Suzi F. Garcia in Conversation with Paul Hlava Ceballos
Suzi F. Garcia: Welcome to the Poetry Magazine Podcast. I’m Suzi F. Garcia, and in today’s episode, I sat down with Paul Hlava Ceballos to discuss writing against monoculture. We also dig into the history of banana workers and Ecuador, propaganda, and the art of citation. Ceballos reads from his forthcoming book, banana [ ], which includes images and a mix of handwritten and typed text. If you’d like to read along while you listen, you can see excerpts of the book-length poem in the December issue of Poetry, in print and online. Here’s Paul.
Paul Hlava Ceballos: I have a lot of family in Ecuador. My family is Ecuadorian. And Ecuador was, when my mother migrated here, the world’s number one exporter of bananas. And there’s just kind of growing up in a household with an Ecuadorian mother, this, like sense of like, love or reverence for this thing, as well as I feel a history that maybe I grew up knowing because of my tíos, because of family stories, that I was feeling. People didn’t know, in ways that kind of hurt me. And to go my entire life, being in a situation where somebody might make a joke about slipping on a banana peel or something like that, but there were kind of two worlds that I was in, right, this world where people are laughing at this thing, and then this world of this kind of other knowledge of the reverence and the violence that was behind this object. I guess it was like a dislocation, because I knew the groups that I was hanging out in didn’t seem to have that background. And it accumulated over my lifetime, until I just felt the need to kind of pour out, to pour out some of this history.
(READS EXCERPT FROM “Banana [ ]”)
To develop new banana exports
the Military Junta in a series of decrees 40
prepared ceremonial dishes
of bananas and honored41
the cadaver and consuming the
charred and crushed bones in a banana mush 42
ousted the president and installed
military officers with ties to banana plantations.43
- And do we want to ship bananas from Columbia
- Need to keep this very confidential—
people can get killed.
On dead banana leaf or inflorescence tissues
they disperse by wind and water.45
it has ten hands
they will cut off one hand
a commercial / aspect
of banana27 workers
used in banana28
banana growers 37 bring
about banana 38
I try to hide under the banana leaves when I hear the planes 39
give children bananas
before bed because it can smother
the bags are used
Suzi F. Garcia: You are talking a lot about, I think, oral history, when you’re talking about the stories from your tíos, the stories from your mother, the stories from Ecuador. We’re thinking a lot more about how these oral histories have gotten, I don’t want to say lost, because they’re very much alive. They’re very much in us. I’m also, you know, the child of an immigrant. And my own parentage is not one where writing is a lot. But the oral history part of it is a big part of how I’ve learned to love language. How do you feel like the oral history became involved in your projects?
Paul Hlava Ceballos: Yeah, thanks for asking that. I actually think that’s like a really big part of this. Because, as you know, it’s heavily annotated. In the chapbook, there’s 214 citations. Every line has a footnote. It was an intense amount of work. But a lot of that also came from, I feel like, existing in this place where the oral history isn’t respected, right. But what’s valued, I think, in American culture is more of an empirical knowledge, which certainly has value. You’re talking to somebody who’s in a medical field, right? I currently work in echocardiology in the cardiology clinic at the University of Washington Medical Center. So, I do understand the value of empirical knowledge. There certainly is value to that. But, you know, as I say, the word empirical, I’m hearing the word empire in there as well. And I don’t know if that’s a false etymology, or a real one.
Suzi F. Garcia: I don’t know. It’s certainly something that I think we connect to that word. Like we hear it, like you’re saying.
Paul Hlava Ceballos: Yeah, and this type of information, right, there’s so many types of knowledge. There’s like, oral histories, there’s emotional, there’s social. But if what we value is a didactic type of thing, I think part of what our culture does is value that as a way to erase other cultures, to erase cultures that have existed through oral history.
Suzi F. Garcia: Right.
Paul Hlava Ceballos: And to separate present cultures that have these types of histories from their past, right, by saying, like, this is history, meaning that it’s over. Right? Maybe our artifacts belong in a museum. So what I wanted to do was kind of use the tools of empirical knowledge to create something that wasn’t that. And the tools of empirical knowledge were heavy, heavy citations. (LAUGHING) Like, painfully heavy citations for me to make. But by doing this, I’m trying to show, Hey, all of this information is here, this has been written about, this has been recorded, this is like factual and based in data. However, I don’t necessarily want somebody who reads it to come away with a certain fact like, you know, Tomás de Berlanga first brought bananas to the Americas. You know, that’s not what I’m interested in at all. I’m interested in using kind of the tools of the oppressor to create a social history, right, a feeling that you and I can talk about, that I can read aloud, that people can all come to together, and an emotional history, so that when somebody walks away from this book, they’re feeling something, and that feeling is what lasts, and that feeling is also a real piece of knowledge.
Suzi F. Garcia: So, when we’re thinking about empirical knowledge, we can also think about how empirical knowledge is kind of created. I’m thinking specifically of your use of government papers here. And the way the government papers try to write their own history of what happened, but also, the engagement with propaganda. Propaganda that is clearly made for imperial and colonial reasoning. Can you talk a little bit about your experience working with that propaganda that was so different from the experiences you knew were happening on the ground?
Paul Hlava Ceballos: Yes. I think one of my goals in getting the language of—the commercial language as well as the government language of the CIA papers that you mentioned—is that there’s an abundance of this. We have the Chiquita Banana lady, or a lot of these types of commercials that I was looking at going back nearly a century. Finding the language of the banana workers was a lot harder, but finding the language of the oppressor was pretty easy. So, how wonderful to get these CIA documents that have been declassified because of the Freedom of Information Act, to get all of these commercials and like, quote-unquote “scientific” papers from the 1920s, and just take my scissors and just start chopping them up. I like to feel like I was replicating onto the language that made money out of the work of my ancestors, I was making piecemeal of that, I was doing to it what it was doing to us. And so that was the real fun part. There were a lot of agricultural manuals that had language such as dehand, burn, uproot. A lot of the pages in the book are composed of just those things, sliced up and mashed together for my own purposes.
(READS EXCERPT FROM “Banana [ ]”)
Paul Hlava Ceballos: As I had mentioned, the reason that I wanted to write this is because I felt like I was coming to the idea of a banana with a kind of history that a lot of people I met didn’t have. But some people did know. And when I would speak to them about it, it would be contained in the past. They might know about the United States invasion of Guatemala on behalf of the United Fruit Company, which was a specific event that happened under Eisenhower. It’s contained, right, like, it’s on the History Channel. It was then and now it is over. But I think the truth is that it existed long before that, and it isn’t over. So, that particular event was an invasion in order to secure cheap land for this, America’s first transnational corporation. However, coming before that, I think it’s important to recognize how bananas came to the United States, how bananas came to the Americas in the first place is that they were introduced as a food source for enslaved people. So, it’s kind of—it’s thought of as an indigenous type of food, because it is so ubiquitous in Latin America, the plantain and the banana. However, it’s kind of a non-indigenous indigeneity that we find. Brought across on the slave ships was food for enslaved people. And it was introduced to the United States and to all of the Americas to kind of keep the labor going, basically, in a long series of violent events throughout the Caribbean, and throughout Latin America, we end up having … this is like too much for me (LAUGHS) to really like, think about and contextualize, you know?
Suzi F. Garcia: The whole history of Latin America. (LAUGHS) Like, where do you start, and like you said, it doesn’t end, it doesn’t end.
Paul Hlava Ceballos: And I want to say also, that like, when I wrote about this project, I was very much writing about bananas, but I’m also not writing about bananas, right? I’m writing about resource extraction, and extractivism from us, the Global North, right, from resource-rich Global South, and the relationship between us. Even as, you know, people with a history attached to that, I’m still growing up in a culture where I have the privilege of, you know, having plenty of bananas around me, of driving on roads, right, or taking the train somewhere, using like, precious metals, the iPhone screen, you know, where did that material come from? And so, like, we’re talking about mining, right? We’re talking about agriculture. And we’re talking about land ownership and our relationship to land,
Suzi F. Garcia: Yeah.
Paul Hlava Ceballos: as the people who get to benefit from all of these things. So, what happened after the United States invasion of Guatemala was that, essentially, it continued right? Chiquita, in order to keep some of its lands, ended up engaging with what is known by the United States as a terrorist, a globally designated terrorist. Dole shipped chemicals made by Dow that have been found to be carcinogens, and to cause infertility, that were banned in the United States. They shipped those down to Latin American and continued to use them for years. There continues to be police actions by paramilitary groups who push people off of their lands. And these are people who come from the history of agriculture, right? These are primarily Black, Indigenous, or mostly non-white Latinos. And I mean, I use the word Latino here pretty broadly, right? To mean anybody who’s, of course, living in Latin America, coming from any number of hundreds of different cultures or languages. So, like, that’s, that’s kind of the history here. And I guess part of this history, too, that the poem tries to come into conflict with, was that brought aboard the slave ships were not just enslaved people, or food, but also language, right? Those people did not speak English. And the English language was kind of built up around these processes of wealth, also. So, how is our language entangled with this? I think it’s nearly impossible to escape when speaking about something. When I looked into the archive, what I found was over and over and over, as you had mentioned, that kind of propaganda, right, those types of papers coming from the government. And what was nearly impossible to find were just the voices of banana workers. Like, laborers, workers, poor working people, they’re not interviewed for newspapers. People generally don’t think that’s going to sell a magazine. Their struggles, I think, would only further alienate us as consumers. So, those struggles also aren’t necessarily something that’s brought up. Which means that for me to speak about it is already imbalanced. And I think in poetry, we talk a lot about like, witness, right?
Suzi F. Garcia: Mm-hmm.
Paul Hlava Ceballos: How the poetics of witness is very important. But the more and more I got involved in this, the more I realized that I feel witness, mere witness is insufficient. Because if I am objective, right, using that empirical kind of knowledge, then automatically, just by speaking this language, just by using the material found in the archive, it’s going to be hugely weighted to the people that did the violence.
Suzi F. Garcia: Right.
Paul Hlava Ceballos: Like, I want to kind of counteract that by focusing on the workers and also by focusing on a kind of emotionality and relational construct that we can have between the objects and the people who bring us those objects. Sorry, that was like a (LAUGHING) huge, huge thing.
Suzi F. Garcia: No, it was really good. I think that was really helpful. I think we, especially when not next to a person talking to another, were like, “Oh, yeah, the US government, the shit they did.” But that may not be like, we’re like, you know, the us[ual].
Paul Hlava Ceballos:
(READS EXCERPT FROM “Banana [ ]”)
Suzi F. Garcia: You use a lot of citations in this book. At the end of each of the lines, there’s a little footnote so that each time the word “banana” appears, we see a number footnoted beside it. In this way, it not only serves as a citation, but as a form of tallying. And it brings to mind the song “Day-O” by Harry Belafonte, who is Jamaican, who’s singing about, from the perspective of a banana worker who wants to go home, who is like, it is daylight, please tally my bananas so I can go home. Can you talk a little bit about what you were thinking about when you were creating those kinds of citations?
Paul Hlava Ceballos: Yeah, thanks for that question. And I—well, I do include that song within the footnotes as well. So, in this case, every single line is just composed of two words, for example, “is banana.” And that would be one source coming from a specific text that just had the word “is banana,” as part of the rules I created for myself in this project was that every line would have a specific source and would include the word “banana.” This was a way for me to really put the word in there as many times as possible, to make the reader come into contact with the word as an object, the way that we do when we go into a grocery store, and we can choose to either come into contact with this and read it, or, to read down the left hand side of the page, and read it in a more comprehensible way that maybe has kind of a voice or a narrative, but that ignores the word.
(READS EXCERPT FROM “Banana [ ]”)
Paul Hlava Ceballos: And in many ways, too, I think this poem is against monoculture.
Suzi F. Garcia: What do you mean by that?
Paul Hlava Ceballos: Yeah, I mean, one of—or I would say, arguably, the largest problem, the kind of impetus of a lot of this violence, was monoculture. In order to make a plant that was easily sellable, we had to just create the same plant over and over and over. There’s no variety to the bananas we eat, although there are hundreds of varieties that we could be eating, right. And that would be because it would be harder to package and ship. And ultimately, like, sell to those of us here in countries where bananas don’t grow. Now, in order to do this, they had to plant what’s essentially a clone, we’re all eating a clone, right, of one banana. They had to plant this clone over and over and over, over hundreds of square miles throughout Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Because there’s no variety in the crop, the crop becomes much more vulnerable to disease. We’ve already had one form of banana, the Gros Michel, that was the original banana, become extinct. Because disease came, the Panama disease came and eradicated it. Kind of indigenous or other practical farming methods that wouldn’t include monoculture would help ease this problem. However, again, because of kind of the forces of capitalism, we are creating a situation where we are leading the thing that we have created to its demise. All of this kind of comes back to one thing, right, to our obsession with making one sellable object. So, you know, I was thinking about monoculture actually linguistically, and I looked it up recently, I was thinking all of the meanings of the word “culture,” too, especially, you know, coming from us, people who may be between kinds of two countries, two cultures, but also as kind of cultivation, right. And I found the word comes from “care” as in to tend for or to care for a crop. So, here in the notes, I guess, I might be trying to give a certain amount of care to the language. So that now I have control over it. Because I get to choose, unlike the rest of the text, in this particular poem, I get to choose what is said. And I get to choose the footnotes. One of the footnotes here just says “the banana.” There’s hundreds of sources that I could use for that. I get to choose now, I get to create my own citations. Which is the one that, if a reader would even bother to look at this, they might read, “the banana,” and see, oh, this is a piece of history that I can walk away with. And so, I think if this poem is against monoculture, it does so by kind of giving care to the language.
Suzi F. Garcia: I love that. I think that it’s really interesting the way you’re talking about cultivating the citations and the sources in a way that it’s almost giving me like Benjamin’s library, right? Like these, like, personal libraries of, that you’re generously giving to us readers, you’re saying, “I have seen these things, and I’m offering them to you.” So not only are you caring for the language, but you’re also caring for your readers, who are going to walk away with this really rich and unique resource as well.
Paul Hlava Ceballos: I’d like to think of it as an offering or a tribute, or retribution.
Suzi F. Garcia: Retribution. That’s interesting.
Paul Hlava Ceballos: You know, each one here, there’s “a banana” or “two banana,” those are like, really kind of simple words, right? And so, like, I’m not going to maybe choose like a text from a commercial, I’m going to be choosing an article or an interview with a banana worker that I found on a labor website. I’m now able to include these things that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t make this particular piece of the poem.
Suzi F. Garcia: So it’s an opportunity to reintroduce some of these, maybe not as canonical texts that are still talking about banana and banana workers, but that are often left out of those conversations.
Paul Hlava Ceballos: Yeah, yeah. It’s my canon.
Suzi F. Garcia: Yeah! Personal canons. I love that.
Paul Hlava Ceballos: It’s ours now.
Suzi F. Garcia: I love that and yes, you bring me our canon, too. Well, let’s go ahead and read the final essayistic part of the poem, if you don’t mind.
Paul Hlava Ceballos:
(READS EXCERPT FROM “Banana [ ]”)
We had to organise the campesinos and the banana workers who didn’t have homes, in order to occupy land where there were no titles or land not on the property register.
This was land not documented as belonging to anybody but the companies had appropriated it as though they were the owners.
My actions of course resulted in me being persecuted and going to prison 22 times.
I was also submitted to torture at the hands of the authorities.
You have to remember that the government of this country at that time boasted about defending private property, but in justifying this, the government defended property which wasn’t private.
All a company had to do was put up a sign up on a thousand-hectare area of land, for example, saying Del Monte, even though it wasn’t their property.
All they had to do was put a fence around it and bring in a guard or two, or in some cases a lot of guards to protect it, as though it belonged to them.
For us this was both illogical and unjust as there were so many homeless workers, so many unemployed banana workers who were suffering.
For us the most sensible thing was to make use of this land by planting what we eat.
For instance we grow: cassava, rice, beans, maize, tequisque, yampí ... 257
Paul Hlava Ceballos: And that’s a quote from Carlos Arguedas, who was a banana worker and activist and labor organizer, who I found, thanks to the work of another artist who went to Ecuador and throughout Central America was able to interview some of the banana workers, too.
Suzi F. Garcia: There’s so much information in these poems, and throughout, that it’s just eye opening. It’s extraordinary. At the end of the section you just read, the speaker says that the land doesn’t belong to Del Monte, and that the way the government allows them to use it is illogical, for example: Del Monte is not providing any nourishment to the people of Ecuador. It’s not nourishing the speaker, it’s not nourishing the workers. Can you talk a little bit more about the way that this speaker particularly, Carlos, and the way your speakers throughout the poem, are engaging in that kind of illogical use of land by the government and by Del Monte?
Paul Hlava Ceballos: Well, for people like Carlos, it was their land. I mean, very recently, right? A lot of these people are people who’ve been pushed off of ancestral lands, places where they had been living for generations. But they had small farms, they were small farmers. And a larger, richer corporation came and slowly used force to kind of take over the farming area. This guy’s amazing. And his story is, is so amazing. I would recommend people to look at the footnotes and to kind of go back to the source to read the entirety of what he said. You know, here’s somebody who had very little economic power, and still was able to take back what had been taken from him, by leading workers to just go and stake out parts of land. They put up their own fences. They put up their own houses, which I can’t even imagine doing. It’s so brave, right? And one of the reasons that I put this in, speakers like him in the poem and in the book, is because, I thought it would be an injustice to show the banana laborers as simply victims, as people who’ve received suffering, right? Because that’s not the case. They’re full human beings, right, with like, very long, rich histories. It’s not, like, my job as somebody in the United States to save someone, right? I would argue that it is my job to do something, you know, kind of against the forces also from the United States that are perpetuating harm. However,—
Suzi F. Garcia: Yeah, there’s a difference between engaging in criticism and in critical action and being a voice for the voiceless, or saving someone from another country.
Paul Hlava Ceballos: Absolutely, yeah, yeah. And I didn’t want there to be a kind of like, savior vibe (LAUGHS) going on through the poem, right. And there’s no need for that. People like Carlos, or Hernan Bedoya or some of the other people in this poem, are doing such amazing deeds to take back their land, to stand up and create labor unions, to strike for better wages. And I just wanted to be able to show them that. One of the source books that I really loved is called Bananeras by Dana Frank, and it’s about a group of women. Kind of the long history of this is that, the men after forming unions, were all killed by paramilitaries. And women came up and took over what had originally been male-dominated fields, right, they maybe weren’t allowed to participate. And now are running in, like, really powerful and just heartening and uplifting ways, banana unions and creating better working conditions. There’s a quote from one of those women about how they are creating schools. That was one of the things they bargained for. They’re creating schools for their kids, and for the other banana workers, so that they could teach about things like gender roles, they could teach about things like agricultural practices, as well as, you know, union participation. And so, the poem, I would like to think about like an uprising, right, that they’re doing that I’m just trying to kind of help show is already happening.
Paul Hlava Ceballos:
(READS EXCERPT FROM “Banana [ ]”)
Suzi F. Garcia: A big thanks to Paul Hlava Ceballos. Ceballos’s forthcoming book banana [ ] will be out from the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2022. The chapbook Banana [ ] / we pilot the blood, which he coauthored with Quenton Baker, was published by The 3rd Thing last month. He lives in Seattle. You can read the excerpts you heard today in the December 2021 issue of Poetry, in print and online. If you’re not yet a subscriber to the magazine, there’s a special rate for podcast listeners. For a limited time, you can get a full year of the magazine for $20. That’s 11 book-length issues for just $20. Visit poetrymagazine.org/podcastoffer to subscribe. That’s poetrymagazine.org/podcastoffer. This show is produced by Rachel James. The music in this episode came from Resavoir, Alabaster DePlume, John McCowen, Rob Mazurek, and Irreversible Entanglements. Okay, that’s it. Until next time, be well, stay safe, and gracias for listening.
(MUSIC FADES OUT)
In today’s episode, Suzi F. Garcia sits down with poet Paul Hlava Ceballos to discuss writing against monoculture. They also dig into the history of banana workers in Ecuador, propaganda, and the art of citation. Ceballos reads from his forthcoming book, banana [ ], which includes images and a mix of handwritten and typed text. If you’d like to read along while you listen, excerpts of the book-length poem appear in the December issue of Poetry.