Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.
from the March 2021 issue

Writing Against Estrangement in Galicia

No doubt a few Galicians will think it in very bad taste to inaugurate this issue with a likeness to their higher profile southern neighbors, but because there may be a great many glad for the comparison, I can hardly imagine a better point of entry to the little-known trove that is Galician literature. Indeed, ever since the independence of Portugal in 1143 from the Spanish Kingdom of León, and the subsequent split of their common vulgar tongue, debate has raged over just where (and when) to draw the border between Galician and Portuguese, if one need be drawn at all. They are, for the most part, mutually intelligible, despite differences in vocabulary, accent, and syntax. Orthography is a particular sticking point, notably with place-names, whose spelling can carry real political import. It is hardly a surprise, then, that in either culture respect is reserved for all the irrevocably parted, or that a word has emerged, in either language, to express their anguish. In Portuguese, the word is saudade; I expect it rings a bell. It often turns up in BuzzFeed-type listicles of apparently untranslatable words. As a translator, I am more than a little ashamed to admit that I routinely fall for the clickbait, and so it is with some authority that I say saudade’s Galician sibling—morriña, or morrinha—seldom makes the cut. 

Whether to Portugal or greater Spain, Galicia is often relegated to the role of second fiddle, but its native language and nearly three million speakers around the globe are not to be dismissed. According to recent research conducted by the Spanish National Institute of Statistics, the number of Galician-language books published within Galicia on any given year is now the same or higher as the number of those published in Spanish. Although this number is about half of what it had been only a decade earlier, it nevertheless offers something of a silver lining in an age defined by the attrition of regional languages across the Iberian Peninsula. And internationally, the outlook may be even rosier. As reported in Spain’s oldest operating newspaper, the bilingual Spanish-Galician Faro de Vigo, foreign translation of Galician literature has doubled since 2008. In the past five years especially Galician presses have nearly doubled their presence at the larger literary book fairs as well, in Bologna, Guadalajara, Buenos Aires, and Frankfurt, thanks in large part to language promotion initiatives financed by the regional government.

It would be more than a little incorrect, then, to shove the Galician language and its literary output under either the Spanish or Portuguese umbrellas. Galician is neither a dialect nor a transcription of those cultures and their languages any more than morriña is a mere varietal or translation of saudade.

But if morriña does claim less interest than its Lusitanian cousin, except in academic circles, this is probably because it presents less mystery. While her Portuguese counterpart, in the grips of his saudade, may struggle to define just what it is he longs for, ask a Galician about her morriña and she is bound to find you a little soft in the head: Galiza, claro—Galicia, of course.

Personally, I find the term more nuanced, more sophisticated than many Galicians care to admit. (Modesty is, after all, a point of pride in this rainy corner of northwestern Spain. It bears mention that Amancio Ortega, founder of the Zara fashion empire, grew up in A Coruña, where, if local accounts are faithful, he is often spotted strolling the city’s public beach, discreetly attired.) For although it may be easy enough to grasp why a Vigo fisherman hauling for cod on the high seas of the North Atlantic, or an Ourense exile hiding out on the Pampas from the wrath of a dictator—who, incidentally, hailed from Ferrol—might think often and fondly of their faraway home, it is a bit less clear, perhaps, why the sentiment may glow as brightly in a modern-day Lugo dairy farmer, dispossessed of the family trade by a shifting economy and the plummeting price of milk across the European Single Market.

As tempting as it is to think of morriña as only another kind of homesickness, a better synonym might be estrangement. From what Galicians feel estranged is a question with no single answer, but the pursuit of something like one has become a deep well of Galician literature, past and present. It certainly binds together the eight pieces in this month’s issue, which we can read as a survey of botched, aborted, or deferred attempts to connect or reconnect, with distant parents, with forgotten friends, or even with a sense of existential certainty—or even, when all else fails, one’s own livestock.

“i come from a family built on longing,” proclaims the narrator of Susana Sanches Arins’ And They Say, still nursing the multigenerational hurt of a home destroyed much less than disappeared through the Spanish Civil War. It is a sentiment all too familiar to the narrator of Emma Pedreira’s Voracious also, as she prepares for the loss of a mother she never really understood, for whom, as an author, understanding was the task of a lifetime, except when it came to her daughter.

We see a similar, if darker, struggle to connect in the poetry of Luisa Castro, wherein another daughter struggles to read into the circumstances of her birth a love her mother refuses to feign, even for appearance’s sake. Reality and expectation clash again, this time between lovers, and with an absurdly scatological streak, in Xurxo Borrazás’ “Of Children and Sphincters.”

Lest we imagine the hunger for resolution is proper only to the well-acquainted, Antón Lopo, in “Stress,” reminds us the feeling is equally at home between former friends, reunited by chance and divided by worldview. Nor, would it seem, is connection a strictly human problem, as Álvaro Cunqueiro proves with great absurdity in “Alberte Merlo’s Horse.”

Just why our heroes fall short of the resolution they desire is up for interpretation, although we could certainly credit the deep emotional constipation they share. Or we might wonder if failure, as some of these writers seem to suggest, is not simply a rule of life itself, the essential chaos of which will ever defy any dream of reconciliation. There is something of this idea in Samuel Solleiro’s “This, I Don’t Know,” in its very title. Or, choosing to see not chaos but overwhelming order, we can follow the lead of Alba Cid’s “Essays,” and lose ourselves in the architecture of an okra flower.  

Altogether, the selections in this month’s issue imagine a universe of too many hopeless questions, of an endless host of desires wandering around in search of a one true heading. The scope of these questions, and the breadth of this wandering are truly stunning in their immensity. But abide this immensity, these pieces do, as living, breathing Galicians do, day in and day out, from the Costa da Morte to the heights of the Ancares. Theirs is a hardy, hard-headed refusal to give in, and there is nothing more Galician than that.

© 2021 Scott Shanahan. All rights reserved.

Read more from the March 2021 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.