Is your city a place to survive hunger? Is your place of origin a memory to never forget? For the poet Johanny Vázquez Paz, Chicago, and Puerto Rico have been like this. In the comments, we discuss the poet's life and end with a healing poem called "Advice From My Mother: Extreme Anointing."
[This episode was produced by Melanie Márquez Adams, and narrated Carolina Quiroga.]
In 2018, Puerto Rican poet Johanny Vázquez Paz received the Paz Prize for Poetry. During an interview, the poet expressed how incredible of a coincidence it was to share the same last name with the award. She explained to the interviewer how, in Spanish-speaking countries, both paternal and maternal surnames are frequently used and that, for this reason, finding this call on Facebook for a contest with which she shared an important part of her name was, for her, a sign.
The submission deadline was only two weeks away, so she had to put together a manuscript in a hurry, including some poems that had already been published and poems that she had to create on the fly. This is why several of the pieces in her award-winning bilingual book, Ofrezco mi corazón como una diana / I Offer My Heart As a Target, are related to current events.
The award is a tribute to Octavio Paz, a well-known Mexican poet, and essayist. A curious anecdote that Johanny tells is that the surname Paz is not very common in Puerto Rico; when she was younger, she decided to have some fun with that and sometimes would tell her friends that she had a Mexican uncle named Octavio. Of course, very excited, her friends would immediately ask if Octavio Paz was that uncle.
Letting go and joining the fantasy of a good story can be a very rewarding experience, which is precisely one of the gifts of literature.
Hello again, dear listeners of Tres Cuentos, the bilingual podcast dedicated to Latin America’s literary, historical, and traditional narratives. I’m Carolina Quiroga-Stultz, and today we welcome a Puerto Rican poet whose work has been described as healing: the wonderful Johanny Vázquez Paz.
To those listening to the Spanish episode, you will also hear Melanie’s voice because she produced today’s episode.
Melanie tells us that her first encounter with the work of today’s poet happened through the submission process for an anthology of crime fiction in Spanish written by women, co-edited by Melanie, and published in 2019. When Melanie read the Puerto Rican author’s submission entitled “Coroner in the moonlight,” Melanie knew she was facing a poetic voice of great sensitivity. In case you're curious, the anthology is Ellas Cuentan: Crime Fiction by Latin American Women in the United States, a book in Spanish that can be found on Amazon. I'll leave the link in the transcripts.
In other news, like last year, we will give away books donated by authors and publishers. So, stay tuned because we will send our subscribers an email with the book list so you can claim yours. We will also post the list on our website, Instagram and Facebook. The first listeners that email us will take home a wonderful Christmas gift.
Today I will be reading one of Johanny’s poems called “The City Where I Live,” a self-translation of her poem “La ciudad donde habito,” part of the bilingual collection Poemas callejeros / Streetwise Poems published by Mayapple Press.
Lend me your ear, dear listener, and travel with me to a city of many borders and sharp corners.
The City Where I Live
This city where I live with its many borders
outlined by the tracks of exile and necessity.
Every transient with his established boundaries,
imprisoned on a desert island
erecting walls to avoid the fear
of corners where hatred commingles with fire.
This city doesn’t welcome me into its core.
I let it devour me with its hungry mouth.
Let it slice my tongue with unpronounceable words.
Let it suck my essence down to the bone,
until the flavor of my island skin makes it choke
and it vomits in the back room my small-town self.
There, where a grave without a headstone awaits me
the uncontrollable sea raises its arms and unfolds
over the warm belly of the sand at dawn.
a city to survive hunger.
the island of never forgetting.
The poem we just heard could be seen as a prelude to the lyrical work of Johanny Vázquez Paz. As was seen in “The City where I live” Vázquez’s poetry is deeply affected by her migrant experience and her life in the United States.
The city where Johanny lives is Chicago, a place traversed by the various borders and nostalgia of its hundreds of thousands of Hispanic immigrants. Through her powerful words and images, Johanny evokes the feeling of displacement that weighs on most immigrants, regardless of how long one has been living in the new country.
Melanie tells us that, there will always be words that are difficult to pronounce in our second language. These words represent emotions that are also difficult to express because the longing for our home country and our language is permanent.
The poet Fernando Pessoa once wrote: “my country is my language,” while Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke described childhood as man's true homeland. For Vázquez Paz, both her childhood and her first language are anchored in Puerto Rico and hence, the feeling of not truly belonging in the North American Midwest. This Puerto Rican poet finds her home in the power of language, in the nostalgia of the words with which she weaves her poetry.
The poem "The city where I live" is marked by a feeling of pain and exile, but it also provides a different kind of perspective regarding the great American cities, one that goes beyond all the glamor and the idea of the "American dream.” In Johanny’s poem, we see these cities as means of survival (a city to survive hunger). This place sucks the essence of the place of origin due to the constant pressure of having to assimilate into the culture and language. In this way, the author challenges the idea of those idyllic cities as places where dreams come true, a concept filtered by the glamor and fantasy of movies and TV shows.
Melanie tells us that, in the final verse, “Here, a city to survive hunger. There, the island of never forgetting,” we can find a similarity with the concept of "the Never Never Land," a fictional island first introduced in J. M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. By evoking “the island of never forgetting”, Vazquez Paz invites us to return to the memories that framed our childhood, to those memories frozen in time where we have access to our sense of belonging. In truth, our home country never leaves us. It persists beyond any physical space and awaits with open arms in our memories, ready to welcome us in those places that will never stop inhabiting us.
Johanny Vázquez Paz was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and currently lives in the city of Chicago. Her first contact with the United States outside the Island was during the 1980s in Indiana, where she pursued a degree in sociology. While there, she experienced an intense culture shock, as well as extremely cold weather which was difficult for her to go through.
She comments that back then, the fact that she was Puerto Rican and, therefore, a US citizen did not matter because the people around her did not understand that concept. So, for example, she was asked for a work visa, and the bank didn't want to cash the checks that her mother sent her because they thought Puerto Rico had a different currency. It was a very difficult time for Johanny because many aspects were working against her: culture shock, challenges with the language and weather, which included snow and winter storms, and things that she had not experienced before. She also had to face racism and ignorance. "I didn't go running back home out of sheer pride," she says.
One of the most important inspirations for her was her paternal grandfather, Antonio Vázquez Garced. Johanny believes that she is a poet thanks to him, although in a sort of indirect way. She says that, on a visit to her grandfather's house, she found a book of poetry by a Puerto Rican writer named Gaspar Gerena Bras. Since the book was dedicated to her grandfather, she was very impressed. When her grandfather noticed that she was reading that book, he asked her if she liked it and was delighted when she said yes. He encouraged her to continue reading it at home. Johanny shares that she never returned that book and still has it.
Many years later, after her grandfather died, she learned from her grandmother that although he had never published a book, he, too, had written poetry. She gave Johanny a folder with several poems. She also found a copy of an article published in a newspaper about her grandfather, the man who fixed radios, record players, and televisions and also wrote poetry.
In addition to this influence, the acclaimed poet thinks that what eventually set her on the path to writing was coming from a home haunted by secrets that insisted on staying hidden, secrets that poetry allowed her to explore and process. When she turned twelve, she finally learned the truth: her father, tormented by mental issues resulting from his time in the Korean War, stabbed her mother seven times while pregnant with Johanny. From that moment on, the Puerto Rican author faced the new reality of having a mother who was a survivor of domestic violence and a father who was both a victimizer and a victim of the horrors of war. And that is how, at a very young age, Johanny sought refuge through writing and found consolation in poetry.
She also tells us that she enjoyed reading novels as well as poetry. She says that reading novels allowed her to travel beyond the island she grew up in. Johanny advises new writers to read a lot because it is the only way to know if what they are writing is good and will also help them distinguish those poems that belong in a book and those that are meant for their eyes only.
From her early readings, Johanny especially remembers Nada, a novel by Spanish author Carmen Laforet. She says it was a great relief to suddenly realize that there were other people out there who came from dysfunctional families just like hers. Oh! how important it is to find our struggles reflected in literary works. When we read, we realize we are not alone in our experiences.
Johanny Vázquez Paz has a master's degree in Hispanic Studies from the University of Illinois and teaches Spanish at Harold Washington College. Her works have been published in several anthologies and magazines in Spain, the United States, and Puerto Rico. She co-edited the anthology Between the Heart and the Land / Entre el corazón y la tierra: Latina Poets in the Midwest, which won first prize in the fiction category in 2002 at the Chicago Women in Publishing. As we heard at the beginning of the episode, in 2018, her book I Offer My Heart as a Target won the Peace Prize for Poetry, awarded by the National Poetry Series and the Miami Book Fair. Among other themes, this poetry collection explores immigration issues and the pain of having to leave behind one’s home. She confesses that the only positive thing about living in a place like Chicago is that the weather forces her to stay inside and write, which explains why all her books have been written in that city.
As someone who grew up in a place traversed by two languages, Johanny promotes being bilingual and rebels against the advice that she should write only in English and not in her native language. Despite the tragic events in her life, including family violence, natural disasters, illnesses, and the loss of close relatives, she considers that she has a happy life.
When asked what her home is, Johanny says that now that she has almost no family left in Puerto Rico, the concept of home is complicated for her. In her first book, we can find a poem that explores precisely the idea of "building an island" in the city of Chicago to achieve a sense of belonging. She says that perhaps, that city is her home since it is the place where her husband and her son live. Puerto Rico, on the other hand, is that great love that broke her heart.
Very well, dear listeners, that’s all for today, but before we go, I will leave you with one more of Johanny’s beautiful poems, originally published in her book Sagrada Familia, (sacred family). The poem’s translation is by the author herself.
Advice From My Mother: Extreme Anointing
Whenever your chest hurts, mi’ja,
dig your f ingers deep down
the bottle of Vicks Vapo Rub
and smear it all over your neck, throat, breast,
inside the little cave behind your ears,
and on the tip of your nose, put a chin-chin.
Apply all over yourself this miraculous lotion
until you are well protected and sheltered,
and there’s not a germ, nor evil eye, nor love sickness
that could weaken your strength and silence your voice.
Rubdown Vicks when a stabbing pain punishes you, where bitterness twists your smile, and disappointments wrinkle your forehead. Whenever coughing interrupts your words and fever draws mirages in your eyes.
Rubdown Vicks on the low blows of false friends, on the permanent stains of tears, and the scars left by goodbyes on your skin. Whenever you stagger due to swollen feet and your stomach twist and turns painful truths.
Feel the energy of your holy hand. Smell the aroma of eucalyptus entering through your nose, camphor and mint perfuming the air. Raise your head, fatten your chest, inhale strong and determined, clear the congested road, disinfect wounding thoughts, and breathe deep and profound until you forget all pain and grief, just like I do every day.
And with these powerful words coming to us from the American Midwest but spiced by Puerto Rican flavors, we end today's episode and close the series on Latin American female poets.
Remember that we will give away books donated by authors and publishers. So, stay tuned because we will send our subscribers an email with the book list so you can claim yours. We will also post the list on our website, Instagram and Facebook. The first listeners that email us will take home a wonderful Christmas gift.
Until the following poem or story, adios, adios.
Tres Cuentos is an exercise of creative writing, researching, and retelling.
Special thanks to ….
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The list of credits per song can be found in the transcript.
Thanks for listening; adios, adios.
Surco Sur. Digital magazine. URL: https://digitalcommons.usf.edu/surcosur/vol3/iss5/8/
Ellas cuentan: Antología de Crime Fiction por latinoamericanas en EEUU. Melanie Márquez Adams y Gizella Meneses (editors). URL: https://www.amazon.com/Ellas-cuentan-Antolog%C3%ADa-Fiction-latinoamericanas/dp/1944407472
Interview: A conversation with poets Rigoberto González and Johanny Vázquez Paz. American Writers Museum. April 21, 2021. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYHAhnohv1g
Interview: Hanging By a Thread: Johanny Vazquez Paz Explains “I Offer My Heart As a Target”. New City Lit. URL: https://lit.newcity.com/2020/01/01/hanging-by-a-thread-johanny-vazquez-paz-explains-i-offer-my-heart-as-a-target/
Author’s blog. URL: http://johannyvazquezpaz.blogspot.com/
Poemas Callejeros/Streetwise Poems. Johanny Vázquez Paz. (Mayapple Press, 2007) URL: https://www.amazon.com/Poemas-Callejeros-Streetwise-Johanny-Vazquez/dp/0932412467
I Offer My Heart as a Target / Ofrezco mi corazón como una diana. Johanny Vázquez Paz. (Akashic Books, 2019). URL: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1617757632/