Diego Báez

Torture and Stasis in American Sign

Photo - Baez


Diego Báez lives in Chicago, and he writes regularly for Booklist. Poems, fiction, and reviews have appeared in Luna LunadecomP, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. You can find him online at www.diegobaez.com.

The Keynote Speaker’s story opens with a man pedaling for almost eleven hours, and it’s god damn sweltering in here. The flight in was all turbulence and nervous, the skies rough and dark over the Rockies. I lean forward on a folding chair slightly stage right of center, and sign all this without thinking. The Denver Hyatt Regency’s capacious Frontier Room abounds with aspiring writers. The Speaker, a popular novelist who writes Urban fiction and Ghetto Romance, has drawn a huge crowd to hear Mexican antagonists war over weed, coke, and turf. In the black-and-white headshot on the back cover of his new book, the novelist mugs for the camera in thick frames and looks rather grim for such a successful and best-selling author. After all, the book’s been adapted for screen and already produced as a feature-length film, released maybe a month or so prior. The paperback boasts a miniature version of the film’s promotional poster: four angry ethnic faces superimposed over downtown Matamoros. And it sounds like the poor sap sweating bullets inside the shitty, man-powered submarine finds the submersible motionless, top hatch pried open, the business end of an automatic rifle aimed right at his forehead.

None of it’s written this way, of course; the writer’s vernacular sounds like nothing I’ve ever signed, and I can start to understand why his work sells so well.

By the turn of the story’s epistatic action, when it’s clear the man won’t die out here off the coast of Tamaulipas, but instead will join his hijackers as captive, I start to struggle with the urban writer’s odd verbiage, and worry I’m failing to convey the story’s colloquial flourishes. Concerned I’ll lose all the little details that might not mean much in the moment, but which eventually accrete into something significant by story’s catastasis, or end. Worried I won’t sign the right meaning when the narrator uses “strapped” to mean “packing heat,” and “packing heat” to mean “carrying a loaded weapon,” and in fact means to imply that the .45 in question, shoved beneath the waistband of the narrator’s low-slung denim, is of large enough caliber to induce fear in his captive and prevent the weapon’s future discharge. All this coded within just one word, a gesture I can’t possibly hope to complete. The best I can do is sign for a first-person narrator “who carries a gun.” I try also to sign for “concealment.”

But then it strikes me that maybe no one’s even enjoying my ASL interpretation, that maybe I’m up here, signing away, trying desperately to keep up with this urban author’s idiosyncratic command of the language, for nobody. I survey the faces in the area reserved for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, but not a single one eyes me, not one person, as far as I can tell, pays any attention whatsoever.

And now I realize the official Ameslan sign for “West Side” is way more involved than the easily recognized “W” of crossed middle and ring fingers. Since it seems like no one’s watching anyway, I instead start to flash the easy “W” for West Side and slightly-more-complicated “E” for East Side. Plus the author’s slang, nonstandard vernacular, stray catches of street Spanish (Despite my Latino-sounding surname, I never learned the tongue well enough to translate on the fly.) and the fact that he alters not just the tone or inflection, but the actual personage of speech (like the overly enunciatory voice black people use to imitate the speech habits of whites whenever, mostly for comedic effect, the white Coyote enters the room and interrupts the story’s first-person past-tense frame narrative) when he switches between characters mid-conversation. It’s a difficult thing to convey without words.

I wrestle with “Matamoros” again and wonder just how closely the first-person narrative resembles the popular author’s own life. The writer’s known to embellish scenes of ugly interrogation, the typical backroom with bright light trained on a tough guy, two interrogators taking turns at first berating and slapping then spitting, slugging, and booting, and always the tough guy resists and holds out, laughing like a lunatic when the pain grows unbearable, when it twists up into his gut from the groin. When he breaks it’s only after sharp objects emerge, when the enforcers or hit men or crooked cops unzip a duffle bag and one heats the iron while the other pries open eyelids, and as the orange glow approaches the tough guy’s quivering eggshell of an eyeball, he squirms and grunts but finally unleashes one great primal howl.

I begin to wonder whether the writer just steals his stories from others, if he invented any of it at all.

I sign wicked fast now, nailed to my seat under the large room’s stage lighting, before this crowd of thousands, sweat flying off my fingertips and threatening to sprinkle the no one watching in the front row and, for not the last time, worry I’m doomed only to interpret the words other writers have written for the rest of my sad lonely life. That I’ll fail even in that. That someone in the room right now, way back in the back, some cartel informer or former gangbanger, will happen to catch me flashing gang signs and making all kinds of contradictory claims about what Side or Coast I represent. I think of all the implications this carries for me and my future, and of different ways to describe what this means. Of the impossibility of stumbling into the language I need to tell a story about slow death and danger.

Torture, I think. And stasis.

Immediately I wonder whether the popular novelist really knows these people, the drug runners, the gun smugglers, the cartel thugs, the coyotes. I worry I have no stories to tell, and how mortifying it is to be without stories worth telling. The best I can manage, I think, is to reiterate in interesting ways my own personal life and cultural heritage, and maybe to fictionalize certain key details so as not to slander or misconstrue or otherwise fool anyone into thinking that what’s on the page comprises my real life and life stories.

Which means maybe I’m interpreting, even right here at the Keynote, the stories of someone who slang coke and lived to tell about it, who went to grad school and learned to write about it, and who now gets paid a great deal to stand here and read, while this underpaid, undereducated asshole who’d like to write as well, but can’t, interprets a life that isn’t his own, and does so for no one, and in fact can’t do even that well, what with the Spanish and slang and weird vocalizations. I sign for “torture” and “stasis.” I worry the only way I’ll be able to bang out a respectable number of words per minute will be aboard commercial jetliners at high altitudes on late-night cross-country flights in the middle of upsetting storms, when it’s dark and the plane’s tiny portholes go opaque with fog and I’m perched way out on the aisle, and the plane feels less like a plane and more like a submarine lurking deep underwater. When the imagined weight of all the world’s oceans, not just from above, but pressing in on every side portends my pretend third-person storyteller’s crippling anxiety aboard these exact kinds of flights, and drives him simultaneously to type tortuous protases that he seriously starts to doubt, in the moment, will ever see a lighted page. How yet I of course start to worry how the made-for-TV movie based on the last recorded conversations between cockpit and tower will change with every re-write and edit. How until only recently, drug runners who scuttled their submarines couldn’t be held without evidence. How this last bit of info strikes me as strange, and I realize it isn’t my own. The popular urban author’s first-person narrator reveals himself to be the mastermind behind it all, the Sinaloa boss who smuggled himself inside the Gulf cartel’s compound. When revealed to be the unexpected peripeteia of the novelist’s tale, the room erupts into applause.

The author’s omission of a proper dénouement strikes me as strange. And the author, instead of answering a few questions in Q&A form, standard for this kind of Address, turns slowly to me. I’ve calmed down and recovered, and am mentally preparing to check out of my room on the 22nd story of Denver’s Hyatt Regency, but I don’t know what to make of the author’s expression. My ears pop when I yawn, and I imagine seeing, out the round window on the ascent, each successive layer of cloud giving way to the next, light and opaque by turns, the terrain below slowly entirely invisible, until at last the Airbus breaks through to brightness, and everything below becomes purple and sun-shot.

The author takes off his glasses and wipes his brow and looks at me like, “Well?”

The fasten seatbelt light will illuminate as always, but this time, I’ll have to suppress an unexpected urge instead to stand up and step into the aisle, to avoid eye contact with cabin members who might inquire or try to stop me, to advance into First Class and part the velvet curtain that separates cabin crew from cabin and to open the cockpit door, to look through the front window of the airplane, between co-pilot and Captain, over the bank of glowing dials, out into the distance of what I imagine must be straight ahead, and to maybe, just for a moment, see what this turbulence is about.