The Fluidity of Identity and Boundaries: A Hispanic and Latinx Heritage Month Reading List
This Hispanic and Latinx Heritage Month, PEN America is proud to present a reading list highlighting books from recent longlisters, finalists, winners, and judges of the PEN America Literary Awards. This list was curated by Literary Awards Intern Jasmine Gonzalez, a student at Lehman College who is currently writing her honors thesis on Nuyorican women writers including Julia de Burgos, Sandra Maria Esteves, and Caridad de la Luz. She is also secretary of Lehman’s literary magazine, Obscura.
In her studies of Latinx literature, Jasmine has explored how bringing unique experiences into the spotlight—especially when it comes to identity—is at the core of Latinx literature. In curating this list, Jasmine carefully selected titles that push boundaries and highlight the fluidity of identity in the Latinx community, even in instances where that fluidity has been met with resistance. These themes are perfectly described by Jasmine’s favorite Chicana author, Gloria Anzaldua: “Living on borders and in margins, keeping intact one’s shifting and multiple identity and integrity, is like trying to swim in a new element, an ‘alien’ element” (Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza). As each of the following titles reveal, navigating the experiences that come with pushing boundaries and noticing fluidity can also lead to discoveries that might impact one’s self or community.
In his 2018 debut collection, José Olivarez conveys what it means to navigate the duality of a Mexican American identity. As the son of Mexican immigrants, he provides not only a technical but also an extremely personal analysis of race, ethnicity, gender, class, and immigration through his own experiences of trying to embrace both parts of his Mexican American identity. The use of everyday language throughout the collection ensures that readers, no matter their generation or upbringing, will grasp what balancing a dual identity entails.
In this brilliant follow-up collection to When My Brother Was an Aztec, Diaz shares her Indigenous heritage and observations of human nature through vivid imagery. In illuminating aspects of a tumultuous Indigenous history by shattering the conventions of an ordinary love poem, such as a Shakespearean sonnet, Diaz urges readers to listen to a story that is prevalent not only to the history of the Latinx community but also to an American history that often goes untold.
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories, Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf Press, 2017)
2019 Judge for the Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers
2021 Finalist for the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction
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In her thought-provoking debut short story collection, Machado aims to heavily distort the notion of a short story needing to be a single genre. Her Body and Other Parties breaks the boundaries that exist across multiple genres to create shocking narratives that convey the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies. Machado weaves in the very real struggles that women encounter, such as sexual violence, physical violence, and the violence of rigid gender roles. In producing such beautifully vivid stories, she ensures that the struggles of women do not go unheard.
Moniz’s debut novel provides a view of how identities can divide and connect a family within the Latinx community. Big Familia follows a self-employed single father who is trying to balance his responsibilities to a daughter who is moving away to college and a partner who is begging him for commitment, against the backdrop of a community that is rapidly gentrifying. In telling the story of a Latinx queer man navigating these changes, Moniz gives readers a chance to discern how the fluidity of identity is influenced by both intimate personal experiences and large-scale changes such as gentrification.
Montilla’s collection of poetry effectively interweaves her personal experiences with themes of racism, family, and history to uncover what it truly means to live as an Afro-Latina in the United States. In shedding light on the Afro-Latina experience, Montilla adds to the richness of Latinx literature and to vital ongoing conversations about identities that exist within the Latinx community, and she conveys a passion for solidifying a presence which often goes unseen. Moreover, The Pink Box forges connections with readers who feel as if their stories are finally being placed in the spotlight.
Martita, I Remember You/Martita, te recuerdo, Sandra Cisneros (Vintage, 2021)
2019 Winner of the PEN/Nabokov Award for International Literature
2021 Judge for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay
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With the brilliant skill of The House on Mango Street, Cisneros uses vignettes of incredible detail to recall a story of three young women who meet and form a strong friendship while in Paris. Over the years, they scatter to three separate continents, falling out of touch and out of mind—until a rediscovered letter brings the heartfelt memories of Paris flooding back, highlighting the importance of meaningful youthful experiences. The novel was written in English by Cisneros and translated into Spanish by Liliana Valenzuela, in parallel with the fluidity of identity prevalent in Latinx literature. In defiantly choosing not to publish the novella in only one language, Cisneros embraces the fluid and multifaceted nature of boundaries.
Fruit of the Drunken Tree takes place in Bogotá during the Pablo Escobar era and tells two coming-of-age narratives, highlighting a friendship between two young women who are from completely different backgrounds and trying to make sense of the conflicts plaguing their home country. Within the novel, Rojas Contreras brings to the forefront a harsh environment that forces women to make impossible choices about their survival, and the unexpected connections that can blossom out of their desperation to preserve their livelihood.
Sabrina and Corina: Stories, Kali Fajardo-Anstine (One World, 2020)
2020 Finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection
Judge for the 2021 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers
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In her short story collection, Fajardo-Anstine shines a spotlight on the American West by giving an unflinching voice to Chicana characters with Indigenous ancestry. Sabrina & Corina highlights the importance of women of all ages, with their deep complexities, fears, and hopes, who find power through their life experiences in order to strengthen their presence in a world that is constantly threatening erasure.
In his unapologetic collection of poetry, Murillo illuminates an unchanged history of institutional violence, including but not limited to abuse and murder, that has plagued Latinos and Black Americans. To understand the Latinx identity, it is important to be well-informed about the broken systems that contributed to it, as heart-wrenching as it may be. Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry communicates to readers the harsh realities that contributed to the formation of the Latinx identity.
In this insightful collection of poems, González conveys the tumultuous history of the Americas, specifically during the age of colonialism, and how it is linked to environmental devastation. In exploring the relationship between a troubled past and the damage being done to the environment, The Book of Ruin tries to convey how the problems of the past, which have spilled into the present, are leading to a destructive future.