Foreign Essays

Foreign Essays

Roberto Bonazzi

* This review was originally published by The San Antonio Express-News


Title: Foreign Body

Author: Jazmina Barrera Velázquez

English Translation by Dave Oliphant

Publisher House: Literal PublishingYear: 2013


          Foreign Body by Jazmina Barrera Velázquez, a collection of insightful meditations, won the 2013 Literal Essay Award. Throughout these brilliant, concentrated essays, she creates a dialogue with familiar artistic voices, adeptly characterizing their various views in relation to her fresh perceptions. Barrera’s first book strikes pointedly with spare, intense prose, exploring the text of her “foreign” body.

         “Migraine” masterfully blends sly wit with a bold idea. “Migraine is an illness of the ego,” she proclaims. “Some other illnesses tend to be of the superego, like the cold that you give yourself from not wearing a sweater, or the stomach infection that you caught from eating beef tacos.” She locates the Freudian ego in the brain. “There we think, we perceive: we are. A pain in the foot is a pain that comes to one from a distance,” as if that extremity were a stranger. In a perfect characterization of ego, she knows that “When the head hurts you hurt, and when you hurt, the world hurts.”

         Barrera then turns over similes to evoke the pain, developing “my migraine as a kind of pet. As if I had adopted a tarantula that would nest in my head.” They hate each other, “but we spend so much time together that it is inevitable that we feel a certain affection,” contemplating “the other as a permanent threat and at the same time as a type of familiar company.” The migraine and the ego are one. The eventual diagnosis: Not a migraine but merely stress and tension. “How evocative was for me the name of that non-being, now unnamable, like one of Lovecraft’s monsters.”

         “Back (Moles)” postulates the reverse terrain of the back, for “Without our backs we are like broken puppets.” With a photograph Barrera observes it as “surely the flattest part of my body . . . I would have to describe on its surface various elevations, a kind of valley, some mishaps, and at least eight moles.” Then flows a lovely evocation of moles [lunares in Spanish]: “since it is believed that those spots appeared through the influence of the moon.” She has “an enormous scar from the removal of my largest mole. I have always felt that procedure was a betrayal of my body.”

         With precision and charm, Barrera’s essays examine the body’s tics and tears; encounter tiredness and cold, her laughter at being lost, shape-shifting shadows, and the subtle dynamics of memory. Each literary adventure is discrete, except for “Death (In Life),” which is painfully funny and acidly sardonic. “The problem with being dead in life is that your bed becomes your coffin . . . is that the diagnosis always comes too late . . . the problem with being dead in life is that the flies know it.”

          Barrera’s “Shadow” is “This ‘other’ that resembles us, but is faceless, that is like us, but has the capacity to widen, to become thin, or to grow depending on the light . . . The shadow personifies an immaterial presence.” Some believe “that when someone dies he can leave his shadow, that is, his spirit, in the place where he died.” Barrera concludes with the sense “that fantastic stories have made the shadow into a character who is not necessarily evil for being mysterious and eccentric.”

           Dave Oliphant, who brought the poetry of Nicanor Parra and Enique Lihn into Engish, lucidly translates the essays in this bilingual edition that includes Barrera’s text in Spanish. Rose Mary Salum (of Houston) publishes Literal magazine and books by contemporary Latin American voices. Barrera studied English literature at UNAM in Mexico City, and was awarded a grant from the Foundation for Mexican Letters.

          In Foreign Body, Jazmina Barrera Velázquez (yet in her mid-20s) has composed the brightest essays since Octavio Paz’s illuminating prose works of the 1990s.

Roberto Bonazzi published Latin American authors under his Latitudes Press imprint (1966-2000) and has reviewed their poetry in these pages.

Posted: February 24, 2014 at 7:01 pm

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