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from the December 2021 issue

Spanish-language Writing in New York, Then and Now: An Interview with Esther Allen & Ulises Gonzales

Words Without Borders talks to translators and scholars Esther Allen and Ulises Gonzales about the December 2021 issue of the magazine, the state of Spanish-language writing in and about New York, and the challenges and opportunities New York offers writers working in Spanish.

WWB: This month's issue of Words Without Borders brings together writers working in Spanish but living in New York to give us a different perspective on the city, from the vantage point of those who speak, live, and write in New York's second-most spoken language. While New York is known for the diversity of its residents, when it comes to literary matters, English is perhaps still the language most associated with the city in the popular imagination. There have been notable breakthrough exceptions, works written in other languages about the city that come to exercise an important role in US literary culture—there's Lorca's Poet in New York, of course, and German writer Uwe Johnson's Anniversaries (first published in German between 1970 and 1983, but not translated into English until 2018).

Esther, we would be remiss not to include in that group a writer whose work you have brought into English, the Cuban journalist and poet José Martí, who wrote dispatches from New York between 1880 and 1895—tackling now-iconic landmarks such as St. Patrick's Cathedral and Coney Island. It's interesting to consider the extent to which writing in Spanish has long been part of the New York literary tradition, and, consequently, to think of this month's issue of WWB as merely the latest iteration in this trend. Is it fair to think of Martí as one of the originators of this tradition? If not with him, where does this tradition begin?

ESTHER ALLEN (EA): There’s a tiny cemetery on W. 11th Street in Greenwich Village, not far from where I live, where people were buried between 1805 and 1829. It belongs to congregation Shearith Israel, still very active today, and founded by a group of twenty-three Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origin who were fleeing the Inquisition in Brazil after the Portuguese expanded the institution to its colonies t. They were reluctantly allowed by Peter Stuyvesant to settle in New Amsterdam in 1655. Well before that, the first non-Native American person to live on the island of Manhattan was Juan Rodriguez, a black man from Santo Domingo, who lived among the Lenape in 1613-1614; since 2013, a stretch of Broadway in Upper Manhattan has borne his name.

In other words, Spanish has been a language of what’s now New York City since the very first arrival of non-Native Americans on these shores. When José Martí first visited New York in 1875, he found a city with a thriving Spanish-speaking community, Spanish-language bookstores, and a Spanish-language press that had at least a fifty-year history behind it: exiled Cuban priest Felix Varela founded a Spanish language newspaper called El Habanero, believed to be New York’s first, when he arrived in 1824.

For quite a while now, New York has been in the top two or three US cities in terms of its Latinx population, with a community of about 4.8 million in the greater, multistate NYC area. Yet even a recent work like the Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York, published in 2010, barely alludes to the long history of Spanish and Latinx writing in the city—Francisco de Miranda, Martí, Cirilo Villaverde, García Lorca, Felipe Alfau, Julia de Burgos, and on and on. The same invisibility distorts school curricula, non-Hispanic film and TV shows, and the way things are framed by the non-Hispanic news media. The consequences for everyone are terrible. When non-Hispanics are never taught the long history of Spanish-speaking communities in the United States it’s all too easy for a grotesque demagogue to depict such communities as a threat—and we’ve all just witnessed that.

WWB: Ulises, since 2014, you have run Los Bárbaros, a Spanish-language literary magazine based here in New York. You have an impressive list of collaborators, among them, Juan Villoro and Fernanda Trías, the most recent winner of the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize. How did the publication come to be, and what are its aims?

ULISES GONZALES (UG): To tell you the truth I was a little surprised that no one had beat us to the idea. When I started taking classes at the CUNY Graduate Center, I met a few writers from Latin America and Spain who were there as students. In a literary theory course, we were talking about contributions to the field by Jorge Luis Borges, Henriquez Ureña, and Alfonso Reyes. Apparently, these three guys were somehow upset to be considered—because they were born in Latin American countries—“peripheral” to literary studies. (They were so much at the forefront of such studies!) A professor of mine, Oswaldo Zavala, mentioned then that in languages and literature studies in US univrsities, for the last few decades at least, Spanish has commanded center stage. He summarized the situation by referring to the Cavafy poem, with its line “The barbarians are coming today.”

The whole idea came to me after that class. I hatched a plan: to publish writers with stories or poems about New York. Our covers were going to be illustrated by artists I knew from my years as a graphic artist in Peru, and the publication was going to have a shape and size inspired by Poetry magazine: those little booklets that I collect and love. The same month I started asking writers around the city for collaborations, and I was lucky: we got texts from Lina Meruane; Fernanda Trias (whom I met at a reading at McNally Jackson and always considered brilliant); Juan Villoro, who was a professor of mine at Princeton; Antonio Muñoz Molina, who was a professor at NYU at the time; and from some of my classmates at the Graduate Center: the poets Almudena Vidorreta, Lena Retamoso, Soledad Marambio, Fátima Vélez, and the prose writers Alexis Iparrraguirre, Mayte López, Sara Cordón, and Mariana Graciano. At that time, McNally Jackson bookstore in SoHo had a small print-on-demand machine, and that’s where we printed the first issues. The covers were illustrated by an exceptional artist, Manuel Gómez Burns, who hails from Arequipa, Peru (my mother’s “homeland”—Arequipeños believe they are a cut above other Peruvians).

We organized readings at McNally, and I loved the small gatherings so much that we published three issues that first year. I slowed down because writer Álvaro Baquero-Pecino, who had experience publishing a literary magazine in southern Spain, convinced me that two issues per year was enough. At a certain point in time, I thought about the possibility of accepting any kind of good creative writing, not just that about New York. However, Adrián Izquierdo, now a scholar and translator at CUNY, convinced me that writing “about New York” was a perfect niche, one that differentiated this publication from many other literary journals.

My goal has always been simple: to keep going. And to keep growing. We don’t have any sponsorships; however we were fortunate to find good partners along the way. In 2017, Punto de Vista Editores, a publishing house in Madrid, got interested, and now they print and distribute Los Bárbaros throughout Spain and the rest of Europe; Aleph, a publishing house based in Peru, allows us to print and distribute Los Bárbaros throughout Latin America. We were able to organize readings in Guadalajara, Mexico City, Lima, Buenos Aires, Madrid, Barcelona, and Berlin. For the coming double issue “Poeta en Nueva York” (encompassing issue nos. 18 and 19), our friend the Spanish scholar Felipe Diez put together a fascinating tribute to García Lorca’s work for the theater. Our Spring 2022 issue will be “Substances” (with writing on alcohol and other drugs), and for next fall, we’ll publish an issue entitled “Ruidos,” focusing on stories about music.

WWB: Another question for the both of you is about the shifting "centers" of Spanish-language—and particularly Latin American—letters in the Northern Hemisphere, more specifically, the (dueling or complementary, depending on your view) roles played by the cities of Paris and New York. More or less contemporary to Martí is Ruben Darío, the Nicaraguan poet and father of Modernismo who both lived in Paris as ambassador for his country and later visited New York for a few months in 1914 and 1915. In the middle of the twentieth century, there are figures like Octavio Paz, Mario Vargas-Llosa, and Pablo Neruda who stayed for various lengths of time in Paris. More recently, we can think of some of the Latin American writers working today who call New York home: Valeria Luiselli, Álvaro Enrigue, Pola Oloixarac, and now the Los Bárbaros writers who we can read this month in WWB. I wonder if the two of you can talk about the relationship of these two cities to Spanish-language writing from Latin America—do they represent two influences, two refuges, or something else entirely for these writers?

EA: It’s an interesting time to contrast Paris and New York, in this sense. Anne Hidalgo, who was born in Spain and grew up bilingual in France, speaking Spanish at home and French in school, has been mayor of Paris for the better part of a decade and is now running for president of France. How long will it be until New York City has a Latina mayor, daughter of immigrants from a Spanish-speaking country? When you see the kind of wild hatred directed by certain sectors at the brilliant young member of Congress from Queens, Alexandria Ocasio-Córtez, it’s hard to imagine us having a Latina mayor for quite some time to come.

It’s one thing to spend a while in New York as a writer from Latin America or Spain, and another thing entirely to grow up here as part of the city’s Latinx community. I’m no expert in the demographics of Paris but I’m fairly confident its population isn’t almost 30 percent Hispanic, as New York’s is. Admittedly, most writing in Spanish in New York, and in Los Bárbaros, is done by people raised and educated elsewhere, who then came to New York—like the writers you mention. But perhaps it’s the existence of the strong—and oppressed—Latinx community that, in part, drew them here. For Spanish writers Eduardo Lago and Antonio Muñoz Molina, bolstering the Latinx literary community in New York has been a major part of their time in New York: Lago translated Junot Díaz’s Drown into Spanish, and both offered lots of support to Latinx writers during their stints as directors of the Instituto Cervantes here. And for Valeria Luiselli, whose most recent book was written in English, the problems facing Spanish-speaking immigrants and residents of the US have been a very compelling subject matter. While many Latinx writers work in English, there is a longstanding tradition of writers born or raised in this country who work in Spanish. I can mention, for example, Eduardo Halfon, who came to the US at age ten and is perfectly fluent in English but chooses to write in Spanish. He’s not really an NYC writer, but did live here for a semester as Harman Writer-in-Residence, the program I now direct at Baruch College. I also run Baruch's Minor in Spanish-English translation. This spring, Ulises, whom I met in a class I taught years ago at the Graduate Center, came to my literary translation seminar to talk about Los Bárbaros, and several of the pieces included in this issue were translated by students in that course. I also have to give a shoutout to Ashley Candelario, who helped bring this issue together; she's a star former student who went on to internships at the New York Review of Books and WWB itself, and now works at Harper Collins.

UG: Bob Dylan finishes his song Talkin’ to New York with the line “So long, New York.” Dylan’s line, in a particular tone of voice, after an exciting/disappointing journey, kind of summarizes the feeling most people have about this city. It is a wild experience. Some people get tired of the hustle, and they leave. From the millions who arrive, just a few decide to call it home, to continue struggling, dealing with the unique problems NYC has. However, any “wild experience” is a good source for art. Some may attribute to this kind of experience an “energy”: a mix of ambition, patience, and grit. Maybe that’s similar to how Paris felt, during most of the twentieth Century, when artists got there, from all corners of the world, to complain about Parisians (who were also brusque and mean). Living in New York City is always a formative experience.

And the scholarships offered by NYU, CUNY, Columbia, and other colleges are certainly opportunities, not for everyone but for many writers who are accepted every year by the PhD and MFA Programs of colleges around the city. For example, I happened to meet a brilliant classmate from Venezuela –one who could put in the same sentence Foucault, Derrida, and “ La Tigresa del Oriente” –who told me that before getting the scholarship for CUNY he was making a living by plucking the feathers from slaughtered chickens at his aunt’s spot inside Caracas’s Mayorista market. The scholarship was salvation. Exactly what he needed in order to escape and flourish.

WWB: Turning our focus even further toward New York. Are there conclusions or generalizations we can draw about the role the city has played in Spanish-language writing from Latin America over time? In what ways does the city appear in the work of those writers who have lived here: Is it mostly as subject matter? Is the city more of a base, nothing else? And how have political events—US relations to countries of Latin America or globalization, for example—altered this relationship?

EA: One of my all-time top New York City novels is Francisco Goldman’s The Ordinary Seaman, which is based on an actual event. It tells the story of a group of Central American seamen marooned on a broken-down freighter that is moored in the middle of New York harbor within sight of the Statue of Liberty. Part Robinson Crusoe, part Moby-Dick, it’s written in English but orchestrates multiple national and regional varieties of Spanish with astonishing virtuosity. Goldman is somehow able to depict, in English, mutual linguistic incomprehension between, for example, a Central American sailor and a Mexican manicurist who meet in Brooklyn and are speaking to each other in Spanish.

This is one of the things New York’s Latinx community offers writers: it can be a place of encounter between Spanish-speaking people of many backgrounds and nationalities. In the case of Martí, for example, life in New York consolidates his ideas about Latin American solidarity and the need for unity among Latin American countries as a counterbalance to the burgeoning imperial power of the United States. In New York, he’s a first-hand witness to that growing power, and he also has first-hand experience of how much Latin Americans of many countries that formed the New York City community of his day have in common with each other, when thrown together in the non-Latin American city that New York was then, when the community was still quite small. (I would never describe New York as a non-Latin American city today—now, like Los Angeles, Miami, San Antonio, and a number of other US cities, New York emphatically is, among other things, a Latin American city.)

And also, let’s keep in mind that one of the masterpieces of Latin American literature—Cirilo Villaverde’s Cecilia Valdés, the greatest Cuban novel of the nineteenth century—was written largely in New York, while Villaverde lived here in exile, but takes place entirely in Cuba. A book need not depict New York in order to have been shaped by it.

UG: I remember myself, as a teenager, swearing to friends I would never live in the U.S. (I grew up listening to socialist uncles who taught me about the injustices of imperialism). However, I always told my friends I would make an exception for New York. Because it was a unique place. A city for immigrants, adventurers, and Americans who understood the importance of sustaining a literary culture. Of course, at the time, I knew little about New York’s role at the center of international capitalism, until I read the Alexander Hamilton biography by Ron Chernow, or about all the racism within the city until I read The Power Broker, Robert A. Caro’s magnificent work on Robert Moses.

There is a huge difference, I believe, between the writing about New York of the eighteenth Century writers and today’s writers. Martí always described the city assuming he was a foreigner. A visitor. Most of the stories and poems I published in Los Bárbaros have New York as their settings naturally as Lima appears in the novels of Vargas Llosa, or the Caribbean towns in García Márquez’s stories. There are some poems where—I´m thinking about Marta Ana Diz, for example, a poet from Buenos Aires who studied with Borges and lived most of her life between the Upper East Side and the Bronx)—if someone is playing the piano and talking about the winter or the summer, things that might seem unique to the visitor, it feels natural and unremarkable to the New Yorker. That is where the poet lives. Her apartment. Her city. She just happens to write in Spanish. In all the initial works by Spanish-language New York writers there is some fascination for the first discoveries, and an understandable impulse to make comparisons to other cities. However, as many of these writers decide to stay, and they start using inches instead of centimeters and Fahrenheit instead of Celsius, the city somehow becomes an organic element of their experiences: their lives, the people they meet, the dreams they carry.

WWB: Ulises, thinking specifically about the writers who appear in this month's issue of WWB, the vast majority of them do so with work that first appeared in Los Bárbaros. Where do these writers fit in this larger panorama of Latin American writing in New York—or rather, New York writing by authors who are simultaneously New Yorkers and Latin American?

UG: I guess every case is different. It depends so much on the author’s decisions. Mario Michelena has lived more than twenty years in the U.S. His first novel is about characters who live in New York. Most of them are Hispanic characters who know the city very well. On the other hand, Daniel Alarcón, who moved to the US as a toddler, decided to write most of his stories about Peruvians. I have seen Alarcón in anthologies, next to Michelena, as a Peruvian writer. There you have two immigrant writers living in New York, both very talented, choosing different subjects for their stories. Sara Cordón came onscholarship to study at NYU, and she was still adjusting to the idea of staying when she wrote “El bien común.” You have a very different narrator in that story (two foreign students riding the “dangerous” subway system, thinking of New York as gang territory à la The Warriors) than in her first novel, Para español pulse dos (For Spanish, Press Two), where the main narrator moves around the city with confidence, capable of distancing herself from the events involving the main characters, all of them MFA students. Naief Yehya is from a slightly older generation. HIs writing career is still very much tied to his country of birth. However, in this story we are publishing in WWB, you feel the characters move around New York with ease. Yehya feels no need to emphasize the main character as a foreigner. He is a New Yorker. And that, I believe, is a decision. Many of the writers publishing in Los Bárbaros write from a position of the city their characters’ natural environment. New York is part of the routine of their lives, a place they know as any other resident does.

© 2021 Words Without Borders. All rights reserved.

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