Latin America has produced some of the most important writers of the past century and a half. Not only are the works of the best Latin American writers exceptional literary works, but also good sellers. They have also fed the film industry. Above all, Central and South American writers have been innovative and influential as regards the development of fictional writing globally.
The writers are presented here in order of their birth dates.
Jose Hernandez, 1834 – 1886
Ask any Argentinean who their national poet is and they will tell you it’s Jose Hernandez. That is because he wrote the epic gaucho (cowboy) poem, Martin Fierro, which strikes a deep chord in the hearts of that cattle farming nation.
Hernandez was a politician , journalist and soldier on the Federal side of the civil wars in Argentina and Uruguay. He was also a poet, of course.
Jorge Luis Borges, 1899 – 1986
Although these writers are listed according to their birth dates, if they had been listed according to our personal preferences Borges would have been at the top – by a long way. Moreover, in our opinion, he is also the greatest writer of the twentieth century.
Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges was an Argentine poet and writer of short fiction, and it is in the latter genre that he is so special. While most influential writers’ innovations and techniques can be adopted by other writers, or can be copied or imitated, that has never been done in the case of Borges because it would be impossible a) to come up with the kind of ideas he did, and b) to come anywhere near to using language the way he did to develop them.
His fictions are very short, very compressed. They don’t develop scenes and characters in the way conventional fiction does. They plant an idea in the reader’s mind – usually a stunning idea – and it does something inside the reader’s mind to express its meaning. The idea itself is the job half done, so to speak. For example – and this is a spoiler – a man has a weird dreamlike experience an eventually realises that he doesn’t exist but is person being dreamed by someone else.
Another example is a writer who spends years reading and studying Cervantes’ novel, Don Quixote. He Studies Cervantes’ life and circumstances, placing himself in that space, then sits down to write his own Don Quixote. It turns out to be exactly the same as Cervantes’ novel, including every punctuation mark. When his book is published critics argue about which is the better version. It is in that way – two writers, four centuries apart, producing the same text – that Borges explores, in a very short fictional piece, such monumental things as social, technical, political etc. changes over four hundred years.
A young man sits on a park bench and begins talking to an, elderly, man, also sitting on the bench. What he does not know is that the elderly man is himself, some forty years later.
Borges was very much an amateur writer. He spent his working life as a librarian, rising to be the chief librarian of the Argentine National Library. It’s also worth noting that he was blind for the major part of his life.
Pablo Neruda, 1904 -1973
Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes was a Chilean politician, diplomat and poet who rose to fame as a poet in his teenage years. He lived in politically turbulent times and in the midst of that advocated for social justice and spoke out against political corruption and the exploitation of the working class, which was the main subject of his poems as well. He was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971.
Gabriel García Márquez, 1927 – 2014
The Colombian writer, Gabriel García Márquez, is generally spoken of as one of the greatest twentieth century writers. He wrote novels and short stories and was also a leading journalist. He perfected a style of fiction known as ‘magical realism,’ a fiction genre that incorporates fantasy into everyday, familiar, realistic situations as though fantasy incidences are part of normal life. His influence was enormous, stretching, not only across Latin America but around the world.
Garcia’s novel titles are familiar to all fiction readers – novels like Love in Times of Colera, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and the novel that became one of the top twentieth century novels in the world, One Hundred Years of Solitude, which tells the story of a mythical Colombian city that was discovered by one of its inhabitants. It was translated into about forty languages and has sold more than thirty million copies. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.
Carlos Fuentes, 1928 – 2012
Carlos Fuentes Macias was a Mexican essayist, novelist and diplomat. He was regarded as one of the foremost Mexican writers of all time, with famous and popular novels like The Death of Artemio Cruz, Aura, Terra Nostra, Christopher Unborn and The Old Gringo. He won several awards and although mentioned several times for the Nobel Prize, he never won it.
Manuel Puig, 1932 – 1990
Juan Manuel Puig Delledonne was an Argentinian novelist who achieved international acclaim with his novel Kiss of the Spider Woman, which was made into the Oscar-winning film tht b frodened his reputation. His writing was akin to the pop art that was occurring at the same time as he was writing, He used popular culture like soap operas and comic books in his writing. His novels Betrayed by Rita Haywood and Heartbreak Tango are among the most popular novels to come out of Latin America.
Mario Vargas Llosa, born 1936
Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian novelist, essayist and politician. He has a very large international readership, with novels like The Time of the Hero, The Green House and Conversation in the Cathedral. His novels tend to be political and depict the resistance and revolt of individuals. Many of his novels and stories are bestsellers that have been adapted for film. He has received scores of awards for his writing, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010.
Isabel Allende, born 1942
Chilean writer Isabel Allende is one of the foremost feminist writers of the times, producing bestselling novels with a strong feminist voice. She celebrates the lives of brave, exceptional women. She is deeply influenced by Marquez and uses the kind of magical realism that characterises is work. Her most famous novel, generally regarded as her masterpiece, is The House of the Spirits. She has won several awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama.
Ariel Dorfman, born 1942
Vladimiro Ariel Dorfman is an Argentine-Chilean-American writer, academic and human rights activist. He is the writer of several popular novels and countless plays that have one him acclaim and many international awards. He writes in Spanish and English. He has lived in the United States for most of his life where he is professor emeritus of Latin American studies at Duke University, North Carolina.
Dorfman’s books have been translated into more than forty languages and his plays have been performed on over a hundred countries. He is considered one of the twentieth century’s most important literary figures and a powerful example of cross-cultural writing. His best known play, adapted for the screen – a film by Roman Polansky – is Death and the Maiden.
Laura Esquivel, born 1950
Laura Esquivel is Mexican politician who serves in the Chamber of Deputies. After the success of her first novel, Como Agua Para Chocolate, which was a best seller in Mexico and America, and made her internationally known, she went on to write more bestsellers, as well as film scripts, including adaptations of her own novels. She won the Ariel Award for the Best Screenplay for Cinema for her film Like Water for Chocolate.
That’s the lot for our pick of the very best Latin American writers. You may also like our article on the best South American novels. What do you think – any obvious choices that we’re missing? Join the conversation in the comments section below.