Monday, December 19, 2016

The Ghost of a Memory Becomes a Seed

When I was in elementary school in Argentina, we didn't read from novels, except for the time the teacher read us Dailan Kifki (about a pet elephant), by María Elena Walsh when I was in sixth or seventh grade. (More on María Elena on another post. She deserves one to herself). We had "reading primers" vetted by the Ministry of Education.

Our language "manual" contained excerpts of books, little snippets to teach us whatever we
Dailan Kifki, the Elefant
needed to learn in grammar, or syntax, or sometimes even history.

When I was in 5th grade, my parents couldn't afford to buy me the Language Arts textbook, but they borrowed it from a neighbor. Hermione-style, the first night I got ahold of a new book, I read it back to back. I don't remember much about what I read, except for an excerpt about a boy who waits for the train every afternoon, and then hurls rocks at the engine. One day the locomotive gets so fed up with the abuse, that "she" throws back her whistle at the boy. The boy can't speak anymore. The piece ended with him realizing that he can't talk. His fear and desperation when his mother thinks he's being silly by not using words and instead whistling like an engine.

That's all there was.

I loved that piece so much that I cut the rectangle with the beginning of this story and kept it for years, like a puzzle piece I tried to match to other excerpts I found. I'm sure it got lost when my family moved from Argentina to Utah. I like to think that my journals and newspaper clippings huddled together in a box, waiting for me in a corner of my godmother's house.

Cutting this story got my parents and me in a lot of trouble because when the neighbors got their book back for their kid who was younger than me, of course they saw it was missing sections (although I don't remember cutting out anything else. I honestly thought no one would ever notice the one missing piece--which makes me think, why didn't I just rip the whole page? I don't know. I was ten). The stealing of a section of a book got me in the bad side of the girls of my apartment building and led to years-long ostracism (more on that in another blog post).
Ladies and gentlemen, Laura Devetach! 

At the time, I didn't care that the neighbor girl was mad at me for cutting up the book. All I cared about was knowing the ending of the story. I wanted to know so badly, it physically hurt. And I never forgot it.

You think Rick Riordan's cliffhangers are cruel? You think waiting three years for Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix was an eternity? How about waiting 28 years to know how a story ends? A story whose title and author you don't even know.

I knew the story took place in the Argentine sierras. I've never been there, but the way the author described the place was so vivid, I could smell the ripe peaches in the trees. I didn't even remember the words she used. I remember feeling. The feeling of summer bliss. The feeling of a kid getting into mischief when he thinks no one's watching. The feeling of doing something terrible that you can't take back. You know that feeling in the center of your chest when you've made a mistake and you don't know how to fix it or how to confess? That one. That's what I felt. I wanted to know what fixing a mistake feels like too.

La Torre de Cubos
(The Block Tower)
Fast forward to me, writing my creative thesis for my MFA in writing. I wanted to write a short story to honor this piece from my childhood, but I wanted to credit the author. I searched online, and I found plenty stories about trains, but not the one I was looking for. Finally, I asked on Facebook, and I tagged three friends. One from elementary school, one from my church, and another one I met online. Within minutes, my friend from elementary school replied: "Could it be La Torre de Cubos (The Block Tower), by Laura Devetach? The military junta banned her works for a long time because they were subversive."

I immediately looked up Laura Devetach, and friends, let me tell you:
First of all, yes! The story is Mauricio y su Silbido (Mauricio's Whistling). After 28 years of anticipation, I savored the whole story as if it were the most decadent treat. But not only is this particular story delicious. The whole little collection of short stories is a delight. I "understand" why the military banned her. Her work is for children, but like all the best children's literature, it isn't childish. Laura Devetach writes for children with respect. She addresses social injustice, individual responsibility for one's actions (as in Mauricio's story), white privilege, gender equality, and a lot of other concepts I didn't learn about until I was an adult. Although she's been recognized around the world for her contribution to children's literature, as a child, I never even knew the name of this author from my own province, Santa Fe.

After the first burst of euphoria for having found what I'd been searching for years, a feeling of mourning and then anger filled me. I missed so much during my childhood! The books that showed characters like me, who spoke my language, literally, who drank máte (the Argentine herbal tea) with their families, the kids who couldn't afford enough notebooks to write all their stories, the kids who were alone all day while their moms were at work were robbed from me.

I was born at the cusp of the military government, and by the time I started elementary school my country was under the governance of Ricardo Alfonsín, our democratically elected president. However, it took a long time for democracy to trickle down into education. I asked my friend, the genius one who knew exactly what story I was looking for, "Why do you think we never learned about Laura? Why didn't she ever come visit our school? Why?" Her reply was, "Maybe because our teachers were so scared by the dark years of the dictatorship that they didn't know we needed Laura's words, or that even they were allowed to teach us about her and our other bright writers" (like Alma Maritano, more on her on another post too).

Now that I know her name, (Thank you, Laura Devetach!) I pledge to honor her legacy. I want to write stories that will resonate with readers even when they don't remember my name anymore or the details of a story, but who remember what they feel and are inspired to write their own stories.

The story I wrote doesn't have to do at all with a boy and a train. But it has to do with the power of taking control of our actions, and how to go on after we make a terrible mistake. This new story of mine was born almost three decades ago after reading an excerpt. That's the power of writing, my friends. That's why we do it. So even when darkness looms ahead, or when we're rushed by deadlines or other obligations, remember why we write, and write. Out there, there's a child waiting for your words. Even if it's only a paragraph.

9 comments:

  1. What a fantastic post. Thank you for helping me understand again the power of literature.

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    1. You're so welcome! And yes, words are power.

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  2. It is sad when a story is lost. So glad you found it and feel so fulfilled. Writing is indeed very powerful. Merry Christmas.

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    1. Thank you! I hope you had lovely holidays too.

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  3. That's a very long time to wait to find out how a story ends!

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    1. It totally is! I'm just grateful I did find out how it ends.

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  4. I love this so much! While I can't claim to anything quite this remarkable, I have had two story encounters that I haven't been able to shake or place. The first was a movie I saw as a young girl. All I remembered was a boy who lived in the mountains and had a kitten. Occasionally I'd ask people if they were familiar with it, and no one was. Fast forward to my late twenties, and a book club I was a part of read Treasures of the Snow. That was it!

    Also, as an exchange student, I read a fun, humorous story about a boy growing up in rural Australia that I'd found on my host family's shelf. I remembered a particularly funny chapter about school. I asked my host family years later about the book, and no one remembered what it could be. I've searched off and on through the years to no avail. Finally, I reconnected with one of my Aussie classmates who is also interested in children's literature. She knew the book! Sun on the Stubble.

    So satisfying.

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    1. That's a fantastic story! How satisfying! I've been searching the name of a novel I read as a kid, that had something to do with "steeling donkeys," "donkey thieves," something along those lines. But since our book titles are completely changed when translated, I haven't been lucky enough to find this novel yet.

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  5. Thank you for this story, Yamille. There are stories I treasure from the past that I continue to hunt for and dream of finding.

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Thanks for adding to the mayhem!