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The City and The Writer: In El Salvador with Roxana Méndez

By Nathalie Handal

Image: Roxana Méndez.

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of El Salvador as you feel/see it?

El Salvador is a country of contrasts. On the one hand, it is full of warm-hearted people and beautiful places, like the sea, the mountains, and, above all, the interior regions of the country. On the other hand, the city is immersed in constant tension due to the violence. El Salvador, being one of the most violent countries on earth, is a place where living sometimes means surviving. One must learn to adapt to the everyday-ness of crime. One learns to do without things as commonplace as taking a walk in a park. Frequently, I pass near Cuscatlán Park, in the center of the city, shortly after dusk. From a certain distance it seems like a magical place, full of trees and streetlights that have just been lit, but I never see a single person walking through the place and the mere thought of being in there gives me chills. That is the mood in El Salvador: an apparent calm, a danger that is many times invisible, or as I wrote a while back, “this city is all calm / although inside there is a beast / that murmurs words / that nobody wants to hear” (“esta ciudad es toda calma / aunque adentro haya una bestia / que murmura palabras / que nadie quiere oír”).

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I was four years old when my mother, sister, grandparents, and I had to permanently abandon the house that had belonged to my family for generations due to a death threat that we received during the war. The image of a man pointing a gun at us is the first memory that comes to mind.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Without a doubt, the sunsets, especially the summer sunsets. My mother and I share a love of watching them. Sometimes, I wander about and suddenly find myself before a sunset with spectacular hues. But nobody else seems to notice it, except for my mother. In fact, on occasions, if I have gone out and the hour arrives, I call her on my cell phone from wherever I am and she tells me that she is also watching it.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Claudia Lars, Salarrué, Claribel Alegría, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Jorge Galán, Claudia Hernández, and Vanessa Núñez Handal.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Los Planes de Renderos—it is located on a mountain range near my home. From there, one can see the city and the neighboring hills. The weather is very good—cold, foggy on occasion, and there are animals. I go there to walk and wait for the sunset. It is a place where I feel at home and one of the first places I visit when I return from a trip.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

In Los Planes de Renderos there is the house of one of El Salvador’s most important writers, Salarrué. Years after his death, the government named it The Writer’s House, and it is now a house-museum where they give writing workshops for young writers.

Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The secret or hidden places in El Salvador generally contain very harsh realities. The situation has worsened in the last two decades, but when I was a teenager I liked to go to two places that were seldom frequented. One was the library in the national palace where important information about the literary and cultural history of the country can be found. The second was the library of a resident, who opened his doors to anyone interested. He had valuable books that fascinated me.

Where does passion live here?

In the streets, the passion for living or dying.  

What is the title of one of your works about El Salvador and what inspired it exactly?

 “Contraste.” It was born of beauty, violence, death, and says that it is because of all the terrible things that the little things seem immensely beautiful.

Translated from the Spanish by Eileen O’Connor.

Roxana Méndez is a poet and translator. She has published the books of poetry Memoria (Universidad Tecnológica, El Salvador), Mnemosine (DPI, El Salvador), and El cielo en la ventana (Valparaíso), and the children’s book Clara y Clarissa (Alfaguara, El Salvador). She’s been awarded her country’s National Poetry Prize, the National Prize for Children’s Narrative, and the Alhambra Prize from Spain. 

Published Jun 29, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal

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