These three critical works offer new ways of thinking through transnational literary connections and are conscious of both the historical resonances of colonialism and the structures of power in today’s globalized world. Each study is attentive to questions of scale—geographical and temporal—and the limits inherent in the frames that we use to position literature. Jennifer Harford Vargas’s Forms of Dictatorship offers an expansive view of transnational American literature, applying dictatorship as a literary trope, well-established in Latin American literature, to a subset of Latina/o fiction: the Latina/o dictatorship novel. Harford Vargas’s work seeks to extend explorations to more fully incorporate the hemispheric “haunting afterlives” of dictatorships (4). John C. Havard’s Hispanicism and Early US Literature expands the framing of United States literature to consider those texts created at the margins of the nation, conceptualizing Hispanicism, “a literary tradition that displays a US interest in producing knowledge about Hispanophone peoples” (3). A key intervention of Havard’s work is incorporating literature predating 1898 into this frame. Martyn Bone’s Where the New World Is convincingly demonstrates the need to reevaluate the US South in fields such as new southern studies and American studies “at various global scales: hemispheric, transatlantic, and transpacific” (x). Bone’s work is attuned to multiple temporal registers, linking the realities of the contemporary US South, like immigration and globalization, to previous iterations of oppressive labor practices.
Forms of Dictatorship “ties together Latin American and Latina/o writings about dictatorship and illuminates how the violence of dictatorial regimes reappears somewhere: in the ‘here’ of Latina/o literature” (4). Jennifer Harford Vargas terms this continuum of domination “the Latina/o counter-dictatorial imaginary, which draws connections between authoritarianism, imperialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, neoliberal capitalism, and border militarization in the Americas” (6). In addition to exposing hierarchical power differentials, this framing connects various hemispheric spaces, including the US, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Cuba through the experiences of authoritarian political regimes and state-sanctioned violence. Harford Vargas’s socioformal study draws explicit links between past experiences of dictatorship abroad and the racism, colorism, class exploitation, heterosexism, and other structures of oppression experienced in the present-day United States, particularly by Latina/os.
Forms of Dictatorship is invested in the formal techniques each novel employs and what they reveal about the Latina/o counterdictatorial imaginary, mobilizing the novel genre to connect “structures of power, narrative control, and social location” (15). Each chapter centers on one novel—allowing a deep exploration of the relationship between content and form. Especially attentive to form, chapter 1 examines the competing dictators at the heart of Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007): political dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, and narrative dictator, narrator Yuinor. Through her analysis of techniques, such as displacing the dictator from the text’s center, folk orality, paratextual footnotes, and blankness representing historical absences, Harford Vargas clearly illustrates complex connections between “authorship, authority, and authoritarianism” (38). The second chapter continues to explore the writer as dictator in Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper (2005), followed by examinations of the neoliberal dictator figure in Francisco Goldman’s The Ordinary Seaman (1997), state-sponsored violence in the United States and Guatemala in Héctor Tobar’s The Tattooed Soldier (1998), and the connections between heteropatriarchy and authoritarianism in Cristina García’s King of Cuba (2013). The book ends with a fascinating turn toward the visual: a consideration of the murals in Balmy Alley in San Francisco’s Mission District that depict repressive structures in both Central America and the United States—raising consciousness and building solidarity. Hartford Vargas asserts that the counterdictatorial imaginary gives a framework not only for linking forms of authoritarian power but also movements for decolonization and justice.
In Hispanicism and Early US Literature, John C. Havard incisively analyzes Hispanicism, used to “homogenize a diverse group of people as the Other” (10), alongside Edward Said’s Orientalism and Toni Morrison’s Africanism. Hispanicism provided US Americans with “the reflexive grounds necessary to constitute nationality” (14) with Spanish and Spanish Americans as liminal border figures, helping to shape Anglo-American identity. Hispanicism also served to justify imperialism in Latin America through representing the inhabitants as lazy, deceitful, and incapable of self-government. Scholarly explorations of this topic focus primarily on US imperialism in the Hispanophone world in 1898, the year of what I call the Spanish-Cuban-Filipino-American War. Thus, Havard’s work is unique in extending back to the unexamined prehistory to argue that the “difference between 1898 imperialism and prior ventures is of degree not kind” (20), highlighting the historical acuity of his analysis. Through this temporal focus, as well as his emphasis on the ideological oppositions between early liberals and antiliberal conservatives, Havard’s book elucidates a link between Hispanicism and early national imperialism—essential to a fuller understanding of the early history of the Americas.
Similar to Harford Vargas’s book in this regard, Havard’s work extends the temporal and geographic frames of previous scholarship. The first section explores canonical US writers’ employment of and reaction to Hispanicism, including the imperial agenda of Joel Barlow’s poetry, James Fenimore Cooper’s growing “skepticism towards liberal expansionism” (70), and Herman Melville’s “nonexceptionalist cosmopolitianism” (95). The second section explores Hispanicism in relation to Cuban annexation through the work of lesser-known writers: New Englander Mary Tyler Peabody Mann and Cuban José Antonio Saco. As the only Cuban writer considered here, the final chapter on Saco adds an essential perspective. Havard traces Saco’s view that Cubans “possess organically constituted, traditional identities that are intrinsically different from those of North Americans,” contextualizing the widespread impact of Hispanicist views (149). In an interesting reversal, however, Saco believed this distinction necessitated Cuban self-determination and protection from US imperial incursions. The stakes for our current moment are clear: Havard’s study “reveals the delusive and violent historical effects of the rhetoric that is reemerging today” around immigration and directly calls for the unlearning of the Hispanicist discourses (33).
In the expansive Where the New World Is, Martyn Bone employs a historical-geographical materialist approach and a multiethnic lens to explore globalization and immigration as “paramount realities in the twenty-first-century South” (1). According to Bone, the growth of immigration in the region since 1965 reveals “discomforting historical-geographical continuities with what went before,” connecting exploitation of immigrant workers with previous oppressive and racialized labor structures (2). In relation to Zora Neale Hurston’s depictions of both regional and transnational migrant laborers, for instance, Bone uses his historical-geographical materialist lens to argue for a “third space” between attacks on Hurston’s antirealism and her fetishizing of US southern folk aesthetics (33). In addition to exploitative labor continuities, Bone notes that demographic flows between the US South and the global South have the potential to reinvent the region in “radical and hopeful” ways, making space for the creation of transnational communities and solidarity between formerly disparate groups (15). The writers Bone collects effectively challenge the black-white binary as a racial frame in the US South, along with the assumptions that only “native-born writers” produce southern literature (22) and that the South is a “fixed, rooted, regional place” (26).
Where the New World Is focuses primarily on novels by US-based authors— Hurston, Nella Larsen, John Oliver Killens, Russell Banks, and Cynthia Shearer—as well as Jamaican writer Erna Brodber. Connections with previously discussed writers are woven into this comprehensive study, building to the final chapter’s turn toward narratives of Asian immigration by Vietnamese-American writers Monique Truong and Lan Cao and Chinese-American Ha Jin. Crucial to Bone’s framing, this chapter more fully opens up the concerns of the book beyond the black-white binary and incorporates transpacific and global scales, ending with the assertion that “whiteness retains power from the global ‘East’ to the global West (and global North) of which the ‘subnational’ U.S. South is a part” (195). The book expands further in the epilogue to consider a “more materialist new southern studies without ‘the South’” and a transnational American studies through readings of Morrison, Peter Matthiessen, Dave Eggers, and Laila Lalami (197).