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The City and the Writer: In San José, Costa Rica with David Cruz

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of San José as you feel/see it?

In San José the winter and summer are so similar that they never cease arriving. The rain is the soundtrack all year long. It’s a small city, where the chaotic traffic makes it seem like everyone is schizophrenically moving toward nowhere. Characters abound in the streets: anonymous beings who go to offices and stores, passing through a city that watches them grow old. It’s a city, up to now, dominated by the upper class, so it’s a bit pretentious.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

When I walk downtown I am always moved when I see Alberto Robinson, the Afro-Caribbean fusion musician who now walks the streets and lives among cardboard boxes. I always buy him food whenever I can and sit to talk with him. His proffering transformed the genre. One could, by way of sound, enter into other dimensions. Every time I leave, I think it will be the last time I’ll see him.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

To choose the names of the villages that formed San José, the president at that time and the Catholic priests filled a bag with the names of saints. A representative from each village pulled out a name, and that was what the village would be called. That is why the names aren’t exciting. We live among a procession of saints.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Despite being a country with only five million inhabitants, we have a great literary tradition. From the classics, I recommend Joaquín Gutiérrez, Yolanda Oreamuno, and Eunice Odio. I recommend the works of contemporary writers Alfonso Chase, Ana Istarú, and Carlos Cortés.


Is there a place here you return to often?

Because San José is a small city, one always returns to every place, but each visit is an opportunity to rediscover what might seem obvious.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

There is a cafe called Chelles—for 120 years the country’s greatest intellectuals passed through it. Now it is a place where, after partying, people come to eat to avoid getting hangovers. Sometimes I like to imagine that I am seated where Joaquín Gutiérrez once talked about chess or literature. Today cultural activities take place every day of the week at El lobo estepario, a bar-theater-stage.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

As in every city, one can encounter strange stores: mystic bazaars, ventriloquism sales, kitsch aquariums. When one enters them, it’s like stepping into a world that doesn’t exist. I enjoy finding this type of place.


Where does passion live here?

407 Plaza Víquez, two hundred meters from the public pools.


What is the title of one of your works about San José and what inspired it exactly?

There is a poem that says a lot and nothing about the city because I like to work from a state of suggestive nostalgia. (Area City is a bar where I have been very happy many times.)


I waited for you all night but you never arrived.
Area City.
Boys Don’t Cry, The Cure.
I danced
with Wislawa Szymborska, with Remedios Varo,
with Olga Orozco, with Elizabeth Barrett Browning,
with Anna Akhmatova, with Édith Piaf,
with Marilyn Monroe, with Nina Simone.
Violeta Parra categorically refused.
I danced
with Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, with Ingrid Bergman,
with Khertek Anchimaa-Toka, with Eunice Odio,
with Virginia Woolf, with Katharine Hepburn.
Marie Curie watched me with suspicion all night.
I danced
with Gloria Fuertes, with Virginia Grutter,
con my mother, with Anaïs Nin, with Marina Tsvetaeva,
with Joan of Arc, with a porn actress.
Sometimes waiting can be the torch
that unearths all nostalgias.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside San José does an outside exist?”

Outside San José, the world exists but it is a city that, despite its smallness, tries to contain you. It is a rather open-minded city for a Latin American city, but like everything in Latin America, this is relative.


Translated from the Spanish by Eileen O’Connor.


David Cruz was born in San José, Costa Rica in 1982. A poet, writer, and journalist, he is a leading poet in his generation, known for his sharp urban language. His work has been published in magazines and anthologies throughout Latin American and Spain. He has published three collections of poetry: Natación Nocturna1, winner of the Premio Joven; Trasaltántico, winner of the VII Premio Mesoamericano de Poesía Luis Cardoza y Aragón; and A ella le gusta llorar mientras escucha The Beatles (Valparaíso Ediciones, Spain).

Eileen O’Connor’s writing has appeared in The Recorder: Journal of Irish American History, Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices, The Women’s Review of Books, and Hippocampus, among other publications. She has translated essays, stories and poetry from the Spanish, including Pez/Fish by Peruvian poet Mariela Dreyfus (Nirala Publications, 2014); the young adult novel I Lived on Butterfly Hill (Simon and Schuster, 2014) by Marjorie Agosín, winner of the 2015 Pura Belpré Award and finalist for the 2014 National Jewish Book Award; and, most recently, a volume of poetry by Marjorie Agosín, Harbors of Light (White Pine Press, 2016), which World Literature Today chose as one of their 75 Notable Translations of 2016. A graduate of Harvard College and New York University, Eileen currently teaches writing and Spanish at Wellesley College.

Published Apr 24, 2019   Copyright 2019 Nathalie Handal

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