Uses of the Spanish language:
Returning to childhood
Moving beyond the contraints of identity politics
I started thinking about language—I mean really thinking about it—a few years ago when I signed up for first-semester Arabic at UC Berkeley. There was something about entering a language knowing absolutely nothing that made me consider what it is I know about those two languages I do speak (and read and write), English and Spanish. In class, we began with the alphabet, the sounds each symbol represented, and even now I am still working on the construction of sound, words, sentences. It’s been said before that language is the architecture of thought, and while I’m not convinced this is entirely accurate (my two-year-old nephew conveys a great deal without the benefit of words) it seems self-evident when one is beginning, when the immensity of all that you don’t know is overwhelming. I’m referring to the poetry of a language, of course, the beauty of which is most apparent (for me) when it is used in daily life—this is the level at which it is transformed, made new. This is the level of language-creation that I find most inspiring when I’m writing, which is odd, considering I write in English; the language I love most is Spanish. Not the literary language, necessarily, but its spoken dialects. It is impossible not to be awed by the inventiveness of language as it exists all over Latin America and Spain, the breadth and diversity of it, the way each local and regional vernacular traces a particular history, honors it, then subverts it, transcends it.
I wanted to talk about the most basic tool that writers utilize—language—with two artists uniquely situated to understand its significance. For most of us, the language we work in is a matter of circumstance, not choice; our language is an inheritance, an accident of the time and place of our birth, the education we were given or subjected to, the country we or our parents emigrated to. Eduardo Halfon and Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez, two fluent, native English speakers raised in the United States, have both chosen Spanish as their literary language; something that I’ll admit struck me at first as crazy. I mean, isn’t writing fiction hard enough already?
Eduardo Halfon was born in 1971 in Guatemala City. He studied Industrial Engineering at North Carolina State University, and has published eight books of fiction, most of them in Spain, garnering wide critical praise. His latest novel, The Pirouette, to be published in 2010, was recently awarded the XIV José María de Pereda Literary Prize, in Cantabria, Spain. His work has been translated into Serbian and Portuguese. In 2007 the Hay Festival of Bogotá named him one of the best young Latin American writers.
Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez is an unrepentant border-crosser, painter, former DJ, and currently teaches US Latino literatures and creative writing in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Iowa. His work has appeared in the Barcelona Review, Ventana abierta, Paralelo Sur, and in the anthologies Líneas aéreas, Se habla español: voces latinas en US, Pequeñas resistencias 4: Antología del Nuevo cuento norteamericano y caribeño, and En la frontera: I migliori racconti della narrativa chicana.
I began this email conversation with a simple, obvious question: Why and how did these two writers make the decision to write in Spanish?
SANTIAGO VAQUERA-VÁSQUEZ: I was born a Mexicano in the United States—my parents crossed the border a few months before I was born—and grew up in a rural Mexican community in Northern California. It was a childhood of bodas, quinceañeras, carnes asadas, bailes, misa cada domingo, with frequent trips to the other side de la línea, to Mexicali, where my relatives lived. My first language was Spanish. It was when I started school that I picked up English and becoming a Mexican-American, hyphenated in tongue and self.
I started writing in English as an undergraduate. It was the 1980s and I was an art major (painting) and a disc jockey at my local punk-rock college radio station. When I wasn’t in the studio painting, or at the radio station, I was writing. But when I would show my stories to Chicano friends they would often respond, “Yes, great. But why isn’t it Chicano?” I had no idea what that meant. I considered myself a Chicano (undergraduate years, after all, are about being politicized): I participated actively in MEChA (banner-making, marching around the city hall to protest, educating about the grape boycott and the cannery strikes), and in the summers worked for Migrant Education. But I wasn’t writing stories about the Chicano struggle. I was writing about people who watched too much television, listened to punk rock, and read comic books. People like me.
Spanish became my language of escape, the one that I used to avoid the question of not being Chicano enough. It allowed me to write about Chicanos or Pochos like me without being beholden to old models of what Chicano writing is and how it should be written. But now it’s about more than that: Spanish is another form of border crossing for me. I live suspended in two languages; I am often tongue-tied by them, so why not use them both? If the Chicano and Chicana (and US Latino) generations of the ’60s through the ’80s were about building community—the development of a Chicano readership first through Spanish, then through English—and getting their voices heard as an integral part of the United States; then the task (or one of them) for my generation is to also have our voices included as a part of a larger Latin American experience.
One weird side effect to my writing in Spanish is that I am largely unknown in the United States as a Chicano writer.
EDUARDO HALFON: I was born in Spanish, and lived it for my first ten years. My second decade, equally if not more formative, was then spent almost entirely in English. I remember it like suddenly getting a second mother—or perhaps a stepmother—who deeply wanted to eradicate the first. And I’ve been living with and trying to appease those two ladies ever since. Maybe I write in Spanish because it was my first language, my baptism into words and their music. Or maybe it’s because I’m striving, in some ridiculously Freudian fashion, to find my way back to the innocence and tenderness and forcefulness of my youth—it’s a beautiful idea, that a writer’s only language is his youth. Or maybe it’s because it was then, during my third decade of life, already in my late twenties and living back in the Spanish of Guatemala, that I fell in love with books, and reading, and eventually writing stories. Whatever the reason, however, one thing is stubbornly true, and it’s this: every sentence that I write, every verb or adjective that I painstakingly insert or remove, every literary thought that I have while writing, always—and I mean always, as my readers are then quick to remind me—begins and ends in English. My dictionary and my Spanish-speaking wife, thank goodness, are usually at hand.
Unlike you, Daniel, I’m in love with the English literary language, albeit from a safe distance. I’m in love with its vastness and pliability. I’m in love with its freedom to mold language and to create new words—a freedom, by the way, which is scarce and complicated in what you call the Literary Spanish, much more so than in the spoken one, in all those diverse variations and creative dialects which are heard and sung all over Latin America like dark enchantments. For some reason there still seems to be a vast difference between these two: that is, the Spanish we speak and the Spanish we write. Spoken Spanish is eclectic and thrilling and beautiful. Written Spanish or Literary Spanish is obedient and proper and cautious. It remains a top-down language (try saying that in Spanish), where all authority doesn’t lie with the writers, but with the Academy, with the monarchs.
SV: Eduardo, I’m interested in what you say about Literary Spanish as being somehow more restrictive than English literary language. When we speak of literary language, are we thinking of writers like Cervantes, Pérez Galdos, Borges, Cortázar, Fuentes, and García Márquez? But what about writers like Cabrera Infante or Puig? They may be literary, but their language is tied to a particular generation, country, and social context. They’re fairly playful with language. In Mexico, there are writers like Dante Medina who, in his story collection Niñoserías, writes stories filled with puns and portmanteaus. There is also Élmer Mendoza, from Culiacán, who has a brilliant novel, Un asesino solitario, that is written in norteño Spanish.
For me, Spanish literary language is somehow more pliable (save for writers like Joyce and Burgess), at least in the writers who have most impacted me as a reader. Perhaps that is another reason why I chose to write in that language. To be sure, there will always be language gatekeepers. But there will also be writers who will push against those gates. I think this pushing against the notions of a pure literary language is important. We need to show, as Eduardo says, those “diverse variations and creative dialects which are heard and sung all over Latin America.”
DANIEL ALARCÓN: I read Mario Vargas Llosa first in English: Tía Julia and the Scriptwriter, when I was thirteen or so. I didn’t understand a goddamn thing. But it wasn’t just language: it was culture, it was history, it was the wealth of information my parents might know that I did not. Could not. Why was the Bolivian scriptwriter so funny? What was his beef with Argentines all about? What was up with these the melodramatic radio soap operas? These are things I understand now (or at least understand better), and when I read it a few years ago, in Spanish this time, it killed. A genius novel. This is just one example of many: I’ve had a similar experience with Juan Rulfo. Read him in English and was like, What’s the big deal? Read him in Spanish and couldn’t write for three weeks, you know what I’m saying?
I guess this leads me to my next question: Is there a fundamental difference between the languages? Is beauty itself, the poetry of the language, something that cannot be translated? How does this work for the two of you as stylists, when there is an element of translation already embedded within your work?
SV: I started reading García Márquez in English, and didn’t read him in Spanish until grad school. I also first read Vargas Llosa in English, La ciudad y los perros (translated as The Time of the Hero) one summer when I was working for Migrant Education and living in Santa Clara, California. In fact, much of my education in Latin American literature, before studying in Mexico City in my junior year, was in English.
I tried reading Rulfo in English. This was after I read him in Spanish. The short stories of El llano en llamas were OK in translation. Pedro Páramo was not. I don’t think I’ve ever made it past the second page of that translation. So I know what you’re saying about the experience of reading certain authors in their original language. Have you read Mário de Andrade’s Macunaíma? It’s a brilliant, out-of-control, chaotic novel in Portuguese, but its English translation is a different thing altogether: its wild tongues have been tamed.
Octavio Paz argued that ultimately everything is a translation. Language is a translation of the nonverbal world; a verbal representation of signs. Because of this, translation is not simply a secondary—derivative—exercise. It is, ultimately, an original, unique work that exists alongside another, in continual dialogue.
In the past I’ve been asked in which language my stories develop. In my first attempts at writing in Spanish, the stories that primarily originated in English I would begin to translate. Other times they would begin in Spanish, but would then shift to English when in a flurry of activity I would find myself running out of words or phrases. Later they developed in Spanish and stayed there. This came about from practice and greater faith in myself as a writer. Of course, I can’t negate the effects of my English—for years I suffered over this fact. However, I view it now as a particular effect of being bilingual, of being the bearer of two tongues, of speaking (and writing)—as many bilinguals do—with a forked tongue. I write with a Spanish/English dictionary and a Spanish thesaurus. At the same time, when I write in English, I also go back to a dictionary and a thesaurus.
(On a side note, the languages that we carry will ultimately unmask us: and we shouldn’t be afraid of this at all.)
As to whether there exists a fundamental difference between the languages? I have read (in Cisneros, in Richard Rodriguez) that Spanish is somehow a more intimate language. For Cisneros, Spanish is often the language of intimacy, of romance, of true love (for example the part in Bien Pretty where she talks about making love in Spanish). I’m not so sure if I completely agree with that. I’ve had my heart broken, in English, by Nabokov and Kureshi, for example. I’ve been scarred by Roberto Bolaño (in particular, book four of 2666, which left me speechless and numb). All languages carry within them their own beauty and horror, no?
EH: I’ve been thinking about this for a few days now and can’t really come up with a straight answer, and I think that’s because what you’re asking is much more complex. It’s something like this: Where exactly does beauty lie: in what is being told, or in how it’s being told? Is beauty in the story or in the words that are telling it? If beauty lies solely in the story, then any language, any translation, should achieve this just as well (and we know this isn’t so).
Go no further than Borges, who was translating Oscar Wilde when he was nine years old, and you have yourself a pretty little mess. Borges consistently stated that a translation could exist alongside (as you say, Santiago, when you mention Octavio Paz) or even surpass its original, and that its merits were not in its fidelities and consistencies with the original, but in its infidelities and inconsistencies. After reading Beckford’s Vathek, for example, Borges wrote, “El original es infiel a la traducción” (“The original is not faithful to the translation”). And since his childhood reading of Cervantes was in English, he then wrote in his Essai d’autobiographie: “Cuando más tarde leí Don Quijote (en castellano) me pareció una mala traducción.” (“Later, when I read Don Quixote (in Spanish) it seemed like a bad translation to me.”)
But what happens with someone who appears to be writing in two languages at once, as we are, or as I am? What happens when writing is itself a translation in process? And here, of course, I can only answer from my own experience. With all its treacheries, with all its hardships and apparent contradictions (my mind immediately flashes back to my two sparring mothers), writing in two languages, or writing from two languages, is also like having two distinct treasure chests from where to grab gold and silver and diamonds. If at mid-sentence, for example, I reach for one chest and can’t find in there anything I like or anything that fits, I simply reach for the other one. And for some reason, the constant searching and the relentless tugging of these two languages seems to produce, through that same grammatical and syntactical tugging, a new language, a sort of hybrid or blended language. A self-language, really.
SV: Se me ocurrió something else as I was preparing my lecture notes for a talk I gave at Grinnell College on Friday. I’m glad Eduardo mentioned Borges and his thoughts on translation because I think they work here: The translator as a type of traitor to a text. In some ways, writers who choose to write in another language are in some ways traitors to a language, no? Traitors, at least to the idea of monolingualism, to the idea of an identity that is one. To be bilingual, as we’ve said, is to speak with a forked tongue. We are a one that is more than two (to paraphrase a line from Gustavo Pérez Firmat). We write in the seams, at times uneasily, between Spanish and English.
EH: Exactamente, Santiago. But it is precisely in the seams, in the fringes or borders, if you will, that art takes place. And this includes, no doubt, the art of language, where betrayal is a prerequisite. So why not, Daniel, translate your own work?
DA: Porque me da hueva… That’s why. I don’t go back and translate my own work because as an artist you always want to move forward, discover new stories. Even the process of correcting translations I find tedious beyond words. Still, I do it, because I can’t resist the urge to fix it all, to make sure it’s perfect, and when folks ask me, “How’s the translation?” I never say it’s good or it’s bad…. I say, if you don’t like the book in Spanish, you wouldn’t have liked it in English, either. When I have tried to write in Spanish, I have found it just as difficult as I thought it would be. Still, I think it’s the perfect language for describing the US, or at least my vision of the US: it gives me a certain distance I enjoy. Most of my writing in English is about Latin America, while I’ve written few short stories in Spanish about the Gringolandia, but never used Spanish to write about Peru. Go figure.
Eduardo: I see a parallel between your last response and the idea behind your novel El ángel literario: trying to define exactly where the beauty in a text lies is in some ways as quixotic as trying to find exactly at what moment Hemingway became a writer. Why this obsession?
EH: It might be the engineer in me, whatever that means. Always trying to find causes or connections between things, or even trying to solve what I know, of course, is unsolvable. When I start writing something, anything, it always presents itself to me as a sort of riddle. Through writing it, however, through obsessing with it for a while, what I invariably solve is not the riddle itself, but how to tell that same riddle to the reader. In writing, I’ve always experienced that obsessive or quixotic malady.
In my first book, Esto no es una pipa, Saturno, I suddenly started obsessing with suicide, then with suicide writers, then not only with suicide writers but with each one of their fathers, and subsequently with finding the father’s role in that writer’s death. Now, in hindsight, I can see in that book my same obsessiveness to try to unearth something well-hidden, to try to pinpoint something invisible and ambiguous; in this case, the connection between writing, suicide, and fathers.
In El ángel literario, my next book, it became another insolvable and almost ridiculous riddle: Why writers write. But this obsession’s spark I remember more clearly. I was reading too much Carver. And in one of his books of interviews he recalls, when younger, the feeling of just wanting to sit down and write, but of not being able to because he had to go to the laundromat to wash his kid’s clothes. I thought this not only beautiful and pathetic, but also significant to his own development as a short-story writer (in bursts, through little windows of opportunity, no time for novels). And so I wrote the story of Carver in a laundromat. But one writer’s story rapidly turned into the desire to write more stories on writers’ beginnings, more whys, wheres, and hows other writers began to write. And so in crept Hemingway in Paris, and Nabokov running through a park in Vyra, and Piglia in a Buenos Aires brothel, and many others, sometimes briefly as only a project or an idea, other times with much more force, and other times as my own story, told through diaries and letters and bundles of twopence reflections. But always, of course, as fiction. And always reaching for that unreachable point, that insolvable question of why someone begins to write, or why someone needs to write, or why someone suddenly commences a courtship with the written word.
My latest book, El boxeador polaco, was again four years of my obsessing with how to tell a Polish boxer’s story, that is, of how to tell my Polish grandfather’s untellable story, in Auschwitz. Same malady. Different symptoms.
DA: Has choosing to write in Spanish changed how you read in either language?
SV: As writers, we are the products of our lives as readers, no? While at one point I believed Spanish was a choice for me, I’ve come to realize through the course of this conversation that it never really was. It was always there present through my readings: Mexican and Latin American comics as a kid—Kalimán, Condorito; Mexican pulp comics as a teen—La novela policíaca; and then whatever else I could pick up to read at my grandmother’s house in Mexicali. It was there living alongside my history of reading in English. Living in Mexico City as an undergrad further influenced my readings and writings. By the time I started writing in Spanish, I was prepared, though I didn’t realize it at the time. As to whether it changed me as a reader, as I continue in this life as a writer I have found myself to be a more demanding reader.
EH: There’s no doubt that writing changes the way you read. In any language. But in my case, that’s especially true with the way I now read Spanish literature. Ever since I started writing in Spanish—although, Daniel, I still stutter just before calling this a choice, since I don’t recall ever really choosing a writing language—I find myself reading Spanish literature with much more attention to detail, to how or why it works or doesn’t work, to figuring out the way a certain author solved a certain language or syntactical problem. On one hand, this has made me a much more demanding reader in Spanish than in English. On the other hand, however, that’s probably also why I enjoy reading in English so much more.
DA: Santiago, you spoke earlier about the constraints of Chicanismo as a literary aesthetic, how Spanish allowed you to sidestep some of this. Could you talk more about what these restrictions/expectations are? Is this something you see as specific to Chicano writing, to Latino writing? Is it simply the perils of being an ethnic writer in America today? Do other ethnic groups encounter the same issues?
SV: Short answer: yes. Longer answer: Chicano (and Latino writing in general) had to go through a process of concentration to help build a sense of community and a feeling that the experiences of Mexican-Americans in the US were shared. For the Chicano and Chicana generations from the ’60s through ’80s, building a sense of shared collective experience was fundamental for legitimizing a literature by an ethnic American group. Those experiences were concentrated in two principal ones: barrio life, and migrant worker/rural lives. This process of coalescing a literature around a particular set of themes or experiences is important for the expansion of a collective social identity. I think the central issue was the need for legitimizing the experience of Mexican Americans in the United States; adding our voices as belonging to America (the United States). Their focus revolved around the question, “Who are we?” The poet Ricardo Sánchez answered that question in the ’70s with his response: “We are the urgent voices.”
For my generation, those of us born in the mid to late 1960s—born too late to participate in the social activist part of the Chicano movimiento, but who benefited from the gains of that movement—bilingual education, Chicano-themed courses at the university—the question that might be asked is, “Who am I?” Who am I as a mixed up Mex, a divided self, an adapted Mexican-American? Who am I, and what can I say about being a Chicano born in the late ’60s, a Mexican-American living in post-movimiento period, a Latino/a in the United States, an American who writes in Spanish, and a Latin American born in the United States? Of course, this is the question that Alberto Fuguet and Sergio Gómez posed with McOndo in the mid-’90s. But it is also relevant for my generation. When I started writing in the ’80s, I was still getting the “It’s nice, but it’s not Chicano enough” response. Writing in Spanish allowed me to move beyond that, though I didn’t start writing in that language until the mid-’90s. By then, the panorama of how to express the Chicano experience had also expanded. We had writers and artists like Lalo López Alcaraz and Esteban Zul parodying the Chicano movimiento in their fanzine Pocho—and we should remember that parody is not meant to destroy but to create another opening, add some wiggle room in a way—Jim Mendiola and his short film Pretty Vacant, about a Chicana from San Antonio trying to merge her love of punk rock with Tex-Mex; Michele Serros and her process of dealing with the Chicana identity in her book Chicana falsa. My work is a part of this—writing in Spanish is both a questioning of the expectation that the Chicano experience is written in English (at least since the ’80s) and that it is simply about being a part of the United States experience. Latinos in the US are also a part of Latin America.
There is always peril when choosing to write as an ethnic writer. There is the expectation of the community to represent faithfully that experience, and there is the expectation of the publishing world to fit into the particular mold that has been set for that ethnic experience. At the same time, it’s a peril that must be undertaken to show that we are not monolithic blocks. The Latino/a experience is not just the experience of the Chicanos, the Puerto Ricans, the Cuban-Americans and the Dominicans. It is also Peruvian, Guatemalan, Nicaraguan, Honduran, Bolivian, Chilean….
DA: All of which feeds into something like the “American” experience, no? It makes me think of this rather bizarre moment in October 2008, when Horace Engdahl, until very recently the permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize committee, dismissed American writing as “too isolated, too insular.” He (rightly, I believe) critiqued us for not translating enough, but then went on to offer some fairly embarrassing and ignorant generalizations about the state of American letters. Many folks came to the defense of American writers, but I was struck by David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, who specifically mentioned the sons and daughters of immigrants writing in their adopted language, English, as part of his argument about the vitality of our literature. Do either of you have any response to Engdahl’s comments? Or to Remnick’s? You are both the sons of immigrants, writing in your parents’ tongue—can you still be American writers? (And if you are, wouldn’t that give poor Mr. Engdahl a big Swedish headache…?)
SV: Does Engdahl have too closed-off a view of writing in the US? Obvio. It is true that there are many sons and daughters of immigrants demonstrating the vitality of US letters (I try to shy away from the use of “America” as simply being the USA). Writers like you, Daniel, as well as others like Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Díaz, Edwige Danticat, and too many others to mention. So, yes, obviously, US letters in English are vital.
As to the larger question, if we write in Spanish, though we have an upbringing in “America,” can we still be “American” writers? My response: Yes. Can I be a member of the academy of US letters though my creative language is Spanish? My response is also yes. So, I would respond also to Remnick to say that US letters in Spanish are vital, too. Remember Hinojosa-Smith? His first novels were in Spanish. Remember the poetry of Juan Felipe Herrera? He slips and slides fluidly between both languages. Tato Laviera’s AmeRícan. Norma Cantú’s Canícula. Spanish is as much a part of this country as English: Spanish is also a national language of the USA.
DA: The idea of national languages is pretty archaic; after all, these are rather arbitrary bits of history—accidents, really. And I wonder: is the concept of native language outdated at this point?
SV: I often introduce myself to my classes as an unrepentant Spanglish speaker. When I first started writing in Spanish, I tried to pay close attention to maintaining a “proper”—domesticated—Spanish, but as I’ve continued to write I find myself moving away from this notion of a “proper” language. Spanglish is, in the eyes of some, a malcriado language. Undomesticated. A tongue-tied language. But if that is my language—after all, I grew up with a wild forked tongue, speaking and mixing Spanish and English constantly—then a malcriado I will be.
EH: I don’t know if the concept of a native language is outdated, but I do find very interesting that the three of us—each one in his own particular way, of course—is somehow searching for that native language through writing. And here I don’t mean native language as merely a system of words, but rather native language with all of its complex social and political and historical implications, native language as origins, as roots, as tradition, as family, as childhood, even, as something good and noble and peaceful that, I believe, is still tucked away somewhere deep within us. Maybe that’s why we write. To get back to that irredeemable place. To recover, through language, our paradise lost.