James W. Fuerst
New World Postcolonial:
The Political Thought of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega

(University of Pittsburg Press, 2018)

The Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1539 – 1616) is an iconic figure in Peru, where soccer teams, stadiums, city streets, and a university are named after him, and more generally throughout Latin America, where he is often seen as a founding figure of the region’s literary and cultural tradition, although he is hardly known in North America. His masterpiece, the Royal Commentaries of the Incas (1609-1617), is the subject of James Fuerst’s New World Postcolonial: The Political Thought of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (2018). Fuerst is the Chair of Writing and co-Chair of Literary Studies at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School, where he earned his MFA in Creative Writing and teaches courses in fiction and literature. He is best known, however, as the author of Huge (2009), which parodies hard-boiled detective novels by having its protagonist, Eugene “Huge” Smalls, investigate small-time crimes in a retirement home in New Jersey. In addition to being a successful novelist, Fuerst also has a PhD in Political Science from Harvard University. New World Postcolonial is his first book-length academic publication.

I interviewed Jim Fuerst during the last week of June.

Juan E De Castro (Rail):  Can you tell us about yourself?

James Fuerst: I was born in New Jersey but have lived a number of different places, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, North Carolina, New York, London, and so on. I’m half Puerto Rican and half white. I went to graduate school after college to study political theory and right around the time that I was getting my Ph.D. I decided that what I really wanted to do was write stories. I was already living in New York at the time, landed a job teaching at Eugene Lang College, and went to the MFA program at the New School. My first novel, Huge, was published by Crown/Three Rivers Press, I have a second manuscript that’s ready to go out, and my scholarly work New World Postcolonial: The Political Thought of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega was published by University of Pittsburgh Press in May of this year.  I started that project in 1996, so it has been a long time coming, and I’m both happy and relieved that it’s finally out. 

Rail: How did you come upon the figure Inca Garcilaso de la Vega?

Fuerst: Purely by chance, at a talk given by Prof. Doris Sommer at Harvard in the fall of 1995.  I'd never heard of Inca Garcilaso before and I thought Prof. Sommer's presentation was very interesting but I don't remember thinking too much about it after that. The following spring, however, I was studying for general exams and re-reading John Locke's Second Treatise of  Government for the tenth or so time, when I noticed Locke's reference in section 14 to “Promises and Bargains for Truck, &c. between two Men in the Desert Island, mentioned by Garcilasso de la Vega, in his History of Peru.”  With that citation Locke was attempting to provide evidence for the historical existence of the state of nature, one of the slipperiest concepts in his political thought, and I wondered if this "Garcilasso de la Vega" was the same Inca Garcilaso I'd heard Prof. Sommer speak about in the fall. So I hit the library and tried to find out

Rail:  As you know, and your book proves, he's a key figure in Latin American colonial literature and history, so we cannot be surprised by his being studied in your class. Moreover, as the mention by Locke shows, the Inca was once an author widely read throughout the Western world. That said, could you tell us what, once you started reading him, appealed to you about his works and figure?

Fuerst: Actually, Doris's talk was for a graduate student working group on social sciences, literature, and philosophy; she was invited to speak and had just finished an article on Inca Garcilaso and Leone Ebreo's Dialoghi d’amore, so it wasn't for a class.

Inca Garcilaso was indeed widely read throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries across Europe and the Americas, but by the late twentieth century that seemed all but forgotten in the Anglophone world. For instance, the secondary literature on Locke is vast, but there was very little written on his citation of Inca Garcilaso, and some of the few who had mentioned it either didn't seem to know who Inca Garcilaso was or mistook him for someone else. So I approached his works in the first instance to see what they could tell me about Locke. But once I started reading them that changed quickly. His work, the Royal Commentaries in particular, struck me as strange, but in all the right ways. I hadn't read much New World historiography, but here was an author who began by stating that ancient scholars had been wrong to doubt the existence of the antipodes since the world was in fact round, by claiming that Antonio Sánchez de Huelva had discovered the New World, not Christopher Columbus, and by explaining, over the course of three chapters, how the word "Peru" had been derived from a simple misunderstanding. I really had no idea what kind of book I was getting into, but I found it intriguing nonetheless, perhaps all the more for having been written by a mestizo who claimed to be equally Inca and Spanish, and I found myself wanting to read and learn more.

Rail: It is perhaps ironic that the Inca Garcilaso has been forgotten in the United States when his The Florida of the Inca (1605) is probably the first attempt at writing the history of a territory that would become part of this country.  But I'm still curious about what led you to go from a reader of the Inca to becoming a scholar on his works?

Fuerst: It is ironic, but it’s also a product of institutional decisions.  To answer your question, though, it was two things, really. First, the more I began to grasp Inca Garcilaso's revision and restoration of Inca history and culture, the more I could see that his sensibility and political project were very different from, if not explicitly opposed to, Locke's, which made the latter's citation of him all the more peculiar. I realized at that point that I had more questions than I'd started with, and the only way I could begin to answer them was to write a book dedicated solely to Inca Garcilaso's political thought, because the kind of study that would put him in more direct conversation with Locke, or other figures of the Western tradition, didn't currently exist. So that's what I decided to do. Second, everyone was reading Homi Bhabha's Location of Culture then, and "hybridity" was one of the academic buzzwords of the day. Inca Garcilaso—who  called himself mestizo, Inca, Indian, Spaniard, and Catholic Christian, who spoke Quechua and Spanish, lived in Cuzco and Spain, translated Italian to Spanish, was an aristocratic colonial subject who lived most of his life in the metropole, etc.—is as clear an example of the sort of hybridity being discussed at the time as one could imagine.  More importantly for me, however, Inca Garcilaso was a historical example of hybrid subjectivity rather than a theoretical one, and his texts seemed to enact or inscribe many of the rhetorical and discursive strategies articulated by postcolonial theorists, albeit three and a half centuries before them. In my view he seemed thrillingly ahead of his time, confronting issues regarding identity, history, culture, and power that were still urgent and live at the end of the twentieth century, and are as much today. I found all of that too compelling to pass up.  I also can't neglect to mention that he's a marvelous writer and storyteller—a true master of digression and anecdote, among numerous other gifts—which is an incalculable boon when you commit yourself to reading the same books over and over for an unknown number of years.

Rail:  The title of your book, New World Postcolonial, foregrounds these connections between the Inca and contemporary scholars like Bhabha and writers like Rushdie. However, as you point out, given his dual ancestry—as an hidalgo, his father belonged to the minor Spanish nobility, while his mother was an Inca princess—there is an aristocratic bent to his "hybridity." Can you elaborate on the manner this dual nobility impacted his version of what today we call "post-colonialism"? 

Fuerst: In general terms, I would say that Inca Garcilaso's dual cultural inheritance and aristocratic status had at least two major implications for his critique of the injustices of Spanish colonialism and the distortions and biases of Spanish imperial historiography. The first was that, as a child of privilege, he was thoroughly educated in both Inca-Andean and Hispano-European cultures.  His first language was Quechua, which he learned from his mother Ñusta Isabela Suárez Chimpu Ocllo and her relatives, who in turn instructed him in the oral traditions, dynastic history, religion, and culture of the Incas, including how to read the quipus (knotted cords).  His father Captain Sebastian Garcilaso de la Vega saw to his European schooling from boyhood onward, including classes in grammar with other Indian, mestizo, and creole boys, having the young Inca Garcilaso (known then as Gómez Suárez de Figueroa) serve as his scribe while Captain de la Vega was Corregidor of Cuzco (1554 – 1556), and sending the young man with a sizable inheritance to Spain to finish his education after the Captain's death in 1559. Hence, Inca Garcilaso was raised to have the linguistic and cultural fluency to be a person of stature and prominence in both Inca and Spanish societies in colonial Peru. Second, his dual aristocratic status imbued him with a sense of familial piety toward his Inca and Spanish forebears, which he later portrayed as a moral duty to set the historical record straight regarding both parties. According to Inca Garcilaso, Spanish imperial historians had misunderstood and misrepresented the Incas as inferior to Europeans or diabolically inspired (mainly because they did not understand indigenous languages), and the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas had incorrectly vilified all of the conquerors of Peru, laying the foundation for the "Black Legend" of Spanish cruelty and injustice in the New World. As Inca Garcilaso put it, he had ties to Incas and Spaniards that motivated his revisionist interventions on both fronts, and he saw the possible coordination and alignment of the interests of the descendants of those two social groups as the best hope for the future of Peru.

Rail: Don't you think that Inca Garcilaso's aristocratic mien and background limit his denunciation of Spanish abuses? Or, do you feel that, on the contrary, it makes him more open to the virtues to be found in both cultural heritages? 

Fuerst: I don't think the aristocratic bent of his perspective limits his denunciation of Spanish abuses for a number of reasons. First, his conception of nobility is grounded in one's actions and deeds rather than one's birth or blood, so his understanding of aristocracy stresses the Greek root of arete, or the rule of virtue, over station or caste. Second, most Western political thinkers of Inca Garcilaso's day were either proponents of monarchical rule or aristocratic rule, so there was no real radical democratic alternative at the time, no grassroots or populist counterpoint, and those very few movements that could be construed as such were roundly rejected. Third, in his portrayal of Gonzalo Pizarro's rebellion, Inca Garcilaso advocates armed insurrection against the Spanish viceregal regime in the service of establishing an independent Peru, one in which descendants of the Incas would participate in co-rule with Spaniards. No one else in his day goes nearly as far as that, so I don't see his aristocratic inclinations limiting his political prescriptions in the least.

Rail: Do you see echoes of Inca Garcilaso's writing in contemporary American literature? What about Spanish language literature?

Fuerst: It's worth pointing out that Inca Garcilaso is the founding figure of American letters, so we're all kind of riding in his wake insofar as we consider ourselves working within that tradition. More specifically however, is the contemporary turn toward explorations of various forms of difference in U.S. literature can very easily be construed as an ongoing elaboration of Inca Garcilaso's own literary project 400 years after the fact. He was the first self-identified person of New World indigenous descent to write and publish books about New World indigenous peoples and cultures, emphasizing their achievements, intelligence, virtues, and humanity, contrary to the more Eurocentric accounts of his day that tended to diminish or even deny indigenous agency and personhood. In this light, American counter narratives that insist upon the dignity and worth of traditionally oppressed, marginalized, or excluded groups are implicitly or explicitly indebted to Inca Garcilaso because one of his great contributions to American letters is the invention of precisely that kind of narrative in our hemisphere. As for additional echoes of Inca Garcilaso in contemporary American literature —both Spanish and English—there are a number of very direct ones. For instance, Peruvian novelist Miguel Gutiérrez’s Poderes Secretos ("Secret Powers") imagines Inca Garcilaso's connections to the Society of Jesus, Francisco Carillo Espejo wrote a fictionalized journal of Inca Garcilaso in 1996 titled El Diario del Inca Garcilaso ("Inca Garcilaso's Diary"), Nobel winner Mario Vargas Llosa wrote an encomium to Inca Garcilaso in 2006 titled "El Inca Garcilaso y la Lengua de Todos" (El Inca Garcilaso and the Language of All), and there's a 2016 collection titled Garcilasismo creativo y crítico : nueva antología that closes with a number of poems and short stories by contemporary authors that are either about or dedicated to Inca Garcilaso. In English, the most notable echo is the character of La Inca in Junot Díaz’s 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. La Inca is from la Vega and is forever reminding everyone of the family's Glorious Golden past; she's very clearly a parody of and homage to the mestizo historian.

Rail: You are also a successful novelist in addition to being a scholar.  Do you see any connections between your narrative and your scholarship? Are there echoes of the Inca’s writings in your novel Huge or your works in progress?

Fuerst: I don't really draw hard and fast distinctions between the kinds of reading and writing that I do. I see them more as allowing me to work through sets of questions or concerns in different ways, so I suppose there's always some kind of connection between them. There isn’t very much of Inca Garcilaso in my first novel, though—I was teaching detective fiction at the time, I found myself reading and re-reading Raymond Chandler a lot, and Huge came directly out of that. But there is a good deal of Inca Garcilaso in my second novel, which is set between Cuzco and New York, which explicitly deals with the difficulties of navigating between different linguistic and cultural worlds, and makes use of a couple of indigenous Andean concepts that I first learned from reading the Royal Commentaries, so he's fairly prevalent in that one.

Rail: Inca Garcilaso has often been seen in Andean countries as the proponent of a harmonious version of mestizaje—the fusion of indigenous and Spanish (and Western) cultures and races—and, therefore, as buttressing conservative notions of nationality. With this traditional interpretation as a kind of background, can you talk about the current state of scholarship regarding his works and figure and, especially, what sets New World Postcolonial apart from the contemporary critical mainstream regarding the Inca Garcilaso?

Fuerst: The current state of scholarship on Inca Garcilaso has changed a great deal over the past twenty, twenty-five years. As you point out, even as late as the early 1990s the concepts of mestizo and mestizaje were often overstuffed with essentialized or racialized categories and were frequently deployed in nostalgic, romanticized, or ideologically motivated ways. The work of a number of scholars has helped to change that over the years, but the largest shift has been the turn toward excavating potential Andean meanings in Inca Garcilaso's work. Before that Inca Garcilaso had been read almost exclusively through Spanish and European lenses and was celebrated for his mastery of humanist discourse of the late Renaissance. The indigenous half of his mestizaje, however, upon which he continually insists, was neglected as an object of study. The first to explore possible Inca or Andean meanings in the Royal Commentaries was José Antonio Mazzotti in his Coros mestizos del Inca Garcilaso: resonancias andinas (1996) (translated and reissued as Incan Insights: El Inca Garcilaso's Hints to his Andean Readers, 2008), in which he leveraged advances in Andean archaeology, anthropology, and ethnohistory to fill in Inca Garcilaso’s multitude of references to Inca-Andean language and culture. I studied with Mazzotti in graduate school, he was on my dissertation committee, and my work delves into Andean contexts as well.  This approach to Inca Garcilaso—contextualizing and interpreting not only the Hispano-European but also the Inca-Andean side of his mestizaje—was still very new and not well established when I finished the first version of the book in 2000, and it may help to account for why it took so many years to find a publisher, because in the interim it has become widely accepted. But my book is also the first to treat Inca Garcilaso primarily as a political thinker and to read him against the political events and debates of Europe and the New World in the early modern period. It was about as far from mainstream political theory or the history of political thought in an English-speaking program in North America as you could possibly get, and that may also help to account for the initial resistance to it.

Rail: What recommendations would you make to new readers of Inca Garcilaso?  What works do you suggest they start with? Is there anything they have to keep in mind as they start reading him?

Fuerst: This really depends on whether people can read Spanish or not, because it is better to read Inca Garcilaso in the original and because so much of the scholarship on him is in Spanish too. That said, Harold V. Livermore’s English translations of the Royal Commentaries are enjoyable, and I would recommend that any English speakers and readers new to Inca Garcilaso should start there. The drawback to Livermore’s translations, however, is that they aren’t accurate enough in too many crucial moments for scholarship, but they’re easy enough to read, and Karen Spalding has a good biography and introduction to an abridged version of the Royal Commentaries, which is a worthwhile place to start, too. John Varner’s biography of Inca Garcilaso is still the most complete, I think, but for something shorter there’s a brief biographical chapter in my book, which aims to introduce readers to Inca Garcilaso. For current scholarship on his works, Inca Garcilaso and Contemporary World-Making edited by Sara Castro-Klarén and Christian Fernández is an excellent resource and very up to date; for works in English that investigate potential Andean meanings in Inca Garcilaso’s texts, there’s Mazzotti’s Incan Insights and mine, although this list would be longer if we included studies in Spanish. 

What I think people should bear in mind as they start with the Royal Commentaries is that it is actually two texts in one. One is the primary Spanish text intended for Hispano-European audiences, which is open for all to see, and the other is a purloined Andean text, which, for those without access to indigenous language and culture, is hidden in plain view. For this reason it’s a good idea to try to keep track of Inca Garcilaso’s descriptions of Inca religion and culture and his explanation of indigenous words and concepts because he often uses them to leave coded messages for his Andean readers. Even if contemporary readers can’t figure out what those messages are, it’s important to realize that the text intentionally communicates in two different meaning systems at once, and that there may be more to any given point than there initially seems. 

Rail: In addition to your new novel set in Cuzco and NY, are you working on any other literary and/or scholarly projects?

Fuerst: I have started a third novel, which is a futuristic dystopian detective novel set in New York after the rising tides of global warming have flooded a large portion of the city. Unfortunately, it’s a bit too early in the process for me to say much more, I need to get further along first. As for my next scholarly project, I plan to transcribe and translate a seventeenth Spanish document and then write a short article about it. It’s a piece called “Cinco memorials” (five petitions) written by a Peruvian mestizo priest named Juan de Cuevas Herrera, and to my knowledge it’s the first evidence of the indigenous Andean reception of Inca Garcilaso’s work, which for centuries had been assumed not to exist. I think it’s important for people to know more about this.


Juan E. De Castro

JUAN E. DE CASTRO is an Associate Professor in Literary Studies at Eugene Lang College, The New School, where he is Chair of Literature and co-Chair of Literary Studies. He is the author of three books, including Mario Vargas Llosa: Public Intellectual in Neoliberal Latin America (2011). With Nicholas Birns, he recently edited Roberto Bolaño as World Literature (2017).