Guadalupe Muro worked closely with Stan Dragland to write Air Carnation
It was not even 2:15 p.m. but of course Stan Dragland was already there, sitting at a table next to the window at the Starbucks on the corner of College and Beatrice. It was April 15, 2014 and we were supposed to meet at 2:30 p.m. As I walked toward him I felt an overwhelming feeling of joy as I suddenly realized: it’s happening, we made it. Air Carnation, the book I wrote in English, side by side with Stan, was going to be launched by BookThug at 7:30 p.m. that evening. I flew all the way from Patagonia and he did the same from Newfoundland, just to be there. We hugged and sat down in front of each other, and while I was taking off the many layers of warm clothes I was wearing, I said, “So, this is what you call spring in Toronto,” and we laughed.
The story of how I started writing in English begins on September 7, 2010. I was sitting on an airplane on my way back to Argentina from the US. I wrote a page and a half and stopped. That was as far as my knowledge of English could take me then. It was a letter I was writing, a love letter to Adam, the man I had just kissed goodbye. Love letters are written with pens that are burning embers. I had a pen burning in my hand, but I didn’t have the words. I had never thought anyone could crave a dictionary so intensely as I did on that plane. My love was disembodied now. The only thing I had left of Adam was my faith in words, not my own words, but the ones he knew. They were the words his world was made of, words I hadn’t learned yet that might touch him where I could not.
Eight months later, with the aid of Google Translate I had written 41 pages in English. I couldn’t tell if they made any sense, so I asked a translator friend to read the manuscript and translate it into Spanish. The result was horrible. It sounded so cheesy I promised myself never to go back into Spanish again. But two things were clear: the piece was more or less readable and it no longer looked like a letter. Adam told me once that he enjoyed listening to me telling him stories, so I decided—the old trick—to write stories for him. But then I began to forget who I was addressing, and that was when the letter really began turning into a book. What never changed was that feeling of writing with a burning ember in my hand. That’s why I think this love story wasn’t about Adam and me in the end: it was about my relationship with English.
I hired an English teacher to help me with the editing but that turned out badly, too. We spent most of our sessions arguing. She was a professional and I was depending on Google Translate, but I was the one wielding the burning ember. I needed to get her to work on behalf of that. I would look at her corrections and think, “This is not my English.” Eventually I began to ask, about every sentence, “Is this at least understandable?” In exasperation, she would usually admit that it was, but then say, “It is not good English.”
That relationship went nowhere. I still needed help. I remembered an urban myth among writers in Buenos Aires about a place in Canada where you could go and write in a cabin in the woods. I wrote some emails and finally got the name of the place: The Banff Centre. I applied to the Wired Writing Studio which offered tuition for a mentor for 15 days onsite, then five months online, and I was accepted.
In early October of 2011, during a lovely autumn afternoon—the sun still warm and the squirrels still fat—I met Stan Dragland for the first time. He was my mentor at the Wired Writing Studio. I walked into his room, where a table faced the window. On the table were a mechanical pencil, an eraser, and a stack of sticky notes, a scene I would become very fond of.
I still call it magic, but Stan calls it “Englishing.”
We sat down beside each other, and he handed me a pile of papers: my 41 pages edited word-by-word with that pencil. There were arrows going up and down, notes, words taken out and words put in, exclamation marks, question marks, commas and periods added or deleted, and sentences reformulated in the margins as well on top of the page and at the bottom … I raised my head and said the first thing that came to mind, “This is very generous.”
I spent the rest of the afternoon rewriting my text following Stan’s suggestions, watching the sentences gracefully appear on my computer like princesses waking up from spells and frogs turning into princes, sighing like freshly bathed children wrapped in warm towels. It was my English, but better. I was reading what I had meant to write. It was magic. For almost three years, well after the Wired Workshop was over, we kept working together. Every Friday I would send him my new work from Patagonia and, never later than Monday, I would receive Stan’s revisions from Newfoundland. I still call it magic, but Stan calls it “Englishing.”
I’ve often been asked why I want to write in English and I always find the question troubling. The problem is that, for me, writing in a foreign language is not so different from writing in one’s mother tongue. Every time I’m asked, I would love to just shrug and smile, but I should probably offer this, from Marguerite Duras’ essay, “Writing:”
To write. I can’t. No one can. We have to admit: we cannot. And yet we write. It’s the unknown one carries within oneself: writing is what is attained. It’s that or nothing … Writing is the unknown. Before writing one knows nothing of what one is about to write. And in total lucidity. It’s the unknown in oneself, one’s head, one’s body.
Before writing Air Carnation I knew nothing of what was about to emerge, and little of the language I was going to write in. Writing in a foreign language might just be an extreme way of writing. I entered English brashly, naively, knowing enough of the basics to keep moving, and empowered by love. So I began but, as we all know, infatuation doesn’t last. I kept at it because even at the beginning I had a feeling that was familiar to me from writing my first book—poetry, in Spanish. It was a feeling of moving into the unknown. There I was again, working in solitude and delight.
I always tell the story of how love fuelled my writing in English, but I rarely mention that English was like a spark that lands on dry bushes. For three years after my first book came out, I couldn’t write a word and by the time I started writing in English I was totally desperate. In the aforementioned essay, Duras says, “The person who writes books must always be enveloped by a separation from others. That is one kind of solitude. It is the solitude of the author, of writing … This real, corporeal solitude becomes the inviolable silence of writing.” By “corporeal solitude” she means a real house. But I have never again found a place, no matter how isolated, where I could write in Spanish. What I found instead was English. “One does not find solitude, one creates it. Solitude is created alone.” I created solitude by becoming a foreigner in language, by enclosing myself, not in an actual house, but in a foreign language. English became my own private language, unknown and, at first, unshared, a linguistic impossibility that separated me from others and an inviolable silent room of my own.
Language shapes the way we perceive the world. This personal language I created alone, yearning to rename a world I had worn-out. “To see,” says a poem by Paul Valéry, “is to forget the name of the thing one sees.” Writing in a foreign language was and is for me like inhabiting a world where things are yet to be named, where, once named, they become brand new. As do I, my memories, and my life. Writing in a foreign language widens the gap between reality and language. It creates a space in which to rethink what we take for granted: our whole existence determined by the mother tongue that shaped us in first place. Every word that fails to find a translation is a blank in the universe of the new language, a void in the universe inhabited by users of that language.
English became my own private language, unknown and, at first, unshared, a linguistic impossibility that separated me from others and an inviolable silent room of my own.
No language succeeds in becoming universal, and that is how it should be. Stan once told me that as writers our job is to explore the boundaries of language. I say that by doing this we are exploring and, with some luck, changing the ways in which we perceive the world in hopes that others may be enriched by our research. I’m not suggesting that this is a function of writing, but rather that, like any form of art with no predetermined objective, literature may have side effects. We write in the gaps. “And in total lucidity.” They are the gaps in the heart of language, the gaps between languages, cultural gaps, emotional gaps, and social gaps. We name because what has no name cannot be thought. A foreigner is a person belonging to no particular place or group, a stranger or an outsider. To me, the foreigner is free. By abandoning my mother tongue, I became an outsider in my own house. I purposely forget the familiar names in order to transform the familiar into the unknown and open myself to the marvel or terror of surprise. Artists always seek and embrace a kind of foreignness.
At the launch of my book somebody told me that Stan Dragland had said editing Air Carnation made him relearn how to read from the heart. I told Stan this in an email and he replied:
“I always try to read from the heart, Lupe, no matter who I’m working with, and I do a lot of editing, particularly of poetry. Every manuscript presents a new challenge for both heart and brain. Air Carnation was that kind of challenge and more. Working with you put me in touch with my own language in a new way because the lovely shadow of Spanish was always flittering around. We had further to go, you and I, than do most writer/editor pairs—more stages of English to pass through.
Writing in a foreign language widens the gap between reality and language.
It’s unusual for an editor to come in so close to the ground level of creation. Most editors expect to spend their time polishing accomplished work, not coping with the very basics, but there I was, and loving it. Howsoever rough comes this amazing material, I thought, bring it on! I loved seeing the book grow. Everybody was thanking me for what I did the other night. Thinking back on the evening it occurred to me that I should have said that you and I worked so well together because our egos were not in charge. We were trying our best to get the book right so it could be set free of us both. I know I was useful in the process and it’s nice to have that fact recognized, but I come back to my own gratitude. I’m very lucky to have been involved with this fascinating cross-cultural meeting of hearts and minds. So the thanks have to pass back and forth.”
Every year since 2011 I have received Stan’s New Year’s card in Bariloche, and he still takes care of my Englishing, including this article. At the Starbucks in Toronto, Stan confessed that after perplexedly reading my submission to Banff he told his partner, Beth, that he would probably have rejected my application, had the decision been his to make. My English was terrible, yes, and yet he stood by me.
Guadalupe Muro is a poet and novelist from Bariloche residing in Barcelona. Her poetry book in Spanish, ¿Con Quien Dormías?, was released from Huesos de Jibia, 2007, and her novel in English, Air Carnation, from BookThug, 2014. She attended to residencies in Banff Centre four times and was the recipient of the Raul Urtasun—Frances Harley Scholarship for Young Emerging Artists from Argentina. She often engages in collaborative and mixed media projects, the soundtrack to the book Air Carnation is an example; it toured Canada through the generosity of Argentine Cultural Affairs Bureau.