By Bethany Hazen
Bethany Hazen: I've borrowed this from Twitter, but: The zombie apocalypse is upon us and the object to your left is the only weapon you'll have to defend yourself against new humanity. What is it? (Mine was a refrigerator).
Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas: Excellent question.
Belial, my carnivorous pitcher plant, which was recently repotted into a skull-shaped planter. I think we’ll be fine.
BH: Do you have any fall traditions that you're looking forward to this season?
BH: You’ll be visiting the CSU, Fresno campus on November 16th as a guest of The Normal School for a reading event. Can you talk about your process for composing your collection of essays in Don’t Come Back: did you set out to recreate your personal history in the context of origin and cultural vacillation, or was it more a process of discovery along the way?
LF: In the past, when I’ve been asked similar questions, I’ve answered that writing Don’t Come Back was like writing “a quema ropa.” The common translation for this phrase is “point blank,” but it draws a different image altogether. It refers, in fact, to a gun being pressed so firmly to your body that when the trigger is pulled the muzzle burns through your clothing.
And that’s more or less what it felt like.
I didn’t even settle on writing this book until about halfway through the second year of my MFA. I had actually made two entirely different plans for two entirely different books before settling on Don’t Come Back. Or, rather, until I couldn’t fight DCB’s will to exist any longer. Because, of course, I knew a book that jumped genres, timelines and perspectives, while utilizing diagrams, images and untranslatable aphorisms, was the most impractical book I could write, and I thought I’d never be able to place it. So, this was never meant to be my first book, or even second, or third. I wasn’t even sure it should be a book at all, but every time I sat down to write either of the two very practical and accessible books I’d planned from start to finish, I simply couldn’t write them. It was like chewing on cardboard and pretending it was a feast for the sake of my host, except I was playing both parts, and quickly lost the will to pretend I was pretending.
Since then I’ve learnt that I can only write about subject matter which feels pressing and immediate. Enjoyment, happiness, knowledge, skill or even interest have almost nothing to do with it. If it does not feel close enough to burn my skin, I don’t even try.
BH: You interviewed family and friends in developing the content for some of these essays. Was this natural inquisitiveness, or was your approach more formal?
LF: The short answer is this: much to my mother’s dismay, I can’t be formal to save my life.
The longer answer is that as a child I was punished with almost improbable frequency because so many of my chosen ‘activities’ resulted in near death experiences. If there was a button I shouldn’t press, a door I shouldn’t open, a tree I should not climb, I would press, open and climb. And if there was a stranger, I would talk to him. That’s what buttons, doors, trees and strangers were for. My parents’ primary objective was to keep me from throwing myself off a cliff just to see what lay at the bottom, when my objective was to do just that. If they could keep me from it past the age of seventeen, they told me with some frequency, they would consider it a success.
Not much has changed since then. I still like cliffs, and I always find that shallow people tell the worst stories.
I also deeply resent the hierarchies that make certain people “invisible” and “irrelevant”, and because theirs are the stories that rarely get told, theirs are the ones I tend to seek out—I always have, but even more so after I started publishing essays here and there. Because even though Don’t Come Back is a book from a fairly small press, and is written in a language none of my subjects speak, writing down their stories to the best of my abilities is my most sincere act of rebellion against a system that refuses to acknowledge their heroism.
BH: You play with experimental forms in Don’t Come Back. For example, you carry the aphorisms that begin each essay through several rounds of translation on the page. In addition, in “Empire of Toes,” you use illustrations in transition to supplement your imagery in prose: the effect is a reminder that the conditions of life and control are transitory. What was your inspiration for incorporating these forms and techniques into your essays?
LF: That’s an interesting question, I don’t think I had thought about this in years and it actually took me a few minutes to remember where I’d gotten the idea.
First, though, I should mention that it all started with my literary translation MFA thesis. I translated a few short stories and poems, but nothing felt thrilling until I arrived at the aphorism. I believe this was primarily due to the fact that at the time they seemed basically impossible to translate, so that was all I wanted to do.
Aphorisms are fascinating because they are what is left of our once vital oral traditions. They are open source books of wisdom and depend on a shifting corpus of silences and tacit understandings. Often times you will get only half of an aphorism and it will be enough to communicate a complete and complex idea. No good deed, every dark cloud, easy come.
You are functioning as at least half of the unwritten text, and translating this invisible transaction required some alternative form of representation. Anything traditional or overtly textual betrayed the subtle negotiation of meaning, and the necessary loss of the process. So I began experimenting with various ways to represent them.
I made charts and spreadsheets, I wrote lists and drew maps; I even tried illustrating the aphorisms myself. To this day I recall my favorite, a tiny grim reaper riding around inside a half open fish mouth like a convertible with the top down, “El pez muere por la boca.” I really wish I had kept it.
Eventually, while writing an essay about a horse, I stumbled onto a reprinting of the Muybridge photographs of a horse mid gallop and knew exactly what I wanted to do. In workshop, in fact, I would often call them my Muybridge translations, and I find it very curious how much time I spent thinking about galloping horses and how long it took me just now to remember it.
See? This is the importance of representing process.
Through it all, workshops and what followed, it always felt important to keep them. Even at the lowest point, one day when I received five rejections for DCB and various complaints about the oddity of the diagrams, even then, I knew that they had to be a part of the book. Because, what I really wanted to translate was the untranslatability of a translated experience. Of being caught between times, places, languages and selves, and if I gave the reader the impression that it all could easily fit into this new English skin, then, I would have failed in my primary objective. And it would not have been, to me, true to my nonfiction.
BH: Your essays include an exploration of mythology, which enriches the reader’s understanding of Colombia’s cultural history. Each of the four parts in Don’t Come Back are headlined with the tales of four mythical characters: Chiminigagua, Bachué, Nemqueteba, and Huitaca. And then your final essay, “CID-LAX-BOG” elaborates and braids together this mythical past to juxtapose your own grappling of a shifting future. What was it about the ‘narrative-now’ that equated to mythology for you?
LF: I think the correlation begins with a different word, and that is literature—and by extension, culture.
I’ve said this a few times in the past, but since I’m still angry about it, I guess I’ll write it now too.
By the time I was fifteen I had read the Iliad, and the Odyssey, and had a fairly decent grasp of Greek and Roman mythology, but I knew almost nothing about the thoughts and stories of the people who had first loved and lived in the steep patch of the Andes that I called home.
I spent the first seven years of my life in a holy city of the Muisca confederation of tribes, and for all those years, I only had the vaguest notion that Chia had something to do with the moon.
Because after the European invasion it was decided that there was only one culture that could be called culture, and the rest was at best a quaint bedtime story, and at worst heresy.
It had nothing to do with “truth”, reality or science. This was not an empirical improvement or an objective cultural intervention. Zeus and Apollo were no more factual than Bachúe and Nemqueteba, and yet, one was culture and the other was the wild imaginations of a dark and fallen people.
I spent my last year of high school reading and reading Muisca mythology and falling in love with a mode of thinking I felt could rival any Icarus or Persephone of the ancient European world. Even then, without a platform or a plan, I knew I wanted people to love Huitaca, and Bachúe, and Chiminigagua. It wasn’t more complex than this, it still isn’t. Translation is always about this, for me. A desire for other people to love the things I’ve come to love.
By the time I had started my second MFA program I had also begun thinking of the myth as a precursor to the essay. Man’s first science, first history, first assaying into the why and how of all things inside and out, by this point their inclusion was inevitable.
BH: Your previous publication of essays, Drown Sever Sing, also explores mythology in a hybridization of Fiction and Nonfiction. You are or have been a professor of both Fiction and Creative Nonfiction: how do you encourage your students (and yourself) to explore the gray space in between genres?
LF: This is a very interesting question. I think the idea of exploring ‘gray space’ makes it seem like fiction and nonfiction have been unequivocally defined and it is only the stuff in between that remains indeterminate, a hybrid. But, it continues to be challenging to categorize writing about dreams or even just writing about past experience in the present tense, without implementing some hybrid terminology.
There is not even remotely enough space here to pour out the contents of that barrel of worms, so let me ignore that altogether and give you a series of answers in varying lengths. First, short answer: I live in the gray space. Literally and figuratively. I am an immigrant with a work visa. I am a resident of a country where I do not reside, and just existing in the US is a feat of imagination.
Regarding my own students, the even shorter answer is: I use a lot of prompts.
The long answer, though, and perhaps the most interesting one is the introduction to God in Pain: Inversions of the Apocalypse, wherein Zizek writes, “If, once upon a time, we publicly pretended to believe while privately we were skeptics or even engaged in obscene mocking of our public belief, today we publicly tend to profess our skeptical, hedonistic, relaxed attitude while privately we remain haunted by beliefs […].”
The best nonfiction, for me, deals with the confrontation of our own fictional nonfictions and nonfictional fictions. We all exist in liminal spaces—not just immigrants—and we are perpetually entertaining a series of contradictory notions all at once. The best nonfiction not only acknowledges this but embraces it. All perception is distortion, we are the glass darkly through which we view the world, and life slips by between corruption and correction. Facts may very well exist outside of our sphere of distorted influence, but the moment we attempt to communicate them, we leave our thumb prints on their black shells.
BH: In reading your work, I've come to appreciate how your background in literary translation has informed your craft. How do you think we as writers can emphasize a mindfulness for what might get lost in translation as part of diversification in literature?
LF: First, let us take a moment to acknowledge translators. They are the librarians, nurses, teachers, and crab fishermen of the literate world. They do all the hard work and don’t even remotely get the recognition they deserve.
If you know a translator, please take a moment today to buy them a cup of coffee and offer them a hug. Unless they drink tea, my unscientific survey tells me that a disproportionate number of translators prefer tea.
Ok, good, now let’s carry on.
I imagine that most of my answers have covered this in one way or another. I’m more interested in transparency than invisibility. Counter artifice, collaboration and open source writing.
But, to reiterate, let us consider the terms “good” and “bad” translation. What does this mean? Accuracy? In words? Sounds? Rhyme? Abstractions? Consider how frequently the words “truth” and “fidelity” come up when we talk about translation. What does it mean for a translation to be “true” or “faithful,” which truth, unfaithful to what? How would you truthfully translate a sentence written in a gendered language and into a language with almost no gendering? How do you translate la tierra or el mundo, la, feminine earth, and el, masculine world, when all the target language offers is the, flat, neutered. Genderless earth, genderless world.
Now, without going much further, consider the wordless sensation of your heart breaking, of leaving home, of coming back, of watching someone you love on their deathbed, of helping a friend through withdrawal, or the thrilling panic of first love and first sex. All of these experiences have, of course, already been codified for your convenience, they’ve all been made to fit into standardized “translation” patterns from which you could easily pick. Heads over heels, butterflies in stomachs, knots in throats and heavy, sinking, racing, cold, black hearts.
For me, this is where less than stellar writing comes from.
The best writing questions translating “La” as simply, “The,” only because, “Well… that’s how it’s been done before. That’s what is must be like.” The best writing pays attention to friction and to loss, and the best translators and writers attempt to rescue something new in their translation of a wordless world. To change the terms of that negotiation each time, lose something else and gain something new. The moment one borrows someone else’s language the experience becomes, ever so slightly, someone else’s too.
BH: The Normal School editorial staff is really excited for the publication of “Whistling,” your collaborative piece with Amanda Dambrink in the Fall 2017 Issue. Is there anything new you’re working on now that you would like to talk about?
LF: Let’s see. I’m currently on course release, so I’m doing my best to make the most of this rare opportunity. Regarding immediate publications, I have an essay coming out in Passages North and a schema in The Believer. Regarding books, there is the novel about the devil which keeps me up at night. And the nonfiction book of historical essay about the coming of age of the northernmost part of South America, which keeps me up every other night. And, finally, there is an anthology I’m working on with Sarah Viren—who is an extraordinary writer and editor—titled Essaying the Americas, which collects essays from Patagonia to Nunavut, from the Mayan mythic past to the Facebook-post present. Basically, I never sleep.
Mostly, though, I’m trying to keep Belial and myself alive.
Lina M. Ferreira C.-V. graduated with both a creative nonfiction writing and a literary translation MFA from the University of Iowa. She is the author of “Drown Sever Sing” from Anomalous press and “Don’t Come Back,” from Mad River Books, an imprint of the Ohio State University Press. Her fiction, nonfiction, poetry and translation work has been featured in journals including The Bellingham Review, The Chicago Review, Fourth Genre, Brevity, Poets & Writers and the Sunday Rumpus among others. She won the Best of the Net, the Iron Horse Review’s Discovered Voices Award, has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes and is a Rona Jaffe fellow. She moved from Colombia to China to Columbus to Richmond, Virginia where she works as an assistant professor for the Virginia Commonwealth University.
Bethany C. Hazen is a first year MFA student pursuing an understanding of Creative Nonfiction and her own voice at California State University, Fresno’s College of Arts and Humanities. She is an editorial intern at The Normal School, and she will likely die in the event of a zombie apocalypse while waiting it all out in a refrigerator.