No. 8 Woman Hollering Creek (1991)

Cisneros wasn’t born in Texas, but her rendering of the rasquache Tex-Mex vernacular is pitch-perfect in this short-story collection, which appeared just seven years after she arrived in San Antonio. Anchored in Mexico and Texas, these stories read like lapidary poems, telling of romance, revenge, carnal and spiritual longing, and whimsy.

Against the Canon

As a writer born in San Antonio, I have always felt myself anointed, or perhaps branded, by the conflicted literary legacies of the Lone Star State. I was never sure whether my origins—as a descendant of eighteenth-century Spanish expeditionary settlers and Revolución-era norteño immigrants and a mestizo heir of storytellers as diverse as Américo Paredes, Katherine Anne Porter, and Hondo Crouch—were truly a blessing of birthplace, a karmic serendipity of sorts, or, given Texas’s fraught history of ethnic and racial discord, exclusion, and violence, a Tejano version of the mark of Cain. 

It’s this uncertainty that has compelled much of my work, and it’s this same uncertainty that informs my thoughts whenever I consider the Texas literary canon. That a canon of Texas literature notionally exists cannot be denied; J. Frank Dobie first made the case for one in 1943 with his Guide to Life and Literature in the Southwest, and it was the pantheon of Texas literati that later inspired Larry McMurtry’s curmudgeonly takedown of our letters in his essays “Southwestern Literature?” (1968) and “Ever a Bridegroom” (1981). The canon has been explored in the pages of this magazine by such distinguished Texas writers as A. C. Greene, who in 1981 put forth a list of the fifty best Texas books (including one Hispanic writer), and Don Graham, who ventured a more-modest twenty contemporary exemplars (including two Hispanos). Many of the state’s great universities still offer courses of study in the tradition. 

But in an ever more diverse and burgeoning Texas, exactly which books merit inclusion, and how such a canonical list might be serially ranked, will vary vastly from reader to reader. In part, it depends on what kind of personal history you bring to the reading table. There isn’t a single defensible canon, in other words—and that dismissal isn’t meant as a wet relativist’s dodge or an indication of any wariness about getting caught in the ensuing crossfire. It’s only that, as a reader or a writer, your list will be as much a reflection of who you are, and who you are becoming as a Texan, as any meaningful assertion of an objective pantheon. The age of the authoritative canonical pronouncement has passed, güey. Instead, we’re called to venture our own lists and be ready to argue for them. That’s always been where the sparks can really fly.

In that spirit, I have considered my own peripatetic readings and devised my list—a list that, to my mind, represents a way to plumb the deep human mystery of Texas. Hence, my litany of titles, top ten and beyond, tacks toward a “deep time” perspective, reaching back to commence the saga in remotest antiquity, more aligned to nonfiction than fiction, more to history than reportage, more oneiric than factual, less overtly political than cultural, with an abiding fealty to the paranormal and poetic. I’m less fussy about sniffing out the truffle of ageless literary excellence à la McMurtry than I am keen to find those books that, side by side, limn the improbable, contradictory human epic that is the grand story of Texas.

READ JOHN PHILLIP SANTOS'S LIST OF THE 10 BEST TEXAS BOOKS EVER WRITTEN.

My family’s history wasn’t exactly literary, much less conventionally Texan. My mother’s ancestors were already long in northern New Spain when they joined José de Escandón’s mid-eighteenth-century expeditions as founders of the villages of Revilla and Camargo, in present-day Tamaulipas. By the time my mother was born, in the twenties, the family was in Laredo, another of Escandón’s settlements. My father’s family fled Coahuila in 1914, when the Mexican Revolution made everyday life a peril.

Yet by the time I was born, in 1957, we were Texans. In one of my earliest portraits, I’m decked out in Roy Rogers trappings, with a cowboy hat, a Western shirt, pants tucked into my boots, a toy six-shooter strapped to my hips. I first read Dobie’s Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver in junior high school, alongside Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, embedding the Texas narrative into the global one from the beginning. But the Texas history classes I took never included accounts of settlers like the ones I’d heard of in my family. I knew there was clearly a great Texas story, but for me, there was an absence at its center. By the time I left Texas to study at the University of Notre Dame, I was searching out those books that could fill in this missing tale.

Through the more than thirty years of semi-voluntary exile that followed, whether I was bunking in Indiana, England, Connecticut, or New York City, I harbored this unique literary conundrum that superseded all others—Midwestern, British, New Englander, or New Yorquino. I was never intimidated. Albion’s literary legacy and the great American canon had nothing on my Tejano heritage. I carried an ever-growing sacred bundle of Texas books with me from place to place like an obsessive archivist, a hoarder of esoteric tomes, each of which contained a piece of an unfathomable story that was my truest literary compromiso, a sort of poetico-philosophical obligation—what I’ve come to think of as the Question of Texas.

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