ON THE PROCESS:
Ojalá is my favorite word in Spanish. (I still have to learn Spanish.) Paty described this project—soon to be an independent press—to me when we met last summer, the idea of pairing illustrators with writers to create "publicaciones sin reputación." This was the summer after my first year of my MFA, two years after I'd quit my job/career path to become whatever they call a writer. Sin reputación was my game.
By the following summer, Paty had come out with seven publications already—one a month—all illustrated, experimental texts. I'd gone to visit her gorgeous country in February, and I wanted to pay homage to that land for creating Paty (ergo our friendship) and the intention behind Papalota Negra—both beautiful spaces for all sorts of existence: natural, random, brutal, incisive, and above all unrelenting in their dawn-pink and life-blue understanding of the world (read: with the grays and the greens and other colors that move).
But who was I, a first-generation Indian-American, to address the politics and the history of a land so far removed from one of my heritages, and so deeply affected by the other?
So I waited for (read: only intermittently asked) Paty to match me to an illustrator (Paty who knew to wait until my thesis was done), and, in time, I realized that my insecurity was worth much less than my homage. It is true that all writing is political and all existence is historical, but both should save room for respect.
Come June, Paty introduced me to Alejandra Marroquín (Alita), an artist drawing images that were in need of words. The story was of love and abuse and redemption/renaissance, these gorgeous illustrations of objects and hands and their open interactions. With a small sample, I wrote a poem about a bird with a thick plume blue, beak gold. Eyes alabaster. When the whole series came, I scrapped it. The work deserved something more.
The images came with an order in mind, but I—with my circumventive and riddling narrative style—needed to leave room for surprise. I wanted to reorder the illustrations. After some discussion we agreed to a trial draft, which was risky because of the 10 day deadline. And then began the many hours of staring.
"Ojalá" and "pain-shine" were in mind at the time, along with a small dose of aforementioned homage. But I needed an image of El Salvador (after all, PN is published by and for salvadoreños), and ekphrasis is ekphrasis. The flag came to mind.
"Sweet blue," "fall mountains," all these moving phrases came next. On the page, the definition of pain-shine looked like a gun, accidentally, and thus a new intention was born. (On various pages the gun shoots various ways, and on the last, the bullet ojalá.) I printed out the drawings and next to each image I wrote a flurry of words, of inspiration, of creation, and ignored over half of the lines. The abuse narrative and the history of abusive histories in the world aligned well (luck, perhaps), and ojalá, in the end, was written.
Still, translation was to come. (This part was tricky because I had left the States for a family/heritage trip to East Africa. I was in Tanzania during edits and in Kenya when published, in constant reminder of the implications of different imperial/colonial inheritances around the globe.) Here I waded in trust and did not—most likely out of that same insecurity—tell Paty about my mental addition of her country's flag. She knew nothing of my intention to look at the history of El Salvador as a narrative of love and abuse and redemption/renaissance, an intention that no writer should keep from her translator.
Yet still she translated majestically. "Avanzando" came in place of "time passed" and the word added beauty to movement. "Caen montañas" replaced the homonym "fall"—the right phrase for a land of volcanos—and I wondered is everything more gorgeous in Spanish? But one sentence swayed me: "El tiene un nombre."
I wrestled with the addition of this new line and had many chances to request its removal. But instead I settled on my trust in Paty, on the idea that she had some reason to add it. And many months later I realized that she was right—it's important to say "He had a name." He always did. Violence is more powerful unnamed, a power bestowed by the victim (knowing or not) onto the oppressor by the very political act of not stating its name. And so ojalá was translated.
Whether between two people or two histories, two lovers or empires or lands, forgiveness can only come after violence is named, after it is defined, after it is done—and even then, only hopefully.