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Anna Kazumi Stahl - Words and silence
What´s the best way for me to introduce myself?
I suppose I should start with my name.
As many of you here, my name
reveals the mix of different cultures.
Anna Kazumi Stahl.
You can hear the echo of other languages
coming from distant countries.
In fact, for me to be here, some people had to
travel many kilometers.
I did the eight thousand between this city,
Buenos Aires, in which I live, and my place of origin
in the United States. And my parents and grandparents
did a total of almost seventy thousand kilometers
when considering their trips from Japan to North America,
from Germany to North America and all the necessary twists and turns
for them to meet there.
We usually assume that the story
that sums up the life and identity of a person
should be possible to be told in a linear fashion.
But we ignore chance as a factor,
that is so decisive in our lives.
I will break down my name as an example.
It is not Ana, with only one "n", like in Spanish,
but with two, because it is the German version.
It would be normal to think they named me like that after
some brave and endearing grandmother. That would be the linear story,
connecting distant dots to build sense,
to create a multicultural, multigenerational
But there was no grandmother named like that.
My name addresses
not the need of having a meaningful name
but of having an easily pronounced one
for those on the other side of the world,
for the Japanese side of my family.
Anna is more like a bridge,
an easy first step to get across to the other language,
And this story is also about identity.
The topic of how our names
and other words and definitions may undergo changes
when we get into another language
has always sparked my curiosity.
I guess that is why I like
and find it convenient to use another language in what I do.
I am a fiction writer
and I prefer working on my fiction in Spanish,
a language with no root in my family
or in my upbringing because,
since it is a foreign language to me,
it puts me in touch with another way of thinking.
I see the world through a new lens.
There is a distance, but that distance
allows me to perceive things that I would have overlooked otherwise.
It offers new possibilities
such as, for example, the possibility of rewording
the frustration caused by an unexpected delay,
phrased in my language as "to kill time",
for a more positive option:
the spontaneity, potentially creative,
present in the Spanish version "hacer tiempo" [TN: "to make time"],
to do something with that free time
instead of seeing it as lost time.
In my works I like to explore
the limits of words
and the expectations, the idealizations
that we hold in relation to that dimension.
For my novel "Flores de un solo día" [TN: "One-day Flowers] I wrote a character
that embodies those problems. Her name is Aimée Levrier
and she has lived in Buenos Aires since she was eight.
She cannot remember much of what had happened before
but she does not care, she just lives looking forward,
building herself on the basis of what she can say and define
from that moment on, until one day she receives a letter
addressed to someone called Aimée Odire,
who happens to be herself.
So, both names are correct, they both refer to her,
only in different parts of the world, in different languages
and under different authorities.
Facing this enigma, the character goes searching,
to investigate the linear story behind each of those names,
as if that could provide her with greater fulfillment.
Since she idolizes that possibility
she does not notice that what is narrable, what is definable,
is only a part of the matter.
The curious thing is that while I was writing Aimée,
this figure that represents the exaggerated belief
in the capacity of words,
there was another character, secondary,
that was changing, growing,
becoming more and more interesting to me.
That is Hanako. She works with flowers,
she does ikebana, traditional Japanese flower arrangements,
and she does not speak. She cannot speak because of a brain injury
suffered when she was a child, but it might also be
because she does not want to.
The fact is she does not need it.
And that was a pleasant discovery for me.
While writing about her I could see how, without using any word,
she lives in connection with those things that words
try to capture and define.
She transmits everything she perceives,
everything she cares about to those around her
without saying anything.
In her hands, little things
reveal their true value
with an almost opulent richness
because of how she experiences them,
how she enjoys them.
And she transmits that.
To wash an apple
and to feel the apple's peel and your own skin come together
under the stream of water.
To slice the fruit
and to sense that first aroma, sharp,
sweet and sour at the same time.
That is what Hanako offers
and she does it through silence, her silence,
which is expressive.
As a result of that, she requires from everyone else
another dimension of sensitivity.
It is common to think of silence as
something that makes communication difficult.
Although, these days, a lot has been written to demystify silence,
it is still thought of as the opposite of talking.
I think it is more of a complementary relationship.
Words grow in silence.
They reveal themselves in silence, because that is where
we create and process them.
It is a dual dynamic that,
I feel, we are missing
due to exaggerating the value of words.
While writing this pair of characters,
the wordy Aimée and the silent
yet communicative Hanako, I could confirm that, somehow,
they're both always communicated.
This writing experience brings me
to suggesting you, here and today,
to give air to this era full of words.
Musicians are more used to doing this.
I have talked about this with my husband, he is a jazz pianist.
He quotes Bill Evans, a pianist and composer
who noticed that the note, what we see
as a sign on the score,
refers to the moment in which the string is hammered,
but the following white part
on the score is the silence afterwards
that allows us to listen to it, to experience
and understand what it tries to say to us.
I also like this visual example
that transmits the idea of communicative silence.
It is from a movie by Akira Kurosawa: Rhapsody in August.
It is about two nuclear bomb survivors.
They are called hibakusha, a new word invented
in an attempt to capture what that must have been.
Already elder, they meet every year on the anniversary of the bomb.
They sit for tea at the home of one of them
and spend that time together.
Their grandsons, who roam around, are confused.
"Why aren't they talking? It's been hours and they haven't said anything."
But we, watching the scene, understand.
We feel how that silence is not empty.
That silence is not a lack of words,
it is full and communicates much more clearly
than any speech or explicitation
what it means to be alive after that.
That silence, the silence of music,
of the experiences that we discover,
that we remember, is always at hand.
I was surprised to find it in my novel because,
in the eagerness of continuing with words, I had not appreciated it in the beginning.
Now I do, I am aware of it
and I invite you to try it too.
Now, let us try something
for ten seconds.
Let us offer a silence and hear ourselves,
hear our silence.
Jointly, everyone that is in here on a day like this,
with ideas, so many ideas in the air.
Let us look for silence to enjoy
all those impossible to write words that the world offers.
Thank you very much!