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Isabel in her 20s, looking at the long way ahead

Catherine Davidson, poet, writer and Chair of Exiled Writers Ink (EWI), on 'A Woman Alone: fragments of a memoir'

Isabel del Rio’s book, A Woman Alone: fragments of a memoir, is a poet’s recounting of a life. As the title suggests, the book is written in short bursts – a paragraph, a sentence, very rarely, half a page or a page – circling back on recursive themes, exploring memories, reflections, insights and short narratives. 

 

At first, this feels disorientating, but soon it becomes compelling. The book reflects our current moment – our lockdown isolation, alone in our own minds. At one point, the voice cries out: “stuff chronology.” Instead of conventional narrative, we have obsessions: early childhood in Franco’s Spain, girlhood in London, university life back in Spain under dictatorship, the trails of a working woman, sexual politics in all its guises, vulnerabilities and desires of the body, motherhood, the writing self, and the reflections of a woman who has been through a major stroke incident.

Del Rio’s voice is compelling, and takes on different registers, positions, aspects. Sometimes writing in the second person, sometimes declaratory, the voice of earned experience, sometimes novelistic, acutely drawing character, setting, moments in time. This symphony of tones itself is powerful, at times tender, furious, regretful, wise, darkly humorous, elegiac. 

Del Rio is an accomplished bilingual poet and fiction writer, and Spanish is as important here as English. She writes, ironically: “There really is nothing to knowing other languages. You just need to have a wider vocabulary and a marginally more complex set of emotions.” It’s ironic because emotional complexity is at the heart of this memoir.

Writing with urgency “to speak before it is over”, the raking over the same territory, the return again and again to certain themes, feels true in a way that conventional memoir misses. This is how memory works, the conversations with ourselves that preoccupy us all our lives. 

There may not be conventional chronology here, but there is progress. From the moment she was born, del Rio has been fighting against silence and being silenced. Her book is a powerful assertion of a voice that will not be suppressed, that compels us to listen. It is well worth spending time in its company. 

Beatriz Luna Gijón, teacher, writer and critic, on 'A Woman Alone: fragments of a memoir'

'A Woman Alone' es el libro más reciente de Isabel del Río. Con sus libros anteriores ya me había vuelto adicta a su escritura, pero esta vez superó todas mis expectativas. Como lectora, nunca espero que la identificación con las circunstancias de los personajes o con la voz del narrador sea condición sine qua non para apreciar la calidad literaria de una obra. Sin embargo, a medida que avanzaba en la lectura del libro de Isabel, sentía que ese universo tan magistralmente narrado se confundía con recuerdos de mi propia voz interior. Y ése fue el punto en el cual la experiencia de la lectura se volvió placer de la lectura (y eso es adictivo).

La estructura de la narración refleja la manera en que la memoria actúa: como oleadas que traen la resaca más profunda a medida que el temporal de los años avanza. Al llegar al final de la lectura, tuve esa sensación agridulce, no muy habitual, de que “no quiero salir de este mundo”, aunque también con la certeza de que “hasta aquí llegamos” y estamos completos.

Juan Toledo, teacher, writer, poet and critic, on 'Dolorem Ipsum' - the review was published in the online Arts magazine Perro Negro

Regrettably the current global pandemic has produced another kind of pandemic: the one of books about Covid and its effects on the republic of letters. With Isabel del Rio’s Dolorem Ipsum we have made an exception and here we tell you why you should make it too and enjoy reading it. Sometimes there are books we approach with certain trepidation. The reasons for such vacillations can be listed as: one, it is a classic book you are supposed to read but you lack the aesthetic inclination or state of mind to actually do it; two, it is the work of one of your favourite authors but you have already been disappointed by his/her most recent books; three, it is the work of a good friend, a person you like, admire and whose company you enjoy but you don’t want to spoil that warm feeling by finding out you like him/her more as a person than as a writer; and finally four, you are not interested at all in the genre, the theme or the book’s storyline.

  

In the case of Dolorem Ipsum, by Isabel del Rio, my initial hesitation was the product of the last of those four reasons. This is because the literary price we are already paying, and will continue to pay in years to come, is the unprecedented pandemic of countless books and narratives on the crown-like virus and its “effect” on men and women of letters. A misconceived and highly contagious literary genre in response to the viral one. Most of those books are full of bathos with nothing new to say. If we add to that the self conceited and condescending idea that the “suffering” of artists and writers is more meaningful than the one of people who do not write or express themselves artistically, we then have the problem of how to record in a meaningful and authentic way what is presently happening to all of us. So, what is the best medium or format to do so?

The most plausible answer to that question is poetry. Frank Raymond Leavis, a prominent literary English critic of the first part of the last century and nowadays a slightly forgotten figure, once said «literature should be closely related to the criticisms of life» to what he added “poetry can communicate the actual quality of experience with a subtlety and precision unapproachable by any other means» And it is precisely the poetic medium with its extended ambiguities and small certainties what saves this book from that prosaic fate even if it is subtitled Poetry in a time of painand it is “a homage to the victims of the 2020 pandemic”.

del Rio’s poems are full of an eclecticness and emotional texture that goes beyond a mere preoccupation with Covid. In fact it is notable that the “C” word is never mentioned in its pages and I suspect it is because the actual «dolorem ipsum» of this book has more to do with the uneasiness of carrying on living than with the paralysing fear of disease and death. del Rio appears to remind us that the former has always been much more difficult, -and as far as we know more interesting too- than the latter. Would you prefer death after life, or life after death? She asks us with a metaphysical and dialectical cheekiness towards the end of the book.

In total, there are about sixty poems arranged in eleven different sections which already indicates the thematic scope of this collection. A fact demonstrated by sectional headers such as: On Destiny, Getting Personal, Mind Games, The Problem with Language, Mayhem and Flatliners. All poems, without exception, are titled and that in its own way implies a thematic order, a cataloguing of musings and preoccupations determined not only by the pandemic -and the author’s intelligent response to it- but what has preceded it and, more importantly, also what is now succeeding it. These ideas and thoughts are mostly expressed in a fluid and narrative manner which some might refer to as “intellectual poetry”. Thus, it is not gratuitous that the penultimate section is called Not So Much Poems as Stories. Similarly, a minor but -for me- significant detail is that all poems titles are written in lowercase and that the use of capital letters throughout the book is ignored. Some might say that it is a mere stylistic decision, which of course it is, but nonetheless it seems to highlight a grade of scepticism in her writing. In poetry, how it appears on the page always matters. But where this book comes into its own is in its use of that scepticism, and even certain reticence, in tandem with a poignant humour.

Take for instance trust; at the moment a sort of hard currency that most governments, the scientific community and many media outlets are having problems getting hold of. Trust, or its verbal action, is mentioned in the poem living a lie, where we read: so, who or what can you trust nowadays; not the colours / of the rainbow, not the powers of storm Celia, not the value / of gold, not the price of strawberries.  And if the price of strawberries has never registered as one of your life concerns, consider this mischievous piece of advice from starting the day which make us imagine an existentialist conversation with Albert Camus and laughing, hopefully, with him and not at him: when you go out of bed in the morning / (whether by skirmishing, leaping into the air or throwing / yourself on the floor) / you have to decide there and then, / whether you want to live / or to die. 

Any sceptical stance contains the innate danger of turning itself into something much less appealing: cynicism. The sceptic does not disbelieve completely as the cynic does. The cynic is often incapable of recognising truths or versions of it because cynics tend to think in absolutes. Would you recognise the truth after all these years / if you saw it close up / would you know what to do with it?  asks del Rio in the truth is nothing but. The poem concludes with an affirmation reminiscent of the recently deceased Argentinian poet and critic Tamara Kamenszain about how reality always exceeds literature’s capacity to represent it:  truth may be stranger than fiction, but none of your stories / can be said to be false. And in the poem sufi truth appears once again but in this case subordinated of its utilitarian value: it has now been brought to our attention / that before saying a single thing / you must no longer ask / whether it is kind or necessary or true but / whether there is / any point / at all in / saying it.

It is also important to highlight the tone in which these poems are written. And tone in literary terms always means intentionality. The ironic and gentle humour serves as an emphasis of that sceptical, even agnostic stance: you are dead ahead / but it can do no harm to rebel against providence, if / there is one; / mayday, mayday. But this ironic posture can also turn into a bitter social commentary of the situation we are all in. The three-line poem compassion reads: after all this time / we finally learn the meaning of the word / by paying a heavy price.

 

What makes these poems interesting and relevant is that at its core Dolorem Ipsum presents us with many witty societal criticisms wrapped in ironic statements full of mordant feelings. We find comments of people’s ecological indifference as a product of the existential frustration we feel because of our own mortality: why is it that those of us still here / cannot love this Earth so much more and / in anticipation begin to miss what we will leave behind, / a claim / on perpetuity is / this long-life discontent. We see how with this pandemic that old, and often vacuous, assertion that “we are all in it” for once has a real immediacy: we are no saviours / but we have been called / to the rescue / just the same thus alluding to our collective responsibility in controlling the virus. In as experiences go, the whole poem is an incriminatory statement about us in the privileged West (in this case the author’s own italics). 

There is a whole section about identity called Belonging in which the author declares: I am left standing there / bracing the elements, by now / probably / more than four  This affirmation is revealing if we consider that del Rio is a true anglo-hispanic writer, very much at home in both languages. So, what are those extra elements she has to brace against?  Discrimination and indifference? I asked because the idea of belonging reappears later on in the poem your name listed not under Belonging but under Mayhem evidencing, as mentioned, her preoccupations beyond Covid. It reads like a litanies of facts from somebody’s Instagram or Facebook account. so, what name would you have chosen for yourself instead of /  the one you were / assigned at birth…what parents, siblings, what favourite books, films, music…preferences and orientation, deviances; shape / of nose, length of hair…attitude, temperament, / viewpoints concluding with a hilarious but somewhat irate command: Speak up, for I cannot hear you.

 

As a whole, Dolorem Ipsum is more than the sum of its parts. And in more ways than one, it is a warning rather than a mere indictment. A warning against the indifference most people feel when confronted by a whole plethora of issues, starting with the ecological suicide we are embarked upon -Covid is one of its byproducts- together with gender parity, concepts of identity, language, religion, death, the ubiquitous presence of social media and some others.  Isabel del Rio in her ironic and elegant writing is urging us not to be mere passengers who, like in her poem driving by, exists just to …watch things / from your car window, fleetingly leaving all behind; / no stopping, no reverse gear, no directions, no interest. ■

Dr. Ellen C. Jones, Queen Mary University, London
, on 'Zero Negative - Cero negativo'

Excerpts from the thesis: ‘Spanglishes’ on the move: reading and translating bilingualism in the work of four contemporary prose writers' - comments on “Zero Negative – Cero Negativo”

Zero Negative/Cero Negativo accommodates ambivalence and contradiction in abundance. It advocates translation for the way it helps us to see from other perspectives, but also cautions against its limitations; it demonstrates our common humanity by representing situations that resonate with people all around the world, but also depicts the way globalisation strips us of our individuality; it insists on an equal relationship between English and Spanish while actually giving subtle precedence to the latter; it attempts to use neutral, ‘global’ language, and yet its stories are haunted by the ghosts of locality. I argue that this book sees value in the rich transnational connectivity of twenty-first century life but also warns against its risks.

...

Zero Negative/Cero Negativo does not restrict itself merely to two versions of each text, however; each story itself contains multiple, often proliferating layers. Many of the stories are about telling stories and retelling them, about the value of doubling and parallel versions. They thematise all manner of different narratives: written narratives such as short stories, newspaper articles, biographies, detective novels, film scripts, and transcripts, and performed narratives such as magic shows, performance art, staged executions, and role play. Characters are constantly writing and re-writing their own stories, which are then doubled again by their inclusion in two languages, and they often express a sense of having done things before, or of repeating themselves. 

...

Like ghosts with unfinished business, the circularity, repetition, and openness of the stories in Zero Negative/Cero Negativo give the impression that it remains both unfinalised and unfinalisable. The stories’ prevailing sense of ‘toujours déjà vu’ is reiterated at a formal level, whereby the second version in each pair takes us back to the ‘beginning’. (...) The collection illustrates the way translation renders a given story perpetually unfinished and therefore always capable of being told differently. There is something fundamentally ‘out of joint’ about its textual organisation, in which each version is haunted by its previous and future alternatives.

...

In the context of this increased appetite for limiting global mobility and connectivity by closing down borders against migrants and refugees, when inward-looking visions of the nation as a defined and bordered entity are resurfacing, Zero Negative/Cero Negativo reads as an urgent call for us to perceive our common humanity and to tolerate difference. Del Río... rejects reader insularity and complacency, and instead proposes multiplicity (textual as well as linguistic) as a means of achieving critical rigour, committed, open-minded engagement with cultural others, and the cross-lingual sharing of ideas. 

Dr. Nathalie Teitler, Director, The Complete Works II

Isabel's writing is bold and unique, reminiscent of the political satire of Kafka and Bolaño. She is that rare creature- a truly bilingual artist, offering her readers an experience which draws on both Spanish and English language and culture

Susana Medina, writer, on 'Zero Negative - Cero negativo'

A consummate story-teller, Isabel del Rio’s collection of stories range from mental delinquencies, to role-playing, to the reality of torture and lack of empathy, now playful, now deadly serious.  A singular collection, narrated with seductive intelligence, a treat for the bilingual brain, which is the brain of the future.  Zero negative-Cero negativo uses two languages to tell us that there is always more than two sides to a story, as well as to configure a pattern with variations which become increasingly unpredictable and intriguing. 

Isabel Hurtado de Mendoza, translator at Lingotrans, on 'Zero Negative - Cero negativo'

"This book will make you wonder how Isabel del Rio can be so playful and so serious, so faithful and so creative at the same time.  It was a brave venture for Isabel and her publishers I’m sure, but it was well worth taking the risk.  This is a truly unique collection of stories.”

Lorna Scott-Fox, writer, critic and translator on 'Zero Negative - Cero negativo'

Twice-told tales

Isabel del Río’s experimental collection of stories is a rare example of a writer deliberately limiting her best readership, in this case to people fluent in both Spanish and English. Though the pieces are certainly rewarding for those who can read only half, bilinguals are treated to a multi-layered literary experience that is, I think, unprecedented. All translators are familiar with the mysterious pull, so often exerted by the target language’s inner being, to say something subtly – or utterly – different from the source. In translating oneself, this temptation can be happily indulged in. But del Río’s structure of paired stories – the Spanish ‘version’ always placed first, even when it might have been created second – goes further, as the two texts diverge here or there for any number of reasons, producing a slippery effect of quasi-fidelities and treacherous mirrorings. 

Sometimes only a few words differ; more often we find twists of setting, narrative detail, emotional focus, or denoument. One pair of stories lacks any resemblance at all, forcing us to search for the buried link. Always we approach the second text with the knowledge afforded by the first. At the end of ‘Aproximación’, for instance, we discover that the apparent flirtation between a boss and his employee is something rather less spontaneous: so we begin ‘Nearly There!’ with a different attention, focused, as in ordinary re-reading, on process rather than plot, but with the added stimulus of the other language and alert to any changes. Of course as we leaf back and forth, comparing, the English text also retroactively qualifies the Spanish. Complementing and contradicting each other, each pair of stories coalesces into one, hazy, shifting Ur-text in our tantalized imaginations.

The pairs are not hermetic, however.  Links and echoes are scattered across the whole book, most noticeably in the recurrence of the blood theme announced by the title.  From impending storms to the gesture of stretching out an arm, moments and phrases hook up to form a unifying net beneath disparate themes and moods.  Del Rio’s abrasive fantasy transforms mundane settings like park cafés or research libraries as easily as it plunges us into terrifying vignettes of senseless war and other avatars of apocalypse.  Her characters are often mad, confused, or defeated; but a bracing lack of psychological and interpersonal verisimilitude, plus the hovering presence of the supernatural, gives us the feeling of having passed into a nightmare parallel world whose playfulness compounds its desolation. We cannot ‘identify’ with her characters: their deformity lifts them above human poignancy to hint at vast, dark forces loose in the world. 

If translation is essentially about doubleness, dualities also mark the philosophical dynamics of the collection.  Two characters are often confronted, one challenging or accusing the other; couples are hopelessly at cross-purposes; actions can have contrary motives or outcomes in their couple-stories.  If translation reminds us of the mutability and provisionality of every text, the stories likewise tell us that in life, nothing is fixed or inevitable or what it seems, and signs exist to be misinterpreted. 

ZERO negative / CERO negativo dances on the reflections and instabilities projected by the very notion of translation, and it seems extraordinary that we’ve waited so long for something conceptually compelling to be done around this practice. Too bad for the monolinguals!

Dr. Stephen Alexander, Torpedo the Ark, on "The Moon at the End of my Street'

http://torpedotheark.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/the-moon-at-end-of-my-street.html