Interview conducted by Aneta Pavlenko.
Could you please tell our readers a few words about yourself and your life in two languages?
I was born in Cuba but I was made in the USA, which means that I came here when I was eleven years old. Growing up I spoke only Spanish, though English was never entirely foreign to me because my mother, who had been born in Norfolk, Virginia, liked to speak English. And so from early on my ears were tuned to the music, if not to the words, of the two languages.
You wrote your first poem, Carolina Cuban, when you were in your 30s, the night your son was born. What drew you to poetry? Were you an avid reader of English poetry at the time?
I was an English major as an undergraduate, but all that meant was that I collected Cliff Notes. I wrote that poem not thinking that I was writing a poem. I was just asking myself what my children and I would have in common (and I still do). Then I continued to write other things in the same vein, with mixed feelings because I didn't grow up wanting or expecting to become a writer. I've been teaching literature since my twenties and it was only in middle age that I was able to acknowledge my love for my subject. Like a starry-eyed lover who refuses to look up, I could not confess this love to myself, much less to my colleagues, many of whom at some point had stopped believing that a love of literature, of words, was a valid reason to become a literature teacher. And so I've always felt a certain ambivalence, maybe even a little embarrassment, about being a writer. Rather than as a writer, I prefer to think of myself as someone who writes.
In your book Tongue ties you discuss bilingual writers with different affective ties to their languages, including María Luisa Bombal who complained that writing in English never gave her the goce íntimo [intimate pleasure] she experienced in Spanish. Do you think one can have more than one language of the heart?
I think I know what she meant. I like to hear myself talk. But I like to hear myself talk in Spanish. I derive great pleasure just from sounding out Spanish words. My tongue is happy when it's being used in the service of my native tongue. It's a thrill to trill! But in English my tongue feels that I'm asking it to do something that doesn't come naturally to it (or rather, to her: it's "la lengua"). And so she fights me, resists and resents the mouthfuls of English that she's been forced to swallow for most of her life. Both of us could use some idioma-therapy.
You said once that English knows you as a happy person and Spanish knows you as a sad one, why is that? Do different languages trigger different memories and associations? And what does your poetry reveal about your tongue ties?
I think in voices. When I think in Spanish, behind my voice is the voice of my father; when I think in English, behind my voice are my wife's and my children's voices. Spanish is a father tongue, desired and distant; English is a conjugal and filial tongue, here for the taking. I love them both, as I love the people for whom the two tongues speak, but of course it's a different kind of affection in each case. I don't think I've written much in Spanish about the way I live now: this life transpires in English. But I've written a fair amount in Spanish about the absence of Spanish in the way I live now – as a way of filling that void. Like other people, I live in parts but dream of wholeness.
So do you then have different voices?
I'm not sure, but if you think of languages as having three registers - high, middle and low (let's say: the classroom, the home, and the street) – in Spanish I have pretty good command of the high and low registers, but I tend to have a harder time with the middle register. In English, my high register is iffy – I don't sound like myself, which is why I teach only in Spanish – but my middle register is sound, or so I tell myself. Years ago I wrote a memoir in English that included a chapter about my love life (it was a short chapter). It was written in the middle register, so that it wasn't scurrilous or stilted. When I translated the book into Spanish, I had to leave out that chapter because the translation sounded either like the script for a porn movie or the ethereal lyric of a bolero. My theory is that the middle register is more accessible, richer, broader, in English than in Spanish, but that may be only a story I tell myself to feel better about my deficiencies.
You have often stated that if you didn’t have the choice of languages you would be a more complete writer. What are some ways in which the bilingual condition constrains or complicates your work?
My case – and I am a case – may not be typical because I perceive my two languages as warring tongues, as if Spanish and English were constantly shoving each other out of the way inside my head. I even have two Kindles: one for books in Spanish and another for books in English. I don't want the two languages to mix it up in there either (assuming that there is a there in there). Years ago I wrote a few "interlingual" poems that went back and forth between Spanish and English and in all of them one language was always trying to outdo the other, to have the best and last word. This wasn't deliberate on my part: destiny, not design. I would like to toggle between languages as easily as many of my friends, but I can't. I don't know why this is so, why my two languages compete rather than cohabit.
Muchas gracias, Gustavo, for sharing your experiences with our readers and for reminding us that poetry may be the secret hidden door that leads us to the heart of language!
For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.
For more information on Gustavo Perez-Firmat’s work see his website here.
Photo courtesy of Gustavo Pérez-Firmat.
Aneta Pavlenko's website.