About six years ago, in a bar in Brooklyn, I met a pretty Mexican girl, with shining black eyes, the sweetest smile and an adorable gap in her front teeth. She was standing at the bar with an acquaintance of mine, declaiming from memory a long poem by the 17th century English poet, George Herbert. (“I struck the board and cried, No more, I will abroad. What? Shall I ever sigh and pine? My lines and life are free....”) As if finding a young mexicana reciting George Herbert in a New York bar was not unusual enough, I was struck by her unique, yet oddly familiar, pronunciation: most of the women from Mexico City I know speak English with a soft, almost British-sounding lilt, but Aura’s voice was exuberant, robust, with a slight thrumming raspiness – the voice of a spirited and wise old Mexican woman, or even of your smartest, most irreverent old Jewish aunt. I even asked her, “How come you speak English like a New York Jew?” And she laughed and said it was because as a young girl, left home alone in the afternoons while her mother worked, she’d taught herself English by watching the Seinfeld show on television.
I fell totally in love with Aura that night. Though I wouldn’t see her again for a long while, her voice accompanied me everywhere. If I was walking to the subway, or working out at the gym, I’d conjure up that voice reciting George Herbert. Eight months after that initial counter, I ran into her by chance in Mexico City. It was the very end of August. In three days, she’d be going up to Columbia University to begin her work towards a doctorate in the Spanish and Portuguese department. But we had our first “date” the next night, for which she arrived two hours late. We’ve pretty much been together ever since. The next day she sat me down and read me a story she’d written, a brief, beautifully minimalist and evocative story set in an airport, called “Hawaii,” though it didn’t have anything to do with Hawaii. I told her I liked it very much. She told me that she was certain that I was lying.... I insisted, No, I really like it....She insisted, No, you’re just saying that because you like me!... And so on, until finally I managed to more or less convince her that even though it was true that I really did like her, I also liked her story. For the next five years, that would pretty much be the routine whenever she gave me her fiction to read.
The PhD program at Columbia was very rigorous and demanding, of course. She took her academic work seriously. She’d been studying literature – first English and American literature at the UNAM and the University of Texas and Brown; now Latin American and Spanish literature in New York – for more than a decade. But it was not her dream to be an academic – she wanted to be a writer. Her doctoral studies at Columbia involved a great deal of post-modern lit-crit theory, etc. As you all certainly know, radical critical theory does not express much esteem for fiction-writing, novels, stories and such. Aura did not become one of those knee-jerk anti-intellectuals, of course, who dismiss such theoretical writings as junk simply because they sometimes clashed with her own convictions and enthusiasms. She struggled with those texts, battled, absorbed, thought deeply; she learned a great deal. It was a true intellectual journey that challenged her deepest assumptions, and forced her to interrogate and defend her own ideas. But one day a professor – a professor she admired, even after – said something like this to her, “Ay Aura, you are still an innocent. We’re going to have to help you lose your belief in fiction.”
Aura’s response was to apply to the Hunter College MFA program in creative writing. It was an act of extraordinary courage and conviction and defiance and love. Quite simply, she was determined to try for her one true dream.
How did she do it all? At Columbia she was teaching courses, working on her thesis, attending workshops at Hunter, working on her writing – while also being the most loving, positive, cheerful and constant companion to me, her husband, the luckiest fellow in the world.
At first, Hunter was terrifying to her. In Mexico, she had already begun to publish essays, cronicas and stories, written in Spanish. Now she had to learn to write in English. Her professors – Peter, Colum, Jenefer – were incredibly supportive. Oh, if you could only see how her eyes and face would light up when she came home at night, and told me about her classes, and the wonderful or hilarious or inspiring insights into writing that she’d heard that day! And when any of her teachers praised her writing, she couldn’t accuse them of just saying what they’d said because they liked (loved) her. And she found new friends at Hunter, young people like herself, devoted to the dream of becoming writers, people who spoke her same literary language and shared her enthusiasms, dear friends who gave her a lot of happiness, friends for life who made New York City a much less lonely city.
For a long time, she was really too hard on herself about her writing. Talented young women writers are often like that, I know. Self-doubt dogged her every written word. I can tell you that in the last few months especially, she was beginning to flower. She was working very hard, writing every day, with growing excitement and even confidence. I think she was beginning to understand what it took to make the kind of literature she aspired to. That magical hard-won thing had “clicked” inside her.
Last week, we rented a house in Mazunte, on Mexico’s Pacific coast. It was a beautiful rambling house, like something out of Swiss Family Robinson. We slept up on the highest roof platform in the open air, looking out at the moon rising over the jungle, and at the ocean at dawn. We’d get up early, and write until about noon or one in the afternoon, and then we’d head to the beach. On the last morning of her life she spoke to me with a ringing confidence about her work that I’d never heard from her before. She said, grinning ear to ear: “I’m writing a really great story!” And I could tell that she believed it.
For that glorious unprecedented moment in her life, I will always be so grateful to the Hunter College MFA program.
Ps. Here in Mexico we are going to be publishing a beautiful book of Aura’s writings, both in Spanish and translated from English. (She left 1,100 files in her computer, and who knows how many more in another older computer she left back in New York that crashed, but that Junot Diaz, who teaches at MIT, insists can be rescued by the sorts of geniuses they have there.) And she left suitcases and filing cabinets full of papers.
Also, we are going to establish a foundation which we hope will be able to provide an annual scholarship to a young Mexican woman who wants to be a writer. There is still much to be worked out regarding this – more later.