A Brief Ecuadorian Reading List
Sadly, I haven’t been able to blog the last month: between offline responsibilities and preparing for my trip to Ecuador, something had to give. And this is just a quick pop in: I leave for my trip tomorrow morning and will be gone for four weeks! But when I get back, I will do my best to give my blog and all my bloggy friends the attention they deserve. In the mean time, what better place holder than an annotated book list?
Reading for Ecuador turned out to be a bit different than reading for Mexico or Canada: it was very difficult to track down books by Ecuadorian authors and even books about Ecuador. This will thus be a short list: by the time I realised I’d have to interlibrary loan to get my hands on much, it was too late. Hopefully I’ll be able to read it after my trip at least!
Fire on the Andes is a short story anthology featuring women from Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. I read the Ecuadorian short stories and found a few authors I’d like to get to know better: Monica Bravo (knitting! death personified! hers was my favourite story), Alicia Yanez Cossio, Eugenia Viteri, and Nela Martinez. While I was glad to be able to peek into various Ecuadorian brains, I’ll admit to being disappointed that all of the authors featured seem to have quite privileged backgrounds (with perhaps one exception). Still, definitely worth picking up if you’re going to the region, and it fills a sad hole. The only other Ecuadorian author I’ve read is Edna Iturralde, who primarily writes for children. I read her picture book Conoce a Simón Bolívar which despite being aimed at children was definitely on a higher level than my Spanish afforded! I persevered though and with context clues and my pocket dictionary figured it out. I only wish my library had some of her fiction work for me to get to know her better.
To learn more about Bolivar, I also read Bolivar: an American Liberator, a recent biography (in English this time) written by Marie Arana (whose mother is American and father is Peruvian and who grew up in both countries). It was an engaging look at him, and I’m glad to know so much more about the revolutions that sent Spain out of South America, but ultimately I didn’t much care for the man or so many military engagements and was relieved when I finished. Worth reading if you want the background or if you enjoy more traditional style history (aka focused on important people and war). I rather hope Arana is working on a book about Bolivar’s paramours, as they seem fascinating women, and I think that’d be more to my tastes!
My other history reading was Charles Mann‘s two books 1491 and 1493, which are very general looks at the ‘New World’ but include a lot of information relevant to Ecuador. I’m glad to have read these, and I found much of the material intriguing while Mann’s style is very readable (both are over four hundred pages but I could breeze through one hundred pages at a sitting), but they are not without their flaws. I found his patriarchal viewpoint throughout both books frustrating: women are a footnote if anything in his histories and little things gave away his impression of women as lacking agency (off the top of my head, in 1493 he both refers to a man as ‘owning’ his mistress and to rebel men stealing cows, mules, and occasionally women, as if these three things are somehow in the same category). It’s subtle, and not a reason to discount the marginalised male stories he brings to the forefront, but disappointing considering Mann’s fairly zealous anti-racist tone. In 1493 I was also annoyed fairly regularly by his presentation of neoliberal economic theories as if they’re true and not simply one economic paradigm. Despite these problems, as I said at the beginning, both books are well worth reading and I’m so glad I read them before my trip: I’ll certainly be experiencing the landscapes and people I meet through different eyes than if I’d only known conventional historical accounts.
I also read a wonderfully inspirational travelogue: Along the Inca Road by Karen Muller. Honestly, it’s one of the best travel books I’ve ever read, and having so much of Ecuador featured was just the icing on the cake! Muller is a young, thoughtful, deeply open woman who set out sort-of-solo (she has a camera man as PBS sponsored her) to follow the Incan road. Along the way, she connects with people everywhere: she’s made sure she’s fluent in Spanish before she’s left and she just seems utterly fearless at diving into new cultures. She is definitely one of my new life role models and she has a couple of other books for me to devour. Can’t recommend her and this book enough to anyone! I hope my journey is even one tenth so enriching.
My other favourite read was by anthropologist Ann Miles: From Cuenca to Queens. I almost didn’t pick this up since the subtitle An Anthropological Story of Transnational Migration made me think it was just about an Ecuadorian in the US, but I’m so glad I gave it a go this past weekend! It’s a rich, enthralling portrait of a family from Ecuador’s rural south who moved to Cuenca to better their lives. Miles first got to know the family in 1988 and she spent more time with them on each of her subsequent visits to Ecuador, so that this book, published in 2004, follows the fortunates of the family over more than a decade (the bulk of the book goes through 2000, but there’s an epilogue covering through 2002). She does a great job of portraying the different family members without dehumanising them and I loved the context of Ecuadorian culture and political and economic events she provides as background. It’s all just wonderfully done and as I have quite a bit of time scheduled to spend in Cuenca myself I feel so fortunate to have read this. I definitely recommend it to any reader curious about daily life of people in a different society.
During my time in Ecuador, I’m also going to the Amazon. As such, considering my interest in nature, I knew I wanted to read some scientific books about it. Imagine my surprise when none of the books I turned up in catalogue searches about the Amazon seemed to be in the naturalist style I wanted! I did reread Sy Montgomery’s Journey of the Pink Dolphins (see the fan girl love it provoked in me the first go round), but it’s more of a travelogue than naturalist account. I ended up trying and abandoning quite a few of the books the Amazon search turned up, but one gem stood out: Entangled Edens by Candace Slater. This is a sociological, not biological, look at the region, but I loved the way Slater examined our Western perceptions of the Amazon (and all it’s come to symbolise, particularly in the conservation movement) vs the realities of the people who live there. That awareness of Western biases helped me greatly and I’m sure will be a boon on my trip. I then turned to the children’s section for more information on Amazonian ecology and made it through quite a few informative picture books that have me even more excited!
Eventually, just a couple weeks ago, by looking at some of the terms the picture books were labelled with I figured out that instead of searching for the Amazon I should have been searching for neotropical rainforests (you’d think this would be cross-referenced). This turned up three absolutely wonderful books, in just the kind of down-to-earth, wide-eyed wonder mixed with arcane factual knowledge style that I love. They are, in the order I read them, Tropical Nature by Kenneth Miyata and Adrian Forsyth, Portraits of the Rainforest also by Adrian Forsyth (and despite its seeming format as a coffee table book, full of the same kinds of essays as Tropical Nature, just with photographs), and A Neotropical Companion by John Kricher. Loved and recommend them all, although I do think you should also read the Slater book since all three touch at least a bit on conservation and it’s good to be able to evaluate the authors’ Western biases.
Wow: for not many books I’ve managed to type a lot! Clearly I’ve missed blogging. I know I’ve barely touched the tip of the iceberg of this topic, and I wish I’d asked my readers to share their recommendations earlier, but I’m content that I’ve read enough to have a bit of context for my journey. Feel free to share your suggestions in the comments and I can read them when I get home!
And with that, I’ll see you all when I get back!