Exclusive Interview with Dr. Mayra Santos Febres, Executive Director of Festival de la Palabra
It’s never easy to edit an interview, but for some reason chopping up a lively and stimulating 40-minute chat with Puerto Rican author and Executive Director of Festival de la Palabra, Dr. Mayra Santos Febres felt a bit like a crime. Her wit and good humor wrap effortlessly around her dense, challenging ideas, and her inexhaustibly curious, wandering intellect lends itself more to long conversations over coffee than to easily-digestible soundbites.
But in the end, even an unedited interview couldn’t give you the depth of perspective into the mind and heart of one of Puerto Rico’s greatest living authors than her own work. Beginning her career as a poet at the tender age of 19, her first published collection, Anamú y manigua, was voted by Puerto Rican critics as one of the top 10 books of 1989. Passing through short stories, for which she won France’s coveted Juan Rulfo award, Santos Febres eventually found her voice as a novelist with Sirena Selena vestida de pena, followed several years later by the critically-acclaimed Nuestra Señora de la Noche.
Rather than enumerating the countless international awards she’s received throughout her prolific career, I will let her brilliance speak for itself. Take a minute to to read through this refreshing conversation, where Santos Febres talked about Nuyorican writers, black literature in Puerto Rico and the possibility of a Puerto Rican novel in Yiddish.
ASV: Talk to me about your development as a writer. Do you feel like the trajectory of your professional life has been a straight line or have you encountered difficulties along the way?
MSF: My development as a writer hasn’t been a straight line at all. I started out as a poet, then I realized that poetry allowed me to explore certain things, but not others. The lives of other people, the unspoken stories of this country, all the imaginations of what life could possibly be led me to write prose, specifically short stories. And finally I started writing a short story that just kept going and going and going, and that’s how Sirena Serena en Piedra de Pena came about, and it started becoming a novel without me even realizing it. I always say that each text speaks to me and directs me toward where it wants me to go. In this way, literature has always been a big surprise for me.
ASV: Why do you think Puerto Rico has produced so few novelists? How do you explain that almost innate attraction that Caribbeans have toward poetry or song?
MSF: We are a very young country, and like any young country we started with the spoken word and song. Poetry has a rhythm that I can only define as “respiratory”. When you capture the breath of a country and all of a sudden you breathe it, you tend to find a strange rhythm – and that’s identity. Identity for me is always in the tone, not in the language itself. That’s why we have poems like Puerto Rican Obituary, which is profoundly Boricua and is written in English. And I’m sure that there could be Puerto Rican poems in any language – in Yiddish, in Ukranian, in any other language, because being Puerto Rican is a question of tone. It’s a respiration and a way of being and breathing and existing in the world.
I think that many of our stories as a people haven’t been told yet. Where is the great novel about Roberto Clemente? Where is the great novel about Luis Muñoz Marín? Where is the great novel about Silvia Rexach? They haven’t been written. So then you go and write a novel about yourself and what happened to you in your neighborhood. For me that’s a good way to warm your pen up, but those are not necessary or pertinent novels. I’m still looking to write those necessary and pertinent novels, but I think it’s going to take us a bit longer for us to get there.
ASV: What do you think the importance of Nuyorican writers has been in the panorama of Puerto Rican literature?
MSF: Look, for me there is only one Puerto Rican literature; just one that so far happens to be written in English and Spanish. We’ll see in what other languages it appears, but for me there is one Puerto Rican literature, and the Puerto Rican literature made by writers in New York or Chicago, Los Angeles or wherever else, is a necessary contribution. Especially now, thirty or forty years after the fact, it makes a lot of sense.
I think there’s it’s something beautiful when languages – English and Spanish – are broken down and reconfigured in an effort to name a reality that doesn’t necessarily fit in those languages, because neither of those two languages is truly ours. They are imposed languages that we have nevertheless made our own. So what better way to make them so beautifully our own than through literature. For me there is only one literature just as there is only one Puerto Rican people. That half are aquí and the other half allá, well that happens.
ASV: In the Diaspora we have a very special relationship with Puerto Rico as an imagined homeland. How would you describe the feelings that Puerto Ricans on the island have toward the Diaspora?
MSF: There is suspicion, but there is brotherhood. There is suspicion because, let’s admit it, the island is provincial. Besides, the Puerto Ricans who went to New York, third or forth generation now, are from the countryside and turned suddenly into these cybernetic neo-jíbaros that never went through San Juan or that pseudo-international racial or cultural cleansing. But when a Puerto Rican goes to those great enclaves of Puerto Rican culture, it takes two and a half minutes to understand that we are the same people, especially if you are – like me – of popular extraction. More than half my family lives in New York. My aunts, my cousin. I’ve always been between New York and Puerto Rico.
Maybe I’m only speaking from my perspective, but from my idiosyncratic point of view it’s really hard to establish a difference. There’s so few of us, there’s eight million of us between the island and the diaspora. How many Chinese are there? How many Americans? If you find a Boricua and start with all that about whether or not he’s really Puerto Rican, it seems to me that’s an act of numerical suicide.
ASV: Could one speak of a “black literature” in Puerto Rico? What would that mean?
MSF: I don’t know. As a black Puerto Rican writer, which I accept with a lot of pride and dignity, I think Puerto Rico has a profoundly black cultural base that we all share. If not, where did salsa come from? If not, where did bolero come from? If not, where did the danza come from, whose first great composer was Juan Morel Campos – a black musician. Rafael Hernández. I really think that there is a race that one carries in the skin and a race that one carries in the culture. Puerto Rico is a Caribbean culture, it is a completely Afro-Antillean culture, so we are all Caribbeans: from the whitest Puerto Rican to the blackest.
But I do think that we could talk about a “black literature” within the broader family of Puerto Rican literature, just as there is a gay Puerto Rican literature, or a women’s Puerto Rican literature.
ASV: At this moment, what do you think are the greatest challenges Puerto Rican culture must face?
MSF: Well, for us its not disappearing. Since, I repeat, there are so few of us, the great challenge is creating a visibility for Puerto Ricans both on the island and in the Diaspora on an international level. To be recognized internationally for what we truly are: producers of great culture. For me that is fundamental.
ASV: What role should literature play in the complex social processes that Puerto Rico is currently going through?
MSF: If you want to know why I do the Festival de la Palabra, it’s precisely for that question that you just asked. I think that literature is a space of questions rather than answers. Writers ask questions. How can we, for example, overcome this undefined political situation? What are we going to do about the necessary integration of the Puerto Rican humanities in exile and those here on the island? What are we going to do to integrate ourselves into the global conversation? How are we going to resolve this great economic crisis that is going on in the world, and is perhaps hitting us harder here in Puerto Rico?
I think literature is that space for dialogue that is so necessary for finding new, fresh ideas and at the same time for formulating new questions, especially for the future. New readers need literature to know first of all what questions have already accumulated, and then to begin formulating new questions.