Tuesday, April 8, 2014

CAMINAR by Skila Brown

Over the past couple of days, I have had the immense pleasure of reading Skila Brown's debut novel in verse, CAMINAR, a Spanish word that means "to walk". It tells the story of Carlos, a Guatemalan boy living in the early 1980's, a time of intense civil unrest and war within his country. The book is composed of individual poems from Carlos's point of view, and they convey in snap-shot like sequence what it was like to live in Guatemala at a time when young men were being conscripted to fight in the army or with the guerrillas, and many people, including a lot of older men, were killed or disappeared if they protested. It was also a time when the army occasionally (or far too often) slaughtered entire villages over suspicion that they harbored guerrillas or for other, unspecified, reasons.

The book opens with poems that establish what Carlos's village, home, and daily life are like, including the concerns about the army and the guerillas. Carlos is old enough to start to work in the coffee fields, though his mother would rather he stay in school. Some of his friends mock him for his fear of the dark, something he overcomes through the book as far worse horrors unfold.

Even When

I stayed in my tree
even when

their machetes sliced
the edges of the jungle,
their voices pricked
the loud whir of Nothing
that roared in my ears.

I stayed in my tree
even when

the pops of their rifles,
laughter of the soldiers,
screams of my neighbors all
  died down.

I stayed in my tree
even when

my tree caught the whisper
blowing from tree to tree, a message
wave, turning leaves right side up
brighter green,
a message that said:
        They're gone.
Carlos doesn't dare return to his village to determine who is dead, whether his mother and aunt and friends have survived, or whether his house is standing. Instead, he starts to make his way up the mountain toward where his grandmother lives. Along the way, he encounters a small group of guerrillas, trying to reach a larger camp. He spends time with them, and agonizes over whether he should join them or not.


I imagined
  how I would look
  with bullets for a belt.
I wondered
  if Miguel
  would take them away
  when he found out I did
  nothing   to stop the arm from taking Chopán.
I pictured
  myself arriving at the camp in Ixchandé,
  pictured myself shooting soldiers, taking
  revenge for all of Chopán.
I remembered
  Mama urging me to stay away,
  Santiago saying this was not our war.
I realized
  I had nowhere else to go.
A fictional account, CAMINAR is astonishing for how clearly it conveys the thoughts, emotions, and experiences of a boy rapidly transitioning to manhood in a time of war, as well as establishing what the culture of Guatemala was like at that time, both in the villages when they were less affected, and when they were decimated by the army. A powerful read, it moves extremely quickly thanks to the way the poems are written and organized, swiftly moving the reader through jungle and skirmish, and packing an emotional punch that might be harder to pull off in prose.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

I'm seeing a lot of this one. I think I'll have to pick up a copy.