“The world is changing, and we’re trying to change with it.”
I couldn’t imagine a more special invitation. From the moment they founded the Julio Cortázar Chair of Latin American Affairs at the University of Guadalajara, Mexico, in December 1993, Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes had carefully prepared a list of the most brilliant minds on the planet — novelists, heads of state, musicians, scholars, poets — to teach a brief course and deliver a magisterial lecture. For each potential chairholder, Fuentes and Gabo drew up a very special, very personal letter, which they signed together. And it was my job, as the director of that Chair, to make sure it reached the mind in question.
Derek Walcott topped the list of guests for the year 2000. In mid-August of 1999, I dialled the top-secret number of his home in Greenwich Village to send him his letter, by fax. His wife, Sigrid Nama, a beautiful German goddess whose initial charm is her warm and witty voice, answered the phone instead. I told her this was an invitation to stay at the Casa Cortázar in Mexico for a week, surrounded by wonderful people and the best food in the world. And that of course, although this was very important and highly intellectual, I was also looking forward to taking her shopping: jewelry, handicrafts. Sigrid accepted immediately, and we scheduled their trip to Guadalajara right then and there: March 7, 2000. It was all quite convenient, as they’d be coming from the University of Texas in Houston, where Walcott was a visiting professor that term.
Then Sigrid passed the phone to her husband. He answered, giggling, "what kind of trouble are you getting me into?” I told him that Sigrid and I had already arranged everything, and that all he had to do was give me the topic of his lecture, which had to be unique and prepared in the spirit of Cortázar: “He liberated us as he liberated himself,” I read the description by Fuentes, in my improvised English version, “with a new language, airy, capable of all adventures: Hopscotch is one of the great manifestos of Latin American modernity. In it we see all our greatness and all our miseries, our deficiencies and our opportunities, through a free, unfinished verbal construction which never ceases to call on its readers in order to stay alive and endless.”
I heard a sigh at the other end of the line. “Very simple,” Walcott told me. “I will talk about the Hispanic presence in contemporary English poetry.”
During the months between that conversation and their trip to Mexico, we spoke often. Neither Derek nor Sigrid had email, and at that time there was no Skype or WhatsApp. Long-distance calls between Guadalajara and Castries, the capital of Saint Lucia, where Walcott was born and where they spent most of their time, were prohibitively expensive. But we gave ourselves the luxury of talking for a little bit, between consultations about his lecture, the scheduling of interviews with the press, putting together their social calendar.
Derek Walcott in Guadalajara, with Ingrid Bejerman (left)
I had also lived in the Caribbean — in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia — and I was in love with the narrative of that region, the idiosyncrasies, novel to me, but also strangely familiar. I told Derek that for Gabo, the Caribbean was both a real and an imagined region, which “began” in Salvador da Bahia in my country, Brazil, and “ended” in New Orleans, Louisiana. He loved that idea, which inspired the first paragraph of the lecture that he would deliver in Guadalajara:
"I have no Spanish, which is unremarkable anywhere else, but which, in a Caribbean context, as an islander, is unforgivable, first because of the proximity of so many large Spanish-speaking countries in the arc of the Caribbean ocean, too big to be called a sea, and because of the three-act history of the New World, the drama of exploration, conquest and independence that all our nations, some, like mine, the size of rocks, have shared. What I have, residually, about the Spanish language is that instinct of parody, of melodrama, exaggeration and flourish which my own language instilled in me, or rather, tried to, even if it was against the temperament of my island, Saint Lucia. The generic parody of the Englishman is of a cold-blooded passionless person, monadic in expression, of a gentleman who doesn’t wave his arms around to make a point. This judgment may be as true of the Spanish, i.e. Latin poetry and prose as it is in its caricature of politics, its clichés of blood-letting, of duende, of revolution and gesture.”
I sent that passage to Gabo. Gabo told me that they thought the same — but that Walcott had said it much better.
Not long afterward, I received the full lecture — half typed on a typewriter, half written by hand — and my staff and I were filled with excitement and joy, with the date of his arrival fast approaching. But on Tuesday, March 6, Sigrid called me at the office.
“Roderick, Derek’s twin brother, has just died," she told me.
I found myself speechless, but I managed to speak through the lump in my throat. “We will do whatever you want,” I told her. I do not remember how the conversation went on, but in the end they did decide to come to Guadalajara after all, that it would be better for them, good for all of us.
Seven unforgettable days followed. Derek, like Gabo, loved being surrounded by youth. Derek also spoke of Fuentes, and told me a very funny story. Once when they met in the lobby of a Miami hotel where they were both attending a literary event, Walcott bowed down to Fuentes as a joke. And Fuentes, in reverence for the Nobel Prize recipient for Literature, threw himself to the ground. There was the Cortázarian spirit, the “dialogue of humours” which Fuentes spoke of: laughing, the Caribbean poet referred to his Mexican host as a great writer with a great sense of humour.
Ingrid Bejerman and Derek Walcott, Guadalajara
We stayed in touch. Years later, in 2006, Sigrid and Derek came to Blue Metropolis, the international literary festival here in Montreal, where I work in programming. It was as if not a day had passed. Derek kept asking me about Canada, about Quebec: what was special, unique. I tried to tell him, but to each example I offered, Derek said no, that everything I mentioned was not really from here. It all came from somewhere else.
But wasn’t that also the case with Spanish?
“Vowels and mustaches are the cliché of the Spanish personality, those, and subliminally, an audible guitar in the metre of Spanish poetry, whether it is elegiac or furious, elegiac in the reflections of Machado and Vallejo, and both in the temperamental black yet sunlit gypsy rhythm of Lorca.”
It was his, too, that sunlit gypsy rhythm. While he may have insisted that he had no Spanish, I believe that the whole Hispanic universe was contained within him.
Ingrid Bejerman is Programming Associate for Spanish and Portuguese at Blue Metropolis, the Montreal International Literary Festival. She teaches courses in journalism theory at Concordia University, and coordinates the Canada in the Americas initiative at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.
“The world is changing, and we’re trying to change with it.”
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This excerpt from H. Nigel Thomas's essay on Afro-Caribbean immigrant existence in Toronto was originally published in Confluences 2: Essays on the New Canadian Literature, edited by Nurjehan Aziz. It appears on Salon .ll. by kind permission of Mawenzi House.
Photo: Alain Rhéaume.