Study Questions for John Fante's Ask the Dust (1939) and Tomás Rivera's ...And the Earth Did Not Devour Him (1972)

I hope at least some of the questions below are useful to you as a study guide and discussion-starter for Fante and Rivera.

For interested group members whose computer can play podcasts (mp3's), I recommend both Alex Bell's and Ruth Schultz's fine reading and commentary on key scenes and themes in Fante’s novel, done for my class English 52A, "U.S. Fiction 1900-1950," in spring 2007.  Go to: http://blogs.swarthmore.edu/students/engl52a_s07/category/fante/

to find the 2 pairs of Fante podcasts:  a 5 minute reading of a scene, then a 5-minute discussion. Students listened to these before class and we used them to start up our own class discussion.   Click on Podcast Audio mp3 to play it.

 

 

Questions and study topics on Fante, followed by questions and topics on Rivera, followed by some general topics and questions. Most of the questions contain spoilers, so I recommend consulting these after you've finished the reading. I've paired these two authors because they give different takes on the issue of"Americans" and "Mexicans" as portrayed in 20th-century U.S. fiction, and are relevant to the general theme of fiction re-imagining family and community ties and also U.S. national borders.

 

Fante

The Fante edition (a new reprint) gives a fine sense of the author and his life as novelist and screenwriter.  Ask the Dust's portrait of the artist as a young man is both affectionate and gently comic regarding his egotism, the ideals and ambitions of youth, his dreams and his secret hurts. Of course, Arturo's relationships with the Mexican waitress and other women brings out a darker and uglier side of his personality, but one that the book wants us to enter and understand, not condone.  His position on the borderlands of being "American" as a working-class Italian author plays a crucial role here, which your group should discuss; there are times when he tries to be "American" and successful by being as racist and ugly as possible, only to behave very differently immediately afterward.  My students and I thought this book to be one of the best diagnoses of racism's causes that they'd read, especially how it can combine with Arturo's sexism.  Yet Arturo's an immensely charming and likeable character, too, despite his brute honesty about his flaws--your group will no doubt want to discuss how to understand his mix of contradictions and what drives his complicated relationships with others, especially Camilla.  (Does their relationship evolve and mature?  What happens to her in the end?  What's the meaning of Arturo's last gesture, when he throws a copy of his new novel into the desert saying that without her he couldn't have become the writer he has become?)

The book has obvious flaws, including in its plotting, but I hope that they won't counterbalance for your group the book's obvious strengths.  Fante now has a cult following, especially among young readers who like the Beats who came later, and this novel was recently made into a motion picture available on DVD starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek and directed by Robert Towne, who did the brilliant movie Chinatown (!).  It's a pretty flawed movie that also rewrites the book in some key ways, but it gets many things right, especially regarding the book's use of its California/LA settings in cities, by the ocean, and in the desert.

Rivera:

This poetic novel is obviously a product of the 1960s Chicano farmworkers' rights movement led by Cesar Chavez and others.  Published in Spanish and then later in English, it quickly became a classic of Chicano literature and, many of us would argue, a necessary text for American literature as well.  Surprisingly, perhaps, Rivera chooses to tell the story of Chicano farmworkers often through the point of view of a rather dreamy boy, the son of one of the farmworker families.  Why do you think Rivera took this approach?  In what ways can the private visions of this one very sensitive child represent not just his own unique individuality, but the strengths and sufferings, the dreams and nightmares, of an entire people? (Striking such a balance between individual and collective identity is very difficult and very important.)  Other points of view are used in the text too—what are they? Note that Fante's Camilla is portrayed as being essentially alone in her struggles; the presence of a complex Chicano community is a huge absence in Fante's novel, one that immediately becomes apparent when we read the Rivera.

What's the meaning of the book's title?  Does the boy's character develop or progress?—if so, how?  In what ways must we consider the boy's story an _American_ story that is relevant for people of many different classes and ethnic/racial groups, one that highlights both this country's opportunities and its cruel contradictions? 

What is the meaning of the book’s final paragraph, particularly the image of the boy high in the tree waving?

Some more general topics relevant for Rivera and other works on the reading list:

Your group may want to reflect on Rivera’s book's dual textual identity: it exists both in Spanish and English.   Immigrant American literature, of course, has a long and fascinating history of bilingualism:  important texts (fiction and nonfiction) that exist in, say, Yiddish or Chinese long before they are translated & become part of the "English" American literature canon. There are also many texts that are bilingual from the start, using mixed languages in their original version, so that English must coexist with another language and one that is not always 'translated' for possible readers who know English only.  Should 'English only' be a requirement for a book being part of "American" literature?  What about books about an experience here written by non-citizens?  Obviously complicated issues of cultural politics are involved here, not just aesthetics.  Who do you think should “decide” such questions?

Some General Topics

American literature has a long history of authors who responded to anti-immigrant, "nativist" movements defining immigrants legal and otherwise in mostly negative ways—Willa Cather’s My Antonia (1918) is an important early 20th century example.   (American cultural history also has many examples of immigrant-bashing, and also of authors providing different and sometimes conflicting narratives for whether immigrants should or could assimilate and, if so, how:  one early instance is James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers.)  Too often "debates" about American immigration focus only on Ellis Island as THE immigrant story and include nativists against immigration vs. business interests for immigration because it provides them with a vulnerable labor force that they can exploit; the complexities of _immigrants'_ actual experiences is often left out.  Some pertinent questions:

  • What makes some immigrant families become upwardly mobile (or at least have more capital and security) after several generations? 
  • In what ways have immigrant families’ experiences been different since the nineteenth century depending on race, ethnicity, national origin (from Europe? Asia? Africa? Caribbean or Latin America or Mexico or Canada?), religion, class and education levels, etc.?  (Making Ellis Island THE immigrant story elides important differences that, say, immigrants from Asia experienced.) 
  • In what ways have immigration procedures and the processes of being naturalized changed since the Ellis Island era? 
  • Could immigrants from Asia between the 1880s and WWII normally become citizens or own property in the U.S.?  (For more on this, see “The Laws” chapter in Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, her companion volume to The Woman Warrior.)
  • In what ways are Mexican Americans’ experiences with ‘immigration’ unique? 
  • How much of the economic and cultural wealth of the U.S., past and present, would you say is due to illegal immigrant labor or the labor of migrants who were not allowed to achieve citizenship for years, if ever? 
  • Do communities with high percentages of immigrants have higher or lower crime rates than other communities?  What about economic growth rates?

You might also want to consider the difference between the US mass market media (such as Lou Dobbs 'covering' immigration issues on CNN) vs. how immigration rights and immigrants' contributions to the US economy and US culture are treated in Spanish-language newspapers available in the DC or NYC area.  You'll see the vast gap that exists between how these different groups define the 'problem', not to mention how differently they understand America's identity as a nation of immigrants.  A diverse range of immigrant-rights voices is hardly ever allowed to be present in the US mass media, where basically the debate is between anti-immigrant nativists and the business community that wants cheap labor readily available.    Novels like Rivera's can give us a broader sense of Chicano history and experiences--important for all to have regardless of where they stand in contemporary immigration debates.   Many of those who are most anti-immigration have conveniently rewritten and simplified their own group's complicated immigration history, including ways in which, like Fante, they once were discriminated against:  there's a long history of groups claiming their "American" identity by turning against the newest crop of immigrants and seeing them in mostly negative ways--all not in the name of bigotry, of course, but in the name of upholding legal and cultural standards.  (“My grandparents learned English—why can’t they?”)

There's obviously a lot more to be said on the above issues, and my brief statements above inevitably oversimplify.  But I offer them to your group to spur discussion about how reading Fante and Rivera can get your group not just to rehearse the current 'immigration' debate in the usual ways, but to rethink completely what "our" immigration history has been and how we should reframe how immigration issues are currently discussed.  Novels can arguably play a crucial role here because they allow readers to enter another person's experience day by day; they don't let us think about an impersonal "them" and they don't let us think that all immigrants look or act or think alike either.