sábado, 21 de diciembre de 2019

An Archipelago of Letters (first part)

A published book is always a mystery. How did it come to be? It is nearly impossible to retrace the steps of its production, much less to predict its destiny. An author needs readers to interpret what her work means, that is, what it means to them. Readers use different methods, but the writer can only try to remember how her book came to be. Like most memories that of the origin of a book is fuzzy. I remember standing before a road sign, at a crossroad of route PR 3, in the South of Puerto Rico, between the towns of Guayama and Salinas. I remember that later that day I wrote in my facebook page more or less the following words: “This is where my next book begins. I will write a book about my travels along this road.”
I spent three years writing PR 3 Aguirre. Then the catastrophic hurricane happened and the writing was cut short. I have not written much about the hurricane, although it is mentioned in some chapters of the book. I have not written much about the hurricane, perhaps because to me writing about pain, emptiness, and helplessness requires a certain distance. Moreover there have been almost forty books and anthologies published, and a number of film documentaries and academic conferences about the storm. There was little I could add to those writings of the disaster. In my estimation writing, more than reading, has become a passion in Puerto Rico. There seem to be more ardent writers than disciplined and devoted readers. There is also an impressive number of small presses founded in the last decade. The awesome, overflowing production must be, in part, a natural reaction to a sense of loss and fear, and the hurricane coupled with the debt and the collapse of the colonial model of governance is still an invitation to write your way out of a chaotic and depressing reality. The world of the most vulnerable persons, fragile as it has always been, suddenly fell entirely, and the urban and rural landscapes, with their almost miraculous little houses, were laid bare. Increasingly, economic activity depends on the informal sector, on government transfers, and a consolidated narco-economy.
In contrast with material losses, writing has multiplied and exceeded the boundaries of the academic sector, where writers traditionally made their living as university professors. The act of writing and publishing literary works has been, over the last decade, an open space, notably in the context of workshops and creative writing programs. Before, canonical authors were those included in the reading lists of university courses. However, the present openness has not turned its back on history. On the contrary, it has welcomed translations of classic, forgotten authors. Poems by José de Diego and José Gautier Benítez have been translated into English. Also remarkable is the interest in formidable women writers such as Marigloria Palma, translated by Carina del Valle Schorske.  The recovery projects, the current interest in tradition, are, perhaps, also related to catastrophic events.
Maybe writing has become a means of getting over the death of a lost world, a grieving ritual. Moreover, it is also a way of acknowledging the sustained effects of environmental disaster in the Caribbean region. Creating a literary archive seeks to fill the immense gap left by material loss and the destruction of physical references that sustain the memories of a community, while pointing out, in some cases, methods of response and survival. It is a key to remembering the thousands of persons left to die by negligence of the State and the colonial power. Writers have undertaken this task before. We may never recover the names and histories of the dead, but an obituary is always possible. Let´s remember The Puerto Rican Obituary written by Pedro Pietri. However it may be, I propose that, grief should not give way to the apathy of victimization and impotence, but to a strong sense of self worth and independence.
My book, PR 3 Aguirre did not turn out to be a travel journal or a chronicle. Instead, I found myself attracted to one of the road’s landmarks: a company town and sugar cane refinery called Aguirre. The reception of the published book was unexpected. In all of its presentations there were full houses, and people sharing their own personal memories of the sector. Evidently Aguirre is one of those sites that generate a sense of place and a flow of memories. Perhaps it could be described as a contact zone, as defined by Mary Louise Pratt, “a place of colonial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict.” (Clifford, Routes, 192)

Aguirre was a sugar production company town during most of the 20th century. Even before the hurricane of 2017, a good part of its housing stock and industrial buildings were fragile, or in ruins. The partly abandoned company town is a source of local legends and ghost stories, and it lures a number of visitors attracted by the macabre charms of what has been called “ruin pornography” or fascination with decay. To my mind the ruins are a record of the collapse of the colonial arrangement, whereby the territory is judicially defined as “foreign in a domestic sense, and belonging to, but not part of the United States.” Such nonsensical language sought to define a relationship at odds with the values of a democratic state. The theater of the absurd includes characters, among them a Puerto Rican intermediary class of managers and politicians. This is the way we are supposed to end, as a picturesque, closed, silenced, former company town in the process of becoming a ghost town. But in spite of its decay, Aguirre and its periphery are the home of communities where people live and dream about present duties and possible futures. (To be continued.)

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