Books Culture Ideal Reading Lists

A BA in 5 Texts – Diving into Spanish American Literature

The term “Spanish American literature” encompasses texts from every country in North and South America where Spanish is the predominant language. Contrary to what the name suggests, it is not a single, homogenous group of works and can be enjoyed by readers with little to no knowledge of Spanish. This article is an overview of five works that represent a fragment of the extensive corpus of Uruguayan, Columbian, Chilean, Argentine, and Mexican literatures.

The five texts selected for this list have reputable English translations. While none of the translations surpass the beauty and complexity of the original works, they are faithful adaptations for anyone interested in getting their feet wet. If four years of study are a drop in an ocean of material, this list professes to be nothing more than a droplet. The hope is that it serves as a point of departure, a springboard if you will, into Spanish American literature for undergraduates and the wider community.  

  1. La ciudad letrada [The Lettered City] by Ángel Rama. Henry James once said, “It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.” Few texts embody this saying better than the posthumous publication of Uruguayan writer, Ángel Rama. In this ground-breaking theoretical work, Rama illustrates how Spanish American colonial elites used baroque writing, which is still predominant in many of the region’s “national literatures,” to develop a formal lexicon that excludes indigenous and African varieties of Spanish. La ciudad letrada pushes its readers to think critically about what counts as literature and who defines it. Drawing inspiration from a variety of disciplines, it is a must-read for students interested in literature, history, anthropology, and/or postcolonial studies. 
  2. Cien años de soledad [One Hundred Years of Solitude] by Gabriel García Márquez. Next, we hopscotch—or Rayuela, in the words of Cortázar—our way to the heart of Spanish American “Boom” novels. Cien años de soledad, which follows the rise and fall of the Buendía family in Macondo, is the most-translated work from the Spanish language after Don Quixote. Its dense, baroque-style descriptions and large cast of characters can make it a challenging read, but it is worth the perseverance. Márquez’ masterpiece provides unparalleled insight into a worldview in which magical situations are considered just another part of everyday life.
  3. Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral translated by Ursula K. Le Guin. The first Spanish American author (male or female) to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, Gabriela Mistral, is a household name in the region. However, many of her poems were never compiled into a single Spanish edition and are now out of print. Le Guin’s collection of Mistral’s poems is incredible because it presents readers with the original Spanish alongside the English translations. Mistral’s poems contain some of the most evocative accounts of the inner turmoil and desolation faced by women who inhabit the shadowed valleys and expansive mountains of Chile. Among some of the earliest Spanish poems to utilize the first-person female narrative voice, her poems question how to be happy in a society where your existence is a sidenote at best.
  4. Pájaros en la boca y otros cuentos [Mouthful of Birds] by Samantha Schweblin. Now it may seem eerie to include a collection of horror-themed short-stories as the penultimate item on this list. Especially, after a poetry collection about female voices in literature. However, beyond the macabre, Schweblin’s stories are remarkably apt because they invite the reader to reexamine their concept of normality; particularly, when it comes to female embodiment. In the titular story, “Pájaros en la boca,” Schweblin uses the unstable first-person perspective of the male protagonist to deconstruct the binary between the rational, male gaze and the corporeal, female object that is so often taken for granted in quotidian literature.
  5. El cuerpo en que nací [The Body Where I Was Born] by Guadalupe Nettel. The best books are those that take you back to the beginning— that compel you to flip back to the first page immediately after finishing the last. El cuerpo en que nací is one of those books. It is the coming-of-age story of a young girl born with an ocular impairment. Like a memoir, it is narrated as a series of flashbacks from the first-person perspective of the protagonist. With its range of references: the stories of Márquez, Melville, and Kafka; the philosophies of Freud, Lacan, and Kundera; the music of the Beatles, Madonna, and Simon & Garfunkel, it appeals to a broad audience. Yet, what makes Nettel’s novel so arresting is precisely the element that seems the least relatable: that the protagonist finds the truest expression of herself in cockroaches. Nettel’s novel is an important work in disability literature because it undermines the “kill or cure” trope and opens up a whole new possibility of what it means to be.

Javaria Abbasi

When not analyzing Spanish American literature, Javaria is an aficionado of cartographic history. Her undergraduate thesis, "Challenges to Imperial Discourse: The Reactivation of Indigenous Visual Culture in 16th Century Imperial Cartography" won a prize for its theory about the hybridization of Spanish and Indigenous visual cultures in maps.