Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies reviews “Poets, Philosophers, Lovers: On the Writings of Giannina Braschi”, an essential resource for Braschian studies, Latinx Literature, and Latin American Immigrant Literature.
Puerto Rican, Nuyorican, Latin American, Latinx, immigrant, poet, novelist, playwright, and artist, Giannina Braschi defies any attempt at classification. With her iconoclastic work circulating since the 1980s, Braschi has contributed significantly to the development of literature written by Latin American immigrants in the U.S., cultivating linguistic, aesthetic, and ethical strategies to confront living between two cultures and two countries, one of which holds firm political control over the other. The recent volume Poets, Philosophers, Lovers. On the Writings of Giannina Braschi, edited by Frederick Luis Aldama and Tess O’Dwyer, has come to fill a major gap in the critical bibliography on Braschi’s work and life. Both editors are well prepared for such a task: as a scholar, Aldama has published and edited dozens of studies on Chicanx and Latinx cultural production, and O’Dwyer is the translator of Braschi’s books originally written in Spanish or Spanglish—Imperio de los sueños [Empire of Dreams] (1988) and Yo-Yo Boing! (1998).
Braschi’s work emerged from the heart of the Nuyorican movement, along with poets like Pedro Pietri, Nancy Mercado, and Edwin Torres, but it also belongs to the Puerto Rican literary field that moves back and forth between the island and the U.S., inevitably related to contemporary authors such as Urayoán Noel, Nicole Delgado Sanchez, Ana Lydia Vega, and now canonical poets such as Julia de Burgos and even—to some extent— Luis Pales Matos. One central figure of Puerto Rican insular culture who appears in Braschi’s work is Nilita Vientós Gastón, to whom she dedicates United States of Banana, her latest novel published in 2011. A professional lawyer and renowned intellectual, Vientós is not only known for her successful participation in the “Pleito de la Lengua,” a lawsuit which established the exclusive use of Spanish in Puerto Rican courts, but also as the director of Asomante and Sin Nombre, influential literary magazines that together maintained a quarterly circulation from the 1940s through the 1980s. Braschi’s nod to Vientós cannot be overlooked as a relevant gesture to reclaim and construct a genealogy of Puerto Rican women intellectuals.
Beyond the shores of Borinquen, Braschi emanates from a profoundly Caribbean cultural universe.
We find similarities between her writing and the Afro-Caribbean trickster Anansi, half-spider, half-man, whose oral stories offer lessons that often test hegemonic morals. We also see affinities in Jamaican poet Louise Bennett’s “Colonization in Reverse,” which upends power relations established by British colonialism. Similarly, the poetics of voice that Braschi articulates is comparable to poet and historian Kamau Brathwaite’s attempt to meld writing with popular speech. On the other hand, as Aldama points out in his introduction to the volume, we must place Braschi’s work alongside African American women writers like Audre Lorde and Claudia Rankine, both of Caribbean origin. Unquestionably, Braschi’s work is carnavalesque, a quality which, through style and particular topics, connects her to Caribbean literary traditions.
Poets, Philosophers, Lovers, which includes twelve chapters as well as an interview with Braschi, is divided into three sections: “Vanguard Forms and Latinx Sensibilities,” “Persuasive Art of Dramatic Voices,” and “Intermedial Poetics and Radical Thinking.” The foreword by Ilan Stavans is more of a shout-out to Braschi than a presentation, but helps to locate the relevance of her work in the Latinx intellectual field. On the other hand, Aldama’s introduction offers a necessary contextualization of Braschi’s life and work, identifying several salient topics, such as her use of Spanglish, criticism of U.S. imperialism, and her negotiation between highbrow and popular culture.
The first section is by far the most extensive, with five chapters that address language in Braschi’s work. It begins with Madelena Gonzalez’s “The Uncommon Wealth of Art: Poetic Progress as Resistance to the Commodification of Culture in United States of Banana,” which poses that Braschi’s latest novel constructs an aesthetics of delirium as an alternative ethics to the spectacle of late capitalism. In the following chapter, “Rompiendo esquemas: Catastrophic Bravery in United States of Banana,” John Rio Riofrio conceptualizes the expression “romper los esquemas” (breaking norms) to illustrate non-conformist aspects of Braschi’s narrative, especially in terms of aesthetics, ideology and genre. Both chapters emphasize a key aspect in United States of Banana: the novel turns tragedy into creative potential, which, in this case, narrates how the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center triggers a global paradigm shift, giving rise to the United Nations without Nations and the U.S. opening its borders to Latin America. The third chapter, “Exile and Burial of Ontological Sameness: A Dialogue between Zarathustra and Giannina,” by Anne Ashbaugh, also analyzes United States of Banana, but from a philosophical perspective that reveals the connections with Nietzche, particularly his ideas on concepts like exile and freedom.
The last two chapters in this section take a specifically linguistic approach. In “Yo-Yo- Boing! Or Literature as a Translingual Practice,” Francisco Moreno Fernández questions the use of the term Spanglish, as it implies alter- nating between Spanish and English, when Braschi—according to the author—fluidly alternates between the two languages in what is known as translanguaging. Maritza Stanchich, in “Bilingual Big Bang: Giannina Braschi’s Trilogy Levels the Spanish-English Playing Field,” reads Imperio de los sueños, Yo-Yo-Boing!, and United States of Banana in relation to the language in which Braschi writes each book: Spanish, Spanglish, and English, posing that this structure not only reflects the author’s life trajectory—something Braschi herself has mentioned—but also that bilingualism is a lingua franca of the Americas, a means to eliminate the North-South binary. This analysis articulates the relationship between language and politics, recalling the metaphor Braschi uses to represent Puerto Rico’s political status options: “wishy,” “wishy-washy,” or “washy,” corresponding to Independence, the Free Associated State, or annexation as a full-fledged state; in other words, this scheme implies nation, colony, or statehood. These two chapters offer contrasting conceptual perspectives (bilingualism and trans- languaging), coherent with a volume that makes no attempt to promote a consensual vision on Braschi’s work.
The second section, “Persuasive Art of Dramatic Voices,” includes four chapters dealing with strategies to emotionally and cognitively connect with readers. Cristina Garrigós, in “Giannina and Braschi: A Polyphony of Voices,” focuses on the importance of dialogue in Braschi’s work, arguing that we can understand it as an alternative sign of postmodernity, which generally privileges fragmentation. Her chapter shows the distance and intimacy between the author and her characters, arguing that Braschi writes and Giannina acts. The following chapter by Laura R. Loustau, “The Poetry of Giannina Braschi: Art and Magic in Assault on Time,” while only considering Braschi’s first book of poems, subsequently incorporated into Empire of Dreams, pro- vides insightful reflections on reading her poetic work as a whole, heavily influenced by the Latin American avant-garde, particularly Cesar Vallejo. The last two chapters in this section return to United States of Banana: Elizabeth Lowry, in “The Human Barnyard: Rhetoric, Identification, and Symbolic Representation in United States of Banana,” argues that the novel distinguishes itself from typical post-9/11 narratives, negotiating the topography of pain and memory from the perspective of an immigrant; and Daniela Daniele, in “Gamifying World Literature: Giannina Braschi’s United States of Banana,” likens the novel to the function of a comic that uses humors to digest the horrors of U.S. imperialism.
The three chapters that make up the last section, “Intermedial Poetics and Radical Thinking,” concentrate primarily on aesthetic issues. Dorian Lugo Bertrán, in her chapter “Leaping Off the Page: Giannina Braschi’s Intermedialities,” not only examines Braschi’s generic heterogeneity but also how other artists have translated her works into painting, theater, and sculpture. In “Free-dom: United States of Banana and the Limits of Sovereignty,” Ronald Mendoza-de Jesús compares the lives of Braschi and Jacques Derrida, who both grew up in colonial situations, although under quite different circumstances. Mendoza- de Jesús dissects the implications of sovereignty and personal freedom with a comprehensive discussion of events leading to recent criticism of Puerto Rico’s political status, particularly the infamous PROMESA project, approved by U.S. Congress in 2016 to alleviate the economic crises, but which reinforces colonial control over the island. The text articulates how Braschi formulates aesthetic proposals that urge us to rethink concepts such as freedom, rights, and sovereignty. The last text in this section, “The Holy Trinity: Money, Power, and Success in United States of Banana,” by Francisco José Ramos, reads Braschi’s latest novel as a political satire capable of revealing Puerto Rico’s complex colonial dependency.
The volume closes with a conversation between Rolando Pérez and Braschi, offering a sort of intimate coda to the critical essays. Here, Braschi speaks about her creative process, provides key insights into several of her characters, reflects on the possibilities of writing in Spanish and English, and defends the cultural and natural wealth of Puerto Rico. Some of the topics discussed appear in other interviews, several of which are mentioned in the previous chapters, such as the three poets she has always kept close: the poet-actor (Hamlet), the poet-philosopher (Zarathustra), and the poet-child (herself); and also, the importance of Vallejo in her work, who always returns like a jack-in-the-box, no matter how many times she pushes him back down. Pérez’s interview is the first part of a series that will turn into a book, which should make a useful complement to this critical volume.
Poets, Philosophers, Lovers is a comprehensive collection on the work that Giannina Braschi has been developing since the 1980s and, with rigorous and accessible texts, represents an essential resource for future Braschian studies, as well as diaspora literature in general. That said, while most of the collaborators are university professors, the book as a whole does not read like a typical academic volume: the chapters rely on the essay as an art form to rehearse the articulation of critical thinking. It is quite noteworthy that of the twelve chapters, seven discuss United States of Banana, clearly one of Braschi’s most influential novels. We can only hope that its translation into Spanish, published in Spain in 2016, garners a similar impact among Spanish-speaking readers and, particularly Latin Americans, although a quick comparison between the original and its Spanish-language version reveals several parts that were left out of the translation, such as entire sections of dialogue, and the wishy-washy metaphor.
One important aspect of Poets, Philosophers, Lovers is that, while it was published in English and in the U.S., the collaborators represent a fairly equal balance between critics from the U.S. and Puerto Rico, as well as several from Spain and Italy. While the absence of other Latin American scholars could have diversified the perspectives, the volume is an invitation to begin reading Braschi throughout the rest of the continent. It also contributes relevant theoretical approaches on phenomenon like bilingual and translingual writing, very much present in Latin American cultural production from the U.S.- Mexico border to the Southern Cone. Like the poets, philosophers, and lovers who are knocking on the door to enter the dialogue of the Republic in United States of Banana, this volume crosses a threshold as a means to critically and creatively reflect on the lifework of Giannina Braschi. This, above all else, is an act of love.
Universidad Catolica de Chile
Select Readings on Giannina Braschi’s Life and Works
Stanchich, Maritza. “Braschi, Giannina.” The Encyclopedia of Contemporary American Fiction 1980–2020 1 (2022): 1-7. (Essential resource for Braschian studies)
Gonzalez, Christopher Thomas. Hospitable Imaginations: Contemporary Latino/a Literature and the Pursuit of a Readership. The Ohio State University, 2012. (Essential resource for Braschian studies and Latinx literature)
Hitchcock, Peter. “Slippery Subjectivity.” American Book Review 42.6 (2021): 21-22.
Loustau, Laura R. “The Poetry of Giannina Braschi.” Poets, Philosophers, Lovers: On the Writings of Giannina Braschi (2020): 34.
Sheeran, Amy, and Amanda M. Smith. “A Graphic Revolution: Talking Poetry & Politics with Giannina Braschi.” Chiricù Journal: Latina/o Literature, Art, and Culture 2.2 (2018): 130-142.
Negrón, Sergio Gutiérrez. “Poets, Philosophers, Lovers: On the Writings of Giannina Braschi by Frederick Luis Aldama Tess O’Dwyer.” World Literature Today 95.3 (2021): 115-116.
Pérez, Rolando. “The Bilingualisms of Latino/a Literatures.” The Oxford Handbook of Latino Studies (2020): 282. (an essential resource for Braschian studies)
Carmen Haydée Rivera, Carmen. Review of Poets, Philosophers, Lovers: On the Writings of Giannina Braschi, CENTRO, Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. VOL. XXXIV, NO. 1, Spring 2022