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A Dialogue with Bilingual Escritora Susana Chávez-Silverman

On top of her scholarship, Susana Chávez-Silverman authored two creative pieces about her past, but don’t call her a memoirist. The Latina writer and Pomona College professor and her work defy category and genre.

She penned Killer Crónicas and Scenes from la Cuenca de Los Angeles y otros Natural Disasters — “two vibrant and powerful works,” wrote Carlota Caulfield via email. Caulfield heads the Mills College Spanish and Spanish American Studies Program.

“Susana Chávez-Silverman’s writing is brilliant…memorable,” Caulfield wrote. “Chávez-Silverman’s books play a vital role in shaping and understanding contemporary transnational social dynamics, and the developing of cultural forms and identities that are reaching across and beyond the Americas. Susana creates a new genre and celebrates bilingualism (English and Spanish) as a literary force.  Her writing is lyrical and literary, rich and provocative.”

This week Chávez-Silverman kicks off the Spanish and Spanish American Spring 2012 Lecture Series at Mills with “Our Ubuntu: Scenes from la Cuenca de L.A. & Other Latitudes,” a bilingual reading of her work, followed by a Q&A. The reading will be Thursday, March 1 from 2:30 to 3:45 p.m. in Stern 100. She will also discuss her work with the students of the class Letters 131/231: “Aspects of Hispanic American Cultures” on Wednesday, February 29 from 1 to 2:15 p.m. at Mills Hall 318.

Chávez-Silverman grew up bilingually and multiculturallybetween Los Angeles, Madrid and Guadalajara, México, the daughter of a Jewish Hispanist and a Chicana teacher.

After a peripatetic university and post-graduate career, and years spent living in Boston, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Spain and South Africa, she is currently a professor of Spanish, Latino/Latina and Latin American Studies in the Department of Romance Languages and Literature at Pomona College in Claremont, California. She specializes in gender and sexuality studies, autobiography/memoir, Latin American and U.S. Latina/Chicana literature, poetry and feminist pedagogy.

Photo courtesy of Professor Susana Chávez-Silverman

Excerpt from Scenes from la Cuenca de Los Angeles y otros Natural Disasters:

“Oh, those lion-colored hills de ambos lados de la 280N make me weep,
ecstatically, con su belleza. Y hasta comencé a sentir un odd,
grudging, nostalgic fondness por estos ridículos, sketchy, erratic
NoCal conductores. Las asiáticas dolled up to the nines al volante de
sus Mercs y Lexi, con sus trendy, retro bubble peinados and even
bigger bubble designer gafas de sol. Damn, patrás a los ’80s, no shit.
Los Corvette-wielding, slide right up on your nalga, dot-com

Audio of Chávez-Silverman reading from Scenes from la Cuenca de Los Angeles y otros Natural Disasters:


Susana Chávez-Silverman: My work is actually extremely difficult to categorize. It’s bilingual. I mean, really bilingual. Not just English with a few little words in Spanish there. It’s a little bit challenging for people to decide where to teach it, how to teach it. Also how to read it. It’s a little off the map, I would say.

The Campanil: Your work has been described as flamboyantly bilingual. I read a few excerpts from Scenes from la Cuenca, and there seems to be a real passion there for words. And a sense of fun.

SCS: Very. My dad was a non-Latino, a professor of Spanish but Jewish from New York. He spoke several languages, among them Spanish. He gave us this sense of play with language in our house. My mom was taught Spanish by my grandparents. She wanted to speak perfect Spanish and perfect English to show that she could, and did not really mix languages very much. Never the twain shall meet. But I mix both Spanish and English. I make up words. I bring words in from other languages. That really, I think, has a lot to do with my dad.

TC: So what does this mean for literature, when you make this choice to have fun with the language, to mix?

SCS: A few days ago I read LA Times book critic David Ulin’s review of The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. The book is described as “an exchange on the role of fact in the amorphous genre known as literary nonfiction, or creative nonfiction, or literary journalism, or, in D’Agata’s usage, ‘the essay.’” I got into a kind of discussion or argument for like 10 years about memoir, telling the truth. This review was extremely compelling to me because at one point Ulin writes, “on the most prosaic level, perhaps. But there is a deeper level, the level at which art moves us, the level at which experience blurs into story, and the boundaries of truth expand.”

I found that compelling in terms of my own writing. People are always asking, “Did that really happen? How do you handle putting yourself out there like that?” There’s no seamless overlap between my writing — I’m veering a little bit away from your bilingual question, but I’ll get back to it — and my own self. This is a very carefully curated work. My work started in bilingual emails. I was living in Argentina 11 years ago. I started sending these emails home to my friends and ex-students, talking about life in Buenos Aires, and I was going into my bilingual voice. People started writing to me: “This is so funny. I can’t believe this. This sounds exactly like you.” I’ve written pretty much my whole life, and I’m an inveterate letter writer, emailer and texter. You can do a lot in 160 characters. People have always said, “You’re writing really sounds like you,” but when I started going into the bilingual voice, people said that a lot more.

For me, it’s a curated choice. I’m actually a really shy person. I hold everything very close to the vest. By the time something makes it into a book, I’m okay with releasing that. By the same token, I don’t have Facebook. I don’t have a blog or Twitter or any of that because I would be afraid of being too instantly boundary-less. That’s kind of out there forever. I’m not into that. I’m into very carefully exploring and making artistic choices before things get out in the world.

TC: That reminds me of your La Bloga interview, in which you said the notion of memoir as absolute truth is naïve.

SCS: Yeah, completely. I rail against being boxed into memoir. I think that’s a very limiting genre and over-determinately confessional Oprah-esque, that whole truth-telling scandal. So really, literary memoir, creative nonfiction — all that, I question. What I like better is that people say my work reminds them of prose poetry. Since 2003, I’ve been performing from both my books. People say there’s a rhythm and they stand often in a better, deeper or different way from just reading it.

TC: Yes, when I was reading excerpts of your work, I was thinking, Oh, I’d love to hear this out loud. It’s very much about sound.

SCS: Yeah, it is. So people calling it prose poetry or lyrical prose is closer to my heart. My scholarly area is poetry, as a matter of fact. But the bilingual — you said, what does that do for literature? — I would never presume, but I have thought about it. Really, I think there’s a much wider potential audience for bilingual writing. Not just in this country in terms of the Spanish-English mix or potential mix, but any place where two languages or more commonly live together — the Middle East, Africa — is a place where this kind of writing can flourish, were it not for the hegemonic, monolithic English-only publishing imperative.

When I first started doing this bilingual writing, senior colleagues and friends of mine said, “Well, okay, you’re going to have to choose if you want to get published. You’re going to have to choose either English or Spanish. That’s that.” I said no. I already had a career as a scholar, so for me these bilingual pieces came like a stealth missile. I was really putting everything into this kind of writing, both for literary and personal reasons. I thought, “I don’t want to make that choice. My choice is this bilingual writing, so go with it and see what happens.” Only a smaller or academic press would have taken a chance on this little hybrid monster.

TC: It’s so funny that you felt pressured to choose between one language and the other. I’m not Latina, but I’m a person of color. My parents immigrated from the Philippines. When we exchange emails among family, we are bilingual. Sometimes we write individual words as half English, half Bisaya (a Filipino dialect). As I was reading your work, I thought, This is so true to life.

SCS: Yeah. I don’t have it, in my own mind, limited whatsoever to an only Chicano or Latino experience. My own personal experience is very different from that of the, let’s just say, stereotypical U.S. Chicano or Latino. Not that all of us have had the same experience. I was raised in Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, going to living in Guadalajara, Mexico, every summer and portions of my childhood, adolescence and early 20s in Spain because of my dad being a professor and traveling. We were raised middle class and bilingually. After a very long and checkered graduate career, I’ve lived in Africa, Mexico and Argentina. My work reflects that. I’m consciously hoping that there’s a readership beyond the narrow identities and categories. I’m glad you saw a bit of yourself in there.

TC: Carlota wrote in an email that your work is a celebration of bilingualism.

SCS: I hope so. It’s a battle. I have an article written by a linguist in the LA Times last year: “Bilingualism good for the brain.” Listen to this anti-Alzheimers, anti-this and that. I wrote down, “Highlights: the short-sighted ignorance of U.S. educational policy and practice.”  I’m very hostile to people who say that bilingualism will be the death or dearth of one language or the other. Not all Latinos agree with that or feel that. There are certainly a large number of Latinos who do not code-switch or probably do not feel that you can quote proper literature in this kind of a voice. I want to prove them wrong. To do the kind of bilingual practice that I’m doing — this is not the voice or language of someone who is illiterate or can barely speak in one of the languages, but somebody who actually has a high level of competence in both languages. Not everybody code-switches. I do as an oral practice. To go from there and translate it to the page is a different matter. People say, “How do you do this?” I go, “Well, do you hear this kind of voice in your head?” Not everybody does. But I do.