On Ghosts

Or, spirits, specters, shades, traces, shadows. Carrying my grandfather's name (he was Guillermo Alberto) is one avenue that takes me through ghost-hood. I never had a chance to see him after I left Venezuela in 1982. He died shortly before I returned in 1990. His death belongs to another text, but I'll mention that it was self-imposed. At a certain point, he woke up one morning and refused to speak, eat, or move from the bed. This refusal extended through several weeks, during which he lost more and more weight and, despite medical interventions and a stay in the hospital, he eventually died in his bed on the third floor of my family's house. Every time I've returned to the house since his death I've been aware of his presence. My grandmother died in 1998, and she too is a part of that house now.

Jean-Michel Basquiat painted in an effort (at times) "to repel ghosts." It's almost irreleveant that these ghosts might have been his own addictions, the white art world, fame, etc. What concerns me is his evocation of ghosts on the same plane as words and brushstrokes. Wilson Harris's masterpiece novel Jonestown (Faber, 1996) is told by a ghost named Francisco Bone. The novel is in the form of a manuscript he sends to Harris, recounting his journeys after dying in the Jim Jones Guyana massacre/suicide. Francisco tries to understand how his ghostliness had existed even before his death, by virtue of his own "Indianness," and its history of genocide during European colonization of the Americas.

"How peculiar are the proportions of the split mind of my age, hell...How peculiar are the challenges ingrained into original epic, modern epic...My invisibility--his difficulty to see me for what I was, who I was, neither damned nor saved but drifting somewhere between the two realms in their archetypal intercourse--was the price I must pay to suffer the anguish of addiction to American classics of anger that ran through my mixed ancestries and his puritan logic. I was linked to him in self-understanding within my Dream-book because of the humour, the elemental humour, of savage gods and goddesses though he was unaware of it."

Francisco ends up referring to the "Dream-book" he has sent to Wilson Harris as a "translation." While acknowledging the impossibility of a satisfactory translation, Francisco feels that it is his only way of communicating. The translation he writes embraces failure as its starting point. In his narrative, he quotes an apparition of a Virgin Goddess who speaks to him about his situation:

"Oracles are steeped in hidden texts that may scarcely be translated. But still translations in your own tongue (let me say), orchestrated fabrics imbued with music--are necessary. Again such translations are the price you must pay, Francisco, to see the Dead alive after knowing them Dead..."

I'm currently reading Nilo Cruz's play, Anna in the Tropics (2003), which is set in the cigar-making industry of Ybor City, Tampa in the late 1920s. I lived in Ybor City for two years in the mid-1990s, while I was finsihing my university studies. That section of Tampa had long ago ceased to be a center for the cigar industry, but there were traces of that world everywhere. For a time, I lived in a converted warehouse with several other writers, next to what remained of the Manilasco Cigar Factory. Much of the action in Cruz's play takes place in a warehouse as well. As I read his text, I am surprised to find so much of Ybor City's past seem familiar to me in some way. Cruz is concerned with documenting the end of the era of the lectores, individuals who were paid to read (novels, plays, poems, newspapers, magazines) to the workers while they rolled cigars.

There were countless nights when I would walk through Ybor City, alone or with friends. It seems to me now that there was always a heavy presence of "ghosts," traces from those thousands of Cuban, Spanish and Italian cigar workers and their families, who had settled in that part of Tampa. One of the most famous of these lectores was, of course, the great poet and Cuban patriot Jose Marti. One can still see his figure in the park that bears his name, located next to a former cigar factory that is now a mall (we are in Florida, after all).

As an "American," I am always aware of the absences that have been essential to the creation of this unprecedented empire we now live within. When I saw him read in Providence several years ago, Amiri Baraka recited a poem that references the "railroad" of bones on the floor of the Atlantic ocean. Those water-bound ghosts lead directly to the remains of however many of us the Europeans killed as they moved through this continent. This is not a polemic, since that genocide is undeniably at the core of this country's foundation. But, every time I hear Bush II & co. speak about this current "war" we are engaged in, all I end up thinking about is ghosts. More specifically, I think about how many of them are always here beside us, a warning or a reminder.

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