An original collection of essays by Ann González decodes the subversive messages in children’s writing from Central American and the Caribbean
Resistance and Survival: Children’s Narrative from Central America and the Caribbean
2009, University of Arizona Press
183 pages, 18 plates, hardback
Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole
THE TRICKSTER in Latin American literature, Ann González tells us, is not analogous to the underdog in US writing, even though both are socially disadvantaged characters who succeed eventually.
Children in the US are taught through literature to root for the underdog – an individual who, in the end, defies the odds to achieve success, as defined by the American Dream, through perseverance and force of character.
For Latin America’s colonial subjects, by contrast, the ordinary avenues to success are not available – and they must therefore create their own. The underdog is an astute figure whose deceptions represent the different ways of meeting basic needs, such as hunger or survival, that can be found in the periphery.
Thus, González writes, tricksters find ways to conceal what they do, speaking on multiple and sometimes contradictory levels to many audiences about how to get what is necessary without direct confrontation or open resistance.
Periphery of the periphery
In this highly original study of literature in Central America and the Caribbean – the periphery of the periphery in terms of the publishing industry – González has provided a fascinating and valuable insight into the anatomy and mechanics of children’s writing.
It is a neglected but fascinating area, with the capacity to highlight key aspects of the process of socialisation and its aspirations in radically different societies. González points out, for example, that while US and European literature tends to train children to become better members of the dominant class, its Latin American counterpart struggles under a heavy colonial burden. It seeks to teach other lessons: how to resist submission, submit with dignity, fight the odds, ensure cultural independence and get what you want without appearing to do so.
In Resistance and Survival, González critically examines a representative sample of works written for children by important Central American and Caribbean writers, beginning with a celebrated collection for children by the Cuban revolutionary José Martí and ending with contemporary writing emerging from Costa Rica.
She explores the work, among others, of Carmen Lyra, Rosario Ferré, Joaquín Gutiérrez, Manlio Argueta, Gioconda Belli, Lara Ríos, Leonardo Garnier and Carlos Rubio.
Through close readings, she uncovers and decodes the many voices and subversive messages contained in the work of these writers, locating these in their context and within each writer’s own corpus of work.
Martí’s La edad de oro (1889) magazine for children, for example, explores issues of gender, race and the “other”, setting subsequent standards for an egalitarian dialogue.
At the other end of the spectrum, the challenges faced by the contemporary Costa Rican writers Lara Ríos, Carlos Rubio and Leonardo Garnier are much more fragmented, seeking if anything to reconstruct an identity fractured by globalisation and postmodern complexity.
Resistance and Survival is an exceptional introduction to children’s literature in the Caribbean Basin region and will have an important influence on subsequent study of this theme. It also provides an accessible and clearly written route into literary theory for the uninitiated, and would make a valuable contribution to the collection of anyone interested in understanding Latin American literature more generally.
Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books