Thursday, 25 August 2016

When I was in elementary school, we didn’t read from novels, except for the time the teacher read us Dailan Kifki, by María Elena Walsh, but that wasn’t until I was in sixth or seventh. (More on María Elena in another blog post. She deserves one to herself). The thing is, we had “reading primers.” Our language “manual” had excerpts of books, little snippets to teach us whatever we

Dailan Kifki, the Elefant

needed to learn in grammar, or syntax, or sometimes even history. So in the 5th grade, my parents couldn’t buy me the Language textbook, so they borrowed it from a neighbor. Hermione-style I read it back to back. There was a particular excerpt about a boy who waits for the train every afternoon, and then hurls rocks at the engine. One day the locomotive gets so fed up of being abused, that she throws back her whistle. The boy can’t speak anymore. The piece ended with him realizing that he can’t talk. His fear and desperation.

That’s all there was.

I loved it so much that I cut the rectangle with the beginning of this story and kept it for years, like a puzzle piece I tried to match to other excerpts I found. I’m sure it got lost when my family moved from Argentina to Utah. I like to think of my journals and newspaper clippings, huddling together in a box, waiting for me somewhere (how sad!!!). Cutting this story got my parents and me in a lot of trouble because when the neighbors got their book back for their kid who was younger than me, of course they saw it was missing sections (although I don’t remember cutting out anything else. I honestly thought no one would ever notice the one missing piece–which makes me think, why didn’t I just rip the whole page? I don’t know. I was ten. Ten!). The stealing of a section of a book got me in the bad side of the girls of my apartment building and led to years-long ostracism (more on that in another blog post).

Ladies and gentlemen, Laura Devetach! 

 At the time, I didn’t care that the neighbor girl was mad at me for cutting up the book. I wanted to know the ending of the story so much it physically hurt. That’s all I cared about.

You thought Rick Riordan’s cliffhangers are cruel? You thought waiting three years for Harry Potter 5 was an eternity? How about waiting 28 years to know how a story ended? A story whose title and author you don’t even know.

I knew the story took place in the Argentine sierras. I’ve never been there, but the way the author described the place was so vivid! I didn’t even remember the words she used. I remember feeling. The feeling of summer bliss. The feeling of a kid getting into mischief when he thinks no one’s watching. The feeling of something terrible that we have done and we can’t take back. You know that feeling in the center of your chest when you’ve made a mistake and don’t know how to take it back? That one. That’s what I felt. I wanted to know what you feel like when you fix your mistakes too.

La Torre de Cubos
(The Block Tower)

Fast forward to me, writing my creative thesis for my MFA in writing. I wanted to write a short story to honor this short story from my childhood, but I wanted to credit the author. I searched online, and I found plenty stories about trains, but not the one I was looking for. Finally, I asked on Facebook, and I tagged three friends. One from elementary school, one from my church, and another one I met online because of a friend in common (her sister-in-law, my friend). Within minutes, my friend from elementary school replied: “Could it be La Torre de Cubos (The Block Tower), by Laura Devetach? The military junta banned her works for a long time because they were subversive.”

I immediately looked up Laura Devetach, and friends, let me tell you:
First of all, yes! The story is Mauricio y su Silbido (Mauricio’s Whistling). I savored the whole story. I read the whole little collection of short stories. I “understand” why the military banned her. Her work is for children, but like all the best children’s literature, it isn’t childish. Laura Devetach writes for children with such respect! She addresses social injustice, individual responsibility for one’s actions (as in Mauricio’s story), white privilege, gender equality, and a lot of other concepts I didn’t learn about until I was an adult. Although she’s been recognized around the world for her contribution to children’s literature, as a child, I never even knew the name of this author from my same province, Santa Fe.

After the first burst of euphoria for having found what I’d been searching for years, a feeling of mourning and then anger filled me. I missed so much during my childhood! The books that showed characters like me, who spoke my language, literally, who drank máte with their families, the kids who were alone all day while their moms were at work were robbed from me!

I was born at the cusp of the military government, and by the time I started elementary school my country was under the governance of Ricardo Alfonsín, our democratically elected president. However, it took a long time for democracy to trickle down into education. I asked my friend, the genius one who knew exactly what story I was looking for, “Why do you think we never learned about Laura? Why didn’t she ever come visit our school? Why?” Her reply was, “Maybe because our teachers were so scared by the dark years of the dictatorship that they didn’t know we needed Laura’s words, or that even they were allowed to teach us about her and our other bright writers” (like Alma Maritano, more on her in another post too).

Now that I know here name, Thank you, Laura Devetach! I pledge to honor the legacy of this and the other great writers whose work for children resonates for the rest of the readers’ life. I pledge to write stories that will resonate with readers even when they don’t remember my name anymore or the details of a story, but that leave them feeling and looking for more.

Oh how I wish her work were translated in English! Maybe… maybe there’s a project for me there in the future.

3 responses to “The Ghost of a Memory”

  1. Veeda says:

    I love how you found her after all these years! Touching post, Yamile.

  2. Yamile says:

    Thank you, my friend! I'm so glad you stopped by and left a comment 🙂

  3. Paul Smith says:

    Yes, this is the best memory that stays with us for life! home be with you

Yamile Saied Mendez

Yamile (sha-MEE-lay) Saied Méndez is a fútbol-obsessed Argentine-American, Picture Book, Middle Grade, and Young Adult author.

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