As a student and young reader, I am often inundated with syllabi and must-read lists that beat me over the head with the “essentials.” One can only be told to read Twain, Austen, Faulkner, Dickens, and Hemingway so many times before one itches to rebel. What else is out there? There have to be other great books outside of the Western canon, right? Of course there are.
The issue is that so many great books get lost in translation. Latin America in particular is rich in a history of struggle and resistance; this spirit is reflected best in its literature. From Borges in Argentina to Neruda in Chile, here are eight literary heroes who should be on your personal must-read list.
Jose Luis Borges, Ficciones
Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) is one of the most important figures in Spanish language and Argentinean literature. His specific genre is hard to define, as he combines elements of surrealism, the human condition, time, and the metaphysical.
In his collection of short stories Ficciones, Borges plays with the idea of paradoxes that readers are forced to puzzle out. What is real, and what is fiction? Ficciones won’t tell you, and it might drive you crazy; however, I’m not sure that Borges could distinguish between the two, himself.
Alejandra Pizarnik, Extracting the Stone of Madness
You cannot talk about Argentine poets without mentioning Alejandra Pizarnik (1936–1972). She was a central voice in Latin American poetry during the twentieth century.
The poems in Extracting the Stone of Madness, like many of Pizarnik’s poems, draw readers into her personal turmoil. Pizarnik has a unique style of confession in that provides no answers, only tension. We are invited into the poet’s musings on solitude, madness, and death. It is impossible, with her candidness, for us not to reflect on those topics ourselves.
Gabriel García Márquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold
García Márquez (1927–2014) was simultaneously a talented journalist, short story writer, and novelist, having won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 1982—he was the fourth Latin American to do so. He was affectionately known in Colombia as “Gabo.”
The very beginning of Chronicle of a Death Foretold tells us that Santiago Nasar has been murdered. It’s the “how” and the “why” that we’re interested in, and we learn those details through a very non-linear storyline. It’s a fascinating story of honor, shame, duty, and complicity. How can a village allow a man to be murdered, when the murderers themselves warn them?
Laura Restrepo, The Angel of Galilea
Laura Restrepo (1950–) is a Colombian writer who has transitioned from political columns to best-selling novels. Although she was never afraid to voice her opinions when it came to war and negotiations, this caused death threats which resulted in a six-year exile in Mexico. To this day, Restrepo divides her time between Bogotá and Mexico City.
In The Angel of Galilea, we see the influence of Restrepo’s past in the main character, Mona, who is a formerly optimistic Colombian journalist. Mona is sent to the village of Galilea, in the slums of Bogotá, to investigate sightings of an angel. Drug addiction, abuse, incarceration, love, and angels—what more could you want?
César Vallejo, Trilce
Peru has a rich history of literary giants, and César Vallejo (1892–1938) is one of them. It is impossible to read his poetry without seeing Vallejo’s true inner nature: full of desire for justice, full of sadness, intensely averse to pain—his own and others.
Trilce is César Vallejo’s best-known book of poetry. His poems often defy interpretation, or perhaps they offer too many possible interpretations. The emotion is undeniable, however, and opens the door for us to see how Vallejo juggles the power of language with the power of lived experience.
Mario Vargas Llosa, The Time of the Hero
Mario Vargas Llosa (1936– )is another recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Vargas Llosa is overtly political in his writing, which makes sense, considering he has also made a career for himself as a journalist and politician in Peru.
In The Time of the Hero, Vargas Llosa critiques Peruvian society in particular and hierarchical structures in general. The novel follows four boys in the Leoncio Prado Military Academy in Lima, Peru, as they grow and come to terms with the fact that their fates are inescapable.
Isabel Allende, House of the Spirits
Isabel Allende (1942– ) uses aspects of magical realism in her novels—novels that often are tributes to powerful women operating in situations where they have little power. Allende has had United States Citizenship since 1993 and was awarded the 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.
House of the Spirits spans generations, social divides, and political divides of a single family. What is the difference between love and possession? Can there be love without possession? Allende explores the theme of injustice when it comes to gender, social class, and who is allowed to be self-determining.
Pablo Neruda, One Hundred Love Sonnets
Pablo Neruda (1904–1973) became known as the people’s poet, and it’s easy to see why—he was a diplomat, Chilean consul to Argentina and Mexico, member of the Chilean Senate, opponent of repressive policies, and prolific writer. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971.
One Hundred Love Sonnets isn’t the only tribute that Neruda made to his wife, Matilde Urrutia, but it is a fantastic one. If you’re looking for romance, look no further than the man who wrote, “I want to do to you what spring does with the cherry blossoms.”