Authors Alma Guillermoprieto and Valeria Luiselli discussed cultural identity, language, and portrayals of violence in literature and journalism at a Thursday speaker event hosted by the Harvard Mahindra Humanities Center.
The conversation was the first of this year’s Writers Speak series, which convenes contemporary writers for events on campus. Guillermoprieto, a native of Mexico, currently writes about Latin America for the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. Luiselli is a visiting professor of English at Harvard who frequently writes about the experience of immigrants from Latin America living in the United States.
Guillermoprieto’s rise to literary fame began in 1978 when she began reporting on the conflicts in Central America for the Guardian, and subsequently the Washington Post. At the beginning of the event, Luiselli described Guillermoprieto as a mentor with “one of the most well-calibrated moral compasses in the world of journalism.”
“She had a gaze that was sharpened by the razor of compassion and not ego, which was very strange within the journalism world,” Luiselli said of Guillermoprieto.
The two writers also discussed the complexities of writing primarily in English rather than Spanish, even though most of their writing is about or told from the perspective of Spanish speakers.
Guillermoprieto said it is “very bizarre” that she and Luiselli — who are both Mexican — often write in English, a language that is “theoretically not [their] own.”
“That is a choice — to write in English primarily — but also write in Spanish, because you’ve not given up on writing in Spanish at all. I do a lot of stuff in Spanish that never comes into English,” Guillermoprieto said.
Guillermoprieto read an excerpt from her book “Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution,” which is written in Spanish and recounts her experience of moving to Cuba as a young adult to teach dance in 1970.
Guillermoprieto said she opted to write in Spanish because she wanted to describe her experience with “no political hindsight.”
“If I had written this book in English, I would have had to go into things like the Cold War, which I have no interest in at all and had nothing to do with what I experienced in Cuba,” she said. “I did not want to justify — I did not want to explain things in American terms.”
Luiselli said her own childhood was characterized by moving between different countries instead of being rooted in one, which influenced her language choices.
“I feel very, very little gravity sometimes. It’s a deep insecurity and a deep pain not to be more rooted in our own continent. I thought that when I wrote my first book in Spanish that was going to root me in a language and in a city,” Luiselli said.
Responding to questions by Luiselli and audience members, Guillermoprieto also discussed the portrayal of violence in her writing. Guillermoprieto said she believes it is important to illustrate violence to humanize subjects in her work, citing an example of violence committed by teenagers in Medellín, Colombia.
“There was a moment when I understood that these teenagers who were doing the killing were actually committing suicide in some way — that what they have access to is death as a form of communication,” said Guillermoprieto. “That possibly opens a door for me to not write about gangsters and bad people, but to write about human beings who had been distorted in monstrous ways.”
The event received a standing ovation from the Barker Center audience. The next talk in the Writers Speak series is slated for Nov. 1.