“Self Translation”

Heriberto Yépez's latest book is a continuation of his ambitious project as a writer, one that encompasses fiction, poetry, criticism and electronic writing. Wars. Threesomes. Drafts. & Mothers (Factory School, 2007) is ostensibly a novella, or perhaps a collection of semi-autobiographical prose poems. Or, it might be a series of masks and word games the poet enacts for the reader. But these are deadly games, occurring within the field of the poet's acute awareness that we humans are living in a perpetual crisis today. A political, aesthetic, moral and social crisis that threatens to eradicate us at the beginning of this already ignominious century.

As in much of his other writing, Yépez new book written in English is concerned with the intersections, battles and love affairs between the United States and Mexico. For Yépez, writing in English is at once a betrayal and an act of love:

From book to book. A secret spider. On my 2 mothers.

I went to another language in search of a new mother. I did it to have two bodies and a new identity, an American one, a new self to live in after the death of the Mexican, because that's who I am, the self-knowledge of a culture which is dying. (32)

As a realist and a polemicist, Yépez never tries to reconcile what Gloria Anzaldúa calls the "open wound" that is the U.S.-Mexico border. That wound is, at times, the source of the rich texture to be found in Yépez's two languages. The third figure evoked in the title of this book can be read as the discomfort, the wound, the other that is created by the juncture of two disparate beings. One hears in this book, for instance, an echo of Eliot's arctic phantom, the other that appears beside us as we walk, while we read, when we think:

Who is the third who always walks beside you?
When I count there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
– But who is that on the other side of you?

Like Eliot, Yépez's poetry is often suffused with multiple and contradictory voices. His novels and essays are on the verge of becoming poems and his poetry uses narrative to invoke moments of personal and collective crisis. In Wars. Threesomes. Drafts. & Mothers that collective crisis is the series of political situations that emerged after the events of 9/11. But as a Mexican writer looking north, his work is composed within an awareness of an imperialist impulse that has always existed within the United States in its relations with Mexico and Latin America. So, I read this book as an argument with the United States and with the English language. This concern for language constantly reminds us of Yépez's subtle skills as a poet. For he understands language as the base for any political, social or aesthetic project.

At the same time, Yépez never falls into the trap of being merely a political writer. His invocation of a multitude of writers in this text is a declaration of solidarity with figures such as Borges, Lezama Lima or Celan. One of the crucial moments in this book is when Yépez cites the text "The Approach to Al Mutasim" by Borges:

This piece by Borges – "El acercamiento a Almótasim" – sometimes appears as a short-story and sometimes – for example, in the 1974 edition of his Obras Completas – as a book review. I'm sure it is neither. And when we call something "hybrid" it means we aren't capable of bearing its complete otherness. Calling it "hybrid" brings it closer to us, half of us is put into what really is complete otherness. Hybrid is one of our best lies. Borges was of the opinion it would be a great mistake to turn the search for Almótasim into the search for God. (18)

I find it appropriate that Yépez invokes Borges early on in his book, since the latter's life-long love affair with the English language is surely reflected in Wars. Threesomes. Drafts. & Mothers. The major difference between both authors, of course, is that Yépez is writing at a moment in history when English now dominates the planet. The English language is now tied with a global economic and military imperialism. Yépez writes from an aesthetic border that identifies with and against the United States simultaneously. The two mothers who inhabit this story are ghostly mirrors for each other and they sometimes threaten to cancel out the poet himself.

In his previous book written in English, Babellebab (Duration Press, 2003), Yépez identified the art and condition of translation as his central concern. Not merely the translation from Spanish to English but also the political and geographical transfer from Mexico (Latin America, underdevelopment, coloniality) to the United States (empire, saturation):

| This is for me | Self Translation | Going from Spanish to English without the need of | [what?] | So Now the question of English Vs. Spanish | : | If writing is never a natural activity | Why Bother to use Mother Tongue? | This is of course not a question but | An Answer | . | Not a Answer but | A question | responder by its own | Question mark | . | This is not a Book | This is just a Chapter | . | A Web Site | . | A Border | . |

Like Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who quipped that he was the only English writer who wrote in Cuban, Yépez's work delights us with its sharp wit and its deep awareness of how tragedy permeates the life of literature. Both writers take on that tragedy not as a hindrance but as a base from which they rebuild their surroundings through language. They inhabit an awareness of themselves as translated beings, whose texts are always going to be uncomfortable and threatening to readers who insist on a monolingual or monocultural vision of literature. It is appropriate, then, that Yépez emphasizes his admiration for another great Cuban writer, one whose project was likewise inspirational for Cabrera Infante:

I love Lezama Lima. Lima sounds like a sound/word somehow derived from Lezama. Lezama Lima. A metamorphosis. Lezama, the mother. Lima, my daughter. (43)

So, what might American readers find in Yépez's new book? Well, for one, they'll be reminded that Mexico is much closer to them than they think. They'll also find a good reason to learn Spanish, so as to be able to read Yépez's brilliant work in that language, including his recent novel A.B.U.R.T.O. (Editorial Sudamericana, 2005) and his prolific blog. But above all else, American readers will find an impressive and eclectic poetics in this book, one that begins with an incisive conception of itself as a translation, a work in movement, unhinged yet self-aware and eloquent.

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