Dear Uncle R.,
Here’s what the stories have told me: you died in 1987 at home, not in Vietnam.
I was born in 1990.
My coworker—an army reserve who saw a man get shot in the head during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution—recently recommended 1984 by George Orwell, but then he added, “Perhaps you wouldn’t like it as much as I did. You don’t come from a totalitarian country like me.” This made me think of you. Dad tells me you loved Brave New World. Did you love it because your mother took you out of Cuba in 1959 out of her fear of the shifting governmental leadership? Or were you attracted to the book because of your time in the Vietnam War? Was it a reminder of how, no matter what, mankind has always been reliant on a leader? Did you see yourself in John the Savage, an outsider who believed it was natural to feel the presence of God? Pop tells me that the Catholic nuns and fathers of Saint Elizabeth’s worshiped phonics. Did you sing the vowel song, “When two vowels go a-walking”? I was told that the Archdiocese didn’t kill your love for words, reading them and writing them. Thank God.
I read Brave New World too, but, yes, the Soma, the caste systems, the World State, all felt foreign to me at fourteen years old. I will re-read it one day.
Shortly after you passed, a copy of Cosmos by Carl Sagan came in the mail. In it was a note written on the first page by your ex-wife who returned the copy back to my father with your letters, college transcript, essays, handwritten free-writes, military awards, and documents shoved into the pages about man’s relationship to the universe. Pop told me that abuela threw some of your writing in the trash because she couldn’t read them. Nonetheless, your pieces took a long journey from the west coast to the east coast. My mom is the reason your collection is still with us. Some of your letters were destroyed in a flood caused by our upstairs neighbor, who accidentally let her tub flood until a part of our ceiling collapsed. Other pieces of your writing were stored in my brother’s room; my brother—your nephew—R., who wore black nail polish and Doc Martins, used it as inspiration to create his poetry portfolio for SUNY Purchase. When it was time to move, the writings were nowhere to be found in the all-black, candlelit bedroom. Eventually, my mother called your ex-wife to get copies of what remained. Now your assortment is resting neatly in a vintage suitcase tucked away in my mother’s room. One essay of yours we’ve managed to salvage is called “The Postman,” which you wrote around 1981 for a course at St. Leo University in Florida. In it, you talk about bodies that rolled out of at MacGuire Airforce Base in Burlington County, New Jersey. Maybe you wrote it to cope with the toll that the warzone had on your mind. Maybe you wrote it to return to a time that gave you purpose. I wonder, if you were around, would you still write stories. Would you want to read something I wrote? Would we be sharing our work with one another?
Or, would responsibilities consume you until reading and writing were no longer high priorities? If that were the case, I wouldn’t blame you; the older I get, the more I respect those who squeeze the written word into the minutes of the day. I wonder. What was the last book you read before the car crash? What were the last words you scribbled on a piece of paper or typed on a typewriter?
You came here only knowing how to speak Spanish. By the time I was born, Spanish had taken a back seat. How did you start reading and writing in English? For me, I think art was the precursor to reading and writing. Raised by a mother who worked as a textile designer, I remember me, around three feet tall, setting my chin on the edge of her table and watching Mom meticulously pair colors and paint flowers with a delicate hand. I wanted to join in on the fun. She taught me a technique where I would pick four different colors from her paint collection, squeeze one glob out from each tube, and fold a piece of colored paper into four parts. Unfolding the paper would reveal a depiction of flower pedals that stretched out as if to greet me.
Soon the covers of books would attract me as I saw the potential of a new art exercise. Evenings in the 1990s would always conclude with drawing. Soon the Oak dinner table would clear out, the William Sonoma plates being carried away to the sink, so that the table could be used for its new job. I would choose a book from my collection, perhaps Zach Files: I’m Out of My Body, Please Leave A Message, and use the cover as a springboard. I glided the tip of the pencil across the page in an attempt to outline Zach’s transparent spirit flying over Central Park. As I drew, I meditated on the sound of Peter Jennings’ voice coming from my parents’ television, who announced Bill Clinton’s Bosnian peace agreement.
Image Credit: “Brave New World” drawing by Marcel Hidalgo
Once, when I was in my early twenties, a woman who admired me from afar during our regular commute from Bronxville to Inwood said to me “I’ve wanted to talk to you, but you are always reading.” We kissed in the park; my hands caressing her breasts; our breaths heavy with excitement. One day I received a text from her. It said she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Now she’s a story that I remember and write down. I put the book down for a moment and lived.
Now I don’t always read outside. Reading feels like an out of body experience, floating and at peace. What did it feel like for you? It’s a nice feeling, but I know that it’s not a place to linger for too long. Or else you’ll end up like Don Quixote, mad and searching for the ideal love.
It may interest you that my beginning days were spent reading aloud with my mother. We would go back and forth, sharing the reading from books like The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Some time was spent listening to her read; the rest of the time was spent reading aloud while she guided me with pronunciation. I would pay attention to my energy level, and, like a rewarding run, I would feel fatigued, my brain burning off calories, the activity slowly draining the sugar glucose from my brain. When I rested, even with the book closed and tucked away, I remained in The Kingdom of Wisdom with Milo and the watchdog, Tock, eager to continue the journey.
Uttering the sentences aloud helped me to stay focused. This action illuminated the sounds of the words, the rhythms of sentences, which opened up a new way for me to understand the importance of reading.
My fascination with inflection heightened when I got introduced to drama. The rabbit hole was a performance of True West by Sam Shepard, starring Josh Brolin and Elias Koteas, in the summer of 2000. The language used by Sam Shepard sounded different from the novels I had been reading around that time.
It sounded like the way people talk.
I was convinced that people like the brothers, Lee and Austin, had stepped foot into my childhood home and shared a coffee and conversation with my father and mother. At that point in my life, Sam Shepard’s characters felt closer to the truth than any other character I had encountered on a printed page; Lee, a drifter who steals toasters, desires so much to behis brother, Austin, that he manages to steal his screenwriting career away from him. It is a rivalry that is tense, and I felt honored to be a voyeur of it all, watching, listening, and loitering. Brolin and Koteas, figuratively, led me down a path that made me realize that a writer’s words can be paired with great actors whose voices were enhanced by the acoustics of the space, allowing the emotions of words to hit the audience. Yes, I watched movies, but the experience was not like film, because there was no border muffling the tone, the rhythm of Shepard’s words. Each pause, each word, each instruction was honored by the actors. The idea that playwrights wrote lines and instructed the actors on how to communicate those lines was eye-opening. I wanted to have that type of control when I wrote.
I’m sure, if you were still around, you would have enjoyed seeing this play with me.
That same year Pop, Mom, and I took the MetroNorth upstate to SUNY Purchase to watch my brother, who was a freshman at the time, perform in a student’s thesis project, an original play called Red Pawn. In it, R. had a monologue. You should have seen him. He looked like a free man. I know you liked him—your first nephew. As a child, I would tell my parents, in a cute and naïve tone, that I didn’t want to be like R., I wanted to be R. Nine years between us, he was a role model. The time I spent visiting my brother at SUNY Purchase, albeit short, was energizing. I couldn’t wait for my time to be a free man.
To get myself prepared for that future, I read August Wilson’s Fences, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, and John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. The novels I gravitated towards also utilized the power of colloquial speech in their narratives: John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. By 2006, I got my opportunity to be R.; I performed Tommy’s monologue from The Dreamer Examines His Pillow by John Patrick Shanley. Tommy, as if in a psychotic state of mind, rants off imagery connoting the theme of freedom and masculinity to an open refrigerator: “Donna, Donna is myself in you? […] The bird that is Anger lands on my shoulder […] oh my, oh my, oh my, oh my. God help me I am a free man” (Shanley, 21-22).
Is yourself in me, Uncle Ray?
My living uncle, F., asked me why I have so many books: “Ever thought about throwing them out?”
Would a guitar player throw out his guitars? Would a painter throw out her canvases and paintbrushes?
In your last remaining writing sample, you bravely diss the institution of St. John’s University, which you briefly attended, “The four F’s on my academic record are a tribute to this university’s ability to depersonalize education to the level of a fast-food chain restaurant.” Did your time in Cuba teach you that leaders were too fickle to rely on? So, perhaps this was the root of your skepticism toward the educational leadership of St. John’s. Instead of blindly trusting an institution to be instrumental in crafting your literacy, did you place that trust in books instead? A trust in books, I think, is closer to a trust in the self. Brave New World, like all works of fiction, provides vague tracks; fiction offers you just the right amount of freedom to interpret the way you see it. Did you feel that freedom in any other component of your life?
My hunch is that you’d agree with me that the only way to learn how to write is to read. I wish you left behind a list of books you enjoyed.
I think, to know how someone lived, one should look at the books they have read. So, with that in mind, I would like to share a list of books with you that are special to me:
- Don Quixote by Miquel De Cervantes (translated from Spanish by John Rutherford)
- Judas by Amos Oz (translated from Hebrew by Nicolas De Lange)
- Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (translated from Greek by Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins)
- Story of an Eye by Georges Bataille (translated from French by Joachim Neugroschel)
- Oedipus The King by Sophocles (translated from Greek by David Grene)
- The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli (translated from Italian by William J. Connell)
- Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima (translated from Japanese by Meredith Weatherby):
“The weapon of my imagination slaughtered many a Grecian soldier, many white slaves of Arabia, princes of savage tribes, hotel elevator-boys, waiters, young toughs, army officers, circus roustabouts…I was one of those savage marauders who, not knowing how to express their love, mistakenly kill the persons they love. I would kiss the lips of those who had fallen to the ground and were still moving spasmodically” (93).
- Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles D’Ambrosio
- By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano (translated from Spanish by Chris Andrews)
- A Heart So White by Javier Marias (translated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa)
I finished The Things They Carried in the courthouse on Centre Street, waiting to see if my name would be called for jury services. Tim O’Brien, the war veteran, ends The Things They Carried with a death at home, not a death in Vietnam. In “The Lives of the Dead”—the name of the final chapter—O’Brien confesses that, as a writer, he wants to save Linda’s life. An early childhood love of O’Brien’s, Linda dies at age nine of a brain tumor. For him, stories blow life into the bodies of the dead, including the bodies of the friends he made in the Vietnam warzone. For me, you’ve only lived through stories.
Marcel Hidalgo is a Cuban-American writer from New York. A graduate from Sarah Lawrence College, his writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, tNY Press (formally known as theNewerYork), The Humanities Index, Carrier Pigeon Magazine and elsewhere. He was an Honorable Mention for the Nancy Lynn Schwartz Prize for Fiction. He works as an academic administrator at Borough of Manhattan Community College. In Fall 2020, he will be teaching an undergraduate writing course at City College where is working on a masters in Language & Literacy.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.