Horacio Castellanos Moya delivers talk on writers-in-exile

8 mins read

On Tuesday the 19th, the college was visited by the Central American writer Horacio Castellanos Moya, who both gave a talk in McCabe and visited the seminar taught on his work by professor in the Spanish section of the Modern Languages and Literatures department, Nanci Buiza.

Castellanos Moya was raised in El Salvador, but left around the start of the Salvadoran Civil War. Although he returned to El Salvador in the 90s, Castellanos Moya has spent most of his life living in exile, all around the globe, working as a writer and journalist. He is currently teaching at the University of Iowa.

In his talk, Castellanos Moya discussed writers-in-exile. He gave the audience background on the history of writers-in-exile, particularly Central American writers-in-exile. He outlined two fundamental reasons to go into exile, the political and the personal, and described how these applied to historical examples of writers. Then Castellanos Moya told the story of his own background, telling the audience both why he chose to live in exile at various times in his life, as well as how his identity as a writer-in-exile affected his work.

Castellanos Moya recalled how in the late 1970s, he was a part of a group of poets in El Salvador who published a literary magazine. He described how he eventually left because the political situation in El Salvador made it incredibly difficult to continue writing there.

“By the beginning of 1978 it was very obvious for all of us that we couldn’t keep going with the magazine, because for the government, for the military regime, we were subversive just because we had a literary magazine. It was not political,  but the printed word was subversive in a way,” said Castellanos Moya. “By early 1979 we had to make decisions. Of my group of four or five poets, I was the one that left, because I had the means.”

Buiza explained that she wanted to bring Castellanos Moya to Swarthmore because she believed a discussion with him would be an invaluable element of her seminar on his work. Uriel Medina ’16, one of Buiza’s students explained how the talk was able to complement the understanding of Horacio Castellanos Moya he had gained through the seminar.

“It contextualized his position as an author within the context of what it means to be in exile. HIs exiled status from El Salvador heavily influences his work,” said Medina. “I think it strengthened his contributions, not to literature but to the humanities, because it positioned his work in the larger context of previous historical exiles who we now view with an iconic status because of their exiled position.”

Buiza chose to teach a seminar of Horacio Castellanos Moya because he’s a leading figure in contemporary Central American literature, a genre of literature which has often been overlooked by Spanish-language literary scholars.

“For a long time, academia hasn’t paid much attention to Central American literature. In the past 5 or 10 years, academia has been paying a lot more attention to Central American literature and Horacio Castellanos Moya is one of the leading figures whose work is being translated and studied. I thought it would be a great idea to have an Honors seminar to focus on his work,” said Buiza.

Medina revealed that the seminar was actually his introduction to Central American literature, confirming that there is still an academic focus, at least in the U.S., on the work of writers from Spain, South America, Mexico, or the Caribbean.

“It was my first exposure to Castellanos Moya, but actually really my first exposure to Central American literature,” said Medina. “Before this class I had taken other Spanish classes, but I had read works from Mexican authors, from Argentine authors, from Spanish authors, every now and then maybe a Caribbean author, maybe other writers from South America, maybe a Chilean author here and there.”

Horacio Castellano Moyas’ work is categorized as post-war Central American literature. His work is largely focused around life in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s in Central America, a period before, during, and after armed conflicts were present in many Central American countries. He is also known for being highly critical, having faced violently negative response to some of his writing in the past.

“He talks a lot about trauma, violence, the fragmentation of families, but from a very interesting perspective. He criticizes culture, he criticizes history, he criticizes all political parties, he criticizes everything,” said Buiza.

Buiza’s students had an additional opportunity to discuss his work with him during his visit to their seminar, which Buiza and Medina both reported thoroughly enjoying.

“The following day we had a very intimate lunch with just the writer, the seminar, and me at my house and we ate Salvadoran food,” said Buiza. “It was great to see the students sharing with him what they think about his work and then him responding with, ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought about that,’ or ‘I hadn’t made that connection.’”

“The switch to Spanish and also being in a seminar setting de-formalized the entire thing, so then it was just a conversation with an author,” said Medina.“We touched a little bit of everything. We didn’t only stick to asking him about his works specifically, but we also talked about his literary inspirations. I got to see how an author relates to his work. We were able to also discuss, for example, how much he relates to or reads literary critics.”

Medina also described how being able sit and discuss literature at length with the author himself gave him a deeper insight into the message the author intended to pass on through his work.

“I left largely with the sense that he does not necessarily want readers to feel as if his works are a transcript or a definitive descriptor of these national territories, but he also saw his work speaking on universal themes like human suffering, particularly individualized human suffering,” said Medina.

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