- a Sense of Space, a Sense of SpeechA conversation with Ana Lydia Vega
Ana Lydia Vega erupted onto the Puerto Rican literary scene in 1981 with the groundbreaking book Vírgenes y mártires, a collection that contained six of her stories and six written by Carmen Lugo Filippi. The verve and vivacity of her writing, her literary re-creation of popular language, her subtle satire of social mores, and her humorous references to the shared frustrations and absurdities of life in a colonized nation that has taken on the mental habits of the colonizer gained her an instant and wide readership. Since then Vega has published three more short story collections—Encancaranublado y otros cuentos de naufragio (1982), Pasión de historia y otras historias de pasión (1987), and Falsas crónicas del Sur (1992)—and a collection of essays, Esperando a Loló y otros delirios generacionales (1994). In 1988 she edited El tramo ancla, in which her own and other writers’ collaborations for a local newspaper participate in a sort of literary relay. The following conversation took place in July 1999 in an ocean-front apartment in San Juan, where Vega retreats in the summer, across town from her home in Río Piedras.—The Editors
The stories in your first book, Vírgenes y mártires, were strong and well rounded, with a distinctive style. You must have been writing for a long time before publishing.
I have always written, ever since I was small. At first it was poetry, because I wanted to imitate my father, who was a country poet or troubadour, an improvisador, who made up the verses to songs as he went along. This is something that is typical of Puerto Rico; it is at the heart of the island’s strong oral tradition. My father used to say that I had inherited his poetic vein, but he did not live to see me published. He had been very poor when he was small and had no formal education, unlike my mother, who was the first woman of her town, Arroyo, to complete a university education. He taught himself to read and write and later bought encyclopedias, which he read through and through, acquiring a great deal of knowledge, which, in a way, shamed us, because he knew many more facts than we did. [End Page 52]
But you had a formal education. How did that come to bear on your writing?
I went to a Catholic parochial school in which everything was taught in English, so my first literary context was English. I love British literature: I used to read the Brontë sisters; I enjoyed Wilde’s irony immensely and read Lord Byron avidly. My favorites were those nineteenth-century English novels—especially those written by women—in which you immerse yourself completely. When I wrote Miss Florence’s Trunk, the novella that appears in Falsas crónicas del Sur, I reread those novels, especially the ones with a governess in them. My writing often parodies different literary genres, and in that text I wanted to re-create those writers’ reticence, their ability to keep something secret, to say very little about a central element in a story. They give out a very small clue, and the reader has to do the rest.
You also parody the spoken language, and you do it very well, not imitating but re-creating its dramatic rhythms and emphasizing contrasts that are not usually perceived. It comes across as a very natural language, but it is actually very artful.
As I said, my father was an oral poet, so orality was an important antecedent to my writing. But there is something else: I do not have the same background as most Puerto Rican writers. The great majority have studied Spanish literature; many teach it. That is their literary world. But although I work at the University of Puerto Rico, I teach French; I went to France for graduate school. That, and the fact that at the elementary- and secondary-school levels I was exposed primarily to English, means...