Sunday, July 19, 2020

La Literatura de Puerto Rico! Interview with Novelist & Literary Critic, Dr. Luis Othoniel Rosa

      Author, theorist, and Spanish professor, Dr. Luis Othoniel Rosa has written a novel ripe for today’s historical moment. His novel, first published as Caja de Fractales, has recently been translated into English and titled, Down with Gargamel! 
     Both titles point to concurring aspects within the narrative. The Spanish language title immediately lays out the idea of fractal dimensions (also termed “fractured”) and I’m thinking here of Benoit Mandelbrot’s 1967 mathematical treatise, a study on fractal patterns, dimensions, complexities which can be applied to society, to economics. The more recent new title of the English translation, Down with Gargamel! takes the surreal and absurdist aspect of the novel: the appearance of Smurfs continually at the mercy of power hungry Gargamel, the dead reawakened via obituary story- telling, ghostly beings entering a Gaudi-like cathedral in ethereal landscapes.  It brings to mind Mexican theorist, Sayak Valencia’s book-length critical essay, Gore Capitalism, which dissects a violent, dehumanized world, a place where its citizen-subjects are anesthetized by the “gore” or corruption of economic polarization and destruction. Rosa has taken Valencia’s theory and illustrated it in this fictional world that contains within itself an unreliable narrator who sometimes speaks to the reader, whose environmental dimensions are caving in on itself via black holes, whose characters continue to write versions of a book entitled La Dignidad as a sign of hope that all may not be lost … maybe.  While Sayak Valencia’s theoretical essay looks to Mexico, Rosa sets his scenes in Puerto Rico, New York, and Colorado Springs.  
     Down with Gargamel! is Rosa’s first novel that has been translated into English. He is also the author of Otra vez me alejo (published in Buenos Aires in 2012 and in Puerto Rico in 2013).  He has also written a book of essays, Comienzos para una estética anarquista: Borges con Macedonio (Chile, 2016).  We are so fortunate to have Luis Othoniel Rosa on La Bloga today, to talk with us about his work.  

Montes: Thank you, Luis, for joining La Bloga today!  Tell us about yourself.

Rosa:  I am the son of two teachers of Spanish in Puerto Rico who are also writers. Puerto Rico is an archipelago of islands in the Caribbean that is currently the colony without democracy of the US Empire, where 3.5 million Puerto Ricans live in, and the mother of 4.5 million Puerto Ricans living in the continental US. I was able to become a professor in the US because of the sweat and blood of my ancestors who, in their struggle, where able to create a culture of resistance to Empire as well as a truly public University that was tuition free and that gave me the blessing of being able to pursue my calling. That university is today under siege by Wall Street and the Oversight Fiscal Committee approved by the PROMESA Bill which is, in all effects, a financial dictatorship. I write books that try to build bridges between experimental forms of art and literature in Latin America and radical anti-capitalist traditions such as anarchism and feminism. The classroom and the kitchen are the spaces in which I feel most comfortable. I have a big family and a huge network of friends that protect me, and I write and live to make them proud, and to help protect them in return. Finally, I am also the editor-in-chief of El Roommate: Colectivo de Lectores, a website that for nine years has published reviews of books by independent presses in Spanish, Portuguese and sometimes in English.  I am overflowed with joy for appearing in La Bloga, the longest-established blog promoting Chicana and Latina literature in the US, my extended community, and the type of virtual spaces I can feel at home. 

Montes:  Gracias, Luis. So happy to have you with us! First let’s talk translation;  the Spanish title, Caja de Fractales and the English title, Down with Gargamel!  How did these titles come about and how are you thinking of both of them in terms of how you began crafting the novel.  

Rosa:  The poetic structure of this novel is inspired by the form of the fractal. In fractals, the patterns you see in the infinitesimal structures like atoms repeat themselves in the megastructures of galaxies. Zoom in or zoom out, one sees the same variations of patterns. Poetically speaking, I wanted to write a novel in which the smallest of our daily interactions could have a viral effect in the political organization of the world, a novel in which, for example, helping the terminally ill neighbor to die with dignity, or feeding an unfortunate friend who is hungry, those small micropolitical acts, through a fractal equation, could ignite global revolutions. That is why although the novel is set during the painful collapse of global capitalism and the birth of a new world, the characters are not the protagonists of those great societal changes, but merely a group of friends trying to get by, commenting the news of the day but also taking care of each other, taking care of their dead, too.
     I think the title in Spanish refers to the more conceptual aspect of the novel. Whereas the title in English, created by the translator and poet Noel Black, alludes to the silliest aspect of this fractal novel which is this small blue beings who have a quite anarchist communal life and are always hunted by an evil capitalist or catholic tyrant who wants to destroy them. The smurfs first appear in the novel when the characters are telling the story of a real life activist group in Poland, The Orange Alternative, who protested the government in the 1980’s by dressing as orange smurfs and demanding the resignation of Gargamel, given that open protest against the government was immediately met with political persecution. In a world where disaster capitalism does not stop, and where our institutions and corporations value money over life and health -a necro-capitalist system that prays on the dead- I wanted to write a novel about how simple face to face mutual aid, as in the smurf’s commune, could show the light towards a post-capitalist society. Lastly, I was very lucky that Noel Black was interested in translating this difficult novel. I believe he did a fantastic job, making use of his own poetic mastery to insist on how laughter and absurdity in the face of trauma can be a weapon for the empowerment of the vulnerable. There is power in laughter. Noel Black’s prolific poetic oeuvre is very much connected to this, to how laughing at the quotidian silliness of life under capitalism could be a form of resistance and even a revolutionary form.

Montes: I see that and this leads to hope in the novel especially with the ongoing writing of the book, La Dignidad.  I’m also thinking of the quote on page 29:  “But all stories—even the saddest—carry the seeds of rebirth.” Do you feel there is a hopeful aspect here?

Rosa: I did find it hopeful when I was writing it, even joyful. But then, a year after publishing it in Spanish, I read it again in order to give a talk, and I found that the novel was dark as fuck. It is a novel about a world that is dying. A world coughing its last breaths. Then a few months after the novel is published in Argentina, Hurricane María happens in Puerto Rico, and so many people die because of the cruelty and disdain for life of our institutions in the latest installment of disaster capitalism. It was in that context, flying back and forth from Puerto Rico to the US, seeing the pain of my islands, witnessing the despair of my family and friends, that I read the novel again. I regretted writing it at all. Nor I am at peace with it again. The very first page of the novel opens with an aerial view of Puerto Rico under the dark, without electricity, amidst ruins, and most the population trapped without supplies, and, a few months after the publication, that imagined and dystopian island became a reality and slapped me in the face, a reality check, thousands death, countless homeless and sick and hungry, and the Wall Street vultures flying over. 
     If there is hope in the novel, I find it in two aspects: first, as you say, in that experimental and viral fictional book titled La Dignidad, a collectively authored book that keeps changing as the dead count becomes larger. That imaginary book was inspired by Black Lives Matter and how exhausting and necessary it is to remember the names of those killed by the police, by ICE, those Central American children dying today in cages that will be remembered in history as concentration camps… La Dignidad is a participatory book that always updates the names and the obituaries of the dead, but also that documents the increasingly creative modes of insurrection. The second hopeful aspect of the novel is a generational one. As capitalism collapses, a new generation of children grows up in an increasingly fucked up world, and they grow wild and fierce to the point that they don’t need the grown-ups anymore. I’ll leave it there so as to not spoil the ending of the novel. Now I am trying to write an utopian novel with a happy ending (I learned my lesson!), but only the gods know if I’ll be able to pull it off.

Montes: Perhaps the comedic aspects of Down with Gargamel! will assist you in this new writing, because there are so many.  There is Gargamel’s cat making appearances, or the parodic Cervantes element using Trilcinea/Dulcinea as a character.  Unlike Don Quixote where Dulcinea never makes an appearance (Cervantes makes her a figment of Quixote’s twisted imagination), Trilcinea speaks and acts. Yet, she seems part of the fractal nature of the narrator’s head—hopeful yet not.  Do tell!

Rosa: Yes! Trilcinea (which is the main character of my previous novel, Otra vez me alejo) is a play on Dulcinea, yet a sad Dulcinea, a triste Dulcinea instead of a dulce one, Trilcinea. In my first novel, like in Don Quxote, she never really appears. In this one, she appears and is absolutely fundamental for the plot, yet, in the last chatper, we realize something about her and the entire novel, right?
The one recurring joke of the novel is that the perspective of the cat frequently interrupts the plot. Cats have a very centering role in my daily life. Whenever I am anxious or worried I try to imagine what are the worries and anxieties of the cat and how she deals with them and I find a bit of peace. Cats care about what keeps us alive and healthy: food, grooming, sociability, sun, play, being pretty, stretching and doing yoga, etc… We are very silly beings in the perspective of the cats.  My cat was sick when I was writing that novel and he died last year. He was an amazing cat who lived with us for 13 years and taught me Portuguese. My partner, you see, is Brazilian, but her Spanish is perfect, so she rarely speaks to me in Portuguese. But she used to speak to the cat in Portuguese all the time. I also started speaking to the cat in Portuguese since that was the cat’s “native tongue”, and very quickly we discovered the cat kept a diary in Portuguese in which he wrote about his days in captivity and referred to us as “the authorities.” A revolutionary journal that would catalyze a feline insurrection. This happened because my partner and I used to interpret what the cat wanted to say to us as well as his inner dialogue in Portuguese. So our many houses in these last 13 nomadic years of job search, was a constant three-way conversation with lots of prosopopeia and shifting perspectives, and I think the spirit of that reality invaded the novel. 
Laughter is also a form of mourning. Anyone with big families knows that the true healing moment of any funeral is when one starts making jokes about the dead relative, a dignified descralization of the very person whose death is making us suffer. Dark humor is an armor against sadness. My Brazilian cat knew that.

Luis Othoniel Rosa con gatos, catedrales, y smurfs! (photo by Ingrid Robyn)
Montes:  I love this communication you had with your cat.  Also, the return throughout the novel to obituaries and the stories of the dead reminded me of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and the maquiladora femicides on the Mexican border.  In his descriptions of these women’s lives, victims of “gore capitalism,” he brings them to life by telling their stories.  How do you see this working in your novel?  

Rosa: Bolaño is a fundamental influence in my work ever since I read The Savage Detectives when I was sixteen and decided to dedicate my life to literature. In Bolaño’s novels literature is not a profession, not even a fine art, but an anti-capitalist way of living. Perhaps that is why death surrounds the worlds of Bolaño’s characters. For Bolaño the world was ruled by two equally destructive forces: fascism, on one hand, (not a surprise as he experienced the rise of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile), and the cruelest form of capitalism, on the other (also not a surprise as he exiled himself in Mexico during the neoliberalization of the country). When one reads the novels of Bolaño, especially if one is young and excited about poetry, one leaves the book thinking that the most nerdish passion for literature can, at least for an instance, emancipate us form this world of death and even, maybe, counter it in a humble way (as in the ending of Distant Star). Bolaño is hopeful even when surrounded by death. I think a similar thing happens in the writings of the Mexican feminist philosopher Sayak Valencia, and her book Gore Capitalism in which there is something about literature, about how it changes our perception of the world and how it could counter the morbid aesthetics that glorify death and violence in our mainstream culture. Since the internet was born, the videos that humans watch the most around the globe in the internet are porn videos. And most porn on the internet is a glorification of violence and domination. The videos that we watch the most are cat videos. And most cat videos are about the joy for life. I wish I could write a long novel that could do what cat videos do. But that is not the case. I’ve been writing about the dead for too long. As a twelve-year-old, I initiated my “writing career” by writing obituaries for a local newspaper in Bayamón. I didn’t stop. Over the years I have written many dozens of obituaries about people I loved or cared about. It is a small, disregarded genre, that for me ought to be a most important one. The obituary tries to return dignity to a life that starts to disappear. Each one of us is a web of relations, and that web only dies when we are forgotten. The obituary is an attempt at dignity, at spitting in the face of oblivion. I find comfort in that.

Montes:  The novel is in six chapters that move back and forth in time:  Chapter 1, 2028; Chapter 2, 2017; Chapter 3, 2037; Chapter 4, 2701; Chapter 5, 2033; Chapter 6, 2017.  Tell us about your decisions for the structure of the novel.  

Rosa: It was with that novel that I started to think about a question that now I have incorporated in many essays published and in the two books I am writing now: how to think in the time of our species? That is, in our world we are forced to think fast, to inhabit the extreme velocity of the media and the shock culture, to just think about our individuality, what is good for me now, and there is no time to think about anything else. That velocity of thinking is the fuel of the status quo. World systems are not born and do not die in that fast temporality. Slavery was abolished in the US in 1863 and we still live under that legacy. Moreover, the American economy subsists based on its exploitation of slave labor around the world and the colonial domination of the Latin American resources. We are still living in the world that started in 1492, a world of colonialism, genocide, slavery, hyper-productivity, and white supremacy. In my novels I try to explore what a different perception of time would feel like. What happens when we enter that long temporality in which we can fully grasp how our individual life is part of the life of a much larger and older collective animal? Those of us who think that Capitalism is setting us on a path of self-destruction also wonder if we have imagined what post-capitalist worlds would look like?  I cannot find a better task for the artists of language than that today, to be the imaginators of pos-capitalists worlds.

Montes:  And on that subject of what post-capitalist worlds would look like, why choose cathedrals as spaces of refuge?  

Rosa: I was actually thinking about a classical book of history that blew my mind some years back, Les Temps de cathédrales by George Duby, a book that tells the story of medieval and gothic cathedrals and how they dramatically changed the perception of reality in the rural communities of catholic Europe. Many anarchist thinkers were inspired by how medieval cathedrals become never ending works of communal art that included the entire township, a truly collective form of art. I did not mean to use the cathedral as a religious thing. For the most part, I think Christianity has been and is a very dark force in our world. Of course, there is a long tradition from Sor Juana to the Liberation Theology in Latin America, of which Archbishop Romero was part of, in which the church is used as a tool to help the poor and confront power, but, in all honesty, even though my family is part of that theological tradition that insists that the church could be used as tool for the liberation of the poor, I don’t see it that way. I think there is nothing to rescue from that religious institution and I think the next generations should let it die. I am not an atheist, though, precisely because I find atheism to be so fucking white, so western, so positivist, and so disdainful of the spiritual knowledge of black, brown and indigenous cultures around the world. Western atheism provides arguments for the colonization of peoples based in a twisted idea of rationality, by which the values of the white liberal tribes are to be accepted as universal, while the millenarian knowledge and practices of other peoples are supposed to be discarded as superstitious. There is nothing logical about that Western idea of rationality. So, in Down with Gargamel!, as in my previous novel and the one I am finishing now, there is a form of spirituality that possesses the writing. But, in lack of other words, I would call it a pagan spirituality, one that is immanent rather than transcendental. Transcendental religions (like the religions of the Book, but also to a point the Greco-Roman philosophy) believe in divine beings that transcend our material world, and inhabit heavens outside of our reality. Western rationality operates under that superstition of the duality between the universal forms and the lesser local and mundane forms. On the contrary, immanent spiritualities also believe in divine beings much bigger and stronger than our individual selves, but those divine forces are not transcendental, they inhabit our reality, they are made of matter, like the wind, or the sun, or pachamama. Perhaps, when I talk about “thinking in the time of the species” I am invoking a divine entity that lives through us, through an ever expanding living us. Maybe art is the old form to connect with that spirituality.

Montes:  Earlier you mentioned that you are working on an utopian novel.  What is your focus in this present writing?

 Luis Othoniel Rosa
Rosa:  Actually, I am working simultaneously on two books. The first one is a very long sci-fi and utopian novel titled El gato en el remolino [The Cat in the Maelstrom] that I expect to finish in both Spanish and English by the end of this year of the pandemic (to finish the manuscript, the publication will probably take a couple more years). It tells the story of the birth and life of a collective intelligence simply called El Animal for the span of 377 years. El Animal is born out of a technology that allows humans to connect their brain for a couple of hours with the brain of another for intercerebral synapsis. As we keep connecting to each other, we happily begin to lose our individual memories and we enter a neuronal spiral that takes over the world and makes us more diverse than ever. The structure of the novel is written in a rigorous spiral structure, carefully following the natural math of the Fibonacci numbers.  
The second book I am working on is a philosophical inquiry about those things that cannot be governed, simply titled, On Unruliness, in which each chapter arrives at different conclusions about unruliness by studying very specific case studies: Kropotkin’s subversion of Social Darwinism, a refutation of Waltern Benjamin’s conception of modernity and information, the popularity of the figure of the witch in today’s radical feminist movement (based on Silvia Federici), the decolonial pedagogy of Luisa Capetillo, the unruliness of popular conceptual characters such as Don Quijote and Frankenstein’s monster, and the insurrection of the indigenous Zapatistas in Chiapas. 
During this summer I have participate in two awesome collective projects, one is the  Loudreaders Trade School which are zoom-based free seminars about post-capitalist architecture theory. The second is the Dossier Marta Aponte Alsinain which a group of readers decided to write reviews of the entire oeuvre of, who is for me, the best Puerto Rican novelist of all time, Marta Aponte Alsina. She writes experimental books in which the Caribbean is the unknown center of our dystopic modernity. 
Montes:  Tell us a little more about Marta Aponte Alsina. 

Rosa: The literature written in Puerto Rico, usually in Spanish, is conveniently ignored by the literary markets in the US that famously do not translate, as well as the literary markets in Spain and Latin America, precisely because Carribbean literature resists the linguistic, formal and cultural divisions and classification of White Western Knowledge. The Carribbean is the very center of the modern world that started in 1492, the place in which all the white empires fougth for power, the first destination of the Slave Trade and the first genocide of Native American cultures. To understand us, one needs to be proficient not just in multiple languages, but in brutal mix cultures that is our world, a palimpsest of resitances and colonizations piled on top of resistances and colonization. Some call it barroche, but that word does not even begin to decipher the nature of our artistic expressions. I believe the many novels of Marta Aponte Alsina, which circulate almost exclusively in the Spanish Carribbean are the ones that have best told the story of the modern western world from the Carribbean lense. I am sure she will be translated soon and become a crucial literary reference for the rest of the world in the years to come, as readers can finally find her books hidden from the mainstream literary markest in the US and Spain. In the Dossier I mentioned above, we review almost the entirety of her oeuvre including a long interview by Julio Ramos. For those who can read Spanish and are patient and passionate readers, I recommend PR3 Aguirre and La muerte feliz de William Carlos William.

Montes:  Muchisimas gracias, Luis for joining us today on La Bloga.  We are wishing you much success and I’m encouraging you, dear La Bloga reader, to read Luis Othoniel Rosa’s Down with Gargamel! Also, check out his website, El Roommate: Colectivo de Lectores. The website is available in Span

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