January 18, 2024
In his stunning debut collection, Yaguareté White, Diego Báez undertakes a lyrical exploration of Paraguayan American identity and what it means to see through a colored whiteness in all of its tangled contradictions. We recently had a chance to talk with Diego about his inspiration, the symbolism of the titular yaguareté (jaguar), and why nostalgia might be a shared part of the Paraguayan American experience.
What inspired you to write this collection?
One inspiration for writing Yaguareté White is the desire to share stories I hadn’t seen or heard before. For all the influential authors of Xicano and Mexican, puertorriqueño, Salvadorean, Dominican, Columbian, and Cuban heritages, I’ve not encountered a single Paraguayan American author. But that’s not surprising. Of the roughly 63 million Latinx people in the U.S., only 25,000 are Paraguayan American. So it’s not necessarily that we’re underrepresented; it’s that my people comprise a statistically infinitesimal portion of the population. Perhaps it’s not surprising we haven’t produced many poets, novelists, or journalists. Or rather, it’s not surprising that publishers in the U.S. haven’t recognized Paraguayan-American writers, as yet. Perhaps my book can serve as one small step toward people like me seeing themselves in American letters.
Allison Escoto wrote that the poems in this collection share “a consistent tone of longing, nostalgia, and searching.” Can you talk about where that nostalgia comes from, or how it functions in the book?
I so appreciate Escoto’s insight, because I think “nostalgia” is exactly the right descriptor for the measure of pain that attends my memories of Paraguay. Growing up, my family flew down every few years to stay at the farm mi abuelo y abuela inhabited until their respective deaths in 2012 and 2019 (QEPD). Every time we boarded that first flight from O’Hare, I felt the faint sense of discomfort that joins the uncertainty of international travel. But that sensation always faded as the snowy terrain of Illinois disappeared beneath the clouds, and my brothers and I slept on the floor of the jet from Miami, only to arrive in sun-scorched Asunción the next day, sleepy and cautious, but embraced immediately by tíos and tías and our rambunctious primos, all of whom made us feel at home for the month we’d usually stay in Paraguay. So much of the book is informed by those journeys, and by the more profound, lingering heartache that tends to sting upon returning stateside.
It’s an experience most Paraguayans in this country share: flight. Distance and topography prevent Paraguayans from undertaking the journey overland, so many fly over. This is obviously a position of material privilege relative to those who migrate over sea and by land, or even others who must fly under emergency circumstances or conditions of duress. It’s odd to occupy this position of relative privilege, while also failing to see those stories reflected in mainstream Latinx and literary cultures in the U.S. I’m not sure whether this compounds the pain, contributes to a sense of nostalgia, or simply adds another dimension to an already gnarly, complicated relation.
In Yaguareté White, place, race, and language converge in the symbol of the jaguar. Has this always been an important symbol in your work, or did it emerge particularly for this book?
The jaguar didn’t really emerge until a later draft of the manuscript. I had originally called the book, “Valleys Full of Jaguars,” taken from a line in Argentine author César Aira’s 1981 novel Ema, la cautiva (trans. 2016). I had intended the title to be ironic, since I had never seen a jaguar in Paraguay, nor, to my knowledge, do they regularly inhabit much of the country at all. But jaguars do occupy a central role in Guarani mythology, a cosmos I did not grow up with, and one that I’ve really only learned about online. I hope this tension surfaces in the poems, between the things we access through family or heritage, and the things the internet teaches us about ourselves.
The book is also interested in language, and the word “Yaguareté” itself is notable for its suffix, “-eté,” which means “real or true” (an origin noted also by C. S. Giscombe in the aftermatter of Negro Mountain). It’s difficult for me to separate preoccupations with language and linguistic acquisition from questions I hope the book confronts around authenticity and identity: what stories belong to a people? Are they mine to tell? What must remain off limits? It feels fitting to see that uncertainty embodied in the titular figure of the jaguar.
Many of the poems in this collection are “hybrid” in the sense that they’re between forms, entering into prose or inventing their own structures, as in “Chestnut People,” which is symmetrical on the page, or “Punchline” where there are two lines of prose literally punched out of the middle of the verse. Why is this formal hybridity important to this collection?
Racial, ethnic, and linguistic hybridities are central to the identities of the book’s primary speakers and, of course, for myself, so it felt necessary for the poems to manage those variables, as well. I can’t be alone in loving the creative possibilities generated by linear and syllabic limits. Of course, I learned about iambic pentameter and Shakespearean sonnets in school, but I’ll be forever indebted to Rachel Hadas, a former professor of mine, who ran a workshop at Rutgers that required us to experiment with different forms every week. I learned a lot about my own personal preferences, but also about the liberties poets can take with any given prescribed form. Lately, I find poetic forms (and derivations therefrom) to be crucially useful when I want to begin something new. It helps me get started, especially when faced with the white, wide-open maw of an empty page ready to devour every key I punch or, worse, to spit nothing back.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been unexpectedly invested in Formula 1 racing since 2021, when Lewis Hamilton was robbed of his 8th world drivers championship. Even as a new fan, I felt personally wronged by the manipulated result of that last race in Abu Dhabi. It’s silly, but also real? I’m exacting revenge by writing a chapbook of poems about F1, which ought to just about balance the scales.
I’m also working on Season 2 of “Unique Niche,” a monthly book review column I write for Letras Latinas Blog 2 that focuses on contemporary books of poetry in translation, about translanguaging, or related to transcultural subjects. The editors, Laura Villareal and Brent Ameneyro, are seriously invested in covering Latinx poetry, and I’m looking forward to continuing our work together.
I’m also excited for the publication of Library of America’s anthology, Latino Poetry: Places We Call Home, which will include the title poem from Yaguareté White. There will be celebrations all across the country in Fall 2024 and Spring 2025 to coincide with the anthology’s release, and I look forward to those events!
Diego Báez is a writer, educator, and abolitionist. He is the recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo, the Surge Institute, and the Poetry Foundation’s Incubator for Community-Engaged Poets. His writing has appeared in Freeman’s, The Rumpus, Harriet Books, and The Georgia Review. He lives in Chicago and teaches at the City Colleges.