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Arts The right word

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Author H.G. Carrillo found his writer’s voice in Spanglish

¡Vamos! ¡Vamos now, goddamnit!” Fr. Rodriguez yells in response to the tragedy that begins H.G. Carrillo’s Loosing My Espanish. The priest’s resort to the familiar and expedient mirrors the Cuban-American author’s relationship with language: He wants to say precisely what he means, and sometimes “abuelo” is not interchangeable with “grandfather.” Like Tom Crick, the narrator of Graham Swift’s Waterland, the protagonist of Loosing My Espanish is a newly unemployed high-school teacher who uses his last lecture to take his students on a semi-magical tour of his rich heritage and family history. This week, Carrillo read from his 2004 book, which has just been released in paperback, at Trinity University. He spoke with the Current by phone.

What is your philosophy of language? With Spanglish are we creating the possibility of understanding the world in new ways or is it more pedestrian than that?

I definitely think that what it does is that you do understand just a little bit more. What the understanding gives you is, on one side you hear something and eventually it becomes part of the language, but in addition it’s inviting people to be more open with who they are by allowing the language to exist.

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Do you worry about co-optation? Does it bother you that American consumer culture appropriates cultural elements and turns them into a product?

I always worry about that. I just did a profile for the Orlando Sentinel and they asked what was the kernel of this novel. And I said, Well, I went to the first showing in Chicago of the Buena Vista Social Club and I was excited because what I was looking at was a vitality of life in Black Cuba, and within months it had turned into something else, it had become something that was commodified. And my own anxiety happened a year after that. I was in Miami at a coffee shop and they were playing Dizzie Gillespie’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods, and there was this Cubana negra in front of me and she said, Oh, this is very Buena Vista Social Club.

People get very very nervous about the idea of co-optation, but ... it becomes a very performative thing. I was just listening to the director’s commentary on Brother to Brother, which is the film about Langston Hughes, and one of the things the director said is that he felt very nervous about a particular white character talking to this poet who’s performing at the Nuyorican `Poets` Café. He was saying that so often white characters, when they’re trying to understand a culture, are portrayed in some sense as buffoons. And he thinks that’s a great disappointment, and I tend to agree that is a great disappointment that when people attempt to understand Spanish, or they attempt to understand Spanglish, they are often laughed at. And we become the agents, and I guess it is a fear of co-optation.

You’re a Ph.D. candidate and instructor in Cornell University’s English department. Did it take you a while to embrace Spanglish? Were you a purist about language?

I was very strongly a purist about language because I never really wanted to be someone’s source of entertainment, and there was a personal anxiety. But the closer I came to understanding myself as a writer, I became much more interested in using the right word, and the more interested I became in using the right word, the more interested I became in really using the right word in daily speak and say, as Virginia Woolf would put it, or daily read and say. And a lot of times, there is no other word. I find myself every now and then using “chisme” simply because there’s nothing like it.

Loosing My Espanish

By H.G. Carrillo
Anchor Books
$14, 336 pages
ISBN: 1400078148

I had a great deal of success in my early 20s — I have no idea why — and then I shut down for about 15 years, where I was writing but I simply was not sending anything out. Like many young men at the time, I was struck by that great deity, Ray Carver, and I was really doing a Carver impersonation. So I think for a while, it wasn’t even embracing something; really what I was attempting to do was to allow myself, give myself permission to decide how it worked and how I worked before doing that. And then it just seemed very very natural to me to write in Spanglish and actually not even call it Spanglish.

By Elaine Wolff


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