The Secret Island: a Literary Reading of Puerto Rico
The illusion of freedom that comes with learning to read what others have written is an experience of primal paradise, a comfort from the suffering and the violence of our being in the world. Writers must struggle to attain a sense of free play similar to this initial contact with the world of words. The feeling is deeply personal, although the making of literature, oral or written, is a social activity. Language is not a private possession, it is inherited and used, enriched or weakened, and passed on to others. Such transactions between collective and individual experience are unavoidable. I am a Puerto Rican writer. The ambiguities of this definition are too complex to explore here and now. Let´s just assume that I share an identity as a member of a society marked by a History made up of innumerable stories. Puerto Rico is one of the islands of the West Indies, one of the Caribbean islands. It´s said to have been first populated or visited by several Native American peoples: Arawaks, Tainos, and Caribs. Since 1493 it was colonized by Europeans, the Spaniards, who introduced their language and the African slave trade. As a result of the Spanish American War, the island has been a colonial territory of the US since 1898. These are the facts and yet, they are meaningless in isolation. Actually, most of these statements could be applied to a writer born in Colorado: that he or she hails from a territory first populated by Native American nations, later invaded by Europeans, a close neighbor of territories colonized by the Spaniards, subsequently occupied by the Army of the United States and eventually asimilated into the Union. These ancient coincidences are somehow alive. “The past” wrote Faulkner “is never dead. It´s not even past.”
Many histories remain secret to those whose life they tell. We have the habit of seeing things disconnected from one another.
The critic Edward Said wrote that the task of the intellectual is “to make connections… to read what is there or not there, above all, to see complementarity and interdependence instead of isolated, venerated, or formalized experience that excludes and forbids the hybridizing intrusions of human history.” Another critic, Amy Kaplan, on the subject of American literature, wrote that “cultural phenomena we think of as domestic, or particularly national, are forged in a crucible of foreign relations.” Such cross-cultural connections have always interested me as a writer. In a sense, they have to do with one of the qualities of literature: to make visible the invisible. To explore “overlapping territories, intertwined histories”, to use a term coined by Said, seeks to connect points distant in space and time. Not only in a psychological or spiritual dimension, but in a vivid, material sense. So a literary reading of a body of fiction should relate to the fictions of others.
While reading about the history of Fort Collins I discovered an amazing fact. This city was one of the production centers of a sugar plantation economy. The parent company of Fort Collins´ Great Western Sugar Company, a beet-sugar production enterprise, was the American Sugar Refining Company, a large trust with sugar-cane production interests in the Caribbean. Moreover, Charles Allen, the first civilian American governor of Puerto Rico, was a president of the American Sugar Refining Company. So Fort Collins and the islands of Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico were part of a larger scheme of interlocking and integrated industries in a multinational sugar economy.
In the spirit of these interlocking economies I would like to share with you some stories that connect our overlapping territories. To quote the poet from St. Lucia, Derek Walcott, “every island is circunscribed by the oceanic sadness called History.” In the Caribbean, History has been determined elsewhere, the peoples´ lives and identities have been overwritten by overseas empires. But an island is not necessarily a body of land surrounded by water. A person, even a whole community, may be or feel islanded, that is, set apart by other types of disjunctions. I invite you to follow some of the connective threads between where we now meet and the island that was my point of departure. Hopefully a meeting of the islands will be revealing to all of us.
Fort Collins was named after a military post established in 1864, abandoned in 1866, and incorporated as a town in 1873. A very experienced soldier may have visited Fort Collins around these years. His name was Nelson Miles and he was a general in the so called Indian Wars. Before that he was a soldier of the Union Army during the Civil War. So he embodied some of the prevailing policies about native americans, black slavery and imperialism. General Miles was also the commander in chief of the troops that invaded Puerto Rico in 1898, the year one of my grandparents was born.
Miles´ deeds are common threads in our shared, forgotten histories. He is only one character in the intertwined tales of our overlapping territories. There are others. There once lived a man called Richard Harding Davis. He was born in Philadelphia in 1864. In 1892 he published a book called The West from a Car Window. It´s the story of a voyage to the West, all the way to Colorado, describing the red mansions of Denver, the “great pleasure resort” of Colorado Springs, the desolate frontier between Texas and Mexico, the founding of Oklahoma City, life in an Indian reservation. Davis expressed his feelings with a mix of admiration, horror, and humor a la Mark Twain. The West he wrote “is a very wonderful, large, unfinished, out of doors portion of our country, and a most delightful place to visit. The course of empire will eventually Westward take its way. But when it does, it will leave one individual behind it clinging closely to the Atlantic seaboard.”
Evidently the course of empire did not just move westward, nor did the individual in question remain close to home. Less than a decade after his trip to the West, Davis worked as a war correspondent covering the invasion of Puerto Rico by the Army of General Miles. One of his fellow correspondents was the novelist Stephen Crane, the author of The Red Badge of Courage. Crane, as you may know, wrote about war without ever having seen combat, and he was a sickly man. So Davis, for the fun of it, wrote a mock epic entitled “How Stephen Crane Took Juana Días”. Juana Díaz is a town in Puerto Rico.
According to Davis Puerto Ricans were far from hostile to the invaders: “They received our troops with one hand open and the other presenting either a bouquet or a bottle…It struck me that in this surrendering habit of the Porto Ricans there lay a chance for great entertainment, and much personal glory, especially as one would write the story oneself. It would be a fine thing, I thought, to accept the surrender of a town. Few war correspondents had ever done so. It was an honor usually reserved for Major Generals in their extreme old age.” So he went on to invent how Stephen Crane took a whole town armed with a cigarrete and how he was hosted and wined and dined almost to death.
The tone of this tall tale echoes Davis´ patronizing vision of the West. The joke about the surrendering habit underlies the writings of other imperial travelers. Prejudice is a portrait of the observer more than a description of its object, but recognizing the metaphors of prejudice is important. The longing of invading armies to be received with flowers seems to imply that a lack of resistance is an invitation to plunder and an open door to misreading the culture of the other to the point of self-aggrandizement. I find Davis´ little piece interesting because with it Juana Díaz enters the literature of the imperial gaze as a quaint footnote, and it does so in the company of other frontier lands such as the emergent Oklahoma City and the southwest of Texas. All of these “territories in formation” were equally cut down to measure by Davis. But more interesting, at least to me, is the existence of an analogous and oppositional text written by an author who probably was not aware of Davis´ joke. In the 1980s Luis López Nieves published “Seva”, allegedly the story of a town in Puerto Rico that heroically resisted the US army invasion to the point of being destroyed and all evidence of its existence concealed. The story was published in a pro-independence newspaper and read as an authentic document. When the editors revealed that “Seva” was a figment of the author´s imagination, another mock epic, many readers were not amused. They had believed the story was true not ony because it was persuasively written, but because there was a need for it to be true. The incident dramatized how in a colonized nation writers are pressed to address traumatic historic experience; how literature is turned into a battleground in the struggle for national identity and independence.
The question of identity is a defining characteristic of the literatures of emergent nations. Metaphorical readings of the island have been an important component of Puerto Rican literature since its significant beginnings in the 19th century. The poet José Gautier Benítez, who lived between 1851 and 1880, created the metaphor of the island as a beautiful maiden, in the tradition of arcadian poetry. Perhaps the first notable Puerto Rican writer was Alejandro Tapia y Rivera, born in 1826. He wrote plays, novels, poetry, essays and biographies and described his feelings for the country as complex and deadly, a love affair similar to the love between Cuasimodo and the bells of Notre Dame. Eugenio María de Hostos and Lola Rodríguez de Tió lived most of their lives as political exiles. They advocated independence from Spain, a movement symbolized by the Grito de Lares which took place 140 years ago, on a day like today, September 23, 1868. Lola is the author of a famous metaphor comparing the relationship between Cuba and Puerto Rico with the two wings of a bird. Hostos a was one of the founders of philosophical thought in Latin America and a promoter of an Antillean Confederation.
The cultural wars between colonials and invaders after 1898 are evident in the novels of Ramón Juliá Marín and José Elías Levis, in the 1900s, and in those of Pedro Juan Soto in the 1970s. The ethnic and racial component is at the center of the national identity issue. The Afro-Caribbean cultural dimension has been explored in the writings of Luis Rafael Sánchez, Carmelo Rodríguez Torres, Julia de Burgos and Ana Lydia Vega. Related to it is the critique of the culture of the creole aristocracy in the fiction of Rosario Ferré; the mythical indian origins fictionalized by Tapia and Betances and remade in the twentieh century by Juan Antonio Corretjer and others; the feminist identification with social and political struggles in poet Julia de Burgos and the theme of the writer as fictional character in the gay fiction and poetry of Manuel Ramos Otero. The work of poet Luis Palés Matos was a superb reading of the island in the 1930s, marked by painful transformations and material and existential poverty and solitude.
A contrasting note in these literary readings relates to the experience of Puerto Rican communities of the Diaspora. Writing in Spanish, English or in a version of Spanglish, the focus on language, identity and literature has evolved in writers such as Pedro Pietri, Pedro López Adorno and Marihelma Costa. Nuyorican poetry is at once a tribute to the oral tradition and paradoxically meaningful in post-modern, post-literate times. It has been described by Laura Briggs as “smart, political, working class, and breathtakingly vernacular. It was an affront to hispanophilic (Puerto Rican) “high culture”… as American literature it was problematic for the same reasons – too working-class, too vernacular, too political, and written by Puerto Ricans.”
The complexities and complicities of the colonial relationship have been explored by other writers. As early as the 1920s in the novel Redentores, by Manuel Zeno Gandía, the shift has been to a critique of the colonized mentality, its ambiguity, its fears, its mimicry. The victimization of the colonial subject, explicitly present in some writers of the 1940s and 50s has given way to a more complex view of the colonial relation, based on a compact of mutual invisibility. The somber aspects of island society are described in the chronicles and novels of Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá.
Related to such loss of innocence is the urge to widen the scope of literature beyond identity politics and proclaim the right to appropriate what is meaningful from all literary traditions. A similar claim was made in the Creole Manifesto written in the 1980s by Martinican author Patrick Chaoiseau: “We shall create a literature which obeys all the demands of modern (meaning Western) writing while taking roots in the traditional configuration of our orality”. Cuban writer Reynaldo Arenas jokingly once said: “As Caribbean writers we are entitled to all the possibilities of literature. We are a mixture of all cultures and lack of cultures, of all modes of savagery, a mix of all histories and all races. “
The trend in contemporary Puerto Rican literature goes beyond the European canon, and leans to non-canonical literature and pop culture in some writers, and to formal experimentation and the search for artistic quality in others.
It is impossible to synthetize a rich, centenary literary corpus that has produced hundreds of remarkable books, most of them unavailable in translation. This corpus defies rigid notions of identity while claiming a distinct space, the need not to disappear as a people. Its existence challenges an experience of empire that has required a veil of secrecy, a segregation from the rest of the world.
To quote the Martinican writer Edouard Glissant: “Diversity, which is neither chaos nor sterility, means the human spirit striving for a cross-cultural relationship without universalist trascendence. Diversity needs the presence of peoples, no longer as objects to be swallowed up, but with the intention of creating a new relationship.”
In my own work I have tried to write from outside the closed circuit of our insular obsessions. I have frequently explored the point of view of the outsider as a way to self-knowledge in a play of masks and double identities; a hall of distorting mirrors. In this mode, writing acts like a return of the gaze, akin to translation and ventriloquism. A similar narrative strategy was used by Carlos Fuentes in his novel Gringo viejo and in his book of short stories La frontera de cristal. Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea rewrote the novel Jane Eyre from the point of view of Bertha, the mad woman in the attic, the creole wife of Rochester. Other examples are evident in the poetry of Derek Walcott. In Tiepolo´s Hound the black poet assumes the point of view of painter Camille Pisarro, a sephardic jew of French ancestry born in the island of St. Thomas.
In my most recent novel Sexto sueño (Sixth Dream) the narrator is a professor of anatomy and a composer of boleros. Most of the characters in the novel are foreigners. The main ones are Nathan Leopold and Sammy Davis Junior. Nathan Leopold, as you may know, is one of the authors of the so called crime of the century. Lopold and his accomplice killed a young man and spent most of their lives in prison. Sammy Davis Jr. was an entertainer and a talented impersonator.
All of this has a basis in historical facts. Indeed Nathan Leopold was a resident of Puerto Rico during the last years of his life and a friend of Sammy Davis Jr. Sammy Davis was half Puerto Rican through his mother´s family.
I will read some paragraphs of a chapter where Sammy Davis tells a story from his childhood to Nathan Leopold. The English version is my own so its broken style may add another layer to the performance of writing as a return of the gaze.
Marta Aponte Alsina
(Palabras leídas en la Colorado State University, en Fort Collins, el 23 de septiembre de 2008)