Every once in a while, a young voice emerges with the potential to define a new generation. Daniel Alarcón fits the profile, with a literary pedigree that includes making his first fiction sale to the New Yorker. Months before the publication of his debut story collection, War by Candlelight (HarperCollins, Apr.), he's already attracted enough buzz to overcome the pigeonholing that most Latino writers face: booksellers and the publishing elite are referring to him simply as a "gifted and talented writer." (See PW's review on p. 155.)
After a heated auction that ended in a two-book, six-figure deal with HarperCollins that includes simultaneous English and Spanish editions, Alarcón's editor Alison Callahan—whose author stable includes Ann Patchett and Marian Keyes—"nearly fainted" when she found out he was only 27. "I just found his writing amazing," she said. "There's no need to label him just because of his background. He's accessible, but literary—but not too literary."
Graced with a slim physique and a laid-back, sensitive schoolboy demeanor, Alarcón was born in Peru, raised in Alabama and schooled as an undergrad at Columbia University before he returned to Peru on a Fulbright scholarship. There, he began fusing the diverse worldviews that give a stylish energy to his work and that of other writers like him.
One of those early stories, which offered a vision of contemporary Peru that teeters between revolutionary romanticism and grave tragedy, caught the eye of Colin Harrison, who was then editing Harper's magazine and knew Alarcón from a writing class at Columbia. Harrison introduced him to agent Eric Simonoff, who placed Alarcón's story, "City of Clowns," in the New Yorker's June 2003 debut fiction issue. Soon after, Alarcón packed his bags and set off to work on a novel at the Iowa Writer's Workshop.
At Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City, buyer Paul Ingram remembers Alarcón and how well he was liked in the community. "I won't have to recommend him. Certain people are just popular in town," he said. Alarcón, who now lives in Oakland, Calif., is also well known at Diesel bookstore there. Buyer Hanna Cox, who first read his work in The Best Nonrequired Reading of 2004 (Houghton), a collection edited by David Eggers, compared Alarcón and the new wave of Latino writers like him to the Indian writers' boom of the '90s.
Latino Lit's Young Turks
Alarcón is not the first young Latino writer to have graced the pages of the New Yorker: Junot Diaz did it in 1996 when he was 27. Nor is he the first to attend the Iowa Writer's workshop: Sandra Cisneros did so back in the '80s. What distinguishes Alarcón and other new young Latino writers has less to do with writing skill than a sense of security in their identity. They didn't have to break down walls to get their voices heard: they can now simply focus on their craft and building literary connections, even if they keep a wary eye on anyone with a mind to stereotype them.
Michael Jaime-Becerra, author of the story collection Every Day Is Ladies' Night (a 2004 year-end pick at the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle that Rayo will publish in paperback in March), is well aware of the Latino writers who broke the trail. "There was nothing out there before, so those writers were trying to get the broad strokes of our culture down to validate it," said the 31-year-old Mexican-American, who received his MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and found a mentor in Ann Patchett (and her agent, Lisa Bankoff). "Cisneros's House on Mango Street set the precedent. She gave me that license when I was looking for models in publishing."
Many Mexican-American authors, like Cisneros, Ana Castillo and Luis Rodriguez, who came on the scene in the late '80s and early '90s, were represented by the grand dame of Latino agenting, Susan Bergholz, who has been credited as the hammer that broke down the publishing walls for Latino writers. Now that Bergholz's client list is full, she passes worthy authors to agent Stuart Bernstein, who has cultivated a pan-Latino group of fresh voices with academic backgrounds and lit journal credibility, among them Manuel Muñoz, H.G. Carrillo and Felicia Luna Lemus, who is currently without an agent.
For Lemus, 29, who received an M.F.A. from the California Institute of the Arts and published her first novel, Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties, with FSG in 2003, being labeled a Latino writer is simply "limiting." She credits Vladimir Nabokov, Gertrude Stein, Leonard Cohen and, yes, Ana Castillo as her biggest influences, while exploring the punk-dyke-hipster world of modern L.A. Now based in New York's East Village and working on her next novel, she's thankful that she's been positioned with authors like Kate Walbert, Vendela Vida and Julie Orringer, as well as her contemporaries with Latino surnames. "Now it's more about the writers. Things have broadened," she muses, then adds with grin, "but white male heterosexuality still seems to be invisible."
As these newly acculturated writers emerge, the pressure is on the establishment to move away from old labels and tired terra-cotta book jacket motifs. As Bernstein puts it, "It's the proclivity of our established institutions to fall back on minority designations for these writers." For René Alegria, publisher and editorial director of Harper Rayo, these writers are Latino in name only: "This new generation does not feel the need to only reflect the experiences of Latinos. Rather, as artists they feel the need to reflect their surroundings, Hispanic or otherwise."