Freewheeling It with Iconic Latinx Poet and Writer Giannina Braschi: Rolando Pérez Interviews Giannina Braschi
On Banana Republics of the Americas, Loud Americans, the Aesthetics of Mestizaje, the Zoom Look, Illusions, Delusions, Trump, and Plagues…
ROLANDO PÉREZ: Do you think your sense of humor has something to do with being Puerto Rican?
GIANNINA BRASCHI: It has to do with being out of place, with not being taken seriously, and having something to say.
RP: In your work, there is a lot of humor—in the uncanny things your characters say—in the absurdist situations they find themselves in—and sometimes the humor begins at the get-go with titles such as Yo-Yo Boing! and United States of Banana, which in the latter case is not only comical, but also ironic.
GB: And these days people are thinking of the United States as precisely that, a banana republic.
RP: Yes, especially after four years with Trump where he had all these corrupt people protecting him as they would a dictator in a banana republic.
RP: Yes, absolutely.
GB: We could write an aesthetic of the Americas, and we would find that principles of organization show that the United States is part of the banana republics of the Americas.
RP: That’s interesting because one of most widely read Latin American novels in this country for a long time was García Márquez One Hundred Years of Solitude. And the novel begins with a banana cargo train that arrives in Macondo: because the banana industry in this country was created through the exploitation of the banana growers in Latin America. And now we have become another banana republic.
GB: The United States was always that, but we never recognized it. And not only that, but there is an aesthetic of mestizaje here as well: we mix foods, we mix everything. So, we have an aesthetic of impurity. Big splashes, big spaces, big cars. Bad taste can be very good taste in America. Somos un mamarracho multicultural. The same can be said of our loudness. We are loud people.
RP: It’s true what you say. This country is very loud. It’s funny because there is this stereotype of Latinos being loud, but the Anglos are so loud. You get in a train here and the first thing you notice is how loud people are. I’ve never heard people talking so loud in Spain, France, or Italy—or anywhere in Latin America. But here you’re sitting in a train and you’re listening, whether you want to or not, to other people’s conversations.
GB: It’s always the other who is accused of being loud. When they say that Latinos are loud it’s because of the difference—to them Spanish sounds louder.
RP: I think the loudness in this country is because loudness goes along with everything else that is supposed to be big. But in the last year we have had to contract a bit during the pandemic so that everyone is now leading small lives at home.
GB: That’s so true. We’re no longer in big spaces but rather in the small frame of a laptop or a cell phone on Zoom. But I don’t think it’s about being introverted, nor necessarily smaller. We have been forced to become slow. It’s very strange for an American to be slow. Zoom works like those medieval retablos. People appear in rows of little windows. The perspective has flattened into the screen, hierarchical and hieratical, and we have forgotten that perspective was discovered in the Renaissance. I love the Renaissance, but I never liked the aesthetics of the middles ages very much. On the other hand, the introspection and the flatness of the middle ages lead to the Renaissance.
RP: How do you think all the events of the past year (2020) have changed the way you approach your writing?
GB: All the instability has made us more concerned, because you never know what’s going to happen from moment to moment. You have to be very alert. And that creates a new writing, a young writing, inspired by these incredible moments of precarity.
RP: Do you mean because of politics?
GB: Yes, no one can ignore politics at this moment because politics is in your face all the time. And so, politics has to be a source of inspiration in your life. I have never felt so bothered by politics as I feel now. I have been disturbed every day during the Trump years.
RP: Is it because of the brutality of the Trump government?
GB: The brutality, the lack of humanity, the constant firings. To fire a person from a job is to cut his head off. And he kills them—his own people—just like that, in tweet. And to fire someone in this country also means to cut off their communication because your job is your contact with society. You take away someone’s job—you leave them quite empty.
RP: Firing someone is a form of violence.
GB: That’s right.
RP: How do you think the pandemic we have been living through changes your writing or writing in general?
GB: It makes you consider life as a disease. First you think of it in a personal way, but it’s something that is happening to the collective. And the same hysteria you can experience as an individual, we have it as a collective. In short, fear of death is here, of the mortality of human beings. How long are we going to last? Why are we so fearful of it? Why is it that some people don’t care at all and others are so conscious of it? I think about these things—how ironic it is that the pandemic has crossed all the borders that Trump wanted to create. It reminds me of Cervantes’s exemplary novel, The Jealous Old Man from Extremadura where an old man builds walls around his young bride to enclose her from the outside, so no other man can have her, but then suddenly a young guy shows up—with something as fragile, invisible, and intangible as music—and he breaks through all the walls and gets the girl. The music is the unpredictable, and this is what has happened with the pandemic.
“Braschi smuggles into a US imagination a sensibility created in and across a hemispheric Américan history, aesthetic, and culture. And she does so to create hard-hitting, no-holds-barred, mind-expanding story- worlds. She wakes us to the world in and across languages, ontologies, metafictional epistemologies…. Braschi’s magisterial corpus will at once build on a planetary literary past and anticipate a reader today and tomorrow. I look forward to seeing, too, how new generations of multi- and translanguaging Latinx authors and comic book creators will be inspired to shape radically experimental fictions. I look forward to seeing what materializes from Braschi’s invitation for us to look into and beyond dreams of the self and to open to the limitless possibilities for transforming tomorrow’s selves in the world.”Frederick Luis Aldama (Poets, Philosophers, Lovers)
RP: It’s the ridiculous illusion of control.
GB: Remember in Oedipus Rex when a plague has stricken the city. Men, women, and children are dying. They go to Oedipus and ask him to find them a cure, and he says, “it doesn’t come from me,” the way Trump says “it comes from China.” But Tiresias tells Oedipus: you are the origin of this plague. And Trump is the origin of this plague. He is the pollution, the collusion. Bringing the past to the present brings contagion. And that’s what Trump tried to do with “Make America Great Again”— bring dead bodies from the past to the present. The past should be left in the past. America can be great but only in the moment. Leave the dead alone. Don’t bring the dead back. When you bring the dead back, that’s why you have a pandemic.
RP: That’s brilliant. Is that what you’ve been working on lately in your new book?
GB: Yes. Whenever you have the past (what is dead) presenting itself as an agenda to fix the present moment by taking us back—to the dead—you have contagion, pest, collusion, pollution, delusion—not illusion. Illusion is hope. Delusion is a past illusion presenting itself as hope. Hope is something that has not happened yet—but when it happens—and the happening has already died—and been buried—and other present moments have come forward—and have made us live other present moments—and a dead body—a dead moment comes back—presenting itself as if it were alive—and it is dead—and it doesn’t tell us that it is dead—that is not an illusion—that is a delusion.
RP: That’s beautiful, Giannina, beautiful as always. Thank you.
About Rolando Pérez
Rolando Pérez is Chair of the Romance Languages Department of Hunter College. He is a professor of Spanish and Latin American literature and philosophy. His research focuses on the nexus of literature, philosophy, and the visual arts. He has published on Nietzsche, Deleuze, Guattari, Badiou, Las Casas, Martí, Dussel, Anzaldúa, and Braschi. His books include Severo Sarduy and the Neo-Baroque Image of Thought in the Visual Arts, The Lining of Our Souls: Excursions into Selected Paintings of Edward Hopper and Tea Ceremonies for Winter. His creative writing has been featured in The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. Prior to his career in higher education, he studied theater in Manhattan and flew commercial airplanes. Pérez was born in Camaguey, Cuba and lives in Brooklyn.