Of Necessary Mangoes: Color Me Weird

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Christy Turlington, 1990s supermodel and Salvadoran-American, may or may not be my prima. The connection has never been confirmed, and I’m not trying to say I’m as fly as Christy, but her mother’s maiden name, “Parker,” is an apellido shared by some of the members of my family in El Salvador, and she grew up near San Francisco, where I grew up, so it’s not inconceivable to imagine that some of her family came over to the US around the same time mine did, maybe even on the same boat. El Salvador is a small enough place that finding unknown relatives can be as easy as flipping through the phone book. And here’s a Latin American cultural lesson for you: Most Salvadorans, and many Latin Americans, hold on to more names than norteamericanos, at least and sometimes more than two, to represent the lineage of our mothers and our fathers. For example: Parker y Balibrera. (Not my name. But maybe Christy’s). Those with more common apellidos might just ask which neighborhood in San Salvador you are from to determine lineage. Salvadoreños say the country was ruled by an elite group of Fourteen Families for most of the 20th century. And in the capital, it was uncanny how everyone knew who died and left money to send the nephew abroad to study, which maid married in, who was leaving for the north, and when. In certain living rooms, pupuserías and neighborhoods in San Francisco, I’ve listened to old-timers redraw family trees in conversation with people they have just met, other Salvadorans passing through the same space and relating a long-ago story of a faraway shared home. Strange stuff, perhaps, but as true as anything I’ve ever known.

During his Hopwood room craft talk, visiting fiction writer Lysley Tenorio discussed his penchant for “the weird.” In his stunning collection Monstress, Lysley writes beautifully about a B-movie actress who aspires to A-list roles, a young man set to inherit the family faith healing business, a brother born in the wrong body, a group of hare-brained schemers, and other sensitive, funny characters negotiating their places in the world. Some of Tenorio’s characters do wacky things, like attempt to beat up The Beatles in order to defend the honor of Imelda Marcos. In the Hopwood room last week, Tenorio talked about they ways his richly-developed characters often act out a reimagined history–events that really happened to real people in the Phillippines or in the US. Tenorio’s is an empathic imagining of another, the author’s voice thrown into a character, revealing the truth, humor and humanity inside a beautifully-told series of events that could conceivably occur. The magic of Tenorio’s fiction isn’t in the strangeness of the events, but in the hidden emotional humanity of his characters, in their nightmares and conflicts and failings and passions. What’s more human than that kind of weirdness?

I am so grateful for Lysley Tenorio’s work and for the way he discussed his interest in “weirdness” during his craft talk.  “Weird” is a term that’s often landed dissonantly on my ears. Like Lysley Tenorio, I am often drawn to the weird in my fiction. But to me, the term “weird” as a description of fiction has always been analogous to the distancing of “other,” which makes me nervous, as someone who sometimes writes about weird things happening in a weird place. I worry about perceived “weirdness” flattening out the complicated nature of identity, outsider status, and representation. I worry that the humanity of my characters will be overlooked, thrown off by the strange elements presented in service of the story, as well as by the color of their fictional skin, by their “weird names.” Yet, how else to tell the story? And that’s just it: how can writers of color write about “authentic, human strangeness” without being dismissed as merely strange?

Strangeness, for the writer of color, is often a close approximation of the truth. In The Autumn of the Patriarch, Gabriel García Márquez created his character the dictator Patricio Aragónes by studying the histories of various Carbibbean dictators, among them, Juan Vicente Gómez of Venezuela, “the Baby” Duvalier of Haiti, and Generalisimo Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, who presided over El Salvador for 13 long years, approaching the fictional Aragónes’s hundred. The real-life Martínez slaughtered 30,000 indios in the western hills of the country as Volcán Izalco erupted again and again. He also spent hours in the bathtub writing speeches. Shortly after taking power in a coup, Martínez ordered that colorful glass lights be strung around lampposts and buildings all over downtown San Salvador.  This mission of festoonery was carried out with the aim of curing smallpox. When Joan Didion visited El Salvador in 1982 to write Salvador, she wrote about how the country had changed her thinking of Gabriel García Márquez: “I began to see Gabriel García Márquez in a new light, as a social realist.”

However, writers of color are so often judged on points of perceptible difference in their fiction, not on the terms of its humanness. In many cases, writers of color are praised for “ignoring” the rich material of their difference in fiction, for writing a “traditional narrative.” The greater implication of this praise is that “a traditional narrative” assumes a default whiteness. For the record, I’ve never heard Updike criticized for the bizarreness of his cocktail parties, or Cheever dissuaded from writing weird stories about swimming pool landscapes.  In his article “Writing Like a White Guy,” poet Jaswinder Bolina remembers a mixed bag of praise he received from an older white colleague: “With a name like Jaswinder Bolina, you could publish plenty of poems right now if you wrote about the first-generation, minority stuff. What I admire is that you don’t write that kind of poetry.” What’s unsaid here is that writers of color are still underrepresented in the serious literary world–few are those “weird names” in The New Yorker, in The Paris Review, in Harpers. For a writer of color, writing about all that “minority stuff” does not guarantee publication or recognition any more than “writing like a white guy” does (and just refer to the VIDA count to see how dismal the literary marketplace is for female writers, but that’s another essay altogether). Having a “weird” name may be sexy, ethnic writing being as “hot” as Bolina’s colleague suggested, but that might be the extent of its magic. At least I can look “Balibrera” up in the San Salvador phone book.

In his Zoetrope piece  “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” fiction writer Nam Le recalls struggling with writer’s block and being praised by classmates for not “exploiting that Vietnamese thing”– “that’s why I respect your writing, Nam.” To choose to write from the inextricable, personal place of “that ethnic thing,” the writer of color risks losing the respect given to those who avoid material that is considered lesser because of its difference. In the Zoetrope piece, Nam Le’s classmates seem to wonder if it might be easier to write about  “descriptions of exotic food.” I suppose it would be easy to write solely about exotic food, but the scrutiny of that detail seems unfair: what body of literature doesn’t contain food? And isn’t the descriptor “exotic” dependent upon a certain point of view? A writer of any color who doesn’t hope that Faulkner’s weighty prescribed themes of love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice enter his or her work is misguided, and perhaps not literary, but the inclusion of food alone does not preclude thematic weight. Nonetheless, I often catch myself worrying when writing the necessary dinner table scenes. Mashed potatoes can read invisibly to many readers–pupusas do not. When talking about my work as an undergrad writer, I resisted classifying my work as strictly Latin American fiction, although my fiction thesis took place in 1930s San Salvador. I was born and raised in San Francisco, not San Salvador. I wanted to be included beneath the glittering umbrella of literary fiction, without diminishing adjectives. I wanted my work to exist in the world on its own terms, on the terms of literary merit afforded to all serious writers. If it ever got published, I didn’t want a mango slapped on the dustcover.

Writing about my family’s country, El Salvador, I can’t help but struggle to make human sense of the weird, much of which is about the strange negotiations between here (the US) and there (El Salvador).  I suppose I could assume a ponderous pose and claim the power of Viktor Shklovsly’s ostranenie, the defamiliarization of poetic language. Elevate the language. Value the serious truths of the art by permitting it to be strange–don’t let the reader get too comfortable and begin making assumptions or relying on stereotypes to explain my characters or El Salvador. Give them something they don’t expect, something that is true in its specific weirdness. For whatever reason, I write about elderly Salvadoran men with quixotic sex drives and ancient Salvadoran women who possess impossible beauty and photographic memories. Is it too weird? I can’t help it. I’m writing what I know, as I understand it now, and I write with serious intent to tell human history, not merely to convey a sense of the strange. I worry sometimes that I’ll be like Lysley Tenorio’s aspiring actress protagonist in his title story, “Monstress:” confined to the B-list, regardless of my sincere intent. Damn those necessary mangoes. Or, I sometimes fear that readers will expect more of my characters than the fictional beings can bear: to take the burden of representing a nation.

In a recent quest for the particular brand of Salvadoran-weird, I came across the incredible story of The Fabulous Wonder Twins. Carlos Eduardo Campos and Louis Alberto Campos are fraternal twins who grew up in San Salvador at the height of the Salvadoran Civil War in the 1980s and stumbled over decapitated heads on their way home from school. After being abandoned by their mother at the height of the country’s violence, and after suffering years of physical and sexual abuse at home and in their neighborhood, the twins emigrated to the US as teenagers, and eventually found love and acceptance in the early 90s club scene, dressed in matching drag regalia: colorful wigs, glittery lashes, sky-high boots. Today, the twins are not exactly famous, but they still dance on the periphery of movie screens and music videos as a colorful pair. Maybe you’ve seen the Fabulous Wonder Twins as extras in the Robin Williams version of The Birdcage, in the nightclub scenes. Or dancing back-up for Diana Ross, or for Sheryl Crow, or for Gloria Estéfan. They have a YouTube channel, and have recently posted videos set to dance club beats, decrying homophobia and bullying. The brothers Campos even appeared in boxing gloves and cerulean wigs on The Jerry Springer show, in an episode called “I’ve Got Something to Tell You: My Girlfriend is a Dude!” Theirs isn’t a story about America’s bounty, nor is their story fixed with the burden of representing El Salvador. But there’s something beautiful, mythical, and yes, weird, about the story of two traumatized brothers who flee their home, who desire love, self-expression and acceptance, who work and live as a pair just outside the camera lens’s focus. Their story is deeply, undeniably, human.

As a fiction writer I can’t help but be interested in re-imagining the story of these twin brothers. I haven’t yet figured out precisely how to enter the story of The Fabulous Wonder Twins, but I wonder: What are their memories? Where is home for these twins? What is it like to grow older in unison? What do the brothers say to each other in privacy, and in what language? What were the terms of the emotional journey that the brothers undertook when they returned, from glittery US exile to San Salvador, to reunite with their abusive father at his deathbed? For that visit, did they exchange their sequined gowns for jeans? And how weird must that tropical room, those stiff new jeans, the dying face of their violent father, have felt, for them both in turn?

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