In a telling scene from the opening story of Kirstin Valdez Quade’s Night at the Fiestas, a young woman corrects her aunt for calling her by her given name. “Norma,” the character until this moment known as Nemecia, says, “My name is Norma.” Nemecia is at the center of the story: a figure at once sensual and revolting. She disfigures the narrator (her younger cousin Maria) both through the half-truths she tells of her own horrific past and by repeatedly carving her fingernail into Maria’s cheek until a scar forms. However, neither Maria nor any other characters comment on the abrupt transformation of the bewitching, tragic Nemecia into Norma. Like so many other understated yet pivotal moments in Valdez Quade’s stories, Nemecia’s decision to use an English mistranslation of her Mexican-American name (a purposeful miss because it makes the haunting Nemecia altogether too “normal”) works on several levels. Nemecia’s name change is a clear signal to all readers of her desire to cut herself off from her violent past and create herself anew in a new place. Yet it also has a special resonance for Latinxs and readers of Latinx literature.* With one sharp line of dialogue Valdez Quade encapsulates the major struggles of Latinx culture and writing—the divide between generations, the conflict between assimilation and heritage, the continuous negotiations among past, present, and a future in the making. She does this without referring to any of these issues, without the prescribed and alienating language of scholarly debates, and such subtle moments appear throughout her masterful collection.
The stories in Night at the Fiestas are all set in a vividly invoked northern New Mexico. They span decades and a wide range of characters with a cohesiveness of tone and tenor that even few novels achieve. I believe this book marks a new and exciting chapter in Latinx literature—one that will redefine the term for readers, scholars, and writers.
In Bilingual Blues, poet Gustavo Pérez Firmat writes:
The fact that I
am writing to you
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
How to explain to you that I
don’t belong to English
though I belong nowhere else
These lines are familiar to many who read Latinx literature, not only because of Pérez Firmat’s book, but because they preface Junot Diaz’s Drown, one of the most widely read and taught books in contemporary Latinx letters. They are an exploration of Pérez Firmat’s “hyphenated identity” as a person who lives between mainstream U.S. and Latinx cultures, feeling at home in neither.
Gloria Anzaldúa was one of the first to articulate the difficulties, joys, and attributes of this hybrid border identity in her seminal book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), a mix of theory, history, and autobiography. In Borderlands, Anzaldúa writes:
To live in the Borderlands means you
are neither hispana india negra española
ni gabacha, eres mestiza, mulata, half-breed
caught in the crossfire between camps
while carrying all five races on your back
not knowing which side to turn to, run from
Anzaldúa helped delineate a space within which to write about the complex navigations of Latinx identity and Latinxs’ place in the U.S. The literature of the borderlands has been marked by varied and congruent negotiations: between Latin American and U.S. cultures, between English and Spanish, between machismo and matriarchy, between separatism and assimilation, and many more. Though literature had been written in Spanish about the Americas for centuries, the first published narrative by a Mexican-American written in English was María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s 1872 novel Who Would Have Thought It? Ruiz de Burton was one of the first to write from these debated borderlands through a passionate critique of the U.S. invasion of the Mexican southwest and the disenfranchisement of Californios. These issues have shaped Latinx literature since its beginnings and have contributed to a major mode of discourse and expression for several decades. Within borderland literature there is huge diversity: some authors go to great lengths to translate every word of Spanish and every non-Anglo activity, while other authors, like Giannina Braschi for example, write for pages in complex Spanish that is impenetrable to nonfluent readers. Anzaldúa, true to her own theory, wrote in academic English, Spanglish, vernacular Tex-Mex, and lyrical Spanish, to name just a few codes.
The idea of the borderlands has been a necessary, exciting means for Latinx writers to explore the struggle for identity and self-acceptance—to break from silence and assert themselves in mainstream U.S. letters. The investigation of how to speak in a language societally required but not fully your own has produced some of the best American literature in any genre.
Because the role of the border (between cultures, languages, generations, and nations) is so prominent for many Latinxs, our literature will almost always involve some sort of translation or crossing between cultures and language. Yet too often the potentially revelatory act of translation results in a falsified performance in which one’s experience of culture and language is acted out for those unfamiliar with that culture. This performance removes some readers from the text, especially if the reader speaks Spanish or is Latinx and does not need to have certain elements explained. Latinx authors walk a thin and shaky line between alienating readers familiar with their culture and being too difficult for those outside of it. Of course, for each reader, the border between overexplaining and obscurity is constantly shifting. I take issue when every Spanish word or Latinx custom is explained—such as providing an English translation even for assimilated words like tortilla or piñatas—or when a papery-thin version of magical realism rears its head for no other reason than that it may be expected.
In truth what I mean by performance is less tied to specific literary techniques, which will always be defined by context, and more to the sense that the writer has to justify and explain the relevant culture at every turn, the sense that literature itself is not for Latinxs and therefore must twist itself into representations that fit not the writer or the world being written from, but rather an imagined mainstream (read: white) audience. Attempts to assert Latinx identity and experience have sometimes morphed into clichés that repeat a limited and un-nuanced view of Latinx culture. At worst, these false translations can give readers the sense that the text and author are constantly trying to sell something. Whether that something is exotic food, warm locales, drunken fathers, sensual women, or, still worse, the commodification of the complexity of a hybrid identity, depends on the book in question.
Therefore, I find it extremely exciting to watch the evolution of Latinx literature into a new territory with Night at the Fiestas. The northern New Mexico setting makes the book quite literally of the borderlands, yet the collection refuses to conform to the tropes of some mainstream Latinx literature. Borderland writing has been characterized by a lack of belonging—the difficulty of having no fixed tongue, since one’s identity is constantly in flux and one’s culture must be explained to both Latin American and Anglo audiences. Not belonging, though a powerful and genuine aspect of many texts, can have the effect of undermining Latinx history and existing culture. In Valdez Quade’s fiction, characters themselves often feel ostracized—like the pregnant young woman working at a Catholic Church in “Ordinary Sins,” or the unemployed mother in “Mojave Rats” carrying around a copy of Middlemarch with the cover facing out. They dream of belonging to a world different from their own, mulling over small facts of their lives like talismans. Yet Valdez Quade’s voice is not searching for a place or language to belong to. She does not explain cultural referents and therefore does not fall prey to the trap of playing tour guide, of selling a particular culture’s right to exist. Valdez Quade knows these characters and this world; she knows their importance, their reality, and their humanity, so she does not need to justify this knowledge to anyone. Instead of cultural tourism, there is authorial assuredness and the earnest investigation of human experience.
In interviews, Valdez Quade has said her family has lived in northern New Mexico for over three hundred years, and that sense of rootedness is apparent in her fiction. This is not a benefit that all Latinxs can enjoy; for many, deracination is a reality of their experience. Yet Valdez Quade—though in no way attempting to present a definitive version of latinidad—provides an example for how Latinx writers might write from their own experiences and imaginations.
As a Latina, a writer, and a Latinx literature scholar, I read Night at the Fiestas looking for many things, among them: new interpretations of shared heritage, examples of contemporary Latinx identity, well-crafted narratives I could enjoy and learn from, and, because it happens so rarely, characters who might even look or sound like me. Many of Valdez Quade’s characters are Latinx or multi-ethnic, and this fact—often only gleaned through subtext or a last name slipped in halfway through a story—is both incidental and essential. None of her characters, even and especially those living immersed in Mexican-American culture, is defined solely by ethnic identity. Yet the reality of the borderlands is not negated; Latinxs are not forced or expected to conform to mainstream culture. In fact, latinidad defines these fictional worlds. The reader experiences New Mexico not as a place with Latinxs in it, but as a Latinx space. Rather than explaining the borderland to outsiders, Valdez Quade switches the perspective: her lens is a border-lens, her language a border-language.
Other reviewers have mentioned Valdez Quade’s affinity with Flannery O’Connor. The connection is there, especially in the Catholic-based questioning of grace, transformation, and redemption, yet I also see Valdez Quade clearly coupled with another great U.S. writer of the mid-twentieth century, James Baldwin. Valdez Quade, like Baldwin, moves with insight and confidence into characters of varying and opposite racial and class backgrounds. In “Canute Commands the Tides” she depicts a middle-aged white woman with a complex emotional connection to her Mexican-American employee. Conversely, in “Jubilee” a Mexican-American college student, Andrea, questions her relationship with Parker, the white daughter of her father’s boss: “Why did she want to embarrass Parker, dig into that rich guilt that was so ripe and close to the surface? Andrea flexed her fingers, imagined sinking them into flesh that would give as easily as the skin of a browning peach.”
Though Quade’s characters are extremely particular and often viscerally surprising—like the father breeding boa constrictors in his mother-in-law’s guesthouse—their presentation involves no sense of the performative. Characters’ details unfold from their experience, feeling necessary and candid, rather than quaintly representative of local color. Valdez Quade’s locations are specific and rich, yet there is no feeling of exoticism or exploitation. I was never pulled out of the text by the narrator explaining references I already understood, nor would readers unfamiliar with Mexican-American or Latinx culture need more explanations, so artful are Valdez Quade’s narrative set-ups and descriptions. Rather, with each sentence we travel deeper into the stories—both the characters’ psyches and the canyons and crannies of the perilous, vivid landscape.
The need to overexplain one’s culture, to render exotic a place or an experience, will always take on the superficial qualities of a second-rate circus—loud colors and music—but will offer little substance. Valdez Quade’s fiction invokes a circus of a different name and is closer to the meaning of carnival itself: a site of inherent contradictions where the wounds and revels of the flesh are a means to access the holy. With each story we experience a “night at the fiestas”: a moment in which profane reality is transformed into the visceral, messy, and revelatory sacred.
*Author’s note: I use “Latinx” (a recent evolution of Latino, Latino/a, and Latin@) as a gender-inclusive, non-binary term. “Latinx literature” refers to the extremely diverse literature written primarily in the United States by people who identify as Latino/a/x.
New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2015. 304 pp. $16.95, paper.