Writing in Spanish, Writing to Include. Authors Address Language

Addressing today’s Spanish language leads to its literatures. How do writers interact with language? What about inclusive language? What do writers think about all this? This is a very brief and random “survey”, with no selection criteria but closeness, friendship, and a common interest in our speech. We asked two questions to professionals of literature, writing, and language; about their relationship with the Spanish language (1) and about the meaning they give to inclusive language both in speech and writing (2).

Their answers were as diverse and rich as the world of each respondent’s voice. They reflect the shape, the substance, and the very tension caused by assuming language itself. They coincide in their vitality, in the fact that it is a territory, a room in transit. Mariana Bernárdez says it: “…let language in its infinite fountain be the one that widens the horizon and the gaze.”

The editors

Rosa Beltrán

Inclusive Language: Beyond Linguistics
How writers interact with language?
My relationship with Spanish language is crucial. Even more so, I would say, with Castillian language. And even more: with language. Writing in Mexican. Speaking Mexican. Speech, orality, the different definitions of Castillian seem to me to be phenomena of meaning that I cannot ignore in my work. I am a writer. It is not the same to say esperaba [I was waiting] than estaba en calidad de mientras [I was in the meantime quality (a Mexican saying for “waiting”)]. Being disgustado [angry] is not the same as being enmuinado [upset, in a very local Mexican form]. Our sayings, proverbs, and idiomatic expressions bear the marks of years, sometimes centuries of culture. They carry the echoes of cultural horizons and uses that have been inherited through generations. Many of them, even fossilized, still mean something and bring the scent of other customs and other times.

To limit oneself to the use of a fashion, an era, or a social class is to censor oneself. To think that there is a “correct Spanish” is to have a colonial way of thinking.

What about inclusive language? What do writers think about all this?
I understand that social changes are marked in the language that names them. No wonder that inclusive language is today a topic of debate. It responds to a decades-old analysis of how language has set a patriarchal criterion. A norm. For example, in the use of adjectives. Even if several feminine nouns are mentioned in a clause, if there is only one masculine noun, the ruling adjective is the masculine. This is not just about grammar. It speaks of something else. It talks about the ways of life of social groups. About the history of culture.

What I mean is that the debate on inclusive language is the subject of reflections that go beyond linguistics, that open horizons for philosophical reflection. I can use inclusive language or not. It depends on what and to whom I want to communicate. As I do when writing, I choose the term and expression that I consider most accurate to signify as clearly as possible a message and a position. I am not afraid of it; I have no conservatively leaning toward language. Nor do I believe that inclusive language can be imposed. It is speakers who determine which linguistic uses will transcend and which will remain a fad or an indicator of the historical moment in which they arose. When writing, I would and do use inclusive language when I consider it pertinent. And in that case, just as when I speak, I am interested in establishing a political position, but I do not wish to provoke an unnecessary debate at all times, in all ways, and all places every time I speak.

Mariana Bernárdez

The Labyrinth and the Spiral 
How writers interact with language?
Language and its mystery, with its bird song in the glimpsed grove, dawning as a word in the lip that retains it, in the gesture that will birth itself, every glance, every distance, caught in the surge of its pronunciation; a wool ball that tangles and untangles in the whitest canvas as a place of appearing, a fence where the world inaugurates its presence, where the possible and the impossible are the labyrinth and the spiral: the thought and the unthinkable; whiteness where silence and speech slide to tame the dark, always unfinished grammar because saying runs aground in the archipelago of memory and the words drag the foreseen, the tide of the indeterminate, the unexpected, the implausible…

And what does not reach its beach is written on the margins of its foam, still and docile water of the clearing through which the dawn appears when the animals come down to drink. Before, so much before, when the gesture of the hand learns to spell what is named, the line prolongs the breath and draws the letter that captures the void and its fine rain, that living entity that articulates the correspondence between written and said, where the world sprouts with its infinite shades, that secret combinatory art of clouds, that point where opposition arises and moves, the river that flows, the river that returns, the veins and the rhizomes, the organic net of meaning…

Everything begins with a letter, every language, every memory, the lullaby and the huddle, the multiplication tables, the history of the family, the imaginary of literature, the thought, the dreams, and the collapses, the unending interrogation or the simple presentiment that destiny is not an after, but a distance where the language of the instant and the knot of death slide, that rope where the stars fall on the grass illuminating with their reflection the night and the water mirror, images that disappear among the mist of a mountain I’m writing.

What about inclusive language? What do writers think about all this?
By the presence of language I have pinned to my body the water of mountains when they become sky, I have attached to my eyes the breath of the winds, I bring lost words and find them again in your hands so similar to mine, so different from mine; these words that roam through mouths thrown like stones to knock windmills down or like herons when they start to fly; these words that love and hurt, that embrace or condemn to death; these words where demons and angels walk, that swirl and buzz, that betray and tremble; these words with which life is made and that are the inheritance received as a precious good.

Exclusion and inclusion is a couple that belong to its territory because it is not language the unfortunate, but the speaker who does not dare to explore its landscapes; it is fear gripping his reason; it is the unwillingness to taste the fruit because of the belief that it is the poison that will kill him; thus he does not dare to change his discourse or become aware that language is transformed by language, and forgets that he has the ability to choose words to discover and change, to reconcile and build the future, to understand the gallop of history.

And where then to begin if what is sought is for life to be in its fullness, in its highest expression, if language is the place of manifestation of the world and the world is words that link and separate us?

Let language in its infinite fountain be the one that widens the horizon and the gaze, the one that answers and heals, the one that affirms existence and erases the hurt of its denial, the one to restore dignity and respect where it is lacking, the one that makes us conceive other ways of treating each other, other ways of stillness, other ways of living. 

César Cañedo

Les Common, More an Accomplice
How writers interact with language?
My relationship with Spanish is, undoubtedly, my relationship with its poetry. To think of it is to remember teacher Antonio Alatorre and the beauty of his 1001 Years of the Spanish Language, which highlights its vitality, its historical permanence as one of the most widespread, rich, and prestigious languages in the world. To think of it is to think of its rifts, its sediments, and its contacts, and, of course, of Cervantes, Neruda, Villaurrutia, Vallejo, Gabriela Mistral and so many others who have stood awake in search of that intimacy that makes it less common and more complicit: that transforms it by taking it out of its comfortable boxes. It is also to think of its resistances, of its signs of identity that are also contradictions: of the ñ (Gloria Fuertes has a beautiful poem about this linguistic glitch) or in the x, which goes on the forehead of Mexico and its Mexicans with the force of negation of everything Spaniard that was a political and literary project since the 19th Century and, at least, until Alfonso Reyes’ work. Spanish, this language that was given to me and that I accepted.

What about inclusive language? What do writers think about all this?
Rebellion and dissidence are no strangers to language, they are part of its operations. Resisting by de-normalizing language has been useful and productive historically. Social change of our times has to do with getting out of binary models and inclusive language crystallizes its impulse. Personally, I use it, I find it useful and productive in many contexts, and I use it more in oral settings. For writing I assume a more situated attitude, at times I look for alternative forms in my literary writing, and of course, I include it in official communications to confront and dissent from authorities, authorizations, and regulations. However, neither am I oblivious to its ineffectiveness and possible exhaustion, which may lead to its reinvention or its expiration. There are contexts of use where it continues to be useful and others where it is better to disregard it: when authorities and other diverse faces of machismo and patriarchal ties camouflage themselves with it. When magistrates, presidents, healthy sons, that is to say, cis-hetero, solemnly and indulgently use it, it would be better to leave it or to stop seeing it as a transformation, since in those contexts it is reduced to a sort of masking of inclusion by those who are or believe to be always above. In conclusion, I believe that it is important to pay attention to the contexts of use, the spaces, and the authorization and dis-authorization games that we play with language to know when to continue using it, as well as attending its dissent, that of language itself. We cannot ignore the fact that inclusive language has also been co-opted by cognitively integrated global cis-hetero-capitalism, as Deleuze and Guattari, Silvestri, Haraway have named it, and, in this sense, perhaps it will not be long before the Pope uses it. Until that day, sometimes I do and sometimes I do not use it.

Carla Faesler

A “Political License”
How writers interact with language?
I had never wondered about this before. Since I started writing and until a few years ago, my relationship with the language of the place where I was born was an inevitable and therefore unquestionable link. Anything to do with my writing had more to do with me than with the way of communicating that I had learned from my mother and father, in school, in punishment, in play, in hitting, and laughing. I did not know any other.

Thus, the conflicts or problems I experienced when writing seemed to me more like personal, inner, emotional, psychological, or character issues, so to speak. I was a person and a language, a writer and a language “imposed” at birth. I loved language, the one I had to inhabit, as we love the tool of our trade.

Later on, I found myself, of course, like every person who writes, with emotions, situations, or ideas whose linguistic representation was difficult for me, although I always found —we found— the way to get around them with neologisms, for example, or abnormal word combinations and, of course, ungrammatical constructions.

Years ago, I was asked, What is poetry? And I answered without thinking: a text full of grammatical errors. And yes; in poetry, we could say, there is no up or down, no front or back, no one side or the other: there is no space. And there is no time. I have always thought that “poetic license” has always been a recognition of the idea that language can, must escape the rules of its own codes. 

What about inclusive language? What do writers think about all this?
It represents a moment in history. It is a political proposal. Recently, Violeta Vázquez, a linguist at El Colegio de México, wrote, more or less: if “poetic license” exists and works, let us think of inclusive language as “political license.” This way of looking at it convinces me. In my experience, inclusive language is a way of communicating that is already being used in many teaching and collective reflection spaces. It is a form of speech in the awareness and recognition of the other. To disqualify it is to ignore the movement of language at all its levels and also the agency of the speaker, who is, ultimately, the one who makes language.

Mónica Lavín

A Safe-Conduct in Time 
How writers interact with language?
Language is the only way to make visible that parallel world that can be a novel or a tale. A story that invents a possible world, a mirror to look at ourselves. Language is an optical instrument that brings what we see closer or further away; it is a safe-conduct in time; it is a drill of memory; a scalpel of the intimate: it is the vehicle to make visible the invisible. It is also the direct way to communicate an idea and argue it. It is the material to build beauty. There is no writing without language. It is, therefore, the building and the content. It is the form and the pith. It is music, rhythm, tone, and cadence, but it is clarity and purpose. It places chairs where there are none, it places intrigue where it should be. That is why language is that well from which we drink and which continues to be filled with new vocabulary and the fascinating ambiguity of words. The figurative meaning of words and expressions is the plastic possibility of revealing the human condition, the concrete experience of an individual belonging to a group inserted in a time, in a context, in a way of appreciating life.

What about inclusive language? What do writers think about all this?
The language is embedded in its history, the origin of the words, the crossbreeding, and the local expressions. It changes, is malleable, and has a tradition that precedes it and gives its scaffolding so that it can be a medium of creation and communication. It is a vehicle for thinking: there is no thought without language. There is no communication of the abstract without language. But language mutates from popular convention, from natural usage it becomes the norm. That is why it seems to me that inclusive language, with an impoverished sound (if we see it from an auditive and visual stand), is an imposition because it works backwards. That is, it imposes a rule, not without reason in its ideological weight, but it does not seem to me that it can be the way—since language is a living organism—to modify consciences and behaviors.

Sara Poot Herrera

An Ethical Commitment
How writers interact with language?
It’s a “love at first sight” issue because we have an indissoluble relationship with words and it could almost be said that we are the words, for they accompany us all our lives, even when we are alone because the internal monologue never stops: during the day we call it thoughts and, during the night, dreams.

Since I was a child, I have been fascinated with language, so much so that I have dedicated my life to studying it, enjoying and teaching it, playing with it, caressing it, making it my own and, at the same time, sharing it. The Spanish language is identity, sense of belonging, culture, and history, a language that denotes, connotes, shelters, communicates, and offers signs that are unleashed in every circumstance to be able to say, to express ourselves, to show ourselves naked as well (and to protect ourselves). And these signs, in their lexicon and syntax, multiply themselves in their vocabulary (“Mexicanized,” it is a verbal sizzle), a chain of expressions that say (or don’t), a semantics that marks contexts of comprehension, analysis, and interpretations.

Living in the United States means to anchor ourselves to the Spanish language—the Mexican language, “the National language”. It is at first resistance that little by little lets new terms in, either to open ourselves to Spanglish, to adopt new expressions contributed by other communities that speak their own Spanish, to (and above all) strengthen the Mexican language, the Mexican languages, that are also agglutinated in the Spanish language. There are millions of Spanish speakers in the United States; however, in the new generations of migrant families, Spanish language is in danger of being lost, which seems contradictory: Spanish is spoken at home, but only at home and especially among the elderly, or it is understood but answers come in English. This is why my relationship with Spanish language, living and working in the United States, was consciously becoming stronger when teaching, when giving Mexican history, culture, and literature lectures, at all times of coexistence with others, whether while using the a “cult” register (at one of its spaces, the university) or (let’s say) the colloquial, popular, one, the “archaic and rural Spanish” that has crossed borders with its migrants, a migration mainly of an economic nature. In the context where I live, in the university where I teach, my relationship with the Spanish language is fundamental, it is a virtue, undoubtedly an instrument of ethical commitment to everyday life.

What about inclusive language? What do writers think about all this?
The presence of inclusive language does not mean much to me as it seems to be more a matter of fashion mixed with ignorance of the rules and power of Spanish.

Let me explain: The nature of our language makes common animate nouns expressed as masculine not properly masculine but common to both genders. This means that common nouns have no specificity and encompass both genders, while feminine nouns are only applicable to them, so that when we say, for example, todos [everyone, masculine termination] we refer to both men and women, while todas [everyone, feminine termination] only mentions women, making it redundant and overloaded to say todos y todas, or the unfortunate los y las [the in both gendered terminations].

Again: grammatical rules valid for hundreds of years clearly specify that masculine plural (or generic singular) nouns and articles are equally neutral, which implies that they are ambiguous, and therefore extra words are required to refer only to them, while feminine ones are only feminine. Language is not always immediate, direct, and simple, and that is a marvel that we should not lose because of a clumsy attempt at “political correctness” that basically exhibits ignorance and an uncritical desire to join “the new times.” Languages are certainly alive and evolving, but there are also rules, methods, and knowledge that we cannot and should not ignore or violate with such simplicity.

In any case, it is men who are discriminated, not women, because when saying or writing, for example, los socios [the partners, masculine termination], gender is not clear, while las socias (feminine termination), only refers to women partners. Any Spanish speaker knows this and I see no sense in complicating things (especially when teaching it to speakers who are not native) with unnecessary and redundant distinctions, such as saying Si están cansados o cansadas podemos tomar un receso [“If you are tired we can take a break” (repeating the verb twice with masculine and feminine terminations to address both men and women)] because if we really wanted to differentiate, it would be necessary to say something like: Si los hombres están cansados pueden tomar un receso; las mujeres no [“If men are tired they can take a break; women can’t”], or something similar.

Rather than submitting to and imitating the structures and modes of English (where it is necessary to distinguish between genders in grammatical constructions), it is more appropriate and easier to know, respect, and protect our language, because it invites us to exercise equity: in exchange for using what is apparently a masculine term (although it is really common) they lose specificity, but we all gain in ease and elegance in the use of language and we abandon absurd divisive and ideologized positions when there are much more important things to attend to, defend and teach.

In this context of todas, todos, todes [everyone in gendered terminations and the ungendered use of e], I understand the need for the difference, but its use by itself does not change the structures; least of all the x which is a cross and even in Spanish cannot be pronounced. Inclusiveness must come (and become) from horizontal actions, from a consideration of the so-called otherness in terms of respect for others, even if they do not think as we do.

Socorro Venegas

More Voices, Other Languanges, Other Views
How writers interact with language?
I always considered Spanish as my mother language until the day I discovered that my mother spoke Nahuatl. She had to hide her language, her culture: a universe of knowledge in a deeply racist country. I find it painful. I was not taught my mother’s language. I have built my world, my writing in Spanish, but I think it is important to think on the traces of colonialism still alive in our language, as they lead to manifestations and expressions of classism, racism, and machismo in our societies. That is why I have been interested in introducing, in each project I work on, more voices, other languages, other views; to open up the panorama and say that Spanish is just one language more among the 68 spoken in Mexico: they all matter.

What about inclusive language? What do writers think about all this?
More than looking for norms or rules, I think it is fundamental to reflect on the way we speak, and how it is still considered normal that we conjugate the world in masculine form, this causes exclusions. If we follow the rules, there are only two genders in Spanish: masculine and feminine. But reality shows us that others do not feel included. Therefore we have to look for more inclusive ways. UNAM has just published El Antimanual de la lengua española para un lenguaje no sexista [The Spanish Counter-Manual for a Non-Sexist Language] (available in Spanish at https://cieg.unam.mx/detalles-libro.php?l=MjE4): “a political proposal in favor of breaking the patriarchal and cis-hetero-sexist pact present in the use of Spanish,” as described by its coordinators. It is a serious and well-documented book that invites us to think with humor, with kindness, how we can communicate while recognizing others, something that many of us take for granted concerning ourselves, but which is not the same reality for those who exercise their right to assume other identities.

Jorge Volpi

Speakers of the Future
How writers interact with language?
Simply, Spanish is the universe in which I was born. Although I learned other languages later, I am neither bilingual nor trilingual and, despite a few forays into French, I have never seriously thought of writing in another language. I inhabit Spanish, simply, as I inhabit the world. So, it is not a language of which I can be proud, or whose infinite beauty I can compare with other languages: it is a part of me, as intimate and secret as my own conscience. When I began to study it, I became aware of its structure and its particularities, but just as someone who contemplates his own image in a mirror: recognizing oneself and not, looking for an ideal image and only stumbling upon a somewhat distorted reflection. I love Spanish not as a fatherland (which always disappoints), but as a millenary tradition that has completely invaded me, to the point of identifying it with myself. It never mattered much to me that it was spoken by many millions or that it had become fashionable: it is, plain and simple, the point of view from which I think, write, and live. And that’s good enough for me. 

What about inclusive language? What do writers think about all this?
The first time I heard about inclusive language, even though it was not named like that then, was in Paris in 2001, at a dinner with one of my intellectual idols, Douglas Hofstadter. The author of the monumental Gödel, Escher, Bach (1979) is fluent in about a dozen languages (when I met him, he was finishing the verse translation of Pushkin’s Eugène Oneguin straight from Russian) and since then he has been obsessed with what he called non-sexist English and was looking for every possible way to avoid masculine gender marks in a language that in itself has far fewer than Spanish and other Romance languages. His argument has convinced me ever since: for anyone who wants to look it up, it can be found in an article he later published in Metamagical Themas: Questing the Essence of Mind and Pattern (1985), where he invents a radical academic, William Satire—an obvious last name—to picture all the contradictions of anyone who opposes eliminating these masculine marks from English.

Since then, the controversy surrounding inclusive Spanish has only increased to frightening degrees: its detractors are identical to this William Satire who is unable to see that, just as it would not be convenient to call a white person black, or vice versa, neither should we allow a generic masculine, neutral in theory, to be used to refer to women. Among the various possibilities that have been considered to eliminate this generic masculine from Spanish, the use of the e terminations, unleashed in South America, has always seemed to me the most encouraging: it can be pronounced unlike the x or the @ and it is easy to use. When I was head of UNAM’s Coordination of Cultural Disemination, we published a handbook on recommendations for inclusive Spanish that opted for this solution (available at https://unam.blob.core.windows.net/docs/manual/Manual%20de%20uso%20incluyente%20y%20no%20discriminatorio%20del%20lenguaje.pdf).

Over the years, I have never ceased to be amazed by the animosity that many people (especially white men with power) have against inclusive Spanish, as if it were a terrorist attack against language. I do not know if this use will remain but, since the language belongs to speakers, we should let them decide, instead of preventing it arguing purely ideological reasons. In Spain, where I live now, general rejection is even more drastic than in Latin America: this must be telling something about those who feel they own a language that really belongs to everyone who speaks it.

I recognize, however, that, following what Hofstadter told me then, I do not have inclusive Spanish as my mother tongue: it is indeed a distinct (though intelligible) variety of Spanish. This is why I don’t use it in my writing and I am satisfied with some basic formulas when speaking in public. Perhaps the next generations, when more and more parents teach inclusive Spanish to their children from an early age, it will become the mother language of millions and then no one will be able to question it. In the meantime, there is nothing wrong with living with it and trying to learn it with the same goodwill with which one learns another language—or at least some of its phrases—when faced with speakers from another country or, as in this case, from another era: the future.
Rosa Beltrán is a writer and a teacher. She is a Number Member of the Mexican Academy of Language. She studied Hispanic Literature at UNAM and a doctorate in Compared Literature at the University of California at Los Angeles. She is Director of Literature in UNAM’s Coordination for Cultural Dissemination. She has published novels, short stories and essays, and has received different acknowledgements, including UNAM’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Acknowledgement.

Mariana Bernárdez, poet and essayist, studied Communications at Anáhuac University and received a master degree in Modern Literature and a doctorate in Philosophy from the Universidad Iberoamericana. She is also a university professor and collaborates in written media and radio. Her work (in which criticism on Dolores Castro, Ramón Xirau and María Zambrano stands out) has been translated into several languages.

César Cañedo, poet, researcher, literary critic, and teacher, studied Hispanic Language and Literature and a master in Mexican Literature at UNAM’s School of Philosophy and Literature, where he is currently pursuing a doctorate. He leads a seminar on Lesbian and Gay Literature at the same school. He is a fulltime teacher at CEPE UNAM. He won the 2017 Francisco Cervantes Vidal National Poetry Prize and the 2019 Aguascalientes Fine Artes Prize for poetry.

Carla Faesler wrote the novel Formol, which was considered the best book of 2014 by La Tempestad magazine, and the poetry books: Texto, DRON (Mi madre era granadero), Catábasis exvoto, Anábasis maqueta (Gilberto Owen National Literary Prize, 2002), No tú sino la piedra, and Ríos sagrados que la herejía navega. Her experimental practice includes collage, video and object-art. On inclusive language she wrote in Este país: https://estepais.com/home-slider/rapidez-mundo-cambia-escandalosamente-lenta/

Mónica Lavín studied Biology and has become one of the most acknowledged writers of her generation. She has received awards such as the 1996 Gilberto Owen National Literature Prize. Among her books, the novels Café cortado, Hotel Limbo, and Yo, la peor stand out. She has also worked in science dissemination, while tirelessly working as a workshop leader and teacher at the Autonomous University of Mexico City.

Sara Poot Herrera studied Literature at the University of Guadalajara and a Ph.D. in Hispanic Literature at El Colegio de México. She has dedicated a lifetime to teaching Spanish in the United States, while at the same time developing an inexhaustible critical work on diverse authors, especially women authors in Mexican literature: Sara Poot is a pioneer in making women writers in Mexico visible.

Socorro Venegas—writer, screenwriter, and journalist—studied Social Communication at the Metropolitan Autonomous University-Xochimilco and has an intense teaching activity related to the training of writers. Her work has been widely recognized and has been included in anthologies in Mexico and abroad, including the short stories collected in Todas las islas (2002) and the novel La noche será negra y blanca (2009).

Jorge Volpi is a writer, cultural manager, and a diplomat. He studied Law and a master in Mexican Literature at UNAM, and a doctorate in Hispanic Philology at Salamanca University, Spain. He has published essays, short stories and novels, being mainly this last genre the one to gain international recognition for his work, starting with the novel In Search of Klingsor, that has been translated into more than 25 languages. He often writes in different newspapers. He has been head of UNAM’s Coordination for Cultural Dissemination, and today he is director of UNAM’s Office in Spain.
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