The lens of language

Author’s work to be included in database of Latino literature

We don’t so much belong to nations or geography as to languages,” says Juan Alonso. “Language shapes experiences and tells you how to shape experiences.”

Juan Alfonso

Juan Alonso © Mark Morelli

Alonso, who is Argentine by birth, American by citizenship and Spanish by heritage, writes fiction and essays in English, the language he calls his “home.” Since 1966, he has written five novels, a novella and numerous short stories and essays.

The subject matter is wildly divergent: The Chipped Wall (Identity Press, 1966) is an epistolary novel of the Spanish Civil War; The Passion of Robert Bronson (McCall, 1971) details the psychic life of a New England poet; Killing the Mandarin (New Amsterdam Books, 1995) is set amid political oppression and revolution in Latin America in the late ’60s. His essays tackle such subjects as the case against “professional ethicists” to the differences between “freedom” and “liberty.”

This summer, Alonso’s novels and stories will be included in a digital database of Latino literature compiled by Alexander Street Press, an electronic publisher based in Alexandria, Va. Similar collections by the publisher include online databases of African-American drama and letters and documents from the American Civil War.

“I feel happy to be included,” says Alonso, professor of Spanish. “At first I thought, maybe I don’t qualify, because my subject matter is almost never ‘ethnicana.’ I said to them, ‘I write in English.’ And they said, ‘so do the majority of the Latino writers in the series.’ ”

The series, to be titled Latino Literature: Poetry, Drama and Fiction, is expected to contain approximately 120,000 pages of prose and poetry. The term “Latino,” for the purposes of the compilation, encompasses U.S. citizens whose heritage is Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central American and South American. It also will include 19th-century work from writers who were living in the parts of the Southwest that were under Mexican rule prior to 1848.

“They are American writers of Latin American and even Spanish heritage,” Alonso says. “Latino is a cultural category.”

Resource for Latino studies
A primary audience for the Alexander Street collection is university libraries. “Latinos in America are going in greater and greater numbers to universities, like other groups before them,” Alonso says. “Many of those students like to go into Latino studies—hence, the database.”

None of Alonso’s work has been translated into Spanish, although The Chipped Wall was translated into French in 1992. While Alonso says he is “reasonably fluent” in French, he notes that reading his work in translation was a startling experience because of the nuances that change or disappear in the transition from one language to another. “Yes, the plot was correct, and the intellectual content was, too, but for me, reading it was like touching something with dead fingers,” he says. Language is the lens through which we perceive the world, Alonso says, and changing that lens can alter the landscape.

“Having to change languages [as an adolescent] was very disruptive,” he says, recalling his family’s arrival in the Boston suburbs from his native Buenos Aires.

Alonso’s father, an opponent of Argentine dictator Juan Peron, was a “double exile.” Some years before his son’s birth, he had come to Argentina from Spain, where his opposition to Franco’s fascists put him in peril and stifled his scholarly career. Amado Alonso was a renowned Spanish literary critic and philologist, an expert on historical linguistics, who was best known in literary circles for his study of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

“During the Franco era, my father was an ‘unperson’ in Spain,” Alonso says. In recent years, an effort has been made to restore Amado Alonso’s reputation and literary standing in his homeland, with the establishment of the Fundacion Amado Alonso, based in Pamplona. Juan Alonso is president of the foundation and permanent jury president for a literary prize the foundation awards.

A son’s tribute
Juan Alonso was also responsible for the upcoming publication of a long-lost scholarly work by his father. Alonso tells the story, which sounds as though it, too, could come from a work of fiction:

When Amado Alonso died in 1952 while teaching at Harvard, he had been at work on the third and final volume of a much-praised Spanish philological work, De La Pronunciacion Medieval Castellana a La Moderna. A former student and colleague of Amado Alonso’s, Rafael Lapesa, came to pay his respects to Amado’s widow and asked what he could do for her. The reply was unexpected:

“Finish Amado’s final book,” she said.

For decades, Lapesa held onto the unfinished manuscript, “with my mother on his tail,” recalls Juan Alonso. “Every once in a while, he would contact me and tell me he had finished, but then would say he had not after all. After a while, I stopped paying attention.”

Fifty years after promising to complete the book, Lapesa died. By this point, the Amado Alonso Foundation had been established, and Juan Alonso was eager to have his father’s papers kept there. He asked Lapesa’s survivors if they had come across his father’s work.

Some time later, a suitcase—“a monstrous 19th-century thing”—arrived at the foundation offices in Lerin, Navarra. “When it was opened, out drops the almost-completed third volume,” Juan Alonso said. “I never thought I’d see that thing.” He now looks forward to its publication in Spain by Gredos Press.