We've got an at-bat today over at Litblog Co-op HQ, so posts will probably be light here today. Fortunately, once again Daniel Olivas saves our bacon and offers up the latest in his growing series of guest reviews. Be the first one on your block to collect the whole set ...
Dancing with Ghosts: A Critical Biography of Arturo Islas
By Frederic Luis Aldama
University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA.
$19.95 (trade paper)
REVIEWED BY DANIEL OLIVAS
Dancing with Ghosts is Frederick Luis Aldama’s engrossing, beautifully-researched, and, in the end, fully-satisfying critical biography of the late novelist and educator, Arturo Islas. Born in El Paso in 1938, Islas, left behind a remarkable legacy despite having his life cut short by AIDS in 1991. Surviving a childhood bout with polio that left him with a limp, a domineering police officer father, and a sense of estrangement from society as a gay Chicano, Islas developed his love and understanding of literature almost as a defense. By mastering the English language and learning to appreciate the world of books, Islas went on to be the first Mexican-American undergraduate at Stanford graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1960; he subsequently entered and completed Stanford’s Ph.D. program in English. Through sheer force of intellect and will (and the support of admiring faculty members such as Ian Watt and Wallace Stegner), Islas became the only Chicano professor in Stanford’s English department and remained so until his death.
Islas also survived a horrendous but necessary colostomy the same year he commenced his teaching career leaving him with a “scat bag” or “stinky rose” (his words) attached to his abdomen for the rest of his life. Through all this, Islas was a prolific journal-keeper, poet, short story writer and novelist. He is best known for his novels The Rain God, Migrant Souls and the posthumously published La Mollie and the King of Tears. And while at Stanford, Islas became a champion for Chicano/a students both as a mentor and as an eloquent proponent of curriculum changes that better reflected the diversity of California’s population. When an-HIV ravaged Islas died in his Palo Alto home, his reputation was secure at Stanford as a beloved professor whose carefully crafted lectures were popular and well-attended by students of all ethnicities.
With access to the extensive Islas archive at Stanford, Aldama draws upon detailed and deeply personal journal entries as well as correspondence, newspaper clippings, early drafts of books, unpublished poetry and lectures to paint a complex portrait of Islas. Islas struggled throughout his life with memories of an abusive household where an iron-willed father dominated an almost pathologically passive mother. This struggle manifested itself in his personal relationships as Islas experienced San Francisco’s S&M scene in the 1970s where he alternated between playing the unrelenting abuser and the passive victim. By day, he looked and acted like the conservative, predominantly straight, white male Stanford faculty. Islas also fought against the publishing establishment that could not comprehend novels that included middle-class Mexican-Americans and undisguised queer themes and characters.
Aldama notes that he could have written a hagiography because of Islas’s “sensational and melodramatic ‘up-from-the-bootstraps’ story and its tragic denouement.” But that would have been dishonest. Islas was plagued with self-hate and was often moody, manipulative, narcissistic and unpredictable. Yet he could be brilliant, gentle, soft-spoken and, above all, generous. Aldama succeeds in synthesizing the disparate elements of Arturo Islas to produce what doubtless will become a seminal biographical study.