Saturday, August 16, 2014

Rose Mary Salum's Visionary Anthology DELTA DE LAS ARENAS: Cuentos Arabes, Cuentos Judíos

Cuentos Árabes, Cuentos Judíos
Editora, Rose Mary Salum
Literal Publishing
Houston, 2014
One of the opening epigraphs of Delta de arenas (Delta of the Sands), this visionary anthology of Arab and Jewish Latin American stories, is by one of my favorite writers, Edward Said, author of the classic Orientalism. He says:
"The ideal of comparable literature is not to show how English literature is really a secondary phenomenon or how French or Arabic literature is really a poor cousin to Persian literature, but to show them as existing contrapunctual lines in a great composition through which difference is respected and understood without coercion."
The great composition then, of Latin American literature, of course, includes its multitude of Arab and Jewish writers. But until now, Arab and Jewish Latin American writers have not been gathered together between covers-- a group just the size for a cocktail party, were it possible:

Katya Adaui (Peru, b. 1977)
Carlos Azar (Mexico, b. 1970)
Alicia Borinsky (Argentina, b. 1946)
Nayla Chehade (Colombia, b. 1953)
Sergio Chejfec (Argentina, b. 1956)
Marcelo Cohen (Argentina, b. 1951)
Ariel Dorfman (Argentina, 1942)
Rose Mary Espinosa Elías (Mexico, b. 1969)
Luis Fayad (Colombia, b. 1945)
Julián Fuks (Brazil, b. 1981)
Margo Glantz (Mexico, b. 1930)
Eduardo Halfon (Guatemala, b. 1971)
Rodrigo Hasbún (Bolivia, b. 1981)
Milton Hatoum (Brazil, b. 1952)
Gisela Heffes (Argentina, b. 1971)
Bárbara Jacobs (Mexico, b. 1947)
Andrea Jeftanovic (Chile, b. 1970)
Jorge Kattán Zablah (El Salvador, b. 1939)
Sandra Lorenzano (Argentina, b. 1960)
Jeannette L. Clariond (Mexico, b. 1949)
Carlos Martínez Assad (Mexico, b. 1946)
Lina Meruane (Chile, b. 1970)
Salim Miguel (Lebanon, b. 1924, naturalized Brazilian)
Myriam Moscona (Mexico, b. 1955)
Angelina Muñiz-Huberman (France, b. 1936, resident in Mexico since 1942)
Alberto Mussa (Brazil, b. 1961)
León Rodríguez Zahar (Mexico, b. 1962)
Ilán Stavans (Mexico, b. 1961)
Tatiana Salem Levy (Brazil, b. 1979)
Rose Mary Salum (Mexico, b. 1964)
Leandro Sarmatz (Brazil, b. 1973)
Ana María Shua (Argentina, b. 1951)
David Unger (Guatemala, b. 1950)
Naief Yehya (Mexico, b. 1963)

As an American writer and translator who has been living in Mexico City on and off for over two decades, when I meet with my north-of-the-border American writer- and other friends, one of the things that continually astonishes me is that so many of them are entirely ignorant of even the existence of Jewish or Arab Mexican communities in Mexico-- which are large, and especially in the cities. Well, let's see, they've heard of Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes…. and not that they're writers, but of course, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. And when I mention that Frida Kahlo's father, Guillermo Kahlo, was born in Germany, of Hungarian Jewish descent, they do a double take. ("You're kidding, right?") In short, like most Americans, they've been lulled into assuming they know everything about Mexico already because they watch the evening news and a movie or three at their local Cineplex. (And woohoo, maybe they've visited Cancun or Los Cabos.) The reality of Mexican culture is infinity richer and more complex than its image in the United States even begins to suggest-- well, more from the soap box here.

Over the centuries, Mexico, like Latin America as a whole, has taken in many waves of immigrants, from Africans to Chinese to Welshmen. Not all but most of Latin America's Jewish immigrants have come from Europe, some as early as the 16th century, but most in the 20th century and the wake of World War II, while Arabs have come primarily from the Levant in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Jews and Arabs: the juxtaposition conjures images of war, and indeed, as I write these lines, the newspapers feature horrific ones from the conflict over the Gaza Strip. But on the far shores of Latin America, where Jews and Arabs live together in peace, the common threads in their cultures are easier to pick out. Writes editor Rose Mary Salum, a Mexican of Lebanese descent, in her preface:
"Los autores de los cuentos participantes viven en este continente, el español o el portugués es su lengua madre, pero desde su nacimiento, dado su singular legado, llevan consigo una herencia que matizó las experiencias personales y los determinó, enriquiciendo el tejido con el que el lenguaje embebe la realidad".

[My translation: The authors of these stories live in this continent with Spanish or Portuguese as their mother tongue, but given their singular legacy, from birth they carry an inheritance that clarifies and determines their personal experiences, enriching the texture with which language absorbs reality.]

What these stories do, varied as they are, is what all good stories do: open our minds and elevate our awareness and our compassion. In other words, with heart and with art, they explore what it means to be human.

Salum's introduction is especially valuable for scholars, as she provides an overview of the scarce literature on Jewish Latin American writing and the even scarcer literature on Arab Latin American writing. A delightful and fascinating read, this collection is also a vital and visionary contribution to world literature itself. Highly recommended for both book groups and libraries. And highly recommended for a translation into English. Please.

Literal Publishing, by the way, was founded by Salum and in addition to a small but growing list of outstanding literary titles, she edits Literal Magazine: Reflections, Art and Culture / Pensamientos, Arte y Cultura, about Latin American culture. Look for that on the newsstands in Sanborns and elsewhere, or visit the website page.

> Visit the webpage for this book at Literal Publishing.
> Review in Nexos
> Review in Milenio
> Buy it on

This blog post is in memory of my great uncle, Robert R. Mayo, who was professor of comparative literature at Northwestern University-- and a wonderful conversationalist. How I wish he were still here, that we could discuss this book over Turkish coffee and baklava!

COMMENTS always welcome.

***UPDATE: See my podcast interview with Rose Mary Salum for Conversations with Other Writers