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Fiction and Politics in Latin America

About the Professor

Paula Oliva-Fiori was born and raised in Argentina, where she graduated and worked as a lawyer for 10 years. She came to the US in 2000 and earned her MA and PhD degrees in Modern Languages from Wayne State University, where she has taught language and culture courses since 2001. 

Professor Oliva-Fiori will be teaching a special course titled "Politics and Fiction in Latin America” at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, during the summer 2017 term. 

What sort of students might enjoy or especially benefit from this class?

Students of any sort! A background in literature is not required or expected. Whether if you have a connection with Latin America or you have little knowledge about the region but you are curious to learn more, this class is for you!

What is the course about? How would you describe its content or purpose?

The purpose of the course is to engage students with literary texts -some of them in translation- to promote a political reading. It’s not about reading political texts, it’s about reading politics in fiction. 

What does it mean to read literature politically? What does it mean to think about the politics in fiction, even if it is not about politics?

First of all, it means that we need to rethink politics beyond the ideas of government and traditional political institutions. Fictional texts construct discourses that are neither true nor false but they offer a possibility to tell us more about reality, maybe a reality that we cannot see in another way.

Your course mentions the diverse trio of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, José Martí, and Junot Díaz, side by side. What ties these authors together in your course?

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the novel by Junot Diaz, seems to have it all. It will serve as a base to discuss the effects of colonization, patriarchy, interventionism, hegemony, the African diaspora, hybridity, code switching, political and cultural resistance. From this platform, we will explore and expand each topic using other literary texts: the voice of a woman in colonial times represented by Sor Juana, the voice of a writer/soldier during the independence period in the 19th century, and there will be more authors included.

The important thing is that this is not a course about theory. Some theory will be included- as well as documentaries and other media- but the concept it to use intertextuality to create a dialogue among the different literary texts (but don’t expect a course focused on magic realism and the Latin American Boom!)

No authors of the Latin American “Boom”? What’s up with that??

I think it was a conscious decision to move away from texts that have been widely discussed and that -in some way- still seem to represent a kind of “essence” of the Latin American literature. At the same time, we cannot totally ignore the “Boom”, in fact we are going to read fragments of A Hundred Years of Solitude to approach the topic of interventionism and the “Banana Republics”.

You’ve told us that fiction offers a possibility to tell us more about reality, or various realities. Can you provide an example, perhaps from texts on the syllabus, of the special kind of insights into reality that only fiction can provide?

At the beginning of the novel by Junot Diaz the narrator explains the he is going to tell us the story of a “fukú”, a “curse”. He even provides a scientific name for the curse “fukú americanus”. This “curse” is responsible for all the catastrophes in the novel. In this sense, the irrational element of fukú is used in the fiction to tell the inexplicable story of oppression, dehumanization, and violence around individuals, families, countries, and continents. But, what is “fukú” in reality? Well, that is for the reader to decide.

Why did you choose Junot Diaz’s novel as a “base” for the course? How does it speak to the other authors on the syllabus?

This is a very complex novel, with a lot of brutal details about oppression and domestic and political violence, and at the same time there is real beauty in many parts of the narration. There is also a sense of “failure” in the characters combined with persistence and resistance. Persistence and resistance, and the political translation of these ideas, are the elements that connect the different authors we will discuss in this course.

What is the ultimate direction you envision for the course?

This is a very good question and the idea that comes to my mind is very simple: the power of literature and the infinite ways to read a re- read a text. I envision a group of readers and writers, critically sharing and debating ideas that will continue doing so when the class is over.

Who is Paula Oliva-Fiori? Current research, background, the like.

I was born and raised in Cordoba, Argentina and even though literature was always my passion, I decided to attend law school. I graduated as a lawyer and worked as a judge assistant for eight years. In those years, I became aware of the power of narration and the challenges of accessing an objective truth. In order to approach the cases, apart from the legal system, we had to construct a “criteria of truth” through reading, comparing, and analyzing the multiple narratives presented in each particular case.  When I came to the US and became involved in literary criticism, the center of my attention was the space of tension between fiction and reality, literature as a tool to understand the real world, and reading and writing as ways of political and cultural resistance.

What direction is your research moving in now? The Southern Cone, women, politics, voice, cities, peripheries—what have these subjects meant for your past research, and what do they mean now in your present and coming work?

I specialize in literature from the Southern Cone and after working on some “big names” like Ricardo Piglia and Beatriz Sarlo, now I feel it’s time go more local, more peripheral. I’m currently reading the works of some women from my hometown: Eugenia Almeida and Perla Suez.