On Learning

learning

My epiphany, when it came, did not take place at an araby but in the more prosaic confines of a college townhouse. I was 21, a senior, and in my final semester when, one day at the dining room table I realized that, in a few short months, I could be free of classrooms for the first time in my conscious life. Since the age of four when I started kindergarten, and even before if Mrs. McGovern’s nursery school was thrown into the mix, my life had been molded and mandated, dominated and dictated by obligatory schooling. A hundred-and-eighty school days a year at six hours a day multipled by twelve years made for roughly 13,000 hours in my K-12 education alone; top that off with another 1,500 or so college hours and I was up to 14,500. Fourteen thousand, five hundred hours of my one-time-only youth. And that wasn’t even counting early band rehearsals, homework, detentions, and the mind-numbing quantity of extra-curricular activities American students submit ourselves to in order to pad out our college transcripts. Sitting at the table, I began running through what those 14,500 hours had provided me with in terms of an education. The conclusion was inescapable: not enough to justify the time and expense. Not by a long shot. This was neither the most efficient, nor the most empowering, nor the most emotionally-healthy way to go about the process of learning. By the end of the semester, I had turned my back on graduate school, gotten a job in a library and was at work on a first attempt at a novel. My life as a citizen-at-large had begun.

And I am happy to report that, although my formal education ended at the door of a mere BA, I have not only continued to be able to learn, I have done it better. An example: in six school years, from grades seven to twelve, plus a particularly useless college conversation course, I learned precisely one foreign language (and it is a sad statement on our educational affairs that I was about the only one that did even that). In the years since leaving school, I have learned four more, including the one that is now my literary language. I have done this, in the main, without classrooms of any kind. This is not intended to be a boast; apparently I am “gifted” at language learning. But isn’t that, or shouldn’t that be, the goal of education – to both discover and foster the talents of each learner with all the means at our disposal? And even with my “gift” (which I think is often a lazy way to describe a combination of interest and discipline), I have struggled and scraped over many years to get my Spanish to the point of being able to express myself fully in it in writing. What if I had been exposed to languages at an early age, when we are most open to them? What if I hadn’t been placed for a grand total of 14,500 hours in a series of institutions that devote themselves to wringing the joy of learning out of us? Instead of being taught by their parents and private teachers, one shudders at the thought of a Beethoven or a Brahms being sent to one of our school music classes where, in third or fourth grade, they might first get to blow into a plastic recorder. Thus do we fancy ourselves, in the twenty-first century, more educated than our unfortunate forbearers.

The American university has become the final stage of the most all encompassing initiation rite the world has ever known,” Ivan Illich once wrote in Deschooling Society. “No society in history has been able to survive without ritual or myth, but ours is the first which has needed such a dull, protracted, destructive, and expensive initiation into its myth.” To Illich, a proper educational system should do three things: “it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.

Hey, teacher: leave those kids alone.

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On Solitude

solitude

By whatever tripartite cocktail of nature, nurture and culture, it has fallen upon me to be a person who spends a great deal of time alone. This is a necessary condition for a writer of course, our occupational hazard, and one that I have learned to approach with the requisite dosage of amor fati. In the best of times, my solitude spreads itself out before me, inviting me to loll on it like a blanket of infinite possibility, my time to be allotted and dispensed as I see fit. I awake without an alarm, roll from one side of my bed to the other without risk of jostling a grouchy sleeper, and, once fed, clothed and groomed to the liberatingly minimum solitude standard, set about to beckoning the muse by dint of sheer, inspired kinesthetics. I work and write, laugh and cry, putter and pace to the backdrop of the day’s chosen soundtrack, the ideal intermingling of autodidact and anarchist, a dynamo of learning and leavening and sublimated libido.

Then solitude decides to swipe the blanket away, leaving me suspended above the abyss like a Jonathan Edwards-style sinner (a simile I come by honestly, having come of age in post-puritan Connecticut). My two rooms morph into a warren of claustrophobia, my lack of grooming and nutrition into both a reflection of my paralyzed state and a pretext for its perpetuation. Loneliness pervades my body, leaving it a limp, rag doll. Learning and leavening, in a neat one-for-two, become exchanged for languishing. I yearn for company while impressing myself into the labor of keeping it out. I stare in diligent self-hypnosis at the intermittent lights of my computer screen, playing the same song over and over as if skipped records were back in style and cursing Sundays, when they cycle around, with all of the diminished powers at my disposal.

When it comes to sussing us out, solitude is extremely sharp. If we are capable of some feat, it will reveal it to us as if it were the bestower of our own boon. If we are stumbling towards a fall, it will stick out its leg. Solitude is protean, crafty, osmotic, a creator of weather fair and foul in which to clothe itself as friend and foe. Embracing us non-locally with its massless arms, it caresses while stifling, nourishes while depriving. It brooks no rival and gives no quarter.

But I hyperbolize. Wisened by the years, I have learned neither to deflect solitude’s presence by means of manic bouts of Calvanist-seal-of-approval industry (Connecticut again, alas), nor to lie prostrate like a dog before its alpha leader the moment solitude sees fit to bare its existential teeth. As in the proverbial encounter with the bear in the woods, I have trained myself, through years of despair-soaked tenacity and scorched-earth depressions, not to cut and run. The result of such training is he who blogs before you today – if not a paragon of equanimity, then someone who can move into and out of solitude as it is given me to do. Someone who can stare down the bear.

The sun sets at six o’clock on this second-shortest day of the year. Tonight, there will be reading and a movie, moments of contemplation, the joy of thought, another degree added to the arc of my lifespan. Alone.

“Please Malala, Don’t Forget About Mexico”

joven bandera mexicana

Last Wednesday, December 10th, a 21-year-old international relations student from Mexico’s National Autonomous University, Adán Cortés, stood up and approached the microphone at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony with the Mexican flag in his hands. His request was a simple one: that the prize’s recipient, Malala Yousafzai, not forget what is happening in Mexico. With all due irony for a ceremony ostensibly celebrating world peace, Cortés was hustled forcibly from the room, fined a hefty sum for daring to interrupt the big show and is currently sitting in jail, awaiting expulsion from Norway. But his gesture has seared itself into national consciousness. It is Mexico’s version of the shot heard round the world.

As the world now knows, 43 teaching students from the Normal School in Ayotzinapa were disappeared on the night of September 26th, 2014. Only one of them – Alexander Mora Venancio – has been confirmed dead by an Argentine forensic team; the fate of the other 42 is still officially in doubt. Although thousands upon thousands have lost their lives since Mexico embarked on its ill-fated, US-backed drug war in 2007, the case of the 43 has galvanized public attention like none other, bringing together as it does all of the elements of the national nightmare: collusion at all levels of government with the drug cartels; a historical, reflexive and well-founded mistrust of the police; and a criminal investigative apparatus neatly melding buffoonish incompetence with outright malfeasance.

The official version of events runs this way: that the students, who were comandeering buses in order to attend the October 2nd ceremony commemorating the 1968 massacre of students at Tlatelolco, were rounded up by municipal police on orders of the mayor of the town of Iguala, José Luís Abarca. The police then handed over the students to members of the criminal organization Guerreros Unidos, with whom Abarca and his wife María were in cohoots, in order to be dispatched. This the cartel was to have done by burning the bodies beyond recognition in a local garbage dump while the army, cocooned in its garrison in the same town of Iguala, did nothing to intervene. (In a now-infamous declaration, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Kuram baldly stated it was a good thing the army didn’t intervene, “or it would have been worse”.) This is the federal government’s version of the “lone gunman” theory: it was one crazy mayor that done it, conveniently from the left-of-center PRD party. Nothing to do with us.

Mutliple sources have confirmed the swiss cheese-like consistency of this official version of events. First of all, according to the weekly newsmagazine Proceso and citing a report by a UC Berkeley investigative team, the Federal Police were involved in the operation from the get-go, monitoring the students along with state police as soon as the students left their school. There is certainly no lack of motive for the federales to have been involved: the rural normal schools, established in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution to train teachers to work in rural communities, have long been a hotbed of radical social criticism. According to journalist Sanjuana Martínez writing in online news website Sinembargo.mx, there is a plan afoot to close the 17 rural normal schools that remain. And secondly, a report released this week by the National Autonomous University’s Institute of Physics concluded that it would have been impossible to burn 43 bodies to unidentifiable ashes in the garbage dump without the use of 33 tons of logs and 53 kilograms of gas per body, or if, as the story goes, the burning was done by tires, 995 would have been needed with a plume of smoke that would have been seen for kilometers around. Even the Argentine forensic team who identified the remains of Alexander Venancio carefully noted that their identification does not constitute proof that he was actually killed at the dump site.

Meanwhile, as La Jornada columnist Julio Hernández López notes with typical astuteness, the Peña Nieto administration is attempting to “dosify” the tragedy by releasing news a little bit at a time, essentially running out the clock on the story in the hopes that the public will lose interest over time. It is, needless to say, a strategy that has been used effectively enough in the past. But that, as the story unfolds, may actually be giving the government too much credit, presuming that it is interested in releasing information at all rather than stonewalling its own complicity in the case. Given the collusion of the judicial and executive branches in Mexico, given the absence of an independent investigative apparatus, it is hard to imagine Peña Nieto’s government moving forward with anything approaching a real investigation without international pressure added to domestic protest. And that is why it is so important that Adán Cortés did what he did at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony: keeping the story of the 43 front and center in international attention, foiling any attempts at dosification and keeping the pressure on an administration already being rocked by a conflict of interest scandal involving favors provided by the Grupo Higa construction group to first lady Angélica Rivera and Finance Minister Luis Videgaray.  The story of Ayotzinapa is one that cannot and must not be forgotten. And by reminding us of that, Adán Cortés deserves all of our commendation. Norway, take notice.

*UPDATE Monday, December 15: Adán Cortés has been officially expelled from Norway and is due back to Mexico this evening.

The Story of “The Francophone Baby” or The Vagaries of Literary Translation

Bilingual-Kids-Cartoon

In late 2002 or early 2003, when I was living in Italy and before the thought of seriously writing in Spanish had ever occurred to me, I wrote a short story called “The Francophone Baby”. This was the era of the run-up to the Iraq War, let us recall, when nativists were rushing to subsitute “freedom” for “French” in our fries, much as their great-grandparents had tried taking the linguistic knife to sauerkraut and hamburgers a hundred years before in the context of World War I – and with the same success. I don’t recall that I planned it the way, but the story of an all-American family who freaks out becasue their baby is born inexplicably speaking French turned out to be delightfully timely.

More than political, however, the story was inspired by my reading of the work of Joseph Chilton Pearce, in particular his book Magical Child, which discusses the importance of the mother-child bond which forms, in part, by the fetus synchronzing right from the womb with the mother’s speech pattern (a fact I put into the mouth of my fictional pediatrician). Pearce has written extensively on the breakdown of that fundamental bond, and children’s subsequent development, through such factors as hospital birthing, television and day care. So “The Francophone Baby” itself was born as a thought experiment of what might happen if this rupture were taken, not to its logical extreme but to its illogical one.

The story was published in the online magazine “The Adirondack Review” in that same 2003 under the admittedly clunky pseudonym of Archibald Graham, the doctor played by Burt Lancaster in the movie Field of Dreams.  And there the story sat, basically ignored, until I began my first serious attempts to publish in Mexico five or so years later. As is logical, I started out by translating some of the stories I already had, and as “The Francophone Baby” was short and possessed the advantage of having already been published, I started there. The first translation of the story was published in 2008 in El Ciclo Literario.

A couple of years later, as I began gathering together the material that would become Interrumpimos este programa (in English, We Interrupt This Program), I revisted the translation, both expanding the dialogues and making some key changes to the translation itself:

  •  Tweaking Mr. Johnson’s idiomatic language. Although a Mexican character in as agitated a state as Johnson might very well say pendejadas and maricones, the character is, in fact, American. This is a conundrum I have come back to over and over again in my writing since: how to render the idiomatic language of a character when the language he is presumably speaking within the story is different from the one the story itself is written in?
  • Re-translating the language joke. In the original English version, the language spoken by one of the babies is the hypothesized root language of humanity: the Ur-language. But whenever someone says the word Ur, Mr. Johnson accuses them of trailing off (my homage, conscious or unconscious, to Eric Idle’s reading of the cave script in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). As the joke does not translate, I have Mrs. Johnson confusing the Spanish equivalent of the hypothesized language, proto-sapiens, with the much more common term homo sapiens.
  •  Integrating the story with the rest of the collection. As I put the collection together, the idea gradually ocurrred to me of finding a way to link the stories together, to interlace them. As baby Jacques recurs later in the book as an adult in a specific geographical location, I found it expedient to sell him off to the Province of Quebec instead of France’s Culture Ministry – a switch which wound up eliciting a lively protest from a francophone friend in Montreal!

As it’s turned out, “The Francophone Baby” or, in its Spanish incarnation “El bebé francófono” has become the most popular story in the book by far (not least due to the fact that it’s the first and shortest story), and my go-to story for most readings. As an interesting mini-case study in the evolution of stories and their translations over time, following are links to the three versions of the story:

1.) The original English version in the Adirondack Review.

2.) The 2008 translation in El Ciclo Literario.

3.) The final published version in Interrumpimos este programa.

Until next time!

Escaping the Realism Trap, or Why I Write in Spanish

stop making sense

At readings or in interviews, I am inevitably asked: “If your first language is English, why do you write in Spanish?” The underlying implication, it often seems, is that one should write in one’s mother tongue, and that it is almost unnatural that one doesn’t (Steiner writes of this historical suspicion of polyglots and translators in After Babel). Another implication is that, as the literary market for English is so much larger than the corresponding one for Spanish, I am effecitively shooting myself in the foot by choosing to write in the latter: a sort of literary malinchismo writ large. There are, in fact, a lot of reasons why I choose to write in Spanish. The first and foremost of those is that I live in Mexico and am a naturalized Mexican citizen. The second is that writing in a language that is not originally my own allows me a distance from myself, a capacity for reinvention, which is fundamental for breaking through the solipsist lurking just beneath the surface of any writer. The third is that the act of writing in another language forces me to write more slowly, more contemplatively, rather than skimming along the surface of my native tongue. Fourth, Spanish is a beautiful language with an eminent literary history all its own that I am proud to be a very small part of.

And here’s another reason. In a recent article for The Observer entitled, “Experimental Fiction: Is It Making a Comeback?”, William Skidelsky, himself paraphrasing Zadie Smith, writes that in healthy times, the realist and the avant-garde literary traditions would “comfortably coincide” (I find that in itself far too neat, but let’s continue for the sake of argument). But these clearly aren’t healthy times, as evidenced by the fact that, in the anglophone world, the realists rule the roost: “A breed of lyrical realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked.” Skidelsky continues, “The well-made realist novel, inherited from the 19th century, is what we are stuck with now, and even if we aren’t excessively fond of it, it seems to be pretty much all we have.”

This sort of realism (the kind that, as Cortázar writes, that smugly continues to believe that everything can be described and explained within the parameters of Enlightenment philosophy), stifles me. In fact, I have recently taken to composing a series of Aphorisms Against Realism on my Facebook and Twitter pages in order to explain both to myself and others exactly why that is. When I pick up an issue of Harper’s or The New Yorker to read the short story, I do so by force rather than volition: unless the issue happens to be dabbling in a bit of Latin-American “exoticism” by a Bolaño or the like, I hold my breath and go back in the windowless, airtight rooms just to see if something, anything has changed since I left. In today’s anglophone world, the fate of genuine literary creativity, more often than not, are the ghettos of what is known, pejoratively, as genre fiction.

Fortunately, this trend does not necessarily hold for the rest of the world. As Skidelsky points out, “[t]he assumption that genuine experimentation is no longer possible is in many ways a parochial quirk of the anglophone world. Things are very different, for example, in Latin America, where anti-realist techniques have long been part of the mainstream…” I recently finished Adolfo Bioy Casares’ masterpiece La invención de Morel and was blown away by the visionary and philosophical fantasy wedded to the most precise, the most literary, the most scientifically realistic of language. Yes, the novel was written back in 1940. Yes, America has had its Barths, its Pynchons and its Vonneguts since then. But it’s funny: just as our technology traps us ever more in its virtual world – precisely as Morel’s invention does to Bioy’s fated protagonist – mainstream anglophone literature has chosen to enclose itself atavistically in a throwback trap: the positivism of a bygone world. I put down Bioy Casares’ novel and, wrapped in the glow of the awestruck reader, said to myself: I’m home.

P.S. To be fair, Skidelsky’s piece mentions a series of current anglophone authors writing experimental fiction (the fact that it’s called “experimental” showing in and of itself how much realism rules), among them Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which I went right out and bought. I’ll share my comments in a future post.

Aforismos anti-realistas / Aphorisms Against Realism

moon

1.) El realismo es el derviado del fracaso de la imaginación. / Realism is the by-product of the failure of the imagination.

2.) El realismo es una asfixia voluntaria. / Realism is a voluntary asphyxiation.

3.) El realismo es la tentativa de tapar el siglo veinte con un dedo. / Realism is an attempt to pretend that the twentieth century never happened.

4.) El realismo es una choza de lámina en medio de un vendaval. / Realism is a tin shack in the midst of a gale.

5.) El realismo es reacomodar los muebles y creerse en otra sala. / Realism is rearranging the furniture and believing oneself to be in another room.

6.) El arte imaginativo crea, produce, conoce. El realismo, en cambio, recrea, reproduce, reconoce. / Imaginative art creates, produces, cognizes. Realism, in contrast, recreates, reproduces, recognizes.

7.) El realismo es una reclusión voluntaria en el carcel de los sentidos. / Realism is a voluntary reclusion in the prison of the senses.