Mayra Santos Febres and the literature of terror

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Vampires, witches, ghosts and other creatures of the night have invaded the Felipe II Euroforum through the Universidad Complutense summer seminars held at the palace of El Escorial. The topic for this summer’s seminar has been “The Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe: Terror and Literature,” and one of the participants has been Puerto Rican novelist and scholar Mayra Santos Febres.  The seminar is celebrating the bicentennial of Poe’s birth.

In an interview about her participation in the seminar, Santos Febres spoke of how the literature of terror in Latin America serves as a vehicle for describing the violence in the region—from the Shining Path in Peru to the FARC in Colombia. Such literature is born out of the need to explain the “real terror” in society. “One example is Santiago Roncagliolo’s novel Abril rojo, where the violence created by Shining Path is depicted through the santero cult in Latin America,” she explained. “Or the novel Satanás by Colombian Mario Mendoza, which speaks to the existence of evil, as if the devil emerged from the shadiest corners of the city of Bogotá to speak to the violence of FARC and other guerrillas, or about the drug traffic.”

For Santos Febres, this type of literature is “an attempt to give voice to a real and daily terror, to use the supernatural to try to explain the experience of terror in Latin America through the myths we have at our command.”

In her presentation at the Poe conference, Santos Febres explain that there is a connection between terror and race, an topic that is not often discussed in Latin America. “One of the things that come to mind when we think of the things that frighten us are ghosts and monsters, but also savages and the possessed,” she said. “Black cannibals, dark creatures that emerge from mysterious places, are the beasts that devour white explorers. Race is at the center of terror.”

The western imaginary is also the imaginary of Caribbean and Latin American societies. “It is important to talk about how these imaginaries are constructed to understand the elements that make up that concept of terror, which are linked to Latin American concepts of music, spirituality, and race. This type of literary creation is always filled with gods interfering in the lives of human, as if we were reading classic Greek literature, except that Jupiter is called Changó,” she said.

About the production of detective fiction in Latin America, Santos-Febres said that the growth of this genre is the product of “the clash of a spiritual world against the world of the city and the modernization of large Latin American urban centers. Latin American cities are very strange places. You are walking along an avenue in Havana and can see simultaneously a santero making a public sacrifice with a Blackberry in his hand or an executive on his way to a head cleansing to communicate with the santos.”

For Santos Febres, Latin America has always tried to give voice to “the coexistence between its different imaginaries and cultures, although now what seemed an anomaly is happening throughout the world under the name of multiculturalism and globalization.”

Reported (in Spanish) at http://www.abc.es/20090807/cultura-cultura/escritores-criticos-debaten-escorial-20090807.html and http://www.elpais.cr/articulos.php?id=10823

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