— I remember that conversation in Asheville. And I suspect that your idea of tradition, like mine, is more than a little influenced by that essay written by TS Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’. Eliot used to say that you could hardly make the term ‘tradition’ sound agreeable to English ears unless you were referring to ‘the reassuring science of archaeology,’ and he laments that the term was seldom used in English to refer to literature and writing. So what he does in that essay is to Latinise the term. He redefines it in the context of literary history, and gives it an entirely new meaning, closer to the meaning that the term has in Romance languages. What I like about that essay is that it conceives the idea of tradition as a process of constant renewal and re-signification of the past through the present, and also vice versa. The literary present, he says, is marked by the past as much as the past is modified by the present. Another writer that said something similar to this, but with more sense of humour, was Borges, ‘Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote’. Anyway, I think Eliot’s is a very lucid and sound understanding of the way that writers can engage with their literary past and negotiate their place in it while modifying it through their writing.
But your question is more difficult than that, because it involves linguistic and regional traditions, and the differences between American and Latin American writers in this respect. I agree that, at least the younger generation of American novelists, is less concerned with their belonging or non-belonging to a national literary tradition. Few young writers here think of their work in relation to, say, Faulkner, Hemingway or Dickinson, and few critics will read them with that kind of consideration in mind. Blurbers will always compare them to contemporary idols and icons, but that’s beside the point. Latin American literary criticism, on the contrary, is perhaps too concerned with a writer’s place in their regional past – it is all about drawing genealogies within the Spanish language, as if literature were somehow a linguistically segregated, controlled environment; as if Latin American writers did not read Russian, German, Nigerian or Japanese writers. This way of thinking about literature is always reinforced outside Latin America – or perhaps ‘outside’ is where it originates. As a Latin American writer in the USA, Germany, Australia, Slovenia, or wherever else, you are always forced into aligning with your regional or national ‘forebears,’ or into charting your work within a very limited constellation of writers. Everyone was compared to García Márquez or Fuentes once upon a time. Now it’s Bolaño or Vila-Matas (best case scenario). I am not sure what the reason for this is. There are many possible explanations. One may be that Latin America is still conceived by many as a kind of remote, torrid zone, an isolated and disconnected region of the world. So the only possible references associated with younger writers are the better-known older ones, always writing within the same language.
And why do American writers not have to wrestle with their literary past as much as we do? One reason may be that the current bastion of editorial power is in the USA, so there is no need for young American writers to explain their place in the world through the past. Writers borrow prestige from the past. But, at least in the eyes of others, being an American writer somehow absolves you from the need to borrow prestige: you are born into a language and a literature that is by default universal. A novel about Brooklyn doesn’t need to be explained in terms of other novels about that minute portion of a city, in a country, in the world, because it is already the centre of the world. If you are Latin American, the only way to become universal – forget universal, the only way to be visible or readable – is by riding on the shoulders of the familiar giants: Borges, Rulfo, Cortázar, García Márquez or Bolaño.