At eighteen, with my first year of community college completed, I flew alone from Los Angeles to Mexico City. After several days of scouring bookstores, I brought back a suitcase full of novels, poetry, and history books.
I had begun my college studies as a talented Spanish major whose first published poetry — both bilingual and all-Spanish — had been accepted in Americas Review (University of Houston). As a young African-American writer whose first language was English, I shunned away from English-language literary journals because I lacked confidence they would publish my writing. Even then, decades back, I was aware that the publishing industry was a majority-White profession, and I perceived it as a barrier through which I would not be able cross. Social change, my dedication to craft, and persistence have allowed me to move beyond that barrier and get my work published in numerous English-language journals.
Given my skills in the Spanish language, I didn’t hesitate recently to read the short story, “Amargura Para Tres Sonámbulos” (“Bitterness for Three Sleepwalkers”), by Gabriel García Márquez in Spanish. Reading English translations of Spanish-speaking writers creates a thin linguistic veil between myself and the writer that I try to avoid. In the story, Márquez’s first-person-plural narration allows his two sleepwalking narrators to tell a story about a third who is a woman. The two narrators reveal to us, “Estábamos haciendo lo que habíamos hecho todos los días de nuestras vidas” (“We were doing what we had been doing every day of our lives.”) Their emphasis on the humanity of the woman sleepwalker – who lives in the underground — underscores how sleepwalking is an analogy for the process of life. On one occasion during her walk, she falls to the ground and starts eating dirt; yet, she still isn’t dead. The two narrators inform us that the more she walks around the house at night, the more she begins to look like death.
By using the sleepwalking metaphor for the process of a life approaching death, García Márquez makes the finite quality of material life abundantly clear. His magical realism presents three characters who move through the narration like phantasms of our imagination, so thinly clad that they need no names nor any physical description.
Using García Márquez’s number of three, I offer three pressing topics in the world today that we, as humanity, engage with as if sleepwalking. I will refrain from naming them, allowing the reader to use speculation (of which magical realism is a part) to discern the topics of discussion. I have likewise personified my sleepwalkers as women.
She sits at the outdoor table as clouds form in the dry atmosphere. One raindrop falls to the dark brown table as the wind blows the clouds away, assuring no rainfall. She remembers how months, years have passed with barely a sprinkle. She half gazes towards the parched earth, one eye open and the other closed, confident in the technology of dams and irrigation. Faraway, in the Southern hemisphere, no rain means starvation and death. While further off in the tropical regions, torrential rains flood the land, washing away homes and livelihoods, and later leaving stagnant waters that breed disease. Lucky, she puts on her dark sunglasses and feels the warmth of the sun lulling her to sleep.
Six hundred years of extraction on the Atlantic side. Six hundred years! She enters the house, unties the Ankara fabric from her head, rushing to complete her studies while there is electricity. Recalling the words of the professor in class today, she ponders the extraction first of people and then minerals, natural resources, and land from the continent. She must find that chapter her professor was referring to. She sits in the chair, resisting sleepiness, and begins flipping through pages. There it is. She reads how the West and others have ensured that full industrialization of products cannot happen on the land, that the profits are drained away to far-off corners of the world and not given to them — the rightful owners of the wealth. She then sits back, the hanging light flickering off and on, and starts to doze.
She knows that nothing can resuscitate a life that is gone. There is no incubator for a dead body. She saw the bullet hit, pierce skin, spew blood across the linoleum floor, stop a vital organ. The life was lost. She is not sure whether it was a shopping mall, a church, or a schoolroom. Stretched out on the carpeted floor, she covers her head with the blanket to hide from the reality of twenty to forty percent of the world’s guns in her one country. Something about a law written on paper 240 years ago. End of question. End of discussion. End of life.