Nadia Celis: A Brief Interview with Repeating Islands

It is with great pleasure that we interview Dr. Nadia V. Celis Salgado, a delightfully inspiring colleague with whom we have shared academic explorations and adventures in conferences and events [shout out to the Caribbean Studies Association!] through Latin America, the Caribbean, and their diasporic centers around the world.

Nadia Celis is professor of Latin American, Caribbean, and Latinx Studies at Bowdoin College (Brunswick, Maine). With a PhD in Literature from Rutgers University, she also specializes in Gender and Women’s Studies. Her research explores embodiment, subjectivity, and intimacy in Hispanic Caribbean literature and popular culture. Her publications include articles on authors such as Marvel Moreno, Fanny Buitrago, Mayra Santos-Febres, and Gabriel García Márquez, essays on dance and performance, and articles in media such as Huffington Post España, Doppio Zero (Italy), and El Tiempo (Colombia), among others. Celis’s book La rebelión de las niñas: El Caribe y la “conciencia corporal” (2015) received the Nicolás Guillén Award from the Caribbean Philosophical Association and an Honorable Mention for the Premio Iberoamericano from LASA. Her latest book, Crónica de un amor terrible (Lumen, 2023), focuses on García Márquez’s deployment of love to examine the relation between intimate violence and social power. [See our previous post New Book: Crónica de un amor terrible.]

Here is a brief interview with Nadia Celis for Repeating Islands [interviewed by Ivette Romero]:

Ivette Romero/Repeating Islands (IR/RI): Gabriel García Márquez’s work will always have a special place in my heart, and I am one of the many readers drawn to the essentially “Caribbean” sensibilities that permeate his storytelling. I am reminded of Antonio Benítez Rojo’s allusion to movement in the Caribbean archipelago as talking, walking, moving… de cierta manera [in a certain kind of way]. How would you characterize this “certain kind of” Caribbean core or spirit in Crónica de una muerte anunciada and Crónica de un amor terrible?

Nadia Celis (NC): I am a daughter of Macondo. Not only I grew up reading García Márquez but also my intellectual formation is anchored in the same social milieu that he stamped on the world map, the Colombian Caribbean. By the time I went to college in Cartagena, García Márquez had made a legend of our “certain kind of” being, eating, dancing, thinking, and feeling, and I could relish on the sense of pride his open defense of Caribbean culture, and his global stardom, had helped to consolidate. Around the same time, I started to feel betrayed, as a woman, by some of the cultural features that others found so mesmerizing in the work of our favorite patriarch. But it wasn’t until I started teaching García Márquez in the United States and witnessed the reception of his readers beyond Colombia, that I realized how exceptional he was, how distinctive our own repeating (continental) island is, and how well positioned I was to read García Márquez’s world –as both an insider and a feminist critic of the society that he portrayed. 

Crónica de una muerte anunciada is an excursion around that island. Beyond all the fascinating features that readers associate with García Márquez’s fiction, in this novel he provides us with a very realistic map of his real obsessions: power, violence, and love. My own non-fiction chronicle shares those obsessions. Like the novelist, I also relayed on a first-person narrator to guide the reader through an intriguing sequence of events which truth may only be grasped by engaging with a lot of research and a lot of “gossip.” But Crónica de un amor terrible is more like an embroidered mosaic, centering the voices of the women who helped me to reconstruct the real story of the bride whose rejection triggered the “death foretold,” Margarita Chica—from García Márquez’s sisters to his nieces, from Margarita’s clients to my hairdresser, from my favorite feminist writers to my most intimate friends.

IR/RI: Crónica de un amor terrible has been described as “a fascinating investigation of the places, characters, and real events that inspired one of Gabriel García Márquez’s most renowned novels: Crónica de una muerte anunciada [Chronicle of a Death Foretold].” I also see it as a labor of deep love, which we will address shortly. I am curious about your research into the unpublished manuscript of Crónica at the Harry Ransom Center (University of Texas at Austin). Can you tell our readers which were the words that struck you in the “unusual epilogue” and how they triggered the impulse to unravel the effects of violence on the specific characters who inspired that story and on women in general? Were you referring to the effects of systemic, institutional violence? Unconscious, intimate biases? A collective outlook?

NC: The epilogue was the opening section of what seemed to have been the second to last version of García Márquez’s Cronica, which he ended suppressing in the final manuscript. It contained fascinating last-minute crossings, such as the suppression of the rumor on the bride not being a virgin that had been of public domain in the real town and in the novel’s one until then. In the epilogue, the narrator and reporter, García Márquez’s alter ego, said he had been collecting testimonials of the original events for over 25 years without being able to write it, until he heard from one of his close friends that the bride and the man who returned it, had gone back together. The fact that the book was based in a real crime was well known, at least in Colombia. The idea that the love story subplot, which is hard to believe even in fiction, could be true, was something I couldn’t resist exploring. Besides unveiling the truth behind that claim, I felt compelled to engage the implications he credited to the alleged return of the spouses:

“Todo estaba entonces muy claro: por mi afecto hacia la víctima, yo había pensado siempre que esta era la historia de un crimen atroz, cuando en realidad debía ser la historia secreta de un amor terrible.” [Everything became very clear: Due to my affection for the victim, I had always thought that this was the story of an atrocious crime, when it should be really the secret story of a terrible love.]

A “terrible love,” García Márquez suggested, because it originated in the violence that took the life of his friend. A “terrible love,” I argue in my book, because it is grounded in the conjunction of love and violence that continues to pervade the sentimental education of men and women in the Caribbean and Latin America.

IR/RI: Can you explain how/why you chose the title? What did you want to convey by using un amor terrible [terrible love]?

NC: By tracing the real story of the bride returned and her love affairs, I realized that all the men involved in Margarita’s tragedy enacted violence on this woman. These included her first boyfriend who abandoned the young Margarita after they had sex, the husband who publicly rejected her, the brothers who avenged her honor, and even the author who devised a character, Angela Vicario, whose “lie” is the origin of the “death foretold”, and who is dubiously redeemed with a “happily ever after” ending. All these men acted on behalf of “love.” Ultimately, my book is a critique of the ideas that frame our intimate relations making invisible the violence that Margarita and many women today continue to suffer on behalf of the equation of love with domination.

IR/RI: In 2015, I reviewed your book La rebelión de las niñas: El Caribe y la “conciencia corporal” for Caribbean Quarterly (61) and I was struck by the freshness and engaging relatability of your theoretical approach. What I loved about the book was that feminist theory was presented in a global framework and firmly anchored to the realm of lived psychological and bodily experience. Now, looking at your latest production, I see a fil conducteur that not only serves to give coherence to each work but that draws an undulating cord, linking each article and book. This cord—which I see as both “spinal” and “umbilical”—goes beyond theory. How would you identify it? How would you describe that underlying thread that animates your writing?

NC: I define myself as a feminist critic and theorist whose work lies at the intersection of literary studies, Caribbean studies, and gender and women studies, and whose primary focus is the works of Hispanic Caribbean authors. Over the last decade, my research has developed primarily in dialogue with transnational feminisms of color and with postcolonial and decolonial feminisms. Back to the basics, the experiencethat originally moved me and that continues to fuel my scholarship and creative explorations, was becoming a woman in the Hispanic Caribbean. It took me a while to articulate my discomfort as two fundamental questions: what conditions frame the development of female subjectivity under patriarchal and (post)colonial power and how do individuals partake in the reproduction of those conditions?

In La rebelión de las niñas I tried to make sense of my own experience as one of those young girls who knew “too much” and had to fight a world denying me the right to assert my voice. I also responded to the trivialization of the most pervasive method to reduce young girls and women, sexual abuse, which I had witnessed in reality and in literature. In Crónica de un amor terrible, I am processing what intimate relations have meant to me, my good friends, and many women writers, in face of the intellectual and professional ambitious of a “modern” woman. While feminist theory has been fundamental in my quest, literature has been always ahead of the game. Hence, I have made theory of what fiction illuminates of lived experience.

While I was writing my doctoral dissertation, I found a clue in the stories of girls and girlhood among Caribbean women writers. I asked myself and the Colombian, Puerto Rican, Venezuelan, Cuban and other writers I read, why did they returned to girlhood even when their girl characters seemed so angry, what were they looking for in that journey. The answer was, surprisingly, freedom. Young girls were freer than the adults, mostly because, despite the efforts of their parents, schoolteachers, priests, and extended families to “domesticate” their wild impulses, they were stubborn enough to follow their bodies—to run, scream, bite, climb, touch. I also concluded that the trepidation exhibited by many of these writers’ adolescent characters was the result of the reduction of those bodies to objects of desire, manipulation, and consumption, as demanded from their status as “señoritas.” My first book helped me to understand that behind the surrendering to patriarchal gender hierarchies of many heterosexual female adults, there is the fact that women’s own sexual desire continues to be constructed as the desire of being desired, and therefore subordinated to what men want of their women. Crónica de un amor terrible, and my whole research on García Márquez, is an exploration of the cultural anchors of the two forces that I believe secure women’s compliance with such order of desire: violence and romantic love.

In brief, I am concerned with unfolding the forces that secure our compliance with oppression, in its many forms. While my experience and original training allowed me to see more clearly the role of gender and class in that process, in the latest years I have been working also on the question of race.

IR/RI: Since I know that you are a very dynamic thinker, always working on something exciting and new, I must ask you: What is the next project, the next fruit of your labor of love (and sweat), the next gift that you will offer us in the near future?

NC: I still have one more feminist essay on our Macondian Caribbean on the make, based on One Hundred Years of Solitude and preliminarily titled The Solitude of the Buendía Women: Intimacy and Violence in García Márquez’s Caribbean. But the most exciting next step is my first novel, the story of an enslaved woman in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s in Cartagena de Indias, my hometown. It is, again, a story about growing up as a woman in the Caribbean, and a return to my obsession with love, intimacy, and power, from a different angle. I want to explore what freedom meant and costed to black, mulatta, and white women at a period in time—before abolitionism, before Independence—when free women of color were a good half of the population in the port of Cartagena. Those women were factory workers, bread makers, and business owners. However, they are not in the census of the time, nor in the textbooks today, and they are just starting to gain visibility due to the work of a few historians. Academic knowledge travels very slowly and I have always been impatient. Since I cannot wait to see the stories of those women acknowledged, I am trying to write them myself.

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