Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.
from the May 2020 issue

Peripatetics: The Essays of Jazmina Barrera, Karen Villeda, and Mariana Oliver

Last spring in Mexico City seems an eternity ago. The jacarandas were blooming. Each morning I would rise early, salute the raucous purple blossoms on the tree outside the window, brew coffee, then return to bed and read, while my companion, a large, gangly, deaf white cat named Cirilo kneaded my legs. I read mostly nonfiction by Mexican women who wrote with what I came to describe as an itinerant sensibility—essays with a roving gaze whose authors travel through geographic and intellectual spaces with the same ease with which we used to walk around in New York. Now it’s the spring of 2020 in Brooklyn. Instead of the jacarandas outside, there are magnolias, but going out for a glimpse of them now feels illicit, and the privilege of freely wandering a foreign city or even one’s own seems a distant memory.

The books from which the pieces in this feature are selected can loosely be termed travel books. In On Lighthouses, Jazmina Barrera reminds us of the great travel writer Bruce Chatwin’s comment, “As you go along, you literally collect places.” Karen Villeda’s book Visegrado is a collection of places and moments presented in brief fragments that view Eastern European literature and history through the eyes of a young, female Mexican traveler to Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Villeda eschews objectivity, sending us postcards of highly distilled observations as she wanders her chosen territory, carrying the weight of home in her backpack. Villeda’s “micro-essays” make up a truly hybrid text that is at once travel notebook, literary criticism, and prose poem. “I can’t tell the difference between one genre and another,” Villeda has said. “When I approach poetry, the speculation of the essay stays with me, and when I write essays, the poetic image is always complicit.” Fragments find the author in Krakow, Budapest, and beyond, inviting us to share her view and to read the chroniclers of the places she visits alongside her. Such a peripatetic text is imbued with greater nostalgia from our current position of enforced stillness. As our joints stiffen in quarantine, Villeda reminds us often of the physicality of travel: on a train, “My body, once befuddled by the speed of the metropolis, registers each of the forty-five minutes the journey lasts.” 

In her book of essays Aves migratorias (“Migratory Birds”), Mariana Oliver trains her gaze on multiple forms of migration, engaging with subjects as wide-ranging as Roman history and Greek mythology, and the raising and destruction of the Berlin Wall. The opening essay, which bears the book’s title, commemorates the life of the Canadian artist Bill Lishman, the first person to lead a flight of geese with an aircraft. Oliver introduces us to the young, color-blind Lishman, so desperate to fly despite his impairment that he takes to the skies in his own homemade ultralight aircraft, keeping company with migratory birds. Oliver seems to speak not only for birds but also for Lishman, and to gesture toward our human impulse for movement, when she writes, “Among migratory birds, to remain in place means accepting death.” She goes on to describe a range of types of migration. In an essay on Berlin, migration means crossing the wall, but imagination acquires a greater power than physical movement: “The true scalers of the wall weren’t those who crossed it, but those who began to imagine what was on the other side.”  

In the piece excerpted for this issue, “Özdamar’s Tongue,” translated by Julia Sanches, linguistic migration takes the forefront. Emine Özdamar’s first migration from Istanbul to Berlin is as a worker; her second is as an actress in pursuit of her love of theater. Though this writer abandons her mother tongue, her nostalgia for Turkey finds expression in her new language: German is home to a wealth of words for longing. Özdamar considers herself a collector of words, and Oliver writes eloquently of the virtues of such collections: linguistic migration means making the words of others our own, speaking them in our own accent, possessing them as we possessed the words of our childhoods. We should “[t]urn our mother tongues into open spaces that can accommodate any word we choose or happen to come across at a particular time.”

Travel is also central in On Lighthouses: in Christina MacSweeney's translation, Barrera takes readers on a meandering tour of numerous lighthouses, from Oregon to Asturias, from Normandy to New York. Combining travelogue, literary criticism, personal essay, and the history of lighthouses, Barrera weaves a lyrical tapestry whose subject matter gives rise to meditations on solitude, friendship, distance, desire, and collecting. The book opens with a trip to an Oregon lighthouse as the author is reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The solitary tower is an object of desire, a destination that may never be reached, but also a site of isolation and loneliness. We are reminded that Mrs. Ramsay knits socks for the lighthouse keeper’s son: “Mrs. Ramsay says one should take lighthouse keepers ‘whatever comforts one can’ because it must be terrible and very boring to be shut up there for months on end with nothing to do.”

Indeed, lighthouse keepers are experts in solitude. A keeper in Puerto Escondido on Mexico’s Pacific Coast tells of his battle with “idleness and low spirits” and recommends animals, reading, and radio as antidotes: “His work has affected his health: he suffers from chronic depression due to the loneliness of the prison he is locked in day and night.” And it is impossible to read of the lighthouse logbooks Barrera describes and not think of the quarantine diaries published online, the new genre of our times: “When time is indefinite, the calendar and the clock become indispensable to avoiding paralysis. And for that reason the logbook is a constant point of reference, the only means of combating boredom: each day less, one more X on the page. For want of an interlocutor, it is possible to construct narrative time in a diary.” The metaphorical possibilities of the lighthouse are of course never lost on the author, whom we occasionally glimpse in her own solitary tower in a cold, lonely New York: a high-up apartment that more and more comes to resemble the lighthouses that have taken hold of her imagination. Yet if the lighthouse is synonymous with loneliness and isolation, for sailors at sea, a glimpse of its flame meant hope and safety were near. The lighthouse keeper endures isolation for the safety of others, and is a fitting figure of contemplation for the situation in which we find ourselves.

© 2020 by Charlotte Whittle. All rights reserved.

Read more from the May 2020 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.