The Braschian Wave: All the Solitude of an Empire in a Bottle Thrown into the Sea

June 29, 2023
translated by David Auerbach
A photograph of a bottle overturned on a beach at sunset
Photo by Javardh / Unsplash

Carlos Labbé wonders whether it is “still possible to speak of experimental writing when we live in a reality where facts are constantly written in a language already programmed by someone else.” Examining the work of Giannina Braschi, he makes a case that it is, indeed, still possible.

The long work of Boricua Giannina Braschi (b. 1953) is so short that it can’t be subjected to any measurement, since even if it includes books that can be counted on the fingers of a single hand, it is immeasurable. In the functional dimensions of a literature of characters contained in a box, of narratives that are pure anecdote because they confuse the need for a hook to lure in readers with the propensity to be all claws and jaws, of the metamorphic lyricism of Empire of Dreams (1988), and even the geopolitical urgency of Braschi’s new book, Putinoika, there always seems to be an imminent wave about to break over the harbor that is customary literary language. And Braschi’s voice confirms it every time: whoever knows the ocean knows that waves never break.

Well, for anyone who reads even one of her books, it becomes transparent—after the last page—that for there to be a wave there must be an ocean, movements of large bodies of water—what else are we?—superficial and clandestine currents of freshness, inexplicable warmth, and that more-warm-than-cold network of all flowing that circles this sphere that we call the planet. This long work by the Atlantic Braschi, as plural as her project is, must have an influence on Latin American, Spanish and European, New York, Caribbean and Western literature, in all of those niches to which the title of each of her books directly alludes; as if her influence were always on the verge of finally passing into the mainstream. “She is such a respected figure in Puerto Rico for the air of mystery and eccentricity that she always carries with her,” a poet friend confided to me. Each of her books has been well received in their time as much as a volume of poetic prose that draws on tradition—as is the case with her aforementioned debut—as a contemporary novel—which can be said about Yo-Yo Boing (1998)—or as a cutting-edge hybrid text in terms of both genre and language—United States of Banana (2011).

The imminence of Braschi’s influence endures in the flow of time not only because of the impact of her subjects that mark an era, or because of the stylistic novelty that makes a certain voice unmistakable—including a range of other transient voices that never dwell entirely within the confines of her city—or because of the fluidity with which the oral language of a dominant cosmopolis, Manhattan, is translated in print from the rhythmic English of its neighborhoods, from the anti-Spanish colonized by the United States, from the imperial Castilian lexicon of Golden Age poetry that barely conceals the Mozarabic, the Berber, the Saharawi, and the Sephardic, from the Taíno syntax that defiantly survives in street-corner chatter, from verbal formulations where “things are beautiful when they work” (Empire of Dreams), and any definition of the literary is relational, performative: “art is function” (ibid.).

Perhaps Braschi’s influence is the most obvious “poetic egg” that enables us to go on living.

It is true, a wave is nothing more than the rest of the waves that only cease breaking when they wash back out to sea, one after the other. Imminence ceases to be if it is not always growing. In each ocean wave, everything comes and goes, and then there is the moon to entice the water—what else are we?—as it revolves around this sphere that we call the planet. Perhaps her influence is the most obvious “poetic egg” that enables us to go on living, if we accept the potentialities of this concept, which the author introduces in her first book so as to sow a long work that is always in gestation. In the same way, the wave and the moon grow only to achieve an eclipse in their greatness, becoming full in their minimum expression, without which there would be nothing in this world, and with that movement they carry us, and in this way, they make the current complementary: the subequatorial with the Mediterranean, Norway with the Gulf of Mexico, Brazil with Labrador.

And only in this way can those who read Braschi understand that there is no chance of calm along a seemingly placid Caribbean coastline, just as the pandemonium of New York is a harmony of noise, so that placidity never achieves eternal respite, and an island is always reminded that it is a mountain, the summit of something that is simmering in a struggle that has been boiling away since time immemorial and whose ultimate outcome can never be known, not because it hasn’t happened, but because we still don’t know how to read it, nor are we sure of the language in which it is to be related: the imminence of death that, once written, ceases to be and thus becomes transcendence through its execution:

All the characters were sighing or groaning or screaming or crying. They looked like souls torn from their bodies. And it wasn’t because their bodies were torn from their souls, but because their souls had been torn from their bodies. And, above all, they wept. They were like abandoned echoes. Like the echo of seashells. Let’s keep in mind that their voices simulated a chorus of echoes. … Solitude is not a voice, just an echo. When I say that it’s just an echo, I don’t mean that it imitates, but that it projects the voices of solitude with an unwonted repercussion. These characters were dead. And yet they had come to life. They were suddenly feeling the fire of death over the movement of the waves of the sea. They were bringing death’s movement to their own movement, slowly. … I’d dreamed of bringing to this rhythm a final dance that would invade the maritime continent of this book. (Empire of Dreams, 192–93)

Like every tidal flow written today, the imminence of Braschi’s work also derives from the poem-as-novel that is The Waves and extends toward the language of what we still don’t know, but what we can perhaps call literature. Is it still possible to speak of experimental writing when we live in a reality where facts are constantly written in a language already programmed by someone else? In the chapter “The Adventures of Mariquita Samper,” from the fourth book of Empire of Dreams, the homonymous protagonist understands that the only way to become independent for those who were born in Puerto Rico—for now, an “autonomous” territory belonging to the United States—is to travel to the Soviet Union at the very end of the Cold War, renounce our US citizenship, which is only effective outside the island, and, sheltered in the fictions of the enemy, finally become a foreign body: alien, Puerto Rican, Antillean, pre-Western, ancient, mysterious, and yet so common in any part of the Caribbean, which has nothing but which always has a beginning, a shore, and that wave which never breaks until it returns to the high seas.

And yet, the sand. Long before the present moment, when we were the embodiment of that algorithmic fantasy of certain California boys fascinated with computing and computer control as a response to the school bullying imposed on them by triumphalist postwar American education—we’re something else—before the collapse of the Twin Towers and the death of all those workers—many of them from all over the Caribbean—who became the sacrificial lambs for the end of a triumphalist financial system in 2001; even before the confines of New York City, as a no-man’s-land and everyone’s-land, offered a narrative to Nuyoricans displaced from their Boricua barrios, as the United States of Banana attests; at the exact moment when Julia de Burgos inaugurated the tradition of the intellectual from the islands who travels to the great metropolis of the East Coast to become, at the epicenter of midcentury capitalism, a revolutionary in feminism, sexual diversity, and anarcho-socialism (all the more radical because those things would never be feasible except in their imminence); just after the Southern-gringo narco-musical imagination of Miami imposed throughout this sphere its overly inclusive rhythms, and the pure and ubiquitous performativity of Pitbull dancing doggy-style to Bad Bunny, Giannina Braschi proposed in her first novel that a fiction from Puerto Rico and from New York would be defined—from something as delimited, remote, and controlled as the easternmost island in this imperial sphere of influence—by the act of translation as survival.

Braschi proposed in her first novel that a fiction from Puerto Rico and from New York would be defined by the act of translation as survival.

Inevitably, “art is function” while literature has always been interpreting how my body would have to resonate among an endless number of languages without time for definitive places or historical contexts, and in the face of which, what is isolated becomes pure summit, mountain range, gully, or ditch, and in which each expression assumes a profoundly discordant meaning with respect to the main channel of the submissive narrative, which means the story of the City as community/local fragmentation or as globalization by design. “In order to write how the sea moves,” Braschi simply confesses in her “Requiem for Solitude,” the final chapter of Empire of Dreams—in an instant of blatant authenticity so rare in her long work that it immediately produces the most far-reaching disaffection—“I’ve had to cry and I’ve had to suffer.” That requiem, which she always seems to be about to explain, will never be a limited movement, and it will be without limits, like the human sea. And what else are we?

Translation from the Spanish

Editorial note: For more on Braschi’s work, read Tess O’Dwyer’s “Popping Up in Pop Culture and Other Unlikely Spaces: Latinx Author Giannina Braschi Crosses Over” in the Spring 2021 issue of WLT.

Carlos Labbé is a Chilean-born writer, editor, and translator living in Brooklyn. He is the author of Viaje a Partagua (Punto de Vista). He has also published storybooks, essays, and children’s stories. His work has been translated into English, German, French and Turkish. In 2010 he was named among Granta magazine’s “Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists.” He served as a juror for the 2022 Neustadt International Prize for Literature and is co-founder of Sangría Editora, a Chilean literary collective.

David Auerbach is a faculty member of the Graduate Program of Translation at the University of Puerto Rico. A native of New York City, he has been a professional translator and editor for over twenty-five years, specializing in financial, legal, and literary texts as well as translation for the arts, working principally from four languages (Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Italian).