Chilean-American poet describes life in translation
By Monica Jiménez
When Mr. Soledad Caballero, AG02, looks back on her childhood, she remembers not one, but two.
Born in Santiago, Chile, in 1973, the year a group of military officers seized power from then-President Salvador Allende, Caballero lived there for seven years. “It was my time in Spanish with my family. It feels like a very intimate moment, a momentous moment, ”said Caballero, who teaches, researches and co-directs Allegheny College’s Interdisciplinary Cognitive Humanities Lab with colleague Aimee Knupsky. His first collection of poetry—I was a bell, Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award winner – explores personal and historical memory and her experiences as an immigrant and cancer survivor.
Caballero doesn’t remember much of the political climate of his early years in Chile. She does, however, have vivid memories that recur like movie clips when she experiences certain sensory details. “If I smell musky earth, I remember my grandparents’ beach house. I remember my grandfather coming to pick up my aunt after school.
Caballero’s second childhood began when his family moved to Stillwater, OK. His father obtained a doctorate. in mathematics. Her mother, who had studied ophthalmology, ended up working in retail, then running a home daycare, then doing bilingual customer service. Caballero continued to speak Spanish with her mother, but in school and in all other ways she lived her life in English.
She didn’t think much of her wasted years in Spanish as she earned her BA in English with minors in Women’s Studies and Psychology, and wrote a collection of poems for her undergraduate honors thesis. But things changed as she worked on her Tufts thesis on the travel writings of British romantic women in the Americas, examining how writers brought their own cultural baggage to explore a new place. “I’ve always responded to the idea that you can be an insider in some spaces and a stranger in others,” she said.
The project got Caballero to think more about the role of the United States in Latin America in the 1970s and particularly in the Chilean coup – and who she would have been if her family hadn’t emigrated. Ideas about identity, boundaries and connection continued to creep in when she landed her first teaching position in the English department at Allegheny College and became interested in using the literature to explore a variety of areas, most recently working with a colleague in psychology on the role of empathy in how humans relate to each other.
Caballero and a colleague therefore founded the Cognitive Humanities Lab, where they supervise undergraduates as they apply scientific and literary approaches to the study of emotions, engaging in both experiments and analysis. textual.
Once she got her job and settled into her job at Allegheny, which expanded to include the chair of the Women’s Sexuality Studies program, she wondered: what is the next step? It was then that she rediscovered poetry.
The transition was frightening, but also liberating. “The tropes and textures of an academic article allow you to pretend and mask,” she said. “Poetry feels more vulnerable.”
Themes of heritage and identity began to resurface in his poetry in an unexpected and intimate way. “I always felt I would write about immigrants, who are such powerful but not powerful figures in America, and the family, and the wider political ramifications around the history of the coup. But I just started with stories about my memory, my own family and my relationship with them, ”Caballero said. “It was just a way of asking, who am I now right now with all of my experiences?”
When diagnosed with cancer and embarked on a year of chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery, writing poetry became a lifeline, which then became the determination to produce a book. “I just felt like I could have died, and I didn’t,” she said. “Some people don’t. Why am I not trying to do something that I have always wanted to do? ”
To achieve this goal, a year after his last chemotherapy treatment, Caballero took an eight-week trip during his sabbatical in the fall of 2017 and traveled to Santiago. She reconnected with members of her extended family, who opened their homes to her. She read newspapers in Spanish, an effort that was often frustrating and slow.
She spent five memorable days alone in the Atacama Desert and also visited former torture sites run by the regime of Augusto Pinochet, which seized power after the 1973 coup. all this: “I was trying to understand what this space is, what interests me and what I want to see here”.
The result is I was a bell which includes memories of his two childhoods, framed by an adult’s understanding of politics and dictatorship. The poems trace the history of his family and the course of his fight against cancer. “It is about collective, historical and personal memory. It’s about how the body lives through memory and disease as memory in the body, ”she said. “It’s about being an immigrant and exploring my sense of what those years of coup in Chile were like. ”
Caballero’s writing is conversational yet lyrical, mixing English and Spanish, his short sentences containing copious amounts of beauty and pain. The first poem in the collection, “You Have to Leave Me Twice”, begins with an image of ashes sharing between the velatorio (funeral home) and the family mausoleum. Caballero writes:
“There will always be two places.
Siempre hay back. The immigrant
always wears twin shadows. Siempré
esta la sombra. You can’t choose
North, South, English, Spanish.
You can only divide the grief.
Through the writing process and his time in Santiago as an adult, Caballero became aware of his country of birth. “It’s at home, but not at home. The house has different ways of being for me, ”she said. “It’s as much about people as it is space.
These days, Caballero begins work on a new collection of poetry on disease and the medicalization of the body, and tackles the thorny questions of the Cognitive Humanities Lab. “For us now, is thinking about political division and social justice enough? ” she asked. “How do you get someone to do something or become anti-racist? “
As for the question that started it all – about that early childhood lived in Spanish, and what it means – Caballero came up with an answer that, typically for her, relies on a degree of cognitive dissonance. “I don’t know if I identify as Chilean, but I don’t know if I directly identify as American,” she said.
Something she knows for sure. “My way through this space and this world is through language and literature,” she said. “So in a way, it will always be in translation.”
Monica Jimenez can be reached at [email protected].