Panamanian literature has made a small splash beyond the country’s borders, in part, perhaps, because much of it has been inward-looking, drawing inspiration from distinctly Panamanian themes of national identity and history, the country’s natural beauty, and daily life on the isthmus. Even in Panama it can be hard to find books by Panamanian authors, whose works are often printed cheaply in modest, limited editions. Panama’s literary output leans heavily toward poetry and short stories, followed by novels and essays and, to a far lesser extent, plays. Nearly all of it is in Spanish.
Ricardo Miró (1883–1940) is the country’s most revered poet, often referred to as “El Poeta de Panamá” and for whom the country’s most prestigious literary awards are named. His most famous poem is “Patria,” an ode to his beloved country. He also produced short stories and novels. Other notable early poets include María Olimpia de Obaldía (1891–1985), whose main theme was family life, and Amelia Denis de Icaza (1836–1911), most famous for her patriotic “Al Cerro Ancón.”
One of the country’s most important literary figures in the 20th century was Rogelio Sinán (1902–1994), the pen name of Bernardo Domínguez Alba. Sinán is remembered for the breadth and quality of his work, which included short stories (particularly “A la Orilla de Las Estatuas Maduras”), novels (most notably Penilunio), poetry, and even a children’s play, La Cucarachita Mandinga. Other major figures of the period included the poets Ricardo J. Bemúdez (1914–2000), Demetrio Korsí (1899–1957), Demetrio Herrera Sevillano (1902–1950), and Stella Sierra (1917–1997).
Novelists and short-story writers have come to the forefront in the modern era. Prominent contemporary authors include Ernesto Endara (b. 1932), known especially for his short stories and plays; Rosa María Britton (b. 1936), a physician whose novels include El Señor de las Lluvias y el Viento (1984) and Todas Íbamos a Ser Reinas (1997); and the prolific Enrique Jaramillo Levi (b. 1944), whose works include the short-story collection Duplicaciones (1990) and many other short stories, poems, and essays. He is also a scholar and cultural promoter who has probably done more than any other living person to draw attention to Panamanian literature. He is the editor of Maga, a Panamanian literary review.
The historical novels of Jorge Thomas, the pen name of the lawyer Juan David Morgan (b. 1942), are relatively easy to find in Panama, especially Con Ardientes Fulgores de Gloria (1999). El Caballo de Oro (2005), about the building of the Panama Railroad, is his first novel published under his real name.
In 2006, Cristina Henríquez, whose father is Panamanian, published Come Together, Fall Apart, a collection of short stories about life in Panama. It met with glowing reviews in U.S. newspapers and found a fan in Isabel Allende. In 2010 she published her first novel, The World in Half. Both are easy to find internationally.
Panama City has an active theater scene, and works by Panamanian and foreign playwrights are staged frequently. Plays range from hoary classics to experimental pieces. One playhouse, the aging Teatro Guild de Ancón in the former Canal Zone, still offers works in English.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition