Juan Carlos López: How was La muerte feliz de William Carlos Williams [The happy death of William Carlos Williams] born? What were your aesthetic and critical motivations?
Marta Aponte Alsina: To write a book is to pawn a part of your brief life, to lend your body, to give it up so it can be occupied by other voices. We tend to prefer certain subjects, believing that their continuity depends on us, as if our writing were a link added to a collective or common chain of stories. That being said, I did not expect to write La muerte feliz de William Carlos Williams. The book surprised me. It came to me from a time that seems like the future perfect, that verbal mood that expresses a confluence of times to come, the impossibility of retrospective prophecy: “When Marta reaches the age of seventy she will have written La muerte feliz de William Carlos Williams.” Not only did it arrive when I least expected it, but I also wrote it in a relatively short time in comparison to Sexto sueño [Sixth dream], my previous novel, which is similar to it in length and breadth.
The motivations you mention were uncovered in the process of writing the novel. This is one of those books that I’d like to read, but I didn’t recognize my desire to do so until I stumbled upon the process. I wrote the novel while reading Williams’ books: his autobiography, his essays, his poetic works, and – what was most stimulating for me – his biography of his mother: Yes, Mrs. Williams, a Personal Record of My Mother. So, it’s a novel written in the voice of a reader who responds to the work of a great poet who was also a remarkable novelist.
In some passages from the novel, the waters mix. I interspersed my family memories and those of my mother’s family in the story of the poet’s mother. A unitive aesthetic, crossing the boundaries between fiction and memory. Seen in this way, and keeping in mind the unexpected appearance of the desire to write it, the novel is aligned with a series of themes that are present in my other books: the foreign gaze, the extended ties of Puerto Rican culture, the re-writing of canonical texts, the voices of women.
JCL: Why write about Raquel Hoheb, the mother of William Carlos Williams?
MAA: Williams’ mother was born in Mayagüez, the principal city of the western half of Puerto Rico. The west is the closest region to the Greater Antilles. Both of her parents, , on the other hand, came from the Lesser Antilles. There is a whole archipelago in this fascinating figure, who was an artist as well. She is an expressive character of a Caribbean that was an important economic and cultural region. William Carlos Williams’ writings about his mother tell of the presence, among the poet’s voices, of a mysterious creature blessed with an irrepressible imagination. Yes Mrs. Williams, in particular, is a fascinating and truncated book, rich in empty spaces, misheard words, anecdotes that hang in the air like chaotic verses. These empty spaces compelled me to write the novel, as much for the gap they left in the ear of the poet that collected and published them as for the fascination of the figure of a woman who does not occupy a prominent position in the work of Williams’ biographers.
Raquel Helena Rosa Hoheb Hurrard could have been one of the most important Latin American painters of the nineteenth century. We have no investigation of her work, no archive of her years spent studying in Paris. Her portraits of her nephews, two of her pieces I’ve seen reproduced, would be enough to place her at a level of excellence. The enigmatic Raquel forms a part of the rich history of Caribbean migrations in their least discussed aspects. Her existence as a culturally maladjusted woman in Rutherford, New Jersey, a suburb of New York where she lived for more than half a century of conflict between her role as a mother and her artistic vocation, invites the method of fiction. Or the methods, which are multiple. I didn’t even try to detail a life for this woman (as Jean Rhys attempted for Bertha in Jane Eyre), nor am I capable of the dedication or the time commitment that a necessary biography would demand. The only thing echoing in La muerte feliz is life’s tendency to search for paths to give voice to silence. The book is a response, encoded as fiction, to my reading of a great poet. What’s more, the character of the poet is a construction belonging in fiction. So is the character of the woman who is both an artist and a mother.
JCL: How does the novel talk about the relationships between the Caribbean, Europe, and the United States?
MAA: These cultural and commercial relationships have existed since before the United States gained its independence. We must remember that the United States shared a colonial past with the British colonies of the Caribbean, and that communication between these colonies and the Spanish Antilles was freer than it is at present, despite the tyrannical weight of the empires. The British Empire was so vast that those commercial and political channels that united the thirteen colonies with the sugar islands were global networks of cultural diffusion. There is a lot of research into the role that the sugar industry played in the formation of British capitalism. The economic exploitation of the islands was one of the foundations of the cultural splendor and wealth of the empire.
I’ll share an example of cultural diffusion between colonies. According to various historians of architecture, the style of house we know as a bungalow originated in India. From India, it passed to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, and from there to the thirteen colonies. After the invasion of 1898, American entrepreneurs built company towns in Puerto Rico, and the housing styles were inspired by the same bungalow style that had reached the United states via the Caribbean. In that Caribbean, at the beginnings of capitalism, the borders were different, embattled but more porous. Current political relationships – and surveillance systems – control the paths of entry and exit to the islands absolutely.
JCL: La muerte feliz de William Carlos Williams reminds me a little of the work of the French writer Pierre Michon and the German writer W.G. Sebald. Could you tell us a little about the authors who influenced you while you were writing this novel?
MAA: I’ve read them both with care and thankfulness. In the novel, in a paragraph about Paris, there is a quote that serves as a wink to Michon’s readers, an allusion to a scene in his book Rimbaud the Son.
The most significant presence of a great author in the book is, of course, that of Williams himself; his extraordinary figure as a creator who had to accommodate his writing to the professional duties of a doctor, , an occupation that is continually exposed to the struggles between life and death. Williams was able to form part of the vanguard of arts and letters at the start of the twentieth century while living and working in a provincial, small living space, encapsulated, one might say, in the outskirts of New York. This strange convergence between isolation and centrality attracted me, especially since I’m a writer from a country whose place in the world is almost inexistent or unvalued. We have been deleted from the international community by the colonial relationship. In several of Williams’ books there are challenging passages, very visual and experimental; the inclusion of archived materials, for example, another technique that reminds us of Sebald. In La muerte feliz de William Carlos Williams, I mention the 1878 Paris World’s Fair. I include a brief list of objects exhibited at the fair to proclaim the dominion of France and other countries as imperial powers. This synthesis also represents what the artist-mother decides to recognize and assimilate. Before the avalanche of exotic objects and modern machines, she takes refuge in her identity: the patio of her house, her childhood memories of the island where she can no longer live, because it offers her nothing, although it’s deeply related to the identity that lets her affirm her presence in a hostile world.
JCL: In this novel there is a very interesting relationship between history, painting, photography, and poetry. Could you tell us about the relationship between these aspects of your novel?
MAA: They are methods of grasping and giving shape to experience. I think the novel puts in writing the sensibility of characters who write, paint, narrate, or draw the world. Just one example: I don’t know if the flesh-and-blood woman named Raquel Hoheb visited the World’s Fair. That is, I don’t have a document to prove it. But according to her son, she lived in Paris during those years, and it’s very probable that she did visit the fair. International World’s Fairs were places that attempted to manifest the atmosphere, the products, of dozens of countries. You could write an entire novel about the experience of a character in the labyrinth of the World’s Fair, but I was more interested in presenting a limited example of the attempt to interpret the world’s products in a closed, reduced space, recording the character’s response. Luckily, I found several technical documents and a detailed guide to the exhibitions online, and that’s how I came by the list of objects and exhibits mentioned in the novel. The register of items taken in by her gaze can be read as the skeleton of a poem, the reactions of the character as the response of a reader allergic to grand epics.
JCL: How do you understand the relationship between history and literature?
MAA: Great historians – both women and men – have always been talented writers. To effectively tell of historical events, it’s not enough to order them according to factual chronology. The greatest distinction between historiography and fiction is the relative weight of the fact, of the document. When a work of fiction writes characters and events that existed according to documents, when fiction invades the field of historiographical genres, we are confronted with other ethical and aesthetic questions.
The relationship between history and literature was a central debate in the final decades of the past century. I remember an interesting point made by Cristina Rivera Garza, who is both a trained historian and a novelist, and has addressed the subject like few others. She spoke of the gaseous structure of the voice, proposing that it is best to approach documents as if they spoke; that is, by way of free writing and the personification of objects and inert characters; listening to and reproducing them to study and understand them, just as ventriloquists make us believe that their dummies speak. It’s interesting when the historian unfolds into a fiction author, because the voices that open the door to the animation and factual interpretation of a document are similar to the auxiliary voices that allow for the conversion of a historical character into a literary character.
Another consideration is literature in its proximity to memory. Even the most unrooted and eccentric fiction inevitably follows the moment and the immediate circumstances of its expression; fiction is circumstantial. And memory is a fiction factory. When fiction occupies the space of the document or speculates based on the space left empty by the document, then speculative – but responsible – freedom prevails, and this characterizes the writing of quality fiction. Fiction is a lie that aspires to another degree of truth, revealing the limitations and blind spots of the human condition through the invention of forms that attempt to contain the fluidity, the chaos of experience.
The relations between Raquel and her son are set against the fleeting nature of everyday life over the course of decades of coexistence, conversations, and tensions. Nonetheless, in the case of an older author, everything becomes literature: memory, facts, history. For Williams, the subjects of American identity, language, imagination, and art were definitive. The shadow of his Puerto Rican mother is mixed up with the plot of relations between geographies: the dominant empire and the colony that infects it with suspicious creatures and cultures. The novel I wrote takes the risk of conjecture, exploring territories that have always been areas of fiction. It adds a work of imagination in the ambit of the city, it approaches a world of relationships and ways of being. It conceives of writing as a thread or web of passages that, through the very relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, has been swept away, or, to put it brutally, has been angrily scratched out.
La muerte feliz de William Carlos Williams is neither a history book nor a novelized biography. It makes use of anecdotes taken from Williams’ writings, which are already literature, and which invite additional transformations, as if the novel were a canvas where a character – who was already fictitious behind the lens of the poet – is expanded. By adding variations on the figure of the mother, who was already written as a literary character by her son, we follow an inverse route to the writing of a biography, which demands that our imaginations remain faithful to the document, the evidence. It makes no sense to attack this novel, as some may have already, for falsifying the relationship between the poet and his mother. It is impossible to univocally recover the authentic, immediate facts of this coexistence. What matters is that the voices are eloquent and loyal to the book’s intention.
JCL: Thinking of the history of the Caribbean: at present, Puerto Rico, as a colony of the United States, is suffering an economic crisis. The U.S. government, under the Obama administration, responded with the creation of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), establishing an anti-democratic and dictatorial organism known as the “Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera” (Committee for Supervision and Financial Administration). What is your position on the political panorama of the island in the midst of this economic crisis?
MAA: I believe the island, a secular colony of the United States, has become as profoundly and completely defenseless as it was when it was governed by a dictatorship of the United States military between 1898 and 1900. They have erased the Puerto Ricans, dehumanised us, since the invasion in 1898, and there have been no changes in the imperial policies of the United States since then. Debt repayment policies are combatted in many countries, we are not alone. The difference is that here such policies are not subject to appeal, since they are imposed by a dictatorship and we have no access to international fora. We are under the control of a junta of administrators who were not elected by the people of Puerto Rico.
JCL: How do you see Puerto Rican literature as it stands in this historical situation?
MAA: Some authors use social networks to express themselves as citizens, but I’m not sure if you’re referring to such demonstrations. Perhaps the question has to do with the media of publishing, with bookstores as commercial businesses, with public libraries and educational institutions. Without that sustainable infrastructure, we cannot build literature. The body of Puerto Rican literature is sustained in the work of publishing – both of new works and new editions – and on other media that provide access to books. These media have enjoyed moments of some vitality in Puerto Rico, but now they are almost nonexistent. Bookstores, in particular, are in a state of alarming precariousness. I don’t believe, like some, that electronic books and online sales can substitute the functions of a well-informed bookseller who’s knowledgeable about a country’s cultural production.
Regarding educational institutions, public education is under siege, and the immense majority depends on public education in a country of poor people. As far as publishing houses, the institutional ones – which, despite their limitations, enjoy some level of funding – are walking a tightrope, if they have not fallen already, since they depend on governmental budgets that were never generous to culture, and that now want to eliminate it once and for all. There are several commendable independent presses, but they have limited resources. In sum, the historical circumstance is so fragile, with few presses, bookstores, and libraries, and a crisis in education itself, that all support of literary flourishing is being cut. Authors carry on writing and presenting books, some of them excellent, and taking charge of publishing and distribution, but in my opinion these personal, unfocused initiatives, without the work of widespread diffusion, accompanied by criticism and teaching, do not work to establish the base of a literature. I don’t know if we’ve fully realized the gravity of the situation.
JCL: How do you understand the profession of the Puerto Rican writer (of any gender) in this moment of crisis?
MAA: It’s not a profession. It doesn’t pay, you don’t get prizes, unless you’re one of those , authors who behave like public figures and entertainers. There are certain reserved spaces in the press for a few authors who express themselves essentially as citizens in opinion columns. All the prestige and profit that could be afforded to an author is found in the opinion pages of a single newspaper. There is no recognition beyond this space, and I deliberately include literary awards funded by the government in that statement, because their processes are almost secret and questionable. You don’t make money writing, unless the text is chosen as obligatory reading by the Department of Education.
I’d have to talk instead about the author’s obligations as a person left to her own devices who in spite of this situation dares to write and publish.
Your question inspired me to reread some passages from Sartre’s series of essays, What is Literature? There are untenable arguments in those essays, but they still offer a notion of the effects of writing: words have an impact, they have consequences. It can be immediate or belated, but there is an impact. Of course, Sartre wrote from France, a country that, one could say, was designed or conceived from its literary culture, but his perception can be extended to other contexts.
In Puerto Rico, people talk about journalism ethics. We recognize the power of communicators. We ask for ethical, responsible journalism. Can we talk about the ethics of the author? In this island colony, words resound in slow, almost portable ways. It’s undeniable that we are cursed by our colonial condition. We can’t write how we think the Japanese write, or the French, or the “global writers,” without somehow seeming pathetic or sad.
The word is a common good. Not everybody can write a symphony, but everybody can write a story, an anecdote. The word is an instrument of revelations, and also of deceits. In our day, now, words have been perverted and their traps have been exposed with the speed and reach of an epidemic. Decades ago, Calvino described “a pestilential epidemic . . . in the use of the word . . . in the loss of cognitive strength and the immediacy of the word . . . Literature and literature alone can create antibodies that counteract the expansion of the plague of language” (“Exactitude,” Six Memos for the Next Millennium).
If I didn’t share Calvino’s love of literature, his faith in the enriching effects of literature, I would prefer not to write. If what we do were a pure balancing, entertaining act in the air, it would make me sad to keep writing. Maybe prevention is related to the gravity of the present moment. When the structure of power lowers its masks and seeks to put on other, more perverse masks, such that the victim embraces their own misery even tighter, we must ask ourselves if we can write in a state of innocence.
We cannot force literature to become propaganda. We must do the opposite. In an environment controlled by propaganda, in a society made of deceits, manipulations, and banalities, it’s important that we critically review oppressive fictions, that we give shape to realities minimized by power. That is where the present-day truth of fiction can be found. In turning common places back on themselves, examining them, situating them in criticism. In enriching, densifying, complicating. Literature can do that, literature has done that. That’s what Cervantes, Flaubert, Woolf did. In more than one sense, our little island is still a dispersion of uncommunicative worlds. I don’t think we entirely know the little, dense country, with settings we may never find, beyond a few of its plots, which we enter and exit with callous indifference, like science fiction characters enter and exit distinct planes of reality. Secret, segregated, concealed. To appreciate the richness of these places, we must receive them, we must honor their immediacy; to imagine the remote and the exotic we must let ourselves be surprised and attracted by immediate voices and objects. The predicament of conceiving a relationship, a community, or the plot of a novel finds its freedom in the imagination, which is not at odds with the immediate.
Some unhappy militant might attack literature as a luxurious distraction, undesirable for the worker who needs to invest all his energy in the struggle. This is very serious and dangerous. It assumes that, in the lives of the immense majority of humans, there is no space for thought, for beauty, for illumination, for terrible truths and how they concern us. It leaves us defenseless to the seduction of hollow stories, which are so powerful that it’s almost as if we live in them. In order to transform reality, we must name it. That which is not named does not exist. We must not forget that our situation is replicated in many countries. The difference, in my opinion, is that, due to its fragility, the island will not rise from the rubble if we allow it, through indolence or indifference, to collapse.
I believe good literature provides evidence for the power of the imagination to liberate us, not to leave us bogged down in deceit. Literature does not impose truths, but it does illuminate the hidden heart of things. It is not the expression of a solipsistic subjectivity looking for its fifteen minutes of fame. It is the residue of a liberated imagination. It would be healthy to widen the scope of literature in public places, but not in terms of literary discourse understood as representative of identities and political slogans and live microphones, but to literarily redefine the contours of identity and appropriate all the desired traditions without diminishing one’s own. If, instead of only being valued as an ancillary expression of pedagogy, as it was and is studied in school in Puerto Rico, literature was situated in the irreducible dimension that it deserves, perhaps it would become more contagious: the profound dimension of artistic discourse as revelation and catharsis would liberate the imagination necessary to transform the tired circular discourse of political impotence; politics should be enriched under the influence of the imagination, rather than the imagination being silenced by political programs.
JCL: Could you tell us a little about your creative process?
MAA: Very little. Almost nothing, because I don’t think about that anymore, as if the space of writing had been normalized. Years ago, I had a set response, I used to say that writing for me is a state that involves a level of trance, necessity, and self-forgetfulness, and therefore its processes are not always conscious. Nevertheless, as an author matures in the craft she becomes more demanding and responsible for what she does.
I can tell you that the force of inspiration has diminished, but it has not yet disappeared. It can appear suddenly, in the form of a word, a situation, a memory. I even remember the places where I was when the idea of the festival of saints described in El cuarto rey mago [The third wise man] came to me. I remember where I was when I met the woman who led me to invent the character of Violeta in Sexto sueño [Sixth dream].
JCL: You are a writer of essays, short stories, and novels. What makes you choose between one genre and another? What are the concerns, the aesthetic, linguistic, or thematic catalysts that determine your selection of one genre over another?
MAA: My essays have been written “on request”: for conferences, for example. Maybe I’m not inclined by pleasure or vocation to write essays, although there are essay-like passages in one of the books I’m writing. I’ve never been able to write poetry in a country where poets abound. I can’t find the masks that would allow me to articulate a poem. I’m envious of great poets, like Pessoa, who understood what it means to be a poet and who wrote, through the voices of his heteronyms, lines that belong more to those figures than to himself. I choose fiction to occupy it, to live in it, to hide my solitude in it. I dare to write because I’m convinced that my characters speak. I let them occupy me – all I do is interpret.
JCL: We know that you’re writing a novel about a highway in the south of Puerto Rico. Could you tell us a little about that project?
MAA: That project, which was suggested to me just after I finished La muerte feliz, rests on the relationship between memory, economy, and landscape. The “surface of writing” is a stretch of highway in the south of Puerto Rico. In that region, you can still see the visible marks of much of the economic and cultural history of the country. The highway is a line that, in its own way, is a point on a grid. It’s possible to write it as if it were a transparency that, overlapped, crossed paths with a park in Boston, or an image of Tierra del Fuego, or the Pacific coast of Central America. All these places have to do with lives that passed along that highway and left their marks on it. They relate to the highway, which is perceived – isolated and insignificant – in the solitude of its inhabitants.
JCL: Within the wide panorama of Puerto Rican letters, where do you place your work?
MAA: I don’t know. I used to think I knew, but not anymore. When I started writing, the island was a defined space, with marked borders, even taking into account its diasporas and exiles. I placed myself on that map in hopes of being an isolated “case” within the isolation that is the island. I raised my tent at a distance from the plots occupied by other writers. These boundaries no longer exist, these queues, these hierarchies, none of them exist, luckily. It has been interesting to see how even – or especially – the spaces once upheld as real and dominant have collapsed overnight. We can notice how much literature is related to the constructions that define geographies and territories. Lasting words are those that we can continue reading thanks to their intuitions of certain inescapable conditions of the human (and posthuman, if you like) condition, and also of their historical moment. As you know, literatures do not exist in nature, we have to construct them. The work of closing the circle and establishing a corpus falls to the readers.
It’s not my job to put my work in its place, but as a reader I can describe a few relationships. I fondly and consistently read authors from Puerto Rico. Tapia, Palés, Ramos Otero, Rosario Ferré, Marigloria Palma, poet and novelist, Ángela María Dávila. In their books, they point to the extended reach of local roots; locality as a point of departure, an approach to the frontiers or borders where the world begins to seem strange. The literature that interests me highlights these connections; it situates the diverse microcosms of the island in a wide panorama of life. But there’s something more. These authors have a consciousness of what literature is, of the splendor and mystery of literature. To read them is to detect notes of continuity and differences. The fact that we have existed, the fact that we never lacked sensitive, complex voices. The origins of what Puerto Rican literature is (or was) lie in the era when the national literature of North and South America were also being constructed.
JCL: We know that you’re very active on platforms like Facebook and that you also run a blog. As a writer, what are the pros and cons of these platforms?
MAA: Online platforms provide a window to the world and fora that didn’t exist when I started writing. They have made direct contact with readers possible, navigating through the previous pyramidal structure. The space of the blog is also important. But we must recognize the traps in those bastions of instant gratification, or, to use an expression I just heard on the Internet and that seems fair to me, those “endorphin markets.” There are writers who move well between books and social networks. Teju Cole, Jorge Carrión, Cristina Rivera Garza, all of them are known just as much for their blogs, their posts, and their tweets as for their books. But I think the book is still a privileged space for its materiality, even for its anachronism. For its relative positionality, paused in time. The book is fixed and perhaps will be salvageable when the servers upon which the e-book suppliers and digital archives depend all crash.
Translated by Arthur Dixon