Arturo Islas: The Uncollected Works
edited by Frederick Luis Aldama
Published by Arte Publico Press
Published June 21, 2004
Literature (edited volume)
246 pgs. • Find on Amazon.com
Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray
April 30, 2004
Arturo Islas (1938–1991) was a Stanford University professor of English and frustrated writer.
“Frustrated writer” is close to being redundant, but Islas was even more frustrated than most. The frustrations of personal and familial relations are laid out in his fiction and poetry, and by Frederick Luis Aldama in a lengthy and insightful introduction to the volume of previously uncollected (and previously almost entirely unpublished) works and, presumably, in a forthcoming critical biography of Islas that echoes the title of the long Islas poem, “Dancing with Ghosts.” Two other significant ones are the frustrations of someone who both by training and inclination seems to have been an academic essayist trying to write fiction, and those of a minority “ethnic” (and “regional” I think) writer trying to get published.
Five stories are included from 1957, when Islas was a Stanford sophomore, that are not “sophomoric” (a label I am tempted to attach to “An Existential Document” from the next year). One, “The Submarine,” is fully realized a portrait of the artist as a zealously responsible young man (always the designated driver), yearning for an irresponsible one. The melodrama “Clara Mendoza” is also impressive. The essayist (explaining rather than showing) is very prominent in the chapters intended to be a part of a novel with the pretentious title American Dreams and Fantasies that Islas wrote in 1974–75, after nearly dying (in 1969), completing his Ph.D., and obtaining a tenure-track position at Stanford (in 1971). He received tenure on the basis of the draft novel but could not find a publisher, until finally a small press published it in 1984 as The Rain God.
In addition to collecting rejections, Islas cut most of the essayistic reflections, particularly those on gay sadomasochism, and making his alter ego, Miguel Chico, a minor character in a novel focused on the generation of his parents, Villaists who crossed the Rio Bravo (known as the “Rio Grande” on this side, though diversion of water for irrigation has made it little more than a trickle along the U.S./Mexico border) to El Paso.
The father, Miguel Grande, undertakes an affair with his wife’s best friend, Lola; Miguel Grande’s brother Felix is beaten to death; the extremely snobbish matriarch (Mamá Chona) sees only what she wants to see; and the maid and de facto nanny, María, leaves the True Faith and tries to seduce Miguel Chico into her new, fervent Seventh-Day Adventism. These dynamics of family, religion, and ethnic assimilation survived into the novel. It is the counterpoint of Miguel Chico’s (homo)sexuality that mostly got jettisoned from The Rain God.
As stories sometimes interrupted by mini-essays on Chicano and Anglo cultural differences, the chapters from the American Dreams and Fantasies draft are fairly compelling and stand on their own as interlinked stories about someone quite like Islas with a family quite like the Islases.
The last of the fictions included, titled “The Loneliest Man in the World” (from 1986), strikes me as an essay on the lethal aspects of machismo for two men, one the author’s father.
It is on frequent display in the poems, most of which seem to have been written in 1977–78 after Jay Spears, how the Anglo love of Islas’ life left him. Most are not essayistic, though some seem are in prose. Islas’s “Waste Land,” “Dancing with Ghosts,” is not quite as stuffed with allusions as Eliot’s, though there is a flood of them in what seems to me the central insight of the cri de coeur:
Isabel’s Ralph, Bosie’s Oscar, Albertine’s Marcel,
Daisy’s Gatsby, Willy’s Colette—dupes everyone,
Self-made, willful martyrs to their own delusions
Of the beloved’s grandeur.
I don’t think it scans all that well, and the insight did not seem to bring much comfort. And, surely, the next line has “on” where it should have “one:” “Only on escaped.”
The one is Colette “content with crumbs.” She is also invoked in one of my favorites from the poems, “Colette’s Friend.” (“Mishima” and “Blue Boy” are my other favorites).
Aldama reports that Islas sent few of his poems out to literary journals. He tried much harder to get his novels, including versions of what was posthumously published (in 1996) as La Mollie and the King of Tears published. After critical and a measure of commercial success for The Rain God, Islas’s dream of publication by a commercial New York publisher (William Morrow) was achieved with Migrant Souls in 1990, by which time Islas was terminally ill.
I don’t know how much literary criticism Islas published or tried to publish. The last section of the collection, “Essays and Lectures on Chicano Literature,” includes nothing that was previously published. It includes two attacks on the writings of Richard Rodriguez, one before Rodriguez’s essays were gathered into Hunger of Memory and one after it was published to wide attention and considerable acclaim, taken up by the opponents of bilingual education and affirmative action who were delighted to have someone with a Hispanic surname derogating Chicanos as illiterate or preliterate and as hopelessly backward.
Islas’s anger at Rodriguez’s message seemingly was mixed with resentment at the easy time Rodriguez had getting published, getting noticed, and being turned into a pundit about a people he ostentatiously cut himself off from (Spanish-speaking Americans). Hunger of Memory was and remains “the only book by and about someone of Mexican heritage born and educated in North America to be printed and enthusiastically reviewed by the northeastern publishing establishment that decides what the rest of the country reads.”
Islas viewed Rodriguez as dishonest about his reaping benefits of affirmative action and then attacking it, as duplicitously closeted (avoiding annoying or being dismissed by his right-wing sponsors) in writing an impersonal autobiography, and for selling his soul for a mess of pottage. Islas is not quite as blunt as to say that, but the implication is clear in the pained statement:
To those who find his condition pitiable and dominated by a needless intellectual construct, the praise he receives from those outside of Mexican-American culture is familiar and discouraging. Once again, the brown boy has learned not to speak his native language on the school grounds and, because he so eagerly embraces the particular political and educational biases of those who see language as primarily nationalistic [English-only], he is touted as another ‘American’ success story.
And then there is this very harsh conclusion:
We know next to noting about Richard Rodriguez, the private self, except that it has been willfully scarified in favor of a public persona who is richly rewarded for giving up its past. The masters are never interested in the private life of their servants. And the servant remains a servant because he believes their indifference is divinely ordained.
It has frequently been claimed that it is Jew-hating Jews whose writings were welcomed and lauded by the Northeastern U.S. literary establishment, and many of the black writers who appealed to a white audience have also been accused of racial self-hatred. It is politically reactionary gay writers like Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch, who denounce gay culture and institutions and advocate “civilizing”/domesticating queer and/or gay conduct, whose opinions are sought by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, etc., not those who challenge heteronormativity. Still, there are fumes of sour grapes resentment in Islas’s contrast of his struggles to Rodriguez’s meteoric ascendance.
The longest work in the collection is a 36-page discussion, written in 1975 (when Islas was working on his first novel) of three Chicano works. Islas provided an irritated critique of the macho posturings in The Autobiography of Brown Buffalo by Oscar “Zeta” Acosta (aka “Dr. Gonzo”), a somewhat impatient discussion of Rudolf A. Anaya’s novel about a child growing up in a rural community in New Mexico, Bless Me, Última, and a mostly admiring and lengthy discussion of José Antonio Villareal’s Pocho. As he was reworking his own narrative of generational differences, Islas looked carefully at problems of perspective in the three then-prominent exemplars of Chicano writing, finding the choices made by the Chicano authors limiting in all three instances. One might expect the kind of slaying of predecessors of James Baldwin’s condescending writings about Richard Wright, but though the three books Islas discussed were published before he had finished his first novel (and a decade before he found a publisher for it), Acosta and Anaya were not Islas’s elders, and none of the three were sponsors he felt the need to push aside. Indeed, the discussions of Anaya and Villareal are quite generous, especially in comparison with the giving-no-quarters attacks on Richard Rodriguez.
I don’t see anything parricidal about Islas’s criticism of Acosta, though the accusation of “succumb[ing] to the image he has of himself and confus[ing] it with reality” might be applied to Islas (and to Hemingway, whom Acosta revered as a macho more than as a writer, in Islas’s view, which seems accurate to me). Faulting the megalomania of a pronouncement such as Acosta’s “One in every century there comes a man who is chosen to speak for his people. Moses, Mao, and Martin are examples. Who’s to say I am not such a man?” is well justified (also, Mao and Martin lived in the same century; I won’t get into the “Great Leap” backward or some of Mao’s other leadings).
The literary analyses of Chicano writings in relation to Anglo American and Latin American literature are acute (though lacking any reflection on similarities of “double consciousness” as experienced by black writers). The essay seems to me to have been Islas’s true métier.
Perhaps yet another part of his irritation with Rodriguez is that Rodriguez used the form, the autobiographical essay, with which Islas was very skillful but did not himself use in writing about his gay and Chicano experiences. 1 It was this heterosexual-centered version that sold and was assigned in ethnic studies courses.
Sexuality is not prominent in the literary criticism included, and why more of it was not published may be clearer in Aldama’s biography than it is in the introduction, which mentions rejections from politicized Chicano periodicals. It surprises me that the bridge Islas was building between Chicano and Latin American writing would have interested several audiences, and I am curious about what other periodicals (other than Grito del Sol) rejected Islas’s literary articles and with what rationales.
I can’t judge whether Aldama left out better or more interesting work than what he chose to collect. What he did collect is mostly interesting, and his introduction is very helpful. Insofar as possible, dates of composition are provided for the selections (hardly any have any previous publication to note). My main complaint is that in noting that the 1975 discussion of Chicano/a writing is an “excerpt,” there is no indication of what other works Islas discussed (to necessitate the “/a” in particular (the introduction to the book mentions Ernesto Galarza, Rolando Hinojosa, and Gabriel García Marquez and other Latin American authors; I am also curious about whether Islas ever wrote about fellow gay Chicano El Paso-bred writer John Rechy). (I could also complain that my 1995 chapter on the Angel novels and novels by Michael Nava in Latin American Male Homosexualities is not included in the bibliography, but am, instead, revising it to encompass the two posthumous volumes of Islas’s writings.)
Those whose interest in Islas was stimulated by his novels will find much of interest in the collection (the title Uncollected Works is self-annulling in that the works now are collected in the volume one is holding in one’s hands). Those interested in Chicano literature or, more generally, in the literatures of double/multiple consciousness should be interested in Islas’s literary analyses as well as in his fiction and poetry.
first published by epinions, 30 April 2004
©2004, 2017 by Stephen O. Murray
- Islas also attacked the closetry of Hunger of Memory, though the homosexuality of his alter ego that was intertwined with family saga in American Dreams and Fantasies was severely cut back before his own first book could be published (according to Aldama, at first “while Islas revised the storytelling form—showing more than telling—he did not alter the explicit queer Chicano content. This more than ruffled East Coast editors’ feathers [Aldama supplies examples]…. After receiving dozens of rejection letters, Islas revised and revised the manuscript until the queer content only whispered—albeit powerfully—in the background of a story that focused on the family”). ↩