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from the December 2021 issue

Nuestra Ciudad: Writing the City in Spanish

Just shy of two years since the city of New York was laid low by the COVID-19 pandemic, the December issue of Words Without Borders brings together work from five writers—all of them working in Spanish—that explores this multifaceted city.

That such writing exists should come as a surprise to no one. A long tradition exists of writers from Spain and Latin America who have come and stayed in this city, and documented their experience in the only language they knew—or the one they elected. García Lorca wrote Poeta en Nueva York, a series of poems that still talk to us today about the views of a gay European man, fascinated by the energy coming from these streets. José Martí wrote a series of nonfiction pieces that, after being published for the most important newspapers across the Americas, helped readers–from Buenos Aires and Caracas to Havana and Mexico City–to understand the magnitude of the American experiment.

What has changed for Spanish-language writing in New York in the time since Martí, and later Lorca, wrote here? Today there is a more or less established route for these writers to present and to publish their work. Until the pandemic hit, in a basement in SoHo, in a small bookstore in Queens, in a few small gardens in Manhattan, in Brooklyn, in the Bronx, on a community radio station on Staten Island, poets, writers, essayists–many of them students–met weekly, or daily, to share their work. They organized events, they met and listened to writers who had come to New York from cities big and small across Latin America and Spain. There were several reasons, including the creation of the MFA Program in Creative Writing in Spanish at New York University and a new wave of immigrants and students, enticed by scholarships and more active recruitment efforts from institutions like the Cervantes Institute and the City University of New York. Javier Molea, a librarian and activist, has also played a big role, especially during his time working for McNally Jackson, when he successfully transformed the basement of the bookstore into a hub, a place where many writers, from across the Hispanophone world or else coming from other cities in this country, knew they could come to give readings from their books.

Most of these writers were or are students, and still live on the margins. They may get a salary as part-time adjuncts, or may work for tips (in restaurants, clubs, coffee shops, like anyone else). They share rooms with other students, and from there they write: sometimes about their dreams, sometimes about the choice to stay here. Most of them are still straddling two worlds, a foot in each one.

Today, a young writer working in Spanish arrives in New York City to find no shortage of role models. Since around the beginning of this decade, they can find a series of novels, poems, a more or less constant flows of stories centered on this city, such as those written by such figures as Lina Meruane, María Negroni, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Fernanda Trías, Eduardo Lago, Marta Ana Diz, or Valeria Luiselli. And there are magazines publishing that work like ViceVersaLos Bárbaros or Temporales. In addition, there are local independent publishing houses of various sizes doing the same. Since 2019 there is even an International Book Fair in Spanish, FILNYC, organized by the Mexican Studies Institute and Instituto Cervantes.

Now, there is a feeling of a collective pursuit; a burgeoning group of writers, publishers, and festival curators are working to create something permanent.

There are reasons for this. Glotopolitical reasons, as José del Valle would say, from his podium as a scholar at The Graduate Center, CUNY. There are writing programs, magnets attracting the best writers from the Spanish-speaking world, like NYU and City College CUNY. And technology plays no small role; now there are faster, cheaper, and easier ways to publish—online or by print on demand. 

Ultimately, this phenomenon is about people who came to the city and found it to their liking. Immigrants who decided to call this place home, and who happen to be accomplished writers. 

Michel Nieva, who recently appeared in Granta’s latest issue of Best of Spanish-Language Novelists, hails from Argentina. In the short story “War of the Species,” he follows a Harlem resident who, thrown into unemployment as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, discovers a gruesome competition between two of the city’s most persistent scavengers. 

Mario Michelena, who lives in Brooklyn and published his first novel in 2015 in Peru, looks at warfare of a different variety. The story featured here—“No One Really Knows Why People Shout”—comes to us from his second book, to be released in English translation by Chatos Inhumanos, a small New York-based publishing house, in early 2022. Michelena has been an interpreter for boxing fights on HBO, and currently works full time as an interpreter in the Brooklyn courts. Some of his courtroom experiences were the basis for his novel Las esquinas redondeadas, and they are behind the story published in this issue.

Sara Cordón, an NYU graduate, CUNY PhD candidate, and winner of the very prestigious Cosecha Eñe Prize in 2017, belongs to a group of writers who answered the call of a New York-based MFA program. She was working for a writing program in Madrid when she got the opportunity to apply to NYU. It was in this city that she wrote her debut novel, Para español Pulse Dos (For Spanish, Press Two), a critical success published by Penguin Random House and now being translated into English by Robin Myers. The novel is about becoming a student in New York, about the dreams of writers who arrive here for the first time, about American academia, the illusion of fame, and the farces common to both. The story in this issue, “The Common Good,” is also about being a student, more specifically a young girl from Madrid who always viewed New York through the lens of her favorite film, Walter Hill’s 1979 action thriller The Warriors. Now, thanks to a sensitive translation by Robin Myers, this story is available to readers in English.

Álvaro Baquero-Pecino is another example of the connection between the world of academia and the world of writers. He is a professor at College of Staten Island, while working on the side on short stories and publishing some of his work in Los bárbaros, including “Statistics,” a tale of New York City in numbers that resulted from a workshop with Lina Meruane, which appears here.

Our issue closes with a piece by Naief Yehya, a writer who was born in the 1960s but has been living in New York for a very long time. He has always been a huge presence in the writing scene in Mexico, mixing creative writing with essays on technoculture and twenty-first-century pornography. In his story “Plans and Commitments,” translated by Samantha Ortega, a middle-aged Brooklyn man faces an awkward situation after a cam girl calls his bluff. 

As biographer, translator, and editor Esther Allen notes in an interview for this month’s issue, the distorted historical record that erases the longstanding presence and contribution of those for whom Spanish is a first language has dangerous repercussions locally and nationally. The contributions to this month’s issue re-stake a longstanding claim to the city of New York and are an effective antidote to monolingual and monolithic portraits of this pulsing metropolis.

© 2021 Ulises GonzalesAll rights reserved.


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