Puerto Rican neo-fiction seeks to address the social and psychological problems that afflict modern Puerto Rico, whether in regard to ‘self-racism,’ neo-colonialism, foreign influence, identity crisis and the effects of issues that have afflicted the island for the last two hundred years. The genre would not be bound by single traditional genres such as horror or science fiction. In fact, the material could be hyperrealistic or fantastical, while maintaining a foothold in island culture and current events. In order to carry out Puerto Rican neo-fiction, the style of visualism would be used.
– German William Cabassa Barber, author of El diario de Betances
In his essay “The General Principles of Visualism,” German William Cabassa Barber outlines a new type of Puerto Rican literature that addresses the challenges faced by our society through the prism of books that not only speak to the anxieties and cultural mores of islanders and diasporicans alike, but also reinvent literature to better reflect modern sensibilities. While Barber is mostly concerned with books by and about Puerto Ricans, his breakdown of visualism shows that this style is connected to a larger Latin American sensibility. He separates visualism into two modes: Pure Visualism, and Scenarist Visualism.
Pure Visualism itself is described by three characteristics:
- Technological Description – The narrative should enter the eyes of the reader like the scenes from a movie—tell the story as one would tell their friends about a movie they had seen, with concrete details, so that the reader can easily imagine themselves within the story and live through it as though it were happening to them. The intention must always be to not allow the reader to become bored.
- Humanizing the Narrative – The narrative should be graphic without being obscene. It should be simple, imperfect, entertaining, with accessible vocabulary and a story that is not overly complicated. Characters should not be idealized, but rather as human as possible so that readers feel as though the story could happen in real life.
- Seeking a Pure Literature – Acknowledge that the origin of literature was to tell stories for the sake of storytelling, and not to impress others or win awards.
Scenarist Visualism takes the style outside of Puerto Rico, and it is here that Barber sees the movement in a Pan-Latino sense:
Scenarist Visualism is meant to appeal to a universal culture, to educate others on the sublime, and to do so through the creation of scenic imagery that references or harkens to previously produced works. The characters in these stories oftentimes directly refer to movies or books and relate how a given situation in their own lives parallels that of the popular fiction. Scenarist visualism is often multi-lingual and didactic, though those elements are not necessary. Scenarists appeal to the qualities which make us most human, and aspire to be accessible and enjoyable regardless of one’s background.
Full disclosure, Barber’s essay was in response to the works of Mexican author Ricardo Félix Rodriguez and myself. We are all friends and former Aignos authors now branching out into new projects and seeking to reform what we see as literary stagnation. One of Barber’s requirements of visualism which I disagree with is that the books must be short, less than 300 pages. I think a book can be longer than that, but if it is, it has to grip the reader even harder, it has to contain a vibrancy and momentum to keep a reader’s attention. Intensity becomes vital to visualist works.
That does not mean as writers we rush scenes or avoid delving deeply into themes and issues. What it means is that the writing itself, the approach and execution, must have urgency. Visualism, for me, means leaning on stylistic flourishes like stream of consciousness or portrait writing (which is a style I made up that mimics visual art work in order to condense a narrative and will be on full display in my next book, Tristiana), in order to develop characters and situations in an edgy, unconventional way that invites the reader to interact with the text.
I would also add that visualism must be an active experience. Visualist works can be incredibly dense, while still enjoyable on a superficial level. They are works that do not pause for the reader, they barrel forward and demand the reader keep up. Visualist works borrow heavily from a wide range of media: movies, artwork, music, theatre, internet chatrooms, text messages, dance and so on.
This style is a natural fit for Latin American and Puerto Rican literature, because as a people we are deeply involved in various types of media. Yet we remain marginalized, and the art of the forgotten societies cannot be complacent or maintain the status quo. The status quo leads to further negation, as we assimilate in order to break through to the mainstream society but at the cost of our individual expression.
Magic realism, the great literary movement of the Latin American Boom of the 1960s, was a style born out of a need to reclaim the myths of Latin American society as a way of commenting on the present. Post-magic realist writing sought to take out the mythology and focus instead on social realism. Visualism seeks to embody the social realism of recent Latin American books while applying the aesthetics of popular media and visual arts (especially cinema). Visualism can be mythological or allegorical but it must always be grounded in reality. Any absurdity or surrealism that results from this approach are derived from the bizarre schizophrenia of the modern world.
Kings of 7th Avenue applies visualism, especially in the club scenes, which were written to mimic action sequences in terms of the velocity of the text. I wanted the reader to feel the adrenaline rush of going out on a Friday or Saturday night, like in this scene with Alberto, an aspiring filmmaker looking for a night of excess and thrills:
He walked down 15th Street; past the hipsters, trannies, college kids, and preppies, and turned on 7th Avenue, nearly running over an evangelical trying to clean mucus off his REPENT SINNERS placard. He apologized and kept walking so as not to give the evangelical the idea that he was interested in his propaganda. That would lead him to laugh at the kid and then feel bad about it later.
We all have our missions, right?
That night, more than any other, his mission was sex; with a stranger, with an old flame, he didn’t really care. He had texted half a dozen old girlfriends, but no response. Maybe they were busy, or just not in the mood.
Like I give a shit.
Even if they had responded, he was no longer interested. A blond in a white blouse and checkered skirt with high leather boots was standing outside the Honey Pot. That was all he could see for miles. She looked young but legal, no need to ruin a good night getting busted with a high school chick. She was with a group of friends, but he was sure he could steal her away. He took out his phone and called Tony, but the call went straight to voicemail. Why wasn’t Tony answering his phone? He was a great wingman. Alberto never had to worry about being outshined by him. At least he could dance, and he had the feeling this blonde liked to dance.
There is also this scene from a female perspective, as cousins Layla and Ana drive along Bayshore toward downtown:
Windows down, radio up, the cool salty air coming off the bay hitting Ana, Grace, and Layla’s faces, providing them an added jolt on top of the Five Hour Energy shots they had just consumed, making the lights from downtown sharper, brighter, the music feel faster as it coursed through their bodies and they each grinded their hips into their seats along with the thumping bass. Layla’s car cruised down Bayshore past the nighttime joggers and couples on their way to the restaurants in Hyde Park or looking for a bench to sit on and make out. Ana stuck her head and arms out the window and screamed into the wind. It was the best she had felt in months, and the first time she had gone out on a Thursday, when all the clubs had their Ladies’ Night Specials, since before her wedding.
The emphasis on visual stimuli and physical momentum also comes in during the romantic sections. In several moments in the book, I sought to create the impression of a camera lingering on the characters—circling them, zooming in and out, and tracking them. One such filmic moment is when Tony and Layla spend a day at Ana Maria Island, just south of Tampa:
Tony smiled and look out at the ocean, imagining Puerto Rico in the distance. He turned toward Layla and pulled her closer to him, her body warm and moist against his. She looked up into his eyes, longing, expectant, their lips meeting, soft, pure, and deep. Then suddenly he bolted up and urged her to get in the water. She chased him down to the shoreline, water exploding at their feet, droplets hanging in the air, gleaming in the sun, turning their bodies into moving light. Layla leapt forward and pulled him down, their heads submerged, surrounded by the green of the ocean pierced by white rays of light rippling against the surface of the water. Tony held Layla in his arms, air bubbles drifting from her mouth to his, and they kissed, the bubbles rapidly escaping from their mouths. They were suspended above the white sand floor covered in tiny stones and grounded up seashells that reflected like glass ripples of light swirling along their bodies, the waves above them gently lulling them from side to side. They emerged from the water still embraced, devouring one another. Tony grabbed at her breasts and sucked on her neck. She pulled him down once more. The water undulated above them, the light furious, zigzagging across their bodies. They clasped each other’s faces, breathing through the other’s mouth, and when they opened their eyes, they each looked deep into the other’s soul.
With visualism, Latino authors have a new manner of expressing themselves, a manner which naturally aligns with our exposure to multimedia and films. Our culture often has to be watered down to fit into the literary tastes of New York houses and the literary intelligentsia, which is predominantly Anglo-Saxon in its tastes and aesthetics. With the emergence of Latino-run presses and indy presses, Latinos do not have to cater to upper crust tastes which are foreign to our aesthetic sensibilities.
But what do we replace the status quo with? Visualism is an option, a potentially powerful and lasting way to capture our unique moment in history and be leaders in transforming the face of 21st-century literature.
Jonathan Marcantoni is a Puerto Rican novelist and co-owner of Aignos Publishing. His books Traveler’s Rest and The Feast of San Sebastian deal with issues of identity and corruption in both the Puerto Rican diaspora and on the island. He is co-founder (with Chris Campanioni) of the YouNiversity Project, which mentors new writers. He holds a B.A. in Spanish studies from the University of Tampa and a M.H. in creative writing from Tiffin University. He lives in Colorado Springs and can be reached at [email protected].