7 “Between the Scylla and the Charybdis”
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7 “Between the Scylla and the Charybdis” Remapping Subjectivity in the Dialogic Waters of Julia Alvarez’s “The Other Side/El Otro Lado” Andrea Witzke Slot Social differences are not simply given to experience through an already authenticated cultural tradition; they are the signs of the emergence of community envisaged as a project—at once a vision and a construction—that takes you “beyond” yourself in order to return, in a spirit of revision and reconstruction, to the political conditions of the present. —Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture The Dominican American writer Julia Alvarez often uses her experiences of moving in between cultures, classes, countries, and languages to inform her fiction and poetry. Her long poem “The Other Side/ El Otro Lado” is no exception. Comprising the entire fifth section of the collection of the same name, “The Other Side/El Otro Lado” is a complex, forty-one-page poem that navigates numerous voices between the United States and the small Dominican village of Boca, and while many of the poem’s themes could be read through the lens of Alvarez’s life experiences, the poem becomes much more than the product of one poet’s (or persona’s) personal story. As Alvarez explains in an interview a year after the poem was published, the cross-cultural 159 160 Andrea Witzke Slot positioning that empowers much of her work is driven by a range of changing social contexts and constructs: What I try to do with my writing is to move out into those other selves, other worlds. To become more and more of us. Here, I am writing in English often about Dominican situations and characters, using Spanish as part of my English—those combinations are happening all over the planet, as populations are on the move. I find this empowering: that we are becoming these mixtures, we are becoming each other. By allowing myself to be those mixtures and not having to choose or repress myself or cut myself off from the other, I have become a citizen of the world. (Heredia 32) Through its intricate interplay of interior positions, “The Other Side/ El Otro Lado” is an exemplary forum for demonstrating just how Alvarez “move[s] out into those other selves.” Significantly, the lyric persona of the poem is a nameless one, which allows the persona to slide more easily in and out of these various subjective positions and points of view, creating a rich dialogic fabric of social experience between people, places, classes, and cultures that might not meet otherwise. Perhaps the lyric persona conveys this best when, toward the end of the poem, she surmises that she has been caught “between the Scylla and the Charybdis / of two cultures” (1093–94), comparing her dilemma to the one Odysseus’ men faced as they sailed through the Straits of Messina, trapped between the six-headed sea-monster, Scylla, on one side and the cauldron-like whirlpool, Charybdis, on the other. Veering too far to the left or right would mean certain loss for Odysseus’ men; so, too, would it mean certain cultural loss (due to the loss of the “in-between”) for the lyric persona. In other words, choosing one culture, language, or subject position requires exclusion by definition, and this is where the greatest danger lies. Instead, one must accept and include all positions, as every perspective enhances and illuminates the others. In Alvarez’s poem and for her lyric persona, this means embracing the simultaneous and ambivalent occupation of two or more ideological spaces as well as accepting the comfort (and discomfort) of residing in—and even the being defined by—the both/and as opposed to the either/or. 161 “Between the Scylla and the Charybdis” This in-between, this dialogue of differences, propels the poem into becoming the “borderline work of culture” that Homi Bhabha dares new theorists to address. The poem indeed “creates a sense of the new as an insurgent act of cultural translation . . . [and] renews the past, refiguring it as a contingent ‘in-between’ space, that innovates and interrupts the performance of the present. The ‘past-present’ becomes part of the necessity, not the nostalgia, of living” (10). Moreover , the constant and innovative shifts in position and vision in Alvarez ’s poem generate an ambivalent location of seeing as well as being seen from both inside these cultures (subjectively) and outside these cultures (objectively) in an ambivalent positioning. More critically, this chapter will show how the ambivalent positioning in...