Sarah M. Quesada’s The African Heritage of Latinx and Caribbean Literature is a major book. Its power stems from a refusal to a provincial inclination in the field of American Studies, at least to the parts of that field that understand the United States on its own, erasing its many connections to the rest of the world. In many social science and humanities subfields in the US, and in American culture at large, there are frequent conversations about Latinidad without Latin America, as if Latinx identities were defined only by their correlation to US racial dynamics and not by the complex hemispheric logics of empire. Of course, my field of Latin American studies carries equal responsibility by its historical failure to attend to the cultural production of the region’s diasporas and emigrant communities. Erasure cannot be fixed with erasure, though.
Quesada’s book articulates a critique of the concept of a LatinX culture studied in dissociation from both Latin America and Africa. She brings to the fore the transnational political and cultural engagements underlying the work of major figures from the past and the present, from Rudolfo Anaya and Tomás Rivera, to Achy Obejas and Junot Díaz. The idea of Chicano writers like Anaya and Rivera as cosmopolitan intellectuals, of Obejas and Díaz as engaging the world rather than the nation and the diaspora is provocative, salutary and deeply necessary. Methodologically and politically, Quesada’s book shows the methodological and critical promise stemming from breaking writers and intellectuals away from minoritized communities in the US away from narrow ideas of race defined solely on US-centric racial difference. In particular, Quesada’s approach allows us to visibilize the ways in which solidarity and aesthetic engagement with other sites of anticolonial struggle are essential to make sense of Latinx cultural production.
For all these reasons, it is exciting to converse with major scholars from the various disciplines Quesada’s book engages. This symposium, then, is an attempt to create generative discussions on the possibilities of new comparatist engagement that unsettle the more traditional ways we do interdisciplinary study, from the perspective of comparativists, Africanists, Caribbeanists, and Latinx studies.
Comparative literature as an African problem
Since the first inception with the struggle with African literature, one initial response of comparative literature was to avoid the continent and rather posit comparisons across European national literatures. This development itself is interesting considering that African literary criticism was necessarily comparative from the beginning. Then, and even now, scholars of African literature work across national traditions in the continent with singular national studies being the exception, rather than the norm. Working across national traditions also demanded working across languages. The consolidation of the field rather sidelined the continent. When African literatures enter the conversation, it is as a supplement to European literature at best. In fact the tendency is to read African literature as a derivative of European texts. In other words, when African literature has not been divested of literary merit in order to posit its anthropological value, its form, the “African particularity” to cite Sarah Quesada’s terrific work, its creative discourse is sacrificed to show the relationship to some European original. The story of African writers’ indebtedness to some European texts is a primary concern of the scholarship I am describing. In this way, the European text will always seem to be the foundational work.
Thankfully, more recently, comparative studies have taken a Global South inflection with South-South comparison that tend to deprivilege European texts and methods. For instance, of Magalí Armillas-Tiseyra’s terrific book on the African novel, is a landmark in this regard. It is against this background of African marginality and a growing South-South comparative constellation that Quesada’s new book, The African Heritage of Latinx and Caribbean Literature, represents an important intervention. I need not announce my Africanism is biased at this point, but it is refreshing to see a book that takes Africa and African culture productions and systems seriously. For the American studies scholars, and more particularly the scholars of Latinx literature, the recovery of the African unconscious might be the most important dimension in this book. And that, in itself, is a very important contribution.
For me, however, the book’s major strength is the stress on African particularity, even as it chronicles the failures of authors discussed in the book to fully grasp this particularity. From Junot Díaz’s work to Achy Obejas’s and from García Marquez’s writing to Tomás Rivera and Rudolfo Anaya, Quesada lights African and Latin African connections as a preoccupation of Latinx writing, even if scholars ignored or suppressed the Atlantic becoming of Latinx cultures. As she puts in the introduction, “these canonical writers exhibit the symptoms of an African haunting projected textually into a Latin-African Atlantic” (6). I leave the posit of the psychoanalytic echoes of this passage for another occasion, for it is clear that our author here is a doctor of recovery, a physician attentive to the task of recuperation. The work of recovery centers an African particularity, which is my biggest takeaway from this book: African particularity tickles me here because it is what is often missing in the traditional model of comparative literature.
Quesada’s archive is not unproblematic however: she’ll be the first to acknowledge that the writers “render Africa fearful, commodify it, obliterate its history, or distort it” (6), that García Márquez’s and Castro’s African visions are imperialistic. Quesada’s book would be worth the effort if she only alighted these distortions, but its skillful reading deployed in the book opens the space for rehabilitation, even at the scene of distortion. This relationship between distortion and rehabilitation is one of the exciting developments of the book. Quesada is a practical decolonial reader, infusing literary analysis with insights from fieldwork and archival research. She brings together literature and the UNESCO heritage sites as “memorials” enabling the advancement of what she terms “visiting text while reading sites” (2). The title of ‘our heritage’ carries a powerful resonance to this discussion because of the ties to inheritance that which has been or may be inherited. Restoring its African inheritance to Latinx literature, Quesada instructs us to take the continent seriously. Practicing her own instructions, she delves into our traditions. In the first chapter, the discussion of vodun in Benin is particularly illuminating, as it offers a corrective to the misrepresentation of voodoo, not only in Díaz’s writing but really across diasporic writing more broadly. Quesada also productively mines what my colleague, Stephanie Newel and collaborator Onookome Okome call “epistemology of the street.” African agency marks the engagement with African particularity in this book.
But there is more that the book teaches me. I find it generative for my own ongoing project of cultural intimacies of anglophone African and Caribbean literatures. In fact, the Latin-Africa itinerary in this book is very productive for thinking about the crisscrossing of Angola, Colombia, Cuba, and Guadeloupe by Frances Sancher, Maryse Condé’s protagonist in the novel Crossing the Mangrove and more recently in the Aminatta Forna’s Happiness where the Ghanaian psychologist, Attila, attends a conference in Cuba and that becomes a place of re-theorizing trauma from the Global South. Quesada offers a generative model for rearticulating the Atlantic through these cultural forms. This book’s achievement is also that it extends the scholarship on Latinx literature and reroutes Eurocentric models of literary comparison.
As I close, I want to learn more about this book and the biography of the book’s idea, so to speak. How did this come to be? Furthermore, while sparkling and exuding brilliance, I am ambivalent of the cojoining of literature and UNESCO materials, and I want to hear more on this pairing, the gains and pitfalls on this pairing. Part of this ambivalence tends from the commodification on top-down developmental model, linking UNESCO’s project to this idea of world literature, which is a critique in the book. In this vein, finally, I wonder if the recuperative decolonial work done in this book is the jolt we need to abandon the category of world literature? Why embrace a decidedly western category that elects and nullifies entries based on models privileging European forms and ideas? This is less a critique on Quesada’s wonderful book and more of a broad provocation to rethink our categories if we really want to decenter eurocentrism in our reading and critical practices. I congratulate her on a terrific first book. She has set a high bar for book two, no pressure!
Latin American-African Exchanges and Literature
I really enjoyed reading The African Heritage of Latinx and Caribbean Literature. I learned a great deal and want to thank you for the opportunity to respond. What stands out to me the most in this work is the range of texts analyzed—from novels, plastic arts, and journalism, to sites of memory and archival texts (like maps and court transcripts). I thought the chapter on García Márquez’s journalism made an especially important contribution. This book joins a growing body of work exploring Latin American-African exchanges. Those exchanges are primarily being thought through particular moments of political and cultural history—the history of the Comintern, the African Black Brotherhood, the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers, the 1927 Brussels Congress and the League Against Imperialism, the Pan-African congresses, the 1956 Congress of Black Writers and Artists, the Tricontinental, the 1966 First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, the 1968 Havana Cultural Congress, the Congresses of Black Culture in the Americas that Afro-Colombian writer Manuel Zapata Olivella started in 1977 and so on. Many of the individuals who participated in these historic exchanges were activist-writers and many of these moments involved not only Latin American but also Latinx activists who traveled to these conferences and meetings from the continental United States. With some exceptions—Sarah Quesada’s work, Magalí Armillas-Tiseyra’s The Dictator Novel: Writers and Politics in the Global South, Lanie Millar’s Forms of Disappointment: Cuban and Angolan Narrative After the Cold War—there is much more work needed to help us understand how these exchanges have helped shape a transnational literary imagination. In a recent article, Christopher Lee, a historian of Africa, and I wrote about what we called “third-way literatures” to reflect how the multiple internationalisms of the Cold War were reflected in literary production around the globe. We examined several sites of cold war literary production—the Afro-Asian Writers Association, the African Writers Series, works within the Latin American literary Boom—framing these within a global third-way politics invested in creating alliances beyond US or Soviet alignment. Overall, we provisionally described the third-way literary imagination as consisting of several key principles, including political and cultural self-determination, the revalorisation of local cultural forms and a dynamic engagement between local and international commitments where these writings display an inward focus on affirming cultural traditions while simultaneously drawing translational parallels to similar experiences across distant geographies. Works like Quesada’s book serve to illuminate new paths, breaking us out of a center-periphery type of comparative analysis to better understand the multiple influences and conversations that have shaped literary and artistic production.
I think there are a couple of key reasons that Latin-African exchanges have not been studied to the degree that they should. One of those reasons is that scholarship on the history of the Latin American Left has tended toward a regional focus that is informed by regionalist articulations of difference. This is the case throughout the twentieth century but it especially pertains to the interwar period in Latin America where in the face of post-WWI disillusionment with Western European philosophies and increasing U.S. dominance, interwar Latin American intellectuals sought to define the region’s unique culture through ideologies like hispanoamericanismo, mestizaje, and indigenismo. One of the things that my work is invested in right now is revisiting South-South exchanges in that interwar period to recover a Latin American intellectual tradition from that time that was directly opposed to regionalist thinking. So, I really appreciate Quesada’s work in what she calls “deprovincializing” Latin American and Latinx literatures and in moving away from notions of Latin Americanness or alternatively Latinidad. Another major issue is the erasure of Black Spanish-speaking Latin American and Latinx thinkers in histories of both Black radicalism and Latin American radicalism. So, overwhelmingly, works on the history of Black radicalism, Black Marxism, pan-Africanism have been very anglophone and francophone in their focus and do not engage with how those debates took shape among Black Latin American thinkers. We have also seen an erasure of Black Latin Americans in histories of Latin American radicalism—so for example José Carlos Mariátegui’s interventions on the so-called Indigenous Question at the 1929 First Latin American Communist Conference have been cited many times but what gets completely elided is the fact that Mariátegui was participating in a discussion with Afro-Cuban activist Sandalio Junco on the Comintern’s so-called Negro Question. An individual like Junco had massive networks to Black activists in the U.S. and in Africa through his leadership in the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers and the Anti-Imperialist League of the Americas. And this erasure of the contributions of Black Latin Americans has everything to do with the fact that, despite the gains made by Afro-Latin American organizers in recent years, Indigenous movements continue to predominate in the region’s conceptualizations of racial and ethnic minorities. So, these are histories that have to be brought to light and they open up many exciting avenues for the comparative analysis of literary and cultural production.
Sarah, the whole time I was reading your book, I kept thinking about the short story by Cuban writer, Antonio José Ponte, called “Petición a Ochún,” which I read as a critique of the glaring inconsistencies in the Cuban Revolution’s discourse on black freedom. In the story, for those who haven’t read it, a Cuban Chinese character named Ignacio, who is an apprentice to a butcher in the Barrio Chino of Havana, marries Luminaria, a woman of African and Chinese descent. The relationship between Ignacio and Luminaria alludes to the final section of Humberto Solás’s three-part 1968 film Lucía, which tells the history of Cuban political struggles through three women named Lucía, ending with the post-Revolutionary period and a mixed-race Lucía, famously played by Adela Legrá. Luminaria’s name, like Lucía’s, contains the notion of light and illumination, and like the relationship between Legrá’s character and her husband Tomás in the film, Ignacio is extremely possessive and abusive and tries to keep Luminaria imprisoned in their house. By creating obvious parallels between Luminaria and Solás’s Lucía, Ponte signals to the reader that his story will follow in the tradition of national allegory used in Solás’s film.
So, in this story, one day Ignacio is abusing Luminaria, and she protects herself by hiding under the kitchen sink. When she refuses to come out, Ignacio nails bars around the sink where she’s hiding and leaves the house. But when he returns home, he discovers that his wife has miraculously escaped, leaving all the bars nailed to the ground exactly as her husband had left them. In the coming weeks, Ignacio unsuccessfully searches for his wife who appears to have vanished. Becoming desperate, he visits a santero, who intuits that Luminaria is the daughter of the Orisha goddess Ochún and that Ignacio has deeply offended Ochún in his treatment of his wife. If he ever wants to see Luminaria again, the santero explains, he must find the heart of a male elephant and give it to Ochún as an offering.
In his search for an elephant, Ignacio decides to go fight in what Ponte describes as the “wars in Africa,” and Ignacio goes to fight particularly in the War in Angola. Shortly after arriving, Ignacio abandons his military post to go look for an elephant. He finally finds one and kills it, laying its heart out on the ground for Ochun only to hear the helicopters of his military unit coming for him. He is executed for desertion and is never reunited with Luminaria, and while he sends the heart of the elephant to his wife as his final parting gift, after eating it, she reports that she had strange dreams.
I recount Ponte’s “Petición a Ochún” because of the way, as allegory, it captures the inconsistencies of Cuba’s Latin-Africa vision, or we might say its tricontinentalism. The African, Asian, and Latin American union symbolized through the marriage of Ignacio and Luminaria fails because of Ignacio’s domestic abuse of an Afro-Cuban woman, a daughter of Ochún. Like Ignacio, the story suggests, Cuba was fighting for black liberation abroad while abusing its black population at home. Ignacio tries to atone for his sin against his wife through fighting in the African wars, which we might read as a kind of mirroring the Revolution’s attempt to keep the Tricontinental dream alive once its inconsistencies had been exposed and to maintain the political and moral high ground through its thirty-five year involvement in Africa. But according to Ponte’s story, this fails to restore the relationship between the Revolution and Cuba’s black population and fails to restore the Tricontinental marriage that the couple represents. So, the textual-memorial, to use Quesada’s term, of this Latin-African connection is highly ironized in this story to an amusing, comedic effect that captures an exoticized, Hemingway-esque vision of Africa through the quest to obtain the metaphoric heart of the elephant.
So, those were my disorganized thoughts as I riff of your work, and I look forward to reading more of it as there is so much more there to say about to say about these connections.
Thinking Sites of Memory
Like all of us, I found very provocative and generative for my own work. I was particularly excited about the specificity of place, the discussion of specific sites that were pulled in and analyzed of the African Atlantic that are invoked by these texts, including the sites from the UNESCO Slave Route. The ways in which Quesada reads the sites is that they are not necessarily themselves representative of some untouched, idealized African identity. They are part of a larger network of a neoliberal tourist economy and often a commodification in it of themselves of an African Atlantic past. In other words, what the sites might currently be evoking are distortions or commodifications, or erasures of traces of a more violent history. I thought that was fascinating and the pulling of that site work through the literary texts was phenomenal.
I was also really intrigued by Quesada’s use of the concept of space and temporal memory. There is this idea in the book that our constructions of spaces and the memories that they evoke actually change depending on historical and social situatedness. In other words, that memories evoked by these sites are not static and they change, and they can erase memories of the violence of slavery.
For my work, I was particularly pulled in by two different points that were brought forth in the first two chapters. I was fascinated by reading the echoes of the distortion of Haitian vodun in the Díaz chapter. I loved the tracing and excavation of the roots of the pop culture zombie imagery. And I was also really struck by the attention to the fact that, in the Achy Obejas chapter, post-Castro’s revolution paid more attention to decolonial efforts in Angola than to Afro Cubans, which is something that I am very interested in myself right now.
The distortion and the demonization of vodun Quesada discusses in her book recalls Cuban Santería. This distortion allows us to think analogously about contemporary structural racism that continues in Cuba, but also to reflect on sites of memory and what memories are evoked or not evoked. To what degree are these memories “distorted,” “commodified”—to use the terms from the book—by a neoliberal tourist economy?
Cuban Santería would be the cultural equivalent to vodun discussed in Quesada’s book that I am familiar with. If one is looking for traces of an African past, Santería is an obvious place to go in Cuba. The discussion of how existing conditions for Afro-Cubans have been disregarded in post-Castro Cuba in favor of attention to decolonial project in Angola or claims of affinity and support with marginalized African-Americans—because Castro, as Quesada wrote so well, claimed to have eliminated racism—contextualizes issues such as Afro-Cubans having little access to remittances or to the tourist industry. Yet Santería sites are part of a general tourist interest in Cuba, that might or might not be sites of memory that evoke African connections. And if they are, what is the form of memory and how is it evoked?
Recently when I was in Cuba, a tour operator I had worked with to design a study abroad program highlighting Afro-Cuban culture casually remarked to me something to me along the lines that, while “Afro-Cuba” sells for tourists, and African heritage is celebrated by Cubans in their music, and so on, that Santería is associated with superstition and not practiced by “most” Cubans. I thought perhaps this reflected the views of the tour operator more than anything else, although I am sure it is possible that dismissiveness of Santería as a legitimate belief system continues to exist among some Cubans. Yet, at the same time, Santería is heavily commodified in public to “sell” Cuba. For example, a street busker dressed as Ochún on the streets of Havana sells pictures to tourists—you can take a picture of yourself with Ochún. This ironic knot—you can sell Ochún and African drumming to tourists but not really validate or valorize Santería as a belief system with deep ties to Yoruban culture—reminded me of a passage in Dreaming in Cuban that has always bothered me, and perhaps reminds us of how texts might or might not open up to African memory, even if they seem to. The passage is about the moment when help is reluctantly sought out from a Santera: “And then when Celia watches…[the Santera] trembles, once, twice, and slides against Celia in a heap on the sidewalk, smoking like a wet fire, sweet and musky, until nothing is left of her but her fringed cotton shawl.” Instead of a culturally sensitive portrayal, the Santera melts away like the Wicked Witch of the West in this very exoticized way. But the passage also arguably creates this exotic Cuban self that helps to “sell” García’s novel. We are getting “Africa” referenced but commodified. What precisely is being remembered?
I had similar thoughts visiting the Havana Forest in Cuba. Tourists access the forest in restored convertibles from the 1950s—the forest seems to be a tourist “stop” for those purchasing convertible rides–but deep in the forest, you find traces of actual Santería practices such as chicken feathers or claws and can even glimpse rituals in progress. I wondered more about amorphous, less demarcated sites of memory, like these—ones not for tourists–and like some of those in Quesada’s book, and what those sites of memory might in fact be remembering (or what memories they are invoking), and whether a site like the river through the Havana forest, río de Almendares, which is the site of some of these rituals, whether it is evoking any memory for those who visit it about actual locations of Africa or whether it is detached from sites in Africa completely, though the practices are of (at least partially) African origin?
Another site, a Ceiba tree in Havana —sacred in Santería— and the ritual that we tourists were encouraged to enact there, supposedly customary, reminded me of the tree of forgetfulness in Quesada’s book. It’s the same ritual as Quesada describes around a tree, but instead of inducing amnesia like the Well of Attenuation in Quesada’s book, this is a “good luck” tree. I would love to do an excavation project about how the idea of invoking luck became the oral lore around this tree in this transplanted place and whether it has any connection to the tree of forgetfulness on the other side of the Atlantic and if they are “sister sites.” All this is provocative ground for further conversation and is a way of highlighting how we are moved, through Quesada’s book, to consider the function of sites of memory and the possible links of sites on either side of the Atlantic.
Latinx/Latin American literature in/for the world
Quesada’s book intervenes in a number of debates that I began to articulate in the introduction: its challenge of provincialism and simplistic binaries, but also notions of world literature and the cosmopolitan. I will elaborate on these points by discussing one of the book’s major contributions: its refusal to articulate notions of race that have become US-centric, as Quesada valorizes instead the richness of Latinx’s literature’s global cosmopolitan traditions.
I will begin by stating that US Latinx culture has always participated in transatlantic and transpacific cultures, but that global articulation is often invisible in US-centric approaches that tend to limit Latinx cultural producers to their fundamental resistance to US racial configurations. As Marta Caminero-Santangelo’s indispensable book on Latinidad shows, we cannot take for granted an idea of Latinidad that privileges pan-ethnic generalizations without understanding the concrete symbolic and political struggles as well as the global articulations that constitute concrete LatinX cultural production. Some of the most exciting developments in the fields of LatinX, American, and Latin American studies that Quesada’s book joins come from this focus on the transnational and the global, from the groundbreaking work of María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo to Yomaira Figueroa’s Decolonzing Diasporas, as well as works that are thinking national cultures in relationship to diasporic communities, including Lorgia García-Peña’s work on Dominicanidad or Alan Eladio Gómez’s transnational history of the Chicano movement.
I want to acknowledge amidst my critique of US-centrism that American studies has also become an insurgent field, in existence against the grain of institutional exclusion and discrimination. Scholars in these fields have to fight the dynamics of segregation and marginalization structural to US culture. In this landscape, the categories of Blackness and Latinidad are at their root contestations against the ethnic hierarchies of the United States and their histories of racial violence, white supremacy and minoritization. Insofar that this fight never ceases to exist, we always are going to have a provincialism, which I call “strategic provincialism”: a necessary gesture of focus in the politics of the US to study communities that live their everyday lives under the aegis of white nationalism. Yet, the pitfall of this strategic provincialism stems from the fact that the continuous location of major writers and intellectuals from Black, LatinX and Indigenous communities as solely engaged in this fight becomes, unwittingly, an obstacle to account for the full aesthetic and political power of their interventions. It is a plight of minority writers everywhere to fight against the idea that they are only to be read as minority writers, when in fact cosmopolitanism is one of the cultural practices from which their communities have been excluded. Quesada’s astounding readings of Rivera and Anaya point us in this direction, by granting a new worldly dimension to writers who have been at the forefront of Chicanx literature qua minority literature. In her book, Quesada reads Chicano writers like Anaya and Rivera—with astonishing archival genealogies in Africa—as cosmopolitan intellectuals and allows them to break away from exclusionary categories to which they have been beholden.
When I claim the need to break away from a provincial take on LatinX writers, I do not present this break as an “either/or” or as a withdrawal from the need to deploy strategic essentialism and provincialism against the US racial regime. Rather, I present this as a recognition of the fact that minoritized writers from the US are rarely given their due as citizens of the world, and rarely become the object of world-literature or cosmopolitan critique and study. Rivera and Anaya acquire renewed importance and legibility when we read their local struggles and their cosmopolitan articulations side by side. For instance, if one reads Sarah Quesada’s work on Rivera alongside Curtis Marez’s magnificent discussion of Rivera in University Babylon, both informed by Rivera’s own archive, a new understanding of this major writer appears, one in which his role as a founding figure of Chicanx culture and of the academic field of ethnic studies relates organically and continuously with his world-seeking intellectual work.
Quesada’s work also intervenes in another debate, the one surrounding the category of “world literature.” For García Márquez and Junot Díaz, being part of this construct of world literature from the perspective of the Global North means that they are often read as native informants and as absolute signifiers of the Latin American and Latinx American canon. As a consequence, their engagement with the world gets erased. One of the most valuable parts of this book is the study of the journalism of García Marquez in Angola, a topic that is invisible in the copious bibliography on the Colombian writer, to the point that his writings on the subject are not published in book form in English or in Spanish.
Without denying the politics that exist on the ground, Quesada shows us that we have to move away from boxing LatinX writers in a US-centric notion of Latinidad, a necessary step to break away from naturalizing the segregationist narratives of race that come from the US, and that are not fully operational in the larger cultural maps of the hemisphere and the world. This cosmopolitan account helps us problematize the adoption of vocabulary of US-based racial categories without dismissing them outright, but recognizing that race and culture at the global scale also operates in other forms. Quesada’s work points us towards such a direction. As a reader, I found the connections with Rudolfo Anaya with Africa to be mind-blowing and productive. This re-reading is very timely even given that Anaya’s work has just been published by the Library of America for the first time.
My final remarks for this introduction has to do with the concept of the world. In my interventions in world literature theory, I have argued there is no such thing as one world literature. Rather, we must understand world literature as an institutional effect that comes from the way in which literary fields imagine worldliness. World literature is multipolar, a continuously evolving set of constructs that stem from the various literary fields existing in local, national, transnational and global spaces. I think Quesada’s book offers a palpable demonstration of this point: you can construct a map of a world that is unimaginable from the hegemonic cartographies of world literature studies. This perspective draws from a common influence in the scholarship of both Quesada and me: the work of Sarah Brouillette. Quesada’s book can be inserted in the reclaiming of cosmopolitanism and worldliness in works that we do not read as truly cosmopolitan and worldly. René Étiemble, the famous French critic, used to ask for a littérature vraiment universel, a truly universal literature, against the faux cosmopolitanism that was actually a provincialism: Eurocentrism. Now that the US is the hegemonic literary and cultural power, it has a cultural field that projects its shadow over the world but does not really produce a culture as worldly as it should. Being able to de-territorialize writers that carry the mark of “ethnic” into the cosmopolitan imaginaries is a very important vindication of their work, and an important critique to a form of criticism proper to US in which pigeonholing writers into their identity can oftentimes be presented as progressive. As a Latin Americanist educated in a cosmopolitan tradition—where my professors belonged to a group of writers that refused to write magical realism and that wrote novels about central Europe—I have always had to come to terms with the importance that Mexicanidad has for my Mexican American comrades, because those signifiers of identity do not carry the same political valence or the same meaning for me. I grew up in a generation of Mexican culture where cosmopolitanism was a necessary gesture against the use of Mexican identity by the State, what Roger Bartra intelligently called the “imaginary networks of political power.” The same Mexican identity, though, is, as I would learn moving to the US an essential tool of resistance against white supremacy in the US. From this in-between perspective, I believe that signifiers of Mexicanness as difference can be a way to create a true network of solidarity while sometimes validating the racial hierarchy of the United States, based on the idea that we are only able to reside within our culture. Latinidad’s cosmopolitan genealogies can be addressed in an analogous way. Sarah Quesada’s book shows us a way of this paradox: we can read the same writers that have always been presented as representative of their community and read them as representatives of the world.
Reclaiming the Cosmopolitan
I am going to open my remarks by quoting a few lines from Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing (2012). I’ll use these lines to highlight a keyword (and concept) that recurs throughout Sarah Quesada’s The African Heritage of Latinx and Caribbean Literature, which will let me outline some of its central contributions and perhaps serve as a starting point for discussion on this wonderful book. In the essay, contained in this collection, titled “The Globalectical Imagination: The World in the Postcolonial,” Ngugi writes,
The keyword, of course, is “cosmopolitan,” a concept that Ngugi in this passage is reclaiming “from below,” as part of the larger project of what he calls “poor theory.” Not unlike Boaventura de Sousa Santos’s notion of “subaltern cosmopolitanism,” Ngugi wants to emphasize not just lateral exchange amongst marginalized groups or communities, a constitutive element of the Global South as a comparative framework, but, in making a claim on the world-covering or universalist ambitions of the “cosmopolitan” (as the “citizen of the world/cosmos”) as being of the colony, also to reframe (and resituate) how we think about the constitutive forces of modernity.
Quesada’s approach to reading what she terms the “Latin-Africa” axis of Caribbean and Latinx—as well as, arguably, Latin American and African—literatures is motivated by the same spirit. Which is to say: the term “cosmopolitan” plays a similar role for Quesada, although the horizon toward which her argument moves has to do with the limitations of current disciplinary or interpretative paradigms. Principal amongst these paradigms is world literature, as it reemerged around the turn of the present century, as well as what I’ll call the “geographic constrictions” of regional or hemispheric frameworks for the categorization and interpretation of literature and cultural production. So, for instance, in the introduction Quesada highlights the “transatlantic cosmopolitanism” (5) or “cosmopolitan engagement with Africa” (5) of the works she analyzes throughout the project. In her readings and subsequent chapters, the same is true of the seemingly very “local” plot of García Márquez’s Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold) (119, 122, 159) as well as of the work of the Chicano writers Tomás Rivera and Rudolfo Anaya in the stellar final chapter. There, a reading that hinges on the figure of the golden carp is exemplary of the kind of archaeological work that not only breaks open a regionalist focus on the Chicano or Latinx or the US Southwest, but also thinks very subtly about how ideas might circulate in ways that have less to do with immediately observable references or histories of exchange, but which might register much more indirectly. These require not only careful reading, but also an expansive imagination and engagement on the part of the critic that nourishes the ability to see and think through flickering or fleeting or complexly encoded references.
Methodologically, Quesada’s contention throughout The African Heritage of Latinx and Caribbean Literature is that geographically (if not ethnically) constrained paradigms put under erasure the many sources that might inform a literary work. This tendency is most often of a piece with larger projects of erasure, such as with the frequent dismissal or disavowal of Afrolatinidad from within Latinidad itself, to paraphrase Quesada (12). When it comes to world literature, in turn, Quesada makes clear the very limited terms in which literatures from the putative periphery are allowed into what Pascale Casanova once called the “world republic of letters.” That is, most often, as representatives of cultural particularity that the world republic of letters or World Literature envision as locally bound and cut off from the world; and, therefore, borrowing from the vocabulary of postcolonial studies, only allow in as what we might call “native informants,” whose function in the center is to speak for the putative periphery but not necessarily to demonstrate a long history of exchange, let alone a constitutive role in the making of that center. By insisting, then, on the wide-ranging influences and engagements of the works she analyzes, Quesada not only illuminates the importance of Africa—as an idea, source or origin, and place—for the literatures of the Americas (including Latinx, Caribbean, and Latin American) but also captures from another angle that vision of what Ngugi called “the real depository of the cosmopolitan,” as being a feature of the colony and colonized spaces, whether we are thinking in terms of European imperialism or the processes of internal colonization that have shaped Latinx experience within the United States.
Because of all of this, however, I am curious about the appearance of the concept “Afropolitan” in the conclusion, where—particularly via conversation with Sarah Brouillette’s essay, “The African Literary Hustle”—it functions as a kind of conceptual inverse to the positively-coded “cosmopolitan” or “cosmopolitanism” seen throughout the rest of the book. Authors identified as “Afropolitan” are understood as mobilizing a very particular set of identity markers and cultural fluencies in order to be granted access to or space in that “world republic of letters.” I am touching, just as Quesada herself does, on a large and heated debate about the Afropolitan in African literary and cultural studies. I mark it here not so much as an undoing of the larger investment in this idea of an alternate coding of the cosmopolitan, but precisely to think about the Afropolitan as a productive complication of the cosmopolitan: at once expansive or open and, perhaps, too calculating in the ways in which it mobilizes its accumulated fluencies. I think this is of particular importance for scholars interested in complex histories of South-South exchange of the sort Quesada’s work tracks. Can the “cosmopolitan” be reclaimed for the kinds of projects in which we are invested? I think the answer that we get from someone like Ngugi and the work he is doing in Globalectics or Boaventura Sousa de Santos, for that matter, is that it is worthwhile to play with the many freighted meanings that “cosmopolitan” carries. But, to what extent can the word “cosmopolitan” really be made to function as part of the larger ideological and literary historical project Quesada’s book articulates? My question is a provocation above all. There is a long history of thinking about the limitations of the concept, and the fact that critical interest in the notion of the “cosmopolitan” experienced a resurgence concurrent with that in World Literature at the turn of the present century is perhaps telling. I think this concurrence is both an answer for why the notion of the cosmopolitan is so important in this book (concerned as it is with the limitations of World Literature), but might also help us to better understand the tensions of that term as well. Can the cosmopolitan really be reclaimed?
4.26.23 | Sarah Quesada
From the “Latin” Cosmopolitan to the Afropolitan and Back
First of all, may I say how honored I am to be read along Ngugi wa Thiong’o. I am also very glad that Armillas-Tiseyra brings up Ngugi’s notion of “the education of the colonial bondsman,” for its precisely Ngugi who discusses how renowned thinkers from Emmanuel Kant to David Hume based their proclamations of reason in the discourses of colonial ethnographers in Africa—the very ones my book consults in the archive—since these intellectuals were quite provincial in their geographies, considering they were “cosmopolitan.” Thus, Ngugi turns the cosmopolitan around. His derision in his tone is perhaps obvious when he states that Kant “never left Königsberg, his place of birth” (32). Even his underhanded comment regarding how Hegel produces “rhapsodies on the triumphant march of reason in history, somehow by passing Africa” and demeaning African religions (33) is playful and sardonic. But this playfulness makes clear the origins of structures of knowledge that have left very little room for networks like Latin-Africa to be taken seriously, even when they are coming from writers that the institution has deemed canonical.
One of the main premises in the book is that even though a selection of highly recognized writers exhibit a direct engagement with Africa, this network does not suffice to bring their “Latin-African” axis out of invisibility on the world stage. While I mention this comparison as a provocation myself in the conclusion, I compare these “American” writers of influence to afropolitans, because although both circulate widely, their popularity and wide distribution are not equivalent to a history of south-south networks their work champions. For example, Armillas-Tiseyra, Lanie Millar, and I have all written about García Márquez’s monumental work on Angola, yet the dismissal of this dimension of García Márquez’s writing is even present in the very institutions that have made García Márquez a star: apart from “Operación Carlota,” none of García Márquez’s accounts of Angolan decolonization have been translated. The translated version of “Operación Carlota” circulates very little and I would be surprised if it was taught in more than three classes nation-wide. After all, how many of us even knew that García Márquez had set foot in Angola in 1975? The different notions of “Africa” in Anaya, Díaz, Rivera or Obejas and the invisibility of this purview also reveals ironic gaps in American and comparative literature, as well as transatlantic studies, and World Literature, as in none of these disciplinary spaces does this Latin-African frame become legible. This is particularly damning for World Literature due to its worldly promise; its ethos of littérature engagée and its hopeful democratizing principal. But as the work of Sarah Brouillette makes plain, these benevolent-seeming projects of inclusion—in her case, the UNESCO’s Collection of Representative Works, for example—perpetuated eurocentric structures of knowledge rather than excavating, circulating, and celebrating the putative periphery that these projects ironically celebrated (see UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary). This is inconvenient for seemingly leftist structures of knowledge for it reveals their complicity with a world system. Thus, we can conclude that the onus is not so much on the writer—whether they are García Márquez or an Afropolitan—but the system they are part of. As I mention in the book, I engage the Latin-African axis in canonical works as a way of opening the door to lesser-known global voices who share this framework; suggesting less that these minoritized voices cannot on their own terms dismantle eurocentric impulses, and more out of a sense that reading this Latin-African axis in the work of those widely circulated makes clear that this axis was always there and therefore undoes the eurocentric assumptions that rendered their work canonical in the first place. I think this to be the first step before the canon of World Literature can be questioned and reconfigured.
Regarding the cosmopolitan, if a south-south axis becomes paramount in lauded worldly authors that the world system celebrated, our whole notion of the cosmopolitan needs to be reassessed. When Anne McClintock and Rob Nixon took on Jacques Derrida for his claim that the term “apartheid” served world narratives as a signifier rather than a marker of spatiotemporality, the authors were essentially accusing Derrida for dismissing African historical integrity in the same way Ngugi critiqued Kant and Hegel.When this continues to happen, it becomes easy to read García Márquez’s travel to Sub-Saharan Africa in 1975 as signifiers rather as markers that profoundly altered his philosophy, because these notions of cosmopolitanism continue to be provincial at best, or at worst, there remains a hesitancy to open up to epistemologies of the Global South. But as Armillas-Tiseyra’s work reminds us, recognizing these epistemologies means working with an archive of “sites [that] are linked together by historical entanglements with global systems of labor and capital extraction” (“García Márquez and the Global South” 54). This archive thus functions as the “basis,” Armillas-Tiseyra argues, for “comparative readings of literature merging from these contexts, whether or not there are material traces of direct contact.” For García Márquez, there are explicit “material traces of direct contact” in his time in Angola. And yet, to think of Angola as the backbone to a writer’s magical realist style might seem shocking at best or uncomfortable at worst; and this reaction is precisely the problem. Armillas-Tiseyra, Mahler, Lanie Millar, and I have all written on this point, which suggests that to be cosmopolitan is to share an epistemic and historical grounding with a snubbed, marginalized axis in the Global South. This is a far cry from what we have come to understand as “cosmopolitan” if we think of the work of Angel Rama to Martha Nussbaum (after all, the cosmopolitan for both usually entailed a socio-economic mobility and for prominent Latin American literary theorist Angel Rama, cosmopolitans were “the conservative and elitist Other of the emancipatory aesthetics” see Aguilar 9, Siskind 14). Not that Nussbaum or Rama were wrong from their positionality; rather, they were not privy to the histories being excavated about these important writers that forces what Armillas-Tiseyra terms a “reclaiming” of the cosmopolitan. We will find that by doing so, the “cosmopolitan” begins to reflect more of the characteristics described in Ngugi and Boaventura de Sousa Santos, and we begin to open up or break down what Armillas-Tiseyra also termed “geographic constrictions” for categorizing and interpreting literature. These cosmopolitan notions of extra-geographic reach perhaps can intervene at returning us to read literatures in their original languages (!) and reflect the comparative praxis of that Global South cosmopolitan.
Aguilar, Gonzalo. Episodios cosmopolitas de la cultura argentina. Buenos Aires: Santiago Arcos Editor (Parabellum), 2009.
Armillas-Tiseyra, Magalí. “García Márquez and the Global South” in The Oxford Handbook of
Gabriel García Márquez, Gene Bell-Villada, Ignacio López-Calvo, eds., Oxford University Press, 2022, pp. 50-77.
Brouillette, Sarah. UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary. Stanford University Press, 2019.
—-. “On the African Literary Hustle.” Blind Field: A Journal of Literary Inquiry, August 2017.
Casanova, Pascale, and M. B. DeBevoise. The World Republic of Letters. Harvard University Press, 2004.
García Márquez, Gabriel. Crónica de una muerte anunciada. Diana, 2007.
Mahler, Anne Garland. From the Tricontinental to the Global South: Race, Radicalism, and
Transnational Solidarity. Duke University Press, 2018.
McClintock, Anne and Rob Nixon, “No Names Apart: The Separation of Word and History in Derrida’s ‘Le Dernier Mot Du Racisme,’” Critical Inquiry 13.1 (1986): 140-154.
Millar, Lanie. Forms of Disappointment: Cuban and Angolan Narrative after the Cold War. State University of New York Press, 2019.
Ngũgĩ, wa T. Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.
Nussbaum, Martha. “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism.” Boston Review 19 no. 5 (1982): 1994, n/p.
Siskind, Mariano. Cosmopolitan Desires: Global Modernity and World Literature in Latin
America. Northwestern University Press, 2014.
Sousa Santos, Boaventura de. Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide. London: Paradigm, 2009, 2014.