In the grocery stores, dime stores, department stores of the New Orleans East neighborhood where I grew up, my grandmother stole and I lied. It became part of the rhythm of our days: Lala brought us into the English-speaking world, where the Americans talked like chirping, or was it squawking birds—I can’t pin down the analogous word, but I knew she didn’t like the sound of it, ese maldito ingles—and she spoke only Spanish, so I served as translator.
Very quickly I learned I must lie. Because at TG&Y off Michoud Boulevard, Lala deigned to purchase household items like toilet paper or detergent, but stole whatever tchotchke it was I wanted. In the check-out line the cashier might ask how we were doing, to which Lala would reply in Spanish, “I’m fantastic, you dummy, because I’m stealing from you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” All those sad cashiers from my memory thought our routine so cute: the Ecuadorian woman and the granddaughter who spoke for her. That nice lady who complimented their haircuts, or the orderliness of the store. The woman who, no matter what inexplicable foreign sounds were coming from her mouth, was, according to her granddaughter, always having a nice day.
Lying in translation was simply part of my childhood. I couldn’t tell the world the truth about who Lala was. At home she was my world, and I hers—mi amor, mi vida, mi tesoro—but in public she made me cringe. She couldn’t even speak English, and it didn’t matter that she declined to learn by abstention because she hated the language so. All the world’s books, as far as I knew, were written in English. In this language, learning happened, so in my estimation, Lala refused to learn. I identified Spanish with fierce love and anti-intellectualism, and English where rules were made and followed. My English expanded through school and the limitless stories and worlds offered by books. My Spanish had one character, one plot, one god, and that was Lala. She both admired and begrudged my time with reading, and I knew the day would come when I was forced to pick a language. The more ensconced I became in the English-speaking world, especially when I was at home with Lala, the more of a traitor I became.
Sometime in my adolescence I permanently defected to English. I spent the first ten years of my life speaking Spanish every day, and in the subsequent twenty-five years I may have spoken three months’ worth of the language. I learned to love American boys and men in English, but because of Lala, I thought for some time I’d never be able to grapple with complex ideas in Spanish. In Spanish I only felt. In Spanish one was either the betrayer or the betrayed. Spanish was my dreamy past, and English the a more certain, stolid present and future.
The irony is that when I became a writer I had no interest in writing fiction, or at least in fictionalizing our story. I didn’t want to create a zany Hispanic grandmother performing zany stunts. I had to write her. But through force of childhood habit, I was out of practice in telling her truthfully. And for all the “what is truth in memoir?” debates surrounding this genre, I think the foremost strategy for writing it is pretty straightforward: try not to lie. Tell the truth as you remember it: don’t make more or less of anything or anyone, including yourself. For me this has been complicated by not only my early propensity to lie, but that the truth as I remember it happened in Spanish. Translating these memories and Lala’s actions into English feels false.
In considering this false feeling, I’m reminded of a moment in Richard Rodriguez’s memoir Hunger of Memory, when as a boy he’s asked by a friend of his, a gringo, to translate what Rodriguez’s Mexican grandmother has just yelled out to him from her window: “He wanted to know what she had said. I started to tell him, to say—to translate her Spanish words into English. The problem was, however, that though I knew how to translate exactly what she had told me, I realized that any translation would distort the deepest meaning of her message: It had been directed only to me. This message of intimacy could never be translated because it was not in the words she had used but passed through them. So any translation would have seemed wrong; her words would have been stripped of any essential meaning. Finally, I decided not to tell my friend anything. I told him that I didn’t hear all she had said.”
What Rodriguez expresses here is the untranslatability not of language, but of people and their intimacies. I feel already the person I’ve sketched so far is more Latina imp than Lala. How to capture her largeness, her generosity followed by her startling moments of pettiness, without allowing the reader to hear and understand her voice directly? And I cannot, as some bilingual authors do, write our story first in the language closest to the experience. My Spanish is no longer, and perhaps never was, that strong. Today I can still tell Lala I love her and narrate the changing details of my life; I can still make her laugh. But if she were unable to hear, I couldn’t write any of it for her in a language she could understand.
In his 1800 essay “On Language and Words,” philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer proposes a specific marker for the mastery of a language: when the speaker is capable of translating not words but oneself into the other language. This issue of retaining one’s personality and authentic self across languages remains troubling because in my distance from Spanish, I’m not sure how much I can accurately define who I was when I lived in that language, or who I am within Spanish even now. I recall my young, primarily Spanish-speaking self as devoid of personality, as completely dependent on Lala’s love alone, as a vessel in which the only thing more powerful than the will to please was the silently-brewing mutiny over my leader and her language.
When I think of who I am in Spanish now, when I speak it with Lala, I wonder if I’m still more who she would like me to be—the loud, brash, fearless woman she once was—than I actually am. In Spanish I search more vigilantly for the humor, the absurdity, the magic of living, I find colors and sounds bolder and more daunting, I hear in every sentence a song. It’s an exhausting way to live, which may be why I don’t do it (or speak it) often. To be an always-on vaudevillian in one’s second language is no small task.
With that in mind, let me translate a joke from Spanish.
Last winter I visited Cuba to prepare for a writing exchange this summer between my students at the University of Alabama and Cuban students at the University of San Geronimo in Havana. As part of our exploration, a colleague and I visited the Tropicana Club, famous for its lush tropical gardens, stunning light shows, and nearly-nude dancers.
We arrived early and as I was served my first drink, an icy Cristal cerveza in its tall green bottle, a bird shat all over the left side of my head, shoulder, dress. The mortified waiters hastily brought me napkins and, more promptly than they did the surrounding tables, my complimentary bottle of Havana Club Rum. Everyone apologized profusely: disculpeme, perdoname, que pena. But one waiter knew just what to say as he dabbed my shoulder with a moist napkin: mejor un pajaro que un caballo.
Better a bird than a horse.
And the waiter’s joke made me laugh. Made me forget all about the bird shit. But the more I’ve thought of the joke since, what it would be like if someone told it to me in English after I’d been shat on by an Alabamian bird, I don’t think it would hold the same weight. I don’t know if it would be as fun. Magical realism isn’t just a writing genre in Latin American cultures: it’s a way of seeing the world. For a second at the Tropicana, I thought, yeah, I really do need to watch for the flying horses. No: los caballos que volan.
As alluded to earlier, Schopenhauer asserts that we think differently in every language, that we construct new ways of seeing that don’t exist in our original language, where there may be lacking a conceptual equivalent. A further inference might be made, which is that we feel differently in every language, too. A bird will more readily shit on me in Spanish, in the language where I’ll more readily laugh at it. It makes sense for me to momentarily fear flying horses in Spanish, as ludicrous as that sounds when I’m translating it now.
When I write about Lala, I could tell just the facts: when she was five years old she watched her mother die of tuberculosis, choking on her blood; she was taken in by three vindictive aunts who chopped off her hair, made her kneel on rice so often she rarely had skin there; she’s a raised eyebrow away from five feet tall, but in my memory she’s massive, capable of flooding the kitchen and drowning us with her tears when she cried, and she cried often, in her fear and her anger that I didn’t love her enough. In her I saw all those sad stories manifested in her body. She could literally drown me. I did my best not to make her cry.
That’s the problem with facts. The truth of how I read her and felt about her slips in around them.
Translating words and phrases from Spanish to English, while a vigorous academic exercise, isn’t my greatest difficulty in writing about my past with Lala. What’s most confounding is finding a way to translate her actions. What if I told you of one of the specific ways in which Lala loved: how she kissed me as a child, kissed every place, every powdered part? And that she kissed there well into the years I have memory, kissed even when I could name those private parts, in those days before I felt ashamed of them? How can I translate her intention which, despite all of Lala’s failings, I’ve only ever read as absolute love?
I can tell you that in English-speaking MFA workshop critiques, Lala’s love has been compared to the destructive, perverse one found in Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, the memoir in which the narrator recounts her love affair with her biological father. What happened to me was abuse, I’ve been informed, and was advised by some peers not to write about it. Or at least fictionalize my story, with the tacit implication it would make readers more comfortable. Is it through these kisses, they asked, that I want to be known as a writer?
Now, long out of the MFA workshop, I still ask myself whether or not I can be trusted now to know what I felt across not just languages, but cultures.
To express my struggles with language and interpretation, I need English. To express the most important parts of myself, how I learned to love and how I learned to be, I need Spanish.
But what does it mean if my facility with Spanish isn’t what it used to be? Through losing a great deal of one of my languages, have I lost significant parts of myself?
Now just one more story (or is it a riddle, or a joke, a puzzle?), one that Lala told me dozens of times growing up. It’s the refrain of my childhood: el cuento del gallo pelon. The story of the bald rooster. Here’s how the story often went:
Lala: Do you want me to tell you the story about the bald rooster?
Lala: I didn’t say anything about yes. I asked you if you wanted to hear the story of the bald rooster.
Me: Please, just tell me!
Lala: I don’t understand what you mean by please. I’m simply asking if you want to hear the story of the bald rooster.
Me: I want to hear the story! You’re getting on my nerves!
Lala: Here you sit talking about nerves and stories when I’m trying to tell you my story of the bald rooster.
And on and on this non-story would nightmarishly go. Through this story neither teller nor listener ever leave the question—the story is never finished. It requires perhaps the devotion of a child to continuously ask for more when resolution is this improbable, and a lover of language to begin the circuitous dialogue in the first place.
This story, as is turns out, is an appropriate metaphor for my work on the Lala memoir. I’ve been writing parts of it for eleven years, off and on. Friends say “tell me more, tell me more,” and I respond, I am telling it. Lala. Memoir. What are you writing? I’m writing it. This story. That story. And on and on the dialogue goes with no resolution.
I don’t know if there’s any solution to the “how do I write this memoir?” dilemma other than to write first and worry over potential problems later. If there’s a solution to my own, it may be in its tentative title. Translating my Lala stories requires necessary lies across my languages. Though translation may be maddening, may feel false, may require stops and starts, the alternative is the silence Richard Rodriguez answered with when asked what his grandmother had said.
My grandmother is called Lala. I want to tell you what she said and what she did. How her love could be frightening, and sublime. Through the best words I can find, if not always the exact ones, I’ll try to show you.
Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. New York:
Random House, 1982. Print.
Schulte, Rainer and John Biguenet, eds. Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2002. Print.
Brooke Champagne was born and raised in New Orleans, LA and now writes and teaches in Tuscaloosa, AL. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Los Angeles Review, New Ohio Review, Prick of the Spindle, and Louisiana Literature, among other journals. She is at work on her first collection of personal essays, and her memoir about her grandmother, Lala.