Only Spanish Says “Fuck You” With Class

Everyone who’s slogged through Beginning Spanish knows that there are two registers for referring to people: the informal (and, in some places, vos) and the formal usted. This distinction, so natural to native speakers, tends to tie English speakers into protocolar knots. When do I refer to someone with one form or the other? Will I sound too stiff and awkward if I use usted? Or worse, will the person I’m talking to think that I think they’re old? But will sound too chummy, too igualado (someone who dares to consider himself on the same level as the person he’s speaking to – horror). What do I do in emails that are kind of semi-formal? And hey, what about X person who began addressing with someone with usted and wound up using , or vice versa?  And so on.

What is not often taken into account in this consideration of register is that the tú/usted distinction extends to every situation life throws at us. Not just basic, textbook greetings or emails of ambiguous formality, but also social situations of the most sensitive nature. In Spanish, for example, you can not only rip someone a new asshole, but do it with class, that is, with usted. I know, because I’ve seen it done. Although you might think the piercing aggressiveness of many insults would lend themselves by default to the use of , Spanish speakers, even in the most heated of disputes, take remarkable care to calibrate their register. Thus, if you wish to transmit the desire that your interlocutor engage in sexual intercourse with his or her female procreator, you can say ¡Chinga tu madre! (tú) or ¡Chingue usted a su madre! (usted). If, after getting your own back with someone who cut you off in traffic, you wish to accompany your colorful hand motion – for example, the famous Mexican “¡Huevos!” gesture – with a suitable epithet, you can choose between ¡Ten! (Take that! – ) or ¡Tenga! (??? – usted). I was once picked up at the Querétaro bus station by a taxi that apparently was only authorized to drop off, but not pick up passengers. We were followed out of the terminal by another taxi which proceeded to draw abreast of ours at a stop light and dress our driver down with such vehemence that I started making contingency plans for when he jumped out of his vehicle with a bat. But – crucial point – at no point in this irate and expletive-filled rant did he vary from the use of usted. Perhaps tellingly, the dispute did not go beyond words.

insultar con respeto

In the semantic world of English, of course, such conjugation-driven code switching is not grammatically available. That does not mean, however, that the concept does not exist, only that we have to resort to more creative forms of register mixing to arrive at the same effect. “Would you consider fucking your mother?” “Might I suggest that you fuck your mother?” or even “Here’s an idea! How about you go and fuck your mother and then you come back and tell us all about it!” are about as close as we can hope to get to Chingue usted a su madre. The problem is, unless you’re a member of the landed aristocracy, such phrases (including delightful variants such as Fucketh Thine Self) are always used in an ironic manner, the mocking formality only adding fuel to the fire of the original insult. This is not to say that the Spanish usted insult cannot be used ironically – of course it can – but I would argue that it is much more often an expression, even in the depths of one’s rage, of the key underlying element to all social interaction in Latin countries: respeto. Respect.

Another situation that tends to scramble English-speakers’ circuits is the formal imperative: that is, the giving of orders with usted. A daughter will dump a load of dirty dishes into the sink and tell her slothful father: Lávelos. Wash them, paternal authority figure. A shopper buying flowers in the market will tell the seller: Déme una docena. Give me a dozen, person I don’t know and may very well not care to. The ability to give orders with usted opens up a nuanced social space allowing one to lay down the law and be nice about it. It doesn’t necessarily follow, of course, that the orderer, in his heart, really respects the person he’s ordering any more than a person whose language does not offer him the option, but does have at his disposal a protocol to follow that enables him to act as if he did. And in most everyday social interactions, let’s be honest, that’s usually enough.

Insulto 2

This being said, Spanish is far from being the only language which distinguishes between formal and informal registers in this way. French learners struggle between tu and vous, Italian learners between tu and Lei, and, for those intrepid enough to take on German, the choice is between du and Sie. And so on. In none of these languages, however – and please correct me if I’m wrong – have I noticed such an extensive use of the formal-register insult. A angry French speaker might suggest that you cut short whatever it is you’re saying with a snappy Ferme ta guele! but I have never heard one say Fermez votre guele! (Although I admit, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy came somewhat close in the 2012 presidential debate when he accused his rival François Hollande, nostrils aflaring and with the appropriately formal vous, of being a “little slanderer“). I have never heard an Italian formally recommend that one retire for the purposes of defecating, although apparently it does occur. And an irate German might spit out a Verpiss dich! but rarely, if ever, a Verpissen Sie! In the category of insulting with respect, Spanish – and more specifically, Latin American Spanish – is in a class all of its own.

A (Silent) Window into the Past

Genoa 1916

Note: after a hiatus in which I was buckling down to finish my new book, I am back at my blog and hope to be more consistent from here on out. Today’s story is a good one to start back on, I think.

Something truly amazing happened in my Italian literature workshop last week. I’ve designed it in the format of a survey course, so after a long sojourn with Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch, Pico della Mirandella and Machiavelli and the Renaissance writers, we’ve slowly made our way up to 19th century romanticism. After a couple of sessions spent soaking in the lyrical pessimism of Giacomo Leopardi, we took a breather and turned to some of the stories Edmondo De Amicis included in his children’s novel Heart: Diary of a Child.

Mind you, I am no fan of De Amicis. I tried to read Heart several years ago and the sheer weight of so much moralizing forced me to put it down. But I was keen to include an example of children’s literature in the course, and one of the stories I chose, “From the Apennines to the Andes,” was ideal for introducing the topic of the Italian diaspora of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which saw the emigration of some 16 million Italians to countries such as the US and Canada, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Australia.

My grandmother, Giuseppina Veronesi née Cosmini, was among those 16 million. Born in the village of Roncaglia in the Italian Alps, she emigrated together with her grandmother in 1916 to join her parents, who had sailed on ahead to an uncertain future in Connecticut. I have copies of their exit documents, which showed that they were given permission by the government to emigrate due to their comprovata poverta’, that is, demonstrated poverty. The story she told me as a child was gripping: when she and her grandmother made their way to Genoa to board the ship to New York, the shipping company representative asked if they would be willing to give up their berths to a young couple that had to reach New York by a certain date in order to board a connecting ship bound for California.

“But we don’t have any money,” my great-great-grandmother said.

“We’ll pay for your room and board. There’s another ship leaving in just three days,” said the company representative.

My great-great-grandmother agreed. What they did not know, during their short hiatus, was that the ship they were to have traveled on was sunk by a U-boat. This was World War I, recall, and the Atlantic Ocean was yet another battlefield. The two boarded their new ship three days later and traveled without incident to New York, only to find nobody waiting for them: my distraught great-grandfather had received news of the sinking of the original ship but, when he did not find his daughter and mother-in-law’s names on the list of the ship’s manifest, did not know what to think or where to turn. After several days spent on Ellis Island, the situation was resolved, happily in the case of my grandmother, tragically in the case of that young couple. History’s wheel of fortune. I had meditated for years on that story, told it many times and made the obligatory visit to Ellis Island, all the while wondering what it would have been like for a girl of seven, who spoke only the dialect of the village she had almost certainly never left, to have experienced such a dramatic uprooting.

In the De Amicis story, a boy of 13 sets off on his own to Argentina to search for his mother, who had traveled to Buenos Aires to work as a domestic but whose letters to her family back home had abruptly ceased arriving. When he arrives, he finds that the family his mother was working for is no longer there. This sets off an odyssey which takes the penniless boy from the capital to the cities of Rosario and Cordoba, all the way to a villa outside of the remote city of San Miguel de Tucumán, where his mother is gravely ill. The surprise arrival of her son convinces her to undergo the operation she has been resisting and – children’s story, after all – she is saved. As I read on, I began to see several parallels between this story and my grandmother’s: the departure from Genoa as a child, the hoped-for reunion with her mother, the unforseen difficulties along the way that hold up the reencounter. But the most startling parallel of all was yet to come.

While researching the story in order to present it to the class, I discovered that a silent movie version of the story existed. The title was the same, Dagli Appennini alle Ande, and when I looked at the year it was made, I was astonished to find that it was 1916! The same year as my grandmother’s emigration. And, what is more, the first scene of the movie takes place in the same port of Genoa she departed from (I can only hope that it was filmed on site)! I found myself looking at the most unexpected window into history: same year, same port, the same view young Giuseppina would have had upon boarding the ship, the same view of the port of Genova receding into the distance. For all I know, my grandmother and her grandmother could have strolled by as extras during their three-day layover. And, thanks to the good graces of the Bologna Cineteca’s film archive, the movie can be seen right here. Even if you don’t have a relative that traveled from Genoa in 1916, it’s a valuable piece of cinema history that’s well worth a viewing.

On Workshops, Italian Literature and the Birth of the Short Story

Amongst the most pleasurable aspects of the life I’ve created for myself here in Oaxaca are the literature workshops I get to give in this venerable building, the Biblioteca Henestrosa, so named because it houses the book collection of Oaxaca’s centenarian writer Andrés Henestrosa, chronicler of indigenous legends and transcriber of the Zapotec language to the Latin alphabet. Here are a pair of photos, one of the exterior and the other of the room where I give my workshops:

Biblioteca_Andres_Henestrosa-300x199  biblio henestrosa interior

The workshop I’m kicking off this year with is called “A Tour of Italian literature”, what in the States would be known as a survey course. And at four hours a week over four months, 64 hours of class time in total, it really is more of a course than a workshop. But without the bureaucracy, the grading and the diplomas. The students are there because they want to be and for the love of learning, not because they expect to get something else out of it, be it course credits or a certificate: such a salutary difference from my days at the University. And the mixture of ages and experience – from college students to retirees, breaking up the artificial and isolating segregation by age our schools are so proficient at – adds a spirit of camaraderie and generational exchange to the educational mix. I love it.

Besides paying me to give the workshops (thus making it free for the students), the Biblioteca also has a great team of graphic designers making up the posters that go up around town promoting their events. Here, incidentally, is the poster for my workshop:

CARTEL The first question that confronts anyone when designing a course that purports to cover so much ground is, simply, where to start? With Dante’s dolce stil nuovo, with Petrarch’s sonnets to Laura? I did, in fact, start with a sonnet, but one with quite a distinct tone: “S’i fosse foco” by Cecco Angioleri. Here it is, with English translation, commentary and as set to music by Fabrizio de André, whose song “Fiume Sand Creek” song I referenced in my earlier post, A Sand Creek Moment.  This English translation of it admirably attempts to reproduce both the rhyme scheme and a consistent 10-syllable meter:

If I were fire, I would consume the world;
If I were wind, then I would blow it down;
If I were water, I would make it drown;
If I were God, t’would to the depths be hurled.

If I were Pope, I’d have a lot of fun
with how I’d make all Christians work for me;
If I were emperor, then you’d really see –
I’d have the head cut off of everyone.

If I were death, then I’d go to my father;
If I were life, I’d not abide with him;
And so, and so, would I do to my mother.

If I were Cecco – as in fact I am –
I’d chase the young and pretty girls; to others
Would I leave the lame or wrinkled dam.

If I were fire, I would consume the world;
If I were wind, then I would blow it down;
If I were water, I would make it drown;
If I were God, t’would to the depths be hurled.

My choice for starting with Angioleri’s famous sonnet was hardly a disinterested one: like De André, I love the irreverence and iconoclasm of it. Such a far cry from our standard notions of the Medieval era as a time of piety, plainsong and popes burning heretics at the stake. It was effective in catching the attention of my students right out of the starting gate, as well (and, to be fair, plenty of Italian lit anthologies start with it, so my choice was hardly original). From there, continuing in a straight line of irreverence, Boccaccio’s Decameron – that racy, bawdy treasure trove of tales that became an instant bestseller amongst the rising Florentine merchant class – presented itself as the next logical choice. Here are nuns organizing a schedule to make love with their gardener; an overprotected young girl persuading her parents to let her sleep out on the roof in order to rendez-vous with her lover; a sinner convincing a friar on his deathbed that he was a saint and becoming posthumously venerated as such; a man returning from the afterlife to visit his best friend in order to inform him that sleeping with your comadre doesn’t count as a sin; a lascivious priest attempting to transform a credulous peasant’s wife into a mare by fondling her and ultimately, “pinning a tail on her”… You get the idea. In choosing which of the hundred stories to assign, I was guided by the ones Pier Paolo Pasolini chose when making his film version of The Decameron, which we subsequently watched.

As Mario Vargas Llosa says in his account of the literary pilgrimage he made to Boccaccio’s hometown of Certaldo, it was the Black Death that got this bookish intellectual, Latinist, Hellenist, and yes, even theologian, to put down his books and not only to get out into the street to learn the stories of the people, but to write them down in their language: the Tuscan of Florence, later to become known to us as “Italian”. Thus, classical learning and a thorough understanding of medieval verse became wedded to a corpus of popular storytelling stretching back through the Arab world to ancient India. And the back of Latin had been broken to allow literature in “vulgar” languages to flourish. The Western short story had been born.

Let others begin with Heaven and Hell, divine allegory and lyric yearning. I’m following Boccaccio’s lead, out the door and into the street; see what kind of trouble I can get into.

¡Chingado! My Top Five Writing Challenges in Spanish

habla español

As of ten days ago, I’ve lived in Mexico for fourteen years. I conduct my daily life in Spanish and write, publish and perform in the language. And yet, to this day, there are elements of my beloved adopted tongue that continue to elude me. Following are my top five.

1.) Words that have different meanings in their masculine and feminine form. Like modern German, English once divided its nouns into three genders – masculine, feminine and neutral – but along the way, it ditched them. Romance languages such as Spanish retain the first two. And, of course, unlike the biological gender distinction of English’s he/she, his/her couplings, this type of gender is what is known in the lingo as “grammatical” gender: which means, for the most part, it’s completely arbitrary. Now, all of this is fine until they go and come up with words that have one meaning when they’re masculine and another entirely when they’re feminine. For example, the first sentence of my short story Fosa (“Grave” or “Pit”) reads as follows: Germán me llama después de que la primera de las palas toca hueso. Translated, it reads: “Germán calls me after the first of the shovels touches bone”. In my initial version of the story, I wrote el primero de los palos, making it masculine instead of feminine. Now, “un palo” is a stick; “una pala” is a shovel. Hence, unbeknownst to me, my first sentence originally had Germán calling the narrator after the first of the sticks touched bone. As this is also a plausible sentence, no one caught it. But it’s not what I wanted to say.

2.) The prepositions “para” and “por”: the bane of the existance of every learner of Spanish-as-a-foreign-language of all times. In the most felicitous of cases, “para” translates as for and “por” translates as by. Except when they don’t. When you vote for somebody (for whatever good that does), you vote “por” them. When you thank someone for something, you’re thanking them “por” whatever they did. Spanish teachers come armed to their “por/para” class with a whole laundry list of cases in which you use the one or the other, but unless you were born into it, it all seems like a giant conspiracy to wring two practically identical prepositions out of one. In a rather ironic parody of Stephen Pinker’s Words and Rules, unable to grasp the rule, I’ve resorted to memorizing individual cases. I’ve even gotten to the point where I can sort of “feel” the difference. But I still have to check every now and again.

3.) Register. Register is “a variety of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting”. Basically, it refers to formal vs. informal language and all the shades and nuances in between. Mastering register – not what to say but how to say it – is one of the most challenging parts of learning a foreign language (a great deal of Monty Python’s humor, for example, comes from their deliberate manipulation of register; think “The Parrot Sketch”), and in speaking, I think I’ve got it pretty much down. In writing, however, things still come up. In another section of Fosa, I wrote:

Pero por más que Gil crea que su cargo de libros sin valor lo ampare del interés de cualquier malhechor, yo soy más abusado. Suscitar el disgusto de algún funcionario con ganas de lucrar con su mercancía presupone que llegue a buen puerto.

Tentative translation: “However much Gil may believe that his shipment of worthless books shields him from any criminal attentions, I am not so naive. Arousing the displeasure of some official desirous of profiting with his merchandise presupposes his getting there in the first place.”

Besides its more obvious meaning of “abused,” abusado also means “clever” or “sharp”. ¡Ponte abusado!, for example, would translate to something like: “Wise up!” Besides being a particularly Mexican slang term (see point #4 below), it is also a spoken-register word. Now, there is nothing wrong with using spoken-register words in writing (literature has been heading ever more in that direction over the last hundred years), but in the context of the high-register content surrounding it, and the arousing of displeasure that occurs immediately after it, it jars. When a trusted reader pointed this out, I went back and, after long deliberation, changed abusado to curtido en batallas. Now the sentence reads, “However much Gil may believe that his shipment of worthless books shields him from any criminal attentions, I am more battle-hardened.” Besides being more register-consistent, it is also, in my opinion, a straight-up improvement over the original.

It is worth noting, as well, that the average written register of contemporary Spanish tends to be higher than in contemporary English. This is not a value judgment, but simply a register measurement.

4.) Mexicanisms. Regionalisms abound in every language, of course. And not only is it a phenomenon of different words, but the same words meaning different things in different places: “pants” means one thing to Americans and something rather intimate for the British, I once learned to my chagrin while living in London. This is all the more true with Spanish, it being the official language of some 20 countries. One meaning of “pendejo” in Mexico is someone who is taken advantage of; a Peruvian pendejo is the one taking the advantage. A Mexican “huevón” is a lazy-ass; in Peru, that same huevón can be anyone, lazy or not.

I write – proudly – in Mexican Spanish. This poses some interesting dilemmas regarding when to use regional speech and when to hew to some kind of straight-and-narrow, though artificial, pan-Hispanic Spanish. Indeed, it is often difficult to know what may be a Mexicanism and what may not be! Case in point: in the original version of Fosa, Álvaro considers his son Gil to be precisely a “pendejo” for being willing to blithely deliver school textbooks to the most violent, ravaged parts of Mexico; in the published version, “pendejo” became replaced with the more pan-Hispanic “imbécil”. Consider, too, that Álvaro was born in Spain but came to Mexico as a child; to what extent would he retain his native vocabulary and to what extent would he have taken on that of his adopted country? In the story, he is back in his hometown in Spain; would that homecoming have triggered a renewed use of his childhood speech? And what would come out at a highly emotional moment? At the story’s climax, he shouts into the phone that the grave being dug up is located under a pinche olivo – a “fucking olive tree”. But pinche is very, very Mexican. Upon further consideration, I changed pinche to the more standard maldito, making the olive tree more goddamned than anything else.

(Mind you, I don’t always scrub out the Mexicanisms; this just happens to be two cases when I did. In the last movement of my Symphony in prose, currently in the works, the main character is a first-person, Mexican narrator, and there, I let the Mexicanisms fly.)

5. False Cognates: false cognates or, more dramatically, “false friends,” are words that look the same in both languages but have different meanings: classic example is the Spanish “actual”, which, actually, means “current” in English in the sense of something happening presently. Or, even more trickily, the word may be a true friend, meaning the same thing in both languages, but may not apply to all of the same cases. In Fosa, one of the characters above states that the fucking olive tree of Point #4 is not indigenous to Mexico. Following the same logic, I wrote: No es un árbol indígena al lugar. But in Spanish, indigenous is not used with reference to flora: the correct word is oriundo or perhaps endémico.

Needless to say, all of this is what makes me love writing in Spanish all the more.


Sobre sinfonías en prosa y otras sinestesias: Parte I

Cuando mi padre murió, de un cáncer que le reclamaba el estómago mientras aún precisaba de él, yo tenía cinco años. Puesto que el tema de mi padre se convirtió rápidamente en un tabú familiar, aprendí desde temprana edad a hacer boxeos de sombra con la ausencia, el vacío. Pero esta entrada no se trata precisamente de mi padre, sino de una cosa preciosa que dejó atrás al momento de su desaparición: su acervo de música clásica en acetatos. Aunque empecé a tomar clases de piano desde los nueve años, mi oreja tardó unos tres a cuatro años más, hasta los turbulentos años de la secundaria, a abrirse a la riqueza que aguardaba, empolvándose, al lado del tocadiscos en nuestra sala. Mi padre había tenido una subscripción a una organización llamada “The Musical Heritage Society”, que le enviaba discos en el correo: de esos recuerdo particularmente el disco de los Concertos para Piano #21 y #25 de Mozart, qué puse vez tras vez tras vez en aquel tocadiscos. Y luego puse las manos en el tesoro pincipal: la Colección del Bicentenio de Beethoven que Deutsche Grammophon había sacado en 1970 para festejar los doscientos años de su natalicio. Cuatro cajas que contenían todas las sinfonías, todas las oberturas, todos los conciertos para piano, todas las sonatas. Mi atención se centró en la caja de las sinfonías: en poco tiempo, me adueñé de las nueve, aprendiéndolos movimiento por movimiento.

Mozart Musical HeritageBeethoven

Entre los otros discos que provenían de The Musical Heritage Society, había uno que otro de Johannes Brahms (su Concerto para Violín, creo), pero no les hice mucho caso. Las pocas veces que los escuchaba, me parecían túrgidos y tediosos, nada como los fuegos artificales que emanaban de la Eroica, la Quinta, la Séptima y el movimiento coral de la Novena, ¡por dios!. Con el tiempo, el desagrado que sentía por Brahms se convirtió en un tema perenne de discusión con mi maestra de piano, que era un fan del hamburguense. “Brahms es el músico de los músicos,” me decía. Para mí, eso constituía un flaco pretexto para componer música aburrida. Y volvía a martillar -y a martirizar- el teclado con la Sonata Waldstein.

Casí terminé estudiando música. En esa misma época, mi maestra de piano notó que tenía una afición, o por lo menos un vivo interés, en la composición musical, y me mandó con un maestro compositor. Pero mi interés no demostró estar a la altura de los ejercicios de contrapunto que el maestro me ponía y, después de varios desalentadores meses, dejé de ir con él. Unos tres años después, cuando ya estaba en mi penúltimo año de preparatoria, mi maestra de piano llamó a mi madre para decirle que, puesto que ya no sacaba mucho provecho de mis clases de piano, era mejor suspenderlas. Lloré, pero sabía al fondo que tenía razón. Mi vena musical parecía haberse secado. En lugar de la música, estudié ciencias políticas. Al terminar la carrera, me puse a escribir.

Pero sucedió algo extraño: durante este periodo de relativa latencia musical, volví a encontrarme con la música de Brahms. Y por eso tengo que agradecer a mi amigo Dan Chase, quien sí estudió la carrera de música y se convirtió en maestro de música en mi estado natal de Connecticut. Una noche durante las vacaciones de verano, de regreso a mi pueblo desde la universidad, estaba en casa de Dan charlando sobre la música con él y otro amigo más. En algún momento, el anfitrión nos dijo, con el debido sentido de dramatismo: “Hay muchas melodías en el mundo. ¡Cuántas hay, y cuántas más con cada minuto! Pero ahora, caballeros, les voy a mostrar una melodía perfecta.” Sacando de su estuche la Sinfonía #1 del maestro, adelantó el disco al cuarto movimiento, precisamente a este momento. Y me quedé embelesado. Esta noche, en medio de la época cínica y consumista que era la década de los ’90 estadounidense, descubrí algo que resonó en mí como algo puro, noble, cálido y, a la vez, modesto. Tanto fue la impresión que me causó que, a partir de esa noche, empezó una obsesión que duraría bien veinte años, hasta llegar al libro que voy terminando en estos días: mi propia primera sinfonía… en prosa.


My Sand Creek Moment

Sand Creek Experience #1: on a trip out west shortly after graduating from college, I happened into a museum in Denver, where I came across an exhibition on the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. As I wandered through the display, confused and horrified by what I was seeing and reading, the question came to me again and again: in all my years of schooling, why was I never taught about this? If the Boston “Massacre”, which killed a grand total of five, was plastered all over our textbooks, how could the slaughter of a hundred and fifty have been omitted?

Sand Creek Experience #2: several years later, then living in Italy, I discovered the music of Italy’s most celebrated singer-songwriter, Fabrizio de André. To my surprise, three songs into an untitled album with the illustration of an American Indian on the cover was one entitled Fiume Sand Creek (Sand Creek River), which began, in translation, like this: From underneath a dark curtain they have taken our souls/ We used to sleep without fear under a small dead moon/ He was a twenty-year-old general/ blue eyes in a blue coat/  He was a twenty-year-old general/ Son of a thunderstorm… Now the children sleep on the bottom of Sand Creek. And the question arose: why did it take someone from a different country, a singer from Italy, to write a song about such a seminal event in American history?

For those of you who don’t know – and if you were subject to American schooling, odds are you haven’t – the Sand Creek Massacre was perpetrated by the United States Cavalry against a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians encamped in a remote area 170 miles southeast of Denver. The contingent was led by a young colonel named John Chivington, the “general” of the De André song. As was already part of the playbook in such cases, Chivington spun it as a well-matched battle against well-armed foes, a great and glorious victory, boasting of “almost an annhilation of the entire tribe”. This storyline was later belied by a Captain Silas Soule, who refused to send his troops into the “battle.” In Soule’s account, “Hundreds of women and children were coming towards us, and getting on their knees for mercy,” only to be shot and “have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized.” Tribespeople were mowed down as they fled, desperately attempting to dig into the sand bank of the creek or taking to their heels across the open plain. Two thirds of the dead were women and children. The victims’ scalps were brought in triumph to Denver and even used as props in plays. Despite the ensuing scandal, Chivington was never punished for his actions.

A subsequent Sand Creek moment hit much closer to home – literally – when I read about the 1637 Mystic Massacre in southeastern Connecticut during what is known by history as the Pequot “War”. Here, a British force led by a Captain John Mason surrounded a fortified Pequot village inhabited mostly by women and children and set it ablaze. “The surviving Pequots were hunted but could make little haste because of their children,” Mason wrote. “They were literally-run to ground…tramped into the mud and buried in the swamp.” In the words of William Bradford, “Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so that they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire…horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them.” The handful of lucky survivors were shipped off to the West Indies as slaves. And no, despite the geographical proximity of these events to the town where I grew up, we were not taught about this at school.

Truth be told, we were not taught much of anything in the way of American history at school: a smattering in fifth grade, a dab more in eighth grade, and then a year in eleventh. In point of fact, history as a subject didn’t even exist: at least in elementary and middle school, these feeble, once-every-three-year forays into our past were given the amorphously generic name “Social Studies” (no better example exists of the contempt with which history was held by our educators than this euphimistic attempt to avoid the word altogether). And what we were taught was rife with so many omissions as to create an overall narrative that was patently false. In a previous post, I lamented how little learning I received in exchange for giving up some 14,500 hours of my youth. In the case of our history, the situation is one step worse: in exchange for all those hours, I was taught a version of something that was patently wrong, or in the most charitable sense, woefully incomplete. The disconnect between this whitewashed version and a more honest attempt to come to grips with the complex beast that is history was to distort my vision of my country and its place in the world for years to come, requiring many more hours to supplement and, in certain clear and paradigmatic instances, to unlearn.

My case was hardly unique. In Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, James Loewen surveyed twelve common American history textbooks. What he discovered “was an embarrassing amalgam of bland optimism, blind patriotism, and misinformation pure and simple.” A more accurate description of the American zeitgeist would be hard to find. Of course I know that Americans are hardly exceptional in teaching misleading history; far from it. But considering it spends more on the military than the next ten countries combined, those lies are much more dangerous with a bomb attached to their underbelly. As opposed to the cruder methods of book-burning or open censorship, America tends to hide things in plain sight. No one will stop you from learning about Sand Creek; it just won’t be covered in school. No one will stop you from buying a book by Noam Chomsky; you just won’t read his articles in The New York Times even though they are distributed, with delicious perversity, by The New York Times Syndicate.

Over the years, one Sand Creek moment after another has accumulated in depressingly regular succession. General Jacob Smith’s order to turn the Samar Province into a “howling wilderness” during the American invasion of the Phillipines. The “indiscriminate killing of the natives” in Haiti. The rape, torture and destruction of My Lai. None of these events, of course, made it anywhere near our textbooks. In this light, the recently released CIA torture report, with its forced rectal feedings, ice water “baths” and death by hypothermia, is just another in our long procession of colorful, worldwide depravity.

There is a pedagogical point to be made here as well, and that is to question education-by-textbook in all of its incarnations. What do we gain by packaging knowledge into these big, boring bricks that freeze their would-be readers out of the learning process and which are, far too often, the only cover for teachers thrown to the wolves to teach subjects they do not master? What are the interests behind the companies that produce said textbooks? It is instructive that Waldorf schools, for example, eschew the use of textbooks almost entirely, facilitating a more active engagement on the part of their students, who create artistic lesson books of their own over the course of each academic year.

Incidentally, the debate surrounding Sand Creek is far from over. In 2013, the Colorado State History Museum was obliged to close its exhibit on the massacre. In surveying the exhibition, tribal historians found inacurrate dates, excerpts from letters which left out key details, and an attempt to explain American Indian-white settler conflicts as a ‘collision of cultures.’ “This wasn’t a clash of cultures,” said Dale Hamilton, a descendant of survivor Chief Sand Hill. “This was a straight-up massacre.”

A security guard passes as a woman views the darkened, closed-off Sand Creek Massacre exhibit.


On 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.

On 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, 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


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!