Travel Notes on Carlos Yushimito
Carlos Yushimito had lost his glasses the day I met him. It was January or February in 2011 and we’d been invited to speak at a literary event in a still cold and gray New York. We spent hours wandering through neighborhoods new to both of us (I a Bolivian descendent of Palestinians, he a Peruvian descendent of Japanese, both of us weary grad students), and it was strange to think that for him everything around us was blurry and even less familiar than it was to me. Those of us who are severely nearsighted know this: places transform radically whenever you put on or remove your glasses, becoming either less or more threatening, less or more inviting, less or more beautiful. As nearsighted writers, we also know that the constant disjuncture between what we can see and what is just beyond our sight has a great influence on our gaze and sensibility. It affects the way we understand things, and our sense of where things begin and end. To read is, in a way, to share the myopia of the person we are reading. To read is also to see through their glasses, if indeed they choose to wear them. And at this point something truly miraculous happens: what we call reality takes on new hues, another kind of intensity, a peculiar form.
I recall the afternoon I met Yushimito as I reread “Elogio de la miopía” [In praise of nearsightedness], an essay that featured years later in his book Marginalia. Breve repertorio de pensamientos prematuros sobre el arte poco notable de escribir al revés [Marginalia: a brief repertoire of premature thoughts on the unremarkable art of writing backwards] (2015). Marginalia is a miscellaneous collection with several echoes of Prosas apátridas [Stateless prose] by Julio Ramón Ribeyro, a writer with whom Yushimito shares both a motherland—eventually abandoned by both—and a discreetness and lucidity of character. Yushimito writes within those pages: “All migrant experience is an experience of language. Joining a new community is, more often than not, like being forced to look at an eye chart, which is more or less akin to learning to read all over again.”
The migrant takes pains to decipher the signs of his new environment and constantly compares them with those that he would interpret unconsciously back where he came from. He learns to read again, to read with the careful attention of a nearsighted person, repeatedly getting lost and then finding himself again as he questions the dynamics and limits of that new place, which he always compares to home. The comparisons he makes are, of course, various: first and foremost linguistic, but also social, political, geographical and cultural.
Yushimito continues, connecting the dots: “I think a nearsighted person, given his personal relationship with the world, naturally has a different way of being, and, as a consequence, a different way of relating with the world. By the same token, I believe that writing in a foreign place must be like looking at the world without your glasses on: somewhat accustomed to reality merging with dream, washed of all limits, where synaesthesia grow out of one’s writing like weeds surface in a garden; gardens, which are nothing if not spaces of exact domestication. I believe we should wash our eyes of all the dirt. And fight against that solidity, against all those limits that were once solid and clearly defined.”
It is there, at the meeting point between myopia, strangeness and writing, that we might unlock Yushimito’s poetics, a poetics of estrangement and also, almost inevitably, of awkwardness and of being out of place. As in the worst nightmares, or dreams that recur over the years, in his writing everything is at once unpredictable and familiar, alien and immediate. In that territory “washed of all limits” it is common practice to breach both borders and conventional genres. His stories also roam from book to book, creating continuity.
Born in Lima in 1977, Yushimito lived in the United States from August 2008 to October 2018. During that time he completed a masters and doctoral degree at the Villanova University and Brown University (he entered the country on a student scholarship, like so many Latin American writers), before moving to California to teach. Meanwhile, he wrote the stories in Lecciones para un niño que llega tarde [Lessons for a boy who arrived late] (2011) and Los bosques tienen sus propias puertas [Forests have their own doors] (2013), had two brief forays into children’s literature with La lavandera [The laundress] (2013) and Un circo sin carpa [A circus without a big top] (2016), and wrote most of the thought pieces that make up Marginalia. Breve repertorio de pensamientos prematuros sobre el arte poco notable de escribir al revés (2015). Just two story collections—El mago [The wizard] (2004) and Las islas [The islands] (2006)—predate his decade in the United States, and he hasn’t published since leaving.
I ask him over email if he considers that the books he wrote in the US were affected by his migrant status. He responds: “Without a doubt. My life in the States gave me the tranquility to be able to write; in particular, a lot of free time to write, but plenty of freedom to read and think at leisure. So, let’s say, without the material conditions of that period, I probably wouldn’t have been able to write a fair number of the books I ended up writing. As for the influence of that experience on my writing, as things stand I am aware of at least two: one has to do with the landscapes I grew accustomed to; and the other with a certain linguistic isolation, a kind of parenthesis or numbness. I’ve lived almost my entire life in Lima, which is a vast desert, invisible to many people, so suddenly moving to live in the forested areas of the north was a wonderful experience. I discovered snow and rain. Seasons. Lush vegetation. All of that, it occurs to me now, had a lasting impact on my writing. And with regards to the linguistic isolation I mentioned before, you know what, I hadn’t actually realized how much this issue affected me until I returned to live in Latin America a few months ago. For ten years I had ridden buses with my ears switched off. Wrapped up in my own thoughts, my surroundings became an immanent whisper. Sort of like the voices Charlie Brown hears. Now, slowly but surely, I am getting used to hearing the voices that float around me whenever I go for a walk; the streets are deafening again. No longer hearing just myself has helped me understand the true nature of my return.”
Looking at his bibliography, you might say Yushimito prefers to frequent the peripheries of a literary system that still privileges the novel form above all others. His condition as a migrant descendent of migrants, the proliferation of his interests, and his fascination with movement and transience seem to have found not one home but many within the broad category of short form literature, and in particular, in the short story, of which he is a master and about which he has written extensively.
Here is a quote taken from another of his pieces in Marginalia: “The anxious need for novelty and the fetishization of the book today still does not explain the bias against the short story shown by agents, editors and corporations, who conspire against their publication, unless there is something atavistic that separates the story from the capitalistic sensibility driving the publishing industry. I suspect that its pre-commercial beginnings, which even today bring it closer to poetry, has something to do with the inherent mistrust that the short story genre provokes. Printed capitalism still owes a lot to the novel, a genre that not only helped develop the national imagination and its common modern social fabric, but also the expansion of a market that saw itself as unstoppable, oblivious to the fact that, at least in Spanish, it reached its own limit in the available literate public. Parallel to this, patient and persistent, the short story emerges slowly, spurred on by its seclusion and negligible readership. As readers of certain short stories will know (stories by Felisberto Hernández, which, in their unusual oneiric logic, never have endings, but instead seem simply to be abandoned; or by Clarice Lispector, who gave us, among other wonders, ‘The Smallest Woman in the World,’ which implodes from stories within the story like a highly effective cluster bomb; or stories within the extraordinary North American tradition, which long before ‘The Short Happy life of Francis Macomber’ rendered any distinction between story and a novella impossible), a politics of writing is not determined by the degree of militancy of the work’s contents. Much more radical, less tame, and doubly uncomfortable, is the kind of writing that resists not only for having been written at all, but by pushing back against its own conventions.”
Yushimito’s stories sit precisely within this tradition of double discomfort, and of resistance within an already resilient genre.
Before I met him in that January or February of 2011, I had read in awe his book Las islas, which takes place entirely in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, a city known to him only by means of its music, literature, and cinema. Rereading it now, I know beyond any doubt that it is one of the most exceptional short story collections to have come out of Latin America so far this century, and that “Bossa Nova para Chico Pires Duarte” [Bossa nova for Chico Pires Duarte], “Tinta de pulpo” [Octopus ink], and “Seltz” [Seltzer], with their impossible loves and popular wisdom, would merit a place in any anthology. Beyond his always convincing dialogue—inflected with details of Brazilian culture—and his extraordinary imaginative capacity, what strikes me most is the vigor and complexity of his style (Yushimito is one of the finest stylists of what we might call contemporary Latin American literature, a label I’m sure he would be quick to dispute), and his subtle way of building atmosphere.
Those qualities are also there in Lecciones para un niño que llega tarde and Los bosques tienen sus propias puertas, two more notable books, which lean toward strangeness, and in which Yushimito openly flirts with paradox, intertextuality, the fantastic, apocalyptic, and portentous. To give a few examples, in “En que da cuenta Lázaro de su amistad con un ciego traficante de historias y de los infortunios que con él pasó” [In which Lázaro gives account of his friendship with a blind seller of stories and of the misfortunes he suffered in his company], Yushimito time travels and pays a playful dual homage to Lazarillo de Tormes and Uruguayan literature. In his story “Flechado por Tocantins” [Shot by Tocantins’ arrow] he presents us with the world of Brazilian soap operas while employing some of the mechanisms of melodrama itself. In “Los que esperan” [Those who wait], a yellow press journalist and photographer colleague scratch the surface of valiant Peru to reveal a monstrous underbelly. And Peru’s culinary obsession is pushed to outrageous limits in “Rizoma” [Rhizome], which begins with this unusual scene: “From up here, from the height of this brightly lit Ferris Wheel, I see cynocephalus gathering all around. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of cynocephalus, all reaching out their necks. It no longer matters, gentlemen, how many there are.”
Humor shapes many of these stories, together with a prose shot through with surprising images and striking turns of phrase. Language is always overt, drawing attention to itself, but never overshadowing the narrative pleasures that Yushimito offers us in his subtle yet powerful way. This combination makes it impossible to merely read his books in passing. Instead you are forced to immerse yourself in them, as you might an ancient forest or foreign city, or even a dream or nightmare, either with your glasses on, or, better still, having lost them somewhere along the way.
Translated by Sophie Hughes
Rodrigo Hasbún is a Bolivian writer living and working in Houston. He has published three books of short stories, Cinco, Los días más felices, and Cuatro, a collection of articles and personal essays entitled Las palabras [textos de ocasión], and the novels El lugar del cuerpo, Los afectos, and Los años invisibles. He was selected by the Hay Festival as one of the best Latin American writers under the age of thirty-nine for Bogotá39, and he was named one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists. Two of his stories have been adapted into films, for which he co-wrote the screenplays, and his work has been translated into eleven languages.
Sophie Hughes is a literary translator from Spanish, known for her translations of writers such as Alia Trabucco Zerán, Rodrigo Hasbún, Enrique Vila-Matas and José Revueltas. In 2020 she was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize for her translation of Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season.
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.