July 5, 2017
Amanda Nagy
Sergio Gutiérrez Negrón portrait
Sergio Gutiérrez Negrón is assistant professor of Hispanic studies. Photo credit: Jennifer Manna

A native of Puerto Rico, Negrón came to Oberlin as a visiting faculty member in 2015. His teaching and research centers on 19th century Mexican and Caribbean literature and intellectual history.

 

Sergio Gutiérrez Negrón tells his students not to fear the blank page. Make time to be creative. Write something, even it you’re not happy with it.

Negrón follows his own advice, rising at 6 a.m. every day to work on his craft. But he admits it can be a difficult balancing act, switching between academic and creative gears. A newly appointed assistant professor in the Hispanic Studies Department, Negrón has been named one of this year’s best fiction writers under the age of 40 across Latin America by the Hay Festival Bogotá39.  

A native of Puerto Rico, Negrón came to Oberlin as a visiting faculty member in 2015. His teaching and research centers on 19th century Mexican and Caribbean literature and intellectual history.

He has written two novels that have been published in Puerto Rico. The first, Palacio (2011), received an honorable mention from the Puerto Rico-PEN Club in 2011. The second, Dicen que los dormidos (Say that asleep), published in 2013, received the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña's National Novel Prize in Puerto Rico.

Following the critical acclaim of his second novel, Negrón received the Premio Nuevas Voces (New Voice Award) from the Festival de la Palabra, an accolade given to promising up-and-coming Puerto Rican authors.

Negrón describes Palacio as a love story about a Puerto Rican man who moves to Atlanta (where Negrón received his PhD at Emory University) and the woman he marries, who disappears. “After that, it gets really weird, really fast,” he says.

Dicen que los dormidos is about contemporary violence in Puerto Rico and how it impacts the everyday life of innocent bystanders. The story follows the fate of a young man mistaken for another person and severely wounded in a drive-by shooting. The man falls into a coma, and when he wakes, he tries to make sense of his new reality. “The long reflection in the novel is, can violence ever be an accident? That question has more to do with the worsening crime and drug epidemic in the last decade or so.”

Negrón explains that the increase in crime is a symptom of Puerto Rico’s economic crisis. The island has been in a recession since 2006. At the same time, a huge chunk of the population is emigrating to the United States—about half a million people in the last 12 years—with some estimating the exodus will be as big as the migration of the 1950s, when Puerto Ricans settled in cities such as Chicago and nearby Lorain, Ohio.

“It’s mostly the middle class and working class people who are migrating, so it’s people who effectively who could get the country out of recession, but they are leaving because there are no jobs or because the jobs that are available don’t have good pay and good benefits. So this has led to a lot of problems,” says Negrón, whose brother and sister and several close friends from the island have all recently relocated to the U.S.

Moving from the Puerto Rico to the mainland is like moving from one state to another, but its political status is somewhat confusing to most Americans.

“Puerto Rico is this kind of in-between space,” he says. “My generation and the ones that have followed are very Latin American in certain ways, but we’re also very American in that most of the popular culture we consume is American. The Puerto Rican aspiration of middle class feels closer to American aspirations. When I’m talking with someone in the U.S. who is the same age, I feel like we have all the same references, but there’s something that doesn’t quite fit. At the same time, if I’m talking with someone from Latin America who’s the same age, I feel we have almost the same references, but something doesn’t fit.”

Negrón came to Oberlin with his wife, Assistant Professor of Early Modern Iberian Studies Ana María Díaz Burgos. He says neither of them had any reference point for a liberal arts college.

“In Puerto Rico and Colombia, where my wife is from, we only have large universities. Looking back, I would have appreciated this environment. I really enjoy the atmosphere here.”

Negrón initially set out to be a journalist as an undergrad. He still pursues journalistic writing by contributing a monthly column and op-ed pieces in Puerto Rico’s El Nuevo Día newspaper. He also brought his experience to a journalism course, ¡Stop the Presses! Journalism in the Spanish-Speaking World, that he he taught in the Department of Hispanic Studies in fall 2016. In the class, students learned to write and produce their own opinion pieces and report on current affairs in Spanish, which they broadcast on WOBC, Oberlin’s community radio station.

“The students were really engaged with it. It was a good way of having them read and develop critical analysis, then take it somewhere they can see results,” he says. “I love how impassioned Oberlin students are about everything. They arrive with high language proficiency. Those who don’t have the language skills learn very quickly. Even if Latin America is like a foreign universe to them, Oberlin students know enough history or politics to engage with it. Most of my classes have had really good conversations that I appreciate a lot.”

To maintain both his academic and writing careers, Negrón stays disciplined and creates a habit of sitting down to write, especially in the wee hours of the morning when the town is quiet.

“Every day I try to put some time into academic writing and creative writing. I always have a journal with me. It’s not an easy balance, but I hope I can sustain it for the rest of my life because it makes me happy.”

 

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