MALAS student Maricarmen Torres Medina shares her experience working with inaugural Kislak Family Foundation Writer in Residence, Ecuadorian author and scholar Gabriela Alemán
January 11, 2023
This article was originally featured in the Fall 2022 Latinamericanist newsletter.
by Maricarmen Torres Medina
When Gabriela speaks, so do her eyes. They flicker around the room, constantly breaking eye contact. But her soft-spoken voice does not seem to reflect the nervousness of her eyes. When she is unsure of something, or she is thinking, she presses her lips together and shifts to one side. As I was planning to interview her about the Cinema Ecuador Film Series we would have during the semester, I asked if I could record her. At first, she was hesitant. She thought I was going to do a video recording, which made her nervous. I told her I just wanted to record her voice for a transcription. She agreed. On the day of the interview, there we were, two Spanish speakers exchanging words in English because we wanted to promote the events to a broader UF community. What I did not say is that I too was nervous. Little did I know that in November, at one of the film screenings, Gabriela would enlist me to do a live translation from Spanish to English for director Juliana Khalifé. It was terrifying, but indeed one of the best experiences that I have had.
At Gabriela’s table, there is always room for one more, or two or three. And writing is the meal. Her creative writing class had more “arrimados,” “arroceros,” “colaos” —scroungers—than enrolled students. On the first day, a lot of potential students arrived hoping to get a seat in her class. I was one of them. Without hesitation, she smiled and said, “Of course. But if you are going to be here, you have to do all the activities and attend like any of the enrolled students.”
One day Gabriela arrived at class wearing a skeleton hand. Most of the group thought it was a new type of ergonomic hand “stabilizer.” When some of my classmates asked her what had happened, she just said, “It is a bracelet,” while looking very amused. Two weeks later, at the celebration party for her book launch, Family Album: Short Stories, we talked about the skeleton bracelet again—as she was wearing it that night too—and how some of us were shy about asking what had happened to the hand. We laughed, but then she said: “What I have learned is that you don’t meddle with the woman’s body.”
She furthered her argument by telling us a story about how, once, while doing exercises with a stretching band, it slipped off her feet and hit her face, bruising her right eye. When she was stable enough to continue doing normal things, she visited some of her regular places, and encountered a few friends. No one asked what had happened to her, or why she had a yellow bruise on her eye. Finally, she asked one of her friends: “Hey, you are my friend. Why didn’t you ask me what had happened to me?”
She shared that her friends thought the wound was something private, related to a boyfriend, and that to ask her about it was to meddle in her business. She told us, the group of students that were listening attentively, that in Ecuador talking about gender violence is still taboo. Although there are still only a few, in Quito some makeup artists used to paint women to cover their bruises. Women continue to feel that they cannot talk about this issue, that they must seem unharmed at all times. No one asks either. Silence keeps on reigning. If we learned anything from the mystery of the skeleton bracelet, it showed us that silence kills. And how to write about silences? Better said, how to write to break silences?
Students decided to take Gabriela’s course for different reasons. Some were eager to learn from a Guggenheim scholar and famous author. Others wanted to practice narrative instead of poetry. Some were interested to learn how fiction enriches research work. And some of us considered her class a refuge from the academic load and the anxiety of our final year. But writing has become a way to know each other’s silences. Gabriela’s class is a place where we read, talk, laugh, imitate, and complain about always being hungry. We have talked and written about architecture, chickens, soup, dance, statues, ham, the city, the countryside, hurricanes, ghosts, gender, race, and violence. We have also written about bridges. Moreover, we have built bridges, and we have built them while writing together, as a community, even if our writing dreams are far-fetched, such as saying that any of our works resemble those of Cortázar [the famous Argentinean author who contributed to the ‘Latin American Boom’ in literature in the 1960s and 70s].
But Cortázar is no longer here. Gabriela is. (Pun intended, to our dear classmate Juan Manuel!) Gabriela is a prolific writer, and an erudite scholar. Amongst our group, we are always asking ourselves: how does this woman know so much about different things? That still puzzles me.
Her creative writing is filled with references from different cultural contexts, as well of anthropology, history, art, and sciences. She has shared with us that before writing she must research as much as she can on a topic, and that sometimes can take a lot of time. Also, she is very drawn to theory that she is able to incorporate into her stories. After that process, she can sit down and write continuously, even more than she expected to, as she did for her novel Poso Wells (2007). But she has always encouraged us to find our own style and process.
Gabriela’s second major work translated into English, after her debut Poso Wells, is Family Album: Short Stories (City Lights Publishers), which we celebrated with a book launch in October. Literary scholar Nicolás Campisi (Georgetown University) joined Gabriela for in-depth discussion about the blend of reality and absurdity in her genre-hopping book of stories about Ecuador. When the event finished, nearly every attendee filed into line for an autographed copy.
Gabriela’s vibrance comes through in her sweet smile – and her dance moves! She is passionate about soccer (a trait we witnessed during the World Cup), and happiness seems to flood her personality, as well as her solidarity. Not only had she designed a writing class that showed us the diversity of Latin American writers and topics, she also granted us the experience of “reading” her, as an author and as a person. During the semester she gifted us some of her books without expecting anything in exchange. In the same way that we attended her faculty “Coloquio” this fall semester, she also supported us in our student “Coloquio” presentation. Not only was she present, she shared words of encouragement, and fruitful commentaries.
Gabriela is a perpetual student, and intellectual—not to be confused with education level only—who does not seek the spotlight, is eager to share what she has and what she knows. For the aspiring writer like myself, and many of our classmates, Gabriela assembled a digital volume with some our works. This type of motivation is deeply needed when emerging writers are finding their voice, and building confidence on their talents. As the semester has ended, she is getting ready to leave Gainesville, and she will be deeply missed. It is true, we tried to do some informal advocacy for her stay, but we must share her with future students, as she has done with herself and her talent. She must keep on dancing.
You can read more from the Fall 2022 Latinamericanist below.