“Where were my monsters?”
December 17, 2020
When I first read “Our Language” slowly in its entirety, I cried. I am not the most emotional person, so I was shocked and knew this story about Celi—a young woman in the Dominican Republic who has to learn many lessons to survive to love and value her body even as it changes, the truth behind the ciguapa legend, and how language and knowledge can empower—was the piece I wanted to work on for a special Open Call for submissions held last summer. Although I’ve never quite experienced a transformation like Celi’s, I know what it’s like to feel that your existence is a threat.
Beyond this overall feeling, I could so strongly sympathize with a grandmother trying to warn her nieta through a story because it reminded me of the dynamic between my grandmother and me. My grandmother—originally from Grand Turks Island, Turks and Caicos Islands—was a threat on her island, and I suppose she might have felt stifled by the gendered expectations her family had for her. In our afternoon chats, my grandmother often regales me with tales of childish mischief, memories like the feeling of splitting limoncello skins, which she called guineps, with her teeth, and warnings to be wary of men who take without giving.
As we edited “Our Language,” Yohanca and I discussed the mechanics of a ciguapa gene in Celi’s family; Celi finding her own voice as she surveys the research about ciguapas; embodiment; and gender in a monster story.
Taylor: Becoming a ciguapa sounds like a recessive gene, Celi has the gene that she inherited from her grandmother, and it can be passed down to other girls. The fear of getting this trait is the central conflict for this family and community. Celi’s mother does not have the gene but knows what will happen to Celi and figures marrying Celi to the first gentleman she can find will be the solution to this curse. It doesn’t exactly work out this way for them, but what’s interesting is to see the negotiation between genetics, which is random, and community expectations.
Yohanca: Yes! That's exactly right. I think of it as a sort of recessive gene. This is a monster (and a genealogy) that is all about escape, and this is a multi-racial people that has constantly redefined and re-imagined itself. So, what if the genealogy was also shifting and unpredictable? I think this genealogical unpredictability speaks to what I see as one of the central thematic conflicts in the lore: the tension between escape and belonging, between seeking connection to the collective and survival.
Taylor: There are a lot of cultural references or historical facts explained. Education is a motivator for Celi as she narrates her story not only to her granddaughter but also to any reader. At times I felt that part of the story was just about learning about Dominican culture and tradition.
Yohanca: One of the sorrows of being a first-generation child of immigrants is watching my family history slowly disappear. I'm trying to learn as much as I can about Dominican history (and Cuban history, because my father is from Cuba). And, of course, that's something I've pursued imperfectly and independently; I didn't have easy access to this kind of material in high school or college. There isn't a ton of reference material for me, either, in the case of my personal Dominican lineage. We're talking about family histories that were never written down, mostly passed down through oral storytelling, because my mother's family comes from the countryside, where kids stopped school early and went to work (my grandmother made it to the seventh grade).
In writing this story, I imagined what that dynamic might look like, one or two generations removed—for someone to speak from the past to an Americanized kid who knows generally that she is from the Dominican Republic, but maybe doesn't speak Spanish that well, and maybe hasn't had the opportunity to learn many of these cultural concepts yet.
Taylor: Celi puts literature, academic resources, and community folklore in conversation with her own lived experience. She is adding to an archive and sometimes correcting it, which is an empowering action to take. Using her voice as a counternarrative allows her to reclaim power in a context where she is constantly fighting for survival. This story then becomes part of an archive about a little known folklore in the Caribbean, which is exciting to have the opportunity to be in conversation with history.
Yohanca: My first encounter with the ciguapa lore was through my own research. I love mythology and fairy tales and wanted to write something in this space. But I thought, where were my monsters, you know? So I did some research, and found lists of various Caribbean folklore creatures, including the ciguapa, which happens to be specifically Dominican (and therefore a braid of African, Indigenous, and Spanish elements). I became enamored by this particular monster, and read the original ciguapa story, the first documented appearance of the monster by a writer named Francisco Javier Angulo Guridi. The story was published in 1866, and is very short and vague, the tale of a couple's encounter with a ciguapa. There was plenty of room, I thought, to play with the concept from the ciguapa's perspective.
Only later in my search did I find more modern takes on the ciguapa. There are plenty of drawings and imaginings of ciguapas floating around, and there's even a song! There is a children's book by Julia Alvarez called The Secret Footprints that puts a kid-friendly gloss on the idea.
I actually met Elizabeth Acevedo at a reading for her first novel-in-verse, The Poet X, and bought the two books she published at the time, which included, Beastgirl and Other Origin Myths, her first poetry book. I already had a draft of the story at the time. I opened Acevedo's book to the first page, and there it was, a ciguapa poem! Taylor, I gasped! And Acevedo's ciguapa poem is beautiful, but she's also writing a slightly different take.
That's one of the things that I love about the ciguapa as a subject. It can be like a vampire, in the sense that everyone can imagine her anew and have their own version, and those stories flow together into a broader cultural conversation. I love that we're still adding to that conversation today.
Taylor: The body is fraught in this story. Everyone has taught Celi to be afraid of her own body and to police and restrict its movements in certain ways, from the stains on her clothes to her eventual transformation. As much as we track her mind and voice and history, we also follow her body as it adapts, and she moves closer to a natural state. There’s a conflict that emerges between the body in society and the body in nature.
Yohanca: The presentation of this monster as feminine and small and alluring—and therefore a trophy to capture—is something that I wanted to play with. I found it interesting to interlace the emphasis on the ciguapa's femininity with trophy hunter culture; adventurous types are drawn to the danger and allure of besting a dangerous siren, whose power, of course, is an irresistible form of feminine seduction. It is men who hunt the ciguapas, and their "super-power" is really a weaponized mode of appeasement, a charm that disarms.
I spent a semester observing and writing about exotic dancers for a literary journalism class when I was revising this story, and I think some of the sexual politics I witnessed seeped into the text. In a space where women perform hyper-femininity, there are men who want nothing more than to conquer the ultimate prize, a high-value woman who wields extreme sexual appeal. This idea is also in conversation, as you note, with Odysseus' sirens. No one really asks what the sirens want or what they are mourning when they sing because the "real" story is the male narrative about outsmarting them, about finding a way to bypass/control their charm.
Layered into this, I think, is the depiction of non-white races in the colonialist imagination. The scholarly texts parallel that othering. All these texts are about the ciguapa and aim to define her on the page in various ways, to make her legible. But Celi’s hanging out outside the margins, issuing her corrections and clarifications. Those scholarly texts don't care what she thinks, though, because they're interested in capturing her on the page—not in hearing her speak. So, rather than attempt to enter that conversation, she's using her rhetorical power to challenge its value and begin a new one.
Taylor: Just a thought I had as a reader about pronouns, it’s interesting how Celi refers to the family members in this story. We have my husband, his father, Ignacio, and Javier. But we never have your father, or your grandfather, or my son’s father. I wonder, though, about Javier never being “your father” to the granddaughter. She is mi nieta. But Javier doesn't get to claim his daughter?
Yohanca: Thank you, Taylor, for this sharp observation!
I don’t think I’d consciously processed that Celi was doing this! Some of this labeling was, of course, in service of the gradual reveal that Celi is talking to her granddaughter, but that ending is something that emerged on its own, gradually, over the course of many drafts—and those references were already in the place when I first wrote my way to this ending! (Isn’t it wild how your subconscious knows where to go sometimes?)
Taylor: This piece is confessional and epistolary with the use of you and the direct addresses happening throughout the story. How does the narrator hope to be received by the addressee?
Yohanca: I love it! I think our narrator would love to be invited in.