Why you should care
Gabriel García Márquez was great, but times have changed dramatically.
Let’s start with real talk: In the English-speaking world, and above all in the U.S., Latin American literature is all too often pigeonholed, expected to fulfill notions of a quaint, exotic, backward region doling out magical stories. This is not Gabriel García Márquez’s fault; One Hundred Years of Solitude is a magnificent, ground-shattering novel that deserves every ounce of recognition it receives. But it came out in 1967. Plenty has happened since then.
Today’s real Latin America is vibrant, raucous, infinitely complex and furiously engaged with the cultural and sociopolitical effects of globalization. In terms of literature, it’s an epicenter of innovation, where the gaze is reversed, boundaries explode and the possibilities of our collective past, present and future are boldly reimagined. Here are six contemporary Latin American novels — all of them slim, all of them brilliant, all of them blowing up boundaries of culture, gender, genre, aesthetics or reality.
Papi, by Rita Indiana (Dominican Republic)
Translated by Achy Obejas
Indiana is a pop musician and queer activist, as well as a writer — all of which shimmers through in this aching thrill ride of a novel. The narrator is a young girl caught between worlds, growing up in an impoverished neighborhood as she waits for and then is swept up by her rich, dangerous drug dealer of a father. Reality and fantasy merge in her mind to form an unrelenting portrait, by turns wrenching, comic, hallucinatory and raw. Indiana’s sentences will have you vibrating.
The Iliac Crest, by Cristina Rivera Garza (Mexico)
Translated by Sarah Booker
A mysterious woman arrives unannounced at a man’s home. She is an incarnation of Amparo Dávila, a real-life Mexican writer who has been overlooked in literary history. As Amparo moves ever more deeply and strangely into the narrator’s life and consciousness, all manner of borders blur — between cities separated by checkpoints, between past and future, between male and female. The line between genders begins to collapse in this penetrating, singular meditation on the cost of erasing women from literature and from the world itself.
Affections, by Rodrigo Hasbún (Bolivia)
Translated by Sophie Hughes
This haunting novel circles around the Ertl family: a patriarch fleeing Germany for Bolivia after working as a Nazi propagandist, and his daughter, Monika, who would become an infamous Marxist guerrilla. Based on actual people and events, the story roams across decades, continents and points of view, distilling a vast saga down to its essence. The book’s spare, elegant structure blazes a new path for approaching complex histories in fiction. (Full disclosure: I served as translator for a couple of Hasbún’s early stories for Granta and McSweeney’s.)
Fever Dream, by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina)
Translated by Megan McDowell
A mother and child from the city arrive in the countryside on vacation and find themselves gradually ensnared in a strange, terrifying circumstance that reveals the power and limits of their bond. This taut, masterfully structured, intensely gripping little book sinks deep into the mind, using speculative elements to weave an unforgettable and deeply human tale. Required reading for anyone concerned with the intimate costs of ecological collapse.
Signs Preceding the End of the World, by Yuri Herrera (Mexico)
Translated by Lisa Dillman
This lyrical, visionary novel takes an archetype of our times — a young migrant crossing the perilous border into the U.S. — and elevates it to mythological proportions. Throughout the journey of our heroine, Makina, epic allusions blend seamlessly with a gritty realism that does justice to the true, harrowing stories of undocumented immigrants. The resulting portrait of Mexico, the United States and the expanding nexus between them is as startling as it is prescient.
Beauty Salon, by Mario Bellatín (Mexico/Peru)
Translated by Kurt Hollander
This gem of a novella, first published in 1994, is already a contemporary classic in Spanish-language literary circles. (It did not appear in English until 2009.) A cross-dressing gay man in an unnamed city turns his beauty salon into a refuge for men dying of an unnamed disease resembling AIDS, who have been spurned by relatives and hospitals. Aquariums full of entrancing fish surround the dying, evoking the maligned beauty of queer bodies. This miniature portrait of a vast tragedy is part love song, part elegy — and pure art.
Carolina De Robertis is an assistant professor at San Francisco State University. She’s an award-winning novelist and editor of Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times.