Kátia Bandeira de Mello-Gerlach’s essay appears as a part of a special series featuring New York Foundation for the Arts Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program fellows discussing their relationship with language. You can read an excerpt from Kátia’s creative work here.
“Farewell, beloved town, farewell!
I’m leaving you today;
From all your pleasures and delights
I turn, and go away.”
Upon leaving your land of birth, your feet experience the effects of being on constantly shaking ground. They pound and pound. It is an earthquake of sorts. As though an electric charge from inside the earth has ejected you, and what can you do? You don’t have wings. Rather you are a tree with aerial roots. Thereafter, you spiral over the great abyss of loss, your roots seeking new soil. You gasp for air, you are consciously afraid of losing the thread, and the language that pumps your heart draws a soft line and threatens to split you in half. When you look at your silhouette, you find two or more of yourself.
You resist. You soldier on as you navigate Borges’s labyrinth, though you know you will never find an exit. Latin America’s fate is your own and you attempt to solve enigmatic puzzles to no avail. Every day you walk up dozens of steps until you reach your gray cubicle off of Fourteenth Street in New York where you create stories. You stare at the page and let your characters talk—Fyodor is always there and so is Madame Blavatsky. You struggle to keep everything from your formative years alive, a legacy of a-thousand-and-one words. You whisper in Portuguese around people who confound you. Your mind is lost in the vastness of intertextuality, surrealism, pataphysics, quantum physics, drawings. Since September 11, 2001, when the world fell apart, you have been lifting the ash up in incongruous ways. You have come to the realization that you will not comprehend reality again. You also remember that, at fifteen, you saw the images of decapitated heads hanging on trays placed on top of a hill in Rio. Nothing is real, not even the most barbarous of acts or the wars that abound.
You spiral over the great abyss of loss, your roots seeking new soil. You gasp for air.
Your hands are among many hands working in different directions—there is beauty and there is the absurd. You do not know which hands feel more heat as they create. Fortunately, literature is elastic and pliable. It offers immense possibilities to transgress and experiment, and it provides endless routes for the imagination. And still one must break away from labels and straitjackets, and be brave and audacious, following the paths of Leonora Carrington, Maria Gabriela Llansol, Anne Carson, and many more bold women who entered from the fringes.
Once, at the age of two, as you strolled the neighborhood of Copacabana, your grandmother asked you to jump from the ledge of a wall, where you had climbed with her assistance to collect a crimson bougainvillea flower, a small volcano of a flower. She offered her hand and insisted that you take a deep breath and jump back to the sidewalk. Instead, you sat down and waited for a bit of courage. Finally, you slowly descended to the ground, more like an insect gripping the wall’s surface, which scratched the palms of your hands as you held on to thorny, creeping vines, ripping out roots and stamens all the way down. Your legs shook with fear. The height had felt vertiginous under the bright sun of Copacabana, the sun that deceived you by failing to announce your departure from childhood. From then on, you were a child who wandered in a forest filled with trees with efficient aerial roots, trees that were like people who could fly and create soft landings on quaking grounds under a wobbly sun, unsure in the new air.