• Humanities
  • 26 de June de 2024
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Marta Aponte: “I have been moved by the project of a literature of connections”

Marta Aponte: “I have been moved by the project of a literature of connections”

Interview with Marta Aponte, Puerto Rican writer and literary critic

Marta Aponte: “I have been moved by the project of a literature of connections”

Marta Aponte. Photo: Chris

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Andreu Navarra


Marta Aponte (Cayey, 1945) is one of the most prestigious narrative voices in Puerto Rican literature. Alongside her extensive academic career, she has authored numerous narrative works, culminating with La muerte feliz de William Carlos Williams (Candaya, 2022) and Borinquen Field (Editora Educación Emergente, 2023).


For European laypeople, what is the Ramey Base?

Ramey was a United States Air Force military installation situated in Punta Borinquen, a coastal promontory in the northeast of Puerto Rico. To construct it, thousands of hectares of agricultural land were expropriated, resulting in significant economic disruption and environmental destruction. However, the most brutal aspect was the expropriation process itself: the expulsion of poor families who were left destitute. These families went from poverty to displacement in urban slums. Paradoxically, this exodus and the construction of the airstrip fostered other connections: the linkage of the Puerto Rican archipelago with the world due to the global presence of the United States. The base served as a stopover on a route between Latin America, Africa, and Europe during World War II.

What can we find in your latest novel, Borinquen Field?

The elemental particle that inspired me to write it was an anecdote told to me by Frank Vélez Quiñones. Frank spent part of his childhood in a house adjacent to the base. In that house, very unusual spiritualist sessions were held, invoking spirits not only from the region or even the planet but from other worlds. The medium responded to the invocations with names of celestial bodies and numerical expressions. I interpret symbolically that these strange ceremonies challenged the military power occupying the territory and its skies. In the novel’s text, it is proposed that in that spiritualist circle, those who did not conquer the northern armies by force reserved the right to admit and exclude all kinds of malignant or luminous spirits attached to the remnants of land not expropriated by the military. Although wars poison and drive people mad, I believe that resistance is always inevitable, and the weak often take cruel forms against their own bodies and those of their families. However, in the case of the novel, the war of resistance relied on the invention (or intuition) of imaginary energies, laborious like communication antennas. The voices of superhuman creatures, of spirits freed from war and borders, turned that neighbourhood into a strange, powerful region.

“Although wars poison and drive people mad, I believe that resistance is always inevitable”

What primarily motivated you to begin a biographical novel about the painter Raquel Helena Hoheb and the poet William Carlos Williams?

The discovery of memories, sayings, anecdotes, and fragments of the history of Mayagüez, the largest city in the west of Puerto Rico, which reached me over a century later through the reading of the “biography” made of fragments in more than one language of the mother of an American poet, William Carlos Williams. In Yes Mrs. Williams, we approach the historical past in the most indirect way possible, as if to find a nearby place, one must follow a very long route with distant stops in time and geography, only to finally return to one’s own present with the findings of the journey and the amazement at the durability of the migrant’s memory and the impression it left on her son, in contrast with the imposed forgetfulness on the islands by colonial design. I was struck by this as evidence of the evocative and occasionally deceptive power of memory and the hearing that transcribes it, much more powerful in people forced to emigrate against their will.

The book is my reading of the book of voices I found in Yes Mrs. Williams. In the body of La muerte feliz, images are added to the verbal creation of an atmosphere. They interrupt the text, opening the page to another form of reading capable of evoking almost infinite, shifting responses that, on one hand, clash with the word and, on the other, show documents close to the research process that preceded the final version of the novel. Part of the research archive is present in those images included in the book. They sustain the narrative line but also interrupt and divert it.

Do you consider yourself a follower of Laguerre’s style?

Not in the sense of belonging to a writing school inspired by his vast work. With Laguerre (1906-2005), it happened that he lived in more than one era and had a significant presence: university professor, journalist, cultural animator, social commentator, active in cultural institutions, in addition to having published since the late 1920s until the dawn of the 21st century an enormous amount of work: 14 novels, 22 stories, two plays, a study on modernism, a poetry collection, and nearly 2000 articles appearing in newspapers and magazines of the country. (I take these data from the critical edition of La llamarada (2004) edited by Marithelma Costa). When he died, he was an institutional and recognised figure: complete works published by the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture, nominations for the Nobel Prize. In a country that had a population of nearly four million in the mid-20th century, with an exodus of over a million to the United States; in a country where there are more authors than readers and few chances for books to be published and circulated, he indeed had more influence than many. Perhaps due to the fragility of memory in a colonial territory, because of generational struggles (Puerto Rico is one of those places where until very recently the Ortegian criterion of generations was assumed and employed), his role as a dominant intellectual faded after his death. However, some recent scholars have resumed his contributions. They have documented his difficult social situation due to race and racial consciousness. An advanced contribution was his environmental consciousness. What is being recognized now after decades of oblivion is that he was an untiring public intellectual and kept abreast of the changing world around him. Infiernos privados, the novel he dedicated to Aguadilla and the catastrophe caused by the expropriations and that you have studied, is truly delirious and poetic despite anachronistic stylistic traits and shows that he read his contemporaries.

“Puerto Rico is one of those places where until very recently the Ortegian criterion of generations was assumed and employed”

Does insularity exist?

The concept exists to think about, refine, and debate it. There are many kinds of insularity in various scales and situations. Some islands have been powerful centres of cultural formation, cultural turbines or engines. Numerous examples illustrate this phenomenon. In the insular or archipelagic Caribbean, complex and rich cultures were developed. It’s not my assertion, as it’s evident in many fields: arts, literature, music… Much of that richness comes from the cultural and linguistic diversity among the islands. You have a Lezama Lima and a Derek Walcott, a Wilfredo Lam and Maryse Condé and musicians like Rafael Hernández. However, there are enormous forces that hinder internal communication and cultural diffusion. Imperialism continues to erect barriers. Without known cultural contexts on the island and outside it, we have been erased or rendered invisible. What we say is not heard, what we are or were is not recorded. Literature and the arts take care of these records. The American South as a condensation of forms would not be without Faulkner or Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty and Toni Morrison, and all their tributaries in popular arts like cinema and music. A Southern novelist is embedded in a Southern imaginary.

I think the Puerto Rican imaginary needs to be recovered daily, congregated, conceived, recorded, disseminated, lost, and begun again. Sometimes, the encounters happen in diasporic communities as happened in Harlem, New York, in the first half of the 20th century and later. That is to say, the cultures of the fragmented islands always seek ways to create links. Among those links, the circulation of books should be tightened, reaching readers with whom, despite the differences, we share a common language. To be specific: that our books reach the bookstores of your country.

What was PR3: Aguirre?

It is the title of one of my books, which I would describe as a documentary novel, as it intertwines interviews, fantastic stories, and chronicles. The PR 3 is a ring road. One of its sections in the south of the main island of the Puerto Rican archipelago stretches between a neighbourhood called Jobos and the town of Salinas. In that area of sugar cane mills since the 19th century, a company town called Central Aguirre was founded around 1899, owned by a group of Boston capitalists. The book has two sections: “Boston” and “The Islands.” The first is like a gallery of portraits with the stories of the Bostonians who formed the company. From those characters remain archives: vital anecdotes, commercial connections, genealogies, 19th-century Bostonian institutions. In the second part, “The Islands,” stories, anecdotes, legends, and interviews with boriquans, who descended from workers and enslaved people who lived there since the times of the Spanish Empire.

The company town was founded in 1899 shortly after the US invasion of Puerto Rico and closed as a productive centre in 1990. I was interested in the cultural practices and the aesthetic and moral design that prompted the town’s foundation. That town occupied a space where communities already existed, founded as satellites of a slave-holding culture and also producers of adjustments to slavery and forced labour, popular medicine, violence, incantations, rituals, music, stories. An ancient history, even older than the 19th-century settlements.

“I started from a linear figure: the road. That line of about 9 kilometres can be travelled in at least two directions, besides the paths that cross or intersect it”

I started from a linear figure: the road. That line of about 9 kilometres can be travelled in at least two directions, besides the paths that cross or intersect it. The plot stopped in Aguirre as a central node but the broad, inclusive scale did not entirely disappear. Interpreting that cartography according to the logic of the spatial distribution of a colonial capitalist economy, the town of Aguirre was a centre or pole of extraction, and its surroundings up to the villages of Guayama, Salinas constituted a periphery. Everything was connected.

In the book, residues of the surrounding spaces remain, known in the region as “el batey de Aguirre.” Among them are interviews with characters, and the presence of “bomba music” in the Jobos neighbourhood, one of the most environmentally contaminated yet richest in memories, is evoked. From this variety of scales along the road emerges a diversity of forms, registers, tones. Regarding Aguirre, the company town was a controlled social experiment, or modelled according to a segregationist pattern, as if the design were a spillover from the laboratory’s order. There is some relation between the laboratory’s design and the Fordist design of the factory, I suppose.

Faced with the feeling of an island immobilised in notions that do not align, where “one can hardly breathe”, to quote from the end of Rosario Ferré’s short story Jardín de polvo, I have been moved by the project of a literature of connections: tracing escape and exchange routes, from outside to inside and from the island outward. However, not to total rupture, but like a comet whose thread, or if you prefer, umbilical cord, remains, so that among the networks of those paths, there are echoes, resonances, correspondences. PR 3 is one of those material paths that, with some reading, opens its exits.

What impacted you the most from your time at UCLA and New York University?

I spent several years of my youth at both universities during times of great political and social agitation. A university, as you know, is only one of the cultural focal points of a social space in time. Los Angeles, one of the first megalopolises of the 20th century, a vacant centre surrounded by suburbs, cannot be compared with the dense core of New York.

At UCLA, I studied urban and regional planning, which is curious because if there is a place shaped by market forces without central planning, it is Los Angeles. I was part of a group of ethnic minority students: African Americans, Chicanos, and I from Puerto Rico. The core of that training was to transfer to our countries a whole vision towards designing regional plans in developing states. I practised what I learned only in a certain fondness for maps and cartographic links compatible with my previous studies in comparative literature. Maps are repositories of records and memories. I am fascinated by maps and their ability to capture the deep scales of particular spaces. Within a home lies a universe, yet when situated on a regional map, that same home can be interpreted within the broader context of expansive, even global, spaces.

“NYU, of course, is an urban university, and the environment was part of the academic experience: the cinemas, many bookstores that have now disappeared”

Returning to Los Angeles, I could not locate myself. It seemed vast and strange to me, also because I was a woman in a time of transitions. I did participate in political activities, as in Puerto Rico I had joined an independence organisation and in Los Angeles there were the struggles of the Farm Workers union and some leftist party. I don’t have many memories related to moving around the city, which devoured time because, at first, I did not have a car, but rather of the surroundings: the Pacific coast, excursions to San Diego and Baja California, a trip to San Francisco, where I experienced brutal segregationist racism. On the other hand, reviewing to answer your question, I realise that my most enduring impressions of the Angeleno space come from cinema and literature.

NYU, of course, is an urban university, and the environment was part of the academic experience: the cinemas, many bookstores that have now disappeared. I studied Latin American literature at a time when there was a remarkable curriculum. Moreover, I repeat, the urban space was part of the university experience, with its class contrasts, like the underground slums and ethnic and racial minority communities that were later displaced. All this in the last stages of the Vietnam War and moments of political agitation. Those experiences deserve a more detailed response.

What is Cayey like? What does it mean to you?

Cayey is a town. It is not yet an emptied town, like one we visited in Spain decades ago, which seemed to me a stamp of petrified time. This place where I was born and live has had significance in my country’s history: the foundation of a socialist party, a painter Ramon Frade, a writer as laborious as Laguerre, Miguel Meléndez Muños. And the rural area where my mother was from and the poor neighbourhoods of my father and paternal grandparents. Also, I believe it has been a curse, a military base that is now a somewhat diminished university campus, as the university has been nearly destroyed by budget cuts. But I still haven’t answered your question. Cayey is the place where I first saw the light, and here I have a visceral attachment.

Can you recommend young Puerto Rican authors?

Ah, lists are always unjust. I will mention young and not-so-young authors I have recently enjoyed: Vanessa Vilches, Beatriz Llenín, Ana María Rúa, Luis Othoniel Rosa, Juan Carlos Quiñones, René Duchesne Sotomayor, Marithelma Costa, Rafael Acevedo, Xavier Valcárcel, Áurea Sotomayor. There are more, but time does not allow. I believe abundant writing, even to the point of overflow, is a vital sign.

How do you see your country today?

In a terrible moment. Perhaps it is worth thinking in cycles and long durations and betting on the possibilities that resistance and combativeness, which are not new, can be destroyed but will leave memories or traces and stimuli. We are expelled by neoliberal colonial policies that destroy cultural, educational, and social institutions. On the other hand, associations, unions, and various communities have been very combative in the last decade. This is because the debt scheme eradicated all remnants of self-government replacing them with a dictatorial board controlled by the US Congress. This board, without exaggeration, controls the colony’s budget to favour interests of financial speculators. Again, and in the current context of the human species, on the one hand, pockets of resistance remain, while on the other, there is a need to view our independence project in its solidarity links, not only in the Caribbean and Latin American context but in the light and shadows of other peoples’ experiences.

Source: educational EVIDENCE

Rights: Creative Commons

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