I came to Severo Sarduy late, as did most of his anglophone readers, since he died from complications of AIDS in Paris thirty years ago, on June 8, 1993, and because much of his work, with the exception of Sarduy’s third novel, Cobra, and Cobra’s successor, Maitreya—translated by Suzanne Jill Levine in 1975 and 1987, respectively—was not widely available in English until after his death.
But like a friend you meet on a single day, a friend who opens up whole worlds in you, like any writer, any reader, with whom we exchange an intimacy all the more meaningful because of its virtual consummation, I felt as if, upon hearing Cobra’s own first words—“My God, why did you bring me into the world if it wasn’t to be absolutely divine?”1—I had been guided by Sarduy—novelist, poet, playwright, painter, critic; a hybrid of the ethnic identities: Spanish, African, Chinese, which created Cuba, the hybridity that the colonizing project of nation both fetishizes and obscures—my whole life.
In his final work—a symptom diary, a love letter to the island of nativity to which he would never return, a cultural critique on the medical-industrial complex, a political reportage on the necropolitics of the government’s policies of quarantine and deportation for HIV positive Cubans, a frenetic revelation written at the edge of life, a posthumous novel called Pájaros de la playa (“Beach Birds”)—Sarduy alights upon a liminal mode of writing that he’d been rubbing up against in the many publications that preceded it, gliding across genres to carve a surface flimsy enough to allow the traffic between autobiography, fiction, theory, diary, myth, correspondence. A surface in which “plot,” within the dazzling sandscape of Sarduy’s numberless beach birds, is sporadically displaced by a cosmologist’s diary: notebook transcriptions that dart across subject-positions and perspectives, commingling the theatrical and dramatic with aphoristic guidance. At the very moment of his body’s own expiration, Sarduy fulfills a proposal articulated in his exile’s infancy, rhapsodized by his fictional Cobra: to achieve absolute splendor, absolute divinity, which is to say absolute subjectivity without subjection, understanding the liberty that comes with surrender, the freedom that permits one’s vanishing into other bodies and other voices—not just another text but another textual mode of production, thirty-three years in the making.
Among the stories that writer Joseph Bruchac, of Abenaki and Slovak descent, has shared of finding his identity between two cultures is that of the Lakota term used to refer to a person of mixed blood. A metis, in English, becomes “translator’s son.” To be metis is to be “able to understand the language of both sides,” Bruchac explains, “to help them understand each other.”2
And what if it is the child who does the translating? If I am a translator for both my mother and father, it is only because I have assimilated the multilingualism of my nativity to an English that is both less and more than the standardized version taught to me in school. There remains always a discrepancy: not the failure of translation so much as the possibilities generated by its limitations, as well as my own—to understand without speaking, to speak as if estranged from my own tongue. I remember the first time I was asked to speak Spanish to authenticate my experience—my membership—to the Latin American diaspora. I remember thinking how strange it was, the paradoxical request to talk in the colonizer’s tongue, in order to affirm my shared lineage of colonial displacement, my cultural difference as commodity—the commodification of cultural difference—and nevertheless, as the Zapatistas and other Indigenous insurgencies across the Americas and Asia have already shown, how hegemonic languages like English, Spanish, and French can be appropriated to articulate positions of subalternity.
What did it matter that I spoke Spanish like a foreigner—one who belongs, as its etymology reveals, to another—since aren’t we all, us children of diaspora, estranged from our origins but also from the cultural landscape of so many of the nations we now call home? Affronted every day by the gaze that asks us to entertain and thus reproduce the projections that others cast on us. This has everything to do with language, everything to do with looking.
In Cuba, migrants have so often been welcomed, so long as they are white, so long as they can beautify the nation in the image of the island’s northern neighbors, so long as that whiteness can stamp out the sins of Cuba’s slave labor, the country with the second-longest tradition of slavery in the Western hemisphere, a practice that continued until 1886. It is not just Cuba; this kind of conditional hospitality happened across Latin America with alarming frequency during the Second World War. Taking their cue from French republicanism, white delegates across the Caribbean and South America reproduced the republic’s exclusionary discourses, dissolving African and Indigenous particularities, remaking each nation in the image of its white European colonizers, cast, in turn, in the role of refugee protector, under the guise of humanitarian aid. How often, I wonder, does a heritage of violence and dislocation adorn itself in assimilation?
From Sarduy I learned that excess bears fruit; that scarcity, too, in the intermission of momentous returns, could be a form of abundance. From Sarduy I learned it was not unusual to exist between disparate cultures, to feel, every day, as if an abject interloper—too brown or too queer in some spaces and not brown or queer enough in others—to negotiate the interstices of languages, to cycle sexuality with an exuberance that embraced my desires for both women and men. From Sarduy I learned that belonging is a feeling that has less to do with place than how we gather ourselves and the people we call home. And when I finally returned to a home I had never been—a metropolitan Polish port city that is about as far spatially (455km) as it is psychically to the rural village (present-day population: 236) in which my mom was born—it felt like I had nevertheless been given back a piece of her childhood. How to give someone a memory of something they have never seen? Take a photo; destroy the source or model.
In Sarduy’s untranslated essay, “El texto devorado,” he writes of the rich complexity of another novel by imagining that in order to produce such a text its author must have devoured all the texts that preceded it, including the author’s own, thereby surpassing the act of writing, which is to say the act of reading, or perhaps calling into question what it means to read. In fact, Sarduy had to live like he was reading, or read as if he was living the text, to eat texts, incarnate them through the mouth. When I read Sarduy, I remember that to copy out an original is also to imbibe it through a second hand, since all ventriloquism relies on what can’t be seen, what has to be believed in spite of the absence of the material subject. A text, after all, is always only a version of another; in its Latin origins, both the act of weaving and that which is woven. From Sarduy I learned that the culmination of genre like gender was destruction, and the memo for readers was to help participate in its re-assembly.
“You can’t become English, French, German; you are… But you become an American,” Susan Sontag once wrote, in her own notebook. “An invented, not a natural country.”3
Is it any less true for the Americas of the plural, for an Americas that was of course first a mistake and then a fabrication, as amorphous and hallucinatory as the Lotus Flower of Severo Sarduy’s De donde son los cantantes, translated into English as From Cuba with a Song by Levine in 1971, and again in 1994, as Levine revisited her “original.” “She’s mimicry,” Levine repeats, between Sarduy’s cheeks. “She’s a texture […] she is pure symmetry. Where is she? I don’t see her. She scarcely breathes.”4 If “Nation” is really “an altar, not a pedestal,” as one of Sarduy’s characters incidentally explains pages after, the first sacrifice is the mother tongue that rescues the body from omission, or denies it legibility.
So it was for Sarduy in his 1967 novel’s vision or perversion of a stable, unified Cuba as a triptych of superimposed cultures—Spanish, African, Chinese; his own composite heritage—whose origin story ends, or begins, with the return of a disintegrating wooden Christ wheeled into Havana and photographed more times than a Coca-Cola bottle. In Sarduy’s world, as in our own, history and religion converge, each belonging to the realm of spectacle and representation, while identity is negotiated—as it is for Help and Mercy, the twin transvestites who instigate the novel’s plot—at the local self-service restaurant. Perhaps Sarduy’s point, I think now, several years after first encountering From Cuba with a Song, is that identity is not only cosmetic and convertible but, moreover, commodity.
From Sarduy I learned that a life rife with mistaken identity is really the mistake of identity; that being mistaken is not about the subject so much as the limitations of seeing; the ways we choose to look at others or fail to. That the signifiers we link to racial, and ethnic, and national, and gender identities are not fixed either, but fantasies. And that reclaiming subjectivity in the terms of one’s choosing could mean sacrificing the ability to be seen by others—to be legible to them—for the possibility of speaking, in one’s own voice, and being heard.
From Sarduy I learned to write fiction by stitching together my essays and articles, to write nonfiction by plundering my novels. From Sarduy I learned to never stray from the poetry that shapes all of my work; to write with depth through compression but also careful straddle, to empower displacement in service of a feeling into that we can trace in empathy’s etymology. From Sarduy I welcomed the invitation to pay attention to the sensory parts of language, the sonic pleasures accrued from breaking or broken forms, which I feel sometimes is my inheritance. How the English I took in was less a stable series of phonemes than a stew, brought together through the imaginative jamming of my mother tongues, and how Sarduy’s own version of Spanish—a lush, pun-inflected, grafted Cuban Spanish, itself a translation from the formal Castilian of the Spanish peninsula—taught me that what can be named can be called and what can be called can be returned as a body, made material, hypostasized on the level of sound and text.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Sarduy, in another posthumous essay translated by Levine, explained the per-mutations of Spanish in the Americas as a matter of desire and abundance: “there were many, many things that needed to be named,” he writes, for which the language of the conquistadores did not suffice.5 From Sarduy I learned that language itself is nothing less and nothing more than metaphor: a proliferation of signs indebted equally to configuration and disfiguration. From Sarduy I learned to conceive of the text as a form of accommodation; to accommodate a narrative form that could also run alongside our thoughts; to embrace the earthy mouthfeel of skin and sensation re-membered through language, through languages: our syncretic nerve map of the word.
And yet each fraught enunciation, even and especially the errors, have made me who I am, which is to say a writer, so entranced was I, as a child, by the obscurity of the words that passed before me, so fascinated am I still today by the residue of broken forms, and the sonic valences produced by each fragmentation. Multilingualism may place us in an intermediary position whose function is not necessarily to translate on behalf of another but, moreover, to produce another form of expression. The resistance to translation was not a refusal but a gift. The refusal of the body was not a resignation but the body’s final resistance.
What’s the difference between being seen without being heard and heard without speaking? So every separation could be a link. So I had too often confused an inability to speak for my being unwilling.
On New Year’s Day in 2023, five hundred asylum seekers from Cuba arrived in the Florida Keys. Hundreds more were detained by the United States Coast Guard after being swept up in the South Florida Straits in their makeshift boats, forced to return to a nation in the grips of another economic collapse: the pandemic, which toppled its tourism industry; the US Embargo enacted during the Cold War, whose diseased geopolitical arrangements continue to structure the lives of Cubans on the island, as well as the Caribbean region. Cubans who are unable to freely travel to the United States (the earlier annual commitment of 200,000 visas issued to Havana has not been fulfilled by the US since 2017) have had to travel to Guyana to have their applications processed. As the United States continues to violate the rights of Cuban people to travel to its neighboring countries, crimes such as migration fraud and people-trafficking have proliferated. As I write these words, US Border Patrols in the Florida Keys have issued instructions to local authorities to delay more landings until and unless federal resources arrive. The state’s governor, an outspoken advocate of Title 42, the immigration order that has been used approximately two-and-a-half million times to expel migrants and refugees arriving at the country’s borders since its invocation under the Trump administration in March of 2020, is on a television—many channels and many screens—declaring the recent Supreme Court vote to temporarily rescue it from expiration as a new year’s blessing.
What happened across Cuba at the height of the HIV epidemic—the exclusionary measures, the systematic deportations and terminal quarantines—is happening again to Cubans on an opposite shore, as United States government officials mobilize disease to serve securitization. Just last year, the US Customs and Border Protection logged 224,607 “encounters” with Cuban migrants and refugees; the Coast Guard reported 6,182 Cubans intercepted at sea. Today we are witnessing the largest Cuban migration in the country’s history, doubling the crises in 1980 and 1994, the Mariel boatlift and the Cuban raft exodus, greater, too, than the 1959 Cuban diaspora.
For my dad, like so many others, there is no redemptive return. There is only exile, which repeats, without commemoration, without cessation. I write here, at the edges of the Americas, to be close to Sarduy, to remember the distance, which is to say the proximity of a place to which my dad has never returned: a home, which I have only heard in stories. I write here to be close to my origin, where nativity means, for me as for so many others, to be born in translation. I write here to be close to the murmuration of birds, a language of movement or movement into language that isn’t meant to be grasped. We are called to witness, not because of the evidence of a material fact, but because such lives and their experiences are not visible, not legible, to most. Remember, too, I remind myself, to acknowledge the beautiful winged animals, whose names I don’t know, who grace the surf with their ritual descent each morning on a strip of sand that serves, temporarily, as a space for composing. My beach birds.
1 Severo Sarduy, Cobra and Maitreya, trans. Suzanne Jill Levine (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1995), 3.
2 Meredith Ricker and Joseph Bruchac, “A MELUS Interview: Joseph Bruchac,” MELUS 21, no. 3 (1996): 159–178.
3 Susan Sontag, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals & Notebooks 1964-1980, ed. David Rieff (New York: Picador, 2012), 514.
4 Sarduy, From Cuba with a Song, trans. Suzanne Jill Levine (Los Angeles, CA: Sun & Moon Press, 1994), 25.
5 Sarduy, “On Castellano in America,” trans. Suzanne Jill Levine, Translation Studies Journal 1, no. 1 (2005): 61.