I want to respond to something someone suggested about my book, The Stories of Devil-Girl, and then get to what I really want to talk about, which has to do with the process of writing strong characters, and the profound reasons for doing so. The statement said something to the effect that this character of Devil-Girl, this book, or this author, speaks for those who can’t speak for themselves.
Maybe so, but things have changed, and this is not the intent, and certainly does not describe how the character is formed or activated or filled with breath.
Neruda said in “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” from the Canto General, his mind-blowing history in verse of Latin America, “Yo vengo a hablar por vuestra boca muerta….Hablad por mis palabras y mi sangre.” (Macchu Picchu was an abandoned Incan city “rediscovered” again after hundreds of years.)
“I come to speak for your dead mouths….Speak through my speech and through my blood.” This was how prominent Neruda translator Nathaniel Tarn rendered these lines in the 1960’s.
The curious thing was that por in the first sentence was translated “for”, and in the second line, translated “through”. Jack Schmitt uses “through” for both lines in his 1991 translation:
“I’ve come to speak through your dead mouths….Speak through my words and my blood.”
One small word but it makes a world of difference. The entire attitude is different. The worlds obscured and “spoken for” come forward in a different way. The process of bringing someone into voice, on a political level and a creative level, is completely different. It is not done with a missionary posture. It is not foreign “aid”, or invasion, or bringing the “democracy” of a writer’s voice to cover up the actual population.
To say, I speak for you, presumes a lot. This at a time when more and more we see and hear others around the globe, human and animal, in a million ways, by music and dance, by grief and testimony in the news, by cloth that travels, by imprint and fossil, by podcast and witness, by migrations and more. To speak for another, without an explicit request, seems an old style presumption. And an inaccuracy. One that does not face the responsibility of what it means to say, we speak for another.
When was the last time it was a good idea for someone to speak for me? For you?
But to say, I speak through a mouth that is not mine, that can no longer speak in this world, transforms everything. It says something about the writer’s understanding that a profound process has occurred. That by some road, by some labor, by some apprenticeship, by experience, by prayer, by possession, by blessing and curse, by magic and mystery, by dream and imagination, by research and whispers, by bone and ancestral memory, by being haunted, by being visited, by being permeable and by seeking, by breaking one’s heart and finding one’s strength, somehow, this writer can use the power of his breath, blow it through the flute of another’s soul, and speak. Speak through the dead mouths of Macchu Picchu, most especially, the laborers, the herdsmen, the slaves.
And to say then, in return, “Speak through my words and my blood”, says even more. Says, here I am, I offer myself to be of use. I make myself vehicle. I empty myself of myself in many ways, to make place for you. Speak through me. This is how possession works. This is how writing character, when it is really happening, may work. I am still there, my craft, my heart, somehow forming the vessel which the speaker will fill, the speaker who comes to life through me, who speaks through me.
So, to say that I or my character Devil-Girl is speaking FOR those who cannot speak is a bad translation of English to English, a bad translation of intention, and of a process that is completely other than this kind of missionary, presumptuous “speaking for”.
This character speaks with others. This writer speaks as directed by the characters that come to speak through her. If this is possession, so be it. Would that it were more successful, and all my characters spoke with the vital breath that comes from some magical mix of other beings and my words. This is the work of the writer who writes stories. There are a thousand, a million, an infinite number of ways to talk about how it is that some character comes to a writer and must be written by that writer, and speaks through that writer in a true way, from a deep well.
Having the courage to work with this powerful process of developing characters also means that one has the courage to listen to the planet, to its voices, whether clearly heard or muffled, hidden in a cloth or belting a song, dying in a fruit sprayed with pesticide or living in a photo nailed onto a wall in the desert, clinging to an ice floe or hacked up for sale.
There is nothing like this listening. There is nothing for a writer like being chosen by a character who aims to speak through your words and through your blood. And it is a bloody business. I have stepped around it for years. Let’s see what happens, listening, writing, speaking through dead mouths, speaking with others. Let’s see what happens for each of us writers and each of our characters, to whom we rededicate ourselves and our labor, since it matters so very much.