Story posted July 24, 2012
You were born and raised in Cartagena, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. What got you interested in studying an area so close to your own identity and experience?
Yes, I grew up in Cartagena, a very vibrant Caribbean city, but it took me until I was an undergraduate to realize I had grown up in the Caribbean. Due to a long history of “omissions” in Colombian official history, for almost two centuries our Northern Coast was renamed “Atlantic Coast” and with that, among other gestures, our cultural and historical connections to the Caribbean were erased from the definition of Colombian national identity. Writers, artists, musicians, and academics played a significant role in the recognition and fixing of this lapse, which only happened at the end of the 20th century. Hence, I got to witness Colombian re-discovery of its Caribbeanness as a college student. This is how the Caribbean came to light for me as a reality after I recognized it as a concept, and this certainly shed a different light on my life experience. In the last year of college I also went on an exchange program to Jamaica. This was the first of many encounters with other Caribbean countries, where I have always felt at home regardless of language and other differences. Since then I have been fascinated with the interplay between the ideas, the experiences that shape our identities, and the practices by which we think of, feel or express our sense of belonging. Literature is an extraordinary document of such ideas and practices.
How did you get interested in US Latino/a literature?
That was the result of a similar yet further discovery. The “Latino” label is a very North American concept. It did not occur to me that I could be identified as Latina until I was in graduate school in Rutgers University, in New Jersey, where I found myself surrounded by Latin Americans and Latin American descendants from many different countries and backgrounds. In contrast with my experience achieving a Caribbean identity, by not having grown up in the United States I did not have the life experience that would entitle me to feel like a US-Latina. However, because of my appearance and accent, I started to embody a Latina in other people’s eyes. Once again, my fascination for the ambiguities and contradictions within predominant notions and categories of identity led me to explore this matter. As a Caribbean scholar, this is also the natural extension of my research, since among the larger populations of US-Latinos are Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican-Americans, i.e., many of the cultural features associated with Latinos and Latinas are coming from the Caribbean, then being identified by others as “Latin” once they are in the US. My main focus in studying Latinas literature and representation has been precisely this displacement, and the consequent issues of translation of Caribbean and Latin American cultures to the United States economy of ethnic identities.
Apart from literature, your main field of study, you have also explored dance and other cultural production. What connections do you see across these areas?
One of my main research questions has always been what makes Caribbean people such good travelers, and their cultural production so keen to receive global attention. In the Colombian Caribbean, I could mention Gabriel García Márquez and Shakira as notorious examples of such qualities. By looking at the scenarios in which Caribbean culture is displayed beyond the region, I started to notice that much of the cultural translation of Caribbean artistic and cultural trends does not necessarily happen through words, but through images and movement. The capacity to speak through bodies, a feature we share with the whole Black Atlantic, has not only been key to the international success of Caribbean music and culture, but it is also at the core of Caribbean peoples’ communication, knowledge and creativity. This is so natural in the Caribbean that we fail to acknowledge the sophistication of the codes that allow us to read bodies and speak through them. That capacity is what I call, in my latest work, an “embodied consciousness.” Caribbean literature has often resorted to embodied memories and body expressivity as a means to contest the official records of the colonial past and their legacy of social hierarchies and marginalization, but that form of expression remains equally alive in popular culture, music, dance and performance. Therefore, my research has moved fluidly between words and movement.
Nadia Celis, Assistant professor of Spanish, just co-edited a collection of essays on Puerto Rican author Mayra Santos Febres, one of the authors she also studies in her upcoming book, "La rebelión de las niñas: cuerpos y poder en el Caribe hispánico". "La rebelión" focuses on the fictionalization of girlhood, exploring both the values ascribed to female bodies in Caribbean cultures and their effects on women's own relationship to their bodies and identities. This book is also a critical response to the dominant "fetishization" of girls in Latin American and Caribbean canonical fiction.