Guadalupe Muro is an Argentinian writer, producer and artist. Her first collection of poems, Con quién dormías? was published in 2007. Air Carnation is her first novel, and was actually written in English even though this is not her first language. As the story goes, Muro was travelling home from a visit to the United States, when she began to write a letter in English that was destined for the lover she was leaving behind. She never sent it, or the letters that followed; instead, the pile of letters grew, revealing themselves to be a novel called Air Carnation, which is set to be released by BookThug in April 2014. Below is an excerpt from an interview done by Sarah Moses, who spoke to Muro about the novel, what it’s like to write in English compared to Spanish, and the trappings of bilingual love…
Can you tell me about its origins and why you decided to write it in English?
I had never planned to write a novel in English, goodness I didn’t! Even today with the book in press I feel overwhelmed by that idea! It was consequence of circumstances. This book was born as a letter, the addressee for that letter was a man with whom I fell in love and this man speaks English, that´s why I decided to write in English. But literature is not about what you write about or why, but how you write about it, it´s not a matter of theme, it’s a matter of form, and form is given by details. So let me tell you some details.
He was born and raised in California. I was born and raised in Patagonia, a faraway place in South America, but what place is far enough from Hollywood movies and rock and roll? It was scary how familiar I felt about most things on my first visit to United States, I even knew the brands of food in the supermarket! And oh, yes! Lots of American writers had influenced my own writing! So we could talk as if we were grown up in the same neighborhood, the slight difference was that while I knew a lot about his country he knew roughly three things about mine: tango, meat and wine.
Seen from the north, I appeared not even to be Latin-American. What I mean is that many people I met — surely not all — was expecting me to be catholic and a fervent believer, be a great salsa dancer, have had a huge and expensive fifteen birthday party and come from a very large family with at least four siblings, and of course being sexy. But being the daughter of an Argentinean middleclass non catholic intellectual-artist family with a hippie background rooted in Patagonia didn’t fit in the Latino cliché at all, with the exception, of course, of being sexy.
Many times I could sense how difficult it was for him to elude all that bunch of cultural prejudices and how funny was for me to be constantly drawing maps of Argentina on napkins and answering questions which to me were obvious. We were both artists and shared similar aspirations and likes, we dreamed about traveling together and do projects together, we felt really close, but at the end of the day when I thought about how I would managed to make our plans happen, I couldn’t helped to feel a little discouraged, that was the moment when it was clear to me that no, we hadn’t grown up in the same neighbourhood.
I was working babysitting for the summer and lacked the Visa or the money to stay longer, so after we said goodbye at the airport, sitting on a plane on my way back to Argentina, feeling like a kid on a sugar high I took my notebook and I started to write him a letter. I had this urgency to tell him everything, to be sure that he would comprehend where I came from, how I was raised, the chain of causes and consequences that lead me to think the way I thought at that time, because, to be clear, this wasn’t about Argentina and its traditions, it was about me. And the experience of trying to explain all the time where I came from and who I was in English to my lover and my new friends and then suddenly being in a plane coming back home, led me feeling like a puzzle half solved.
When the plane was preparing to land on Buenos Aires I had written three pages of my letter, I remember I raised my head from my notebook and watched the city I was approaching, a city I knew very well in its guts but I had never seen from that angle, from above. This is a good image to picture what happened next. I was back home, I wasn’t a foreigner anymore, but I realized that I had brought all their questions with me like fleas I couldn’t get rid of, I could never tell when they were going to bite me or why, and once they did I couldn’t help scratching. I became an amazed foreigner but in my own house, asking questions as a foreigner does and detailing the answers in a letter I was writing in a foreign language.
Writing in English I was ensuring a primary layer of understanding, and it’s not news that talking the same language will not guarantee that two people get to understand to each other, but at that time I completely forgot about this, I was in love, I submerged myself in his language to translate my world, hoping to prolong as much as I could the precious intimacy of our dialogue.
A writer once told me that we writers write for revenge. I prefer the word justice, and distrust of generalizations but while writing that letter I had a glimpse of what he meant. Writing my own story I was taking revenge for my identity, I needed to restore the missing pieces of the puzzle, the details. Revenge is a fierce manifestation of the ego. It gives you stubbornness and determination and also isolates you, so the more I wrote the more I drag myself away from my addressee. I never sent him the letter, it wasn’t a letter anymore, it felt like a book and books had nothing to do with its author lovers.
While moving along in the writing I found that the things I wanted to say were getting complex and that many times the words that English had to offer for a mirror to my Spanish world where too small, too much meaning was left out and I was not about to let that happen. Writing became some kind of game then, a riddle. When I couldn’t find in English the exact terms for what I wanted to express I work my way to do it anyway, making English sound like Spanish, blooming like Spanish. But it also worked the other way around, English turned out to be an arrow; it goes straight to the point and hit you with one word. The origin of this book can be traced to a bed were two people were talking after making love, now that the lovers were apart, the idiosyncratic of their languages continued flirting with each other in my writing and I was the witty Celestine.
Some days ago I was in a bus going to work and next to me was sitting a mother and her child, the little girl — who was maybe 6 years old — spent the whole trip dividing words into syllables, she was having great fun picking random words in her mind and saying them out loud. Sometimes she mispronounced the words and her mother tenderly corrected her, other times her mother offered to her game complex words that the girl didn´t knew, and once she managed to pronounce them she reminded a second in silence, enchanted. She was delighted with the way words sound, not with meaning. That´s exactly what happened to me once I was completely immersed in the English writing.
When I was about the little girl age, I read the poem “Romance de la luna, luna” by Federico García Lorca, it says: “La luna vino a la fragua/con su polisón de nardos. /El niño la mira mira. /El niño la está mirando.” Try it yourself, read it out loud, savor the words in your mouth, isn´t it sweet? That mysterious and delicious combination of words changed my life, they made me taste poetry, the one experience of getting pleasure by words.
My lover, my original addressee, is an artist, I watched his paintings without needing and interpreter, but when I tried to translate my poems from Spanish to English for him, the poetry was lost, what remain was only meaning, coarse and insipid meaning. How could I give him a taste of my poetry? Well, learning how to write in English.
So, my reasons changed a dozen times in the process, they were not the same when I was writing the first three pages sitting on a plane, than when I was correcting the ninth draft. I hope I did my job well so the reasons, fortunes, misadventures, doubts, insecurities and tribulations of its writer won´t are a concern of the book.
Do you find that certain things are easier for you to write in English, others easier in Spanish? How does writing in English compare to writing in Spanish?
Well, yes! Actually I do! And that’s my favorite part! There is especially, one simple but exquisite combination of three words in Spanish whose meaning I found difficult to say/write in English. That brought me a lot of headaches in the past, and since you asked I’m going to tell you a little story to make my point about how does writing in English compares to writing in Spanish.
Some months ago I was in a writing residency in Canada, there I met a beautiful man and I dated him for almost ten days. It was a very charming romance and when the sun rose over our last night together, it found us in the hurry to tell our feelings to each other, which, for me were easy to say, three words: “te quiero mucho.” Well, he needed a paragraph. He said “I’m not going to say that I love you because we don’t do that, but I want you to know that I really enjoyed your company, you are a beautiful person and I hope we met again someday, you touched my heart…” I knew, and he knew, what the feeling was, and I though “Oh, poor lovely thing! His mother tongue doesn’t have a word to offer him to express it…” Language what a tricky, tricky thing! Isn’t it thrilling to think what other languages, that we don’t know, might have to offer to our own self-knowledge? Like, when you have that kind of a mixed feeling of sadness and longing, close to melancholy but you are also happy and delighted in feeling longing. In English and Spanish is very confusing, but here comes Portuguese and tells you, “Hey! You are having saudade, people who speaks Portuguese have saudade all the time, don’t worry.”
I knew from previous experiences that you don’t say I love you to a man who speaks English and you had dated for ten days, they get disoriented like a dog in New Years Eve fireworks, as if you had said to him “I think you are the man of my life, I want to marry you tomorrow and have kids the day after,” when you only meant “te quiero mucho,” which doesn’t mean I love you, doesn’t mean that I just I like you and doesn’t mean I want you, but can mean the three of them at one time.
The writing of this book ended with a three years period of my life in which I couldn´t write and I couldn’t read. It started just after I published my first book of poetry in Spanish. Publishing has never been a strong desire in me; for me writing is, first of all, a vital practice of intimacy and freedom, publishing was like becoming a homeless and a prisoner of writing, I lost intimacy with my voice. So I stopped writing and as soon as I did I lost sense of who I was. It was a very sad, violent and self destructive period.
When I started writing this book I wasn’t wring a novel, I was just writing a letter! And protected by that intimacy I was able to write again. I had always felt comfortable learning new things, writing in English, and writing narrative made me feel that I was learning to write again, I was a beginner and I had the right to fail. So, in the beginning everything was easier to write in English than Spanish. After the three years shortcut my voice was restored but set in English mode, I was happy to write again, and that was just a detail.
It was maybe seven months after I started that writing in English became an aesthetics literary decision. I had a weird sixty pages letter and thought “Ok, I don´t know what you really are but I’m writing you and it seems that you want me to do so in English, here is the deal, as long as you don’t leave me, I will. And I´m gonna do it right.” It said “Fair enough.”
Before this book, I always wrote poetry, and the few attempts I made of writing narrative in Spanish were exceptionally boring, I wrote eternal descriptions, texts where nothing happened and where I was falling with every step I took in every commonplace imaginable. But my level of English was basic, I had no tools to spend an entire page describing a room and that draw a clear limit. In that economy of language my thinking and my writing got dynamic and richer. Limits are a challenge for creativity. And English was concise, effective and clean, and that´s what I needed to put some order in my mind. I was dealing with autobiographical themes and writing them in English gave me a distance, some leeway to write that I didn’t had in my own language.
In the beginning I was not even sure that my writing in English was making sense, my text was a slippery fish I could never caught. I knew that feeling from before, many times in the writing of poetry one is not sure about the exact meaning of what is writing, we have faith in rhythm, there’s lots of intuition involved in writing, a literary intuition that a writer should work hard to develop, by reading and writing as much as possible. In English, that distance with meaning was double and also the challenge for my literary intuition, it was ideal, it gave me a detached voice and with it a sense of fiction, it restored to my writing practice the notion that writing is dealing with a language artifact, not with your own bloody heart.
I’m interested in how your experiences as a traveller worked their way into the novel to mingle with fiction. What do you think it is about travelling that sparks the urge to write?
Well, traveling make us be aware, and that’s a good thing for a writer. The experience of traveling, of carrying a luggage always makes me think about what is important and essential in my life and helps me, forces me to let go what is not. I try to conserve and carry only what I need to survive. If I transfer that to writing, if I think about my writing in that way I can let go what is not essential in the book, I can lighten it, which doesn´t mean simplify, when you let go you don’t lose something you earn million of possibilities. Detachment is very healthy for writing and for living as well. Detachment is not easy, you don’t need to be a writer to know that, but as a reader I’m grateful when a writer had the courage to let go and feel very disappointed when they don’t. Some books reach a point when you ask the writer “why are you carrying a microwave to a mountain expedition?” For me good books are shaped by what they silence. In best cases that silence is where the reader can fit.
About how traveling sparks the urge to write I think about the many travelers I met everyday working at a hostel, many of them keep a journal, in almost all cases they don’t consider their selves’ writers but they write, writing keeps them company and helps them to keep track of the changes they are experimenting. In a good day, for me the desire of writing when I’m not traveling it’s similar to the feeling of being traveling: freedom, amusement, solitude and braveness.