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Stories from a 'Caribbean in exile'

Archived article from Dec 10, 1999

By Douglas Frank  

Although Lourdes Vazquez now considers herself a permanent resident of Brooklyn, she spent more than 20 years "in and out" of Puerto Rico, dividing her time between the Caribbean island and the mainland United States.

"I still go back and forth," she says, noting that a lot of modern Latin American literature has arisen from that three-hour flight on the "air bus" between San Juan and New York.

That trip and the culture it has spawned form the backdrop for her six books of short stories, poems and essays published in Puerto Rico, Colombia and Chile. Her latest book, a collection of short stories called "Historias de Pulgarcito," was published this fall by the Puerto Rican firm Editorial-Cultural. Like all her work, it focuses on violence against women and on other social and human-rights issues from a feminist perspective.

Although her poems and stories enjoy recognition in Latin America and a growing following in the United States, writing is still a part-time thing: nights, weekends or traveling by train to work.

Her day job for the past year has been as a special services librarian at Rutgers for Latin America, Spain, Portugal, Africa and anthropology.

A writer since the age of 18, Vazquez trained as a librarian at the University of Puerto Rico and New York University, where she earned degrees in library science and Latin American studies. She was, most recently, acting director of the library at Hostos Community College, part of the City University of New York.

"When I was young, I started writing poetry and short stories. Then, I was writing during the whole process of working as a librarian, taking a degree, being married and taking care of children. It was like having a dual personality," she recalls.

"I have a need to write. I write very often -- at the train station, in my head, all the time. A conversation might pop up with an interesting metaphor that I'll remember and use later."

She writes in Spanish, but often includes phrases in English, French and Portuguese. "Lourdes writes in Spanish and from my point of view she is a Puerto Rican writer," says Gabriela Mora, a professor in the department of Spanish and Portuguese. "In her new fictional world, she observes contemporary life closely mainly in relation to Latino characters in the United States, especially in Miami and New York City,"

Vazquez actually refers to herself as a "Caribbean in exile." The term Caribbean, she says, denotes a growing sense of identity among Latino people of the islands, Central America and even Florida, Colombia and Venezuela.

Stylewise, Vazquez doesn't compose traditional verse poetry, but prefers to write prose poetry or open verse. In fact, her poetry often looks like prose, and her prose often reads like poetry.

"Historias de Pulgarcito," her latest collection of stories, is a tribute to an earlier book of the same title written by Roque Dalton, a guerrilla and poet in El Salvador. Vasquez explains that Pulgarcito, which translates as "little thumb," is a well-known character of Spanish children's stories and that she was inspired by Dalton's book of poems, stories and proverbs. Like Dalton, Vazquez also mixes genres.

But where Dalton's reference to the diminutive children's character pointedly alludes to political problems in the small country of El Salvador, Vazquez's stories center on relationships among family members, mainly women. The philandering fathers are, for the most part, absent, having abandoned their children. Yet within these sad stories of family strife, the author's humor comes through in a lyrical type of prose, says Mora.

The book also has what Vazquez, tongue in cheek, calls a "scandalous" dimension. The cover and inside pages contain photos of a naked woman taken from various perspectives. These, Vasquez says, are integral to the stories. The nudes, many shown headless, are anonymous figures in the tradition of 1950s photography, sensual but not provocative.

A rough translation of the book jacket blurb suggests that in using words and photos, Vazquez "employs all the senses and the basic emotions that affect our psyches." Her stories portray a world "where characters explore distinct components of their vulnerability such as love, memory, sexuality, violence, pleasure, desire, rejection, and the solitary and the indispensable condition of knowing where we are coming from."

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