As we come to the close of Latinx Heritage Month (Sep 15 - Oct 15), I’m reflecting on what books I’ve read so far this year that are Latinx or from a Latin American country, representing its heritage. I’ve read 49 books this year and 26% of them were written by Latinx or Latin American authors. So, about one in four books. I think it’s important to keep an eye on the different kinds of books I read; for so many of the first years of my reading life, I’m sure my reading was mostly white, of European heritage, and male, thanks to the required reading in school.
At the beginning of 2020, a book whose title I hesitate to type out here was heralded as the next Great American Novel, the book that would teach empathy to white people for the refugees at the U.S.-Mexican border, even though it was made up of dangerous stereotypes and may have been partly plagiarized. Despite all this, the book that shall not be named lived on the NYT Bestseller List for weeks. As Latinx Heritage Month kicked off on September 15th, I winced when seeing it in representative stacks. Whenever I went to Amazon’s website, the ads were covered with its blue-and-barbwire art.
What that moment did make me do was create a list of upcoming Latinx novels releasing this year. I ended up buying nearly every book on that list, or receiving a review copy for the The Book Slut. The list itself took some time to research and pull together, but how fruitful it’s been! I’ve read some great books I might’ve otherwise missed. Reading one author led me to another author or another. The #bookstagram community and the rad group of Latinx writers who contribute to The Book Slut all offered up even more books, instead of that other one. We managed to cover each book on that list right here. I didn’t want the list to seem like just a list, I wanted our small outfit here to make good on it, and show support for books that wider audiences may be ignoring. I wanted to action on it and continue to spread the word.
Of course, reading is just one way to celebrate this month. Another way to honor Latinx people and our heritage is through supporting Latinx organizations by volunteering or by donation. Near the beginning of Latinx Heritage Month, I can’t tell you how devastated I was to hear Dawn Wooten’s story about ICE detainees receiving medical procedures against their will and without their consent. This is the country I live in and it needs to change. I have a monthly donation set up to RAICES, an organization that helps immigrants with legal and social services. There are also other ways to give and help the organization if you feel so moved.
Below are the Latinx and Latin American-authored books I’ve read this year. I highly recommend each of them, and maybe you’ll find a gem among these as well. Don’t forget to keep reading Latinx-authored books and taking in all sorts of art throughout your year, not just this month.
The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
This is the best book I’ve read this year, of all 49. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio travels across the United States to speak to undocumented Americans, something she writes about from personal experience. I learned a lot from her writing, about the people rendered invisible and largely unhelped while they ran to ground zero on 9/11 to assist, while they clean houses on Staten Island, while they and their children are poisoned in Flint, or seeking sanctuary from deportation in a church in Connecticut. A book that is written with vigor, warmth, and most of all compassion. Recently shortlisted for the National Book Award, I recommend this to everyone. Don’t miss Karen Salgado’s interview with the author here.
I should note that Karla Cornejo Villavicencio does not appreciate being included in lists like these since it can feel like tokenization. And this also made me think about not even creating a list. But I do want to take this space to celebrate the books that I love, from authors that perhaps don’t get the same publicity budgets or inclusion.
Excavation by Wendy C. Ortiz
Originally published in 2014, Wendy C. Ortiz’s memoir gained my attention this year when the author tweeted about similarities between her book and (another) Oprah’s Book Club pick. I wrote a whole essay about that, but I have to give this book its due, it’s own space right now: it’s a stunning work of self-reflection about her teen years in the San Fernando Valley, when she was groomed and then coerced into a relationship with her much older teacher. Ortiz’s writing is crisp and open; I hope to read more of her pointed words in the future.
A Silent Fury by Yuri Herrera
Translated from the Spanish
BY Lisa Dillman
The Mexican author usually writes fiction, but this slim novel about a mine fire in Mexico a hundred years ago is captivating for the events he’s explaining--but also because of the rage clearly being tamped down between his words. A century ago, but resonates today for the echoes we see in our daily news. Read my full review here.
On Lighthouses by Jazmina Barrera
Translated from the SpanisH
by Christina MacSweeney
Oh what a beautiful, lovely book of essays about lighthouses! I didn’t even have much interest in lighthouses prior, but it’s one of those books that make you look at these structures differently. The research, the obsession: it’s enchanting. Full review available here.
Thresholes by Lara Mimosa Montes
Poetry is non-fiction, right? If non-fiction is truth, what more facts can you find than but the intimate poetry of another person? Sometimes, like in this case, it will leave you with a feeling. I love Lara Mimosa Montes’ ruminations on art and self, read my full review here.
Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza
Translated from the Spanish
by Thomas Bunstead
If you were to create a book for me, that fit into my special niche interests perfectly, you could do little better than Optic Nerve. It's a book told from a woman's perspective, and she's an art critic... which the author herself is, too, in Argentina. Each chapter focuses on a piece of art or an artist, and Gainza uses that art as a prism into her own (character's?) life and history; or even Argentine history, world history. She treads on topics of how people choose to present themselves, the arc of a friendship, motherhood, family, marriage, and death. It's about how perception of art can shape lives; I mean, what do we do here but share how we perceive art (books)? It seems plotless, but it culminates in a particularly poignant last chapter. It welled my eyes with tears.
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
Elizabeth Acevedo, the author of excellent YA novels The Poet X and With the Fire on High, has gone and done it again with Camino and Yahaira, teenagers in the Dominican Republic and New York City, respectively. They've never met, but they're sisters, and they didn't find out until recently. Acevedo writes this novel in verse, and she's brilliant in the way she constructs her stories and characters in lyrical stanzas. I get a sense of Camino and Yahaira from their perspectives, and watch their evolution through grief, as well as how they deal with shock and the secrets of their interconnected families. Not to mention their self-image and the growing they do across these pages. I found myself crying a good amount reading this; the words really stirred something in me, particularly about family.
"Her gesture makes me want to cry. The kindness
of a stranger, simply because she sees in us
something worthy of this small gift."
The novel reads quickly, and I highly recommend it. Acevedo also poignantly dedicates the novel to the lives lost on American Airlines flight 587, the majority of whom were Dominican. Many people don't remember this crash because it occurred two months after 9/11 in Queens, NY. It's a moment in history I'd forgotten, and I'm thankful that Acevedo helps to keep its memory alive through her art. Read Karla Mendez’s full review here.
Space Invaders by Nona Fernández
Translated from the Spanish
by Natasha Wimmer
There's an eerie atmosphere to this slim Chilean novel by Nona Fernández. The words come together almost like whispers from the past. On the surface, it's about a group of adults remembering their lives as school children. They mostly reflect about their friendship with Estrella, a girl at the center of their memories about living through the Pinochet regime. Written in a way that might seem obscuring, each sentence simultaneously seems to unlock something new about their shared history and how children helplessly witness the political and social upheavals of a military dictatorship.
Sometimes books are picked up at the exact right time. I don't think this 70-page novel would've hit me the same way before 2016, before the pandemic. Now it seems that the whispers of these adults looking back, they're warning about how we move forward, and what we simply cannot ignore.
Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor
Translated from the Spanish
by Sophie Hughes
It's a dark, visceral book. One that would exhaust me even if the world hasn't already; it's not a bad thing, just the mark of a potent book. Melchor writes about a Mexican town and its notorious witch. The story continues in endless sentences filled with bitterness and violence. It’s an excellent novel: you’ve been warned. Read my full review here.
The Book of Anna by Carmen Boullosa
Translated from the Spanish
by Samantha Schnee
The characters from Tolstoy's classic Anna Karenina live on in The Book of Anna, but... they know they are characters written by someone else. I mean: to try to explain the mechanics would not do the book justice. There's a bomb-planting political activist named Clementine! Tolstoy fans approach Anna's son Sergei at the opera because they know he's fictional! Critics calling a painting of Anna 'better than the book!' What if Anna Karenina wrote a feminist fairytale? Read it here! I wrote so many notes and marginalia throughout my reading, so many aspects that I was unable to include in my final review but love so much (the treatment of dress and clothing, the Russian political history, Vronsky). All this to say: I highly recommend this playful and thoughtful novel. Read my full review here.
Running by Natalia Sylvester
I just finished this incredible YA novel near the end of September. It was such a delight to read a teenager, Mari, deal with the her evolving perspective on the world. Specifically, her dad that is running for President of the United States. The relationship between Mari and her dad changes as Mari realizes what she wants to stand for in this world, and that it may be in opposition to her father’s values, politically. I relished in these characters and had no idea where the book would land in terms of Mari and her father. Read Karen Salgado’s full review here.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
I was fully creeped out by High Place and its inhabitants, which Noemí Taboada travels to in order to see why her cousin, who married into a British mining family on the Mexican coast, is sending ominous letters. What she finds is gruesome and frightening: the perfect summer read for me, but also a great spooky read. I LOVE Noemí Taboada as a character and this book scared me a lot... I'm pretty sure I woke up at night listening to creaks in my house (more than normally).
Mexican Gothic deals in horror surreal and historical. Having read Yuri Herrera's A Silent Fury right before this, I found a direct correlation to the mining atrocities of the nonfiction book unveiled in this gothic tale. Moreno-Garcia's words truly took me to another place and time, and I already know this will be in my top books of the year. Read my full review here.
Fiebre Tropical by Juliana Delgado Lopera
I’m halfway through this delightful and lyrical novel: written at the intersection of Spanish and English, the dialect brought forth by the book’s teenage narrator, Francisca, brought me to start reading it aloud every night to myself. The atmosphere it creates makes me laugh and makes me think of being with my own Spanish and English speaking family (something I wish I could do right now!). Francisca and her family moved from Colombia to Miami, and she wryly observes the goings-on in the family’s home and the evangelical church her mom is suddenly swept up in. I’m looking forward to finishing this unique tale, and I already recommend it!