be published in China that in every Latin American country.

Mr. Franco’s most recent novel is about the gritty, urban drama that goes down when two young Colombians immigrate to New York City.  To research it, he lived a few months in New York.  When asked whether that short time was truly enough to inform his writing, he replied that Jose Hernandez only spent two months in the Argentine prairie before writing “Martin Fierro,” his epic poem of the pampas.  Clearly, these writers accepted this invitation not for this hour and a half of intellectual meandering, but for the free trip to New York.  All I could do was wonder what they were taking in after they left the lecture, and how this long weekend in New York might look in some future novel or poem.


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