Global South’s 21st Century Literatures

In globalization debates and critiques that polarize the Global North from the Global South, the latter refers to areas that tend to bear the brunt of the negative effects of globalization. Unlike the superpowers and rich countries of the Global North, the poor countries of the Global South are historically disadvantaged to begin with. They include developing nations (formerly the “Third World,” an obsolete Cold War term), war-torn areas, and former colonies in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Challenges facing the Global South include mass poverty, human and civil rights abuses, environmental degradation, political instabilities, and other kinds of internal conflicts. Movements for global justice and “deglobalization” (Bello 2004) as a more equitable alternative to globalization focus on the plight of the Global South or the “globalization losers,” and push for policies that aim to narrow the gap between the North and the South. 

For brevity’s sake, in this lesson, we’ll consider certain is-sues being brought up in 21st century Latin American and 4.1 African literature. Postcolonial Latin America has produced Hispanophone, Anglophone, and literary works in the vernacular and other languages like Portuguese, as well as migrant and mixed-race literature (e.g., Chicano/a literature or Mexican American literature, or more broadly, Latino/a literature of Spanish Americans in the US). In this lesson, we’ll focus on magical realism as a Latin American legacy and the 21st century Macondo vs. McOndo motif in contemporary Latin American writing. African literature is haunted by the historical traumas of slavery and colonization. In this lesson, we’ll identify African-centered perspectives in reading African literature, ending with critical race theory in Paul Gilroy’s concept of the transnational “black Atlantic.”

The literature of Spanish America is remarkably diverse then and now. However, in the “Latin American Boom” of the 1960s and 70s, writers from this region attracted international attention when political turmoil (like the Cuban Revolution of 1959) and the atrocities of colonization and dictatorships figured largely in their work but in a “style” that readers in the West at that time found rather new, exotic: magical realism. Worldwide publishing success aside, the boom is best understood as (in the words of Carlos Fuentes, himself a major literary figure in the boom) “the result of four centuries that, literarily, reached a moment of urgency in which fiction became the way to organize lessons from the past” (qtd. in Nunn 2001, 122). The accumulated burdens of history demanded expressive relief in the form of fiction that (for Western readers) combined European realism and modern-ism with mythic, folkloric, indigenous, everyday magical elements. The aesthetic label for this is magical realism, a term that is somewhat falling out of favor because of connotations of an artificial-sounding experimental “style”; the more preferred term is “the marvelous real” (lo real maravilloso coined by Alejo Carpentier) which suggests an organic outlook that even common Latin Americans possess (for example, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s grandmother who in his boyhood had told him magical stories that she never doubted were true).

Gabriel Garcia Marquez himself never used the term magical real-ism though it was his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) that popularized it. For him and other writers in this tradition, the realist conventions of disenchanted plot, ordinary human beings for characters, and straightforward narrative were too restrictive to capture the depth and richness of Latin American experience. Some of them drew from modernism “experimental” techniques like the use of multiple planes of existence to depict a local consciousness that saw no conflict between the rational and the magical.

The chief characteristic of this outlook is that the “real” is “marvelous”: in magical realist stories, a realist setting is peppered with strange occurrences, but the characters don’t see them as strange. There is a deadpan tone when talking about magic as though magic is a normal and ordinary part of life. In Marquez’s short story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” (1968), an old and frail angel falls to the Earth and is captured by Pelayo and Elisenda. None of the characters questioned the existence of angels; one of the neighbors even thought that the angel was coming for the couple’s dying child. The point of the story, however, is not just this seamless blending of real-world and fantasy, but a critique of human depravity. Because of the angel the dying son was healed, but Pelayo and Elisenda treated the angel as a spectacle to make money from. They caged the angel in a chicken coop and made a lot of money by charging the crowd who came for healing, wisdom, or to satisfy their curiosity. The family became rich, the boy grew up, and towards the end, despite many years of neglect, the angel recovered in strength and left without taking the boy he had come for in the first place.

The end of the twentieth century saw some Latin American writers breaking away from this tradition, reacting strongly against the stereotype that a Latin American writer writes only magical realism. Case in point is the McOndo movement that sets itself against Marquez’s Macondo, the fictional town in One Hundred Years. The term is coined by Alberto Fuguet when he and Sergio Gomez published the anthology McOndo (1996) which means “a world of McDonald’s, Macintoshes, and condos” (2001, 70). The flipside of the tropical exotica of Macondo, McOndo refers to the gritty urban non-magical lives of Latinos/as in an Anglo world of consumerism, technology, and pop culture. 

One of the most impressive novels written in the 21″ century was by a Dominican American, Junot Diaz, whose The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 (among other awards). Critically acclaimed yet highly readable, the novel combines both the Macondo and McOndo of Latin American literature. “Including as they do brutal political repression, efficacious prayers by a pious abuela, historical coincidences in a tropical setting and a mysterious ‘Golden Mongoose,’ these flashbacks sometimes lean heavily towards the Macondo side of things,” writes a reviewer for The Guardian. The McOndo side, on the other hand, is not only in the narrative voice that “mixes street talk and dollops of Spanish with heavyweight nerd-speak and literary references,” but also in the characterization of Oscar Wao himself. “Bashful, precocious, overweight, Oscar is ‘a hard-core sci-fi and fantasy man,’ well versed in ‘Japanimation’ and Marvel comics lore. His ambition: to write a space fantasy epic combining the characteristic themes of JRR Tolkien and EE ‘Doc’ Smith” (Tayler 2008). Authors like Diaz update magical realism Macondo for 21st century McOndo.

A free sampling of Diaz’s short stories may be read online in Open Culture. One of the texts for this lesson is an essay by Diaz, “Apocalypse: What Disasters Reveal,” which analyzes the link between globalization and catastrophe using the 2010 earthquake in Haiti as an example.

Studies of African literature emphasize the need for African-centered rather than Eurocentric perspectives in reading works produced from the African continent and the African diaspora. This is because African literature registers very deep historical scars and active recuperation from the violence of slavery, Western colonization, and institutional and cultural racism. An African-centered perspective may involve any of the following:

This calls for the appreciation of African folklore and how African oral traditions fold into modern African literary works. The “father of the African novel,” Nigerian Chinua Achebe, in his novel Things Fall Apart (1958) managed to “tame” the English language into articulating not just African words but an indigenous African worldview. Another important African work in the 1960s is Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek’s “So
ng of Lawino,” which is so thick in African imagery and references to oral tradition that it can stand as a resource for anthropologists of African tribal cultures (Ngara 1990, 66). “Song of Lawino” is a long dramatic monologue originally composed in the poet’s native Acoli language, then translated a decade later by the poet into English in 1966. The translation “murders” (Okot’s own word) the original structure of rhymed couplets into staccato free verse, but retains the wealth of allusions to oral tradition that became a weapon for the sharp tongue of the persona Lawino, a simple uneducated woman who comically lashes out on her husband Ocol, a copycat of Western ways. What is tragic about the dramatic situation is that Ocol is no ordinary African but an influential tribal leader, a member of the intellectual ite. “Song of Lawino” demonstrates that even a simple woman deeply rooted in indigenous culture can outwit men made foolish by uncritical reverence to Western forms of knowledge: “Their testicles I Were smashed / With large books!” (Okot p’Bitek quoted in Ngara 1990, 73). 

This mode of reading also includes revisionist retellings, as in the novel Foe (1986) by South African Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee. Foe is a fictional reimagining of what had taken place in the writing of an English eighteenth-century classic, Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe. In Coetzee’s novel, Daniel Foe (fictional counterpart of Defoe) meets Susan Barton who claims to have lived with a man named Cruso on a deserted island and his black slave Friday. Cruso is dead, and Susan together with Friday goes to England in search of an author who can write her castaway story for her. The novel dramatizes the authorial violence of “giving a voice” to those presumed unable to speak, or unable to speak eloquently for themselves. Foe writes the best-selling Robinson Crusoe but without Susan Barton in it, liberally augmenting Susan’s bor-ing tale to make it adventurous and saleable; and Susan herself, who becomes Friday’s mistress after the death of Cruso, is depicted as morally compelled to speak for Friday. We recall that Friday in Defoe’s classic was “civilized,” Christianized, and taught the English language by Crusoe; in metafictional Foe, Friday is shown to have been tongue-less, condemned to speechlessness, never able or perhaps unwilling to speak—at least, not in the terms that those around him could understand. Foe ends with a mysterious narrator who, unlike Foe and Barton, resists the temptation to fill in the void of Friday’s dark empty mouth; the narrator just lets Friday be, though that means the impossibility of closure. Because to speak for silenced subjects is to silence them further.

Apart from Afrocentric ethno-nationalist cultures, there are also transnational, diasporic, hybrid cultures referred to as the “black Atlantic,” a term coined by Robert Farris Thompson but developed by Paul Gilroy to mean “culture that is not specifically African, American, Caribbean, or British, but all of these at once; a black Atlantic culture whose themes and techniques transcend ethnicity and nationality to produce something new” (italics mine). In critical race theory, hybridity as a concept is a preferable alternative to the stable but restrictive identities promoted by forms of identity politics like Afrocentrism. Though an African identity based on race, ethnicity, or nationality can bring about a kind of negro pride, Paul Gilroy argues that such notions of racial or ethnic purity dangerously resembles racism itself as it looks down on mixed-race subjects. We, after all, don’t have an identity but identities, and not one of these plural identities can define us totally.

Recommended texts in this lesson are found online: Junot Diaz’s essay “Apocalypse: What Disasters Reveal” and Linton Kwesi Johnson’s dub poetry (2002).

When we think about literature, we tend to think of poetry and fiction and drama, not the essay, especially the “noncreative” type like Junot Diaz’s opinion piece. Our objective for reading Diaz’s essay is twofold: (1) to identify the literary touches in this essay and how they were subtly incorporated in the argument, and (2) how these literary touches were used to upturn the Macondo/McOndo dichotomy in the “magical” discourse of neoliberal globalization.

What is dub poetry? It is a form of black popular art arising from the multiple, transnational cultures of the black Atlantic. Writes Mar-tino (2010): “Dub poetry represents a major form of black popular art, standing as a perfect mix of past and present, of tradition and experimentation. Dub poetry is a form of performance poetry that makes use of the ancient oral traditions of Africa, with their focus on storytelling, and that has developed out of the reggae tradition in Jamaica and England in the mid-Seventies. In this sense, dub poets soon started to use the same channels of communication—records, live acts—as the reggae musicians, singers and DJs of Kingston and London.”

Dub poetry revives the orality and communality of poetry that is easily forgotten in this age of print. Jamaican-born, London-based reggae artist and dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson explains that the voice itself is part of the text of dub poetry, which can hardly be represented in writing:

The kind of thing that I write and the way I say it is a result of the tension between Jamaican Creole and Jamaican English and between those and English English. And all that, really is the consequence of having been brought up in a colonial society and then coming over here to live and go to school in England soon afterwards. The tension builds up. You can see it in the writing. You can hear it. And something else: my poems may look sort of flat on the page. Well, that is because they’re actually oral poems, as such. They were definitely writ-Aten to be read aloud, in the community. (Johnson 1975, 8)

The linguistic tension mirrors the tensions of living under colonial and migrant conditions, and these tensions are best expressed in an oral mess rather than in the orderliness of a written record. Johnson’s language is a mix of 17th-century colonial English, West African from the slaves, and a smattering of indigenous Caribbean dialects. Though Johnson claims to write for both the eye and the ear, his language can be difficult to read and is best appreciated when read aloud, when listened to for its poetic musicality.

Read the lyrics and listen to the (audio/video) recordings of “New Crass Massakah,” a poem included in L. K: Johnson’s Mi Revalueshanary Fren (2002), a collection of his best poems through the years. Blogcritics (2006) gives the background of this poem: “What starts off as a celebration of a 16-year-old (black) girl’s party in Deptford, London becomes a racially motivated arson attack to be played down by the media and subsequent criminal investigation. [Poems like this] demonstrate what makes Johnson’s work so historically and culturally significant—it records the experience of Jamaican-born British immigrants, speaking for them when others would silence them.” 

Here are the questions for “Apocalypse: ‘What Disasters Reveal.” Discuss your answers to them.

  1. What does a term like “natural disaster” or “acts of God” obscure about the real causes of calamity?
  2. In Part 5, globalization is defined as “neoliberal economic integration” that insists on this magic formula for success: “economic freedom and market-friendly policies.” Why does Diaz derisively call it a “magical process”? Explain how this magic formula actually brings about global inequality rather than prosperity for all.
  3. Expound on the author’s usage of figures of speech to clarify his points, e.g., the yachts and rafts, the zombie metaphor, Haiti as a symbol.
  4. In Part 6, Diaz describes a dystopic sci-fi future that is so familiar i
    t might as well be happening in the real-world present. What is this future?

Answer the following questions based on “New Crass Massakah.”

  1. Do a quick online research about the event that the poet is referring to in this poem. Who are the “fourteen dead”?
  2. What is the poem’s dramatic situation? What brought about the change in tone in the fourth stanza?
  3. In his other works, the poet can be very vocal about his political views. Why do you think the poet chose not to vocalize his views in this poem?
  4. The Blogcritics review above says that Johnson’s poetry speaks for the Jamaican-born British immigrants while others would silence them. In what way does “New Crass Massakah” speak for the fourteen dead? Compare this instance of “speaking for the silenced” with that of Friday’s case in Coetzee’s Foe.

Ideas for extended work (group or individual):

  1. Because Philippine history is a lot like Latin American history (both were colonized by Spain), it’s not surprising that Filipino authors also produced magical realist novels, and also during times of heightened political distress (like the martial law). Read a Philippine magical realist short story or novel; analyze the function of magical elements in depictions of social/historical situations.
  2. Lyrics transcriptions and recordings of L.K. Johnson’s work abound online. Read, listen to, and analyze another one of Johnson’s poems. To help you with the language, choose a poem with an available translation into “English English” (for example, a translation of “Mi Revalueshanary Fren”).
  3. Prepare a multimedia report on the musical dimension of L.K. Johnson’s dub poetry.