This is a guest post from Ines Bellina. Ines is a writer, translator, and storyteller who is based in Chicago after many years in Lima, New York, Buenos Aires, Montreal, and other places that have slipped her mind. Along the way she got a bunch of literary degrees, which she is putting to good use at an ad agency. She is active in Chicago’s Live Lit scene and is currently writing a YA novel based on her love of musicals. Ines is also one of the hosts of XX,Will Travel, a podcast geared towards independent women travelers. When she’s not overscheduling herself, she sings love songs to her bulldog, Charlie. Follow her on Twitter @ibwrites.
Withdrawing from my PhD program in Latin American literature felt like a break up.
Not the kind where you storm out in anger over some wrongdoing, or the kind where a misstep causes the implosion of what you’ve carefully built over the years. I have heard one too many horror stories about grad school and I can say, without a doubt, that those were not my experience. My professors treated me with kindness and respect, my peers were supportive, and I had a great rapport with my students.
No, this was the kind of break up where the love withers away under the pressure of daily routine, unfulfilled expectations, and frustrating boredom. After years of excitement among the pages of contemporary Latin American novels, I couldn’t find myself emotionally invested in any of it. I was tired of imposing Foucauldian paradigms on a good story. I was done with the cryptologic work of close readings, which made me miss any of the joy of discovering the actual characters. I was so over the job market, this entity I had to pay attention to even though I thought the point of getting a humanities degree was to never think about any financial reality, ever. (Yes, I’ll admit that was way too naïve of me.) Everything was cerebral instead of visceral.
As my passion died, I neglected those that I should have been reading. Instead, I had intense affairs with other literary traditions, finding all the ease of pure entertainment with none of the baggage of The Canon. Academia, as a far as I was concerned, was the obstacle keeping me from the life of letters I really wanted, one that reveled in the joy of reading instead of its critique.
After a whole year of procrastinating on my dissertation, I quit. It was liberating, as most new beginnings tend to be. But there was also a lot of pain. I was afraid about my prospects and confused as to how I could have been so misguided about my own wants. There was a lot of crying over lost time and opportunities. There was a lot of partying to make up for all those weekends I had been stuck in the library. There was a lot of listening to Amy Winehouse while I thought of the good times with my research, before I soured on it all.
As I said, it felt like a break up.
And though I didn’t burn my books in a ceremonial bonfire (I’m no savage), I didn’t touch them either…for three whole years. In fact, I didn’t read a single book in Spanish during that time. This despite having once vowed to devote my life to it. This despite it being my native tongue.
I justified the first year of my boycott as a necessary detox. Year two was all about the new loves in my literary life: YA, non-fiction writing, and the thriving storytelling scene in Chicago, where I live. By year three, though, I knew there was something else underlying my attitude. Whenever I tried to return to the Borges, Cortazar, and Vargas Llosas of my 20s, my sense of unease bubbled up. They were a reminder that the first big adult decision I made when it came to my career had been a wrong one. Though I knew leaving grad school was the right choice, the life that had taken its place was still frustratingly in neutral: the novel I was writing was taking too long, my publications were few and unpaid, and I was still trying to create a foundation for my own literary work. Did I take a wrong turn? Was that going to be the pique of my achievements? Was I going to look back in regret, wished I had sucked it up?
At a certain point, I was going to have to reconcile with my past. That point came when I got a job as an in-house translator and I realized my Spanish was slightly atrophied. My life had become so immersed in the English-speaking world that it made me question if my work was coming off natural or had that slight knock-off sensation that bad translations wear. It was time to make up with Latin American literature.
I began my way back with two novels that had been on the reading list for my comprehensive exams: How I Became a Nun by Cesar Aira and Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile. Gone were the demands of the analytical, which meant that I was able to simply delve into the raucous delirium of the first and the twisted darkness of the second. To my surprise, though, I realized that all the skills and knowledge of grad school were at my fingertips. It was up to me to retrieve them if and when I wanted to. Having that choice was empowering in itself. From there I moved on to Sexografías by the Peruvian journalist Gabriela Wiener. It was a way of bringing in my newfound appreciation for creative non-fiction into this process of healing, a way to prove that the region wasn’t stale but dynamic in its literary production. But, more than anything, what has made me appreciate my academic past is sharing with people what I used to love. Recommending them ways to go beyond García Márquez—by far the most famous figure in the US when it comes to Latin American letters—has sparked that interest again. Magical Realism gets all the glory, but I was always more attracted to the gritty narratives of urban novels, the stylistic experimentations of the Southern Cone, the low-brow and high-brow hybrids that came with globalization, the abject poetry of the late ’70s and early ’80s, to only name a few of the intriguing developments that are only now and even barely making it to the States.
If you love something, set it free. In my case, I had to free myself from the constraints of my past to go back to that which was once passionately, intimately, my life’s work. I’m ready to have a different relationship to Latin American literature, one less fraught and more fun.