It’s evidently impossible to write about Rolando Hinojosa-Smith and not compare him to William Faulkner.
I couldn’t find a single obituary for the legendary author and longtime professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who died April 19 at 93, that doesn’t mention Faulkner. In 2014, when Hinojosa-Smith was awarded the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle, nearly every profile at the time (including one I wrote for Kirkus Reviews)—and the NBCC citation itself—referenced Faulkner.
Supposedly, it’s a compliment.
Hinojosa-Smith himself is partly responsible for the comparison. In the first essay of his collection A Voice of My Own: Essays and Stories, Hinojosa-Smith aligns his work with Faulkner and the Mississippian’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Hinojosa-Smith says his own works contain “the fair and the mean, the fools and knaves, the heroes and cowards, those who are selfish, and those who are full of self-abnegation in a place called Belken County, of which I’m the sole owner and proprietor, as Faulkner once said when he spoke of his county.”
On the surface, this is an apt comparison. Both authors created vast rural counties where most residents have deep roots. Both authors left behind a shelf of bold, genre-defying books about people usually overlooked by mainstream writers and the publishing industry. Both created vivid characters whose humanity breathes on the page and who sound like people you know, or could imagine knowing, even if you’ve never been to Texas or Mississippi.
Okay, fine, I admit Rolando Hinojosa-Smith’s work is kind of like William Faulkner’s. But what bothers me about this constant comparison is the sense that this is less of a compliment and more an attempt to force the unfamiliar reader to take Hinojosa-Smith’s books seriously. “This isn’t just some random Texan but the Mexican American Faulkner!” So let me try to get through the rest of this article without invoking the Nobel laureate.
Hinojosa-Smith left behind a body of work that stands apart from anything else produced in American letters, both in terms of output and his ability to shine a light on a corner of the country—the Hispanic, Anglo, and mixed inhabitants of Texas’s Rio Grande Valley—ignored by most readers, most Americans, and probably most Texans as well.
Hinojosa-Smith, best known for his fifteen-volume Klail City Death Trip series (a hell of a name for a collection wildly disparate in form and content), created books that are a literary embodiment of a race of people still struggling to be recognized and who are still having long, vociferous debates on how to define themselves.
Latino writers have always dealt with the expectation, spoken or unspoken, of exclusively writing about Latino topics—the struggle of the noble immigrant, the burden of fitting in with an indifferent or hostile Anglo society, the weight of family and tradition. Hinojosa-Smith’s books sidestep these expectations by existing in their own bubble of both content and form.
Korean Love Songs transforms Hinojosa-Smith’s own experiences in the Korean War into a series of poems and, well, love songs. Klail City, like so many of his books, employs multiple Tejano and Anglo narrators and a “wri” doing his best to marshal all these voices into something coherent. The crime novels Ask a Policeman and Partners in Crime are classic examples of border noir but also use narrative techniques not usually found in mysteries. Dear Rafe starts out as a series of letters between friends but then takes a darker turn.
His first novel, originally published as Estampas del Valle, is a collection of sketches, dialogues, first-person monologues, flash fiction (although the term didn’t exist when the book was first published in 1973), and fragments impossible to classify. The book begins with a “Word to the Wise (Guy)” that leaves the reader uncertain:
“What follows, more likely as not, is a figment of someone’s imagination; the reader is asked to keep this disclaimer in mind.
“For his part, the compiler stakes no claim of responsibility; he owns and holds the copyright but little else.”
With this opening, Hinojosa-Smith draws attention to his role as the writer but also feigns a distance from his own creation. With the phrase “more likely as not,” he acknowledges that his fiction is, well, fictional . . . except for when it’s not. The terms “autofiction” or “creative nonfiction” also weren’t common for most of Hinojosa-Smith’s career. This isn’t an author’s note but a message from a “compiler” who doesn’t entirely know what’s going to happen page to page. So as long as the reader knows they bought a ticket for a ride without traditional rules, then everyone will be okay, and they might learn a thing or two about life in the Valley.
The Valley, the Chicano experience, and the borderlands don’t fit comfortably in the typical structure of the novel, so Hinojosa-Smith’s books don’t either. How can you write “Chapter One” when the story you’re about to tell has ancient roots? How can you write “The End” when the ghosts of the past surround you and the future was predicted centuries ago?
The people in Hinojosa-Smith’s Belken County are novelistic representations of what the Texan Chicana scholar Gloria Anzaldúa termed mestizaje, a new race built through the combination of Indigenous, Anglo, Spanish, and Mexican descent. As Azaldúa wrote, “We are a synergy of two cultures with various degrees of Mexicanness or Angloness. I have so internalized the borderland conflict that sometimes I feel like one cancels out the other and we are zero, nothing, no one.”
Hinojosa-Smith’s work exists within the choque, or “cultural collision,” that Anzaldúa explores in her seminal sociological-autobiographical book, Borderlands/La Frontera, and the rest of her work. Hinojosa-Smith, like Hispanic people across the Valley, Texas, and the world, knows he lives in between. In the essay “A Voice of One’s Own,” he says, “I make no claim to a privileged position in regard to living in two cultures or within two cultures or, even, between two cultures. I happen to think and to observe that most of us who reside in Texas live in various cultures, anyway.”
What’s groundbreaking about Anzaldúa’s and Hinojosa-Smith’s work is that both recast a group of people who are Mexican but not fully Mexican, and American but definitely not fully American, into something new and beautiful. The people are no longer mutants or outcasts but hybrids and the future of both society and literature.
So how else could you write about the new mestizaje living in a valley next to an ancient river and caught between various empires over the centuries than by mixing storytelling genres?
In this essay, I’ve used just about every term that describes people of mixed Spanish and Indigenous descent. But none is quite right. “Hispanic” can seem so clinical and legal; “Chicano” still has echoes of the activism of a receding era; “Latino” is a sexist term to some but still the most common, and “Latinx” has as many impassioned detractors as defenders. But that’s the point. It is impossible to settle on a term that wraps up all these identities and experiences, and for Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, it’s impossible to tell these stories traditionally.
I know I said I wouldn’t, but now we should revisit that irksome comparison to Faulkner. There’s one big difference between the two authors. One won the Nobel Prize in Literature and is taught in most high schools and colleges; the other is significantly harder to track down. All of Hinojosa-Smith’s work is in print and available from Arte Público Press. But hard copies of his work can be tricky to find. While the public libraries in Houstin, Austin, and San Antonio have e-book formats available, they have a relative smattering of hard copies on their shelves available to take home. And lack of access to e-book technology, especially for lower-income students, of whom Latinos make up a disproportionate amount, adds a barrier between those students and Hinojosa-Smith’s works. (Hats off to the Dallas Public Library for having more than a dozen of Hinojosa-Smith’s books in hard copy!) None of the Barnes and Nobles in the Austin area have any of his books in store, and neither does the state’s largest independent bookstore, BookPeople.
His books are about and of the Valley, but despite what stores, reviewers, and the publishing industry think, they’re not only for the Valley. Rolando Hinojosa-Smith wrote for hybrids everywhere, and now that he’s gone, maybe more readers will take notice.