does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Spanglish Christmas Eve

In a continuation of my series on Puerto Rican culture, I began writing a post to highlight the importance of Christmas Eve for the Spanish-speaking world and Puerto Ricans, in particular. I started by saying, “Christmas Eve is called Noche Buena [Good Night]. At least traditionally, Noche Buena, rather than Christmas day, was the premier celebration among family and friends. In Catholic families, dinner and music were usually followed by attending La Misa de Gallos [Midnight Mass].”

I don’t usually start my posts by talking about an earlier draft. In this case, though, it’s relevant. As soon as I had written the above sentences explaining the significance of Noche Buena, I thought I’d better consult with Puerto Rican friends and family. I got a stunning reality check. Reactions ranged from “... the relative importance of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is now, even in Puerto Rico, not that different ...” to “... the real distinction in Puerto Rico is between rural and urban areas ...” to “...the real difference is between how Catholics and Pentecostals celebrate Christmas Eve ...” to “...what’s up with this Noche Buena stuff? It’s Christmas Eve!” That’s when I realized that, in addressing Puerto Rican culture, I was once again caught in an identity maelstrom.

This is why, when I came across the following poem, Chihuahuas y La Noche Buena, it answered a present need. It showcased, by its use of Spanglish, the cultural reality of predominantly English-speaking individuals with roots in the Spanish-speaking world. While this was written by someone of Mexican-American background, it struck a nerve with this Boricamericana. This last term, by the way, a conflation of Boricua and Americana, is one which apparently I just made up because a Google search produced no results. Like the poem, it illustrates the point that, with cultural boundaries increasingly permeable, one of the results is a hybridized language and experience.

Here's the poem. I apologize to those who don't read Spanish, but translating this seems to defeat the purpose. I'll answer any questions you have, though.

Chihuahuas y La Noche Buena

Adapted by Río Lara-Bellon.

'Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the casa
Ni un ratón se movía. ¡Caramba! ¿Qué pasa?
Los niños were all tucked away en sus camas,
Some in long underwear, some in pijamas.
While Mamá worked late in her little cocina
El viejo was down at the corner cantina
Living it up with amigos, ¡carajo!
Muy contento y un poco borracho.
While hanging the stockings with mucho cuidado,
In hopes that old Santa would feel obligado
To bring a los niños both buenos y malos,
A nice batch of dulces y otros regalos.
Outside in the yard there arose such a grito
That I jumped to my feet like a frightened cabrito.
I ran to the window y miré afuera
And who in the world do you think that it era?
Santo Nikos in a sleigh and a big red sombrero
Came dashing along like a crazy bombero!
And pulling his sleigh, instead of venados,
Were eight little chihuahuas, approaching volados.
I watched as they came and this quaint little hombre
Was shouting and whistling and calling by nombre:
¡Ay Milo! ¡Ay Tobee! ¡Ay Frida y Sasha!
¡Ay Todo! ¡Ay Pepe! ¡Ay Paco y Nacho!
Then standing erect with hand en su pecho
He flew to the top of our very own techo
With his round little belly like a bowl of jalea
He struggled to squeeze down our old chimenea.
Then huffing and puffing, at last in our sala,
With soot smeared all over his traje de gala,
He filled all the stockings with bonitos regalos
For none of the niños had been muy malos.
Then chuckling aloud, seeming muy contento,
He turned like a flash y voló como el viento.
And I heard him exclaim (¡ay, es la verdad!)

Adaptation Copyright © 1996 by Río Lara-Bellon All Rights Reserved.

I now bid you so long for the remainder of the holiday season. I will be posting again on January 9, 2010. Have a Happy New Year!

Other relevant posts:

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Guest Blogger - What Is Good Literature?

One of the unexpected joys of becoming a blogger has been discovering wonderful bloggers from around the world. One of my favorites is A Cuban in London. I so enjoyed his December 6, 2009 post that, with his permission, it is my guest blog post today. Here is what he has to say on the question, What is good literature?

I have never read a novel by Philip Roth. I recently opened the first page of Joyce's 'Ulysses' and closed it again. It can wait. Especially when the introduction runs almost as long as Sylvia Plath's 'The Bell Jar'. I have yet to read Don DeLillo's 'Underworld' despite many people's claim that it contains one of the best baseball scenes ever written, and I am a fan of that sport. In my early twenties I opened and closed in succession, without reading, the following 'masterpieces': 'La Casa de los Espíritus', 'Steppenwolf', 'Death in Venice' and 'Cien Años de Soledad' (since then opened, read and closed but not liked).

In the meantime, though, I have devoured almost all of Milan Kundera's novels, become acquainted with and enamoured of Margaret Atwood's oeuvre, delighted in Salman Rushdie's fiction and become a fan of Zadie Smith's novels and essays.

So, when my Literary Judgement Day arrives what will I declare? What will my excuse be for not liking 'Don Quijote de la Mancha'?

I'm only asking because it seems to me that ever since papyrus was first used during the Early Dynastic Period in Egypt, there has been a need to have a 'must-read' canon to which we, avid bookworms, must kowtow if we want to be accepted in the lap of literature's gods. This attitude, which I shall call 'the dictatorship of the classics' does not take into account human life span, basic needs or cultures. No, the classics' tyrant's only concern is what he/she calls good literature and our incessant pursuit of it.

And what is good literature? By no means I am attempting to replicate Zadie Smith's magnificent fifteen-part essay which I have been uploading on this blog weekly since September and whose latest instalment focused on the 'corrective critic'. But the question of what good literature is has been roaming my mind since many years ago an acquaintance of mine said to me with a frown on his face and a scold in his voice: 'I can't believe you have not read (insert famous novel title here) yet! But you like reading so much, I always see you with a book. You are so eloquent and passionate about literature. I would have thought you already had (novel title again) under your belt.'

Well, for starters I don't wear a belt most of the time. But what most intrigued me and, I confess, annoyed me from my acquaintance's tirade was the surprise on his face that I had not read this 'classic'.

I don't know about your reading habits, my fellow bloggers and readers, but mine are as follows. I have always had a list of books I wish to read out of pure enjoyment, regardless of their literary merits or lack of them thereof. But sometimes, even if I like the author and I am familiar with his/her work, I hesitate before delving into the narrative they offer me. This uncertainty is mainly based on circumstances rather than volition. The will is there, but the spark is missing. The opening sentence is not enough bait for me to swallow the hook. There are exceptions, though. I started twice and put down the same number of times two Toni Morrison's novels: 'Beloved' and 'Jazz'. The third time around I stuck with them - on separate occasions, mind - and I was rewarded with two magnificent literary behemoths, which I am planning to re-read very soon. But my habits, on the whole, remain the same. I am attracted to a book, be it a novel, essay or poetry collection, for its (potential) literary merit rather than its cultural impact. That the two of them coincide oftentimes these days is more down to the fact that I have fine-tuned my search for good books in the last fifteen years and become choosier.

And economics plays an essential role in that decision. I referred to three elements that 'classics tyrants' overlook when it comes to evaluating a work of art: the length of human life, basic needs and culture. Let's examine each of those aspects separately.

From an early age you will be exposed to a lot of reading material. And bar the small fact that your parents or carers will choose the books they'll read to you when you're little, you will be free most of your teenage, young adult and mature life to pick out which novel or poetry collection you want to read. Assuming that you're not a book reviewer - minority -, your main incentive for reading will be to enjoy the work in front of you. And that's without taking into account the literature you will have to read through your student's years or as part of your job. That means that a novel like 'War and Peace' might not be as appealing as, say, a collection of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe. The seven volumes that make up 'À la Recherche du Temps Perdu' will look like a waste of time and money when you realise that it will not take you as long to read Nadime Gordimer's entire catalogue and still have time to enjoy 'Telling Tales', an excellent compilation of short works by some of the foremost authors nowadays edited by the South African writer; I strongly recommend it. But the classics' dictator will have none of it. To him/her (although it's more 'him' than 'her' if truth be told, so I will start using the masculine from now on), to this person, Proust is the apogee of good literary taste. His is the most beautiful type of literature there is and the fact that not many people can 'get' him is evidence of the critic's own infallible ability to judge what's good and what isn't. Some people call this attitude snobbery. I have a stronger word for it which I won't use because I don't like gratuitous swearing on my blog. My conclusion is, though, life's too short, read what you want without feeling you 'must' digest this or that novel because it's a classic.

Basic needs are better expressed through the current economic downturn, a fine euphemism for a financial crisis if ever I saw one. With unemployment and inflation rising, the time and resources for meandering through aisles of old tomes that call out for our attention are diminishing. The dilemma worrying many people at the moment is how to survive in the midst of this credit crunch and that's why the market is awash with escapist novels and what I call crap lit. This is the type of book that Borders (alas, in receivership now) and Waterstones advertise in their 3 for 2 deals. It's probably why the Katie Prices of this world have supplanted the J. M. Coetzees. And although I also stick my snobbish nose up at the former, this phenomenon has a logical genesis. You think of putting food on the table first and then indulge in your favourite pastime afterwards. But to the classics' inquisitor this shift of loyalties is akin to the original sin, without the snake, mind. My verdict on this aspect is that as much as I love books, I need to look after my family first and foremost, and you can burn me at the stake if you want, Mr Despot.

And so we come to the cultural element which I have left for the end because it's always been a bugbear of mine. So, if you notice an axe being swung it's because I have one to grind.

It's logical that in an English-speaking country most literature will be read in that language. The same goes for Spanish or Chinese. It's not surprising that when people are asked to list their favourite novels or poems, the majority will be works in their own lexicon. It is also reasonable to suppose that we tend to think of many of the books we hold dear as the centre of the universe, what my acquaintance referred to as the 'I-can't-believe-you-haven't-read-that' type of literature. After all, some of us are miniature dictators ourselves.

But when the classics' autocrat gets up on his High Chair to list the 100 Best Novels of all time, or nominate the greatest poem of the 20th century, my ears always prick up and my eyes open wide. I'm usually interested in who makes the cut and who is left out. That's also the moment when my cynicism sets deeper in. Because no matter how broad the scope is, the majority of the works enumerated will be usually European and more specifically in English. And that cuts across the board. Whether you're talking about visual arts, theatre or cinema, the bulk of any 'Best...' list will have at the very least an Anglophone undertone. This is not to detract from the very good art that has been produced in North America and Europe, especially Britain, for many centuries. But it is rather disheartening for anyone who, like me, has been exposed to equally brilliant art from an early age in his/her country of origin, regardless of economic outlook.

My first reaction to Stephen Moss's article on TS Elliot (link above) was to write to The Guardian to let him know the names of five poets from Iberoamerica from whose body of work I could select any poem that could very easily compete with TS Eliot's 'The Waste Land' to win the title of 'greatest poem of the 20th century'. They were: Rafael Alberti, César Vallejo, Gabriela Mistral, Julia de Burgos and Mario Benedetti. If you know your Hispanic poetry you will be aware that I did not include any Cuban poets in that list; I did not want to be accused of jingoism. But on second thoughts I decided against writing the letter because it would have been futile. The classics' dictator has two major shortcomings: monoculture and monolanguage. The landscape in which this literary Stalin lives is monochromatic. He doesn't read Alfonsina Storni's 'Voy a Dormir', not because he doesn't like her but because he doesn't know who she was. This authoritarian ignoramus lives in a secluded intellectual island beyond whose shores he will rarely venture. The thought of learning another language in order to delve into a different culture terrifies him. But this deficiency will not stop him from deciding which writers have the qualities that define good literature.

When non-English speaking writers do make it to the aforementioned lists, it is because they are read in translation, with the usual suspects - at least from my neck of the woods - being showered with all kind of compliments: Gabo, Isabel and Borges. This hurts because the plethora of good writers in the Spanish-speaking world who gets left out is mindblowing. Julio Cortázar's 'Rayuela' is a Latin American classic, paving, as it did, the way for other similarly innovative writers such as the Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante whose 'Tres Tristes Tigres' I devoured earlier this year and it's shaping up to be my Book of the Year. Gabo (Gabriel García Márquez) drew heavily from another compatriot of mine, late writer Alejo Carpentier, to become the doyen of the so-called 'magical realism' genre, however it was the islander who first coined the phrase 'lo real maravilloso (the wonderful reality)' in the prologue of his trail-blazing novel 'El Reino de Este Mundo'.

And it wouldn't matter really, whether these non-English speaking writers were acknowledged or not by an Anglo-Saxon public, because they have already earned their kudos in Iberoamerica. But since it is the Germanic lexicon in which the worldwide literary market chiefly operates, non-recognition equals to small or zero sales, so it does matter in the end. As the Indian author Pankaj Mishra pointed out recently in The Guardian Saturday Review, if you want to be published abroad you have to conform to the stereotypical views many readers have of a particular writer's nation. For Cuban authors, it is 'steamy sex or salsa' or nada at the till. This situation results in a Catch-22 for the writer who has to resort to formulas in order to sustain a living through writing. Which in effect is convenient cannon fodder for the classics' tyrant in order to back up his claim of what he believes to be good literature.

I apologise if I have stepped on some toes today. After all most of the people who visit and comment on this blog are English-speakers. So for the record, this is not a diatribe against the Anglo world or European culture at all - good Lord, probably Nigerian or Jamaican writers are in a similar situation - but against that prejudiced classics' dictator who would like nothing better than lock us up, rebel readers who dare to read for pleasure, in a type of Konzentrationslager, where our hours would be devoted to analysing the symbolism of TS Elliot's second chapter in 'The Waste Land': 'A Game of Chess'. Me? I'm off to read some Girondo.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Tales of Wonder by Huston Smith, A Book Review

Two strands thread prominently throughout my writing and this blog: multiculturalism and religion. More than any other person, Huston Smith, the now 90-year-old philosophy professor and religious scholar, has informed my thinking about the intersection of culture and religion. His landmark book, The World’s Religions, has sold almost 3 million copies and is a standard textbook in introductory comparative religion classes. Now, in the twilight of a long life in which he has published more than 15 books, taught at various universities, hosted TV shows, and traveled the world several times over, he has consented at last to tell his unusual and riveting life story in Tales of Wonder.

Born in a remote Chinese village to American Methodist missionaries, Huston Smith learned early about differing cultural and religious points of view. His was the only Caucasian and, originally the only Christian, family in a place which also had followers of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and folk religion. This variety would later serve Smith well as he studied the world’s religions. It would turn out to be critical in his ultimately becoming a follower of the major religions, as well as of the folk and primal ones, all while he " ... never canceled my subscription to Christianity."

After he came to the States for higher education, Smith shed his parents' fundamentalist Methodist tradition and practiced a more secular, social activist version of Christianity. In this, he was influenced by his father-in-law Henry Wieman, the subject of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s doctoral thesis. Eventually, under the influence of other western and eastern teachers, Huston Smith came to embrace a mysticism which defines his religious views to this day.

In his introduction to Tales of Wonder, Pico Iyer says, “Professor Smith … created his own field, by not really comparing religions so much as encountering each one in turn and trying to find its burning core as well as its philosophical uniqueness.” Smith then presents his fascinating autobiography in two parts. Part I describes the historical markers of his life. Part II discusses his personal experiences with Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, mysticism, primal religions, and the use of hallucinogenic drugs.

Smith’s amazing life began with a Medieval-like upbringing in China but then went on to his becoming a professor at some of the finest universities in America and being acknowledged internationally as one of our pre-eminent religious communicators. Along the way, he has been on the frontlines of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, participated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, danced with Sufis, meditated around the clock for days with his Japanese Zen master, and helped Native Americans gain the legal right to use peyote in their religious rites. Even the Dalai Lama has acknowledged Smith as one of his spiritual teachers.

With such a complex tapestry of experiences and with Smith's first-rate writing skills, his autobiography promised to be fascinating. Tales of Wonder met brilliantly the challenge of describing this unique man. It also satisfied his life-long mission to promote understanding among differing religions. As always, Huston Smith appoaches his religious subjects in a phenomenological way, treating each religion with respect and without judgment. Given how divisive religion has been historically, Smith, in his life and in his writing, may have found the secret to helping us all get along.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Why Do I Write? - Part 2

Whenever I take my role as Writer/Author too seriously, I recall what Stephen King says in his book On Writing: It's “… just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks.”

Having dethroned the writer as an exalted being, King does not address why some of us choose to be plumbers and others are drawn to, say, writing novels. Of himself, he says only that writing fiction is “… what makes me happy, because it’s what I was made to do.”

Margaret Atwood, in Negotiating with the Dead, dedicates two pages to listing why writers write. The list includes everything from “To record the world as it is …” or to “… produce order out of chaos …” or to “…attract the love of a beautiful woman … man ….” In the end, she concludes that “… any search for a clutch of common motives would prove fruitless ….”

Pablo Neruda in his poem Poet’s Obligation seems to allude to some higher calling. "So, drawn on by my destiny, … through me, freedom and the sea will call in answer to the shrouded heart.”

When asked why I write, I usually respond by saying, I do it because I can’t not write. As described in my post, The Family Business, I seem to be genetically coded for writing.

The tenor of my response changes, though, when I receive a rejection from yet another literary publication or agent. That’s when I scratch my head and wonder why I’m giving so much precious energy to an endeavor that sometimes no one but me sees. At times, I force myself to take a vacation from writing because “I’m not getting anywhere.”

Then I’ll wake up one morning with my fingers itching to get to the keyboard. I will open up a file and soon I will be racing to catch up with whatever is in me that seeks written expression. In the process, I'll feel as fulfilled as I have ever felt about anything.

When that happens, I recall what Stephen King also said when he admonished the writer to find something you are good at and to do it “... until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic.”

For me, writing—except when I’m engaged in what seems like the infinity-minus-one draft of a work—is an exceedingly pleasurable experience; indeed, sometimes ecstatic.

My current work-in-progress is a case in point. I now laugh with my characters. I weep with them. As the project progresses, their faces become clearer. I begin to understand their silences, their rages, their hopes, as well as their disappointments. When I reach this point in any fiction project, I know I have to surrender to the process. Stopping feels like a betrayal of my responsibility to these characters.

It may be, then, that I also write to give my characters the expression they would otherwise not have, but for which they hunger, wherever it is they reside when they are not around me. Indeed, once the characters appear in my life, I suffer from a serious case of inquietud, a restlessness that won’t diminish until I give the characters their due.

I’ll end with something else Stephen King said:

“Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.

“Drink and be filled up.”

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Why Do I Write? - Part I

I was about to publish my next post on this topic when I realized that a while back, I had addressed it by featuring a Pablo Neruda poem. I am republishing "Poet's Obligation" as Part I of Why Do I Write? I will publish Part II mid next week. This poem applies to more than poetry, which I also write occasionally. Nobel-Prize-winner Neruda captures well the nearly mystical impulse which drives me to write fiction. The English translation is provided first, followed by the original in Spanish.

Poet's Obligation

To whoever is not listening to the sea this Friday
morning, to whoever is cooped up
in the house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or dry prison cell,
to him I come, and without speaking or looking
I arrive and open the door of his prison,
and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a long rumble of thunder adds itself
to the weight of the planet and the foam,
the groaning rivers of the ocean rise,
the star vibrates quickly in its crown
and the sea beats, dies, and goes on beating.

So, drawn on by my destiny,
I ceaselessly must listen to and keep
the sea’s lamenting in my consciousness,
I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup
so that, wherever those in prison may be,
wherever they suffer the sentence of the autumn,
I may be present with an errant wave,
I may move in and out of windows,
and hearing me, eyes may lift themselves,
asking “How can I reach the sea?”
And I will pass to them, saying nothing,
the starry echoes of the wave,
a breaking up of foam and quicksand,
a rustling of salt withdrawing itself,
the gray cry of seabirds on the coast.

So, through me, freedom and the sea
will call in answer to the shrouded heart.

Deber del poeta

A quien no escucha el mar en este viernes
por la mañana, a quien adentro de algo,
casa, oficina, fábrica o mujer,
o calle o mina o seco calabozo:
a este yo acudo y sin hablar ni ver
llego y abro la puerta del encierro
y un sin fin se oye vago en la insistencia,
un largo trueno roto se encadena
al peso del planeta y de la espuma,
surgen los ríos roncos del océano,
vibra veloz en su rosal la estrella
y el mar palpíta, muere y continúa.

Así por el destino conducido
debo sin tregua oír y conservar
el lamento marino en mi conciencia,
debo sentir el golpe de agua dura
y recogerlo en una taza eterna
para que donde esté el encarcelado,
donde sufra el castigo del otoño
yo esté presente con una ola errante,
yo circule a través de las ventanas
y al oírme levante la mirada
diciendo: cómo me acercaré al océano?
Y yo transmitiré sin decir nada
los ecos estrellados de la ola,
un quebranto de espuma y arenales,
un susurro de sal que se retira,
el grito gris del ave de la costa.

Y así, por mí, la libertad y el mar
responderán al corazón oscuro.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Cultural Identity - Part 2

My friend Mari Carmen grew up in Puerto Rico but now lives both on the island and on the mainland. Given her unique perspective, I asked her to share thoughts about Puerto Rico and its people. She highlighted the following items. The first applies to Puerto Ricans everywhere, but the remaining items apply specifically to island life.

"The hospitality and warmth of the Puerto Rican people are absolutely charming, notwithstanding all the irony in the reports of violence and crime, etc. They give you food, even if they have little to eat. I remember being a teacher and going to visit parents of Puerto Rican kids after school, and these were poor kids, but they always had rice and beans and tostones [fried plaintains] to share.

"Christmas in Puerto Rico. The 'asaltos' [the assaults], meaning groups of people who wake you up and then have those 'asaltados' [those assaulted] join the group and go on to the next 'asalto' and wake up the next family all night long until it is time to go to the Misa de Aguinaldo [Carols Mass] at 5:00 AM. Sometimes 50-60 people are in the group.

"Las Máscaras de Hatillo. Right after New Year's, I think, in the town of Hatillo, the people get dressed up with máscaras [masks] and they do travesuras [mischief] all around town dressed in costumes and máscaras that resemble vejigantes but are a little different.

"On the feast of San Sebastián in Old San Juan, they close the old town and they used to parade with his statue. Now it has become more of an arts festival, but it is still a big deal sometime in mid January and the old part of the city becomes a walking mall.

"The elections and political participation. Elections are a big deal, and everyone participates (voter participation is over 80% of those registered). No matter how rich or how poor, everyone has a banner or a decal in their car, their house, their balcony. There is a festive air to the elections, and people take their politics very seriously. It used to be that everyone used to vote on the same Sunday at 3:00 PM in an assigned classroom. If you were not there, the doors would close and you lost the opportunity to vote. Now it is more like the States and you can go any time during the day, so long as you have la tarjeta [voter card]."