August 8th, 2009

Patricia Chao's Mambo Peligroso

Patricia Chao's second novel Mambo Peligroso (Harper Collins, 2005) enters the subcultural world of salsa dancing in New York City, centering on a small group of dance enthusiasts connected through the figure of Catalina Ortiz Midori.

As her name suggests, Catalina is a mixed-race Japanese Cuban American, with a mother who was described as one of the last pure-blooded Japanese in Cuba by the second half of the twentieth century. The first part of the narrative focuses on how the characters' lives are transformed and shaped by a commitment to mambo. The standard themes of dance-centered narratives arise here--the sense of intimacy and sexuality of the dance, a renewed sense of self and body, and the intricacies of performing one's identity on the dance floor as well as in everyday life. The second half veers more strongly into a kind of interpersonal, familial, and nationalistic saga that explores how Catalina's Cuban past links her to the turbulent politics of Castro refugees in Miami. With most of the Cuban population of southern Florida constituted by those fleeing the regime of charismatic Communist leader Fidel Castro after the 1960s, the strained relations between the governments of the United States and Cuba are readily reflected in the perspectives of Cuban American communities. The novel takes advantage of a historic visit by the Pope to Cuba to weave a story of intrigue through the lives of these mambo aficionados. The events of the novel are set pre-9/11 attacks, but it is difficult to read about counterrevolutionary terrorist plots without thinking about parallels to 9/11 or to the war on terror that has characterized American life and American interactions with foreign countries since. At the end of the novel, there is also a brief reference to the Elián González controversy that highlights strained relations between the US and Cuba.

The novel proceeds in a few sections that an introductory note points out are modeled after the rise and fall movement of the Cuban musical form danzón. Within each section, chapters bear the name of the character who serves as the focus and a sentence that elucidates an idea about dance and life. Sometimes, one character will hold sway for a few chapters at a time (Catalina, for example, has the first five chapters). The narrative itself is in third-person point of view for all the characters except one, shifting to the perspective and the thoughts of the chapter's central character. The only first-person narrative is for Oswaldo, the one-eyed mambo teacher known as Tuerto. With each switch of focus, the story itself moves back and forth in time, often excavating a character's past. (Of note is how the second chapter is chronologically set a few months before the first chapter.... there is some play with narrative time here that I imagine is linked to the idea of musical structure.) Often, a character's chapter will offer the same moment narrated earlier by another character but from that second perspective.

One of the things I found especially fascinating about the novel is how Chao recreates stock moments or encounters of Asian American literature with a twist. For example, because Catalina is mixed-race, she often faces questions about where she is from and what her racial background is. Early in the novel, Catalina is asked to dance by a "clean-cut white guy in dress shirt and jeans" (45) and carries on a brief conversation with her:
He tried another tack. "De donde eres?"
"New York," she said in her best Smith accent.
"I mean really."
She raised her eyebrows at him, and he shut up.
Maybe she did have some Latina attitude after all. (46)

Rather than cast this questioning as just a narrative of Orientalist hailing, the novel pushes for another layer of self-fashioning at odds with a stranger's gaze. Here, Catalina pushes against the white guy's interest in placing her as coming from somewhere besides the United States, and she responds by rooting herself in New York and especially in the privileged class of women who attend the prestigious liberal arts college Smith. But it is her reaction, to take her final response of raising her eyebrows rather than pursue his line of questioning as "Latina attitude" rather than some sort of Asian American response, that creates a kind of resonance between the experiences of Latinas and Asian Americans.

Likewise, Chao's exploration of how Catalina and other characters negotiate language differences is familiar to Asian American narratives but also shot through with the difference of Spanish-speaking histories. Most of the italicized, non-English words and dialogue are Spanish. When lyrics of songs appear, they are followed by English translations. This happens sometimes with Spanish in the dialogue or narrative, but just as often, the Spanish sentences are left untranslated. One particular word stands out: "If anyone flirted, she would be Muda, as the kids in Havana used to call her" (49). Chao never translates the word for us, but according to Spanish dictionaries, muda means "dumb." In context, the capitalization of the word also suggests making it into a noun, calling Catalina "the dumb one." Curiously, it isn't until after Catalina and her mother arrive in the United States--so something that is at odds with the "kids in Havana"--that she actually becomes mute for awhile, regaining speech only after some time and only in taking up English (losing her native Spanish). When I googled the word, the top results were for the transliteration of a Japanese term, coined by Honda industries, referring to "waste" in production. Such a confluence of forein words and influences is intriguing, and I wonder if Chao intended the use of such a word. The word becomes strongly associated with the central character of Catalina, the Japanese-Cuban American. And to some extent, it may be associated with a sense of queerness, too--at least in the way that a Muda might be someone who doesn't have children and is thus out of the loop of heterosexual reproductive lives.

It would be worth thinking through how this novel connects up with Chao's first novel Monkey King (which admittedly I have not yet read). Mambo Peligroso certainly offers much material for thinking about the transnational turn in Asian American studies and particularly for the second iteration of the transnational project that turns to other nodes of the diaspora (beyond Asia-North America), especially in hemispheric terms. In this vein, there are possible connections to be drawn to the fabulous work by Karen Tei Yamashita that has been critically examined in the field for exploring Japanese Brazilian communities and networks between Japan, Latin American countries like Brazil, and the United States. Thinking beyond Asian American writers, too, connections to a novel like Cristina Garcia's Monkey Hunting might be useful to consider since that story traces a Chinese diaspora through Cuba and the United States, hinting at the complexity of race and location that often gets elided in considerations of various countries. Late in the novel, the narrative notes: "At rest her mother looked only Japanese; without language or gestures, there was no Caribbean" (257).

And with the primary concern of Mambo Peligroso with dance and the subcultures that emerge around particular art forms, there are certainly plenty of other novels that textualize dance as an important metaphor for life and in other significant ways. I saw in the book store, for example, a collection of poems with drawings by Mong-Lan on tango (which, alas, I did not purchase) which seems similarly engaged with the power of dance for the author's life and for her literary work.

Finally, I wonder what fans and scholars of Latina/o literatures might think of this novel--whether the novel's characterizations of Latinos is similar to those written by Latino writers. It seems that Chao addresses some subtleties and complexities in the New York Latino community, exploring the hierarchy of nationalities (Cubans generally seen as elitest and most aligned with bourgeois values) as well as noting other differences of behavior and cultural values amongst various groups.

One of my favorite sentences: "Pedestrians had furtive expressions; the dogs limped" (247).
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