Ecuadorian literature is among the most exciting Latin American writing today. Authors like Mónica Ojeda (Guayaquil, 1988), María Fernanda Ampuero (Guayaquil, 1976) and Gabriela Alemán (1968) are winning and being shortlisted for international prizes, and their works are slowly but steadily hitting the shelves of libraries across the UK, the US and Europe. Because Ecuadorian literature has historically lagged behind other Latin American literatures in terms of recognition, translation and international circulation, readers unfamiliar with Ecuador’s literary production may ask: Where is it coming from? What is it about? Who are the key authors we should read? My new book, Imagining Ecuador, answers these and other questions, and will help readers familiarise themselves with a rich literary tradition that has been flying under the radar of most Anglophone readers for too long.
The trajectory of Ecuadorian literature in the 20th and 21st centuries reflects a cultural shift in thinking about Ecuador as a nation —a shift from the national to the transnational. My book explores three historical periods that are crucial to understanding this shift and, in turn, for Ecuadorian literature today:
1930s: The Ecuadorian literary canon was established in the 1930s and became the yardstick to measure what is supposed to be “authentic” Ecuadorian writing. The indigenista novel Huasipungo (1934) by Jorge Icaza is the centrepiece of this period and one of the most celebrated Ecuadorian novels of all time. Icaza’s work is a realist depiction of the situation of the indigenous people of the Ecuadorian highlands during the first half of the 20th century. It tells the story of a large hacienda in the Ecuadorian highlands where indigenous workers are forced to work in inhuman conditions to complete a new motorway. Andrés Chiliquinga, the main character, encompasses the suffering of his people: he is portrayed as a beast of burden, cripples himself on the construction site, sees his wife die from eating rotten meat to avoid starvation and, when the risk of losing his small parcel of land arises, leads a violent rebellion against the white mestizo masters just to be killed by the Ecuadorian army. By connecting indigenous characters to the land they inhabit and by presenting a non-indigenous portrayal of indigeneity to create supposedly authentic Ecuadorian writing, Icaza’s novel frames the Ecuadorian nation in connection to a sense of “uniqueness” to be found in land and history.
1998-2000: The second moment takes place by the end of the 1990s when a structural change in society shakes the ground from under the ideals of land and history in Huasipungo. Between 1998 and 2000, Ecuador suffered the worst economic crisis of its republican history. The Feriado Bancario —as I refer to the crisis as a whole— functions as a historical watershed that creates a sense of before and after. El oscuro final del Porvenir, a novel published in 2000 by Eliécer Cárdenas, becomes involved in making sense of the economic disaster. The novel mirrors Ecuadorian reality: it fictionalises the bankruptcy and closure of Ecuador’s largest bank, the failed attempts to save it, the deterioration of the banking system, the violent demonstrations of angry depositors that quickly developed into social chaos and a political crisis that ended up with the Ecuadorian president removed from office. The narration tells us that a radical disruption of the economy entails the breakdown of expectations in the social order. After the crisis, Ecuadorian literature must be created under a common ground of experience in which Ecuador’s daily life is affected by constant encounters with other nations.
2000s: In this third moment, daily interactions and exchanges among Ecuador and the world beyond its frontiers are laid bare, embodied and played out in contemporary Ecuadorian fiction. To illustrate this point, my book studies three novels published in the last twenty years: Leonardo Valencia’s Kazbek (2008), Carlos Arcos’ Memorias de Andrés Chiliquinga (2013) and Gabriela Alemán’s Humo (2017). They showcase how contemporary Ecuadorian writing reflects an individually and collectively experienced transnational reality that becomes central after the Feriado Bancario. Kazbek, Memorias de Andrés Chiliquinga and Humo are traversed by migration, but they offer much more than migration stories. They respond to the need to reimagine Ecuador for the 21st century as a nation that is coming to terms with being created both from ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ its borders. They help us to see and understand post-crisis Ecuador by questioning national boundaries and by countering purity with mixture. But by transgressing and redefining frontiers, the works of Arcos, Valencia and Alemán also speak to the representation of the world as an interconnected whole.
My book concludes by suggesting that the study of Ecuadorian literature can contribute to expanding what we understand as World Literature. Ecuadorian writing is marked by an invisibility that renders it peripheral to a corpus of World Literature constructed around circulation and translation criteria. Precisely because it does not circulate as effectively as others, Ecuadorian writing can help us to better understand the world from a perspective obscured by the spotlight.
The Guayaquil-based artist Miguel Medina created the series of paintings Fabulario de Paisajes to dialogue with the arguments presented in Imagining Ecuador. See more of Miguel’s work here: @miguelmdnc
This guest post was written by LUIS A. MEDINA CORDOVA, Lecturer in Modern Languages at the University of Birmingham.