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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Spanish professor Carol D'Lugo's special areas of research and teaching include the Mexican and Argentine novel. In a paper given at the Congress of the International Institute of Iberoamerican Literature, she reflected on the novel Los herederos del hambre: una nueva imagen de Chiapas.

Meet the researchers: The passion in my life

Interview with Professor Carol D'Lugo
Husband and wife Marvin and Carol D'Lugo are professors of Spanish language and literature at Clark. While Marvin focuses on Spanish language film, Carol has immersed herself in Mexican literature and culture. In a recent interview, she talked about the struggles of the indigenous people of Chiapas, Mexico and her analysis of recent novels that focus on their plight.

How did you become interested in the Spanish language and Mexican literature?

My older sister took Spanish in high school, so when it was my turn to register, I also chose Spanish. She used to tease me unmercifully, because she had more experience with the language than I. She'd give me something to read and then laugh at me! So here I am!

I love this work-it's the passion in my life. I had Spanish all through high school, and very good training. I had a marine sergeant of a professor at Douglas College (Rutgers). She'd give us a list of book titles and tell us to go to New York and buy them. We read an unreasonably enormous quantity of literature. But when I got to the University of Illinois for my Master's degree, they must have been impressed with my background, because they put me in a second-level Spanish course as a teaching assistant, instead of the usual one for a first-year graduate student.

I didn't travel to Mexico until 1966. I met my husband in graduate school and, before we were married, four of us drove to the border with Mexico and visited a family in Reynosa that my husband had stayed with in 1962. We're still in touch with them. Then we flew on a decrepit airplane to Mexico City via Poza Rica It was a terrible flight, and when, after several attempts, we finally landed, no one said a word for about two minutes. Unbelievable experience. We took a second or third class bus from Mexico City to the coast-hills, hairpin turns, and the driver kept crossing himself! That was something I'd never do again! When you're young, you think you can do anything!

Literature came with the territory, and I found it was just wonderful!

You obviously developed a love, not just of the language, but of the culture as well.

Absolutely. You cannot have one without the other. At Clark, what we do from 101 beginning language all the way through to the advanced classes, is to always keep in mind the interrelationship between language and culture.

I love Mexico and I hate Mexico. I love Mexico because of its culture, history, traditions, people, and its literature. I hate it because of the inequality, the haves and the have-nots. The poor in Mexico make you want to cry. And part of what I'm looking at in my present research is those social conditions as expressed through the literature.

At Brown, I took a seminar on the Mexican novel. My professor assigned me a wonderful book, The Fair by Juan José Arreola, who passed away last year. I looked at this novel--it was in pieces! It was all different dialogues with different characters. But then I started finding relationships among the parts, and I began to explore what held those pieces together. That started my obsession with the fragmented novel, and it consumed me for the next 20 years.

I've published a book called The Fragmented Novel in Mexico: The Politics of Form. I looked at novels from the period of the Mexican Revolution, Indian novels from the 1930s (another period of strong social consciousness), all the way through marginalized writers such as homosexuals, and, I'm sorry to say, women. Different novels, all fragmented, all working in a different way. The fragmented novel is metaphoric of the country--Mexico is a fragmented nation in a number of ways.

Can you define what a fragmented novel is?

It's a novel that announces itself as non-traditional. Most of us think of the novel in its 19th century form-- long novels in which we're told everything by an all-knowing narrator. It's a story that goes from a beginning to an end. It has a linear development.

When you pick up a fragmented novel, you read the first segment. Sometimes the pieces are separated by asterisks or little pictures, numbers or blank space. These indicate a break. You then go to the next fragment and ask whether it has anything to do with the previous one. Automatically you're engaged.

It's a novel that says 'no, you can't have this as a linear piece. I will show you graphically that I'm not linear. I may not even have a narrator. YOU have to put these pieces together and determine what unites them.' The fragmented novel demands an active reader.

Is it important to read the fragments in a particular sequence? Does that vary from novel to novel?

It varies. But in most you read the pieces in sequence. In a novel called Hopscotch, Julio Cortázar specifies a reading order using numbers that direct you to different parts of the book. But there is a strong suggestion in the first part of the book that you can read it in whatever order you choose. Cortázar was part of the "Boom" generation in Latin America in the 1960s, when it exploded with literary talent, including José Donoso, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa. So many spectacular writers.

Are there any particular themes that Mexican novelists tend to focus on?

Death, solitude and failure. The big theme of The Fair is failure, a feeling that is rampant throughout the country. Of course in certain situations failure can be good. Failure can be Father Pastor in Los Herederos who leaves the Church to defends the indigenous population. He's failing in his role as a member of the Church. But we can appreciate morally what he's doing. He's courageous enough to present a different perspective.

The ability to offer various perspectives is enhanced in a fragmented novel. The Fair contains scattered segments about a young boy. He goes to church and confesses his sins. Later on this happens again. Then you have an adolescent writing in his diary. In another place you have the priest talking about what's going on. The center of the novel is a huge confession representing the whole town, which leads readers to look for more instances of individual accounts combining to form a whole, analogous to the many fragments of the novel united by readers into a unit.

Clark put The Fair on as a play a number of years ago, and the audience loved it. They had characters all over the stage, each confessing from his or her spot. That's just one example of the community coming together at Clark. I love that about Clark. Students can get so involved, be so creative. When they really buy into it, it's astounding.

Are Mexican novelists from any particular social group?

They are from the professional class. The underclass is not educated enough to write. People ask why Indians don't write. They grow up without water, electricity, and education. They may have a school, but the teacher is generally someone with no teaching experince who doesn't even know the Indian language.

Someone from the underclass would need a professional writer as an intermediary. A classic example of a novel using an intermediary writer is Hasta No Verte, Jesús Mío which basically means, Until I See You, Jesus of Mine. Elena Poniatowska writes about an amazing character named Jesusa Palancares. She's a feisty woman from the underclass who fights in the Revolution. She kicks out her husband and works her way to Mexico City. She's wonderful. The story is based on a real woman whom the author had overheard. They got together and met over a period of years.

The underclass has traditionally not been represented by one of its own, with one fascinating exception. I recently wrote an article on a book called Pu or Violación en Polanco [Rape in Polanco]. Polanco, an upper-class district in Mexico City, immediately suggests an element of privilege to anyone who knows Mexico. The author, Armando Ramírez, is from Tepito, an impoverished district in Mexico City with a largely indigenous population. He's recognized as one of the first from the underclass to write about the underclass. Ramirez did receive an education, but instead of taking that opportunity to distance himself from his roots, he chose to write about where he came from.

The novel is remarkably violent. Three Indian characters target a white woman who is the wife of a corrupt politician. They kidnap her, drive her to the slums, force her to look at the poverty. Then they rape, beat and kill her. The book is full of references to the films these Indians watch, almost all of which are violent or very sexual. They certainly are exposed the influence of Western sex and violence. But are they just playing out a fantasy they've learned from the movies? No. The book is full of references to 500 years of repressed anger. The anger spills over when the corrupt politican takes La Chuy, one of the people who hang out at the movies, as his mistress. It turns out that the men target the politician's wife because she was involved with the death of La Chuy and others.

How do you approach research in a literary field?

When I pick up a novel, the first thing I want to do is give it a context. How am I going to look at this? My current interest is in the writing coming out of the Mexican state of Chiapas. I'm looking at people who write from within the culture, people who either witness, or are aware of, or are living those circumstances. They are articulate, so that puts them in a certain [upper] class inevitably. I'm looking at how these authors work through the implications and consequences of what has been happening in Chiapas during the 1990s, specifically the Zapatista uprising in 1994.

To begin the analytical process I first read the entire novel. You can't understand a novel's form until you understand where the story goes. A novel is like a journey, it's a variety of forms of transportation. You can't understand the forms of transportation and their implications until you get to the end of the journey. Then you go back to the beginning and see things that you missed. You see how the author brought you in, made you aware of the social conditions and class differences, the conflicts in a story. More than telling a story, the author is bringing out the circumstances of that story.

In literary research, you can't read a novel for plot. Plot is probably the least important factor, because our interest is not in "what," but in "how" the author constructed the story. For example, in Los Herederos del Hambre (The Heirs of Hunger), by Jesús Magdaleno Cañavera, the author creates a lot of references to cycles. The story has fathers, Simón and Valentín, who are killed in the beginning of the book. Their sons, Simón and Valentín, engage with the sons of the same enemy, and their sons do the same. So events repeat again and again unless someone can break out. There is one Simón who has the ability to break out, and he vacillates.

The author's use of the name Simón made me suspect that it might be a biblical reference. St. Peter was actually Simon Peter, a disciple who vacillated, denied Jesus, and yet went on to be a great teacher. Our Simón vacillates, but he doesn't move on. He wants to believe the government when it says, once again, 'it's ok, we'll take care of you.' But it will not.

Are these novels accessible to an American reader?

Not yet. I have trouble finding them. I have to track them down through interlibrary loan.

My ambition is to write about this literary output from Chiapas to educate people about the Indian struggle. I am in touch with the webmaster of the web site for the Zapatista movement. I had a question about finding a particular piece of writing that moved me. It asked why the Indians should have to say they're sorry. Because they're dying of hunger? Because they're Indian? I wanted to share it with one of my classes. It turned out that it was a favorite of the webmaster's too.

Subcommandante Marcos, the spokesperson for the Zapatistas, has written stories, including a beautiful book called The Story of Colors: A Bilingual Folktale from the Jungles of Chiapas. This is available here, as are the many books written in English on the Zapatista struggle.
The Story of Colors is in Spanish on one side and English on the other. The Zapatistas have stories to educate, ideologically in part I'm sure. But also as a way of returning these people to the simplicity of the land. The interesting thing about the cycles in Los Heredo del Hambre is that the author shows manmade cyclical movement as negative and contrasts it sharply with nature's positive growth. The Indians identify with the land. They want to work their land, to feed their children. Children are another huge theme in these novels. The Indians want their children to be better off. They want to be independent, to be respected, and to maintain their culture.

I encourage people to read about the Zapatistas on their web site. The movement is mostly a peaceful one. The Indians don't want to go around killing people. They just want to live their lives.


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Carol D'Lugo

Carol D'Lugo

 Literature as an expression of culture

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