A Writer Writes
by Mark Jacobs (Paraguay 1978–80)
In 1989, days after my first big publishing break, I was hanged in effigy in Bolivia. Protestors marched on the American embassy. Although I had left the country, the nation’s journalists boycotted our ambassador’s Fourth of July reception to express their anger. La Paz was the setting for a story that The Atlantic Monthly published called “Stone Cowboy on the High Plains.” Being caricatured as a monster in the Latin American media was not the reaction I had been hoping for.
I had been set up. An organization called the Council on Hemispheric Affairs published a communiqué linking me with ugly sentiments about Bolivians that the story’s protagonist expressed. The premise was absurd, the motivation political. The magazine’s credits identified me as an American diplomat, and the Council was a fierce critic of U.S. policy to Latin America. But knowing how it happened didn’t make it hurt any less.
There was a lesson in what happened, a cautionary tale about the perils of doing what I was trying to do. From the first day I arrived in Paraguay as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1978 I had been attempting to write across cultures. As painful as the “Stone Cowboy” episode was, I ignored the lesson. I’m still ignoring it.
What do I mean by writing across cultures? Basically I’m talking about an act of imaginative justice: writing fiction set in a place that is not one’s own, with necessary characters major, minor, or in-between who are a part of that place. The justice has to do with getting it right.
In my case those other places are countries in which I have lived or worked, but the concept is extensible. One could be a writer rooted in Manhattan writing about a small-time tobacco farmer in Southside, Virginia. One could be an African American woman writing about a white guy in the Ford plant in Dearborn the day he learns he’s losing his job. The permutations are endless.
So how do you go about doing justice to a reality you are not born into? A prescriptive answer is not possible. Is Amerika less of a novel because Kafka never set foot on the continent? Is Kipling simply an apologist for empire, or is there something culturally authentic and surprisingly moving about Kim? Does Conrad’s use of the ‘N’ word in Heart of Darkness mean he is the incorrigible racist that Achebe makes him out to be? These are questions about which people will disagree. I can only talk about what works for me.
It’s called dislocation. For a fiction writer, it’s an experience that creates healthy confusion. You can’t stop being who you are, but you can suspend your identity on a pool of perception long enough to absorb something that is alien to your experience. I spent two years living in an isolated village of cotton farmers in rural Paraguay. I lived in a shack with a leaky roof and spent a lot of time listening to people. One of them was an older man by the name of Justo Flor, one of two veterans of the Chaco War who lived in Potrero Yapepó. When he saw I was interested in what he had to say he did me the great favor of dislocating me.
Between 1932 and 1935 Paraguay and Bolivia fought a war over a scrub desert called the Chaco, a place known in Spanish as the ‘Green Hell.’ In a world of pointless wars this one was exceptionally stupid, and the harsh physical conditions aggravated the suffering endured by the soldiers on both sides. Sitting on the grass on a somnolent late afternoon, Justo took me to a place where men drank their own blood and urine to survive, the sun killed, and brutal acts of violence acquired the quality of myth. I did not get to the Chaco until many years later. It is a place of contrasts – an isolated alligator farm where you dangle a hunk of meat on a rope in the water to attract the livestock; an expatriate Swiss known for his terrific fondue – but for me it will always be the place where Justo Flor fought the Bolivians. The word has a conjuring power when I hear it spoken: El Chaco.
The direct result of being dislocated by Justo was a story called “Two Dead Indians.” More broadly, the experience, and many others like it during the two years I lived in Yapepó, opened a door I have no inclination to close. I can’t write the story Justo would have written, had he been a writer. My Paraguay is not a Paraguayan’s. Still, it seems to me that borders bleed, and if you want it and you’re diligent and lucky, you can take and use something real from what seeps across them. It is an act of love, and an act of assertion.
If you accept the premise that it’s possible to write across borders – if you agree that borders bleed – you take on a number of technical challenges. One of the toughest has to do with cultural references. How do you establish a frame of reference for a reader who likely knows nothing of the place that interests you?
I have struggled since my Peace Corps years with the mate problem. Mate is the national drink in Paraguay. But it’s not just a drink, it’s a social ritual, a binding cultural force. How do you convey that without being didactic? A line in a Borges story – “A Biography of Tadeo Isodoro Cruz” – says it all: “He spent many days there, saying little, sleeping on the ground, drinking mate, getting up at dawn collecting himself to pray.” The Spanish word Borges uses is mateando, and no English engine can carry its cultural weight.
It’s hard to write a Paraguay story in which mate does not figure. Do I call it by its true name? Do I call it ‘tea’? The word conveys none of the rich associations one hears in Borges’ eloquently understated sentence.
That brings us to context, a problem P.G. Wodehouse addresses in “The Code of the Woosters”: “A thing I never know, when I’m starting out to tell a story about a chap I’ve told a story about before, is how much explanation to bung in at the outset.” When you’re trying to write across cultures, the ‘bunging in’ problem is particularly acute. Readers read for the story in your story. Style matters. So do characterization and any number of other things that are found in fiction. But the story is what makes it. You can’t afford to enlarge, or simply to educate. You have to be crafty, coming up with a way to convey the culture that makes it an essential part of the story. There is no perfect solution. I defy a translator to do justice to Borges’ ‘mateando’ in anything under a paragraph. But you can come close, you can get it almost right. When you do, love and assertion fuse in the achieved fact of story.
Using foreign words presents a related challenge. There are words in each of the languages I have learned to speak that I cherish. It’s not that they can’t be translated. Rough English equivalents do exist. But the equivalent can be bloodless when the original is ruddy. Fracaso in Spanish, mbareté in Guaraní, zeki in Turkish. I used to put those words into my stories in an attempt to cross the border, raid the language, and bring back booty. But I realized over time what another Peace Corps volunteer, Paul Theroux, understood much more quickly than I, that spangling your stories with foreign words alienates readers. It can seem like an affectation. And it does not solve the problem of conveying culture. Theroux got it right when he wrote in The Old Patagonian Express, “I have no patience with macaronic sentences that go, “!Caramba! said the campesino, eating his empanada at the estancia…”
It costs me to concede the point. I find Theroux a compelling but strangely heartless writer. Toward the end of that same book, he visits Borges, frail and blind. The scene Theroux develops shows the younger man to be what I can only call a cruel observer.
If you solve your own personal ‘mate problem,’ and your own ‘bunging in problem,’ you come up against another challenge, writing across cultures. It stems from our sense of ‘the other.’ I remember talking to the man who was the mayor of La Paz in the late ’80s. Raul Salmón was not just a politician, he was something of an artist as well. Years before, he had gained notoriety as the model for a character in Vargas Llosa’s novel, La Tia Julia y el Escribidor. The character was a figure of fun, and people around La Paz knew better than to bring the subject up in Raul’s presence.
In the conversation I’m thinking about, Raul described a scene in which a rustic Aymara Indian on the Bolivian high plain, having worked hard all day scratching a living from his stony patch of ground, climbed a hill with his trusty flute and played music watching the sun go down. It sounded slightly inauthentic to me. Later, when I told a Bolivian friend, she exploded in contempt. The mayor of La Paz, she assured me, didn’t have a clue what life on the Altiplano was like. I can’t be sure of, of course, but I think Salmón was being serious when he served up that idealized image of Aymara culture.
Whatever his intention, in that strange conversation Salmón was indulging in a bit of latter-day costumbrismo. Costumbrismo was a Spanish literary phenomenon of the nineteenth century that painted glossy pictures of folk cultures. At the time of its popularity it seemed harmless, a minor movement with the modest goal of entertaining a domestic audience, like the National Geographic channel. In the latter half of the twentieth century, though, that sort of exoticizing of ‘the other’ came to be seen as politically, morally, and aesthetically repugnant. Edward Said nailed it in Orientalism, a book that continues to have an impact across the intellectual landscape.
Cultural tourism is still a tempting detour. Exoticizing a culture not our own seems to come naturally to us. Think of an op-ed you may have read by a respected European intellectual who gets American culture wrong. You may be intrigued by what she sees, but you can’t help being irritated by what she doesn’t see.
When we succumb to the temptation to exoticize, we run the risk of reducing a culture to local color. Joseph Conrad is often taken to task for committing that sin in excess. In the view of many, what Conrad would call ‘native’ life figures in his fiction as a colorful backdrop to the lives and actions and feelings of his Western protagonists, who own everything in the narrative including the real estate, the mineral rights, and all the moral interest.
Some of the attacks on Conrad as a spokesman for Western imperialism go over the top. I find a kind of resonant fidelity in his work when he is talking about other cultures and peoples that counterbalances the Anglo-centrism that is unmistakably there. He is still worth reading.
So how do you get past the temptation to paint local color? Specificity helps. Precise description of the particulars that interest you can convey authenticity to your material. And, obviously, respect helps. But respect cannot be faked. You either have it or you don’t. I don’t mean to suggest an uncritical eye, or hat-in-hand reverence toward your material. Theroux’s narrative brilliance has a great deal to do with his hard-eyed take on people and things in a hundred places around the world. He is above all else a critic. His gelid eye pierces. That’s what makes him a strong and singular writer.
By respect I mean something else. Writing successfully across cultures demands of the writer that he accord his characters an existential dignity. Even if they are not in the foreground of your story, they are not background. As a touchstone, think of the dignity Thomas Hardy confers on Tess Durbeyfield, the humblest of heroines.
Specificity and respect. I doubt you can succeed writing across cultures without those elementary attitudes, although they are not prescriptive. There is no limit to the shapes and ways in which they inform a person’s writing. But there is another issue, more technical in nature, to come to grips with as well. Point of view has a number of implications for people trying to write across cultures.
At the most basic level, before you begin you ask yourself: first person or third? Can I credibly write in the voice of a person from a culture not my own? In the ’80s, it took me a long time to begin to get a hearing for my fiction. Many of my stories had non-American characters as protagonists, and sometimes I wrote in the first person. I suspect the editors who rejected those stories dismissed the possibility that a middle-class American guy like me could write anything worth reading about Paraguayan cotton farmers, or Turkish rock musicians, or Honduran cops. I think they were wrong. I hope they were wrong. Writing in the voice of someone from another culture is an act of assertion that borders on the brazen. But it can be done. Robert Olen Butler, who won the Pulitzer for a book of short stories about Vietnamese characters, told me that when the book came out he received letters from Vietnamese thanking him for giving voice to their lives. They assumed he was Vietnamese, writing under an Anglo pseudonym.
Placement is another technical question: who are your primary, your secondary characters, and where does your narrator stand in relation to them? Let’s imagine a situation that might turn into a story. An American journalist is sent abroad by her newspaper for the first time. She has been dislocated. Used to covering economic issues, now she’s writing about social breakdown in the favelas of Rio. She’s sitting in a bar in a poor neighborhood waiting for a community activist to show up for an interview. Meantime all sorts of people come into and go out of the bar. She fights a sense of menace.
How do you talk about the Brazilians in the bar? What sort of adjectives will you choose to describe the bar itself? (Avoid ‘seedy.’) How do you convey the reporter’s sense of menace without reducing the Brazilians to caricature? Where does your narrator stand when the activist walks in, blinking as his eyes adjust to the change of light? The answers you find to these questions will determine the extent and nature of your success at writing across this particular cultural divide.
Now turn the situation upside down: make the activist the center of the story. This time it is he who sits waiting for the American reporter. He sees the bar and the people coming and going differently from the way she does. How do you convey what he sees, and thinks, and feels? How does the Brazilian man see the American woman crossing the room? He can’t help resenting her fear. What else does he see?
Do you see more pitfalls than opportunities here, or is it the reverse?
Now imagine a minor character in that situation. It’s morning in Rio, but a man sits drinking at the bar. Paolo is a house painter. He has just been fired. His life is complicated. Most of the complications revolve around his economic difficulties. And money problems compound his other problems, especially his love life. He has two choices: look for another job, or get drunk. In his own life and mind, Paolo is not a minor character.
If the painter figures in the story, he will appear differently if the primary point of view belongs to the activist rather than to the reporter. How you write the painter will depend on which of them you choose to make your protagonist, although of course you might also write a story in which all three characters have equal narrative weight. The possibilities for making a story out of this situation are endless.
It has been said that all writing is a kind of failure. The story you write displaces the stories you did not write from the universe of possibilities. That is clearly the case when writing across cultures. The question one keeps asking is this: in the story I chose to write, did I get it right? Although the answer has to be no, some failures are more encouraging than others, and more interesting.
When I ask myself that question, I often think of a Honduran friend whom I will call Simón, because he is politically prominent just now. I met him when I was new in Tegucigalpa and locked my keys in the car. It was raining. I stopped at a house that looked as though the owner might have a telephone. The man who came to the door said, “You’re Mark Jacobs, aren’t you? I read your story in The Atlantic Monthly.” That was the unlikely beginning to a friendship that culminated in his showing up at my house at three in the morning as I was due to leave Honduras, seriously drunk and with a mariachi band in tow. “They’ll play any song you want,” he assured me, and I searched my sleepy brain for the names of boleros I might be able to suggest to the band, who did indeed have a formidable repertoire of standards.
Simón was a force of nature. He ran a documentation center dedicated to recording human rights abuses. He had once been the Sandinistas’ intelligence chief in Honduras. He was friends with the exiled head of the communist party, who had sailed on the Granma with Fidel. Simón had been blackballed by the U.S. government and could not get a visa. (This was during the Sandinista-Contra war years, and my lobbying went nowhere.) He was a passionate man, unbridled and indiscreet.
Some of my richest memories of Honduras come courtesy of Simón. The day we drank the afternoon away in the patio of a down-at-the-heels restaurant with a fine poet and an obscure novelist, reciting poetry and talking politics. For the space of a few hours we were melancholy brothers, linked by love and loss and a romantic faith in the power of words. His description of Honduras as a place where people were in the habit of storing their shirts in the refrigerator, a nonsensical thing to do, and yet were baffled when someone put the shirts elsewhere. The meeting we set up that brought the American ambassador together with the communist party chief in a house behind a high wall in a suburb above the city. The quality of his analysis, the force of his passion. His grand intemperance.
In Honduras I became friends with a driver in the American embassy, a law-enforcement type who had good contacts in the police. Once, driving around Tegucigalpa, he told me a Simón story. A few years earlier, the government had put out a contract on him; he was a constant irritant. Simón was a big man, physically imposing and hard to mistake. But somehow the contract killer screwed up. He shot and killed the wrong big man.
That anecdote rocked me. Ultimately it became a story called “The Nature of Fiction” (published in A Cast of Spaniards) in which a low-level bureaucrat realizes he can get some mileage in the ministry, and approval from his boss, by inventing ever more outrageous lies about a certain blustery human rights crusader. Those lies lead to the the government’s decision to have the man taken out.
What did I get wrong in that story? I’m not sure. The reason to ask has to do with stories not yet written.
A hundred stories might have been told from that raw material. For me, “The Nature of Fiction” displaced them all. But there remains a different story that might still be written. It would come out of my memory of Simón’s reaction when I told him what the driver had told me. The angry grief he felt for the man who had been killed in his place – a victim making a sacrifice about which he knew nothing – was a kind of mourning: for the man, of course, but also for the country Simón loved in which such a thing could happen.
It seems to me that there is a kind of luck involved in writing across cultures. The thing is, it’s available. It’s there when you need it. All you need to do is turn on the spigot. Maybe you’re dozing, or you’re bored. You’ve overdosed on email, or surrendered to the narcosis of video. But something snaps you awake. You start to pay attention. And when you pay attention, you realize that, in one way or another, in one place or another, there is another story. There is always another story. When you pay attention, you can’t help noticing that the borders still bleed.
Mark Jacobs won the 1998 Maria Thomas Fiction Award given by Peace Corps Writers for his novel Stone Cowboy.
[“‘Border Bleed’ was originally presented to a writers workshop directed by Robert Ready, Dean of the Casperson Graduate School at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.” ]
Mark Jacobs was a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay from 1978 to 1980, working with community members in the village of Potrero Yapepó to build an elementary school. He joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1984 and served in Latin America, Turkey, and Spain. He speaks Spanish, Turkish, and some Guaraní. Currently he lives at Heron Hill in rural Virginia where he writes full time. He has published 97 short stories in a range of magazines including The Atlantic and The Iowa Review. His five books include three novels and two collections of stories.