Excerpt from “The Illiterettes”

Translated from Cuban Spanish by Jennifer Shyue

The illiterettes are her and me.
Does it hurt?
Yeah, it hurts.
Unlike what everybody believes, illiterettes know a lot of things.
They know how to sit in a park and look at the statue in the park.
And find the statue has declined in value.
On the other side of the statue she looks at me, and unlike what everybody believes, she knows I’m no piano.
A genuine illiterette recognizes other illiterettes.
In the rental we’re all illiterettes.
We’re from different countries and also we’re illiterettes.
She doesn’t look like an illiterette but she is one.
An illiterette with an inferiority complex always tries to pass unnoticed in front of other illiterettes.
And believes herself to be better than the other illiterettes.
And thinks she knows more.
And refuses to live among them.
Until she needs them.
She was the only one missing and we waited for a few months.
Until she needed us.

I wanted to start this book with a dubious phrase.
Something that would allow for doubts.
And even the phrase itself wouldn’t be exempt.
Something like a spelling rule.
Aye before ee.
But what’s written after?
Everything, probably.
After aye and ee she wanted to write everything.
Unlike what everybody believes, illiterettes know how to write.
In the rental most of us illiterettes have laptops.
To write all we need to do is open up our laptops and type.
And it’s nice to know the laptop corrects us.
Ay, bee, cee, dee, ee, ef, gee, aitch, aye, jay, kay, el, em, en, oh, pee, cue, ar, ess, tee, you, vee, doubleu, ex, wye, zee.
If the laptop didn’t correct us we probably wouldn’t write.
We’d steal to eat.
Kill if necessary.
And wind up in jail.

There are no grand pianos here, she thought out loud.
We do have grand pianos, at least this morning, there were hundreds here.
Then show them to me.
Look over there, how many more grand pianos do you want to see.
Maybe this morning they were pianos, but right now, they’re not.
What do you mean they’re not, you can’t get more piano-like than that.
For me, as I search for them, pianos are something else.

A piano is neither a phone nor a coffee pot.
And even though it looks like a laptop, a piano is not a laptop either.
The phones found inspiration.
One is male and one is female.
Or at least they’ve made clear that masculine and feminine roles are present.
Vigorous and falling in love.
With a pair of cables that intertwine.
Knot up.
A piano has no cable.
At least a grand piano.
Doesn’t have a cable.
It has a grand tail, round and erotic.
A huge tail.
One phone urinates and its foreskin grows so much that instead of four feet you could say it has five.
When the male phone beats the female phone, the latter prefers to have never been born.
A grand piano could eat weeds and be happy with that.
Pianos are illiterettes and don’t have intellectual needs.
Grand pianos don’t like to write.
And even if they did, grand pianos have no laptops.
No laptop salesman would sell a laptop to a piano.
Unless the salesman was an illiterette.
Then yes.
But the salesmen are economics graduates.
That’s why weeds are enough to make a piano happy.
They’re the thing that’s least like her.
She who isn’t happy with anything.

She’s in a soological park looking for a piano.
A sign.
She doesn’t like this soo because there are no grand pianos.
And all she can sense of the fork and the spoon is their stench.
And she is not a fan of stars.
To tell the truth, she can’t abide anything from the same family as stars.
Just like human beings—if they have physical characteristics similar to those of a star, she can’t abide them either.
Just like objects—if they have points, like a star, she tries to get rid of them.
Does it still hurt?
A lot.
Forgive me.
Z o o it’s written, with a zee.

Unlike what everyone believes illiterettes have feelings.
And one of the things an illiterette knows how to do best is express her feelings.
But there’s no need to cry over not knowing how to write zoo.
There are a lot of other reasons to cry.
Profound suffering.
Passions of the spirit.
A zoo, written wrong, shouldn’t make anyone lose sleep.
Especially not a zoo with no grand piano.
Where you didn’t find inspiration.
I wanted to fuk you tonight.
Or at least sleep with you.
You and me sleeping in each other’s arms.
Every illiterette with her illiterette.
And every economics graduate with his economics graduate.
That’s how life, which is full of unpleasant things, can be filled with pleasant things.
Sharing the same language is pleasant.
A language of love.
But take it easy.
If you don’t want to sleep with me that’s all right.
What you want is to find inspiration.
And what you’ve found is this.
Forgive me.
F u c k it’s written, with a cee.

She’s in my bed, drunk and crazy.
She’s searching for a grand piano.
I hold her and cling close to her back that smells of rum.
I sniff her and it’s like sticking my nose in a bottle.
It’s not that we illiterettes are drunks, it’s that we can’t stop.
Nature didn’t endow us with the intelligence to stop.
Only the intelligence to keep going.
She’s a bottle.
I uncork her.
Stick my nose in.
Stick my tongue in.
Out comes mucus.
Out comes urine.

Rent: fifty dollars.
Food: twenty dollars.
Toiletries: twenty dollars.
For emergencies, just in case: one dollar.
Total: ninety-nine dollars.

There are eleven of us.
Eight of us play at being medical students.
We three remaining illiterettes play at being a writress, a theater chimney sweep boy, and a serial killer.
The writress and the theater chimney sweep boy are locals.
The rest of us illiterettes are all foreigners.
One wants to be a surgeon.
Another wants to be a gynecologist.
Another wants to be a pediatrician.
Another wants to be a psychiatrist.
Another wants to be a pathologist.
But what we want most of all is to not have to study.
Not one more encyclopedia.
Not one more textbook.
I want to sleep with her and hold her.
And play her piano.

The writress we call Writress.
And the theater chimney sweep boy we call Chimney Sweep.
The medical students are ghosts.
Ghost illiterettes.
They were executed.
For laughing.
For playing doctor.
On November twenty sixth of last year they were executed.
The year 1871.
Shut up, that was the year before last.
Okay, whatever year.
The Writress, the Chimney Sweep and I saw the execution as we hid behind some trees.
A different tree for each of us.
The Writress behind a palm tree.
The Chimney Sweep behind a ceiba.
And me behind a flamboyán.
But the ghost illiterettes still live with us.
Help pay for rent, food and toiletries.
My father was also executed.
A heart attack executed him.
Put your hands up.
He left me a wedding ring I’m going to put on one of the Writress’s fingers.
Because I want to marry her.
And she, me, even though she doesn’t know it.

Carlos Verdugo, present.
Eladio González, present.
Anacleto Bermúdez, present.
Pascual Rodríguez, present.
Ángel Laborde, present.
Et cetera.
Bengala Oliveira, behind the flamboyán.
Shut up, I’m behind the flamboyán.
Behind the flamboyán.

Serial killer, present.
Right behind you, present.
Playing piano, present.
Sticking her nose, present.
In a bottle, present.
Drinking urine, present.
Take it easy, present.
Boa noite, present.
Boa noite.

My father was not an illiterette.
He was an engineer.
The Writress’s parents aren’t illiterettes either.
They’re engineers.
The Chimney Sweep’s parents aren’t illiterettes either.
They’re engineers.
Never be an engineer because your daughter will be an illiterette.
Or your son, also an illiterette.
Doesn’t matter what you beget—illiterette.
And nature will not endow him with the intelligence to stop.
Only the intelligence to keep going, if he’s endowed with intelligence at all.

Can someone in this house tell me, what does undaunted mean.
Question from the Chimney Sweep, illiterette a hundred times over, for the Writress and me, as if we, illiterettes a thousand times over, would know.
And why do you want to know what undaunted means.
What do you mean why do I want to know what undaunted means.
Yeah, why would you want to know something so stupid.
Because it’s how I feel every time I get up and have to walk a kilometer to the theater.
Well then. There’s your answer.
Getting up and walking a kilometer to get to a place you don’t want to get to.
That’s not what it means, don’t be an illiterette.
I’m going to kill you, I say, if you don’t come out with me to get a drink.

Bucanero beer, red can, for the Chimney Sweep.
Cristal beer, green can, for me.
What do you want to talk about.
Anacleto Bermúdez.
Talk about something else.
What’s up with him.
I love him.
You love him how.
Like you love the Writress.
Like that.
Anacleto Bermúdez doesn’t deserve you.
The Writress doesn’t deserve you either.

Two more beers.
Bucanero, red can, and Cristal, green can.
Talk and cry and eat our snot and wipe our snot on the sleeves of our shirts.
The Chimney Sweep’s shirt was given to him by a graduate in whofuckingknows and on the front it says, pipi is ninphomaníaca.
And mine was given to me by my father and it says free your mind.
Ha, he gave it to me in death.
Two more beers.
The Writress stayed at the house, undaunted.
She believes inspiration will fall on her from the sky.
She can’t believe there are no grand pianos in that zoo.
Only spoons, forks and in exceptional circumstances, phones.

Once the Chimney Sweep went to get a haircut so he could make a wig out of his hair.
Because there were no wigs in the wig shops.
And they needed a wig to stage a scene.
And his hairdresser, illiterette a hundred times over, told him: You are a son of Oshún.
My mamá’s name isn’t Oshún.
Ah no, so what’s her name?
I don’t know what my mamá’s name is.
You are a son of Oshún, I’m telling you, I know what all of Oshún’s children are like.
Then what are Oshún’s children like.
Just like peacocks.
Just like phones?
No, just like peacocks.
Just like pianos?
No, just like peacocks.
Then are the medical students also daughters of Oshún?
That I wouldn’t be able to tell you.

The Writress, at least, is not a daughter of Oshún.
The Writress is a daughter of an agricultural engineer addicted to her mop and broom.
And an agricultural engineer addicted to his bisexuality.
The medical students are also addicted to bisexuality.
The Writress and I are also addicted to bisexuality.
The Chimney Sweep is not.
The Chimney Sweep is a son of Oshún.

The Chimney Sweep wanted to know whose son Anacleto Bermúdez is.
What his parents are addicted to.
His favorite color.
The first film he ever saw.
His favorite song.
What his best days are like.
Whether he uses perspirant or anti-perspirant deodorant.
Whether he shaves his private parts.
Whether his genital organ is big.
Or small.
Whether he likes eggs.
Whether he likes fish.
Whether he likes bells.
Whether he likes mushrooms.
So they can go searching for mushrooms and hallucinate like illiterettes outside the coverage area.

The Writress had some tatoos and now she has almost thirty.
The Chimney Sweep also has a bunch.
Anacleto Bermúdez doesn’t have tatoos.
Carlos Verdugo, Eladio González and Ángel Laborde each have one.
I have some but haven’t counted how many.
And even though I’d like to, if there’s one thing I don’t know how to do it’s count.
Since nature didn’t endow the illiterettes with the intelligence to stop, only to keep going, the Writress and I want to get a tatoo together.
The Writress herself suggested it.
Listen, why don’t we get a tatoo together?
And I saw stars.
Forgive me.
The Writress doesn’t like stars.
I do.
I even have a star tatoo.
With six points.
But I don’t know what it means.
The Writress thinks it’s bad manners to ask what a tatoo means.
She thinks it’s stupid for tatoos to mean something.
Tatoos represent something.
But they mean nothing.
Tatoos are just icons.
Forgive me.
T a t t o o it’s written, with two tee’s.

A pink Martí.
A Japanese character that means samurai.
A sewing machine.
Four purple elephantesses.
An abstract figure, on the left clavicle.
Another abstract figure, inside of the left arm.
A Malevich.
A Kandinsky.
Her own hand with an eye in the middle.
A vixen with a dead hen in hand.
A bicycle.
A world map, in color and sans islands.
A man with a hatchet in one hand and his own head, turned into a bomb, in the other.
A plane cutting across the sun.
What does the abstract figure represent? I ask the Writress.
What figure?
The one on your clavicle.
Could be the embryo of love, or the seed of hate, or a cell, or an atom, or a composition for piano, something minimalist, know what I mean? or a spelling mistake, or yeast, know what I mean?
It looks a lot like yeast.

We were lucky those trees were there.
If those trees hadn’t been there maybe we would’ve been in the execution too.
We never talk about that, not the Chimney Sweep nor the Writress nor I.
Much less the ghost students.
Who continue to furtively read their anatomy books.
I like to read because I see well up close.
But I don’t know how to read much.
I almost don’t know how to read in Spanish.
I only read a little in Cantonese.
The Writress is the one who sometimes sits and reads to me for a bit.
And the Chimney Sweep sits alongside us and listens.
The Canticles in Cantonese sound like a tongue-twister.
The Iliad and the Odyssey in Cantonese sound like Rococo.
One hundred hours with Fidel in Cantonese sounds like bat shrieks.
What do you mean, one hundred hours?
You were there for that long?
We give thanks to those trees forever.

I wanted to ask her what she’s doing but I know very well what she’s doing.
What are you doing, Writress?
Don’t you see?
Are those ships?
Pirate ships, to be precise.
And why so many mini paper pirate ships?
To cast them out to sail.
And the pirates?
The pirates are illiterettes.
Where will the ships sail, if I may ask?
In the sea of your vagina.


I remain undaunted after the ninth symphony by Beer.
Grand beer.
Grand piano.
Executing an illiterette deprives the world of illiteracy.
Executing a son of Oshún is sad for Oshún.
Executing a Writress saves the readers.
Both those who read silently and those who read aloud.
Normally the average reader reads two hundred fifty words a minute.
That figure inches up with increasing difficulty.
The reader uses regressions particularly after reading ambiguous sentences.
Taken in the direction opposite to the one in which they function in order to reread a part of the text that might clarify the ambiguous passage.
These movements depend on a number of factors.
For example, ability, the reader’s level of concentration and interest, the complexity and univocity of the text, the legibility of the writing and the consumption of drugs, such as caffeine, that affect ocular movement.
What do you want to talk about.
My mother.
No, my true mother.
What’s your mother’s name?

Exile Poems

Translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha