Fitzgerald and Hemingway had the Dingo Bar. We have the Marguerita Parlor.

Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia.

At Sir Francis Café, on Monseñor Rivero Ave., I ponder my inner struggle of wanting to belong, to find a place to feel at home. I am deep into my thirties and some of my life priorities are changing, and maybe my perspective, too.

I‘m waiting for Paola Senseve.

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Photo: Francisco Salek

 

Writers—singular, lonesome creatures—always find each other. We fraternize because we recognize how much our (re)created world matters.  We’re fellow travelers, willing to let our characters take us away from our normal lives, and yet paradoxically bring us closer to reality, because the emotional world of stories unfailingly bleeds into real life, adding a strange charge or excitement we want to share with others who understand.

Paola is even prettier than her picture prepared me for—dark, short curls, big eyes behind elegant glasses. In her late twenties, she wears beautiful Frida Kahlo jewelry. Her smiles illuminate the room, and we click right away.

She orders a Paceña. She’s flushed. She’s run to make our appointment on time. She often works late. She’s the creative writer for an advertising agency. All day long, she writes and edits ads for TV and magazines. Every day is different and dynamic.

She doesn’t have a set routine for her own writing, but she writes countless notes to herself as she carries stories and poems in her head. Once these stories and poems have come to maturation, the actual writing can start. “Because I don’t have a lot of time to write,” she says, “my process is pretty messy.”

“Her stories, the corners of her house, her cooking, her affection—all his continues to keep me grounded.”

Paola is an “escritora radicada.” She was born in Cochabamba and, although she’s been calling Santa Cruz her home for more than two decades, she is still deeply attached to her birthplace. “It’s mostly because of my grandmother,” she explains. “Her stories, the corners of her house, her cooking, her affection—all his continues to keep me grounded. For as long as I can remember, my writing has had to do with her, and with my childhood in Cochabamba. As a writer, I’ve matured throughout the years, but my sources of inspiration remain the same.” Her eyes brighten.

Cochabamba is the home of her abuela and countless generations of ancestors, and it’s where her mother grew up. Cochabamba demands to be told, and Paola cannot ignore it. I can relate. I left Haiti for a self-imposed exile more than twelve years ago. In Florida, I’ve been filled with a feeling of instability and vacuous rootlessness. Everything I write is about Haiti. I am filled with an unfulfillable longing that infuses nearly every aspect of my life.

Paola and I share something else—we published our first books at a very young age.

Paola published a collection of short stories entitled Vaginario (2008) when she was only twenty. Carlos Hugo Molina describes her prose as “sensually sublime.” The female speaker remains dominant throughout the text, uncovering truths in a deep, philosophical quest.

Vaginario seethes with bitterness, wit, defiance, and courage; the voice is fresh and evocative, and Paola’s words sometimes leave feelings of rage and destruction, as visceral as those from a Plath poem. Plath is one of Paola’s influences.

“Everything we read, everything we see, everything we live through influences us,” she says. She reads Fernando Pessoa, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Rosario Castellanos, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Emma Villazón, Jessica Freudenthal, and the list goes on. “Don’t ask me about my favorite writers,” she says, “because it’s the writers you don’t like that really matter. When you truly dislike a writer, this makes you see the kind of writer you don’t want to be.”

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As she speaks, Paola reveals a thoughtful, creative, surprising mind.  She received a degree in psychology from UPSA, a private university in Santa Cruz. Her career choice influences the way she sees the world, human interactions and reactions. It also influences her work— the topics she chooses, the characters she creates, along with their motivations. Vaginario was awarded the prestigious Premio Nacional de Escritores Noveles de la Cámara del Libro de Santa Cruz y Petrobas at the International Book Fair in La Paz. These are stories meant to tug on the reader’s heartstrings and they do effectively, almost all of the time.

There is a breeze, and her hair sweeps across her face. Inside Sir Francis, it’s quiet.

“It’s the writers you don’t like that really matter. When you truly dislike a writer, this makes you see the kind of writer you don’t want to be.”

“Today, I barely recognize myself in Vaginario,” Paola says.

Do I hear regret in her voice? I, too, cringe over some of my own published stories. But, as writer Charldes Dodd White once said, “trying to revisit a published story is about as useful as wanting your youth back.” Plus Vaginario, published by La Hoguera, is delightful. Others respectable Bolivian presses include El Cuervo and Plural. Being published overseas, however, particularly in Spain and Argentina, remains a source of validation for writers.

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Three generations of strong women

La Hoguera also published Paola’s second book, a collection of poems entitled Soy Dios (2012), which was awarded the Premio Nacional de Literatura Santa Cruz de la Sierra. The book was released at the International Book Fair in Cochabamba. Her grandmother, who recently celebrated her 90th birthday, is proud of Paola’s accomplishments and loves listening to her writing.

This mastery of language is what first pulled me into the book. Soy Dios is elegant, complex, and incredibly stunning in its revelation of truths about the human experience: the speaker’s relationship with her own body, with others, the speaker’s relationship with writing and the idea of God. Columnist Migail Miranda Zapata calls Paola’s humor “corrosive and elegant.” Paola applies her lush style and incredible generosity of spirit to a universal theme: the fallible humanity in all of us.

The book opened my eyes in ways that don’t always happen when you’ve lived in a place for a long time and have a multitude of connections. It also gave me the opportunity to reflect on the places I’ve lived before—South Florida and Port-au-Prince.

Photo: Paola Lambertin
Photo: Paola Lambertin

Paola applies her lush style and incredible generosity of spirit to a universal theme: the fallible humanity in all of us.

Paola worked as a contributor for Pasajero and Gourmet Travel, and as an editor for Vanidades Bolivia. She learned the discipline required to write about topics she, for the most part, did not care about; she constantly delivered quality work. She also edited a gastronomical magazine titled Pimenta, which has been discontinued. “Pimenta was very special to me,” Paola says with nostalgia. “My work as a columnist and editor there wasn’t too different from that of a storyteller or poet.”

*

If your idea of a writer is this woman with a far-away look stuck in front of her computer, you haven’t met Paola. She leads a very active social life. She tells me about the upcoming French Film Festival and invites me to see “La Grande Illusion.”

I take a taxi—a rusty wreck—to the CBA, Cine y Cultura on Sucre Street. The upholstery is cracked and peeling off the seats; there’s a hole in the floorboard next to the clutch, and the dome light dangles from a single black wire like a giant spider about to drop between us. But the driver is friendly. He tells me about his family. His mother was born in the South of Chile. “When I visited Santiago in 2005,” he says, “I fell in love. I wanted to stay.” His father is a “real Bolivian,” born in Saint Ignacio, one of the Jesuit “misiones.” Fernando honks at the vendors of raspadillo.

I meet Paola in the lobby, and she introduces me to her friends Gerardo and Ana. Ana has dimples when she smiles.

The movie ends with the characters reaching La Suisse. The scene adds a feeling of optimism, rootedness, to the film. And for some reason I think of this body of mine—lungs and voice box, corporeal and incredible, all of it a machine that takes too much space.

Paola and Ana
Paola and Ana

After the movie, we have dinner at El Aljibe, a restaurant in an old house where the different rooms surround a patio with a water-well (an “aljibe”). El Aljibe, which serves authentic Bolivian food (comida típica), is decorated with period details and vintage artifacts, including functioning rotary phones. We eat majadito and sopa de mani, while listening to Gladys Moreno songs.

It is like some dark, previously closed-off space inside me has been flung open and my laughter is simple joy and not hurtful and how incredible that feeling is!

We’re laughing. It is like some dark, previously closed-off space inside me has been flung open and my laughter is simple joy and not hurtful and how incredible that feeling is! I came to Bolivia an outsider, expecting to write stories of loneliness, otherness and exile.  I expected to remain on the fringe—on the outside looking in, longing for some swatch of belonging, a thread of connection. Through writing, I found the connection.

*

The following week, at the Centro Cultural Simón Patiño, I write some brief poems based on the work of Paula López: Caminos Interiores.

When Paola arrives, we climb upstairs for a concert by Mammut, a rock band from Cochabamba. The concert hall is small and intimate. The sound is clear and balanced. The crowd is amped. The performance is solid.

Mammut
Mammut

A song is tried out for the first time, an improvisation goes well, the band takes requests directly from the audience, and some unexpected local guest appears for a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration.

I like it.

After I ask the lead singer, Diego Boulocq, for a photo, he smiles and says something very fast, in Spanish. I look at him like an idiot and he probably assumes I am star-struck. I am locked in the arms of my own wordlessness. He has one beautifully crooked tooth, green-flecked brown eyes, one of them always looking slightly off-center no matter what.

After the concert, Ana, Paola, and I decide to get some pizza downtown. I’ve been downtown before but never to Marguerita.

My first week in Santa Cruz, I took a stroll at the Plaza 24 de Septiembre where I listened to a street band with drums. Then I headed to the Paraninfo Universitario to catch the 7 o’clock “Sin igual” variety show. I later watched a Bolivian Heavy Metal band (Track) perform behind the Cathedral. I’ve been to a “Tango night” with friends al centro. Singer Fatima Trujillo charmed us with a rendition of Javier Solis and Agustin Lara. After the actual tango choreography, I was awed by the “tengo teatro” where a passionate duo (Carola Urioste and Mario Aguire) acted out the poem “Tango” authored by Patricia Zangaro.

Now—This is my version of the golden age. Fitzgerald and Hemingway had the Dingo Bar in Montparnasse. I have Marguerita, in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. I can see the city through my own writer’s eyes—the objective eye of a stranger—just like Scott and Ernest must have seen Paris.

This is my version of the golden age. Fitzgerald and Hemingway had the Dingo Bar in Montparnasse. I have Marguerita, in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. I can see the city through my own writer’s eyes—the objective eye of a stranger—just like Scott and Ernest must have seen Paris.

Paola’s friends, Ruben and Cristobal, join us. I listen to lush language and sharp insights. Everybody sparks and cracks with life.

“I’m a true Cochabambina in that I do everything with passion,” Paola says. “I eat with passion. I drink with passion. I feel with passion. And even though my texts are short, the passion transpires—”

The night is still young. Time goes by differently here. My world in Miami is so full of longing, sleeplessness, and the unsteady and uneven passage of time. Paola is laughing and I shake from her laughter, each sound a wave of pleasure pushing through my body.

We head to Caminito, a new club al Centro. I find out that people in Santa Cruz enjoy an Argentinian drink called “fernet.” It’s an acquired taste. And I acquire it that night while dancing to the tunes of “I must be crazy” and “Because I’m happy.” I am an outsider here as anywhere, but I try to take the best out of it. Ruben is an extremely good dancer. He’s an actor. He speaks French very well, and spent a few months in Paris as part of an exchange program. Cristobal is from Chile and speaks perfect English.

I ask Chris for a cigarette. I haven’t smoked since I was 16. I haven’t been to a club like this since I was 16. I barely remember the long-ago feeling of having slipped into an immense and angry soul. I am pulled in a sea of up-down-up arms, rotating pelvises, and smokes. I forget my bitterness, my disappointments, my lack of understanding of the complex rules of life off-the-page.

I forget my bitterness, my disappointments, my lack of understanding of the complex rules of life off-the-page.

Cristobal takes a deep drag from his cigarette, and blows a cloud of smoke into the air. He can blow smoke out of his nose, too, something I’ve never learned how to do and never will. I remember why I don’t smoke: I feel air lacking in my lungs, like a slow burn, an ache that comes right up into my throat and stays there. My cigarette burns down to a hot little nub in my hand, and I drop it, taking pleasure in crushing the butt with the heel of my shoe.

Paola doesn’t smoke. “I don’t like the taste of cigarettes, and they make my mouth dry, like it could crack and split open. “

I watch the smoke rise in the air and try not to think about home. I like it here. I can barely locate my limbs; I’ve lost my own arms in their flailing, and I feel myself blurring. I think I might be on the verge of forgetting myself completely.

Books also make me feel this way. I get lost in books that provoke.

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Fotografía Julio Gonzalez

“If you want to meet more writers,” Paola says, “you should visit la Calleja.” There’s a thriving creative community.

Where do any of us belong is this big world? Home is something we all struggle with and likely see differently over the full course of our lives.

I look at Paola who carries Cochabamba wherever she goes, at Cristobal who misses Chile, and at Ruben who loved his life in Paris.

Where do any of us belong is this big world? Home is something we all struggle with and likely see differently over the full course of our lives.

I think we all feel misplaced, searching.

And because we’re all outside looking in, we all belong together.

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