‘This city is very generous to its poets’ / Interview with Lauri García Dueñas

Lauri and the butterflyLauri García Dueñas (San Salvador, 1980) has lived in Mexico City since 2006. Her publications include La primavera se amotina, Sucias palabras de amor, Del mar es el ahogo, El tiempo es un texto indescifrable and Cuaderno africano, and of the studies Tribus Urbanas en El Salvador and El asesinato de Roque Dalton. Mapa de un largo silencio, about the murder of the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton. Since 2010 she has taught in the Creative Writing Program of the Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana, Mexico City and currently teaches a course on Salvadoran literature at the UNAM.

MCL: Tell us a bit about your trajectory as a writer, and how you came to Mexico City…

L: In 2006 I came to do an MA in communication and culture at the UNAM. In El Salvador they had published a book called La primavera se amotina [Spring is Rising Up] in 2005, and, over there, because it’s a small country, you publish a book and, that’s it, you’re a poet.
I worked for the EFE news agency, the Spanish agency. I was working a lot, making good money, and people would say to me that it was my dream job, you have to stay there because, etc. etc. But the Heinrich Böll foundation gave me a scholarship – this is a German foundation which has a program for Central American students which brings them here to Mexico.
So, despite all that good advice, I left my stable job, that I could’ve stayed at for my whole life, in exchange for the Mexican adventure. According to me, I was coming for two and a half years, and then I was going to go back to El Salvador, something which hasn’t happened.
Then, in November 2006, I was invited to a festival in Oaxaca to read with some other women writers. When I finished my master’s I was already part of a collective called Las Poetas del Megáfono [The – female – poets of the megaphone]. There were nine girls from five countries, and we had a weekly reading, and when the moment came in which I theoretically had to go back to El Salvador, I couldn’t.
In 2008, when I finished my master’s, I decided that what I really did, what I did most, was write, in many different forms, and that this city was the one for me, that here I could do what I wanted to do.
And since then I’ve published three collections in Mexico, two books of social research in El Salvador: I’ve always kept up a relationship with El Salvador. I did some theater, an adaptation of a French play that was shown here in Mexico and in El Salvador, called Mientras más se grita menos se mata [The more you shout, the less you kill].
So, yes, I’ve done many things in these years. At the moment I am involved in libros cartoneros [DIY publishing using recycled materials]; Yaxkin Melchy and Emmanuel [Vizcaya] and I are working on distributing them. I give classes, which is another thing I didn’t think would happen.
I started to give classes when I was 30; I’d always said, ‘when I’m 60 I’ll start to do workshops’. But thanks to one of those Mexico City serendipities [entresijos!] I started early. I feel very lucky and thankful; this job gave me certain economic stability, a bit of a foothold in the city.
I started giving classes in the Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana, and now I do a seminar on Salvadoran literature at the UNAM. And that’s what I do! I write, give classes, travel, and this city has granted me all this: to have my friends, to be here… I can say that, in short, I’m a writer.

MCL: Tell us more about the libros cartoneros.

L: A libro cartonero is a book that emerges through unconventional channels, which they don’t make many copies of. Almost always it is the most common place where what we call emerging literature finds its voice, writing which is submerged, which floats up until the tip bobs above the water.
I would sum it up as strange writing and strange books, unpolished, raw, but at the same time easy to take with you. Behind them there is a manufacturing process which tries to recycle material.
They are like little mushrooms, little parasites, books which rise up from the kilos and kilos of trash in the cities. The genesis occurred, really, in Argentina in 2001 with the economic crisis. A very significant symbiosis occurred between the people who collected cardboard and the poets. And that is how the libros cartoneros arose.
In 2011, I was with Emmanuel in the metro and I asked him, if somebody wants to buy a libro cartonero, what do they have to do? There ought to be space where, if somebody wants to buy one, they’ll find all of them together. So we said, let’s put together a space. A friend, a really good guy, was opening a bookshop in La Condesa, somewhere a lot of people pass, and we asked him for a space which he wouldn’t charge us or the publishing houses or the authors for the use of.
So now there’s a more permanent form, a place where someone who is looking for the books can go. It takes serious effort to catalog, to select and present the libros cartoneros, but of all our projects and my projects, those that I’ve been involved in recently, I think the espacio cartonero is one of the ones I feel most affectionate about.

MCL: Did the making of libros cartoneros already interest you as a literary concept?

L: Listen, I think that the cartoneros project, like a lot of the things that have happened in my life, here in this city, are like musings or curiosities or premonitions that I had and that here have found their body, their material reality.
In my life I had wanted to be above and beyond consumerism; I’d been interested in the material possibilities of books; I’d had daydreams, musings, glimpses.
I came to the city when I was 25 and I had vaporosities, ideas, but in this city, this mental vapor has become more of a concept, more material. I mean, things that interested me before, floored me in this city.
I suddenly saw, wow, there are people making books out of cardboard, I want to do that! The thing is, I always felt strange or out of place in El Salvador, and suddenly here I meet these girls who are also strange and out of place.
I’m interested in the edge of the page. And this city is a good place to scribble, not in the square, not in the grid, but to make stains beyond the page. [Y esta ciudad es como un buen lugar para rayar, no en el cuadrado, no en la cuadrícula, sino para hacer manchas fuera de la hoja.]

MCL: Do you feel that Mexico has a tangible presence in what you’re writing? I mean, not only as a space where you’ve been able to write and do lots of other things, but that it has also affected the content of what you write?

L: Yes. Here, for example, Sucias palabras de amor [Dirty Words of Love] was published, which was like a travel journal, and Del mar es el ahogo [Drowning Comes from The Sea] was published. These were two very lyrical books, with that Central American lyricism, more fluvial, more maritime.
And then I lived three years in the center of Mexico City, and I wrote El tiempo es un texto indescifrable [Time is An Indecipherable Text], a book of prose poems which talks about a girl abroad, who exchanges a cramped space for the big city; I tried to take the dictation of what I was living, inside and out, in the city.
So I think that El Tiempo…, which is made up of 51 texts, is my great love poem to Mexico City. And it’s like seeing the city with those wide eyes, a girl from a very small and incestuous place arrives somewhere which overwhelms her, and tries to take the dictation, to take a chronometric reading of the stain [mancha, one of Lauri’s favorite words] made by the writing of that city.
I wrote that book before Cuaderno africano [African Journal], which was published in 2013; El tiempo es un texto indescifrable is still the book I feel most affectionate towards, also because it speaks of those limits, of that state of being a foreigner. That idyllic, lyrical question of the girl opening her mouth in the big city, with all of the torment and the luminosity that could imply.

MCL: Do you consider yourself a Salvadoran writer? A Latin American writer? Do you think in those terms?

On Friday we had an argument because someone tried to superimpose on us, to brand us with, the term left-wing writers. I think that from the moment that you call yourself something, you start to become the opposite. But it has also happened that, here, I’m more Salvadoran than in El Salvador, so I think that in this city, in my friends’ hopefully lengthy remembering, I will be the Salvadoran writer.
I am the Salvadoran of Santa María de la Ribera to my neighbors. So, when you’re abroad, you orientate yourself more, supposedly, to where you have your roots. I try to transcend exoticism. In the end, I try to go beyond the nickname of the Salvadoran, of the little group, of the gang; I also like people to locate me as a person who writes. And that’s it.
But the nickname, the freckle, the focus on that apparent exoticism, the voluptuousness that might be implied by being a Salvadoran in Mexico or elsewhere, well, it’s there, and you try to deal with it.

MCL: Have you maintained many connections with Salvadoran literature?

L: In 2009, I went back to El Salvador to do fieldwork for a book called Tribus urbanos en El Salvador [Urban subcultures in El Salvador]. When a lot of people in El Salvador are writing about the gangs and the post-war period, I went back to write about the urban subcultures; the book was published there, and it was a success.
And, in 2012, El asesinato de Roque Dalton. Mapa de un largo silencio [The Murder of Roque Dalton. Map of a Long Silence] was published, which I wrote with a Salvadoran guy who lives in London now. And my interest in what can be written in El Salvador has persisted. I want to be here and to keep one foot planted there, too. Because, also, when I think about the subjects I’d like to write about in the long term, many of them are about El Salvador. So I didn’t want to leave like they did at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, you took the boat and never went back, your departure was definitive. But now going is very liquid. One can allow oneself the gift of ubiquity.
We’re here, but one day they invite you to go there and you go back and you hadn’t finished leaving. So I think that this is what some people call postmodernity, which sounds very grandiose, but it allows you the gift of ubiquity, not to finish leaving where, supposedly, you’re from. Or maybe yes. So it’s very uncertain. But I like having a foot, even just a toe, there in El Salvador, because there are many things I’d like to write that are related to El Salvador.

MCL: You said that you had thought that maybe at 60 you’d give workshops, and now you find yourself giving classes at la Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana, to undergraduates…

L: …who I’m only 10 years older than.

MCL: Do you think the fact you’re teaching young people who are beginning to write has changed the way you relate to your own writing?

L: It has been a constant negotiation with my workshop-self or my professor-self. There are moments when I feel very enthusiastic. For example, there’s a young guy who’s 21 now – we met at the university – who wrote a beautiful collection of poems called Señores protozoarios [Protozoan Gentlemen].
So those things make that little puddle that some people call the soul boil, and you say, no, yes, my vocation, you embrace your vocation, and you say, I mean, if a young guy like him is writing this… so it’s very romantic, no?
But then there are days when you don’t want to get up, and people ask you things and you just aren’t feeling it. On those days you say, why do I have to teach them, if I still don’t know how to assimilate all the things these kids are asking me?
But in general I have embraced my vocation as university professor. My best academic and literary training, the muscle of my training, has been my workshops, because these kids are asking me things and I have to tell them something: because I can’t leave the house or the library without an absolute and abrupt demand – which author will I bring them? What should I bring them? Will they be interested in this?
It could be that effervescence, that excitement that a young guy wrote Señores protozoarios, but sometimes… no-one cares. The academy, teaching, is also a cross to bear for a writer, you end up saying, they don’t care, they don’t read (some do read).
But I don’t give up; I have embraced this vocation that I arrived at a little by chance, haltingly, and which I go on weighing up, I go on negotiating with it. Then marvelous things happen to me. Then an auditorium at the UNAM fills up with more than 30 people who want to know about Salvadoran literature, and people come even though I don’t take names, and they’re there, and they’re interested, so you go out once more to give the workshop, because this is happening to you.
I reckon that in a few months or a year I’ll take a break, but I also think it’s something that has happened to me and will go on happening. If you asked me today, if I wanted to go on giving workshops on poetry, on literature, yes, I do.

MCL: You mentioned a book you published about Roque Dalton. Could you talk to us about Roque Dalton as a writer, about his role within Salvadoran literature, and about the book you published.

L: For me, you always have a genealogy. And things happen to you with other writers, they leave stains inside. For me, one of those writers was Roque Dalton, who I got to know by reading him when I was, 15, 16, which is the age at which certain things have to happen to you.
So he’s been the joker in my pack… or some other analogy. Writing that asks you questions, that shows you your own reflection, that perturbs you, that you return to. I wrote the book with Javier Espinosa, a journalist who currently lives in England; it’s the book I told you about before, El asesinato de Roque Dalton: Mapa de un largo silencio.
It was published in 2012, but it was an investigation that Javier and I started when we were kids at university in 2004. We interviewed the people who were supposedly involved directly in his murder. Roque Dalton is a great national wound in El Salvador. That greatness, born there in my little country… he was murdered by his own comrades in the guerilla when he was 40.
He wrote poems in Mexico, in the ex-Czechoslovakia, he studied in Chile. And he is one of those great stains, and an even bigger stain is his disappearance, the fact that his family don’t know where his body is: we can study him at university, but we don’t know where his body is.
As people interested in literature, I think it was very symbolic that Javier and I wrote about the disappearance of this person. You say ‘I’ve written about this, I’ve written about that, I write about this’, and in the end you realize that it isn’t unconnected; let’s say that, that writing is not so far removed from my own writing.
Roque is really the Salvadoran writer who, internationally – in the US, in Europe – is among the most read, the most well-known. But you can’t leave his oeuvre to the analysis of the litterateurs, you also have to talk about who he was, about his disappearance.
I think that in this way Javier’s and my interest were united, in Roque Dalton, with this restless inquisitiveness, sticking our finger in the national wound, sticking out finger in other writings. It’s one of those stains on the margin of books, this interest in writing outside the lines of the grid.

MCL: Mexico City in two and half words?

L: I can say that, as far as I’m concerned, Mexico City is very generous to its poets. Y ya.