If I were to be invited to Terry Gross’s show on NPR, “Fresh Air”, it would be because, of course, I have finally published a book in English, not a translation, a book I wrote directly in English. Let’s imagine it was a memoir, some hybrid thing with prose, poetry, photography, and documents with a title like The Book of My Dead or something. I would be a guest at Fresh Air because my book tells the stories of the sudden and weird deaths in my family. See: my great-grandmother died of a flu, (a flu!) during the so-called Ten Tragic Days in México city on 1913. My great-grandfather, her husband, was always afraid of being killed at the Palacio de Lecumberri, the darkest prison in my country for more than 70 years, because he was a cobbler teaching there. My grandmother died of a broken heart when she was 34, my grandfather –the one who broke her heart- lived forever but was dead inside, or so they say. In my book I would probably not talk about the death of my niece, Fatima, who died at 20 of leukemia on February of 2017. The book, of course, would be dedicated to her.
What would I say when Gross asked me why did I leave my country, where I was beginning to be somebody, to come to a place where no matter how much you try, you are nobody? How would I explain my reasons to stay here despite my need, my desperate and constant need, to go back? Would I tell her that I was starting to smell like failure and wanted to run away? No, she would probably ask me to define failure and I would break.
If Terry Gross found out about my niece, Fatima, and asked me why I did not include her in the book I would be lost. Because the only reason not to include her would be that I fear my own pain of trying to write about her.
Terry Gross would summarize that my tale of the dead people of my family starts with my great-great-great grandfather who came to México as part of the army of Maximilian of Habsburg in 1864 and pretended to die a couple of times to fool his family back in Austria and two of the wives he had in Mexico; Terry Gross would say, “Sylvia, tell us about this theory you have in your book about your great-great-great grandfather taking Maximilian´s place during his execution because he looked like him and loved him that much, and how this sense of crazy sacrifice became part of your family genes?”
We would laugh a bit, Terry and me, or rather I would. I would laugh out of nervousness because in the intimacy of a small radio cabin I will say things I do not even dare to tell myself about other deaths. For example, about my pain and shame on the death of my mother and my brother.
After something stupid or funny I had said, Terry would change the subject and ask me to tell the audience about that chapter on my brother. Did I really mean it when I said he was like a father to me, a father that could be charming and abusive at the same time? Did I have regrets for deciding not to visit him during his last days at the hospital and then not going to his funeral? Did I? I wonder if I would be able to build a solid answer explaining my reasons or if I would say, “No, I do not feel regret, that it was the worst-best decision I had made, but just like Sherman Alexie told you in that old interview, I know that one day regret would take me for surprise”.
At that exact moment, perhaps Terry would ask me to read an excerpt from my memoir, the most painful chapter to write about because, of course, it was her favorite:
It is at this point in the text that I need to be meticulous; it is at this point in the text that I need to create an image, a very poetic one that brings back a bit of the aesthetics on the terrifying death of my brother. I know, who wants a calculated description of something like that? Who wants to read something like that? Me, just me, because most likely I am the only one who wants to recreate such an image, for his death, his true death escaped me. I was not there, I did not see him die, I did not see him in his role as a dying alcoholic dying of cirrhosis at a public hospital.
No, I did not see him dying at that time, I saw it before, I saw it all the time, I saw my brother dying for many years. I say how alcohol overturned him, overwhelmed him, and made him hang on a thread.
Terry would bring an adjective to the air, an unexpected adjective to describe her feelings on my excerpt, an adjective I would not be able to grasp, perhaps an adjective I do not even know because, after all, English is my second language and sometimes words, just like people’s deaths, escape me. A commercial break would come just at that moment.
(I wonder what Terry Gross´ guests do during commercial breaks, do they drink a sip of water, coffee, do they chit chat with her about the weather or about Trump?)
After the break, Terry Gross would reintroduce me, me and my book, “Our guest today is Sylvia Aguilar-Zéleny who has a new book published, a memoir about the oddity of the deaths of her family,” then she would go on into asking, “Sylvia in your book you describe how both your brother and your mother learned they both had terminal diseases almost at the same time,” and I would add, “Yes, they did, in different hospitals and in different cities, but almost the same day.” Then, Terry Gross would move into a question, “So, tell us about you secretly wishing your brother went first so you could have your mother a little longer, did you ever talk to someone about it?” I would say, “No” or maybe I would say, “Yes, I confessed that to my husband.” I don’t know, I don’t know what I would say because I don’t remember if I did tell my husband about it or I just dreamt it. I don’t know.
So, to answer Terry’s question I would probably try to get some time by repeating her words, “Did I ever talk to someone about it?” Then I would quickly decide if I want to be blunt honest or make up a good answer that would satisfy everyone.
I would probably give her the answer she wants, the answer that hurts, I would probably be blunt honest because, after all, we the guests of Terry Gross on Fresh Air, do not answer her questions, we surrender our lives, our private lives. Yes, if Terry Gross interviewed me, I would surrender.