It has been an astonishing trip to Guadalajara, Mexico to be part of the gigantic book fair, one of the largest (I am told) for the Spanish-speaking world. I have to thank Director Franz Josef Kunz of the Goethe-Institut of Guadalajara for inviting me to be part of the panel on “Literatura y Migración.”
I knew it was a good start when I was wending my way into the American Airlines plane in Dallas to Guadalajara, and seated in first class (!) I find none other than Dagoberto Gilb, a good friend and a great writer. Of course, once the flight left rainy Dallas, I squeezed my way to first class to chat with Dago. I gave him a hard time for the white wine and warm nuts the ‘elite’ of first class enjoyed, while the plebes of coach went hungry. But it was great to see Dago up and about.
The next day I was waiting to have lunch at the Hilton across the street from the book fair, with Mr. Kunz, Carlos López de Alba, and Yuri Herrera, both on our panel, and who did I spot with her Blogger file open, and typing away, just as I’m doing now? Catherine Mayo. Seeing Catherine in Guadalajara was just literary nirvana. She is one of those writers you learn from and whose standards are nothing but excellent. Catherine is here to discuss her book, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, recently selected by Library Journal as one of the top thirty books for 2009.
The highlight of Guadalajara for me has been “Literatura y Migracion.” Carlos, editor of the literary magazine Reverso, moderated the panel, and it included Yuri who wrote the novel Trabajos del Reino, María Cecilia Barbetta, an Argentine who writes in German, and Léda Forgó, who was born in Hungary but also writes in German.
What the free-wheeling discussion focused on was this literature of writers who are writing in languages not necessarily their mother tongues. But the discussion quickly turned philosophical (I brought up Heidegger and the influence of German philosophers on my own writing), or how adopting a new language forced ‘immigrant writers’ to choose words purposely, to take on the roles of outsiders in their adopted cultures, to find their place in words rather than in a ‘home country.’ For us, I believe, language has become our country.
It a funny and often disquieting existence to be neither here nor there, to have your existence, particularly your literary existence, in play, a question rather than a settled home. It certainly forces you to think about what you want to say, to take a step away to consider what and how you write, because that is how you start when you don’t quiet belong as an immigrant. Sometimes this perspective turns political, sometimes reflexive, and at other times it is simply an advantage to write about Hungary or Argentina or the Mexican-American community in a language that already is a step removed from that home. In some, this perspective is a way to work through self-alienation, or even to become a bridge between two worlds.
I came away from this panel with only deep admiration for Carlos, María Cecilia, Yuri, and Léda. Writers from across the globe struggling with similar questions I struggle with everyday. Writers who are intelligent and should be read enthusiastically. Writers who embody why seeking international alliances, when your literary endeavor is unique, will allow you to understand exactly how a community can be formed from the most disparate of individuals.