Living and Writing in Spanglish

April 11, 2010 at 11:39 pm (read)

When I browse amazon.com, read book reviews or go into bookstores, I’m always struck by the sheer volume of volumes out there in the world. “How can there be anything left to write?” I think. “How is there any story left to tell, or any new way to tell it?”

Then I find a writer like Susana Chávez-Silverman. To be honest, I didn’t have to look that hard—she was my Spanish professor in college, for three semesters of literature and poetry. But equally as interesting as the stories and poems on the syllabus was Chávez-Silverman herself, a fiesty cultural omnivore with a passion for language and all its possibilities, and author of the new book Scenes from la Cuenca de Los Angeles y otros natural disasters.

Chávez-Silverman was raised bilingually, living in California, Spain and Mexico, but her experience with language is far from the “Spanish on the left side, English on the right” layout of bilingual textbooks. She has written of the “otredad that has dogged/blessed me toda la vida,” and that perpetual otherness—of not being able to pick, and belong to, one language/country/side or the other—led to the choice to not choose. Instead, she works in Spanglish (academics call it “code-switching”), peppering the combined languages with her own ticks and quips.

Like her previous memoir, Killer Crónicas, Scenes is composed of personal missives, which began as gossipy, funny, heartfelt, descriptive and/or contemplative e-mails, letters or diary entries and are usually addressed or dedicated to friends and family. This style draws from the epistolary tradition, as well as from the chronicles written from and about the newly “discovered” Americas.

The February issue of The Believer includes a roundtable discussion among three Latino novelists about writing in Spanish versus English. The moderator, Daniel Alarcón, says that the language he loves most is Spanish, but specifically its spoken form:

“It is impossible not to be awed by the inventiveness of 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.”

Eduardo Halfon agrees, adding that while “spoken Spanish is eclectic and thrilling and beautiful[,] written Spanish or Literary Spanish is obedient and proper and cautious.”

In her books, Chávez-Silverman breaks out of “proper” language and writes the way she speaks and hears language spoken. She traces her own history from Guadalajara to South Africa to California to Buenos Aires to Madrid to Australia (not necessarily in that order), bringing along favorite phrases (chévere!), invented spellings (“shuvia” for “lluvia”—rain—to capture the accent in Buenos Aires) and fake translations (“Pero anygüey” for “but anyway…”). She respects language, but isn’t afraid to have a little fun.

Now I’ll stop talking and just let you read something she wrote. Here is an excerpt from the first chapter of her new book, describing a walk through the grounds of a northern California arts center, where she was an artist-in-residence. It encompasses her special fondness for flora and fauna, astrology and memories:

“I did find, sin embargo, como engarzadas en las ramas muertas del bottlebrush, a cache

of those little round, spiny, sea urchiny, hollow, stemmed pods. Se habían caído de un

árbol vecino, and gotten lodged in the lower thicket of bottlebrush branches. Hot tears

saltaron, instant and automatic, as I reached up for one. These pods were, quizás,

Mom’s most idiosyncratic (bizarre, perfect for a Scorpio) Christmas decoration: we’d

collect them for her, in the Valley, y luego los hacía spray paint con esa laca. Silver and

gold. Y luego los metía entre las ramas del Christmas tree.”

It helps, of course, to speak both languages. But, though she might lose a few readers, Chávez-Silverman’s refusal to conform to one “correct” language is an act of carving out a space for herself between the two worlds. There is a growing culture of inbetweeners with whom this resonates. For my college thesis, a video about middle schoolers and reading, I gave Killer Crónicas to a girl of Mexican heritage, living in LA. She read a few sentences, looked up and smiled. “This sounds like me,” she said.

To translate into a single tongue would be to lose something essential about Chávez-Silverman’s voice, and her identity. Even if you can’t parse everything, I hope you think it’s chévere.

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