We Leave Our Stories in the Bones

There is a trinket in my parents’ house that was always my favorite: a cow’s knee-bone. It was the only instrument needed for a traditional Argentinian game the gauchos played. I used to hold it in my hands thinking it felt too light to be real, but it was. I held the little bone and felt overwhelmed by the fact that it once gave shape to such a big and powerful animal. Our own bones—so fragile now, so flexible when we are kids—literally hold us up. These elegant, live objects provide the structure to our lives. They hold our secrets and tell our stories when we are gone. Bones are infinitely important, and how we choose to see, write, or speak about them influences what others will make of them after we leave them behind: literary playthings or dust.

Years ago, when MTV was a main source of entertainment, I would watch the show Scarred with equal measures of love and dread. Watching people fall or hurt themselves for the most part isn’t funny to me; it caused me a certain anxiety to think about how badly this accident was going to affect their mobility. And yet I couldn’t stop. I’d sit, appalled, until an accident would come where the rupture was such that bone was exposed. I closed my eyes only then. We should never see bones; they are too intimate.

As much as real bones unnerve me, for just as long as I’ve been secretly obsessed with accidental bones, I’ve been fascinated by the description of them. Bones are worlds in themselves, tangible reminders of the multitudes we can contain. It is soothing to think that beneath everything that weighs down on us on a daily basis we have these sturdy things keeping everything up. Even if we rarely see them (ideally) whenever we are profoundly exhausted or certain of something, the sentiment is always bone-deep.

In The Godfather, Moe Green defends his honor by reminding Michael that he had “made his bones when he was dating cheerleaders.” While it is no longer necessary to actually kill someone to prove your worth, expressions like making your bones or cutting your teeth speak about learning through change. Like us, bones can be broken or molded. This scaffolding we have knows exactly how much pressure we can withstand, even if it is uncertain to the more anxious and eager part of ourselves.

When the written word tackles the issue of bones, how bodies are built, we get to see them as what they truly are: silent testimony of our lives. In The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje describes the collection of experiences that gathers in our bodies: “We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.” Bone ekphrases are inherently elegant. The words used for the description of the individual pieces of our skeletons oftentimes involve: dry, soft, osseous, straight, bleached, pallid. Such austere but precise description of texture doesn’t come without a certain sensuality. Bones contain our stem cells and our secrets.

The truths that bones can tell about the world go beyond the romantic experiences. In Leila Guerriero’s essay “The Trace in the Bones,” she introduces us to the complex and beautiful work done by a team of self-taught forensic anthropologists in Argentina who identified and returned to their families hundreds of bodies that were murdered and disappeared during Argentina’s dictatorship. Through exhaustive investigation of the exhumed bodies found in common graves, the crimes of the past can be held accountable forever. As Clyde Snow—an American forensic anthropologist who began the project in Argentina and who testified at the trial of the Argentine junta—explained to the Argentina newspaper Página/12, “What we are doing, will make it impossible for future revisionists to deny what really happened. Every time we recover the skeleton of a young person with a bullet hole at the base of their skull, it becomes harder to make up excuses.”

Bones are too intimate; they keep messages about the lives they held up. Sofía Engaña has worked in Buenos Aires, Ciudad Juárez, and others, identifying bodies. She knows that life can be evident in the bones of the deceased: “Do you see the evidence of arthritis? What can you say about this jawbone? Touch it, pick it up. What do these teeth tell you?” Teeth, stronger but less intelligent than bones, are another window into who we are. In Valeria Luiselli’s fun and philosophical second novel, The Story of My Teeth, her main character Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez calls himself the best auctioneer in the world due to his ability to sell not just things, but the stories that give those things value. In one case, said things happened to be his own teeth, which, according to him, used to belong to a long string of people including Marilyn Monroe and Jorge Luis Borges. What is more intimate than sharing teeth with your literary hero?

In an interview for The Paris Review, Jesmyn Ward recounts the ideas behind the title for her novel Salvage the Bones. “Salvage” becomes a tribute to the resilience and strength behind the word “Savage”; meanwhile, “bones” is simply a reminder to readers “what this family, and people like this family, are left with after tragedy strikes.” What is left. The family in Ward’s novel, as well as the people struck by Katrina, are left with just the bones of their previous life. The marrow within them can help build their life again just as much as their bareness can push away the seedlings of hope. It is because of this duality of possibilities—the very end of something, the capacity to create new things—that we must pay attention to the stories bones tell.

Image: Flickr/Joey Gannon

Refusing to Look Away: On Leila Guerriero and Joan Didion

In Latin America, the name Leila Guerriero is spoken among journalists, editors, and basically anyone who enjoys the written word with the respect and reverence accorded to a savant. Or at least that is how I feel.  She is still not very known in the English-speaking world, but her book A Simple Story: The Last Malambo, translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle, was published this year by New Directions.

Leila Guerriero is an Argentine journalist. Shortly after graduating from tourism in 1992, she got her break into journalism by sending an unsolicited short story to Página/30, the magazine of the newspaper Página/12. Jorge Lanata, director of the magazine at the time, called her four days after she had sent the story and offered her a job as an editor. From that point on she paved her own way into journalism and editing. Her work has been featured in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and countless and respected magazines from all-across Latin America like Gatopardo and El Malpensante.

Guerriero’s craft is deeply entwined with how she sees and approaches the world. Her books are usually not very long, favoring meaningful sparseness over ornamentation. Full, winding sentences circle around her subjects like a cat inspecting a new visitor. The words she uses are oftentimes technical and specific, but selected with such respect for the story that they don’t lack warmth. Her writing is so very precise that when one runs her paragraphs through Google Translate (don´t ever do this for any writer) the result is not entirely offending to the soul.

Before Guerriero decided—inspired only by a short note in a newspaper—to write a book on the Argentine folk dance malambo and its most important contest, this part of Argentine culture had been covered in typically folksy or dispassionate terms. As Guerriero spent more and more time in the village of Laborde, blending in with the local audience and participants of this long-standing tradition, she managed to do much more than construct merely a colorful profile of a dancer and a dance contest. The real question coursing through her descriptions of boots and rehearsals and hats and anxious phone calls is: in a way of life that can spare so little, how do people pour so much of themselves into a single and finite contest? The question is not only directed towards Rodolfo González Alcántara, the dancer she shadows, but to the region as a whole.

When describing one of the dancers after his turn on the floor, Guerriero notes, “That was the first main malambo I saw in the competition at Laborde, and it was like being attacked. I ran backstage and saw the man—Ariel Pérez, the hopeful of the province of Buenos Aires—rush into his dressing room with the urgency of someone repressing love or hate or the desire to kill.” A Simple Story becomes then an ekphrastic of a dance tournament and of the people who make up this community.

In an essay about writing from the book Frutos Extraños, Guerriero tries to answer the question of how to write a good profile: “The answer is: I don’t know, but, in any case, what works for me is to be curious, overflow with patience, and cultivate discretion: ask as if you don’t know, wait as if you have time, and be there as if you weren’t.”󠀪 Her point of view is the style itself.

Guerriero’s closest American analog is Joan Didion. Although I had heard of her, I read Joan Didion for the first time two years ago, having recently moved to the U.S. Reading through Slouching Towards Bethlehem felt both new and familiar. The people in it I had never met, but the way she wrote, the curiosity driving each of the stories, and the accuracy of her observations made me feel exactly as reading Guerriero’s books felt. Like meeting someone who reminds you of your best friend. Nathaniel Rich writes in the foreword to Didion’s most recent offering, South and West, that Didion’s insistence on showing us the South’s “dense obsessiveness” and “the vindictiveness that comes with it” was proof of a certain clairvoyance on her part “that the past was also the future.” Her future, our present.

South and West is in a very distilled way a travelogue. In other hands, a scene of Mississippi state pride would read as caricature; Didion achieves a certain detached anthropological respect for her subjects that is echoed in Guerriero’s work.

Didion and Guerriero are able to produce such detailed and truthful accounts of their subjects because they are totally willing to be uncomfortable; they never shy from awkward moments that reveal the subtle, strange ways in which people behave—and that usually carry more meaning than words themselves. From the first time Didion takes note of a Confederate-flag beach towel we realize this is no dashed-off observation. As she moves further into her travels, the towels keep reappearing in her notebook—never quite acquiring a full body, but never out of her sight. We read writers like Guerriero and Didion so we don’t forget that looking at people is the most uncomfortable and powerful thing a writer can do.

In one of the most intimate passages of A Simple Story, Guerriero tells the readers:

And as I stare at the back of this man whom I know nothing about, who reads the words of his God before he goes out to gamble it all, an uncomfortable certainty flares up inside me: this is the most frighteningly intimate situation that I’ve ever shared with another human being. Something in him screams, ‘Don’t look at me!’ But I’m there to look. And I look.

Ultimately this is what I search for in nonfiction, and I always find it in these women’s work: an unflinching eye and a deceptively simple way with words that creates a remarkable intimacy with the reader. Now, when recommending Guerriero’s book to my English-speaking friends I use Didion as comparative and hook, and the same thing in reverse when urging my Spanish-speaking friends to seek out Didion’s books. So they too can see what I’ve seen.

The Soft Colonization of Small Territories

Last summer, every day after work I would go to the Boston Public Library courtyard. There I would find a spot where I could read or listen to music and—my true purpose—pass the time during which the MBTA would be unbearably full. After the first couple of days I found one particular chair toward a back corner that I preferred above all others. One day I made it to the BPL slightly later than usual and found someone sitting in my chair. It felt like the universe had betrayed me; the mere presence of this monster (blameless and clueless tourist) was a taunt from the heavens. Or so it felt.

Great was my relief when I found I was not alone in my petty feelings of ownership over public space. In Patti Smith’s M Train, her beautiful and sparse memoir on loss—of a husband, of a seaside bungalow, of a chair—she develops and explains the same sense of property over the spaces we frequently frequent. As most scenes within, the book begins with Smith going into her favorite Greenwich Village café (Cafe ‘Ino) for black coffee, toast, and writing. “My table, flanked by the coffee machine and the front window, affords me a sense of privacy, where I withdraw into my own atmosphere.” Whenever we find a corner of the library that appeals to us, or a chair in the train in which we commute every day that has a more comfortable slant or armrest we think of it as “ours.” These places become part of our daily routines in a way that feels deep and personal.

This soft colonization of small territories is an interesting phenomenon. Why and with what right do we dare to think that we can own what is technically for everyone? The answer might be in proxemics and anthropology. Edward T. Hall was an American anthropologist and researcher who studied the way people relate to one another within cities and as social groups, a practice otherwise called “group cohesiveness.” Hall is perhaps better known for developing proxemics, which studies the way humans use space and how this affects the relationships of the population. Proxemics can explain the creation of what we believe to be “our spots.” In his book The Hidden Dimension, Hall defined proxemics as “the interrelated observations and theories of man’s use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture.” It was Edward T. Hall who introduced to us the idea of a personal space—that our physical comfort with strangers decreases as they move from the furthest circles of social space (public space, 12 to 25 feet) into our intimate space circle (six to 18 inches).

One of the things we enjoy most about the tables we like in coffee shops or corners in libraries is that they permit us to be alone while also being outside. Sometimes, if a friend comes along we will allow them into what Patti Smith calls our “atmosphere.” But for the most part, although technically public, we have inlaid these tables and chairs with our idle ruminations, our low chuckles at a funny paragraph, perhaps a long sigh or two; for all intents and purposes, they are an extension of our personal space.

Faces in the Crowd is one of Valeria Luiselli’s first novels, and in it a young mother remembers her years as a translator living and spending her time in New York. The protagonist moves around the city like a ghost, but every once in awhile she encounters spaces she likes enough to make her own:
I had a theory; I’m not sure if it was my own but it worked for me. Public spaces, such as streets and subway stations, became inhabitable as I assigned them some value and imprinted an experience on them. If I recited a snatch of Paterson every time I walked along a certain avenue, eventually that avenue would sound like William Carlos Williams.
We appropriate parts of the outside so that we can feel more comfortable moving within cities that may be large and daunting or small and suffocating. In her essay “Collected Poems” for The New Yorker, Valeria Luiselli talks about her life in New York. Amidst her musings—Luiselli’s writing style is an engaging and motley mix of anecdotes and smart observations—she talks about the people she sees at the library. People she has come to recognize as fellow poachers of selected chairs. She notices the resentment in their eyes when they see their “spot” has been taken and refuse to sit anywhere else:
I have seen them and photographed them, these masters of habit, walking heavily down the central corridors, pretending not to be furious, not to be distraught upon discovering someone else in their spot. I have seen them, looking around the library from inside the rim of their glasses, full of quiet, justified resentment. I’ve also seen them reclaim their spot with an air of entitlement.
Luiselli uses poetry as her tool of choice; Patti Smith, in her trademark spartan style, builds a structure of ownership through the repeated tradition of coffee, writing, and toast. Further into M Train, Smith arrives to Cafe ‘Ino and her table is being used by someone else.
My table in the corner was taken and a petulant possessiveness provoked me to go into the bathroom and wait it out…I left the door unlocked in case someone was in genuine need, waited for about ten minutes and exited just as my table was freed. I wiped off the surface and ordered black coffee, brown toast, and olive oil. I wrote some notes on paper napkins for my forthcoming talk, then sat daydreaming about the angels in Wings of Desire.
In my own case, my sense of possessiveness is more similar to Luiselli’s than Smith’s. My favorite places around the city are the ones that bring forward particular thoughts: the subway stairs where for an inexplicable reason I always think of my favorite journalist or a tiny Chinese restaurant that reminds me of when my parents visited. That chair in the far corner of the public library reminds me of the feeling of peace about the future I felt on that evening where the beginning of summer and the end of my first work day merged. That sort of peacefulness is so rare I feel little remorse in not wanting to share the space that elicits it with anyone else.

Edward T. Hall states that a person’s personal space is carried everywhere they go, as opposed to larger public and social distances, which are negotiated as we attend things like concerts or speeches. I must say that part of the reason favorite public spaces are so personally soothing is precisely because they are not necessarily in my home, the default personal space. There is something calming about crafting a sense of comfort in a place outside of my control. For Patti Smith, “public personal space” eventually integrated with her real personal space, in her home, when Cafe ‘Ino had to close:
–What will happen to the tables and chairs? I asked
–You mean your table and chair?
–Yeah, mostly.
–They’re yours, he said. I´ll bring them over later.
That evening Jason carried them from Bedford Street across Sixth Avenue, the same route I had taken for over a decade. My table and chair from the Café ‘Ino. My portal to where.

Image Credit: Pixabay.