Cecile Pineda, high-profile Latina author, dies at 89

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Cecile Pineda, who burst onto the literary scene in 1985 with her first novel, ‘Face,’ about a Brazilian who reconstructs his face after a disfiguring accident, and then tackled the immigrant experience and dangers of the nuclear age in works that entered the canon of Latin literature, died August 11 at her home in Berkeley, California. She was 89 years old.

His sons, David and Michael Leneman, confirmed his death but did not cite a cause.

Ms. Pineda grew up in New York, the daughter of a Swiss mother and a Mexican father. Her father, she said, entered the United States in 1910 as an undocumented immigrant, studied at Harvard University, and became a philologist and linguist. He cultivated his daughter’s interest in literature and art but revealed little about her life before coming to the United States, Ms Pineda told online magazine Hippocampus, leaving her “an orphan in the sense where I never knew who or where I came from”. .”

Ms. Pineda has confronted the often strained notion of identity, among other themes, in works of fiction, non-fiction and theater spanning more than half a century. She first established herself as a theater manager in San Francisco, founding the City Man’s Experimental Theater in 1969, and embarked on her literary career after the company closed in 1981.

She has described herself as being interested in everything – from insects to people to politics – and based her first book on a newspaper article about a man who reconstructed his own face after an accident. In his fictional rendering, the man was a poor, nearly illiterate Brazilian barber, Helio Cara, who, while running on foot to his dying mother’s bedside, slips off a slippery cliff in the rain and destroys her face. Unable to pay for plastic surgery, he wears a rubber mask before using his manual barbering skills to redo his face – and himself.

“I was so touched by his essays and amazed at the idea of ​​making a face,” Ms Pineda told The Associated Press in 1985, referring to the topic of the newspaper article that inspired her novel. “Finding someone who makes a face, not a mask, but a face, what does that mean and what does that mean in our time?

She continued, “Aren’t we all disfigured in one way or another? Try being a divorced woman and you will find out how you will lose face. …Try being someone who doesn’t look good because he or she can’t afford a coat or a dress. This book is a metaphor.

“Face” was a finalist for the 1985 National Book Award for First Work of Fiction. In an introduction to a later edition of the book, South African-born writer J. M. Coetzee described it as “an extraordinary achievement, all the more extraordinary for being a first novel”.

“With exemplary freshness, he asks us: what is this thing, this structure of skin and bone, of cartilage and muscle, that we are condemned to carry with us wherever we go?” he wrote. “And why is everyone seeing him instead of seeing me?” Or — reversing the questions: who is this me who dares to think of himself hidden behind his face…?

Other of Ms. Pineda’s best-known novels include “Frieze” (1986), a story of a stonemason set in ancient India and Java, and “The Love Queen of the Amazon” (1992 ). This latest book, selected by the New York Times as a “new and noteworthy” volume of the year, centered on a former convent schoolgirl who becomes a madam in Peru. Novelist Richard Martins, writing for the Chicago Tribune, described the protagonist as “one of the few great Latin heroines not created by the male imagination”.

“Ana Magdalena’s love story offers American-born Pineda a unique vehicle to look with a satirical and feminine eye at the mores, customs, and literature of all of America,” he writes, ” to which “Love Queen” is a remarkable addition.”

Ms. Pineda has written 10 books in all, many of which reflect her engagement with the anti-nuclear movement, environmentalism and activism on behalf of immigrants and other marginalized groups.

His non-fiction book “Devil’s Tango”, published in 2012, examined the previous year’s nuclear accident at the Fukushima power plant in Japan. “Apology to a Whale: Words to Mend a World” (2015) was a literary exploration of environmental degradation and its consequences for the natural world as well as humanity. In “Entry Without Inspection: A Writer’s Life in El Norte” (2020), Ms. Pineda recounted her family’s immigration experience in the context of a larger investigation into immigration to the United States.

“My novels attempt to ask questions such as: must the world be virtually wiped out by a nuclear accident before human nature can begin the long journey back to a healing society?” she once told an interviewer. “Does history inevitably repeat itself? Is the short-sighted history of mankind the result of poor memory, faulty or limited genetic development? »

Marthe-Alice Cecilia Pineda was born in Harlem on September 24, 1932. Her mother, a designer and illustrator, is from French-speaking Switzerland and the family speaks French at home. Referring to her father’s odyssey, she wrote in “Entry Without Inspection” that hers was a family whose “ties were severed long ago and whose culture was sidelined at the U.S.- Mexican” when he “entered the United States under an assumed name. , an extralegal immigration described by ICE as “uncontrolled entry”. ”

Mrs Pineda was brought up in a highly intellectual environment and absorbed literature ranging from the Bible to the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. She was particularly influenced, she once told the San Antonio Express-News, by a series of biographies of notable women in the arts.

Mrs. Pineda received a bachelor’s degree in English from Barnard College in New York in 1954. In 1961, following her marriage to a French-born doctor, Felix Leneman, she moved to San Francisco and graduated in Theater Arts from San Francisco State. University.

At the Theater of Man, Ms. Pineda has directed productions based primarily on sound and movement. According to its publisher, Wings Press, the works often explored themes of “totalitarianism and gender role expectations.” She told online publication Literary Hub that the theater company was her opportunity to “leave the housewife behind”.

Mrs. Pineda’s marriage ended in divorce. His sons, both from Los Angeles, are his only immediate survivors.

Ms. Pineda has taught creative writing at institutions including the California College of the Arts, Mills College in Oakland, CA, and the California State University System. Among his books were the fictional memoirs “Fishlight: A Dream of Childhood” (2001), the novels “Bardo99” (2002) and “Redoubt” (2004), and a meditation on literature, “Three Tides: Writing at the Edge of Being” (2016) She lived for many years in Oakland Hills and then in Berkeley, working in an office that was full of artwork from her travels around the world.

“Latin letters will be with us for a very long time, as long as there are people left who refuse cultural homogenization, who celebrate their diversity,” she told the Express-News.

“Hurrah for that! People will keep writing,” she continued. “The best of them can even offer new insights into how best to lead our lives in devastating times.”

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