Giannina Braschi, a Puerto Rican by birth and a New Yorker by adoption, has received a number of labels in a critical attempt at classifying her oeuvre: a Nuyorican poet, a Latinx philosopher, a postmodern novelist, a social satirist, a magical realist, a feminist, a post-dramatic playwright, etc. Frequent terms associated with her work include Spanglish, transnational, speculative fiction, hysterical realism, McOndo, and Post-Boom. And Giannina Braschi is certainly all these, and yet, she is none of them. The only category that probably describes Braschi’s aesthetics and poetics is that of “post-criticism,” or beyond critical reach, if we understand by literary criticism textual taxonomy and hermeneutics, the study of sources and the rest of the paraphernalia that we critics use as our tools of the trade. As for her genealogy, she is a Walt Whitman without the jingoistic nationalism; a Ramón del Valle-Inclán without the bitter pessimism; an Emily Dickinson transplanted to downtown Manhattan; a Herman Melville who has forgiven the whale; a Juan Ramón Jiménez, without the ivory tower, who is riding Platero in Old San Juan. And, most certainly, a two-armed Miguel de Cervantes riding next to Quixote and Sancho on the wastelands of the cosmos. She attended Plato’s Academy and learned from Socrates all she will ever need to know. Befriended Friedrich Nietzsche until his madness became unbearable to her and sat in the theater for the premier of Mozart’s Magic Flute. Braschi’s language is not Spanish, or English, or Spanglish, but an idiom of her own, and of all of us whose mother tongue is not English but still inhabit English as our adoptive home.
The genealogy above is, obviously, figurative, even if explicitly grounded in her writings. That Giannina is the daughter of Euripides is also figurative, and yet factual, her father being Euripides (“Pilo”) Braschi, a scion of an upper-class Puerto Rican family of Italian descent, and a former tennis champion, which Giannina would also be in her teen years. From her entrepreneurial mother, Edmée Firpi, Giannina acquired logic and discipline. Whether her penchant for the ancient Greeks comes from her father is open to debate. What is not is their increasing presence in Giannina’s universe. In her kaleidoscopic work Putinoika, which she is currently finalizing, Greek tragedy provides the stage for the rebirth of literature, which her previous work, United States of Banana, had announced with the liberation of Segismundo (Puerto Rico) from the dungeon of Lady Liberty, the statue whose basement had kept freedom confined for the ages. In the section titled “Palinode” (retraction) in Putinoika, Braschi revisits the story of ill-fated Oedipus from the perspective of Antigone and Ismene, the daughters who repudiate the role assigned to them by Sophocles. Antigone is now Greece, and Ismene Puerto Rico, while Creon is both the United States and the IMF, whose tyranny both sisters resist, deciding to suspend any further payment of their national debt. Resistance spreads like a disease, leading to Oedipus’ refusal to marry his mother, and further, its contagion enters the universe of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, whose plot intertwines with the former. In Braschi’s world, a mix-match of episodes results in Oedipus’ killing Clytemnestra’s husband Agamemnon, and Clytemnestra’s proposal of marriage to Oedipus, as a solution to everybody’s problem: Oedipus would not have to marry his mother; Orestes would not have to kill his mother; Aegisthus would be free from his toxic relationship with Clytemnestra, etc.
Giannina saw herself as a poet from an early age. As a student in Madrid, she had for mentors some of the finest poets of the time, such as Claudio Rodríguez, Carlos Bousoño, and Blas de Otero, who helped her to discover the Spanish classics from the perspective of a writer. Her Ph.D. in Hispanic Literatures from SUNY, Stony Brook and her teaching at different universities were the culmination of her academic career, and led to her publication of a monograph on the poetry of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (Sí/pero no: La poesía de Bécquer), and various essays on Cervantes, Garcilaso, Machado, Lorca, etc. In a very daring epiphany, Giannina has come to realize that poetry, like the rest of the genres inherited from tradition, is a prison for her voice: “Singularity is not a product of plurality—but of exceptionality—I don’t find my voice in theater, I don’t find my voice in poetry, I don’t find my voice in novels.”
The traditional division of genres means, for Braschi, a segregation of the literary voice, its confinement in isolated cells that largely prevent the free flow of creativity and true innovation. The notion of “work,” likewise, is confining and misleading, for it involves the subjection of creativity to the laws of the market, to the servitude of capitalism and its expectations of profit.
I used to apply work to my method of understanding. And it never worked. When I applied a method to my madness nothing works because a method is part of a plan to exterminate creativity. To cut everything with the same scissors. To make me inclusive—not exclusive. I am exclusive. I am creating a work that doesn’t work. It should not even be called a work. Work is the problem. The word work doesn’t work. Even when it creates a work. It creates a problem inside the work. We have to stop using the word work because work implies a production that has an expiration—a bankruptcy—and it always loses its job—because work implies replacement. Capitalism believes everyone is replaceable. But time is not a limit of productivity. To produce is not our limit.
This bold statement represents the culmination of Giannina’s lifelong quest for the voice that can truly express what inherited art and literature cannot anymore. This quest provides the architectural backbone of Braschi’s writing, a sustained creative exercise that records, minutely and festively, the stages of her personal and artistic evolution. The result is an epic/mocking cycle, whose closest antecedents are both Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, relating the gradual transformation of a young well-to-do Puerto Rican socialite through the experience of immigration. Like a modern-day Aeneas or Dante, Giannina descends to the underworld, in her case Manhattan, where she is to witness the horrors of hell when its gates are flung open by the attacks of September 11, as recorded in the opening chapter of United States of Banana: “It’s the end of the world”.
It is in the void of Ground Zero, the Derridean trace left by the Twin Towers, where Giannina will finally find, years later, what she had been looking for so eagerly, the source of all creativity that only those who dare to traverse the heart of darkness, only those who jump into the abyss like Kierkegaard’s knight of faith will discover:
Breathe through the void. Don’t give up when you meet the Furies or the Sirens. Know what happened in the past and change the outcome. Transform the energy of the Furies—from curses to blessings—and give them a land where they can bless the coming into being of new babies. When you create a genre—which is not a movement—because it has no past—and if it has a past—its past is pregnant with a future bigger than its past—its past is its post-creation—only a point of departure—it created modes of thinking.
In her first epic work, El imperio de los sueños (1988, translated as Empire of Dreams by Tess O’Dwyer), Giannina turns poetry into poetic prose to express her astonishment as a newly arrived immigrant in New York, a Babel-like megacity that shepherds take over in what represents the assault of the pastoral against the prosaic texture of urban reality. The Spanish of the Golden Age provides the vehicle; the Baroque provides the lens; Giannina the first-hand experience and dreams. In Yo-Yo Boing! (1998), published ten years later, Giannina’s language has already metamorphosed, and her native Spanish, her mother tongue, has blended with her adoptive language, becoming what many critics refer to as Spanglish, a term that I personally find misleading and biased. Giannina’s idiom, like the idiom we speak down here on the border with Mexico, is a new language that resists normalization, a language that subverts the rules of grammar and takes the best, or most useful, from various languages; a grammarless, borderless logos that expresses the reality of a world of migrants, a world on the move. The language of human beings fed up with a status quo that segregates into categories of exclusion, that dictates who is to be walled-in and walled-out. The language of “allowing people and influences to cross all the barriers that say: no trespassing.” That is Giannina Braschi’s lasting legacy.