`“J.D.P.”: Heading Home with the Suitcase’
(Omar García Obregón)
On the fourth of October 2008, at 11 o’clock in the morning, I arranged a meeting in the centre of London with John D. Perivolaris (J.D.P.), grandson of the late captain of the Greek merchant navy with whom he shares a name and birthday. John is the current owner of the suitcase that I will keep for about a month and which bears the monogram of his grandfather: J.D.P. The encounter stretched back in time like an inventory since I hadn’t seen John for years. Our chat was followed by a visit to The Photographers’ Gallery to see the British artist Dryden Goodwin’s latest exhibition, entitled Cast. Accompanied by John, who is a professional photographer, I was in a privileged position as I stood before the images, noticing details of craftsmanship the untrained eye takes for granted. The suitcase also began its journey with us through the centre of London. We persevered in our vain attempt to locate an English translation of the work of the excellent Afghan poet Partaw Naderi, whom I had the opportunity of meeting thanks to the London poet and translator Sarah Maguire and the Poetry Translation Centre at SOAS. Partaw Naderi was not in my thoughts today when I left home, but John Perivolaris mentioned him to me after seeing one of his poems in Tube, as part of the Poems on the Underground project (http://tinyurl.com/3ghran). Naderi was now a growing presence in mind, as we failed in our quest to find his poetry. This was hardly surprising, since it is often only through the intervention of a miracle that one can find poetry anywhere, at a time when the market seems convinced that it is only narrative that sells. Nevertheless, we already knew that it is impossible to buy what is not for sale, and there you have the proverbial dog chasing its own tail. So it was that two disappointed buyers of poetry left Foyles bookshop empty-handed. On the way home I remembered that poem entitled `The Mirror’, written in Kabul by Partaw Naderi in 1989, and translated by Sarah Maguire and Yama Yari (© The Poetry Translation Centre, 2005, 2008):
I have spent a lifetime in the mirrors of exile
busy absorbing my reflection
I come from the unending conflicts of wisdom
I have grasped the meaning of nothingness
I had always wanted to make these lines my own, as I have spent most of my life in the mirrors of exile. Until now (a very important `until now’, since there are always turning points that lead us blindly into the unknown) I have lived in London more than anywhere else. In fact, Cuba, and Santa Clara in particular, the location of my childhood, has ended up being the place where I have spent the least time, and whose passport I have never possessed. Naderi leads me to think about that absorption of reflections that preoccupy our exile, an exile that takes a thousand forms, like a partially severed planarian, that family of flatworms whose segments regenerate however many ways they are cut. This is one of the metaphors I most frequently use to represent the lacerations that line our exit from the nation that anticipates our birth with a concept of itself as a people which, many times, as in my case, is inculcated in one by the very system in which they grow up. Yet, for me, nothingness is never emptiness. Rather, it is everything, as it was for one of my favourite poets, José Ángel Valente, to whom I dedicated several years of critical work as I prepared my first doctoral thesis, which focussed on his work. In my case, that sense of totality allows one to grasp the conflicts of so many comunities in exile, diaspora, cushioned cosmopolitanism, and all those other terms that define us through absorption in the mirrors of all those nations through which we pass, as citizens, or in other, more temporary, guises.
Heading home with this suitcase which has already made so many international journeys, including to Cuba and Argentina, in the hands of John’s grandfather, father, Dimitri, I feel that I have been entrusted with an object of which I must take care. On a cloudy, overcast autumn day in London, my main worry was that I would be caught in a shower while I walked the last mile or so home through the surrounding wood. While I was completely lost in my thoughts, the suitcase had transformed itself into a metaphor of other things, of journeys I had taken or planned, of what I had never had and of what I have now. I should explain myself: my father was both an isleño (a Canarian from La Palma) and an aplatanado, in other words, he not only settled in Cuba but he had adopted that other island as his own country during the Franco period. Moreover, I believe that if he had arrived with any sort of suitcase he must have misplaced it around the time of the revolution (a much misused term) since there was no trace of such a thing at the time I was born. My childhood passed without suitcases nor journeys beyond the coastline of the island, over whose entire length I was certainly able to roam, without suitcases, but instead with whatever bags or holdalls were necessary within the limits of what was or wasn’t available. When I was five the first suitcase arrived thanks to Raúl Torre, a cigar maker who knew carpentry, who was a friend of my father. Raúl made up a wooden suitcase with strong enough fastenings so that everything could be stored securely for the 45 days my sister would spend away from home while attending camp for the first time. Later, I would inherit that same suitcase to attend two similar camps, firstly to work on the tobacco vegas in the centre of the island, near Baez, and then cutting sugarcane, in Jutiero. Meanwhile, my parents had had another wooden suitcase made for me, this time with a padlock, where I could keep my books, as I have always been fussy in this regard. That suitcase ended up storing the treasures of that time: a large illustrated book of verses by Alfonso Sastre, whom much later, as a researcher of theatre and censorship, I would rediscover in another context; booklets about the exploits of the heroes and martyrs of the country’s independence, and the subsequent political drama I now closely followed, more so than ever after a brush with politics caused by ignorance, since we avoided the subject at home so as not to put our foot in it. This had its disadvantages, like the time, at the beginning of the school year, when Belkis Caballero rounded on me in the middle of a lesson taught by my second-grade teacher, Olga, asking me if I was a worm or a communist. I demonstrated my great ignorance by saying quietly that, as I did not know what type of animal a communist was, I would therefore choose to be a worm, if only to choose something. The reaction was such that Belkis fed me to the lions, with the whole class seemingly in the know apart from me. The schoolmistress saved from a sticky situation, for which I am still grateful, and from that moment I resolved to stock up on political texts that would enable me to inform myself on what I had to be, on what was permitted. Consequently, that suitcase was transformed into a political source of unequivocal information. Less dramatically, the work of the naturalist Carlos de la Torre also found a place there, my father being a keen amateur naturalist himself. And, outside the confines of the suitcase, there was evidence around the house of his literary tastes: Galdós, with his National Episodes, and Blasco Ibáñez, among others, alongside the books of science and the grammatical sources of knowledge. The moment Belkis posed her question to me marked key changes in the wider world. Days later, in 1973, began the political transformation of Chile, whose repercussions were so great in Cuba. Subsequently, after uncaging the birds at my cousins’ house, prompted as I was by the political imprisonment of another cousin since 1968, my motto would be `Free Luis Corvalán’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luis_Corvalan). Indeed, the Soviet campaign for his release had been launched in Cuba, leading, in 1976, to his exchange with the Soviet political dissident, Vladimir Bukovsky (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Bukovsky). The suitcase was then transformed into an archive of historical materials relating to Leftist international politics (another useless metaphor, unless we are able to define the term every time we use it; nevertheless, on this occasion I believe it is comprehensible), which were the only publications that were available to me at the time.
This suitcase, belonging to J.D.P., previously to his father and grandfather, sailors both, and which even travelled to my country, has transported me back to childhood journeys, to the absence of traveling suitcases, and to the suitcase as a place where we keep some of our most valuable possessions when we undertake journey. Curiously, this suitcase also transports me to what was left behind when the moment of my departure arrived, in 1980. Leaving Mariel for Key West across the maritime bridge between the two, taking a suitcase with me was an impossibility. It was a moment in which the nation was divided between those of us who were leaving, `citizens’, and the `comrades’ who stayed behind. Many of those who left with me have now joined other `citizens’ of countless countries. The courses of their journeys have been diverse, because exile is not homogeneous nor are the lacerations suffered as part of the transcultural processes of emigration the same for everyone. Equally so with mass exoduses, as in my case, when more than 125,000 people leave by the same route, using the same means, by sea, after acts of repudiation (during eggs were thrown at us, at the price of ten for a peso, exempt from rationing restrictions). It was the farewell granted us by those who were staying behind, in return for the sin of dissent or for the betrayal of leaving the country, even though it is the individual stories that fill the gaps of history. My family and I left the island with only the clothes on our back and without papers, our identity cards having been confiscated. We had reached the point where we would have to start anew, without suitcases, but carrying a lifetime’s baggage inside.
The next time I needed a suitcase was in Miami, when I bought a luggage set by installments for a trip to the Middle East, as part of an exchange programme with Israel. The first Lebanese war, in 1982, along with my refugee status, put paid to my plans. I put those same suitcases to use for the first time in 1989, on a trip to Spain, a country my father was revisiting after 36 years. It is these and other images that I am revisiting as I set out with J.D.P.’s suitcase by my side.
Text © Omar García-Obregón, 2008
Translation © John Perivolaris, 2008