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The Excrement Republic: violence, patriotism, martyrdom and romance in El Salvador

Miroslava Rosales’s poems tear through the postmodern plasticity of the violent neoliberal order, the platinum and plastic necropolis imposed upon Latin American countries by local regimes and foreign penetration. Interview. Español

Miroslava Rosales Arturo Desimone
26 June 2017
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This country is a death ticket

a prison

in continual decline

for your daily devoured sex

for your 28 gunshot heart

for your unlistened-to symphony.

Nobody knows your real name

a virgin in this carnival of wolves

in this fetid accumulation

in this warren of cocaine.

One day you’ll be

an unidentified corpse.

From the poem “Erika’’ (English translation by Dylan Brennan) 

Arturo Desimone: The Excrement Republic, the title of your “minimal personal anthology”, refers to your country, El Salvador. El Salvador and Central America in general are associated, especially in the media, with a level of street crime, violence and corruption that are even considered extraordinary by Latin American standards. These are themes that resound in your poems. And yet there is also love.

Miroslava Rosales: Of course, love is one of my essential refuges, as well as imagination and words. Love moves us, and also makes us think and question ourselves about how we relate to each other. Love says: let us inhabit euphoria despite the tough circumstances. It is the fall, the wound and the caress. Love was and continues to be a difficult animal to tame.

I come from a country where the daily bread is death, extortions, drugs and beheadings, all of which we could classify as horror. But despite this climate, I have had the opportunity to love in the most intense, exalted state. Loving is also a way of resisting. So, in the end, loving is life itself, an attempt at communion, an assertion.

AD: In your poem ‘’Destruction’’ you say, with humor - not irony -, that the womb of your mother provided 9 months of shelter from bullets, fire, knives. Do you think that your poetry can be compared to the one written in wartime? Do you think it belongs, in some way, to the same genre as the poems of Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, or the works of Günter Grass, or the memoirs of Rigoberta Menchú?

MR: My writing is defined by my surroundings, and it has undergone some significant changes. My first project was about the condition of being in love, a metaphor of the heart. But then, there is the experience of the reality of my country – which it is impossible to turn my back on. I lived for 29 years in Soyapango, a municipality with high crime-rates. The territorial control of the maras (criminal organizations) is extraordinary, and it affects everyone’s daily life and interactions with others: you mistrust all of them, and you start to isolate yourself progressively until suffocation ensues.

I am now living in Mexico, and I want to write about the experiences of Central American immigrants in this country. Not a simple project! These are stories filled with pain and death. For that reason, I like books that approach horror and the grotesque, such as Morgue and Other Poems by Gottfried Benn, or books that try to capture the scenery of decadence, such as the Spoon River Anthology of Edgar Lee Master.

AD: In recent years, young writers from Northern Mexico, as well as in Colombia and Central America, have been developing a new literary genre related to the narco-corridos ( mariachi songs about drug-lords). They call it ‘’Narco-literature’’: fiction and non-fiction, and poetry, about the drug-business. This genre shuns more intimate poetic elements, the sensitiveness we find in your poems. What do you think of the rise of “Narco-Lit” in the era of the doomed “War on Drugs”?

MR: Narco-literature has come to displace the aesthetics of magical realism as an identifying sign. And it disheartens me to see how Latin America always gets pegged with violence, misery, backwardness, chaos, because that only stigmatizes us and does nothing towards transforming this reality. Usually, the representation of violence in literature is used as bait to lure consumers who seek exotic and turbulent realities. In most cases, it does not translate into any sort of active participation in the processes of change that our countries need.

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Salvadoran postage stamp homaging Roque Dalton.

AD: Roque Dalton, the influential Salvadoran poet and journalist, is often named as a point of reference when speaking of Central American literature and revolution. Dalton still influences a young generation of poets in El Salvador and in Latin America (he is well-known among Argentine poets, for example.) How do you and your poems relate to this legend?

MR: Well, Dalton is not so very well known in Mexican literary circles, which is very surprising — we, Central American immigrants, and our culture, are little-known in Mexico. I was very surprised to hear that this is not the case in Argentina. Indeed, the figure of Roque Dalton continues to be present in the Salvadoran literary world, next to being an icon of the left. His remains have not been found yet, so perhaps that absence is in itself a metaphor for the orphaned condition of Salvadoran society, for a postponed mourning. The personality of Dalton haunts me: his life, his actions and aesthetics. Above all, he prompts me not to reduce my concerns in art to mere formalism. It is for a reason that my second writing project has an epigraph of his: Country of mine, you do not exist/ you are only a bad shadow to me/a word of the enemy, that I believed.

Dalton’s leftism was certainly too unorthodox for the remnants of the dogmatic left in El Salvador, the left of those who are currently in the government - though they have tried to use him as an icon. Many poets born after the murder of Roque keep going back to him as an intellectual role-model, although his influence is no longer evident, neither in poetry nor in polititics, sadly.

AD: It is a well known fact that a woman gets murdered nearly every day in Guatemala City, and one supposes a similar violence in El Salvador. Does that exposure to violence bring you closer to what is essential in poetry?

MR: Poetry has been my refuge, a way of giving an answer, of presenting myself before a world in collapse. I think of El Salvador every day, in this hurt and abandoned Central America of ours, at the margins of the hegemonic centers.

I’ll tell you an anecdote about this living in fear. One day, a car was abandoned in front of my house. When that happens, it is usually in relation to crime. And this was no exception: they found a man’s head in the trunk. Imagine that: somebody’s head in front of your house. Of course, no one saw anything, nobody heard anything. Everyone is afraid to bear witness, as witnesses can be assassinated without much fuss. Persons disappearing, clandestine cemeteries: this is our reality. And if a girl wears a miniskirt and gets groped in the street by a man, well, the most advisable thing to do, in a context like that of El Salvador, is not to scream, because the fellow might be armed.

I taught in a women’s prison for two years, and I accompanied an American photographer  to the red light districts - which allowed me to interview prostitutes in San Salvador who often come from Nicaragua and are under the control of the maras. Writing poetry does not and cannot have any direct effect on that reality.

AD: You have been promoting the project of an international anthology of poetry dedicated to Berta Cáceres, the indigenous Lenca leader in Honduras who was assassinated for fighting for the protection of nature against the corporate projects supported by the Honduran dictatorship. What effect do you hope the publication of such an anthology will have for Honduras and the neighbouring countries?

MR: The anthology in homage to Berta Cáceres, Wake up, humanity!, is an initiative of the Union of Writers and Artists of Honduras (UEAH) and of the Bolivarian Academic Cultural Centre of Honduras and of the Honduran PEN Club. So, this is a Honduran initiative. In an organization I belong to, the Central-Americanist Network, also known as O ISTMO, we realized how important it is to support the preservation of the collective memory of the Honduran people, and we had no doubt about getting involved in this project. Our participation as a network consists in collaborating in spreading the call for submissions, as well as aiding in the publishing and printing. At this moment, the anthology is still in the process of translation, mostly poems originally in French and English. We are very pleased about the fact that poets from as many as 22 countries responded to our call!

We hope this helps the cause of recognizing the work of Berta Cáceres on behalf of Earth, in a country with severe problems of violence. 

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Berta Cáceres’s family receiving a copy of the anthology, Honduras, April 27, 2017. Photo courtesy of Jorge Miralda.

AD: Are the famous Liberation Theologians (utopian radical clerics, many of whom were murdered by the 1989 campaigns of state terror, supported by both local Salvadoran oligarchies and by the Reagan administration and the School of the Americas) still operating in El Salvador? Do any of them, such as the martyred Jesuit and political radical figure Ignacio Ellacuría, qualify as poets?

MR: We can still find Liberation Theology in my country. The first name that comes to mind is that of Jon Sobrino, who was censured in 2007 by the Congregation For the Doctrine of the Faith, because of his positions, which were considered ‘problematic’ for the Catholic Church.

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Wake up, humanity! Book cover.

Because of my political concerns, it would be ‘’simpler’’ for me to accept the Liberation Theology’s type of Catholicism, given their preference for the poor. I abhor the organization on the other end of the spectrum, the Opus Dei.

The Salvadoran poet Jorge Galán, (currently living in exile in Spain because of persecution here) often writes about that era of our history, when Jesuits were mass-murdered in 1989 by the army, and he has contributed to reintroducing this unresolved theme into open public discussion.

My poetry is not influenced by any religious conception, but it bridges with ethics, with the realm of the spirit, with nature and the life fissures which cannot be mapped by technical rationality.

AD: What Central American poets and writers do you think the world should read?

MAR : Two very great Central American fiction writers who come to mind: Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Horacio Castellanos Moya. But, of course, there are other amazing authors: Claudia Hernández, Rafael Menjívar Ochoa, Denise Phé-Funchal, Jorge Galán, Javier Payeras, Alan Mills, Carlos Fonseca, Vladimir Amaya, Miguel Huezo Mixco, Mauricio Orellana Suárez, Jacinta Escudos, Warren Ulloa, Roxana Méndez, Róger Lindo. Some of these are pretty well established and have gotten major publishers and won international prizes, so I guess they are not unknown outside of Central America.

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