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Dancing with Ghosts

A Critical Biography of Arturo Islas

Frederick Aldama

Publication Year: 2004

This first critical biography of Arturo Islas (1938­1991) brings to life the complex and overlapping worlds inhabited by the gay Chicano poet, novelist, scholar, and professor. Gracefully written and deeply researched, Dancing with Ghosts considers both the larger questions of Islas's life—his sexuality, racial identification, and political personality—and the events of his everyday existence, from his childhood in the borderlands of El Paso to his adulthood in San Francisco and at Stanford University. Frederick Aldama portrays the many facets of Islas's engaging and often contradictory personality. He also explores Islas's coming into the craft of poetry and fiction—his extraordinary struggle to publish his novels, The Rain God, La Mollie and the King of Tears, and Migrant Souls—as well as his pivotal role in paving the way for a new generation of Chicano/a scholars and writers.

Through a skillful interweaving of life history, criticism, and literary theory, Aldama paints an unusually rich and wide-ranging portrait of both the man and the eventful times in which he lived. He describes Islas's struggle with polio as a child, his near-death experience and ileostomy as a thirty-year-old beginning to explore his queer sexuality in San Francisco in the 1970s, and his fatal struggle with AIDS in the late 1980s. Drawing from hundreds of unpublished letters, lecture notes, drafts of essays, novels, and poetry archived at Stanford University, Aldama also deals frankly with the controversies that swirled around Islas's impassioned love life, his drug addictions, and his scholarly and professional career as one of the first Chicano/a professors in the United States. He discusses the importance of Islas's pioneering role in bridging Anglo, Latin American, Chicano/a, and European storytelling styles and voices. Dancing with Ghosts succeeds brilliantly both as an account of a fascinating life that embraced many different worlds and as a chronicle of the grand historical shifts that transformed the late-twentieth-century American cultural landscape.

Published by: University of California Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

...The Islas papers consisted of fifty-two boxes of material—personal correspondence, manuscript drafts, poems, journals, you name it—with the most confidential material sealed till 2009. After I reread the novel’s original draft, my curiosity got the better of me. I began requesting box after box of the material, sifting through folder after folder. I do not really believe in destiny, but something about the circumstances was beginning to change my mind. I...

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Introduction: Bringing the Dead to Life

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pp. xi-xx

...From an early age, Arturo Islas had an eerie understanding of his own mortality. He experienced several life-threatening illnesses and, as a child raised Catholic in a Chicano family in El Paso, was constantly reminded of the precariousness of bodily existence. To survive not only a religious culture of death but also his personal sense of mortality, Islas learned to use language creatively...

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1. “Sonny”

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pp. 1-24

...Arturo Islas was born to Arturo Islas Sr. and Jovita La Farga on May 25, 1938, in El Paso, Texas. He was the first of three sons. He grew up in El Paso and spent his undergraduate and graduate student years, as well as his career as professor and writer, in the San Francisco Bay Area. He died on February 15, 1991, at his home in Palo Alto...

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2. Bio-Graphé

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pp. 25-74

...His sands cover over such bodies and voices—and recover or uncover and make visible others. The act of reading Islas through his writing is an act of recovering a complex individual. Islas’s writing not only cycles through acts of re-covering (making disappear) and recovering (making appear by narrating, remembering, and forgetting) but also speaks to those Chicano/a subjects that inhabit a constant state of “recovery” and longing...

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3. Sexuality

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pp. 75-102

...Arturo Islas’s sense of himself as a sexual being underwent dramatic transformations as he moved through a variety of social, cultural, and historical spaces: He came of age as a Mexican American in El Paso during a conservative early 1950s. He began to discover his same-sex desire within a co-ed segregated and draconian-ruled Stanford campus. He struggled to open closet doors during a queer-phobic yet heterosexualrevolutionary 1960s. He forced those same closet...

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4. Death and Rebirth

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pp. 103-127

...Arturo Islas spent his life challenging the many boundaries that threatened to enclose him within restrictive roles—intellectual, filial, sexual, and racial. He also spent a lifetime struggling to come to terms with a bodily existence compromised by illness. That Islas was preoccupied with mortality is no surprise. His childhood—which was imbued with life/death dualistic Catholic doctrine as well...

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5. Being Chicano

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pp. 128-158

...Islas’s identity was very much informed by his cultural and racial sense of being Mexican and American. He was born to second-generation Catholic Mexican Americans and raised within the cultural and socioeconomic U.S./Mexico borderlands. He grew up where Mexican and Anglo bodies rubbed up against one another, where tacos and hamburgers appeared at the same dinner table...

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Coda: “A Dancing with Ghosts”

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pp. 159-162

...Arturo Islas’s life, his aesthetic ambitions, and his poetic achievements. As a Chicano (simultaneously American and Mexican), he was determined to interweave the Chicano literary tradition with what he considered the best works within the world literary corpus, mainly in terms of narrative techniques and the care in the crafting of both prose and poetry. At the...

Chronology of Major Events

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pp. 163-166


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pp. 167-178


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pp. 179-185


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pp. 186-189


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pp. 190-199

Production Notes

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p. 200-200

E-ISBN-13: 9780520938540
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520243927

Page Count: 218
Publication Year: 2004