Intersections of Latin American and South Asian Literature in the Twentieth Century


A review of Cartographies of Engagement: The Parallels and Intersections of Latin American and South Asian Literature in the Twentieth Century, by Roanne Leah Kantor. 

In her dissertation, The Parallels and Intersections of Latin American and South Asian Literature in the Twentieth Century, Roanne Leah Kantor has three main objectives: firstly, to establish “comparisons between Latin American authors who lived in South Asia and their South Asian contemporaries from 1906 to the present” (p. vi) and secondly, to thereby recover a literary exchange that spans a full century in time and several thousands of kilometres in space: from Latin America to South Asia, two regions that comparative literary scholarship had yet to associate. This allows Kantor to expand the existing methodological framework of comparative literary scholarship—her third objective.

Kantor departs from what she sees as the two main methodological approaches in the field: “cartographies of domination” and “cartographies of contiguity”. The first describes analytical approaches that focus on historical relations of power, such as postcolonial studies, and the second focuses on “relations based on physical proximity and historical routes of exchange”. Kantor finds neither methodological approach suitable for her study and therefore develops a methodological framework that she terms “cartographies of engagement”. It highlights the more personal routes of authors and texts around the globe, which do not automatically follow the lines “of political domination and economic exchange” (p. vii).

Throughout her dissertation, Kantor traces the personal routes of authors and texts from Latin America to South Asia, and from South Asia to Latin America, with case studies and critical readings of both primary literature and already existing scholarship on authors and texts. Her own research thereby contributes to Latin American literary scholarship and South Asian Studies—two well-established fields in their own right as well as two distinct epicentres of postcolonial studies. Kantor situates her own study both within and outside these fields of geographically clearly demarcated scholarly discourses. First, she draws from a wealth of critical material on authors such as Pablo Neruda, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and Octavio Paz. Second, she bridges these particular cartographies of literature and scholarship. 

In Chapter 1, Kantor focuses on a meeting and its repercussions between the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the Chilean poet and future Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda in 1962. Kantor shows how both poets responded to the geopolitical conditions of the Cold War and how shared experiences of political oppression in their lives produced strikingly similar aesthetics in their writings—despite and across the huge distance between them. Kantor traces this “aesthetics of confinement” (p. 32) and its development to an “aesthetics of revolution” (p. 41), as she calls it, in Neruda’s and Faiz’s collections, and analyses how these aesthetic ideals compare to the poets’ lived experiences. 

The set of writers at the centre of Chapter 2 are the Chilean novelist Augosto d’Halmar and the South Asian poet Miraji. The connections in this case are not shared experiences of political oppression, as with Faiz and Neruda, but instead expressions of trans identity in both writers’ lives and works; this enables Kantor to draw new cross-cultural comparisons within the frameworks of both postcolonial and queer theory. Doing that, Kantor goes against the grain of previous scholarship that has d’Halmar and Miraji at opposite ends of a colonizer/colonized binary (p. 49). She sets out to uncover both the “original sense of self” and the “cross-cultural bonds of identification” (p. 51) that are the results of d’Halmar’s and Miraji’s trans experiences. 

In Chapter 3 Kantor revisits Pablo Neruda and, more specifically, his alleged Burmese lover Josie Bliss. For this chapter, she primarily focuses on archival analysis in order to show how generations of Neruda scholars have contributed to the Orientalist stereotyping of Josie Bliss, perpetuating Neruda’s own stereotypical representation of her as the Oriental other. In order to write against this misrepresentation in Neruda scholarship, Kantor argues, we need to re-evaluate Orientalism as an academic methodology, and not just focus solely on the Orientalist tropes of individual texts. This will help us to recognize the intrinsic bias towards an Orientalist view of the Asian other that Kantor identifies at the heart of Latin American Studies.

In Chapter 4, Kantor focuses on three Latin American sojourners to India and their literary representations of a country that they found, to varying degrees, unfamiliar and alienating. Kantor chooses the term sojourner consciously, taking inspiration from Shumei Shih’s use of “sojourner” (Françoise Lionnet and Shumei Shih, Minor Transnationalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005) to describe the lived experiences of someone who falls “in between the position of tourist and that of a permanent immigrant, both in terms of the purpose of their journeys and the length of their stays” (p. 101). Kantor focuses on Octavio Paz, Severo Sarduy, and Josefina Báez, three Latin American sojourners to India, and analyses their strategies for representing South Asia. As in Chapter 3, Kantor dissects both primary and secondary literature to unearth misreadings and misrepresentations of the South Asian other. This time, however, she calls on the readers of Paz, Sarduy, and Báez to dispense with readymade interpretations that align South Asian referents in the texts with Orientalist stereotypes. She instead favors a “reparative reading” (Eve Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003, p. 124) that allows us “to understand sojourner texts on their own terms, rather than merely according to our own” (p. 98). In this way, Kantor aligns Sedgwick’s concept of reparative reading with her own concept of cartographies of engagement, to account for individual experiences and representations rather than pre-established interpretations.

Chapter 5 takes a somewhat different turn to the previous chapters. Kantor moves away from the close reading and interpretation that constitute the centerpieces of her arguments throughout the earlier chapters, and instead focuses on the agents in an increasingly transnational literary market. She does so to highlight the parallels between the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s and the rise of South Asian literature in English that began two decades later. Chapter 5 also concludes the dissertation as such.

Each chapter “is defined by a different kind of imaginary through which authors understand the nature of contact between their two regions” (p. 20). Thus, the structure of her dissertation mirrors her methodological concept of cartographies of engagement: she presents us with a collage of case studies that resist strict chronology in favour of a more comprehensive argument. The project is eminently ambitious in temporal and geographical scope, and in terms of the material that Kantor engages with. She covers South Asian literatures in English, Hindi and Urdu, and Latin American literature in Spanish. Kantor meets these challenges with ease and skill. Her arguments are as convincing and interesting as they are readable, her writing is clear, her style engaging, and the dissertation as a whole is a joy to read. Her readings of primary as well as critical material more often than not go against the established grain of particularly postcolonial scholarship. This allows Kantor to expand the scholarly fields she engages with and to broaden her own field of comparative literary scholarship both in terms of content and methodology. 

Kantor’s interdisciplinary study will be of interest to scholars in a wide range of fields, including, but not limited to, literature, postcolonial studies, history of the book/archival research, and queer studies. 

Christin Hoene
English Literature and British Cultural Studies
The University of Potsdam, Germany 

Primary Sources

Poems and prose by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Pablo Neruda, Augosto D’Halmar, Miraji, Octavio Paz, Severo Sarduy, and Josefina Báez.

Dissertation Information

The University of Texas at Austin. 2015. 184 pp. Primary Advisor: César Salgado.

Image: “A photograph of a Javanese mask used to represent Pablo Neruda’s erstwhile Burmese lover Josie Bliss at the Neruda Museum in Santiago, Chile.” Courtesy of Fundacción Pablo Neruda, Santiago, Chile.”

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