Friday, February 05, 2010

Lost City Radio: A Novel (P.S.)A roundtable discussion (by e-mail) joining Daniel Alarcón, Eduardo Halfon, and Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez.

I started thinking about language—I mean really thinking about it—a few years ago when I signed up for first-semester Arabic at UC Berkeley. There was something about entering a language knowing absolutely nothing that made me consider what it is I know about those two languages I do speak (and read and write), English and Spanish. In class, we began with the alphabet, the sounds each symbol represented, and even now I am still working on the construction of sound, words, sentences. It’s been said before that language is the architecture of thought, and while I’m not convinced this is entirely accurate (my two-year-old nephew conveys a great deal without the benefit of words) it seems self-evident when one is beginning, when the immensity of all that you don’t know is overwhelming. I’m referring to the poetry of a language, of course, the beauty of which is most apparent (for me) when it is used in daily life—this is the level at which it is transformed, made new. This is the level of language-creation that I find most inspiring when I’m writing, which is odd, considering I write in English; the language I love most is Spanish. Not the literary language, necessarily, but its spoken dialects. It is impossible not to be awed by the inventiveness the language as it exists all over Latin America and Spain, the breadth and diversity of it, the way each local and regional vernacular traces a particular history, honors it, then subverts it, transcends it.

I wanted to talk about the most basic tool that writers utilize—language—with two artists uniquely situated to understand its significance. For most of us, the language we work in is a matter of circumstance, not choice; our language is an inheritance, an accident of the time and place of our birth, the education we were given or subjected to, the country we or our parents emigrated to. Eduardo Halfon and Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez, two fluent, native English speakers raised in the United States, have both chosen Spanish as their literary language; something that I’ll admit struck me at first as crazy. I mean, isn’t writing fiction hard enough already?

Eduardo Halfon was born in 1971 in Guatemala City. He studied Industrial Engineering at North Carolina State University, and has published eight books of fiction, most of them in Spain, garnering wide critical praise. His latest novel, The Pirouette, to be published in 2010, was recently awarded the XIV José María de Pereda Literary Prize, in Cantabria, Spain. His work has been translated into Serbian and Portuguese. In 2007 the Hay Festival of Bogotá named him one of the best young Latin American writers.

Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez is an unrepentant border-crosser, painter, former DJ, and currently teaches US Latino literatures and creative writing in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Iowa. His work has appeared in the Barcelona Review, Ventana abierta, Paralelo Sur, and in the anthologies Líneas aéreas, Se habla español: voces latinas en US, Pequeñas resistencias 4: Antología del Nuevo cuento norteamericano y caribeño, and En la frontera: I migliori racconti della narrativa chicana.

I began this email conversation with a simple, obvious question: Why and how did these two writers make the decision to write in Spanish?
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