By: Gladys Arosemena Bissot
Photos: Gladys Arosemena Bissot, Francisco Campos.
The paths of memory, when linked to war, are never easy. Traveling them, however, appears to be a healthy exercise, especially when the conflict, in one way or another, seems little more than a change of masks, times, or territories. Miguel Huezo Mixco does not write about war: he constructs characters that are woven from what’s left of it, as strong as they are helpless.
Author Miguel Huezo Mixco’s noteworthy and active participation in the Centroamérica Cuenta festival provides the perfect opportunity to speak with him about the cultural landscape of the dissimilar Central American countries, which nonetheless share undeniable and deeply meaningful fraternal bonds.
Why does Miguel Huezo Mixco write?
I think the writer is a person with an innate ability to construct meaning and create realities through words. I understand writing as part of a shared cultural system. The images, emotions, and experiences that a writer uses would be completely ineffective if not for his or her accomplices: the readers, who are capable of believing what the author constructs, appealing to a shared cultural repertory. Writing is the activity that makes my passage through this world more meaningful. Writing is my way of sharing what I experience, an activity that mixes hedonistic delight and discipline.
You’ve stated that, during the armed conflict in El Salvador, you could sleep, but that afterwards your demons prevented it. Have you managed to reconcile these demons?
War, apart from being a violent confrontation, is a state of mind. It is a mental and physical disposition used to overcome extreme situations of tiredness, fear, and pain, and it is a social experience. During the ten years of the conflict, I was fortunate to be part of a collective in which feelings of fraternity and solidarity prevailed. This, I swear, was extremely important to my ability to sleep. Each of us was responsible for a one-hour watch. During the dry season, we had to carry water from far away in order to survive. By the end of the day we were exhausted. We spent countless sleepless nights, or were forced to march in the dark, but most of our nights were peaceful. Few things are more beautiful than sleeping under the stars.
What happened when the war ended?
All those experiences, especially the harshest and most difficult, began to break through, taking advantage of moments when the mind lowers its guard. They are not only “memories,” but powerful subjective experiences.
I became aware of this for the first time in 1994, during a residency for writers in upstate New York. A few months earlier, I had resigned from the organization to which I belonged due to disagreements with decisions that I considered immoral. Without a penny in my pocket, I made a clean break, took back my life, and returned to writing.
I applied for a scholarship to write a book of poems that I had begun on the war front. I was awarded the grant thanks to the support of writers Manlio Argueta and Claribel Alegría. For the first time, I could be alone with myself. One night I sat up reading Carolyn Forché’s anthology of poems, Against Forgetting. And I was overwhelmed by an uncontrollable desire to cry.
Those who died came to my mind, including a young peasant who offered to relieve me of my watch in exchange for a cigarette. I accepted. And a few seconds later he was annihilated.
Far from my country and the war, it became possible for me to face my demons. Now they live with me, although they are no longer hostile. I don’t want to get rid of them, but neither is it possible to live like that. The most practical way to manage them is by soothing my head with a sleeping pill, or summoning them through writing.
You point out the importance of dialogue between the authors who left and those who remained in El Salvador. How is this meeting possible?
The generation of young people who emigrated to the United States as children is now writing literature, in most cases in English, especially poetry. Thanks to them –these writers who live in California, Texas, or New York– the imagined community known as El Salvador is growing.
In a few cases ¬–in books such as Puntos de fuga (Vanishing Point) and Teatro bajo mi piel (Theater Under my Skin)– poets from both here and there are coming together. I think that Salvadoran poetry has reached a point of exhaustion, and the echoes, experiences, and reflections from the diaspora can help revitalize it.
Might Central America create a new unifying cultural strategy for the sake of a common benefit?
We are on the threshold of the bicentennial of Central American Independence. It is important for us to shine a bright light and identify the advantages and opportunities inherent in a unified Central America. Greater consumption of cultural goods requires people trained in the creation of innovative artistic proposals.
On a cultural level, the Centroamérica Cuenta festival, for example, is helping to share regional written narratives with writers, publishers, and magazines outside the region, expanding the conversation between Central Americans and their peers from other parts of the world. This is the type of initiative that we need to repeat, strengthen, and make sustainable.
There are those, however, who emphasize the difficulty of building a Central American identity given the dissimilarity of the nations that comprise the region…
I think that Central Americans have more things in common than differences, and this is part of our wealth. The construction of Central America as a political entity requires preserving the cultural specificity of nations. The concept of Central American identity must be expanded and cannot be limited to white or mestizo people, a tendency that ignores, for example, people from the Caribbean and the Guatemalan highlands.
The violent history of certain Central American countries seems a perpetual heartbreaking present. How do you build your scriptural present from the painful past of which you were a part?
For many years, I entertained my friends by telling them about my personal experiences in the war. And these friends encouraged me to write down those stories. That’s how my first novel, Camino de Hormigas (Path of Ants), took shape; it’s a complete hybrid, borrowing from the testimonial genre and documentary research, but it’s not a novel about war. War is the background noise in the stories of dysfunctional couples. Writing is a way of living with personal memories.
Is your work, then, a space in which to build memory or, on the contrary, has it allowed you to deconstruct memory?
Memory can be hell. I try to bring a little humor to the serious events we experienced as a society. Humor will set us free.
The interview concludes. I am overcome by a feeling that I’ve forgotten to ask something. I decide to assuage my curiosity by rereading La casa de Moravia (The Moravia House). I confess that I can hardly imagine Miguel Huezo Mixco in the bush, amidst rifles. But soon I reconcile the image: there is something visceral in both poetry and war.