CHICAGO — Last year I took some heat for writing about my favorite books that were “Diverse-But-Not-About-Diversity.”
I described these works as “really engrossing books I read in 2011 where race, ethnicity or legal status were present — but only as interesting side details.” And then the lit hit the fan.
So before I jump in with my 2012 selections, let me recap why such texts are so important: It comes down to breaking stereotypes.
Yes, the whole point of Latino and African-American literature and the rest of the race- and ethnicity-based literary genres emerged as a response to the general lack of diversity in book publishing. And everyone should read such selections to broaden their understanding of those who aren’t like them.
But, frankly, there’s not a lot of range: Stories of fortitude in overcoming poverty, racism, language barriers — and the social ills that accompany them — crowd out nearly every other topic in a vast expanse of universal human experiences.
Teachers at my neighborhood school think they’re being inclusive and horizon-broadening when they assign books about the “Mexican-American” experience. Thank goodness my sons know enough about Hispanic culture to not be misled into believing that all girls are named Maria or Esperanza and all the boys are steeped in gang culture.
Maybe publishers just don’t think they could sell books written by or about minorities on topics other than harsh upbringings, feelings of alienation or mystical ties to some other land. But what we really need more of is non-white writers and characters that are just normal part of the day-to-day fabric of American life.
This said, I’m unhappy to report that 2012 was not a banner year for great books that fit neatly into my odd, diversity-squared literary category.
One, a reader suggestion, is “Orientation: And Other Stories” by Daniel Orozco. To describe this quirky little book as a mixture of David Sedaris’ keen eye for the everyday craziness of life and Steve Martin’s elegant wit is to deny Orozco’s distinctly droll voice as he tells us about the secret lives of office temps, cops and warehouse workers.
The next pick almost doesn’t fit because the author is from Chile and has no ties to the United States. But in his translated book “The Third Reich,” Roberto Bolano, an award-winning novelist and poet, weaves a story that’s tense and captivating.
This book took me to the coast of Spain in the early 1990s and held me captive there. Listening to the audio book, I was just as nervous as was Udo Berger, the young German protagonist visiting the seaside resort of his youth. There he falls victim to the obsession of re-enacting parts of World War II on a board game.
Last is my favorite — because I’m a sucker for anything the dandy-suited Tom Wolfe writes. “Back to Blood” has been knocked for, among other things, portraying “a monolithic Cuban-exile community marching in ideological lock step,” as noted Miamian Brett Sokol recently wrote in a New York Times op-ed.
I dismiss this criticism on the grounds that people regularly write about Chicago’s crooked politicians and beef-eating working class grunts, and while that doesn’t reflect all of us … well, it covers a lot of us.
Sure, protagonists Nestor Camacho and Magdalena Otero are probably not perfect composites of all young Miami Cubans, but since when are fictional characters bound by political correctness?
Narrated by an ultra-literate detached observer — voiced brilliantly in the audio version by Lou Diamond Phillips — we hear more references to “Americanos” than you would from a barista adding an espresso shot to hot water for the Starbucks drink known as Americano. Same goes for the Spanglish — it borders on too much.
But the yarn about how race and class play themselves out in a series of controversies involving an unlucky Cuban refugee, a cop stuck in a police department with a violent reputation, two damsels in distress, a few mob-ish Russians and a self-important newspaper editor is written in a way that makes them all seem real.
I don’t know if it’s really true that “In Miami, everybody hates everybody” or if the city’s rich and powerful WASPs could possibly be as clueless and insufferable as Wolfe paints them. But if you want to condemn these characters as caricatures, they were, at least, deliciously entertaining ones.
Enjoy — and don’t forget to send me your picks for 2013’s best “Diverse-But-Not-About-Diversity” books.
Esther Cepeda is a syndicated columnist and an NBC Latino contributor.