Dislocating Writing: Latin America Rewrites Estados Unidos
Writing in a foreign language or writing in one’s own language in a foreign country is not a new phenomenon. Choosing the language in which one writes has implications not only for the writing itself but also for what the writer Jhumpa Lahiri, daughter of Bengali immigrants, describes as a continuous “linguistic exile” in her New Yorker article “Teach Yourself Italian.” Lahiri, who was raised mainly in the United States and thus also in English, is referring specifically to her choice to write in Italian, a language she adopted later in life. The language of writing can be an adopted one, not necessarily a “biological” or “maternal” one, if we insist on filial terms—a mother tongue. Lahiri, whose mother is a poet who writes in Bengali, contends:
When you live in a country where your own language is considered foreign, you can feel a continuous sense of estrangement. You speak a secret, unknown language, lacking any correspondence to the environment. An absence that creates a distance within you.
Japanese-born poet Yoko Tawada adopted the German language to write her prose. Alternating between German and Japanese (her “mother” tongue) she admits to feeling “between two languages” and that this has offered her writing a “certain poetry.” Nevertheless, as the magnificent North American writer Rivka Galchen suggests in an interview with Tawada for the New York Times Magazine titled “The Profound Empathy of Yoko Tawada,” some people are foreigners no matter where they are geographically. They are naturally non-“vernacular,” even beyond their being immigrants. This is the case with Tawada, who notes that she often feels Jewish because the writers who have most influenced her work are Walter Benjamin, with his essays; Franz Kafka, with his fiction; and Paul Celan, with his poetry. Such a close relationship is unsurprising because, as Galchen observes, German as a language has been, to a certain degree, hostile toward all these authors, and that hostility has come to form an essential aspect of their writings and thought.
This phenomenon of exophony, according to its definition in the field of literary studies, is inverted when we refer to writers who live in a foreign country and continue to write in their “mother,” or birth, tongue. Conversely to the cases of Tawada, Lahiri, or more well-known writers such as Milan Kundera (Czech), Vladimir Nabokov (Russian), or Joseph Conrad (Polish), figures who wrote in French or English, the authors we present in this small dossier have chosen to create in a language that is foreign to their countries of residence and, in some cases, naturalization. Although the language of their writing is not a hostile one—as Galchen refers to in the cases of Benjamin, Kafka, and Celan—Spanish has acquired some unique characteristics in the United States. For example, it is the second-most spoken language in the country after English. (There are an estimated 58.9 million Spanish speakers in the U.S., making up 18.1% of the population.) Nevertheless, the substantial presence of Spanish is not enough to ameliorate the backlash of its host culture. On the contrary, there is an underlying hostility toward its presence. Further, the prejudice goes as much against the speakers as against the language they speak; seen in a similar way to a person carrying a contagious disease, they are perceived as a threat, someone capable of spreading a virus throughout the host nation. Spanish is associated with the illegal immigrant, the invader, the domestic worker. The gardener, the apartment building porter, the nanny, the construction worker: associations that do not in themselves carry a negative connotation, although they gain a pejorative aspect through the way they are put into practice. And it is this practice that, from a position of contempt and superiority, produces a referential trick. This brand of Spanish, in the local view, is strictly speaking not a European language; it is a poorly spoken language, different from the Spanish of Spain. Rather, it is an unintelligible language, perceived as foreign, sometimes nasal, coarse. An alien language, like the aliens who speak it. It is not, according to the collective archetypes of the United States, the Spanish of the Quixote or Lope de Vega, whose Spanish is a civilized one, a product of high culture associated with the Spanish capital of Madrid, or else with Andalusian exoticism. In other words: it is European. The Spanish of Spanish speakers in the U.S., on the other hand, is the language of country folk who travel on foot to checkpoints staffed by U.S. border officials to request asylum. Or those who cross the border at the river and, occasionally, if they are lucky, survive the desert, the wild animals, and gunshots coming from some of the locals north of the Río Grande, out exercising their right to keep their private property free from trespassing. Always within the bounds of the law. The defense of one’s territory is one of the most deeply rooted principles in United States culture. A Far West culture that, not by accident, was founded by illegal immigrants: settlers who moved into Texas while it still belonged to Mexico.
Returning to the linguistic aspect of Spanish in the U.S., however, and its association with unsophisticated origins, it must be noted that there are country folk in Spain too, along with jamón and wine and Manchego cheese. It’s not all that civilized. And high culture, well, that’s relative.
Ever since I came to this country to do a doctorate in Latin American literature and culture, one of the things that has most caught my attention is that North Americans suffer—consciously or not—from Europhilia. For example, Anglophone literature departments in the most elite universities like the Ivies specialize in large part in British literature (nineteenth century/Victorian or Renaissance, to be more specific). Not in North American literature. Not in Toni Morrison; her writing belongs in the African American studies department. Not in Philip Roth, because they study him in the Jewish studies department. Not in Eudora Welty or Djuna Barnes, relegated to the gender studies program. Not in Sandra Cisneros or Rolando Hinojosa, whom you’ll only find in Chicano studies. And not in Carson McCullers or William Faulker, who only get read only in American studies departments. That’s the truth. It was a shock for me, because in Argentina, where I studied before starting my doctorate here, the strongest offering was always in Argentine literature. After that came Latin American literatures, including that of Brazil. Not literature from Spain or Portugal. And it wasn’t because there aren’t wonderful writers from the Iberian Peninsula; it came out of a national interest or, without going into too many details, an interest in understanding the self. Understanding one’s own history and its inextricable relationship with literature: understanding the past and one’s place, for better or for worse. In that sense, perhaps one could propose, hypothetically, that the trend in the United States of pushing national literature into departments, programs, and centers that specialize in “minority” groups is a mechanism for denying the very same groups access to national literature itself. This assumes, of course, that what is “national” is defined by the exclusion of what is African American, Jewish, female, Southern, or Chicano. But this also means a foreclosure of the possibility to recognize and analyze the country’s literature in relation to its national history. It’s as if each were traveling in its own parallel lane, never to converge or overlap. Even more strangely, those charged with preserving this fragmented structure are the ones so strongly advocating for inclusion when it comes to everything outside the object of study. That is, beyond these departments’ work on the “Anglophone,” a narrow field whose research generally hews to the study of European “high” literature, there is a certain insistence and sometimes disproportionate obligation to apply policies of inclusion. It is valid to wonder, then, if these policies arise from a hidden shortcoming of which these departments are not even aware—a shortcoming revealed to be an internalized racism—or a mechanism of racializing or ethnicizing cultural production, not only reinforcing the assigned places of minority groups but also perpetuating their racialization and ethnicization and, in doing so, paradoxically strengthening the very exclusion and differentiation that, on the surface, are being fought against. A notable consequence of such contradictions is that the groups that make up these minorities are left, at the end of the day, excluded from what we might vaguely define as the “national.”
In this context of dissociations, literature produced in Spanish in the United States would make up yet another distinct literature within the “national,” although it must be understood that what is “national” in the context of the United States is never defined as a whole. Rather, “national” comprises a series of fragments that each correspond to a minority group, thus perpetuating their foreignness. To take it further, literature in Spanish produced in the U.S. comprises a fundamental aspect of local culture, as important as other national literatures, but consisting of referents that do not appear in the literature of such writers’ countries of origin. Its poetics incorporate characteristics that dislocate it from any specific geographical or cultural imagery, throwing into question the very idea of the local and the national. It consists, too, of different concerns and preoccupations. For example, writing of this kind sees fairly frequent use of the ideas of movement, migration, impermanence, leaving and coming back, forgetting and remembering, among others. These poetics are ones of uprootedness, with writers questioning existential problems related to displacement, dislocation, and relocation. Thus the Mexican writer Cristina Rivera Garza, speaking of another dislocated writer—Chilean writer Lina Meruane—inquires, “How many languages are hidden and how many leave open the possibility of glimpsing their echoes in the words we utter? We who are the product of long sagas of migration may not know the answer, but we never cease to ask the question.” Like in a linguistic palimpsest, a continuous juxtaposition of voices—from familiar to foreign—one’s own voice becomes foreign. It is a distortion—or a tergiversation of the world that surrounds us—of perception, including its expressions and features. The Bolivian writer Rodrigo Hasbún, one of the authors we present in this selection, appeals allegorically to a sort of near-sightedness, referring to another expatriate, the Peruvian writer of Japanese descent Carlos Yushimito. Their meeting in a distant New York illustrates this: the two of them, both “defeated students,” wandered as only students can through a city in which it “never ceased to surprise him that everything around us was blurry and more foreign for him than it was for me.” Near-sightedness, Hasbún suggests, transforms places “radically,” such that “when you take off or put on your glasses, they become less or more threatening from one second to the next, less or more comfortable, less or more beautiful.” If reading is “sharing the near-sightedness of the writer whom we are reading, as well as looking at the world through their glasses,” then, through the “miraculous thing brought about by the act of reading,” as Hasbún notes, “what we call reality” acquires “new nuances, a new kind of sharpness, a unique order.” The near-sightedness of an uprooted writer exacerbates this relationship with the outside world. Near-sightedness becomes an allegory of dislocation—in a physical sense, yes, but also an emotional one. Erasure. Out of focus experience. Astonishment, writes the Peruvian writer Claudia Salazar Jiménez in her treatment of the writing experience of another uprooted writer, the Argentine Silvia Molloy. Citing one of her latest books, Vivir entre lenguas [Living between tongues] (2016), Salazar Jiménez reflects, through a sort of dialogue, on “how one writes in this life between distinct territories.” The “house of writing and language,” she observes, trembles in the face of coming and going. And the confluence resulting from such transit becomes an “element of creative production.” As Salazar Jimenéz notes, it is the transit between different languages but also between “critical writing and fiction writing” that mutually contaminate each other, crossing borders and leaving the house “trembling. An earthquake.”
Palimpsest of words. Near-sightedness and out of focus experiences. A trembling house, about to collapse. The three writers presented here were invited to participate in a brief dossier about the “poetics of uprootedness.” In place of writing about their own writing practices, they were each asked to address the writing of another Latin American writer also residing in the U.S. They were invited to reflect on one writer in particular and on their relationship with exile, and to include a glance into their own experiences at the same time, as they are also all dislocated writers. They were asked, in other words, to initiate a dialogue, a play of voices. A point-counterpoint meant to speak to the work of both the writer being written about and the writer doing the writing: two perspectives converging on the experience of writing in this country.
If speaking Spanish has become a political act, writing in it has become even more so. Challenging a model that restricts language as it does bodies, large and small, alienating and confining them to both visible and invisible cages. It is an act of defiance and liberation. Today more than ever, literature produced in Spanish in the U.S. is a phenomenon that crosses generations, nations, ethnicities, religions, and races. It is a transversal phenomenon that unites, that connects. And it is, more than anything, a phenomenon that redefines the national and the local, even if some would rather not see it, even if near-sightedness plagues not only those who experience dislocation but also the host country itself. In today’s climate of violence, speaking in Spanish, writing in Spanish, and why not, dreaming in Spanish, imply a politics of change: not merely questioning but also delegitimizing the hostility that circles these voices. Words and imageries that bring beauty to the local surroundings, that poeticize linguistic exile, and that transform out-of-focus experiences into a new framework. To rewrite, to alter, to dislocate. To found, to erect. To compose a prism of voices, chromatic and polyphonic, in which language, in its potentiality, destabilizes to the point of perforation the monolithic and unidimensional fabric that encases and surrounds it. To dislocate, yes, but still more urgent, to relocate.
Translated by Will Morningstar
Gisela Heffes is a writer and professor of Latin American literature at Rice University (Houston), where she also teaches creative writing in Spanish. She has published the novels Ischia (2000), Praga (2001), Ischia, Praga & Bruselas (2005), the collection of short stories Glossa urbana (2012), a collection of poetic chronicles, Aldea Lounge (2014) and the novella Sophie La Belle (a bilingual edition with images by the author, 2016). She is the founder of the digital repository “Archiving the Future: The Recovery of a Heritage in the Making,” an initiative that seeks to gather and record the voices of Spanish-American writers living in the United States, in collaboration with Literal Publishing and the Humanities Research Center (Rice University).
Will Morningstar is a freelance editor and translator from Boston, with a master’s degree in religion and anthropology from Harvard Divinity School. His translation work has appeared and is forthcoming in ReVista: The Harvard Review of Latin America and the Massachusetts Review.
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.