Saturday, September 27, 2008

Guest columnist: Lydia Gil

Puerto Rican writer Marta Aponte Alsina visited Colorado State University in Fort Collins September 23, to talk about Puerto Rican literature, the writing process, and her latest novel, Sexto Sueño (published last November in Madrid by Veintisieteletras).

Sexto sueño features a trippy juxtaposition of historical figures with little-known connections to the island: first is Sammy Davis, Jr., whose mother was Puerto Rican and who used to say: "My mother was born in San Juan. So I'm Puerto Rican, Jewish, colored and married to a white woman. When I move into a neighborhood, people start running four ways at the same time." Then comes Nathan Leopold, of Leopold & Loeb fame, the wealthy, University of Chicago child-prodigy, who in 1924 murdered 14-year old Bobby Franks, just to prove he and his friend/lover could in fact commit "the perfect murder". It turns out that after receiving 2 life sentences and spending 3 decades in prison, Leopold was exiled to a territory of the US, located far away from the continental US... You guessed it! In Puerto Rico he studied birds, taught mathematics at the UPR, and worked as an x-ray technician in a hospital. He willed his body to the UPR for medical research, which sets the novel in motion.

The story is told by Dr. Violeta Cruz, an anatomist in her 70s, who dissects bodies at work and composes boleros in her spare time. The character is based on a real person, a Puerto Rican woman said to be equally at ease in front of a corpse or a guitar, and who is an espiritista to boot! And if this crew were not enough to guarantee the reader's attention, there's also the character of the Egyptian mummy (one of three mysteriously residing on the UPR campus) whom the writer names Irenaki.

Aponte Alsina, who started her talk by unearthing connections between the sugar cane industry in Ft. Collins and the island, said her novel emerged precisely from connections made possible by colonialism. She says such connections allow her to "claim Harlem" as her own and, along the way, "return the gaze to the other who's so accustomed to observing us." A fine concept!

When asked about the process of writing, she candidly confessed to having written a first draft, "a horrific copy of the worst of García Márquez, full of magical realism," which she abandoned shortly after meeting the real Dr. Violeta Cruz and recognizing her as the perfect narrator for her story.

Aponte Alsina published her first book at age 49, "because I did not want to publish it at 50," and reports having taken over six years to work on this novel. "For the next one, I'll work a little faster," she said. "I don't have much time left." Nonsense, I say. This woman is all energy, imagination, wisdom and courage; just the right ingredients to break out of the mold of recent Puerto Rican literature.

Lydia Gil (Puerto Rico) teaches Spanish and Latin American literature at the University of Denver. She reports on cultural and literary news for the Hispanic News Services of EFE, and is the author of Mimí's Parranda/La parranda de Mimí, a bilingual children's book
(Arte Público 2007).

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