Latin American authors


Why fiction from Latin America has become so popular with English-language readers

With many LatAm writers already part of the Booker Prize canon, a new wave of powerful voices is driving a ‘second boom’ in literature from the region

Written by Sarah Shaffi

Publication date and time: Published

As a place on the map, Latin America lacks a precise and agreed definition. But what isn’t in doubt is that this collective region – which includes Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Chile and several other nations – covers a vast geographic area (over 7 million square miles) and a huge number of peoples, cultures, traditions and languages.  

Nor is it disputed that this is a region with an extraordinary literary heritage, both historically and currently. When the International Booker Prize longlist was announced earlier this year, Fiammetta Rocco, the Administrator of the prize, observed that the inclusion of writers from Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Venezuela on the list ‘signalled a second “boom” in Latin American fiction’. Writers from Argentina alone have been shortlisted for the prize four times since 2020, and last year’s Booker Prize winner Paul Lynch, when asked why Ireland appears to produce the best writers, argued that, in fact, it is South America that has been producing the world’s best writers for decades. 

So what is it about Latin American writing – or LatAm – that sets it apart; that not only makes it unique, but makes it so good?  

The International Booker Prize longlist books photographed stacked.

‘You could argue that Latin American literature was born political with the emergence of the new Republics, post-independence in the 19th century,’ says Benjamin Bollig, professor of Latin American Literature and Film in the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages at the University of Oxford. ‘Certain features of that literature include early debates around the relationship between the country and the city, the local and the international European Spanish influences, and the position of indigenous peoples in New Nations.’ 

Yet any analysis of Latin American works must also address its many differences across the region. Translator Megan McDowell, who has translated books including Mariana Enriquez’s The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, which was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2021, says: ‘The literatures in Latin America are informed by a variety of different literary and cultural traditions, both of the various countries and the language as a whole.’ 

While much of Latin American fiction is written in Spanish, hundreds of languages are spoken across the region, notes Evelyn Fishburn, honorary professor at University College London, who has widely published on one of Latin America’s most well-known authors, Jorge Luis Borges. 

There have been debates among writers, says Fishburn, about whether to write in a native language such as Quechua – a language that ‘nobody reads because it’s an oral tradition, so there isn’t a readership’.  

And although it is the dominant language, Spanish takes different forms across the region. 

‘The language is really different [across Latin America],’ says Laurence Laluyaux, director and agent at literary agency RCW. ‘I’ve worked with Chilean writers and Argentinian writers and Mexican writers, and the languages are all lively but in really different ways. Every country has a different vocabulary.’ 

Mariana Enríquez

You could argue that Latin American literature was born political with the emergence of the new Republics, post-independence in the 19th century

— Benjamin Bollig, professor of Latin American Literature and Film in the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages at the University of Oxford

Spanish from Latin America, says McDowell, works quite differently from the way English-language writers would write, due to grammar and structure. 

‘English writing tends toward direct, declarative statements, which are favoured by a grammar that requires specificity,’ she says. ‘Spanish, meanwhile, has room for more ambiguity. You don’t have to specify subjects of sentences, for example, and Spanish allows for much more of what English would call a run-on sentence.’ 

Language is also influenced by the region’s vibrant poetry culture. ‘Something that’s often overlooked and has been overlooked in recent years because of the prevalence of narrative fiction and particularly big novels, is the importance of poets and poetry and poets as national figures,’ says Bollig. ‘So people like Gabriela Mistral and many others, their poetry circulates in a way that is unseen in other countries. There are these really strong national poet figures, often with political spin to them.’ 

McDowell says that ‘in Chile, there’s a strong poetic tradition, with writers like Neruda, Mistral, Huidobro, Parra, Zurita, and many others. That tradition plays out in a lot of ways, and I see one of them being a playfulness in the literature I translate from Chile.’ 

Playfulness is a factor in much Latin American writing, although that can mean a variety of things, from playing with language to playing with tropes and genres. 

‘I think the lines between genres do tend to be blurrier in Latin American literature,’ says McDowell. ‘The word “texto” comes up a lot in Spanish when people talk about writing, and it’s a really general word. In English we tend to specify, and say we’re writing a “story/essay/ article/ poem/ academic paper” and not so much a “text”.’  

‘Spanish has a specific word, “crónica”, to describe long-form reporting; Leila Guerriero’s writing is a great example of the power of the crónica. Or look at Cristina Rivera Garza, whose book Lilian’s Invincible Summer just won the Pulitzer – it’s a mash-up of memoir, interview, epistolary writing, and investigation, and the result is beautiful and hard to categorise.’ 

Benjamin Bollig cites Chilean writer Nona Fernández, whose books, he says ‘mix reality and she’s not really sure exactly what kind of genre she’s writing in’. ‘They sometimes stray into sci-fi, mysteries, memoir. Her last book, Voyager, is really hard to nail down as to exactly what it is.’ 

Megan McDowell

Laluyaux says Latin American writers will often use ‘tropes from all sorts of genres without it being affected and without hammering that in. You read Enriquez’s really early short stories and there’s gothic and there’s horror, and what I love about that is it tells you lots of things about politics.’ 

Politics is woven through the work of contemporary Latin American writers, although in a different way to their earlier counterparts. Whereas in the 1960s and 1970s writers in the region subscribed to a ‘type of socialist revolution’, according to Bollig, the politics that concern contemporary writers are different. ‘There’s the Ni Una Menos movement, which is the anti-femicide campaign, as well as the campaign for legal, voluntary interruption of pregnancy. That’s quite present in a lot of the writers who have found fame and success recently.’ 

Those politics, while specific to the region, also have a universal appeal. ‘I think that LatAm writers have a different conception of the individual vs. the collective, and they take on subjects that have to do with particular political histories, economic challenges, violence and poverty in ways that read as universal,’ says McDowell. ‘There’s a mixing of local and global, like how Mariana Enriquez blends Argentine mythology and political history with horror and gothic tropes influenced by a more Anglo tradition. Or how Alejandro Zambra, in Chilean Poet, uses the specific world of Chilean poetry to talk about chosen families and changing masculinities, matters that are of vital interest all around the world.’ 

Also proving popular at present are narratives that look at the urban and the rural. ‘It’s predominantly, I would say, an urban literature,’ says Fishburn. But a significant number of Latin American writers are focused on the countryside. 

That is the case with the two Latin American books shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize. Selva Almada’s Not a River, translated by Annie McDermott from Spanish, is set in rural Argentina, and follows three men as they go out fishing, returning to a favourite spot on the river despite their memories of a terrible accident there years earlier.  

Almada’s book ‘looks at the countryside in a different way,’ says Bollig. ‘It’s not bucolic, the countryside is not in some way this idealised cradle of the nation. It’s not Mother Earth or anything like that. It’s kind of spooky and uncanny and weird.’ 

Portrait of author Selva Almada

We look for stories that don’t just confirm our own experience, but rather ones that challenge our expectations

Itamar Vieira Junior’s Crooked Plow, translated from Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz, is about two sisters in Brazil’s neglected Bahia hinterland who find an ancient knife beneath their grandmother’s bed and, momentarily mystified by its power, decide to taste its metal, unleashing violence. Among many of the Latin American works that have been nominated for the International Booker Prize, violence is never far from the surface. 

Fishburn notes that, in addition to violence and its consequences, ‘corruption and a preoccupation with dictatorship and their aftermath’ are also big topics in the modern Latin American novel.  

Social unrest features heavily, Lalayaux adds: ‘There’s a fair amount of looking back at what countries went through with women’s rights, but also with the dictatorships in Argentina, Chile and Brazil and what couldn’t be said at the time.’  

Part of what distinguishes today’s Latin American fiction is that it features voices and experiences not heard or spoken about until recently. Far more books by women and featuring minoritised voices are being published. Women writers, Fishburn says, have shown that ‘they’re no longer the passive recipient of male love, but are agents. It is more startling, in a deeply “machista” culture, to have women, not loved by the local hero, but at the centre themselves.’ 

The combination of powerful and impressive new voices and a certain familiarity with Latin American culture among UK, European and American audiences could be why LatAm literature in translation is proving so popular. ‘There’s a Netflix series of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude quite soon, so this is not an unknown,’ says Bollig. ‘There’s a degree of familiarity, but there’s also something different and exciting about fiction from a long way away.  

‘There are also some very good translators and agents who are good at finding and translating and presenting things for an international market, and specific presses who have a really strong track record of finding authors who will sell in translation.’ 

Ultimately, he adds, ‘there are a lot of really good writers out there. I don’t know that there is anybody else writing like Mariana Enríquez, like Selva Almada.’ 

McDowell says that ‘as interest grows, it feeds itself’. ‘The more books are translated from Spanish-speaking countries, the more readers feel comfortable and curious and start to seek out even more,’ she continues. ‘They’re not just reading one Neruda book in a void with no context of Chilean literature, they’re reading Alejandro Zambra and Nona Fernández and Alia Trabucco Zeran and maybe even José Donoso.’ 

It’s all part of a growing appetite for fiction in translation. ‘I think that readers are more open overall to translation these days than they have been in the past,’ McDowell says. ‘The world is shrinking and we can’t afford to limit our cultural diets to local artists and writers. We value a diversity of voices a little more these days, so we look for stories that don’t just confirm our own experience, but rather ones that challenge our expectations.’ 

Portrait of author Itamar Vieira Junior