Code-Switching of Life: A Counterpoint with Sylvia Molloy
Leaving home for another country. Writing from somewhere other than home. How does this influence one’s writing?
An Argentine-born writer of English descent on her father’s side and French on her mother’s side, Sylvia Molloy has produced most of her fictional and critical writing in the United States, where she has made her home for several decades. The central themes in her writing revolve around autobiography, the coming and going between languages, mannerism, and the relationship between fiction and memory.
Some concepts I will weave into this essay concern writing and exile, in counterpoint to several quotes from Vivir entre lenguas [Living between tongues], Sylvia Molloy’s 2016 book. Although it is an autobiographical reflection on her life across multiple languages (English, French, and Spanish), it also hints at a way of contemplating how she writes in this life across different regions.
“Mixing, going to and fro, or switching belongs to the domain of the Uncanny, which is precisely what shakes the foundation of the house.”
The house of writing and language shake when faced with coming and going. The mixture itself turns into an element of creative production.
What comings and goings are we talking about in Sylvia Molloy’s case? Her transit takes place not only between different languages but also between fictional and critical writing. But the limits of the former are not too distant. Her two forms of writing pollute one other, making, for example, her autobiographical reflection present in Actos de Presencia [Acts of presence] shed light on her novels such as En breve cárcel [In brief jail] and El común olvido [The common forgetting]. In her autobiographical material, Molloy displays an academic as well as a fictional gaze. In this going to and fro, she crisscrosses genre boundaries and shakes the house. An earthquake, that is.
Let us think about that Uncanny. The ominous. The familiar that becomes strange. What is that shaking house, then? And even more, how does that oddness contaminate writing—writing as a place of strangeness?
“I always wrote from outside—from the margins. For a long while, I only wrote criticism. I was not able to sustain myself by writing fiction.”
I’m familiar with going to and fro between places, between academic language and fictional language. Switching becomes not only a way of writing but also a way of living. Being a scholar and writer is also a way of traveling, of switching codes that are familiar but also distinct or distinguishable. In various interviews, more often than not, Molloy has been asked to delve into this double life we lead, into whether one always overcomes the other or if we give more importance to one over the other. Or a question, sometimes out of place, about whether we feel comfortable with that dichotomy—a dichotomy that exists only for those who ask the question.
Still, at the same time, we cannot ignore the dichotomy in practice.
Roland Barthes had already discussed this, with his ideas about writing, which blurs the distinction between creation and criticism. For Barthes, writing is the form the writer chooses voluntarily, as opposed to language and style. Writing implies an ethic because it arises from the way in which the creator selects the materials with which she works both in writing as well as in reading.
Sylvia Molloy’s critical writing began publicly with her doctoral dissertation on Borges, which she defended at the Sorbonne. The catalog of her academic publications made her well known in U.S. academia, where she has gained an unquestionable prestige. Titles such as Acto de presencia: la literatura autobiográfica en Hispanoamérica [Act of presence: autobiographical literature in Hispano-America], Las letras de Borges [The letters of Borges], and Poses de fin de siglo: Desbordes del género en la modernidad [Fin-de-siècle poses: overflowings of genre in modernity] are essential in the fields of Latin American literary and cultural studies.
With this vast critical production, it is worth asking what internal mechanisms did not allow Molloy to keep writing fiction. Obviously, it would be too bold to propose an answer. One has to look at the path of her own fiction writing.
Her debut novel En breve cárcel was published in 1981. It took many years for her next novel to appear: El común olvido in 2002. In both novels, autobiographical material serves as a trigger for Molloy’s aesthetic exercise between memory and fiction. It is not so much an exercise of imagination, but of transit, of an interweaving of writing in which fiction is perceived as a reading of her own memories. I find in that excavation of memory a way to articulate her own archive. Fiction as a way to maintain that house and turn it into something unfamiliar. A mirror of dislocation.
She has followed her novels with several short texts, organized from fragmentary writing: Varia imaginación [Various imagination], Desarticulaciones [Dismantlings], and Vivir entre lenguas. Far from analytical structures, Molloy displays knowledge of the fragment that we can link to a way of writing in transit, going to and fro. A writing of memory chopped into pieces.
“Each language has its territory, its time, and its hierarchy.”
Each language has its place. And hierarchy is not imposed upon other languages, but upon moment itself and in its own territory.
“Switching requires no effort: it will have its rules but I, as a speaker, don’t know them. I just switch without analyzing.”
This switch resonates with me like a dance every immigrant performs practically every day. A dance between customs, languages, and worldviews. Once we leave our country of origin, other forms become part of what we write. New voices accumulate and overlap; our gaze feeds into what we already knew about our new country and our new city. Immigrant writing feeds into this novelty, but at the same time it struggles with/against it. How do you look from another side at what is becoming familiar to us? How do you write differently about places that already seem overpopulated by images that have become commonplace on the spectrum of culture?
I am thinking particularly of New York, where Sylvia resides. I also live in the city. A city that has populated the contemporary imagination in cinema, photography, literature, and many other discourses. Writing in New York requires constant switching. Populated with speakers of multiple languages, switching between languages occurs almost effortlessly. It also creates an attentive ear to other Latin American modulations, to other sounds that are familiar yet strange. The fertile ground for this writing of immigration.
“We always write from an absence: choosing one language automatically means casting aside another but never its disappearance. That other language in which the writer does not think, Roa Bastos says, thinks of him. What at first seems like an imposition—why should one choose?—soon becomes an advantage. The absence of what had been postponed continues to operate, obscurely, as a tacit ‘in other words’ that complicates what is written in the chosen language and affects it. Or better yet, it infects it, as Jacques Hassoun says, using the term as it is used in painting when one color is insinuated in the other: ‘We are all infected with the language.’”
What is this absence from which one writes?
It’s implied that this absence is that of the original house. Molloy responds from the absence of a language. Of that language that continues as a ghost, that remains but refuses to disappear. We would have to think about this fantasy.
Our original home, our country, and our city of origin become ghosts of writing. They exist as traces and remains of what we once were. Our writing of the present is infected (a medical verb) with our previous memory, our previous life. An absence configured as an archive of memories, illuminations and affections, of a life in which we also went with others. The immigrant writer as a savior of that file that has not been fixed, but is constantly updated, reviewed, and removed in each publication, in each act of writing. An archive that concerns not only the individual or the family, but also the history of that original place. Awkward situations that will find another place in writing, not to relocate but to find another possible meaning. Another life.
What is implied at times bursts with a power that can surprise us.
“[On a study by The New York Times on language and immigration] The conclusion: to feel comfortable, even loquacious, in another language, you need total immersion in the foreign and oblivion: there must be no traces of the home you have left behind. But when that home takes you with it? Or when that foreignness is part of yourself?”
“In-betweeness” as a way of life. From the foreignness she carries with her, she seems to have reflected a great deal on literary history as an impulse for writing. But what does that immersion in the other imply? Diving into the new house, as if it were a swimming pool that awaits us, whose waters may be either warm or cold. And yet, we carry the original house with us. It is almost reminiscent of the figure of a snail. Always with the house on top, we drag it everywhere, but it is already a part of the same being, tied to its skeleton. That house can no longer detach itself from the body at the cost of losing its life.
What writing is produced from that ever-foreign body?
It is important to note that we are discussing a type of writing (and a writer) that is considered foreign and in transit. It is not a writing (or a writer) in permanent exile (a delicate word). What is constant is being in transit between languages, between lives, and between places.
We know that the place of enunciation is an essential coordinate in our writing process. From where we write, it places us at a crossroads of followed and eluded traditions. This place of constant transit invades writing and destabilizes the received codes.
“Steiner does register that hint of discomfort when he speaks of translation, namely, coming and going in writing. ‘The round trip can leave the translator out in the open (unhoused). He is not entirely comfortable, neither in his own language nor in the language or languages he is fluent in . . . Well-known translators speak of a no man’s land.’ The difference is in the scale: as soon as I pause in the flight and reflect—in other words, I start to write—the linguistic carefreeness vanishes. I think therefore I write: if I lose the fulcrum, I lose my house.”
I am interested in that coming and going seen as a translation process. A trip in the open. A no man’s land, George Steiner says. Perhaps in this case it is possible to speak of the writing of exile, which does not occur in geographical terms but in terms of the sway between one language and another. It produces a kind of writing that makes one lose the house. I return to the image of the snail and its house that is part of its own body. Writing, in its harsh discomfort, allows this house to be maintained, so that the body that writes does not get lost.
George Steiner touches upon these relationships between home, writing, and translation several times. In his essay “The Hermeneutic Notion,” he points out: “The translator invades, extracts, and brings home.” These three facets of translation lead to another movement that is the incorporation of the translated. Steiner uses the word “embodiment,” which brings us to the physical realm of translating work. We can extend this “embodiment” to the writing of exile, which in itself carries a threat: “The dialectic of embodiment entails the possibility that we may be consumed.” I like to think of this writing from exile as a form of movement, as a transit between different codes that end up incarnating each other. Perhaps that is the place where I prefer to think of myself as a writer, and also of Molloy’s writing: in that interweaving of codes. Inhabiting the switch.
Translated by Toshiya Kamei
Claudia Salazar Jiménez is a Peruvian writer and academic. She studied literature at the National University of San Marcos and has a Ph.D. in Latin American Literature from the University of New York (NYU). Her first novel La sangre de la aurora, written from a female perspective on the internal armed conflict in Peru, won the Las Americas Narrative Award in 2014. Her research and publication projects link writings of the self with the politics of memory. She has edited the anthologies Voces para Lilith: Literatura contemporánea de temática lésbica en Latinoamérica, Escribir en Nueva York: Antología de narradores hispanoamericanos, and Pachacuti feminista, which will be published this year.
The fourteenth issue of Latin American Literature Today features dossiers dedicated to the dislocated writing of Latin American authors based in the United States and the gothic fiction of Mariana Enriquez, plus reflections on writing in a second language by Fabio Morábito, an interview with 2019 Alfaguara Prize winner Patricio Pron, and exclusive translation previews from Guadalupe Nettel, Gabriela Wiener, and Luis Alejandro Ordóñez.