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from the June 2016 issue

Bridging Distances: Three Hispanic Canadian Authors

There is a substantial gap in the current discourse on Latino Lit in North America.

First, some context: The landscape of Canadian literature is vast and varied: It comprises works written in the original languages and in the official English and French, Quebec literature, and a small percentage of works published in nonofficial languages and in translation. The country itself is far from being a cultural or linguistic monolith, although it may often be perceived as such from the outside. Canada is an amalgam of various national, regional, cultural, and linguistic identities old and new, and so is its literature, despite unifying aspects such as common themes and the predominance of the official languages. The same could be said about Latin America as a whole. There is a large community of Hispanic Canadians, a heterogeneous group with perhaps as many different voices and identities as its members, and a rich, vibrant, and prolific literary creation.

According to critic, writer, and translator Hugh Hazelton,[1] Hispanic Canadian literature has occupied a significant position within this landscape for many decades, with a marked increase since the turn of the millennium. It is the subject of growing interest from readers, academics, critics, and publishers, as well as increased translation and publishing funding opportunities and awards for works translated from other languages into English and French—rather limited compared to what’s available for works translated between the official languages. Literary exchanges and collaborations with Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries are on the rise, especially when it comes to the diffusion of Canadian literature and theater abroad.

Yet writing by authors of Latin American descent living in Canada is seldom read, taught, or reviewed beyond the country’s borders. Mention “Hispanic Canadian literature” or “Latino-Canadian literature” in the United States and you will likely, at best, pique your interlocutors’ interest; at worst, you may receive puzzled or even blank looks. In North America, what has come to be called Latino Lit seems to lean heavily toward works (in Spanish or in translation) by established canonical writers and authors from Spanish-speaking countries, and both immigrant and heritage writers in the US and Puerto Rico.

Online discussions and articles I’ve come across are no exception to the apparent lack of awareness of Hispanic Canadian literature. At the time of writing, an Internet search for “Latino lit” + Canada—or “Latino literature” + Canada—yields a combination of hits for works published in Latin America or in translation, Latin American Studies programs in Canadian institutions, and US Latino works. And a poignant example: a recent article on the status of Latino Lit, which, although it specified that the discussion refers to the US, Puerto Rico, and Mexico, fails to make even a tangential reference to the existence of a Canadian counterpart.

A sheer difference in numbers may be partly to blame for the apparent exclusion of Hispanic Canadian literature in the discourse. In addition to its longer and more complex history of Hispanic immigration, the United States population dwarfs that of Canada. The number of Canadians of Hispanic descent is as a result considerably smaller, and almost insignificant compared to the Mexican population. Naturally, the number of works published by Latino-Canadians is correspondingly lower.

The above context may give rise to many questions: What does “Hispanic Canadian” or “Latino Canadian” mean? Language is complex and political and inadequate. In both Spanish and English, even simple terms such as Spanish and español can be problematic, since they can refer to someone’s national origin (Spain) or to the language itself. What about Brazil? Does Hispanic mean the same thing in Canada as it does in the US? (For US Census Bureau purposes, “Hispanic” includes all persons of “Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.”) Do Hispanic Canadian authors write and publish in Spanish? Do they write in English or French as well? Who translates their work, and into which language? And shouldn’t we use the more inclusive binary Latino/a or the gender-neutral [email protected] or Latinx?

For the sake of simplicity, “Hispanic Canadian literature” here refers to works by authors of Latin American heritage either because of their country of origin or by descent, regardless of race, who live, write, and publish in Canada and whose primary language is Spanish.

In “September 11 1973: Latin America Comes to Canada,” Hazelton pinpoints the date of the Chilean coup d’état as pivotal in the development and establishment of Hispanic Canadian literature. Waves of refugees and exiles escaped and settled in Canada, followed by waves of immigrants from other parts of the Southern Cone and Central and South America, as well as new migration waves in recent decades. Writers arriving from other countries carry the richness of their own literatures and bring the complexity of their national and linguistic identities—small but vibrant streams that enter and become part of the whole while remaining distinct. Genres morph; languages evolve and merge with their adopted tongue.

A growing and vibrant community of authors—academics, critics, journalists, cultural promoters, activists, editors, artists—exists in cities and towns across Canada. Its members read each others’ work, attend literary readings, and contribute to each others’ journals and anthologies. Why do they write? In response to this question, the authors featured here list reasons as varied as preserving the Spanish language, publishing together, allegiance to their heritage, and nostalgia, among others. Peruvian-born short fiction author Pablo Salinas describes his own perspective as being broadened by the various places he’s lived in and the languages he’s come into contact with.

For such a small literary community, Hispanic Canadian literature exhibits an astounding variety of voices, themes, and genres. The authors’ work has been anthologized and studied by Latin American Studies scholars and critics in Canada. Hazelton’s breakthrough volume Latino-Canadá: A Critical Study of Ten Latin American Writers of Canada (McGill University Press, 2007) is the first to provide a comprehensive history and analysis of Hispanic Canadian literature. Bilingual and trilingual authors continue to write and publish in their native Spanish as well as their adoptive second or third languages, sometimes translating their own work. As a linguistic community surrounded by the predominant official languages, writers who create work in all genres in their native language as well as one or both official languages have benefited from translation of their work into English and French. A number of them, such as Martha Batiz (featured here), Carmen Rodriguez, and Alberto Manguel, translate their own work into English or write directly in English; others choose to write directly in French, such as Diego Creimer and Alejandro Saravia (both featured here) and Gloria Escomel. A number of anthologies of Hispanic Canadian literature in translation have been published starting in the 1980s, including Cloudburst (University of Ottawa Press, 2013), the English translation of the first Spanish-language anthology of Hispanic Canadian short stories, and Retrato de una nube (Lugar Común, 2008).

A number of small presses, literary journals, and contests exist or have existed in Spanish thanks to the effort and dedication of editors and critics such as Silvia Alfaro, Ramón de Elía, Jorge Etcheverry, Luis Molina Lora, Luis Torres, and Julio Torres-Recinos, to name a few. Presses such as Cormorant, Broken Jaw, and Biblioasis are beginning to release works in English translation as well; and works in French translation have been released by Québec/Amérique, Les Éditions d’Orphée, and, more recently, newcomer Urubú, among others. Ruptures, Boreal, Nuestra América, Alter Vox, and Aquelare are among many literary magazines that have focused on Hispanic Canadian writing over the years. One in particular is worthy of note, The Apostles Review, the longest-running literary magazine publishing Hispanic Canadian literature, founded by Argentine-Canadian Ramón de Elía. Published in print and online since 2004, it doesn’t define itself by the language in which the works are written or the themes they contain: Works published aren’t always in Spanish, aren’t always translated from Spanish, and they tend to steer away from exile literature.

Martha Batiz, Diego Creimer, and Alejandro Saravia, whose work is featured here, are all award-winning writers recognized both at home and abroad. They all edit work by other Hispanic Canadians and write primarily in Spanish and in a language or languages other than Spanish—Spanish and French, Spanish and English, all three, or montrealense, as Saravia notes in a questionnaire I sent around to the writers. They write short and long fiction and, in Saravia’s case, poetry. They all point to the challenge of preserving, understanding, and honoring their mother tongue—using a language that is culturally isolated despite its growing presence in cities such as Montreal and Toronto—as well as other languages they use on a daily basis.

This is only a small cross section of Hispanic Canadian letters: A short story by Martha Batiz, first published in Spanish in 1993 and recently translated into English by the author herself; a short story from French by Diego Creimer, who has recently been pouring his creative writing efforts into Quebec’s official language; and poetry by Alejandro Saravia, including two poems from the Spanish and a bilingual poem written in Spanish and English, translated into a trilingual poem (with permission of the author). Their work provides a sample of the enormous variety of Hispanic Canadian literary creation: wide-ranging themes and multiple genres, self-translation (Saravia and Batiz), writing in other or several languages (Saravia and Creimer), and genre-defying writing (Saravia). Their writing often contains a strong sense of place, with characters set in Canadian cities and landscapes, an intimate awareness of the multicultural and multilingual realities surrounding their characters and, at times, of the languages and cultures of original nations of the Americas (Saravia and Batiz). Hispanic Canadian writers are diverse and prolific, and their ebullient literary production remains to be discovered, read, studied, and translated in a substantial way outside the country’s borders. Their literature, and that of many others not mentioned here, is an established yet evolving, small but fertile section of the Canadian literary landscape and an essential part of the literature of the Americas.

 

[1] “September 11 1973: Latin America Comes to Canada.” in Translation Effects: The Shaping of Modern Canadian Culture. Eds. Kathy Mezei, Sherry Simon, Luise von Flotow. McGill-Queen’s Press: 2014.

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