Diego Báez On Memory, Language and Belonging – Chicago Review of Books

Where are your roots? How does language—that which you speak and that which speaks through you, if not literally then ancestrally—shift your identity and place in the world at large, and in your own community? Diego Báez’s collection Yaguareté White is an assured and intelligent debut that is lyrical and powerful, sharply examining such borders and boundaries across countries, cultures and individuals. 

These poems examine complex issues of colonialism, language, culture and identity, but beneath such concepts are familial intimacies that speak of Baez’s sensitivity and intelligence, as well as a personal quest that marks an unforgettable cultural and linguistic cartography. 

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Mandana Chaffa

Diego, this debut collection is at the nexus of so many themes, and poetically swoops through global, cultural, familial and individual experiences. When you were contemplating what you envisioned as your first collection, did you imagine these final results? What were your early intentions and how did it alter as you started to shape it, and as it began to shape you?

Diego Báez

I really like your phrasing there: how the book has begun to shape me. It’s easy to think of a book as a thing an author produces for readers to consume. But of course, as you say, the books we read produce us, in turn. And lord knows Yaguareté White has consumed so much of me, my time and my energy. But the result is I’ve become an author in the process, the significance of which I think is only now starting to sink in. I suppose that’s because the biggest changes in my personal life have pertained to my own immediate family. 

In the time Yaguareté White took to arrive, from first contact with the press to final publication, my child turned 3, and then 4. She’ll be 5 soon, so the life of the book represents nearly half her own, which is wild. The book closes with two poems for her. It was important for me to include poetic reminders of these moments from early parenthood that seem to last forever but are, indeed, so fleeting.

“Don’t worry, because I don’t know how to pronounce it either,
the Guaraní. I only know Jopara is like Paraguayan Spanglish,
a mixture of Spanish and Guaraní spoken in the hillside villages,
los campos, the countryside. But I speak none of the above myself.”

Mandana Chaffa

“Yaguareté White” sets the tone of the collection superbly, as it suggests that the reader and speaker are at the same level of knowledge, even though the poet is the authority. I also appreciate the existence of the poem asserts that the narrator does indeed have the right to speak.

Similarly, one of the most compelling themes of the collection overall, sure to resonate with many of us who live many lives culturally, literally, and in the imagination is “am I ‘x’ enough to belong to this in-group, to this culture, and even, to this family. Migration is ultimately a good thing for the human race, but it certainly destabilizes our sense of who we are.

Diego Báez

I think you’re right about the leveling that happens in the title poem, between speaker and reader, in order to establish a common ground. But there’s also a disingenuity at play. The speaker of “Yaguareté White” surely knows more Guaraní than most readers (an admittedly low bar to clear). I thought it would be interesting to open with a speaker who seeks to reassure readers, or who positions himself as sympathetic to readerly frustrations with pronunciation and interpretation, only to subvert that originally accommodating tone in later poems, almost to the point of sharpness or hostility. I’m interested in the ways poetic speakers contradict, undermine, or unsettle their own positions. That aspect of the human condition is just so much more relatable to me.

As for humans and their movement, I think you’re right about the mental, emotional, and spiritual (not to mention physical) tolls it demands. But I wonder whether migration is any more destabilizing than stagnation, in the sense that anyone who lives in the same city, state, or nation their entire lives—let alone for generations—condemns themselves to a narrowly defined range of experiences and correspondingly narrow outlook and mindset. What did Twain say about travel? I will say, for my part, that visiting Paraguay many times over the course of my life has fundamentally expanded my experiential aperture and what I look for in the world.

“Today, scholars recognize the Payaguá to have been a nomadic people
of the Guaycurú, known to raid neighboring native farms and colonial
encampments alike. But we have no idea what they called themselves, how
they referred to each other. How they looked each other in the eye and said:
Sister. Mother. Father. Brother.”

Mandana Chaffa

I also love the deep dive into language, philosophically, practically and personally. Colonized languages, secret languages or even “dying” languages. And within that, how language fails, or hides, or separates. I found it fascinating that Guarani culture is so predominant in the country, and I believe about 90% of the population speak Guarani dialects. For a country that has been so impacted by colonization, that’s a powerful example of resilience, of an indomitable spirit.

Even speaking the same language, we’re limited. Or perhaps the alternative: we don’t need language for the most profound emotions in our lives. 

Through the stories of my parents, I know perhaps 3 or 4 generations back; but even with my relationships with my late grandparents, there were more than a generation or two separating us. And I didn’t have the ability to know them as an adult, to even have the right questions to ask. Which is a long-winded way of saying, how has temporality influenced how and when these poems came to life?

Diego Báez

Thank you for bringing the ancestors into this conversation. My abuelo and abuela proved to be two of the most important people in my life, and your comment about speaking the same language, however limited, however wide the gulf between generations and continents, really resonates. Interactions with our elders, however quick or intermittent or meaningful or awkward, are irreplaceable. 

A quick one in particular: every time my brothers and I finally emerged from that backseat of the Jeep my tío drove from the airport in Asuncion to my abuelos’ farm outside Villarrica, we’d implore them both for a blessing. They’d sign the cross in the air and embrace us. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but that ritual meant the actual world to me. As in, that gesture signified for me entrance into another world. Just thinking of it now, it conjures a distinct sense of welcome displacement, like a portal to another time, a different place.

You mention temporality, and I will say that the moments behind many of the “memory poems,” as one critic called them, still feel incredibly close. In time, yes, even despite the nearly three decades distance between then and now, but also in space. Like they live with me, in my mind and body, all the time. This is true also of another poem, “Special Drawing Rights,” in which my maternal grandfather appears. When I was a kid, he encouraged my artistic pursuits, whether it was sketching flowers in a suburban park, building a volcano out of papier-mâché in his garage, or gifting me story-writing prompts after a visit. I will be forever grateful for that kindness and care. I hold those memories so close, it’s like they happened yesterday.

One thing that was vitally important to me was to use this book as a sort of record or archive. I needed to ensure certain of my people are commemorated, whether by name or through other, elliptical means. So my grandparents and abueles are in the book, plus also my dad’s host parents, who welcomed him, and us, into their lives, until the end of their time on this planet. It’s important these people not be forgotten.

Mandana Chaffa

The series of poems entitled “Postcard from Your Semester Abroad, Volunteer Trip, and Mission Visit (Borrowed from bloggers who post about their visits to Paraguay)” is striking, for its depiction of how the Western gaze simplifies a culture that has been around for centuries. 

In these poems, as well as in others, I think you’re examining the act of seeing, and even more so, the act of being seen, which is a political, and individual assertion. And in a different sense, the issue of representation in poetry, in the broader literary world?

Diego Báez

The postcard poems definitely started from my own observations of outsiders in Paraguay—complicated by my self-conscious status as one myself, in my own way—but they also draw directly from accounts of the country on the web circa 2010. I’d say that’s when I scraped most of the original inspiration from actual travel blogs, many of which have since disappeared or gone offline. Like a lot of literature produced by white people about South America, these blogs tend to chronicle backward customs and welcoming, if ultimately stubbornly unmotivated, locals. 

I suppose these blogs represent a mainstream, less refined strain of travelog, in the same vein as books like Robert Carver’s Paradise With Serpents: Travels in the Lost World of Paraguay, which is so packed full of murderous banditos, deadly animal life, and treasure hunters conquering lost worlds that it’s almost laughable. Also in that line is the less egregious, better researched title, At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels Through Paraguay by John Gimlette, even if Gimlette is notably preoccupied with the opinions on Paraguay of English writers, such as poet Robert Southey, novelist Joseph Conrad, and—exhaustingly—Graham Greene.

As for the poems themselves, I see that initial act of borrowing as a form of repatriation. Those words feel like mine to re-deploy through lyrical reconfigurations. That’s a liberty I feel poets should feel free to exercise, with care and consideration, especially with the rise of unethically sourced AI.

“After the Treaty of Madrid (1750)”

History is so many just men
stationed around wide tables
wet lipped and lascivious
sharpening knives and altercating
over which tongue to impale
to their dining plate.”

Mandana Chaffa

Especially right after “Lengua,” this poem, and this section of it, feels like those sharpening knives. I was disheartened that when I searched for “how old is Paraguay,” the answer was 213 years, as if it only came into existence after it expelled the Spaniards. This dreadful erasure, that again reduces a culture to existing only after it has been acknowledged by brutal empires.

What are the euphemisms in language—in English—that distance us through differences, that impose a rubric of being “less than.” What is it to be considered the third world? The developing world? Or “the world’s happiest place”?

Diego Báez

I’m fascinated by the way globalizing language flattens the interplay and overlap of capital, ethnic identity, race, place, and nation. I’m also drawn to the image of the feast: what better way to symbolize centuries of plunder, as well as the rampant and wanton consumption demanded by U.S. cultural imperialism, which must cannibalize its output, only to regurgitate it again. Now so central to the book, my interest in all this really only took off upon my completion of poetry school.

After my MFA, I enrolled in—and bailed out of—an English program at the University of Illinois at Chicago (shout out to Nasser Mufti, author of Civilizing War: Imperial Politics and the Poetics of National Rupture [!]). One of the first books we read was Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, part of which argues for the central role of the printing press in elevating the nation-state as the predominant vehicle for revolutionary movements across the Americas.

I know that sounds maybe like ensalada de palabras, but the notion that even the idea of the nation-state was a novel way to usurp the iron grip of empire still strikes me as radical and problematic. As in, I believe so many current problems within and between nations can be traced to contradictions present at the conception of the form itself.

While it’s undeniably true that the independent nation-state of Paraguay begins in 1842, its peoples and problems, its riches and histories, its languages, its cultures precede and transcend imperial powers, even if it’s impossible now to extract colonial legacies from the story a country tells of itself. 

Mandana Chaffa

See Also

Belonging—and longing—underscores the diasporan experience, and the familial relationships in many of these poems expresses that intimately. I appreciate that you’re exploring what it is to be the first generation from a culture you feel you can’t entirely claim, even as it is an indelible part of who you are.

Also, in a number of these poems, the speaker is son, nephew, cousin, and then later, father. How has the experience of becoming a parent changed how you experience both language and culture?

Diego Báez

Now, with a child, a whole new dimension opens up, one that presents unforeseen possibilities for continuing, confronting, and complicating linguistic and cultural lineages. I’d not anticipated that, even though it feels obvious in retrospect. I hope the book balances the mind-bending, world-expanding experience of fatherhood with the sappy sentiment that so often attends it.

But your question reminds me of the way familial relations can shift and slide across generations. I just finished watching season 1 of Reservation Dogs, and I’m thinking of the character of William Knifeman, who appears as a spirit to Bear, a teenage protagonist of the show. Whenever the spirit appears, he addresses Bear as “Grandson nephew,” which may strike viewers as humorous. But I think it’s quite profound, this unsettling of familial identifiers, which white supremacist culture wants to pin down and define to keep static. So many times has my father walked us around the bright clay paths of his village to introduce a tio or primo or kin of unclear relation. It was always puzzling, at the time, like who are these people? 

I hadn’t thought about how crucial those footpath bonds are to forming social connections, especially in a small community. It makes me painfully aware of raising a child in a city where we have no family, but many close friends, and how we should—really, how we need—to build those relationships with our neighbors.

Mandana Chaffa

I’ve always loved your criticism (full disclosure, Diego and I briefly served together on the board of the National Book Critics Circle). How has being a critic, and an educator, influenced your own writing?

Diego Báez

I will say that my life as a writer really began with criticism, when I moved back to Chicago and spotted an oddly bound paperback a friend had brought to the beach. It might’ve been The Marriage Plot? That led me to begin writing for Booklist, where the goal is yes to evaluate a book’s merits, but moreover to define an audience to whom said book might appeal.

This approach—one that values care and consideration over intellectual flexing—has shaped the entire ethos of my approach to literary criticism, which I realize stuffy pencilnecks won’t recognize as “criticism,” per se, but I don’t care.

Mandana Chaffa

One of your other “belongings” is that of a true Chicagoan: what do you love about the city? What aspects of it are particularly special for you?

Diego Báez

It’s funny, Chicago is the kind of place Illinoisans like to claim regardless of actual proximity. I can recall my father answering a fellow traveler at the airport in Asuncion (or Miami or São Paulo) in English, or Spanish (or Guaraní or Jopara) and stopping to articulate, very clearly: Chicago. We were not from Chicago, not even close. Now, of course, I understand the utility of geographical shorthand for situating oneself amid fleeting concourse chit chat. But I only came to call Chicago home after I’d flown through a dozen times, and it does now, truly feel like home.

Mandana Chaffa

Would you talk about your work as an abolitionist? 

Diego Báez

I wouldn’t define the small part I play in promoting abolitionist causes as “work,” since that would risk devaluing the seriously difficult, often dangerous, underappreciated, misrepresented, crucially vital work of grassroots activists and organizers. There are so many badass writers, activists, and intellectuals, such as Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba, whose actual lifework has influenced my own personal politics.

The most important thing I can say about abolitionism is that anyone who balks at efforts to defund or abolish police and prisons must ask themselves why we pump tax dollars into ballparks, billionaire tax breaks, and bailouts for banks, at the same time we hold education and social services hostage to arbitrary metrics of success and ROI (that awful fetish of philanthropy). I’d also ask everyone to think seriously about the functions prisons and police should perform in society. If you think prisons should be spaces for rehabilitation, not merely for punitive retribution; if you agree that police should be held personally and institutionally responsible for the harassment, injury, and deaths of fellow civilians, congratulations! You might have an abolitionist future, too.

Yaguareté White
By Diego Báez
University of Arizona Press
February 20, 2024

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