Judge’s Comments: Non-fiction

NON-FICTION
Hispanic Immigrant Literature by Nicolás Kanellos
shortlisted: One Page at a Time: On a Writing Life by Pat Carr

 

JUDGE: Darlene Pagán

On One Page at a Time: On a Writing Life by Pat Carr

Carr’s memoir uses the literal page to pivot from snapshot to snapshot of her family history and stories to her challenges as a student, an educator, and an accomplished writer and scholar.  In an era where a woman was more often lauded for her hosting ability than her literary analysis of Sean O’Casey, Carr’s struggles reveal an astute navigation of the literary and academic worlds she belongs to but is rarely welcomed as an equal.  Each snapshot stands vividly on its own but ties to an extended narrative, an album that charts her trials and triumphs.  We meet a bevy of sharply drawn characters that populate her life, from her mother and grandmother, to James Dickey and Barbara Kingsolver, all of them human and fallible and fascinating.  This book is less an academic memoir than a writer’s memoir in part because Carr elaborates her career as a writer and the raw material of her success: dogged determination to her own ethic and a devotion to craft.  By the end of her book, she’s also provided a clear point of view about what makes for good writing: from honest characters and characterizations, to love and understanding.  It might sound easy but her story reveals otherwise as she debates well known writers and thinkers and struggles to place her own work.  For the novice to the accomplished writer, Carr’s memoir offers tangible gifts to all.

On Hispanic Immigrant Literature by Nicolás Kanellos

From the first pages of his book, Kanellos’ makes a compelling case for interrogating our standard definition of immigrant literature.  Immigrant literature has typically referred to literature written primarily in English with shared themes, such as the struggle for civil and human rights in the face of prejudice and discrimination, cultural conflict, and identity crises.  And yet, there has been an enduring body of oral and written literature that reveals a strong drive to preserve the culture, language, and values of the homeland, whether that homeland is Cuba, Mexico, or Puerto Rico.  While some literatures seek to find the individual’s place in the U.S., others dream of returning to the homeland, in the literal sense and or imagined sense.  From corridos to crónicas, from Spanish-language newspapers and presses to vaudeville and the stage, immigrant literature has not always urged assimilation or adaptation but maintaining the distinct culture of one’s homeland.  As along as Spanish speaking peoples have come to the United states, such literature has protected and provided for their communities with information and entertainment not otherwise available.  The writers, editors, and entertainers under examination in this book reveal individuals and characters with multiple social identities who are redefining the American ethnic autobiography.  The book also takes care to address the values espoused in immigrant literature as a function of gender roles in both the old society and the new American society.  While women were often cast as the purveyors of nationhood and purity by male authors, for example, many were also able to carve a space for themselves to evaluate and challenge traditional gender roles through their writing.  This book opens an expansive window on a vital topic in arts and letters.

Comparing these two texts was like comparing Cubism to twentieth century portraiture.  Neither possible nor useful nor interesting.  And while both books are labeled academic, I found them both to be fascinating reads suitable for a range of readers despite that Kanellos’ text will more likely be read by scholars in several fields of interest.  In deciding on a single text for this award, I looked at what I believed to be the express purpose of each book, in the case of Carr, to offer a memoir grounded in the writing life, and in the case of Kanello, to provide the definitions and contexts for understanding Hispanic Immigrant Literatures.  This in part led me to choose Kanellos’ book, which never wavered in its examination of its subject matter or the relevance of the various texts and writers to that subject matter.  From beginning to end, he communicates clearly the value of this literature to arts and letters but also to our understanding of what it means to be an American and an immigrant.

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