A literary mirror


A new dictionary of Latin American literature coincides with the region’s cultural projection from a position of growing power



Historical Dictionary of Latin American Literature and Theater
Richard Young and Odile Cisneros
2011, The Scarecrow Press
719 pages, hardback

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

THE SUBTLE but world-changing evolution from derivative to indigenous literature that Latin America has undergone – like other regions of the world that have shaken off imperialism – comes alive in this valuable new work.

Richard Young and Odile Cisneros have brought together more than a thousand entries on specific authors from Hispanic and Portuguese Latin America, as well as other referencing and archival tools, in a work that will prove essential for the contemporary regional specialist.

It is a timely and beautifully written volume that coincides with the consolidation of a third phase in this region’s fascinating development: its projection to the world from a position of growing power.

This is something that should interest us all. For as the authors point out in their excellent introduction condensing the literary history of Latin America, literature has several functions. Not only does it enable a society to hold a mirror up to itself, it also serves as a form of conscience, empowering the writer to check a nation’s moral compass.

This, point out Young and Cisneros, has been of singular importance in Latin America, where writers have long had to navigate turbulent political waters, and have often paid a high price for having complex imaginations.

Literature can also serve as an adjunct to history, reflecting political and social developments and providing a reference for understanding them. Conflict and revolution, in particular, have been landmark themes in Latin American writing, and today the fallout of dictatorship and state terror represent important residues of national memory.

Labour of love

The Historical Dictionary of Latin American Literature and Theater is clearly a labour of love that has been structured to provide a very useful research aid. The introduction offers some brief pointers to the historical evolution of literature in the region and will be of great value to the non-specialist who wishes to dip his or her toe into this theme.

The dictionary section itself then examines not only the lives, works and principal thematic concerns of writers themselves, but trends, societies, journals, schools and categories. There are entries on individual countries that provide an indicative trajectory of national literary traditions, on categories such as “Gay and Lesbian Writers and Writing” and “Jewish Writing”, and on genres and movements such as Modernismo, indigenismo, neo-classicism etc.

The entry on “Journals, Magazines, Newspapers, and Periodicals” offers a fascinating glimpse into the role played by other print media in the development of literature, although it would have been nice to have had a separate entry on journalism per se, given how important this has been in shaping the skill of so many Latin American writers past and present.

Other sections also offers valuable resources: there is a handy and very enlightening literary chronology of Latin America that takes us from Conquest right up to 2010; and there is a comprehensive and extremely useful bibliography that lists works offering insights both into the writing of individuals and within countries, but also general literary history and criticism. At 194 pages long, it may in fact hold the record as the longest bibliography ever published.

It is very hard to compile a volume of this kind for, like me, everyone has an opinion about what to put in it and what not. The volume does not include countries of the Latin American Caribbean, for example, which is a shame – although with a project of this kind one has to draw the line somewhere.

At the same time, it is also impossible to do justice to the breadth of knowledge reflected between the covers of this book in a short review article, and the best and perhaps only way of doing so is simply by recommending it unreservedly to readers.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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