Daniel Alarcón Pirated My Life
November 12, 2009 Leave a comment
Just got back from hearing Daniel Alarcón—author of War by Candlelight (which I’ve read) and Lost City Radio (which I haven’t, for reasons that will become apparent)—talk about book piracy in Peru. You’ve seen the stands, you’ve read your Calvino: the subject is the fast cheap reproduction of original books and the readers and nonreaders who buy and sell ’em. Trafficking in translations: it’s a darker and more sordid world than you’d guess.
Alarcón’s got big hair, a reading voice more interested in its subject than itself, and great stage presence, especially when not reading directly from the ms. He’s good at making a monologue delivered at a room feel conversational and offhand. He seems like your cousin’s friend.
Tonight he read from a long and refreshingly wayward essay on how overground and underground publishing works in Lima, and the special role books occupy in a culture whose relationship to the literary vacillates between worshipful and mercenary. It was good.
But there was a moment when the problem of being Daniel Alarcón came up. Come question-time, a Peruvian man in the audience raised his hand and said, with some irritation: “Peruvians know all about this. What’s the point of writing it?”
My jaw dropped metaphorically and I just as metaphorically picked it up because this is the key question, the life question, the question I ask myself every time I write and a variant of the question I get asked every Wednesday afternoon when I ritualistically try to convince my peers that there really is a way to reconcile contemporary neuroscience with readings of Milton.
The question is this: how do you write for two audiences?
Corollaries to the question: Can it be competently done? And what happens when they talk back?
I’m coming clean: my feelings about Alarcón are complex. He’s good. But I fault and envy him for occupying a position I’ve been too inhibited to inhabit: the role of a Latino writer raised in the US whose writing language is English, who resists the flatness that results from an overeager commitment to identity politics (Cisneros, Sapphire), who harbors intense interest toward and an anxious relation to his parents’ mother country (the language of which he speaks fluently), a country to which he does not and will never quite belong.
It’s a bizarre headspace to occupy for any period of time, and God knows it’s a textbook American problem and territory many—Lahiri, Diaz, for instance—have explored well.
But the Southern Cone? That was MINE.
(The South too, though Alarcón was raised in Birmingham, so I’ll grudgingly admit that, where Alabama’s concerned, he has the prior claim.)
I’m sort of joking! But not really! The fact is I’ve buried most of the stuff I’ve written about Chile. There are lots of reasons for that, one being that it wasn’t awfully good. But the main reason was practical: when you start writing about the country you want to belong to, it starts to talk back. And it hurts to be told that you’ve gotten it wrong. Or that the issue you’ve chosen to spend several thousand words on is unimportant. Or that your entire extended family has somehow translated and read the piece you published in an obscure little magazine no one in the US has even heard of, the piece about your eccentric great-uncle, who even now is making calls and taking down names.
Which is more or less what happened to Alarcón tonight. (Not the uncle bit, though.) And he acknowledged the validity of the objection with grace, and it was clear he’s done some serious thinking about the question. But it was equally clear that he couldn’t really answer it.
Alarcón’s problem—besides having a fabulous career at a young age—is that he’s trying to do the impossible by writing for both an American and a Peruvian audience. As the outsider he is, he sees angles to the story that make it interesting (and let’s face it, exotic) to an American audience that strike the Peruvian as commonplace and blase. And vice versa.
In his first project he explicitly adopted a Peruvian viewpoint, understanding that the book would be bought by American audiences. When the book became a success and got translated, I’d bet he felt more than a twinge of discomfort because as a whatever-he-is, he’s never an insider; he’s something else. And so, when he writes stories about Peru (which not all of them are) from a Peruvian perspective in English, there’s an almost automatic question of authenticity. It would be easier all-round if his book were translated to English rather than written in it. In the piece he read tonight I detect an overcorrection. It seemed like he was writing from a definitively American perspective. (Of course, he might have solved this by writing two different versions.)
It’s a problem with no solution since there isn’t one authentic place from which he can write. He isn’t Peruvian. Neither can his voice be exclusively American. Both postures are subtly wrong. I don’t know what it takes to occupy hybridity authentically and write it well. It’s like the idea of seamless code-switching; it’s appealing to think about an honest and utopian in-betweenness, but the best you can do is achieve an equitable average.
The Peruvian man’s question points to a larger issue, though: there’s something disingenuous about adopting an anthropological stance toward a country you want to document and understand. Sometimes it can’t be helped. Isabel Allende gets away with it in Mi Pais Inventado because it’s partly memoir and is intended for an American audience. The Chileans who like it—and they’re likely to be ex-pats themselves—enjoy it precisely because they understand it as a guidebook for foreigners that manages incidentally to get quite a few things right. They’re pretty hungry for something that even partially mirrors their memories and experience.
Alarcón’s piece was great, but it was good because it assumed ignorance of something Peruvians already know, and discussed it in stakes Americans understand. I’m honestly stumped by the Peruvian man’s question, and I think he might have been too. In the meantime, I hereby declare friendly war by candlelight on Alarcón and humbly ask that he leave me a corner of the cone to cut my teeth on. Daniel, you know those signs on the lawns of public parks—Prohibido Pisar El Cesped? Hands off Patagonia and Santiago! And Valparaiso. Dejate de piratear! Dejame mi pastito interior! In exchange, I’ll read Lost City Radio to see whether the novel I’ve been working has, in fact, been scooped. Deal? Deal? (No, really. Can we shake on it? Please?)
Territorially, but in the nicest, most debonair way,