I have a ghost stuck in my throat. It installed itself there a long time ago, perhaps before I was born. And, sometimes in the most crucial moments, it clenches my throat when I need to speak, so that all I can do is go back to writing my words down after the fact. I’m sure I’m not the only person who ruminates on situations from the past, thinking ‘I should have said X’ or ‘I should have done Y’, or ‘why didn’t so-and-so say exactly what they meant?’, often with a touch of indignation or regret; often also with a kind of post-mortem joy and delight. But fewer count as one of their pastimes writing these things down, anatomically dissecting each experience in the hopes of uncovering some transcendental truth.
The practice of writing can come with as much pleasure as pain. Years back, when walking the Camino de Santiago, as hundreds of thousands do each year, I realized that my path was double. As the first task ahead of me, I had to do each day what all pilgrims must do: walk 30 or so kilometres, and when the day’s walking is done, massage legs and treat any blisters, wash and hang to dry the clothes worn that day, nourish the body with healthy food and wine to boot, chat to one’s fellow pilgrims, and get some sleep. But for me, in addition to all of this, in order to take in the complex emotional landscapes and traversing a physical terrain in this way, I needed to write it all down, or at least take notes, to make sure I wouldn’t forget and I could come back and write more fully later. Writing meant walking more slowly, taking more breaks, longer stops, and perhaps also having more fantastical imaginings about my surroundings. It also meant having a very different rhythm than everybody else’s, staying behind when the group I had merged with now forged ahead, and going solo for a while before befriending the next set of people. Where others were content to just exist, and walk, which is the whole point of the journey, I couldn’t dream of being without pen and paper. We are meaning-making creatures, and the only way I know how to make mine is through writing. Most of the time, this is my way of being in the world.
But writing comes with complexities: not partaking in each moment in the same way as others do brings a kind of solitude that is added to an experience that is inwardly complex and intense. At university in Monterrey, Mexico we used a Catalan word to call our sort: lletraferit – wounded by letters. Which is a fairly dramatic way to describe people who take pleasure in books and the written word. And the dramatic part comes because it’s not just a simple pleasure. It’s an aching kind, one that has pain at its heart. Perhaps some of the best pleasures in life are the ones that don’t come easy.
With this I am reminded of the final passage of the 1954 erotic novel Story of O. After a long series of provocations, it describes a scene where O is branded like cattle with the initials of her owner – the last frontier of autonomy, of the sense of self, of being subjugated to another human being. In essence, it is the most obvious demonstration that O is a slave. Such is perhaps the feeling of being lletraferit. A private, painful, pleasurable subjugation. Unseen by most, but fundamentally affecting.
I am wandering around my friend’s village in southern Spain. It’s late spring in a desert scrubland valley hugged by a mountain range. The mountain peaks look blue and purple in the distance, they are almost the “right” shape. Every mountain I encounter in my travels, I inevitably compare to the mountains among which I was born. They may be similar, but they are never the same as mine. They may be devastatingly beautiful, but never enough as mine.
The landscape here looks familiar though, because my friend told me about it often when we lived together in Glasgow. She showed me photos and shared her love for her homeland, the magic and emotions it evoked, as well as the stories she associated with it. I told her about my own place of birth: it was also a desert hugged by a mountain range. A mountain range called ‘mother’—the Sierra Madre. In my desert you would encounter many more cacti, perhaps more heat, definitely more snakes and scorpions. But the similarities were nevertheless apparent.
Despite my friend’s landscape not being “mine”, I had already learned to love this Mediterranean desert even before ever visiting. Through my friend’s love of it, it had acquired meaning. And coming here was almost like returning to a home I had never been to before.
A sensation experienced by many when it comes to visiting New York or Paris for the first time. A city of paths well-trodden through movies and culture, which feels so familiar even before arrival. The traveller sees what they expected to see, and the recognition comes with layers of vicarious remembering: what it meant, and how loved it was, to the film and literature characters that have been loved for years.
Victor Hugo said of his hometown that he loved it as one loves the creases around on one’s mother’s smile. That’s how I feel about the Sierra Madre. My eyes follow each contour, again and again. The shapes of those peaks are as familiar as anything I know, and I love them as much, and I never tire of looking at them. It’s been over three years since I was last there, and it is a complicated place: an ultra-religious, politically conservative city ridden with chaos, traffic, pollution, violence, inequality, femicides, the whole lot. And yet I remember the idyllic years...
What must it be like to live in the same place where one’s grandparents were born? To never have left, or to have travelled briefly before settling back down in the place that was always home? This is something I may never know, that fewer and fewer among us will ever know. I would not trade my adventures for such knowledge, and yet, I intuit a very deep kind of contentment is lost when that kind of connection to the land is severed.
What I noticed travelling around Scotland for the first time was that the mountains had no meaning to me. I had never encountered those heather-faced hills, those glens glistening in the slanting sunlight, those desolate rain-beaten muirs, those lochs and invers—meeting waters. Not in literature, film, or culture, and not through anyone I knew. My father was from England, not Scotland. I had spent some childhood time at my grandparents’ home in Wales, not Scotland. With my quasi-British upbringing in Mexico, Scotland was entirely foreign to me. My first months in Scotland, I kept staring at the mountains and noticing my lack of love for them. Show me how to love you, I begged the mountains, again and again. Fifteen years later, I am still discovering the answer. Like the Scottish men I’ve loved, these mountains don’t give into me easily, and if they do love me back, it is in a language I don’t quite understand. Being lletraferit, I can’t even respond when it matters.
And yet something compels me to continue making my life around them. Perhaps, being a translator as well as a writer, I need to be in dialogue with things I can never fully understand. And here I am reminded of a poem by the Hungarian poet Zsuzsa Beney, translated by George Szirtes:
He steps into the poem. Rock. It closes behind him, he too becomes rock. He becomes absorbed in the cell of the bones, in their vaulted arcades.
But while he freezes, the clay about him roasts at white heat, eventually melts, and from the glowing magma there blossoms a whole new framework, the rose in the desert.
And as for him, he turns from rock, is enclosed within the rock, is resurrected, vanishes on the road that leads through his body from fullness into wholeness.
I imagine walking into another language as walking into a mountain, and the rock closing behind me. Not the freest kind of dialogue, and definitely not one which feels balanced. In fact most of the time it is me who is listening to a monologue. But perhaps in disappearing into another culture, in fusing oneself as wholly as is possible to the unknown, in using language to enter spaces that are as closed as solid rock, new meanings are created, a different kind of wholeness is to be found.
I am very careful not to count myself among the millions who have been displaced from their homeland through no choice of their own, fleeing wars, famine, climate catastrophe. I am among the privileged few who had a choice and made the decision to live somewhere a little more peaceful. Not too peaceful. Just the right amount. More and more Mexican women have joined me over the years in Scotland, and there are enough of us now that I finally feel I have some kind of expat community with people I have in common with than just coming from the same country. We may never fully understand this place, but we are content with the green, undulating hills that say almost nothing to us, barely a whisper. In this rain-soaked land we take root.
Juana Adcock is a Mexican-born, Scotland-based, bilingual poet and translator.She’s the author of the newsletter A Poet's Translation - Drawing connections in poetry, translation, language, identities and cultures.