- Edgardo Vega Yunqué and the Comedy of Race
The fact that the general public and few literary critics have taken up the work of Edgardo Vega Yunqué is indicative of his "success" in continually pushing back against those markers of legibility that would have brought him more attention.1 Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1936, he arrived in New York City in 1949 at the age of thirteen, where he spent the rest of his life, passing away in 2008. His prolific writing career began in the 1970s, and he remained active until his death, resulting in four published novels, two published short story collections, and more than a dozen unpublished manuscripts.2 These works consistently center on the experiences of Puerto Ricans in New York City, but Vega Yunqué was fiercely critical of attempts to place his work in a racialized box. When Ballantine wanted to publish what eventually [End Page 333] became his most successful novel, No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain't Never Coming Home Again, under the One World "multicultural imprint" in the 1990s, Vega Yunqué accused the press of wanting to "ghettoize" the novel. Tensions eventually resulted in Ballantine killing the book deal.3 But his anger was not limited to the publishing industry. He also took aim at Puerto Rican writers in his community for recycling tropes about life on the "mean streets" while pointing to what he saw as the limits of cultural nationalism and resistance narratives: "Identity and dignity and pride has [sic] to be a little more than a few buttons, some slogans, and a scowl" (Comeback 472). A curmudgeonly iconoclast of the first order, Vega Yunqué positioned himself as an outsider willing to take on the perceived limits on his literary imagination by corporate, political, and artistic forces inside and outside the Puerto Rican community.4
Unhappiness among writers of color regarding the racialized constraints they feel are placed on their art is not new. What makes Vega Yunqué's work different is the central place these constraints had in his fiction and how he went about engaging them. Of his six major works, three are comic approaches to the politics of race in relation to the literary. In these texts, Vega Yunqué demonstrates his career-long commitment to staging what I call "the comedy of race" to probe how people of color, specifically Puerto Ricans, are racialized inside and outside their communities and how it affects artistic representation.5 Why are comic forms particularly useful for this work? As Alenka Zupančič explains, comedy "is extremely [End Page 334] adept at showing how something functions—that is to say, it is adept at showing the mechanisms, in the present, that allow its functioning and perpetuation" (178). The comedy of race is a staging of the mechanics of racialization through a "self-reflexive theatricality" (Dolar 588) that emphasizes itself as representation. In this formulation, race is not only a topic for comedy but also a concept that functions much like comedy at the level of form. Race becomes an idea to be played with and explored through the magnifying excess that is endemic to comedy.
If race functions as a norm within the social broadly, and literary representations specifically, Vega Yunqué uses comedy "as a procedure that carries the (human) norm itself to its extreme point; it [comedy] produces and displays the constitutive excess and extremity of the norm itself" (Zupančič 193). The excessiveness of race, its tendency to do "too much" in the social as a concept that assigns circumscribed meaning and value to people, can be highlighted especially effectively through comedy because it too hinges on an excessive narrative economy marked by exaggeration, or more precisely, the isolation and amplification of single traits. By emphasizing the formal commonalities in how race and comedy produce meaning through excess, the general, and a focus on the body, Vega Yunqué's work sheds light on how race as a norm becomes "normal" through a process of racialization that depends on physical features and cultural expectations. His comic narratives, drawing on satire, parody...