U.Va. Students Study Creative Writing With Top Latin American and Spanish Authors

June 19, 2008 — For the past three years, University of Virginia students have had the rare opportunity to take a creative writing class in Spanish from renowned Latin American and Spanish writers.

The novel class idea was borne from conversations between Spanish professor Fernando Operé and Mempo Giardinelli, a frequent visiting professor at U.Va. and well-respected Argentine writer. Giardinelli coordinates a summer seminar on the study of Argentine literature and its creative process in El Chaco, Argentina that U.Va. participates in. The success of the seminar led Giardinelli, Operé and Randolph Pope, Commonwealth Professor of Spanish, to propose a three-credit seminar in Spanish creative writing at U.Va. Funding from the Office of the Vice President of Research and Graduate Studies enabled the idea to come to fruition.

The course is taught by Giardinelli in collaboration with visiting writers. Giardinelli's reputation and connections have helped to attract a number of very distinguished Latin American and Spanish authors for the seminar, according to Operé. The class has proven to be very popular, this year attracting 24 undergraduates and three graduate students. Operé hopes that this success will help the class, which has funding for two more years, to become a permanent part of the curriculum.

Alejandra Gutierrez, a Ph.D. student in Spanish literature, has taken the seminar all three times it has been offered. She credits the course with not only improving her writing skills, but with changing her relationship to literature and even her life goals: the class influenced her to pursue writing as a career.

Gutierrez especially appreciated the chance to interact with professional writers. "For me the best thing about this class was the opportunity to receive feedback from such amazing writers, to get their advice, to listen to their opinions, and above all to receive their encouragement to keep doing this," she said.

The course is conducted entirely in Spanish and the workload is demanding. This year, students were expected to complete assigned readings as well as write at least one new piece of fiction for each session of the class, which met twice weekly.

Giardinelli taught the first half of the course while Rosa Montero, Spanish novelist and award-winning journalist, taught the second half. Montero was very impressed by the students' level of enthusiasm, hard work and skill. Though none of the students had previous training in creative writing, she said that many of them have good potential as writers and that three of them could be professional writers in the very near future.

Since the course is open to both native and non-native Spanish speakers, one of the major challenges Montero encountered was that students had varying levels of mastery of the language. Though some of the non-native Spanish speakers struggled in the class, she notes that they had a surprising advantage in attempting to write in Spanish. One student in particular excelled in her writing in Spanish, but was hesitant to embark upon writing in her native English.

"In another language, you feel freer," Montero explained. "It can help people to find their own creative language through another one. It's a kind of a shortcut — it's very interesting."

And even with the struggling students, Montero said she found proof of the power of the course, because they improved a lot.

"You could see in their works and in their assignments week after week how they made a huge effort to find words in the dictionary and to check the verbs," she said. "It was a question not of being good as a student, but it was a question of reaching beauty."

An example of a student writing from SPAN 495, "Spanish Creative Writing Workshop"

La lechuza y el topo
By Katherine Willcox (English translation below) 



Debajo de la manta del follaje, los ratones restregaban vigorosamente su piel delicada y blanca hasta que su olor sutil desaparecía. Cada uno buscaba un hueco al lado del túnel subterráneo y permanecía quieto. Un topo ciego gris se despertó con un hambre feroz y deslizó su cuerpo corpulento por la tierra húmeda. Usualmente sus narices sensibles le conducían a una comida gorda y jugosa, pero ahora no podía oler nada y se sintió frustrado. En su desesperación, subió al mundo superior.

Aquella noche una lechuza voló sobre el bosque tres veces buscando la cena. A pesar de sus ojos de lince, no observó ningún movimiento y estaba a punto de darse por vencida cuando vio al topo. Bajó rápidamente para gozar de la presa. El roedor, al encontrarse en el pico del depredador, gritó, "Lechuza, si me comes ahora, estarás llena por un rato, pero yo tengo un plan que nos permitirá comernos esos ratones listos que nos han engañado."
La lechuza, que era más pragmática que instintiva, decidió ignorar su hambre y escuchar al topo. Lo dejó caer y el roedor continuó, "Los ratones se han quitado su olor y permanecen debajo de la tierra. A ti y a mí nos falta una perspectiva completa de su mundo. Yo no puedo ver y tú, aunque ves muy bien, no puedes entrar en la esfera subterránea. Tú tienes lo que yo quiero: la vista. Yo tengo lo que tú quieres: la habilidad de cavar. Si juntamos nuestras habilidades, podremos comer muy bien."

El ave escéptica le contestó, "¿Cómo podemos juntar nuestros poderes? Yo no te puedo dar mis ojos, tú no me puedes dar tu cuerpo. Somos seres separados."

"Esto puede ser difícil," respondió el topo, "pero he oído de los hombres que el amor puede unir dos almas para que dos se conviertan en uno. Tenemos que amarnos y entendernos tan bien que compartamos la perspectiva."

A partir de entonces, los dos animales pasaban todas las noches juntos. Después de una comida ligera de frutas y hierbas para satisfacer su hambre, se besaban, hacían el amor y leían poesía amorosa. Susurros sensuales de deseos y secretos los embriagaban. Después de unos meses, se encontraron a sí mismos en el reflejo del otro.

Sin embargo, no estaban más cerca de ser una sola entidad. "El problema es," dedujo el topo, "que todavía no pensamos igual. Tú tienes que adoptar mi visión del mundo y yo la tuya." Entonces los dos dejaron los prejuicios arraigados en sus educaciones diferentes. Su éxito logró la unificación de los cuerpos, porque una mente no puede vivir entre dos. El proceso vació toda su individualidad y memoria.

Este animal nuevo, el "lopo," podía ver, aunque no tan bien como la lechuza, y cavar, aunque no tan bien como el topo. Su piel blanca y pura encerraba un cuerpo redondo con orejas rosas y patas diminutas. A pesar de su desorientación, su hambre feroz le condujo a unas plantas y hierbas. Cuando estaba comiendo el follaje, un ratón se acercó y le preguntó:

"Hermano, ¿qué haces aquí en la superficie? Ven conmigo para ocultarte con los otros." Los dos roedores bajaron por un agujero. Después de unos días, la colonia se dio cuenta de la ausencia de la lechuza y el topo. Al comienzo pensaron que era un truco, pero después de un mes se sintieron más relajados y subieron a la superficie, donde florecieron en paz y sin miedo. La hierba, el dosel del bosque y todo lo intermedio eran suyos.

El lopo, ignorante de su oscuro pasado, vivía alegre con ellos, llamando a los demás "hermanos" y contribuyendo a la productividad de la sociedad. Se dió cuenta de que era una hembra, consintió cuando un varón la montó, y dio a luz seis crías. Una de ellas estaba enferma, y, de acuerdo con las costumbres de sus hermanos, se lo comió para evitar la propagación de la enfermedad. Al masticar el cuerpo suculento, creció el hambre feroz por la carne de los ratones en un rincón olvidado de su cerebro.

Cada noche, después de que los otros se habían acostado, la lopo se levantaba silenciosamente para ingerir a uno de sus hermanos. Después, regresaba a la madriguera arrastrando el peso de la carne y la culpa en su vientre. No entendía sus acciones, pero no era capaz de escapar de este instinto monstruoso. Amigos, amantes y progenie sufrieron las demandas insaciables de su impulso animal. El insomnio la afligió de noche y el letargo de día.

La colonia, pensando que la lechuza y el lopo habían regresado, respondieron a la crisis de la pérdida de la población restregando el olor de su piel y retirándose en la tierra húmeda. Sin embargo, cada mañana, cuando se levantaban, otro ratón había desaparecido. Después de unas semanas, se dieron cuenta de que una ratona había crecido y estaba muy gorda, aunque nunca comía hierbas ni frutas, y decidieron espiarla por la noche. Su canibalismo los horrorizó.

Al día siguiente la lopo se encontró con su cabeza en el círculo de un cortapuros en una colina arriba de la colonia rabiosa. Desde su sitio aislado miraba el blanco mar infinito, chillando, retorciéndose, subiendo y cayendo como una sola entidad turbulenta. Alargando la pata hacia delante, gritó, "¡Hermanos, un día seremos uno!"

El silbido de la hoja cubrió la última palabra.

The Owl and the Mole

Beneath a blanket of foliage, the mice vigorously scrubbed a subtle odor from their delicate white skin. Each searched out an alcove along the subterranean tunnel. A blind gray mole awoke with ravenous hunger and slid his corpulent stomach across the damp earth. Usually his sensitive nostrils quickly led him to a juicy, fat squirming meal, but on this occasion he couldn't smell anything and became frustrated. In his desperation, he rose to the surface.

That night an owl circled the trees three times in search of her dinner. In spite of her sharp eyes, she observed no movement and was at the point of giving up when she espied the mole. She dove rapidly to savor her prey. The rodent, upon finding himself in the beak of the predator, shouted, "Owl, if you eat me now, you will be full for a while, but I have a plan that will allow us to consume all those clever mice that have tricked us."

The bird, more pragmatic than instinctive, decided to ignore her hunger and listen to the mole. She let him fall and the rodent continued: "The mice have rid themselves of their odor and remain hidden beneath the earth. You and I lack a complete perspective of their world; I cannot see and you, although you have exceptional eyesight, cannot enter our subterranean realm. You have what I want: sight. I have what you want: the ability to burrow. If we join our skills, we can eat very well."

The skeptical fowl countered, "How can we share our abilities? I cannot give you my eyes, you cannot give me your body; we are separate beings."

"It may prove difficult," responded the mole, "but I have heard from men that romance unites souls so that two become one. We must love and understand each other so well that we share the same perspective."

From that point on, the two animals spent every night together. After a light supper of fruits and grass to content their bellies, they kissed, made love and read romantic poetry aloud. Sensual whispers of desires and secrets intoxicated them. Within a few months, they encountered with awe their previously hidden selves in one another.

Nonetheless, they were no closer to becoming a single entity. "The problem," the mole deduced, "is that our thoughts are still not the same. You have to adopt my worldview, and I yours." And so they abandoned their prejudices rooted in distinct upbringings. Their success resulted in the unification of two bodies, because one mind cannot exist between two. The process erased all individuality and memory.

This new animal, the "mowl," could see, although not as well as the owl, and burrow, though not as well as the mole. Its white, pure skin encapsulated a round body with pink ears and diminutive paws. In spite of its disorientation, a ferocious hunger led it to a cluster of plants and grass. While it ingested the foliage, a mouse approached it and asked,

"Brother, why are you on the surface? Come with me and hide yourself among the others." The two rodents entered the earth through a cavity. After a few days, the colony noticed the absence of the owl and the mole. At first they suspected a ruse, but after a month they relaxed and emerged to the surface, where they flourished in peace, free from fear. The grass, the tree canopies and everything in between were theirs.

The mowl, ignorant of its dark past, existed happily among the mice, calling them "brother" and contributing productively to the society. Discovering her female status, she consented when a male mounted and she gave birth to six offspring. When one of them became ill, in accordance with the mice's customs, she ate it to avoid the spread of the disease. As she chewed the succulent body, her ravenous appetite for mouse flesh grew in a forgotten alcove of her brain.

Each night, after the others had gone to bed, the mowl rose silently to ingest one of her brothers. Afterward, she returned to her nest dragging the weight of flesh and guilt in her belly. She did not understand her actions, but was incapable of rejecting her monstrous instinct. Friends, lovers and progeny suffered the insatiable demands of her animalistic impulse. Insomnia plagued the mowl by night, and lethargy by day.

The colony, concluding that the owl and the mole had returned, responded to the population loss by rubbing the scent from their hides retreating to the damp underworld. In spite of their efforts, each morning when they awoke another mouse had disappeared. After a few weeks, they noticed that one of their sisters had become very fat, although she never ate grass or fruit like the others, and they decided to spy on her during the night. Her cannibalism horrified them.

The next day the mowl found herself with her head in the circle of a cigar cutter on a hill overlooking the rabid colony. From her isolated post she watched the white infinite sea before her, squeaking, squirming, rising and falling as a single turbulent entity. Extending her paw before her she screamed, "Brothers, one day we will be one!"

The whistle of the blade concealed the last word.