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Falling for debt: Giannina Braschi, the Latinx avant-garde, and financial terrorism in the United States of Banana

Caída ante la deuda: Giannina Braschi, la vanguardia literaria latina y el terrorismo económico en United States of Banana

Abstract

Puerto Rican writer Giannina Braschi’s 2011 novel, The United States of Banana, although brilliant and insightful, has been largely under-examined by literary critics. This may be partially attributed to the complexity of her writing and her predilection for utilizing a dizzying array of avant-garde literary techniques at the service of her trenchant critiques of social issues. In this essay I combine scholarship on the avant-garde with research on the economic devastation wrought by the 2008 market crash to examine Braschi’s dense, profound novel. I argue that amid her strategic use of avant-garde techniques, Braschi links post-9/11 fears of terrorism with the daily suffering that stems from a changing, debt-ridden economy to offer a scathing critique of neoliberal economic and social reforms.

Resumen

The United States of Banana, la novela de la escritora puertorriqueña Giannina Braschi publicada en 2011, aunque brillante y perspicaz, por lo general ha sido poco analizada por la crítica literaria. Esto podría atribuirse en parte a la complejidad de su estilo y su predilección por el uso de un vertiginoso despliegue de técnicas literarias de vanguardia al servicio de sus agudas críticas sobre los problemas sociales. Este ensayo combina el trabajo académico sobre la vanguardia literaria con investigaciones sobre la devastación económica producida por la crisis financiera de 2008 para examinar la novela intensa y profunda de Braschi. Planteamos que, en el marco del uso estratégico de técnicas de vanguardia, Braschi vincula el temor al terrorismo después del 9-11 con el sufrimiento diario que surge de una economía cambiante y acosada por la deuda para ofrecer una crítica mordaz de las reformas económicas y sociales del neoliberalismo.

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Notes

  1. I would like to quickly, perhaps superficially but also importantly, draw a distinction between two distinct kinds of forgetting. On the one hand is the kind of forgetting that is related to the process of healing that trauma survivors engage in. In this case, I am thinking about soldiers struggling with PTSD, or rape victims, or communities whose lives have been shattered by war. On the other hand we have the kind of forgetting enacted in shameful ways by elected officials who have forgotten, in deeds if not in words, the courage, valor and sacrifice of first responders during the first hours and ensuing weeks of 9/11. See for example the 8 December 2015 appearance of Jon Stewart on Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show (Jon Stewart Returns 2015). in which he takes Congress to task for failing to renew the Zadroga Act, which provided health care for the 9/11 first responders who got sick working under conditions that the government deemed “safe.” The Zadroga Act, which provided coverage for 5 years, had not been reaffirmed, and so Jon Stewart took to the air to point out the hypocrisy of politicians exhortations to “never forget” while simultaneously clearly forgetting the lives of first responders affected by 9/11 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-L11Bxolo44).

  2. Braschi’s reputation is curiously difficult to pin down. On the one hand, she is highly regarded within the field of Latinx studies. She is perhaps best known for her early novel Yo Yo Boing! (1998), which was among the first works of fiction to employ Spanglish in a concerted and consistent way. In these same circles, she is known for her poetry, her thoughtful engagement with philosophy and poetics, and for the restless nature of her work. Yet, perhaps for these very same reasons, her work is not as well-known as it might (or should) be. It is fair to say that her fame as a writer doesn’t extend out into public consciousness the way the work of writers like Junot Díaz, Sandra Cisneros or even Julia Alvarez has. I would argue that this is, in part, because Braschi is a different kind of writer—fiercely experimental and profoundly intellectual—understanding her work is hard. In addition, lest I be misinterpreted, this is not to say that the work of Díaz, Cisneros and Alvarez (among others) is not intellectual or thoughtful. They are brilliant storytellers whose writing is accessible in ways that Braschi’s is not. Put differently, when you read a work by Braschi, she makes you work for it. This same dynamic can be seen among the critical engagement with Braschi’s work. Critical reviews have been positive, frequently recognizing the power and complexity of her writing. In comparison to canonical writers, however, critical engagement with her work is harder to come by. The vast majority of this engagement has been dedicated to her novel Yo Yo Boing! whereas very little has been written about United States of Banana. There are several excellent scholarly pieces about Braschi’s work, but if there is an identifiable “must-read” essay, it is without a doubt Arnaldo Manuel Cruz-Malavé’s essay in the September 2014 issue of American Quarterly.

  3. No pun intended but one that, I gather, Braschi might see as fortuitous.

  4. There is no doubt in my mind the United States of Banana deserves a much larger critical engagement. The complexity of the novel and the origami-like structure of its various themes and arguments merit the kind of chapter-length engagement best suited to an academic monograph. Although many of the themes weave in and out throughout the novel, it is fair to say that the novel’s two distinct parts function both independently and together. Part 1 reads more like a creative essay, almost a manifesto that sets the stage for the “play” in Part 2. Moreover, Part 2 tells the story of “the characters” Giannina, Hamlet and Zarathustra, who set out together to free Segismundo, a metaphorical representation of the island of Puerto Rico, and who has been imprisoned under the skirt of the Statue of Liberty. Because of word limits, this essay will focus exclusively on the first half of the book. Readers interested in an examination of Part 2 might consider Riofrio (2020).

  5. The statistics regarding the new reality of living paycheck to paycheck are startling. Long considered the purview of the poor and the working poor, the kind of economic insecurity that accompanies a lack of savings is now a hallmark of a large portion of the population of the US. Robert Reich, former Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton, in a July 2018 piece for the Guardian, shared the shocking news that almost 80% of the US population currently lives paycheck to paycheck (Reich 2018). Although the details of how this happened are too broad to engage with here, the reality of this shift highlights the deep consequences of this reality in relation to debt as a strategy for day-to-day existence.

  6. The discourse of the economy “on the brink of ruin” was ubiquitous during the 2008 crash, with far too many iterations to detail here. However, more to the point for this essay are the celebratory narratives that, in the subsequent years, suggest that the economy was saved at the last moment and is now, no longer, “on the brink.” Salient examples include an article that appeared as early as November of 2009 (!) in VOA (Top US Advisor 2009); a 2015 article in CNN Money, https://money.cnn.com/infographic/economy/the-us-economy-to-the-brink-and-back/index.html; and, incredibly, a 2014 Huffington Post article that claimed that the US economy found itself on the brink … of a boom (Connelly 2014).

  7. I use the phrase “shock and awe” purposefully to bring prominently to mind the destruction that the US military intended in its various conflicts in the Persian Gulf. Although too big a topic to address here, the confluence of the enthusiastic use of our military might abroad, the symbolic and material attack against the US via an attack on the twin towers, and the collapse of the economic system for the US lower and middle class are, in my mind, intriguingly connected through the simple phrase “shock and awe.”

  8. The confines of this essay do not permit a full engagement with Braschi’s place in what we might call the Latinx avant-garde. There is, however, a rich and burgeoning body of work that testifies to Latinx writers’ abiding interest in the avant-garde as a means for engaging ideas of material, social relevance. Although there are many, three writers in particular, spanning more than thirty years, come immediately to mind: the Chicano writers Ron Arias and Salvador Plascencia, along with the Cuban American writer H. G. Carrillo. Taken together, their collective novels represent a vast landscape of both avant-garde techniques and topics of engagement. Arias’s beautiful 1975 novel, The Road to Tamazunchale, intersperses moments of implausible unreality alongside surprising, but plausible, events to make an explicit argument for the way in which narratives (as iterations of power) shape our daily, lived, experiences. By contrast, H. G. Carrillo’s loosing my espanish (2004) utilizes Spanglish as a tool for defamiliarizing Spanish and English. This, coupled with the rapid movement across historical periods and between individual histories, allows Carrillo to acknowledge the fragility of memory and its intimate relationship with a community’s sense of both place and belonging. Finally, and again by way of brief comparison, it would be incomprehensible to begin to discuss a Latinx avant-garde movement without considering Salvador Plascencia’s brilliant 2005 novel The People of Paper. In this irrefutably most adventurous of the three novels, Plascencia experiments with typography, page layouts, and simultaneous perspectives to craft a deeply self-critical and self-referential work, one that seeks to interrogate the under-acknowledged tension between honoring a community while profiting off its suffering. Like Braschi, all three writers mentioned here are emblematic of a commitment to complex ideas and a refusal to be constrained in their efforts to press at the very edges of how we understand and articulate these ideas.

  9. The introduction to Henry Giroux’s Youth in a Suspect Society (2009) is an excellent primer on neoliberalism. In the past, other texts that I have found eminently helpful include David Harvey’s The Enigma of Capital (2010), Zygmunt Bauman’s The Consuming Life (2007), Lisa Marie Cacho’s Social Death (2012), and Arlene Dávila’s Culture Works (2012).

  10. A YouTube clip of Bush’s press conference, 20 December 2006, is found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxk9PW83VCY; the New York Times transcript of the press conference is found at https://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/20/washington/20text-bush.html.

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Riofrio, J. Falling for debt: Giannina Braschi, the Latinx avant-garde, and financial terrorism in the United States of Banana. Lat Stud 18, 66–81 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41276-019-00239-2

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Keywords

  • Latinx avant-garde
  • Neoliberalism
  • Debt
  • Terrorism
  • Marginalization
  • Latinx literature

Palabras clave

  • Vanguardia latina
  • Neoliberalismo
  • Terrorismo
  • Marginalización
  • Literatura latina