- Forms of Dictatorship: Power, Narrative, and Authoritarianism in the Latina/o Novel by Jennifer Harford Vargas
Forms of Dictatorship is an impressive addition to the fields of comparative American literary studies and US Latinx studies. Harford Vargas takes a truly trans-American approach, consistently placing what she calls "Latina/o dictatorship novels" (6) in context with the tradition of Latin American dictatorship novels. The book, comprised of an introduction, five chapters, and a coda, provides a well-researched [End Page 447] and detailed analysis of the development of this trans-American genre. Focusing on literature published in the 2000s, Harford Vargas provides capacious close readings that seamlessly tie together historical context with analyses of word choice, as well as the ethical concerns of stories about Latinx and Latin American migrant subjects. The study's methodology, "socioformal analysis" (16), joins an emerging Latinx literary criticism—including works by Paula M. L. Moya, Ralph E. Rodríguez, and Yolanda Padilla—concerned with the relationship between content and form in Latinx literary studies. Thus, throughout the study, Harford Vargas brings together discussions of story (content) and discourse (the way that content is delivered) to highlight "the power of form and the form of power" (17).
She argues that Latina/o dictatorship novels are their own subgenre and that they embody "a new stage in the dictatorship novel in the Americas" (10). Her study dives deeply into five representative Latina/o dictatorship novels from the 1990s to the present. She argues that these dictatorship novels, written by US Latinxs who have never lived under Latin American or Hispanophone Caribbean dictatorship, lead us to rethink the ways in which we define authoritarianism. She contends that these works—by Junot Díaz, Salvador Plascencia, Francisco Goldman, Héctor Tobar, and Cristina García—reimagine dictatorship not as a uniquely Latin American entity (13), for the writers make clear the integral role that US interventions—economic, military, and otherwise—have played in Latin American dictatorships. These writers think about authoritarianism as a spectrum, illuminating also the ways in which US society and the government, through surveillance, border militarization, police brutality, institutional racism, and a bevy of other means, enact authoritarianism at home. This "double vision of state violence both abroad and domestically" generates what Harford Vargas calls "the Latina/o counter-dictatorial imaginary" (6). This "counter-dictatorial imaginary" is two-pronged: it reveals a trans-American continuum of state violence and looks towards decolonial futures (8).
The organization of the book's five chapters is smooth, beginning with more abstract conversations between language and authority/authoritarianism and moving to the connections between literary symbols and the concrete impacts of human rights violations and patriarchy. Throughout, Harford Vargas makes helpful connections between her analyses in earlier chapters and later ones. She begins with two chapters focused primarily on the links between writing/narrative and dictatorship, what she terms "authoritarianism" which "highlight[s] the slippages between authorship, authority, and authoritarianism" (11). In Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Harford Vargas attends to issues of narrative control, considering how the writer and the dictator determine official histories. She argues that Díaz's use of the fukú and the zafa represent "dictating as an authoritarian act and dictating as a resistant act," respectively (37). In examining formal choices, such as character-space and Díaz's use and placement of footnotes, she asserts that Trujillo becomes a minor character in the novel and historically. That is, Trujillo is represented as a small cog in "the five-hundred-year fukú americanus" (44), "a crystallization of one violent epoch in a five-hundred-year trans-American saga" of indigenous genocide, slavery, imperialism, and neoliberalism (45). In the second chapter, "The Borderlands of Authoritarianism," Harford Vargas reads Plascencia's The People of Paper as a novel attendant to issues of surveillance and economic exploitation. For Harford Vargas, The People of Paper "conceptualizes dictatorship and authoritarianism in formal, social economic terms" (63) rather than...