- A Graphic RevolutionTalking Poetry & Politics with Giannina Braschi
Serious Play, Serious Conversation
Stepping into Giannina Braschi’s apartment makes one feel like an unruly child. The space is filled with surprising, whimsical objects that beg to be investigated, handled, played with. Futuristic LED-lit candles by Ingo Maurer in the guise of circuit boards are designed to deceive; a collection of carefully arranged miniatures in a cabinet of curiosities straddles the line between play and display. The brightly colored clay and metal furniture, by Dutch designer Maarten Baas, would look equally appropriate in a museum or a preschool classroom. The playfulness of the space belies Braschi’s assertion: “I don’t want to be comfortable . . . I want to feel strict.” On a high shelf, rosy-cheeked marionettes observe our interview. “They’re very well behaved,” Braschi says, perhaps admonishing one of us, who was just then considering how to take apart a three-dimensional puzzle. The marionettes are indeed quite well ordered, from largest to smallest, but their impish faces give everything a bit of a fun-house effect. It is difficult to figure out how much of this environment is serious and how much is play.
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The more time we spent with Braschi in her apartment, the more obvious it became that our initial [End Page 130] assessment rested on a profoundly misguided dichotomy. That three-dimensional puzzle was, in fact, a sculpture by Andrew Topolski of a stylized pipe bomb. The marionettes’ faces looked somewhat more malevolent after that. There is something anachronistic about the space, too. In spite of the Manhattan noise outside, the apartment is strangely quiet and calm; there are no screens of any kind. On our way out the door to lunch, Braschi recalled that she does indeed have an iPhone and wondered if she should bring it with her. She left it.
We are in this space in the first place because of a Latinx literature project that began during our graduate school years; we invited Braschi to participate in a Johns Hopkins University reading series that we founded called American Voces, which featured, perhaps to her chagrin—more on that below—Latinx authors including Junot Díaz, Cristina García, and Quiara Alegría Hudes. Braschi’s reading and the dinner that followed comprised a freewheeling, participatory, inspiring evening. Braschi herself was ostensibly the focus, but her goal seemed to be drawing the audience in, transforming the reading into a dynamic conversation peppered with extracts from her writings, engaging a chorus of voices to create a collaborative poetic experience.
Braschi’s work explores just such a multiplicity of voices. In El imperio de los sueños, a poetic trilogy published throughout the 1980s, she writes in her native Spanish as though it were a foreign, American language. Yo-Yo Boing! (1998), meanwhile, is often credited as being the first novel written in Spanglish. In her most recent work, United States of Banana (2011), the form of the novel gives way entirely to a poetic manifesto and a conversation among Giannina, Hamlet, Zarathustra, Segismundo, the Statue of Liberty, and a host of other characters. Originally from Puerto Rico, with a PhD in Golden Age Spanish literature, Braschi has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Ford Foundation, and PEN American Center, among others. Her works have been adapted for the theater, photography and art books, and, most recently, to graphic novel form.
To call what follows an “interview” does not capture the form that our two-day tête-à-tête-à-tête took. Though we had prepared a rough script of questions to prompt Braschi to share her thoughts on poetry and politics, she frequently turned our inquiries back on us, resisting the hierarchy of a Q and A format by insisting on dialogue: “Well, you tell me.” “Am I right?” “Do you agree?” “What do you think?” “Please tell me because I really want to learn.” Eloquent and thoughtful, Braschi chooses her words carefully and delivers them impactfully—there...