A Word Accompanied by Light by Nilo Cruz

Monday, May 3, 2010

As spoken by: Nilo Cruz.

President Sharon Herzberger, Professor Jennifer Holmes, students of Whittier College and other guests who are here this evening:

To receive an Honorable Doctorate from Whittier College, a school named after one of this country's beloved poets, is more than an honor; it is an inspiring recognition. Today you are not just embracing my past accomplishments; you are putting trust in the work that lies ahead, and this not only encourages me to continue writing, but also propels the promise of my dreams and my quest for beauty and poetry. What I call the long road into the world of creation.

The act of receiving is as intricate and delicate as the creative art of giving. Besides offering a gratifying and joyous moment, it is a humbling and demanding experience, given that we must be prepared to cherish and value what is being conferred upon us.

It is not difficult for an artist to recognize the art of receiving, since part of the creative process is about welcoming the muse and accepting the gift of inspiration—the arrival of beauty—this most sacred presence, which causes us to bow our heads in reverence. For this reason, I'd like to express my deepest gratitude in Spanish, the language in which I first learned to be thankful, since the word "gracias" not only bestows grace upon the giver; it offers a blessing, the benevolent gift of beauty to the benefactor.

On the occasion of receiving this honor, let me tell you that if very early on I was seduced by poetry, and literature engaged me, first as a lover of words, then as a writer, all of this happened from the contagion of beauty after I read a poem by Emily Dickinson.

As green and naive as it may seem, I must confess that my attitude towards writing is still influenced by that initial moment when I experienced the exalting presence of the beautiful, and I surrendered to those primal virtues that are comprised of innocence and curiosity; those inherent qualities which incite exploration and provoke an ancient desire in us to duplicate what we have witnessed. And why deny it! The emergence of beauty always gives rise to that instinct so inherent in mankind, in nature, which causes a poet to echo the steps of music, or makes a butterfly flutter from flower to flower in an immersion of color and aroma. Beauty is an invitation, a salutation. Besides offering the perceiver a sense of mystery and intrigue, it confers conviction, it grants an affirmation of existence. It is truly a shout of life.

The essence of art is indeed order, because there is nothing more orderly than beauty: an aria by Puccini is sequence in voice and music; a painting by Gauguin is composition of color and form; a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca is command of meaning and obedience of words.

We are living in a fast paced world that praises the material and promotes artificiality and multiplicity. The dominant culture with its invisible tentacles proclaims a certain kind of colonialism that assigns commercialism as the only form of art. This culture that thrives on the banal, invites us to confuse our direct vision of truth and individuality to the point that we are not able to recognize the regenerative power and order of beauty. But a true artist will not fall for the lie. A true artist will not aspire to be a prisoner of resignation. A true artist will recognize that mediocrity has a way masking itself and claiming reality by creating disorder and displacement. A true artist will always denounce fear and will never put up with these barriers. And he will go so far as to divorce himself from his religion, his nation, his family, the burden of race, the cause and effect of politics, in order to show the world the creative force of art and the equanimity of beauty. Actually, the struggles of an artist are equivalent to the efforts of an asylum-seeker, who tries to find a better place to exercise his freedom.

I am an émigré, not only because I left my country of birth very early in my life, but because of my own volition as an artist and for the obvious reason that I refuse to be a part of a system that dictates how I should convey the world through art. I am an émigré due to my desire to celebrate the dignity of life, because beauty resides in the validity and fairness of expression. And beauty would not be beautiful if it didn't have the freedom of order, and it wouldn't have any order if it didn't have any justice.

The difference between an émigré and the migrant is that the asylum-seeker has fewer options to return to his homeland. And yet, I go back to my country of birth...I go back to Cuba all the time through the writing, through my plays. I go back to a mythic island, perhaps made up of nostalgia and memories, a very private island, recreated within the boundaries of the imagination, through the regenerative force of art and the newness of beauty. And not only do my plays allow me to return to the place where I was born, they permit me to travel to lands I have never been before, such as a war-torn country in Latin America, or Andalucía during the Spanish Civil War, where I was able to denounce the terrible crime committed against a great poet.

The kind of theatre I write, usually, if not always, explores and interrogates displacement, gender, and corruption of power. Elements of romance, fantasy, and surreal landscapes reflect the lives of my characters: men and women who pursue their dreams, children who are escaping the poverty of their existence, human creations who believe that hope dies last.
More than anything, I'm interested in rescuing the lyrical and bringing it back to the stage.

But I must tell you that living between two languages always gives me cause to struggle with words and agonize over sentences. This, of course, is not a terrible thing, since writing is about not being able to encounter the word, but the essence of what we find along the way. Writing is about trying to contain the light that accompanies words, the star that glows in the palm of our hands, which sometimes can be dim and gentle but it can also be incandescent as a comet and burn with the unseen fire of an ember. As writers we cannot truly capture light, we can come close to describing its presence and mystery with our photographic memory, and with the same urgency that we use when we shout to a friend to witness the fall of a shooting star.

In the past I have experimented with other mediums of art to help me find order in the writing. Since theatre is so ephemeral and it operates in a third dimension, making visual collages and illustrating boxes with images and objects, have been extremely instrumental in offering me something solid and concrete as I try to capture the evanescent form of a play. Theatre is very difficult to write because it unfolds with the passage of time, and my boxes, my collages, these other means of creation have prompted ruminations and a sense of composition, which are invaluable components for the artistic process.

In reality, these artifacts are like little altars that incite inspiration and allow me to enter the order of things. They are like mandalas, used in Buddhism as a sacred space for meditation, since they focus my attention and transport me into another dimension where I encounter my characters and the universe they live in.

It is true that creativity invites adventure, exploration beyond our boundaries or comfort zone. A poem inspires a painting, a painting a novel, a novel a movie, a movie a music score. In my latest excursions as a playwright, I am experimenting with narrative to explore dramatic situations and atmosphere, something that I've never done before because it is a long and tedious process. Emily Zola was known to keep notebooks on his characters in which he wrote down everything from the shape of their eyebrows to the dirt under their fingernails. Through the narrative I am able to examine the sentiments, passions, and the unconscious and subconscious world of my characters. Then later I distill all the narrative into actions, since all that matters in theatre is the life that happens between what is spoken, which reveals the soul of the characters, the true dimension and scope of the spirit.
We have to remember that an artist is responsible not only for documenting our presence as citizens of the world. We should preserve the human being's highest attributes, and we can only do this through observation and exploration.

Theatre gives us permission to laugh and cry, to get in touch with our feelings. A rich man can all of a sudden identify with the poverty of existence of a man less fortunate. A poor man can look at the life of a king and realize that a man of power has also a cross to bear.
Through theatre we have the capacity to get in touch with humanity, or should we say our own humanity. And when we get in touch with our humanity, we get in touch with our own spirituality.

Beauty gives us an indication of eternity, because beauty restores life when a poet arranges words and makes us see things in a different light, in a new and refreshing way.

As Beaudelaire said:

"We lend a tree our passion, desires, or melancholy; its groaning and nodding are ours and quite soon we are that tree. Likewise, a bird soaring in the sky is the immediate representation of our immortal yearning to soar above human things; we are, then, that very bird."

Let us continue to give the world a breath of poetry.

Gracias and good luck to the students of Whittier.