Literature fosters unpredictable encounters that take place in the silence of reading, when one feels addressed by a voice that speaks to us as if it knew our story and could reveal its most incomprehensible essence with the intensity of a lightning bolt that, all of a sudden, sheds light on what we didn’t know a second before.
My encounter with Fabio Morábito was “un colpo di fulmine.” It was 2000 and I was starting my doctoral thesis on the subject of belonging between two or more languages. In a newly published anthology of Latin American poetry, I came across a poem of his that, with the accuracy of an arrow hitting its mark, shot through me—it changed my place of reading and my way of thinking about how literature reflects on the mother tongue as a place where belonging tenses and grows complex.
It was a poem about the Italian language from the book De lunes todo el año (1992):
after almost twenty years,
I start to feel it:
like a muscle atrophying
for lack of exercise,
in which I was born, cried,
grew up within the world
—but in which I have not loved
slips from my hands,
no longer sticks
to the walls like before,
deserts my dreams
comes off in segments.
Who always saw that glass
planted in me
like a stout tree,
like a second home
a certainty, a knot
that no one would untie
I discover a truth
I’ve always known
One must look back
sooner or later,
solder oneself to some past or another,
pay all one’s debts
—in one fell swoop
So, if you do leave,
language of my tongue,
of my blunders
and my breakthroughs,
what do I have left?
With what words
will I recall my childhood,
with what will I rebuild
the path and its enigmas?
How will I complete my age?
When I read this text, I recognized in its speaking voice a traveling companion—someone who had understood what I, as a daughter of Italian immigrants in Venezuela, had tried and failed to grasp: the coexistence of two languages on a single tongue that enters and exits each of them, with all the affective, symbolic, and cultural implications this has for life and literary writing.
I had often wondered what happened to the mother tongue when it was displaced or eroded by the presence and use of the learned tongue; in what ways it manifested itself despite its loss of elasticity. And this poem, like all of Morábito’s poetry and essays, was a breakthrough in my research and in my own reflections on a language that is neither the mother tongue nor the adopted tongue, but rather a “nomadic tongue” in which, with differing intensities, both languages coexist.
Getting back to the story of my encounter with Fabio, the same year I discovered his work another important event took place. My friend, Venezuelan poet Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza, won a poetry prize in Mexico, and Morábito was one of the jurors. Social media did not yet exist back then, and getting a writer’s email address was just as difficult as starting a dialogue with him. Arturo gave me Fabio’s contact information and I sent him a timid email, expressing my interest in learning more about his work; he very kindly mailed me photocopies of the verse collections he had published up to that point, which I bound and still treasure to this day.
While I now own every edition of his work, I still go back to those copies that bear the marks of my first reading of his poetry.
At that moment, a correspondence in Italian and Spanish began between us—an exchange that lasted almost ten years. In our messages, we shifted from one language to another without transitions, and I wondered how his voice and his accent might sound. I had an acoustic curiosity to hear how his language sounded in speech.
In 2001, when I finished my doctoral thesis, I put together an anthology of his poetry, which I titled El verde más oculto after a verse from one of his poems. It was published in Caracas by the press La Nave Va. This allowed me to draw closer to his work. I cared a great deal about helping his poetry circulate in Venezuela, and many students were touched by his work, dedicating papers and essays to it.
In 2008, we had our first encounter in Mexico City, which was followed by others at a colloquium on literature in Cuenca (2014) and at the International Book Fair of Bogotá in 2017 (where, with Colombian poet Jorge Cadavid, I presented the anthology No me despiertes si tiembla). Then in 2020, in the time of the pandemic, I invited him to form part of a Zoom program I curated titled “Literatura hoy desde la BLAA: Escrituras de la incertidumbre,” in which we spoke about many guiding themes of his work: everyday existence, the materiality of things, noise, listening, belonging, emotion, language, translation.
At these opportunities, I was able to hear Morábito’s physical voice, and to perceive, as in the case of his writing, some nuance that clouded, hindered, invaded his Spanish. It was often a “swipe” that came with momentum behind it, assembled some phrase, and then disappeared to give way to the Mexican accent tainted by Italian.
My Italian lasted longer than his did in these conversations, expanding through stories and explanations. But, when he began to answer in our adopted language, I would also switch tongues, thinking we would understand each other better that way. I could not stop asking myself: at what moment in time does this spectre appear or disappear, in Fabio and in me? What guided it, what made it speak or fall silent? Our friendship was like our tongues, I thought, that had Italian accents when they spoke Spanish and Mexican and/or Venezuelan cadences when they spoke Italian, and this was not the same in our emails, I thought, where the tongue went in and out from one language to another in silence, even if you sometimes seemed to hear a scratch within the words. A scratch that cried in the middle of the night.
Its sobbing reminds me of Fabio’s story “Los crucigramas,” from Grieta de fatiga (2010). In it, Irma sends her sister, who lives in Mexico, some crossword puzzles twice a year so she’ll practice her Italian, so as not to forget it; but, before sending them, she works them out herself, filling in the little boxes with letters she then erases. The crinkles her pencil leaves on the paper as she solves these puzzles mark an act of writing and of rubbing out, over which her sister, who lives on the other side of the Atlantic, seeks to engrave the terminal condition of her own Italian. Thus, an encounter takes place between the invisible, manual mark of one and the evident mark of the other, and between one’s mother tongue and the other’s. There comes a day when the crossword puzzles arrive blank, with no trace of Irma’s pencil, indicating to her sister her possible death. The crossword puzzle becomes a diminutive tomb in which Irma is buried along with her mother tongue, and her sister bids a mournful farewell to her blood and to her tongue, which will be the next to atrophy and turn ghostly.
In writing his work, Fabio Morábito came to understand that “we cry in the bosom of a language,” as he explains in El idioma materno (2014):
It is a tough nut to crack. When we think we are finally free of its words, its syntactic twists, its idioms untranslatable to other languages, and that after so many years of speaking, dreaming, loving, and slighting in another tongue we have broken loose of its tether, it turns out that, like those calcified buildups of ocean matter that stick to the bodies of whales like huge cysts, the old language has not disappeared—it has just withdrawn to certain domains, one of which, perhaps the most resistant, is that of tears. One does not simply cry in abstract terms; rather, we cry in the bosom of a particular language. This is why many individuals who adopt another language, when they cry, feel they are crying still in their first language. So, the pain produced by their tears is complemented by the anguish of knowing they have not yet broken loose of their old tears, of their old language; that they are still living and speaking in the mother tongue, which is particularly hard for those who have gone so far as to write some books in the adopted language, as they fear that, sooner or later, someone will pull off the thin sheet and find, beneath what they have written, the tough nut to crack—the far-off language, the old tears—and they will be accused of having done nothing but transfer words from their first language, which is to say, of having faked it all along. So, the most foreign of foreigners is the one who writes in another language, by virtue of a bipartite foreignness: the foreignness of writing, which is a betrayal of the world, and the foreignness of writing in a language that is not the mother tongue, which is a betrayal of speech. But perhaps in this betrayal of the language of origin there lies the only possible salvation, the lone forgiveness to which a writer might aspire for having left behind the world and speech. Because every writer, in truth, becomes a writer thanks to this betrayal—they leave the mother tongue behind to adopt a language that is not their own, a foreign language, a language without tears. We relinquish our mother tongue because we relinquish tears and we relinquish tears because only by ceasing to cry can we write.
When I first read this text by Morábito, something happened to me, something similar to what had taken place years before with his poem about Italian. I was amazed by his precision and ability to understand something as complex as the emotional logic of languages. Because the tongue is not only a manner of speaking, but also and above all a way to feel and to sound. And you cannot leave behind your mother, your mother tongue, without crying.
With these tears we also bid farewell to a piece of ourselves—a piece that exists only within that tongue, and that leaves us without words with which to remember childhood and name the home from which we came.
Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon
Photo: Left to right, Fabio Morábito, Gina Saraceni and Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza.