Writing Across Cultures

Rama, Ángel. Writing Across Cultures: Narrative Transculturation in Latin America. Ed. & Trans. David Frye. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012. 243 pp.

            Ángel Rama, whose work ranged from meticulous analyses on the history of literature in the Spanish world to influential studies of urbanization and the formation of arts, was one of the most important Latin American intellectuals and scholars of the twentieth century. Originally from Uruguay, Rama taught in Venezuela, where he founded the Biblioteca Ayacucho, one of the most important publishing houses in Latin America. He also taught at the University of Maryland in the United States, from where he was deported due to the geopolitical climate during the Cold War. Despite his remarkable contributions to the understanding of literature in general that go well beyond the borders of Latin America, his books, apart from The Lettered City (1996),1 have not been translated into English.

            Writing Across Cultures: Narrative Transculturation in Latin America, recently published in 2012, is thus an admirable effort to introduce Rama’s oeuvre into the English spoken world and to academia in general. In this book, Rama takes the term ‘transculturation’ from Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz who, in his most famous book Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar (1947), challenged the widespread anthropological concept of ‘acculturation’. As Latin American expert David Frye explains in his excellent and informative translation of Rama’s book, transculturation is a response to the assumption that the oppressed simply takes on or absorbs the culture of the oppressor. Rama, elaborating on Ortiz, demonstrates carefully that this is not the case in Latin American literature, especially in the Andes. Transculturation is thus a remarkable point in itself that needs to be further explored for the general audience to gain a better understanding of the many changes and diversity in the Spanish language and the variations found across Hispanic America.

            Rama’s central question throughout his book investigates the phenomenon of transformation, specifically whether people give up or instead adapt in their own ways to new cultural situations. Transculturation becomes a key concept here as it denotes the process by which not only the indigenous population of the so-called ‘New World’ but also the criollos (Spanish born in Latin America) and mestizos managed to take on the traditions and impositions of the metropolitan centres and the Catholic Church. Rama observes that while there were surely conflicts, transculturation was not simply matter of peoples allowing themselves to be governed. In Rama’s words:

If transculturation is the norm all over the continent—as much on the cosmopolitan as on what we specifically term the transcultural side—it is the latter that has accomplished an even greater feat than the cosmopolitans, in our judgement, for they have maintained the historical continuity of cultural forms that were profoundly elaborated by the social masses, adjusting it with the least possible loss of identity to the new conditions determined by the international setting of the time. (49)

            Rama’s point is to prove that people, for example those in the Andes, transform in subtle ways to the extent of making a culture of their own; there is no eradication of traditions and subsequent imposition of norms. Rather, those who considered themselves cosmopolitans by using and following the rules were the ones defeated by the impossibility of losing one’s identity—that is, identity as a mixture—which in itself is a form of transculturation.

            In support of this point, Rama uses a well-known novel in Latin America: Los ríos profundos (Deep Rivers, originally published in 1958 before the so-called ‘Latin American boom’) by the Peruvian anthropologist and writer José María Arguedas. Most of the second and third parts of Rama’s book are reflections on Arguedas’s work, and Arguedas becomes fundamental in Rama’s argument given that the Peruvian author was also interested in making sense of the cultural clashes that took place in Andes. Rama brings linguistic as well as socio-anthropological views into the literary analysis of Deep Rivers. He uses the novel in order to show how a cultural narrative expands on the view that people do maintain and adapt to cultural situations better than expected. The novel is emblematic of Rama’s idea of transculturation in this respect as it uses Quechua along with Spanish, and linguistic variation of both languages.

            Of the merits of this translation of Rama’s work, Frye’s introduction and endnotes are of utmost importance. Given his prominence in the Latin American academy, it is very rare to find editors and translators who would go as far as to check and elaborate on Rama’s arguments. Frye does this very well. In his introduction, Frye gives a brief biography of Rama as well as the sociological and anthropological contexts in order to understand Rama’s explorations and perspectives, which combine social sciences with literary analysis. Frye’s endnotes include corroborations of Rama’s arguments, and in some cases, corrections of Rama’s sources. For instance, Chapter Six: “The Novel, a Beggar’s Opera”, opens with an epigraph that Rama attributes to Apollinaire: “Je devins un opéra fabuleux” (159). Frye then clarifies that the quote is in fact from Rimbaud, and it is supposed to be in the past tense; that is, “I became a fabulous opera” (235). This elaborate fact-checking is a challenge for any translator, and because any corrections to Rama are often ill-received due to his renown, Frye’s endnotes serve as a trove of important critical information about Rama’s work.

            This witty translation of Rama’s book offers an alternative view into Latin American literature and brings literary theory into linguistic and socio-anthropological discourse. Rama deserves more attention from the general public as well as from academia in North American institutions. For instance, Rama’s transculturation brings light into the intellectual development within Latin America of how culture and literature intersects, even before similar conversations took place in other circles regarding postcolonial and postmodernism schools of thought.

            It is quite problematic, however, that the edited version of Rama’s book does not make any reference to his magazine Marcha (March, in the sense of a social or cultural demonstration). It was a magazine that promoted literature from its own peripheral space and opened up discussions regarding the very basic topic of what is meant by ‘Latin American literature’. In one instance, Julio Cortázar responded to Arguedas’ views in the said magazine, which for many authors and scholars at the time became a controversial issue given that Arguedas committed suicide in the late sixties with speculations of personality and depression psychological problems. Rama, as the journal editor, did not take a stance on this controversy. If Frye wants to give the reader a fuller view of Rama’s influence and work, an endnote on Marcha would have given an inside into the Latin American intellectual climate of the time. That being said, Frye does a great job of offering the reader an insightful and informative reading of Rama.

Jaime R. Brenes-Reyes
Western University


  1. Published originally in Spanish La ciudad letrada, in 1984. This book has been very influential in Latin American Studies, with further elaborations by Nestor García Canclini, and Jean Franco, among others.