Brooke Champagne’s Nola Face

Your collection Nola Face includes several bilingual essays. Can you talk about the Spanish influence both in your life and work?

My bilingualism is in some ways the subject of my life. I spent much of my childhood as unofficial translator for my grandmother Lala, who spoke no English. Or I should say, she understood it only when convenient. The bawdy, often outrageous things she said to strangers—asking what small rodent had died in their mouth to cause such severe halitosis, to give one perfectly normal example…comments made, by the way, just to embarrass me—required I perform daily lies in translation. And that “Lying in Translation” (the title of one of my essays) is really a metaphor for how my relationship to Spanish developed over time. As a child, I lived with the shame that I spoke Spanish, because Lala spoke and behaved shamefully in this language, and now I live with the shame I don’t speak it well enough. These days I’m not even sure to what extent I am bilingual, because I hardly ever get to speak it since Lala passed away several years ago. Recently at my daughter’s open house at Crestmont Elementary (a school in which many parents are non-native speakers from Central America, so children enter kindergarten speaking only Spanish), an administrator mistook me for one of the numerous non-English-speaking parents, and ushered me to a place where I could meet with a translator. I was so shocked by her assumption that I failed to use my Master’s education English degree and let her know that I indeed spoke the language. I know Lala would’ve laughed and called me an Enriquita, her word for “dummy,” for not even understanding English. Or she would’ve made some sartorially offensive remark about the administrator’s too-short pants that would necessitate another of my lies in translation.

In the essay “What I Know About The Chicken Lady,” you describe having unconventional lunches with your father and the fact that he was wary of becoming material for your writing. Were you more conscious writing about someone who did not want to be written about, as opposed to writing about a person who didn’t care either way?   

I never preemptively censor myself by worrying whether a particular person may or may not want to be written about. Because I suspect, like most of us, they don’t know what the hell they want. I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life in college, and I continue holding tightly to her words: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Now, I still adhere to this sentiment, though over the years I’ve developed a more complicated relationship to the quip. Ever since I began seeing my writing out in the world and realized my subjects could potentially read it, I’ve spent more time internally debating whether any story I intend to write is legitimately mine to tell. The debate usually goes like this: if any idea persists and I cannot stop myself from trying to work it out, even in dreams, then yeah, that’s my story. I’ve found that my family members, at least, react unpredictably to the prospect of becoming writing subjects. I have four sisters. One of them complains I don’t write about her enough; another one complains I write about her too much. The latter has asked I change her name for the book, which doesn’t make sense to me, because…social media? Her identity is out there, so this request seems silly, but I had the temerity to write about her many peccadilloes (including once chopping off her own hair in a fit of rage, then getting her boyfriend arrested for it), so I will do what she asks. The question of my father is even more complicated, because he doesn’t balk at being a subject of my writing; he’s disturbed by my having become a writer, period. Because this was something he wanted to do with his life, and for many reasons, he didn’t. Ultimately my goal when writing about others, whether they’re desirous to become material or not, is to get to the core of them, to learn about them and our relationship to each other and the world. My foremost responsibility is getting the writing right. And if I do, almost every time, if they actually read the work, they don’t have any problems with it. They’re usually like, “damn girl, it’s crazy you remember all that.”

Moving, marriage, divorce, a new job, becoming a parent, births and deaths; these kinds of life-changing events can obviously change writers and their writing. But have smaller life events changed you or your writing more than a life-changing event?   

Those big life moments are inherently the most memorable and the ones, ironically, we remember most incorrectly. I’ve done some memory research while writing this book and was surprised to learn how new the field of memory studies is, and how much scientists are still learning about this stuff. It’s hard to say why we remember the minutia we do, why certain small things stick with us. For example, the impetus for writing my essay “Bobbitt” is based on a memory of my grandmother Lala lauding Lorena Bobbitt (a fellow Ecuadorian) after the latter dismembered her husband, John. I still remember so clearly Lala flipping a banana in the air and pointing it menacingly at my Abuelo. But it couldn’t have happened that way, because Abuelo had already passed away when John Bobbitt was de-Bobbitted. All of this is to say, sure, the big life events you mentioned are all over this book and have certainly changed me as a writer and person. But really, recalling anything from my past teaches me simply how to remember. It forces me to ask why I remember what I do in the way I do, and asks me to focus on the events and details, both large and small, that matter.

One of the things that I noticed about your work is that you successfully navigate the waters about writing about one’s experiences without coming off as self-obsessed or self-centered. What are some “best practices” for writing about yourself? 

What has worked for me maybe won’t work for everyone writing personal essays, but I’ve found it effective to make a bigger punching bag of myself-as-narrator/character than anyone else. I’d also advise never, ever writing for revenge (at least not for public consumption). Even more broadly speaking, if the writing is only about oneself, that is to say, “waaaah, this terrible thing happened to me!” without looking outward into the world, to understand where this personal experience fits in with the human condition, within some historical or cultural context, why it would benefit anyone else to know about, then it will probably come across as self-centered or maybe just boring. One reason I titled my book Nola Face is because it’s by no means just about me: it’s about the city of my birth and its languages and culture and racial identities and prejudices and politics, and the people (and dogs) I love so much who raised me within it. The last thing I’ll say is that writing about oneself can be a most gratifying experience, but also, damned difficult. Just tiresome, all this rehashing. So having a dog and/or children and/or a partner, someone/something outside of yourself to cuddle with and care for and love on, is highly advisable.

Which essay in the collection is your favorite?

The first time I ever heard this question posed to a writer, I was an undergrad attending my first poetry reading for my professor, David Middleton, and an audience member asked the same of him. His answer was the most satisfying and hopeful I could imagine: his own favorite poem hadn’t been written yet. That idea has dictated my perception of my work ever since. I still believe my best, or favorite piece of writing, is still churning inside me, waiting to be discovered and shaped. And yet, since you’re asking, the essay that likely went through the most iterations and revisions, that caused the most tears, sweat, hair-pulling anxiety, the one I least wanted to write (but most needed to), was “Exercises.” So I do have a special affection for that one. But all of these essays are my little babies, and anyone with children knows there’s no such thing as a favorite.

You mention that your abuela, Lala, never wanted you to speak English in front of her. Among other things she considered American English coarse and inelegant in comparison to Spanish (which I agree with!). If someone translated your essays into Spanish would something be “lost in translation”? 

Sure, the distinct flavor of the original, the color, the voice, the accuracy, is always going to be lost when moving any text across languages. One of my favorite writers is Marcel Proust, and it kills me that I’m likely too lazy (busy, I mean busy!) to learn French and read In Search of Lost Time in the original before I die. I mean, consider the original title: À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu. One need not understand French to see and hear the vastly different phrasings and sounds translated across the title alone. But translating any of my essays to Spanish would be doubly weird because so much of the work itself is about language: not just the toggling between English and Spanish, but the general failures of the spoken and written word between (or especially) among those we love most. So to have my work translated in Spanish would mean seeing, in Spanish, my current insecurities with that language, and witnessing the gringo characters Lala mocked for how they spoke that “feo” English now actually speaking Spanish.  This translation would essentially create an entire Spanish-speaking world and that, I imagine, would have been Lala’s utopia…and all this is an enormous head trip I don’t know I’m ready for.  That said, if anyone more fluent in Spanish than I am wanted to translate the book for me (I’m busy, I said!), well, then, yes, please, go for it.

–Van Newell