Begging, borrowing, and stealing

Fresh from teaching a course about literary adaptations and borrowings, I’m now wrangling with an article on that topic this summer. Whatever this says about me, I’m very interested in non-originality: in the degree and manner by which people creatively rework old material—borrow, pillage, plunder, re-use, recycle, and in general put vino nuevo en cueros viejos. This is the new-media question of the moment: should creative expression be thought of as a kind of open-source code, where authorship is not individual but collective, accreting layers of new, sedimented meaning over time? Looked at a certain way, without the fetish of the individual genius that is our legacy from the Romantics, couldn’t this be the very model of literary and cultural history? (Of course, when you insist that the borrowed matter is “your own,” you’re not only reverting to that earlier notion of authorship-as-possession but guilty of plagiarism—I was incredulous that some of the students in my adaptation class would miss that point and rip stuff off the internet anyway, but that’s another story.)

So I was delighted to discover (that seems like the wrong word,  since it came to my consciousness from a Facebook link) that the new NPR podcast, Alt-Latino, had a great show called “Rescued and Refurbished: Our Favorite Latin Rock Remakes.” Terms like “cover” and “remake” don’t quite capture the multiple nests of attribution and referencing here, especially when the versions move, partway or all the way, between languages, like Seu Jorge’s Portuguese rendition of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars.”  Then there are all the interpretive spins that come when you move across genres and styles, like the transformation of the misogynistic cumbia “Baracunatana” into a fem-rock anthem in Andrea Echeverri’s rendition. Those transformations often weave a path, in their musical preferences, across ethno-national lines: this, more than ambivalent acculturation into/by USAmericanness, is what makes Latino culture.

My favorite find on the show is the last thread, which follows The Verve’s megahit “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” inescapable in 1997, both backward in time (to its orchestration off a Stones song in the late 1960s) and forward– to its semi-translation into “Sinfonía agridulce” by the Mexican Institute of Sound, itself a perfect example of a band that cannily takes from both globalized mass culture and the particularity of folk and regional forms.

The Alt.Latino website notes, “It sounds as if lead singer Camilo Lara is stumbling out of a tavern,” but to me the recording was trying to get the effect of a casual group of musicians meeting in the street or in the plaza: you hear “Echale maestro” at the start and the obligatory “¡Je, je! ¡Viva México!” at the end, with the hand-clapping starting in the last several bars of the song and continuing beyond it.  The famous violin line in the Oldham/Verve song is played in a deliberately non-virtuostic way; the typical horns are added in–to call this a sinfonía is completely ironic. Best of all, Lara’s very loose translation resolves the question over what Richard Ashcroft was mumbling in the “original” version (was it “here in my mold”? or “here in my mind?”): estoy aquí en mi mero mole. I’m here in my own thing, right where I want to be, and my despair is delicious. That state of musical affect called “tortured” comes off differently when you have Mexico behind you. It’s more . . . saucy.

The Chronicle (barely) notices our field

UCSB professor Ellen McCracken pushed open the narrow little window onto academia that is the Chronicle of Higher Education–at least a little bit. Commemorating the recent death of Luis Leal, the don of Mexican/American literary history, McCracken argues, in her headline, “Latino Literature Should be an Essential Part of the Canon.” A casual reader might think this yet another manifesto for including more recent ‘hyphenated’ ethnic texts into the unmoving monolith that U.S. (“American”) literature is presumed to be. The Chronicle‘s well-meaning illustrator conveys that idea with this image of a Stars ‘n Stripes pluma being dipped into the inkwell of the Mexican flag, as if to write on a parchment document (is that the Declaration of Independencia, or Harry Potter’s homework?). I suppose this archaic imagery is one way to convey the idea we’re always trying to get at in our research and teaching here: writing by, and directed toward, people of Latin American descent in the U.S. didn’t just start appearing yesterday, or in the 1970s–but much farther back than that.

But no. McCracken is after her own department, Spanish & Portuguese at Santa Barbara, which is considering eliminating their requirement that PhD students take a course in US Latino literature. All graduate programs in Spanish, she argues, should have such a requirement, in part for the pragmatic reason that it will help their students get teaching jobs in which they will be called upon to respond to the growing numbers of Latinas/os (some 45 million of us, and counting) who are showing up in greater and greater numbers on the doorstep of the university.

Notes McCracken: “Some argue that contemporary U.S. Latino literature is primarily written in English and therefore should not be part of Spanish departments. Those who hold that view fail to understand its rich Spanish sources, its Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, Salvadoran, Colombian, and other Latin American roots. Moreover, as Frances Aparicio and others have argued, many of those texts engage in tropicalized English, which requires knowledge of Spanish to understand not only their bilingualism, but the Hispanic linguistic subtext.” Sin duda. But I think McCracken assumes too much about the place of Latino literature in English departments (or, at least, she couldn’t address this in the brief space she was given). She writes, “Just as African-American and women’s literature sought and were accorded inclusion within the literary canon and the college curriculum, so too did Latino literature.” Presumably the canons and curricula she’s speaking about here are Anglophone–but this is far from being a universal achievement. Are there Latino lit courses being taught regularly in the English Department at Yale? (Go ahead, look.) Or at my alma mater, Swarthmore? Tampoco. (Never mind that this tiny liberal arts college has produced two other now-tenured-professors in the field besides me: Laura Lomas and Antonio Viego.)

Part of what makes this field so interesting to work in is that its institutional locations are so variable. Nobody “owns” Latino Lit in the way that Spanish departments, say, own Cervantes. This, I believe, is a good thing, just like open-source code. The politics within, and among, these academic sub-disciplines mean that inserting a text or author into any given story about the development of a ‘tradition’ will inevitably distort them both. That image of the Mexican inkwell, for instance: doesn’t it imply that Mexicanness is just another ‘raw material’ that the great national pen can make use of to tell its story?  Doesn’t that seem to fly in the face of McCracken’s argument here?

Or am I just suffering from 4th of July overload?