restricted access Disaster Writing: The Cultural Politics of Catastrophe in Latin America by Mark D. Anderson (review)
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Anderson, Mark D. Disaster Writing: The Cultural Politics of Catastrophe in Latin America. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2011. 256 pp.

This study springs from the author’s decade-long fascination with disaster narratives and the subsequent effort to understand how disasters catalyze both political and culture changes. The result is a very interesting and insightful choice of theme; possibly a new chapter to the methodology known as ecocriticism. The focus is still nature and the role that nature and the natural environment play in the Latin American psyche as perceived through textual representations, but this time disaster is thrown into the mixture. By definition, disaster is considered a rupture of the normal order of things and natural disaster, according to the author, “denotes that moment of disjuncture when nature topples what we see as the natural order of human dominance” (1). In other words, nature ceases to be mother nature and morphs into Medea, who murders her children in a torrent of rage. As a result, the established relationship with the natural environment collapses as does the surrounding landscape. This new situation, the product of disaster, calls for new definitions, attitudes, and cultural discourses.

Such a boundless approach to cultural representation calls for certain delimitations from the onset. Consequently, the author chooses to deal with two types of disasters: the sudden-onset, and the long-term recurring disasters. While hurricanes and earthquakes are excellent examples of sudden-onset types of disasters, drought and volcanic activity can be defined as disasters that recur over time. The book is divided into four chapters that take into consideration recurring disasters in Brazil and Central America, and sudden-onset disasters in the Caribbean and in Mexico (even if earthquakes could be considered both recurring and sudden-onset).

The first chapter, entitled “Disaster and the New Patria: Cyclone San Zenón and Trujillo’s rewriting of the Dominican Republic,” paves the way for a critical methodology that could be applied to disasters that have occurred all over the world, from terroristic disasters such as September 11, to natural disasters such a Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 Haiti earthquake that unmade not only the Haitian landscape, but its society as well. Here, the paradigm is the Dominican Republic and how a hurricane allowed a dictator to justify his regime. In fact, Dominican history was not only re-written by Trujillo and his entourage, but renamed as well. After the 1939 hurricane, many features of the destroyed landscape were re-christened. While the capital became Ciudad Trujillo, the highest peak on the island became Pico Trujillo, and so on. In other words, Trujillo took full advantage of the devastation: aid came with a price, and the result was his appropriation of the entire nation. This chapter delves into how politicians can turn either a natural disaster or a terroristic disaster to their advantage. Obviously, the political implications of Hurricane Katrina and the 2012 Hurricane Sandy have yet to be brought to light. As Anderson writes in the conclusion, “The experience of disaster frequently catalyzes [End Page 571] political action as individuals and collectivities engage in the assignment of blame as well as the construction of greater security” (191).

Chapter two, entitled “Drought and Literary Construction of Risk in Northeastern Brazil,” studies how drought can be defined as a disaster of national significance and consequently how, as a result, Northeastern Brazil embodies what the author Antonio Callado calls a “traditional Brazilian calamity” (24). However, the author argues that things become more complex when literary tropes and themes cannot be traced to a single source (either Trujillo or Brazilian intellectuals interpreting drought from outside the affected region), and “competing representations of disaster vie for discursive legitimacy” (25). Such is the case in chapter three, “Volcanic Identities: Explosive Nationalism and the Disastered Subject in Central American Literature.” Here, the focus is how volcanic activity has contributed to the construction of Central American identity. What distinguishes this analysis from that of the first two chapters is that this progressive expression of identity springs from different voices. In other words, Central American identity, and particularly Nicaraguan identity, can be traced to authors such as Rubén...