Despite what he has said, plenty of writers before him had written about this region, and many did so a lot better

I enjoyed Alison Flood’s recent blog in response to an article in the latest issue of the American Book Review on the top 40 “bad American books”. In it, however, she quoted my words on Cormac McCarthy – and I feel I must respond and clarify why I chose his south-western-themed books as the worst I’ve read (for the record, I am referring only to his books about the American south-west, not those set in his neck of the woods – which is to say, Tennessee). The amount of publicity, from outside the south-west, generated by my 250-word essay in the American Book Review tells me that our nation and the world is steeped in mythology and misrepresentations of the south-west that may take generations to overcome.

Had George Sessions Perry or Leslie Marmon Silko been quoted as saying, “I moved to the north-east because I knew no one had ever written about it,” the literary establishment would have laughed and rained intellectual expletives upon them. However, when Rhode Island-born and Tennessee-reared McCarthy stated last year in the Wall Street Journal that he moved to the south-west because “he knew no one had ever written about it”, not one voice was raised. McCarthy’s misinformation was treated as fact and as if writers such as Perry, Katherine Anne Porter, O Henry, J Frank Dobie, John Graves, Larry McMurtry, and Elmer Kelton did not exist.

His misstatement in the Journal took me back to a college course I took where All The Pretty Horses was touted as one of the best works of south-western US literature. But I didn’t understand what was so special about the stereotypical John Grady Cole, a silent 16-year-old ranch-hand orphan from Texas who spoke Spanish and fell in love with the Mexican Americans and Mexicans he encountered on both sides of the border – yet treated them as colourful props and scenery by relegating them to the role of minor characters in the novel. I won’t discuss the stereotypes and archetypes he used for “them darkies” in his book.

Reading his book within the walls of the ivory tower took me back further to my childhood. I am an American of Mexican descent, and was born and raised in the heart of the desert south-west, in El Paso, Texas – a place McCarthy draped around his name like a fashionable sweater for a few years. My father drove trucks cross-country for a living, and my mother was a secretary. My family has lived in the Sun City for four generations, an American city populated by Americans of Mexican descent, filled with people who speak English, Spanish, and Spanglish. A city where 85% of the population talks like me and looks like me – which is to say, brown.

McCarthy’s novel reminded me of the 12 years in public school where I learned from texts in which no one looked or sounded like me or my family. When I did read about people who looked like us, the characters were either evil, slimy and corrupt, or – worse – quaint, good-natured, and mystical. I grew up steeped in this tradition of ignorance. I did, however, finally see the light – or, I should say, the dark. After graduating from college, I read books with major characters who looked like me who were no longer minor characters and or endowed with otherworldly or mystical powers, but treated as human beings with faults and weaknesses.

I devoured the books by south-western writers whose works mirrored and validated my life. Books written by people of the south-west: writers such as Silko, Dagoberto Gilb, John Rechy, Tomas Rivera, Estela Portillo Trambley, Americo Paredes, Pat LittleDog Taylor, Tino Villanueva, Fermina Guerra, Jose Antonio Burciaga, Denise Chávez, Mario Suárez, Octavio Solis, and Diana Lopez, to name but a few.

Literature is alive and well in the south-west. It was alive and well before All the Pretty Horses and is, thankfully, far more multi-dimensional than McCarthy’s glossed overview of the south-west. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds