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Bridging a cultural divide

The first time he heard himself described as a Bolivian-American author, José Edmundo Paz-Soldán said he realized he had a new identity.

Paz-Soldán, an author and assistant professor of Hispanic Literature at Cornell University, said, like many immigrants, when he first arrived in the United States in 1988, he could not think of himself as having permanently departed his native Bolivia.

“At that time, like so many immigrants to this country, I had the idea, this fantasy, that I was not really living in this country,” Paz-Soldán said.

Speaking to an audience of students and faculty in the Grace Allen Room Monday, Paz-Soldán spoke about identity, the rise of a new generation of writers in Latin America and of the divide that existed between them and Latino Americans writing in the United States.

Paz-Soldán read his short story Amor a la distancia (Long Distance Love), a story about fidelity in long-distance relationships. The event was one of a year-round lecture series organized by the Latin American and Caribbean studies department.

Paz-Soldán said the 1996 anthology McCondo heralded a breakthrough of a new generation of Latin American writers. He said authors had moved away from the magical realism of writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and were reflecting a more urban, Americanized Latin America.

“We couldn’t identify with the older writers’ representation of Latin America,” Paz-Soldán said. “Magical realism, for us, didn’t work. It’s very far away from our reality.”

Paz-Soldán said the divide he perceived between Latin American writers living in this country and Latino writers born in the United States was the catalyst for the anthology Se habla español: Voces latinas en U.S.A. The anthology, co-edited by Paz-Soldán, included both Latin American and Latino writers’ experiences of life in the United States. Paz-Soldán said he did not agree with conservative reaction to the anthology that questioned whether Latino writers, writing in English, could reflect the Latin American tradition.

“We have to accept that there are novels, poems, essays, written in English that speak to us,” Paz-Soldán said. “The idea is to fight against these stereotypes of what Latino and Latin American culture is.”

Paz-Soldán was the winner of the Juan Rulfo Short Story Award in 1997 and the Bolivian National Book Award in 1993. He is the author of four novels including Sueños Digitales (Digital Dreams).

Shane Moreman, a doctoral student, said Paz-Soldán had highlighted the way nationality is used to define and categorize people.

“He exposed the complications of identity,” Moreman said. “He used literature to talk about the issues of identity and nationality.”