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Literature Letters from Latin America

Continental concerns, from north-east Argentina to the US-Mexican border

SELVA ALMADA’S debut novel The Wind That Lays Waste (Charco Press, £9.99) is set in the north-eastern region of Argentina, a place of lush rainforests, lowland plains and forested valleys.

It’s a rich and varied region, where the weather reigns supreme — from wet and humid summers and warm winters to extended periods of drought and abundant rain.

That natural environment is the setting for Almada’s book, which begins as Reverend Pearson and his daughter Leni stop at a workshop owned by old mechanic Gringo Bauer and his young son Tapioca after their car breaks down.

In the course of a summer’s day and before a great storm breaks, the brief interactions between them change their lives forever in unexpected ways.

Pearson is the son of an adventurer from the US who vanished before his birth, leaving him with a mother who raised him on her own. In the innocent Tapioca he sees a future successor, someone destined to follow in his religious footsteps.

At first Tapioca seems uninterested but slowly warms to the theological concepts of hell and paradise and, as violent storms force the four protagonists to spend time sheltering together, the narrative moves towards its abrupt ending.

The Wind That Lays Waste can be read as an Argentinian road movie, where broken cars, long empty highways, lost souls and travelling adventurers cross paths and its narrative, one of personal tragedy and redemption, is written with beautifully lyrical language and a deep understanding of the human condition. Mesmerising.

Latinx poet Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s second collection Lima::Limon (Copper Canyon Press, £13) is similarly one of revelations, but of a different nature.

It’s a fierce book, in which Scenters-Zapico writes beautifully crafted poems based on fairy tales and folk stories, with the focus on Marianismo, an aspect of the female gender role in the machismo of Hispanic-American folk culture.

The urgency of her voice interrogates machismo and denounces the growing gender violence towards women in Latin America. A poet of the borders, who has lived between the sister cities of El Paso in Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, she explores the fairy tales and Latino songs commonly played in Mexico that have perpetuated violence against women.

In My Macho Takes Care of Me Good, she writes: “because he’s a citizen de los united states/I got a stove this big, a refi this full, a mirror/just to see my pretty face… He wants más, más/y más in his united states. I give him all of me/served on a platter from back home.”

Another Latinx poet with fairy-tale tropes in her work is Carmen Gimenez Smith, whose powerful collection Goodbye, Flicker (University of Massachusetts Press, £13), has just won the Juniper Prize for Poetry.

In her new book of poems, she explores with subtlety and intelligence the inner life of a little girl with its particular language, beauty, sexual desire and surreal world.

In Mother, Mother the poet reworks the tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to uncover the nuances of class, race and gender: “My mother called snow white blanca nieves./white snows. white girl, I thought. rain tick-marks/ the window. tick, it says. here is your time passing. tick. tick./you grow old, it tells my mother. late for graveyard shift./ […] she tells of apples that tempt because of the knot/of longing in blanca’s stomach, a story about hunger.”

This inventive poetry collection, full of discoveries and reinvented fairy tales, is one where the ordinary quickly and memorably turns into the extraordinary.

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