Michelle Gil-Montero translating María Negroni

Extraordinary Letters

Hirzel, March 21, 1961

Dear Johanna Spyri,

Grandfather told me that you are my author. What does “author” mean? I asked him. He answered that you wove me out of what you love: the earth and landscape, words, and memories that nestle into invisibility. And that afterwards, you put me here, in your silky white retreat—this glimmering world of snow—as if you had drawn lovely pictures, never to be seen.

Years pass, and history repeats. I’m a pretty little animal in a curious kingdom, and I long for nothing more than the mountain air where a great bird lives and the flowers quietly amuse themselves.

Grandfather says that I see things in flashes when I dream, and that he can ponder my dream for many long, patient days. He says that, sometimes, if he’s not too distracted, he can even forget the name of the mountains, and in that way, the mountains come back to him. Grandfather calls that sort of knowledge the joy of being orphan, that it’s like creeping into the grand hall of the unknown where the tamest sheep, on light feet, feast their own ignorance.

How marvelous little Snowball is! She can light up the mouth of the most terrible wolf!

I’m glad you don’t think me a gloomy, inconsiderate girl, or a helpless child, or a foolish creature who whines day and night for any silly reason. And that you defend my name, over the name Adelaide (which Fräulein Rottenmeier is determined to impose on me). And that you let me play and cheer up Klara the invalid, and contrary Peter. I’d like to live in a beam of light and leap around, even when the night nudges its cold snout into the loveliest summer afternoon, or when it thrusts, with no excuse at all, a spoonful of cod liver oil at my mouth.

In life, you see, unlikely things happen. My story is one of them. First I’m a child abandoned by God, then they drop me off at my grandfather’s little hut, and then they send me abroad, where I suffer endless tribulations before returning to the hut and, in the end, I come out of the adventure full of blessings, hugs, and psalms of homecoming.

But like Grandfather says, this is the least of our worries. The important thing is to see our false prisons. Your book, for example. When I enter it, I feel like I’m entering an infinite smallness, like I’m climbing up something as it descends, just like stones that the river reads backwards, like I’m trying to love the very heart of sorrow. And that is very lucky, Grandfather says. Because happiness comes from sadness, and it’s full of surprises: an herbarium, waking up to the sound of crickets or, even better yet, things that have no name and are all the more real for that reason.

Anyway, I know that we live in different times. I reappear in the hands of any reader who comes along, but you stay at the beginning, crying in a room, in your future, because they have shipped you off.

Can I do anything to make you feel better? How about this game: a butterfly floats into your thoughts, and another into mine. We toss a dice, and the two butterflies utter unpronounceable phrases. Whenever something says yes to primordial silence, it returns to a world of purity.

One last thing. No offence, but your sentences: “you’ve behaved in the most impolite and reprehensible manner,” “you are an absolute wild creature,” and “take off that ridiculous dress, why do you go out looking like a ragamuffin” seem like ways of tormenting a child.

I’ll leave you now. I’ll go back to sitting on Grandfather’s great sofa, with its pretty upholstery like green grass, and to staring rapturously at the fir trees, to listening to the wind’s voice that carries messages from a million tiny creatures.

I send you my rapture and my wish to see you soon at the threshold of the invisible.



Copenhagen, January 10, 1855

Dear Joseph Cornell,

My father, who was a cobbler, kept a small box in the back of his workshop. The box was stuffed with velvet cloaks for the King, Queen, and Fairies—his most prized puppets—that acted out, on our little homemade stage, the imaginative works he wrote as a child.

I know that you like this sort of story, so I’m permitting myself to share a tentative outline of the plot. You can, if you see fit, tell it to the girl, naked on her white horse, passing through, at this very moment, one of your exquisite dreams. Here it goes:

Scene 1.

Prelude: Set in an oriental bazaar, tinted with magic lanterns. At the end of all the fanfare in Franz Schubert’s Rosemunde, the curtain lifts.

Scene 2.

Morning light, Ravel allegro for string. Thumbelina wrestles with a hulking scarab but is saved by a butterfly that delivers her downstream, sailing on a leaf.

Scene 3.

Lady Night in the foreground. In the dark foliage of her enigma, a popular nightingale unravels itself in song. From the song, a flower is born, sopping with moonlight: a wunderblume.

Scene 4.

You hear The Spider’s Feast by Albert Roussel. A tiny lead soldier is keeping watch, when a ballerina in a white tutu walks up and salutes him with incomprehensible grace. When the tower strikes twelve, the ballerina and the soldier perform a slightly illicit pas de deux.

Scene 5.

Some toys burst out of a rusted bunker: a king on horseback, a matchstick girl, two wind-up mice, a chimney sweeper, and a red fox. For no apparent reason, everything is set in tremendous motion, marking the magic of the cinema of Méliès.

Scene 6.

Suddenly, one side of the great Crystal Palace lights up. Inside, an air of chinoiserie, of a story with no beginning or end. And sadly, on the right, Eos appears, with her rosy feet, and sneezes. In the Grand Finale, tiny grain of dust flies out of her nose, and all the characters freeze.

I hope you like my little work. (My friend Dickens loved it.)

Don’t forget that time is fiction, that there’s no difference between living from hotel to hotel and staying put on a street named Utopia, that the finest cities are the ones embraced at night, and that all poems are riddles for little princes.

Do me a favor, would you? Never give up the single life. Marry your work, and it will thank you.


Hans Christian Andersen


Florence, March 7, 1886

Dear Mr. Auster,

The Invention of Solitude is, perhaps, your finest work. I found it deeply moving. You believe, like I do, that in order to think, one must be alone. Sometimes even for years. Sometimes, also, in the cold night inside the belly of a whale, where we leave our father for thousands of pages as works by candlelight, trying to decipher life’s unheard frequencies, its platters poor and succulent.

Meanwhile, where were we? At the end of our wits, between adventure and misadventure, as it were all unfinished business, trying, but only in pretense, to obey the Blue Fairy.

In pretense, I said. Because, really, who could care about being a “brave, truthful, and unselfish” adult when one might take the immaculate form of a child?

I was delighted to find that you cite me in your novel, that you thought of Pinocchio as your double, and that you read it so graciously.

May I repay you with a small gesture?

Below, I’m copying a few notes that I jotted down when building the story. Let me know what you think.

1) The marionette is a talking slab of wood, hardly a meter tall. He is, what’s more, spoiled rotten and given to hideous mischief. But by misbehaving—which is, really, how he prays—he discovers the dark meaning of the word “time” and (can you see the connection?) saves his father from the clutches of death. The action cuts off exactly one day before he finds happiness.

2) One day, the puppet is in the water, and a whale opens its mouth and swallows him like a noodle. Captivity sharpens his wits. He lights a fire, inciting the whale to sneeze, and then he escapes through the smoke with his father riding on his back: “Follow me, father, and don’t be afraid.” Aeneas, Jonah, Pinocchio: which of these superheroes knows the wrong he’s paying for?

3) “When the dead cry,” the crow said solemnly, “it’s a sign that they’re reviving. “I hate to contradict my illustrious friend and colleague,” said the owl, “but I believe that when the dead cry, it is because they do not wish to die.” “Gosh,” the crow had to admit, “that is something!”

4) As author, I write the story of my life, while wielding the marionette as a pen. And in the blackness of the ink, the book becomes clear.

I have no more words, dear friend, to offer you. Remember that you are only a subtitle of what you’ve written, just like I am, and that I’m talking to you as one book to another book. If you look for me, you won’t find me (because I am not here, but rather, between you and me, suspended in uncertainty). But this letter should give you everything you need to invent me. Life and literature can last very long. Not to mention death (but let’s not scare the children, particularly the children we still are). Remember that, in the future, everything will be the same. Neither of us knows anything. What better consolation for a tired heart.

Thank you for valuing my book as literature.



Translator's Note

In the preface to her collection of “extraordinary letters,” María Negroni quotes an aphorism by Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector: “Losing oneself is a dangerous way of finding oneself.” This paradox alludes to Negroni’s pretense of invisibility in the letters—which she writes in the personae of well-known children’s writers, as counterfeits—and to its considerable risks. By writing as other people, she is in danger of committing the crimes of fraud, betrayal, and theft. And at the very least, she over-steps her authority, her autobiography. Also, she self-exiles; she makes herself, if only virtually, absent.

The letters suggest that these dangers are not only warranted in, but fundamental to, the act of writing. Helene Cixous said as much: “In the beginning the gesture of writing is linked to the experience of disappearance, to the feeling of having lost the key to the world, of having been thrown outside”; the impulse to write is, for Cixous, an urgent desire to “regain the entrance.” Similarly, Negroni’s letters imply that, only by extra-ordinary means, does the writer enter her writing—by daring to exceed, go beyond, and step outside of who she ordinarily is.

Isn’t this same danger, also, one of the infamous perils in translation: a writing act in which we devastate in order to create, in which our work is signed by another name, in which we throw our very agency to the wind in the hope that it might return? We lose ourselves in translation, we have to, but in my experience, that loss is a powerful site of self-discovery; it ultimately allows us, like nothing else, to locate our own language, and possibly, ourselves.

So don’t be fooled. In Negroni’s letters, it is really a single voice that impersonates, invokes, and invites company—on what is in fact a lonely, introspective journey. The disguises are thin; the counterfeits are obvious. Even as Negroni signs someone else’s name, the penmanship is unmistakably hers. We can be confident that the letters are a performance. Let’s say, a ventriloquist’s performance, in which the ventriloquist shamelessly moves her lips. And aren’t we actually more interested in watching the ventriloquist’s lips than we are in the dummy, anyway?

In the larger collection, the signatories are authors and characters in the children’s literary canon. They come from a popular Argentine children’s book series, a fixture on bookshelves of Negroni’s youth. I chose these three letters together for Drunken Boat somewhat arbitrarily, on a personal whim: because the characters evoke some nostalgia in me. And sentiment is not beside the point; these are children’s books, as formative to a writer as first loves. They would have been Negroni’s first encounter with the world of literature, and with a “world literature,” and possibly with an imagined world outside of Argentina. In fact, they were all European and North American books in translation: a foreign literature, in the domestic language, with a domestic imprint.

It’s what isn’t explicitly written in those children’s books—the intimate personal lives and (unknowable) thoughts of their authors—that is most of interest in the letters. If children’s literature encodes adult fears and desires, then Negroni’s texts decode those adult worlds, lay them bare. Here we see the adult life of the children’s writer, the adult life behind the children’s book, as a clue to the adult literature that the young reader may grow up to write. We see the child’s library as a mysterious space that contains the seeds of all libraries. And how a writer might re-enter her work by way of getting lost in those miniature stacks.

Michelle Gil-Montero

Michelle Gil-Montero is a poet and translator of contemporary Latin American poetry. She is the author of one book of poetry, Attached Houses (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2013). Her book translations include Poetry After the Invention of América: Don't Light the Flower by Andrés Ajens (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011), Mouth of Hell by María Negroni (Action Books, 2013), The Tango Lyrics by María Negroni (Quattro Books, 2013), This Blue Novel by Mexican poet Valerie Mejer (Action Books, 2015), and Dark Museum (Action Books, 2015).

María Negroni

María Negroni (Argentina) is the author of several books of poetry and essay collections, as well as two novels. Her books in English translation include Islandia (Station Hill Press, 2000), Night Journey (Princeton University Press, 2002), The Tango Lyrics (Quattro Books, 2013), Mouth of Hell (Action Books, 2013), and Dark Museum (2014). Her work has also been translated into Swedish, Italian and French. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Fundación Octavio Paz, The New York Foundation for the Arts, and she has received a National Book Award in Argentina, a PEN Award, and the Siglo XXI International Prize for Non Fiction. She has taught at Sarah Lawrence College since 1999, and she now directs the first Creative Writing Program to exist in Argentina at Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero.