“For a people who are neither Spanish nor live in a country in which Spanish is the first language; for a people who live in a country in which English is the reigning tongue but who are not Anglo; for a people who cannot entirely identify as either standard (formal, Castilian) Spanish nor standard English, what recourse is left to them but to create their own language?”
– Gloria Anzaldúa, How to Tame a Wild Tongue
When Zero Saints, my third book, came out, I was not prepared for the reception it got. The buzz had been great and Broken River Books is at the forefront of bizarre crime-tinged fiction, but I was coming into the release fully aware of how hard it is for an indie book to break out of the friends-family-genre/press fanatics realm and start selling to people who don’t belong to those groups. Luckily for me, the book did just that. Thanks to a steady stream of very positive reviews and appearances in a few best of 2015 lists, Zero Saints broke out of the usual circles and was even optioned for film soon after its release.
Then the negative comments and reactions started putting some cracks on the experience.
It started at work. People would approach me and tell me they’d heard about the book and decided to check it our online, but that they didn’t know any Spanish and thus refused to read something they wouldn’t understand. Others asked me if there was a “translated version” coming at some point. Then came the comments from friends of friends. Why write something not entirely here or there? Why did I write something in two languages? Was I unaware that most people who speak Spanglish aren’t educated and don’t read? How was I going to try to sell a book like that? Finally, complete strangers started voicing their thoughts and taking the time to leave 1-star Amazon reviews telling fellow English-only speakers to stay away from the book at all costs. This was surprising because about 75% of the narrative is written in English and the rest is a mixture of Spanish and Spanglish that, as a plethora of reviewers have pointed out, is perfectly understandable to any reader paying attention to context and/or willing to spend a few second online looking for a word.
My first reaction to the negative reviews and comments was predictable: I was angry. Then I sat down and wondered if it was my fault for giving readers in this country a book with so much Spanglish in it. That analysis lead me to a few realizations, and those lead to this essay.
First of all, the US is the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. Second, having an authentic voice and making your characters feel real is much more important than making sure your Anglo readers understand them as well as they understand characters in mainstream books. Third, my style, voice, and personal and shared realities and experiences are a crucial part of my fiction and nonfiction writing, and I won’t change that to please a few readers who are uncomfortable with a narrative that doesn’t mirror their own familiarities, that challenges their views of outsiders, that isn’t part of their culture, and that regularly steps away from their linguistic comfort zone to inhabit the space it has carved out for itself through countless struggles. The second the manuscript was finished, I knew that barrio noir, which is why I’d decided to call it, was a thing, and that thing is here to stay.
As a 14-year-old obsessed with horror, I spent many afternoons translating H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe to myself. I had no internet, no friends with superb English skills, and my parents didn’t speak a word of English. Every line I understood and loved was thanks to my own efforts, every passage that left a lasting impact on me was earned the hard way and thus doubly enjoyed, every quote I memorized gave me more skills in that second language that would eventually become the language I write and publish in. At the same time, that kid was growing up in a country steeped in syncretism and violence, and both of those took place in Spanish. To go back and remove the Spanish and Spanglish from Zero Saints would be to smack that kid in the face and tell him that maybe Poe isn’t for him because it wasn’t written in his native tongue. To tame that tongue, to use Anzaldúa’s words, would be to negate everything that went into writing the novel. It would mean ignoring the experiences that shaped me as a writer and would equate to taking the barrio out of barrio noir. No me voy a convertir en un deslenguado. I refuse to change my prose because diversity bothers you. I refuse to translate the experiences of those of us stuck being the Other so that you can digest it easily and pretend to understand it. I refuse to talk about la frontera in anything other than español.
There is a bizarre literary frontera that I dared cross: I’m expected to understand the experiences and jargon of a wealthy, educated white male living in New York City and those of a hypermasculine gunslinger in Texas because they both converse in English, but my own life, and those of the millions of Mexicans, Argentinians, Hondurans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans who live in the US, need to be offered in the same language so that English-only speakers can approach them without too much trouble. Sorry, but I will keep crossing that frontera with every book. There’s a loud call for diversity in fiction, and the voice responding to it is coming from all corners of this country and possesses a DNA full of Tagalog, Arabic, Korean, Jamaican Patois, Yiddish, Spanish, and more. I’m orgulloso to be part of it and to have the opportunity to share my narratives because there are fearless indie presses willing to publish them. Donde voy yo, el barrio va conmigo.