Writing in Migration: A Desedimentation with Lina Meruane
The Sound from the Outside
From the beginning, Lina Meruane was above all a voice. Better said: a rhythm. As much in Seeing Red, the first novel of hers that I read, as in our first conversation—a rainy afternoon in New York, if I remember correctly—what was most left etched in my memory was the cadence of her words. The way they had of not only meaning something but of being something in and of themselves: sound, presence, company. A materiality of echoes. Reverberation. Time has passed and still, when we meet here or there, I continue to be impressed by the contrast between the soft accent, almost singsongy, of her Chilean Spanish, and the lively melody, more noticeable, that pulls it from her lips and deposits it, swiftly, in the air we breathe. It has taken me some time to realize that that contrast of registers and tones is less a result of simple, organic chance and more of the long journey of the “porous languages” that her migrant ancestors learned and practiced throughout various parts of their lives. The languages, body movements, and even appearances of entire generations are lost, frequently forever, with changes in context, processes of social mobility, and even pressure from pop culture, as Annie Ernaux argues in her book The Years. But it is also true that, beneath all of that, beyond the mere surface, something sediments in the body. Like trauma that is inherited from generation to generation, the materiality of the experience cuts grooves into the throat, imposes a certain lightness in the hands, is carried in particular ways on the hips. We say: you look so much like your grandmother, without being able to define exactly where that similarity resides. We say: that reminds me of the way your aunt danced, trying to capture an unrepeatable movement. We say: that’s a word your grandfather used, in awe before the outburst that no one expected. Those things that appear or reappear in moments of great stress or much happiness, have no calendar or planner. When something is about to break, there they are. When there is nothing more, there they are. When the distraction or the abandonment, when the laughter, when the panic attack. Above all, when the present. That subterfuge that brings us to our own, making us, in fact, ourselves over time and space is what I heard in Lina Meruane’s words. It has taken me time to distinguish in her voice, then, the accents that, even in an apparent immobility, continue moving around. It is the sound from the outside. It has to do with that mark that we carry, whether we know it or not, those of us who are always going somewhere else.
In Volverse Palestina [Becoming Palestinian], the book in which Lina Meruane explores with loving care the migratory voyage that her grandparents made from Palestine to Chile in the middle of the twentieth century, and in which she also embarks on a return to a place she has never before been all these years later, she pauses for a moment on what she calls “tongues in bifurcation.” There are her grandparents, learning, conserving, hiding languages, selecting with mathematical precision the speech that would guarantee a citizenry that wasn’t “second class” for their progeny. Arabic. Spanish. German. Even though the information alone is only as reliable as the memory of her family members, it seems clear that her grandmother learned Spanish as a girl, upon arriving in America; while her grandfather began to surmount the Castilian vowels when he was already a young man of thirteen or fourteen years, and that without discounting all the German that came from the lessons at the religious European community schools that were in operation at that time. More than a disappearance of maternal languages, this has to do with layers of speech that, by accumulating one on top of the other, far from erasing the previous ones, emphasize them with their own existence. There is something beneath the voice, something ineluctable that, nevertheless, may go unnoticed. But not for those who have experienced the outside. Sedimenting with each other, these porous languages open secret tunnels that, in their solidity, allow the free passage of individual inflections, peculiar lilts, modulations that no one that isn’t us would ever repeat. How many languages are hidden and how many allow their echoes to be glimpsed in the words we pronounce? Those of us who are products of long migration sagas might not know the answer, but we never stop asking this question.
My paternal grandparents, like Lina Meruane’s, left behind a land they would never return to. At the beginning of the twentieth century, they turned their backs on a corner of San Luis Potosí after the dryness of the plateau had snatched their first son. They went north. And, once there, they went even farther north. On the border between Coahuila and Texas, they became workers in the coal mines and, later, with a little luck, day laborers on the cattle ranches. Like many exiled by the Porfiriato, my grandparents brought very little with them when they left beyond their arms and tongue. They spoke Spanish, that’s true. But they also spoke something else. The other tongue, the one they stopped using and that their children did not inherit, will always be a matter of speculation. During the same period, my maternal grandparents crossed the border between Mexico and the United States, becoming cotton pickers or construction workers in huge Texan cities. To the Spanish they carried with them, they soon added English. And, when some thirty years after their arrival President Hoover initiated an aggressive deportation policy following the Great Depression of 1929, my grandparents, and their tongues, returned to Mexico. There they carved out a life that extended to their children and grandchildren. There, they stopped talking about the expulsion so as to start talking about the welcoming. I learned little to nothing about those journeys, agreements, humiliations, meetings. In any case, Spanish settled into their bodies and, there, in their lungs and throat, in their larynx, in their torrent of blood, it built its home. Like Lina Meruane when she returned to Palestine without having been there before, I returned to Texas when I believed I was arriving for the first time in 1990. My grandparents, who had worked tirelessly here, establishing through marriage the beginning of their family, established the footprint that, as José Revueltas would say, my return inhabited. Recognizing is different from knowing, but they are so similar. Now, after more than thirty years living in the United States, I am sometimes asked about my accent. And these are acquaintances and friends from both the United States and Mexico that ask me. There is, of course, the backbone of Spanish, but at its side, in porous layers, also stretch those other languages that the migrations placed and blurred along the way. That which refuses to die, that rhythm I do not control and notice even less, is the genetic charge of sound in migration.
A Tradition of Long Walks
“The ships set sail from Haifa,” says Meruane, “and docked in some Mediterranean port (Genoa or Marseille) before continuing on to America with their third-class steerages full of Arabs, rats, and hungry cockroaches.” She says, too, that those Arabs were Orthodox Christians who were leaving their lands carrying Ottoman passports. They were fleeing from military service, which is the same as saying they were fleeing from the war where they would be “cannon fodder.” They were fleeing because staying was an impossibility. A risk. A penitence. My paternal grandparents did the same thing: they escaped from the hunger that years of draught caused; they fled the dispossession of lands that president Porfirio Díaz’s policies caused; they left behind that radical poverty in which a stomach disease like dysentery was a death sentence. José Revueltas says in his novel about the Mexican North, Human Mourning, that the poor looking for their own place on earth had no other option than to walk fervently. To walk, that life depended on it. Even though the train tracks that united San Luis Potosí with the border had stretched out since the end of the nineteenth century, I believe my grandparents, who didn’t have two pennies to rub together, walked the entire route north. It was, as Revueltas said (in Roberto Crespi’s translation), “absolutely essential that they keep walking, now that they had no place. That they keep walking intensely, but without a goal, in flight. . . But, in any case, they had to keep walking, in search of themselves, because even though they might be defeated something deep inside was whispering to them that salvation existed.” Gloria Anzaldúa, another inhabitant of the border between Texas and Tamaulipas, does not stop reminding us, either, that there is, among us, a “tradition of migration; a tradition of long walks.”
To Turn Back, Which Is Another Way of Going Toward the Future
It was an afternoon in Chile when Lina Meruane proposed to her father that they begin to “go back, slowly.” She wanted to return to her father’s city and to his old house, as she puts it, “for us to mend our memory.” It has already been made clear that not only had her father left Beit Jala behind as a young man but that she herself had left Chile years ago to live in the United States. Could it be true that those who move frequently remember more? Melancholy can play mean tricks, without a doubt. Nostalgia. For those who are themselves part of a long lineage of migrations, what remains? In Volverse Palestina the list is long: a chicken coop, the sound of a faucet running, a patio with orange trees, a black piano, an umbrella stand, a couple of trees pulling up the asphalt, a main square with its bronze fountain, stores with signs with Palestinian last names, the heavy yardstick that was used to measure pieces of fabric, the scissors, the frayed ends, the counter. I close the book for a moment and, staring at the white wall, I turn back: the worn wooden floors, the aroma of quince, the rusted tractors, the mesquite pods, the drains, a rope tied to a branch hanging over a canal, a cast iron skillet, the sound of the stick on the flour bollos, the organs, the clear blue sky, the flight of the owl, the air of the first hurricane. They’re my memories from Poblado Anáhuac, that place on the border between Tamaulipas and Texas where my parents met and, after marrying and bringing me into the world, left behind. Where are you from? they asked me when I first arrived in a new city. And how do I tell them I had been born in a place that does not appear on maps.
Going with the Body
Slowly, in Volverse Palestina, Lina’s father takes part in sharing that retrospective movement of memory, but not without reticence. It will require, later, the memory support of aunts, cousins, and even taxi drivers. But, eventually, Lina will personally go. Backward. Toward the future. Her body, which crosses airports, which answers impossible questions, doubting and raising doubt, goes over there. Who’s who in that injured place in the world that is Palestine taken, invaded, sliced by walls and violence? And who are we here, so close to those cages where the children who come on foot from Central America are still locked up? Who are we when a lawyer argues before a judge that denying soap to an “illegal” migrant is not a violation of human rights? I have already spent months returning to that border strip. As there is no house to return to, I want to at least walk along the paths on which their feet stepped. There is nothing left of my paternal grandparents: a few photographs, two or three rumors, the name of a town. But the journey remains. Their way of migrating, which was their mode of survival, remains. That’s why one day at the end of the summer we go to Zaragoza, a village that, until I arrived, I imagined to be dry and lost, but that ends up being surrounded by springs and tall trees with immense foliage. Zaragoza, Coahuila, an hour from Piedras Negras, crossing the border through Eagle Pass. Cotton fields here and there. After eating and after resting, after asking at the police station and, later, in the town hall offices, we are able to find the local cemetery. Their names do not appear in the books. And, all that I manage to learn, is that, between tombs, perhaps in the border area of the place, there is a mass grave where those who did not have the resources to obtain a piece of land, a coffin, a marble slab, a cross are laid to rest. There, in that place that I cannot locate, but over which my feet have already tread, are the bones of one of my grandmothers. Her body under my body. My body here, next to hers. I cannot ask for more, nor get less. A closeness that, like Lina Meruane’s when she is about to leave Palestine, only means that you will return.
Writing from the United States
There is always someone who has migrated before. That is what I’m trying to say. When we believe we have embarked on this journey with no return, this displacement that subdivides or multiplies into many more, in reality we are fitting the soles of our feet into the footsteps that others have left behind. There is no tabula rasa. We are just guests on the surface of a land that we experience in common. Someone was here, where I am; and someone else will be here after my stay. Someone spoke this language, denied again and again. The reasons for that absence are the very thing of politics; the reasons for the presence are the very thing of ethics. Between them and us, in any case, there is a bridge that has a strong memory because it is organic and material. Because it affects us and we affect it. Those who write from the United States do not have the luxury of forgetting that we continue to write in migration.
Translated by Sarah Booker
This piece is part of a longer collection of essays by Cristina Rivera Garza and translated by Sarah Booker titled Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country that will be published with Feminist Press in October 2020.
Cristina Rivera Garza. Author, translator, critic. Recent publications include, The Iliac Crest, trans. by Sarah Booker (The Feminist Press, 2017); The Taiga Syndrome, trans. by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana (Dorothy Project, 2018; Abd Other Stories, 2019), Había mucha neblina o humo o no sé qué (Random House, 2016). Distinguished professor and founder of the PhD in Creative Writing in Spanish at the University of Houston.
Sarah Booker is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill with a focus on contemporary Latin American narrative and translation studies. She is a literary translator working from Spanish to English and has translated, among others, Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest (2017, Feminist Press; 2018, And Other Stories) and Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country (2020, Feminist Press) and Mónica Ojeda’s Jawbone (forthcoming with Coffee House Press). Her translations have also been published in journals such as The Paris Review, Asymptote, Latin American Literature Today, 3:am magazine, Nashville Review, MAKE, and Translation 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.