Mistaken identity?

When it was announced in April that H. G.Carrillo had died of COVID-19, I realised he was the first writer I knew to have died of the virus. Although he was only an acquaintance, whom I followed spasmodically on Facebook (he had a keen interest in art and posted wonderful images almost daily), I felt the loss of his engaging presence in the world. He was 59.

I met Hache (pronounced Hatchay) – as he was known – when I taught at George Washington University in the 2008/9 academic year on a Jenny McKean Moore visiting professorship. It was a momentous year to be in DC, the year Barack Obama was elected, an event that seems now to have happened in some altered and very sane universe. I attended the inauguration and felt lucky to write about it for The Irish Times.

My other formative experience that year was being welcomed into the academic community at GWU, a community that included Hache.

At any given time, English departments in universities have a contingent of visiting academics and scholars who pass through the halls and often fall under the radar. This was not how it was at GWU where strangers were actively welcomed and included in the life of the department.

I can’t say that I “knew” Hache – and, in retrospect, many of his friends and colleagues will find themselves saying the same thing – but what I did know of him was energising. He was stylish and intellectually bracing. He was a friendly, curious colleague – as a visitor, sometimes, that’s all you need; someone to be curious about you – and he was a great teacher. How do I know? Well, you learn this from your students because you hear them talking, or they mention it in passing in an unforced manner. (And if you’re a worrier, you’re wondering what they’re saying about you in other classes! )

He was popular – long queues formed outside his office for consultations – and though he was a tough taskmaster, students admired him. On a teacher rating, one student wrote: “This dude will kick your ass all semester long, but you’ll end up with a grade that accurately reflects the effort you put in. He is literally scary smart and his understanding of people is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It won’t be an easy semester but you won’t regret it.”

So far, so straigthforward.

After Hache’s death, the Washington Post ran an obituary, which provided a familiar narrative of his life. Born in Cuba in 1960, escaped to the US on a refugee boat with his parents aged seven, a young life in Chicago. It was a biography that he developed in his 2004 novel, Loosing my Espanish, into a compelling fiction. But when the obituary appeared, Hache’s sister challenged these biographical “facts”. Hache was not Afro-Cuban, he was African-American, Susan Carroll said. Born in Detroit, his name was Herman Glenn Carroll, and in his youth went by the name Glenn. There were, she added, no Latinos in the family. His biography, in other words, was a self-made fiction.

After he became a writer in the 1990s, his family did not see much of him, his niece Jessica Webley (36) said, although they were aware of his fictitious backstory. He had repeated it so many times over the years to his professors and academic colleagues, to his husband and fellow writers, that “he probably believed it himself,” his sister Susan said.

Cuban Americans were quick to respond to Carrillo’s deception and call him out for cultural appropriation. When his death was announced on the PEN/Faulkner Foundation website, where he was chair of the board of directors, Cambria Francesco demanded they amend the announcement to highlight the fabrication. “This is extremely disrespectful and harmful to Cuban, Afro-Latino, and immigrant people when his (Carillo’s) notoriety and work is based off of a lived experience that is not his own.”

To those close to Hache, in particular his husband, Dennis van Englesdorp, this alternative identity came as a bolt out of the blue. Friends felt betrayed. “The news was a slap in the face for those of us who knew him. We mourned him, but we also reeled in shock. Hache passed for something he wasn’t, even at home with his husband in Berwyn Heights; he did the same with colleagues and students at George Washington University and at the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. I wasn’t the only one who felt betrayed. And so terribly sad,” wrote author Lisa Page, a close friend and colleague.

“He chose not to be from Detroit, eschewing his Midwestern roots. Crossing shark-infested waters in a boat bound for Miami was a better story than leaving Motown for the District of Columbia and beyond. His black life mattered even as he left pieces of it behind. He shed it, like a chrysalis, to fly off and become someone else.

“Hache chose to become a Latino writer, lacing his fiction with Spanish. . . But reinvention has a price. He erased his African American heritage when he created his Cuban backstory. “

At an intimate level, this deception must be extremely hurtful. For his family it represents rejection. For those who loved him, Hache’s fabrication calls into question the very foundation of their relationship with him, and makes his untimely death doubly distressing. They are left with the ultimate doubt – if his personal origin story was a lie, how much else was?

The concept of an African American “passing” as another racial identity makes Carrillo’s choice extremely controversial, given the history of race relations in the US. But in purely literary terms, he’s not the first writer to have created a pseudoynmous existence – the Brontes, George Eliot, Colette; the only difference is how fully he lived it out.

I’m reminded of Michaél MacLíammóir (1899-1978), a doyen of the Irish stage, who was born, coincidentally, on this day 121 years ago.

His real name was Michael Alfred Wilmore and he was brought up in Kensal Green in London. An established child actor who worked with Noel Coward, he also studied art at the Willesden School of Art. As a teen, he read W B Yeats and became passionate about all things Irish. He learned the language and translated his very English name – into a kind of cod Irish. Constructing a backstory for himself – born in Douglas, Cork, he told people – he arrived in Ireland in 1924 a newly renamed “stage Irishman”. During the 1920’s he travelled and acted extensively around Europe and on a tour of Ireland he met his life partner Hilton Edwards. They settled in Dublin where they lived as a highly visible gay couple at a time in Ireland when homosexual acts were criminalised. In 1928 they formed The Gate Theatre which became a showcase for modern plays and design.

MacLíammóir held on to his constructed identity to the end even when most people in Ireland knew his so-called origin story was not true. It didn’t seem to matter. It was one more facet of his highly “performed” life.

So when does impostorhood become a transgression? If we were to look through the 21st century lens of gender identity, wasn’t Hache Carrillo simply deciding who he wanted to be and how he wanted to be viewed and treated by the world? Isn’t this exactly the freedom the trans community is seeking with regard to sexual identity? The right to declare who you are and have society honour your call?

Or was he just a plain old impostor with a rich interior life?

Sounds to me like the perfect description of a writer.

The Pictograms of Plague

A picture can paint a thousand words, a saying ascribed variously to “the Chinese”, 1920s American ad man Frederick Barnard, or the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, depending on whom you believe. But the power of the pictogram cannot be underestimated. The facemask as a symbol of protection, or the footsteps plastered on the pavement as a metonym for social distancing, have become ingrained visual shorthand for all of us during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Ireland, the plague palette has been yellow and black.

All of the official informational postering and most of the pictograms have appeared in these two colours. How were they chosen? Well, for one, black on yellow is typographically clear and arresting and the posters contained a lot of information – and at the start of the lockdown a lot of new information – so visual clarity was very important.

A warning from the 1918 flu epidemic

Secondly, we are conditioned to reading these colours as signalling danger from our roads and hazard signage. Ireland signed up for the Vienna Convention on Road Signage – yes, there is such a thing – in 1968 along with 37 other countries, including the US , Australia, Canada and Mexico, agreeing to use warning signs that were black on a yellow background. This colour combination is related to the insect world and our perceptions of it, apparently – think bees and wasps for whom we have a healthy respect lest they sting us, so we associate their uniform with danger.

This may be an old wives tale, but whatever the reason, the colours together have a skull and crossbones vibe about them, so we’re primed visually to brace ourselves even before we get to read the message. This in a world where a whole new vocabulary is in place, or the old one has been repurposed.

Cocoon and vector are part of the new terminology; flattening the curve has shed its weight gain associations. Quarantine, self-isolation, furlough, asymptomatic, working from home and vaccination have taken on a new emphasis since the start of the pandemic – another word that’s bandied about freely now. But as Paul Elie – https://www.newyorker.com/contributors/paul-elie – argued in a piece in the New Yorker in March, we’ve been employing the language and imagery of viruses for many decades, just not to describe literal illness.

“It was there in the computer virus. . . It was there, most blithely, as an expression of the reach and spontaneity of social media. We watched as cat videos, practical jokes, blunders, over-the-shoulder half-court shots, and celebrity meltdowns all went ‘viral’. And it was there in the notion that those who could make things go viral were to be celebrated, cultivated, compensated, imitated. The term devised for them – we realise in rueful retrospect – has a distinct echo of the worst virus of modern times, the influenza pandemic of 1918. They were called influencers.”

But if such language has been lodged in the public consciousness, how many of the iconic images of the pandemic will survive in the collective memory? What will be COVID-19’s equivalent to Rosie the Rivetter? (The bicep-baring worker under the “We Can Do It” banner was created by J Howard Miller for the Westinghouse Electric Corporation in Pittsburgh in 1942 and became the defining symbol of working women during the Second World War in the US.)

My vote goes to the image at the top of this post created by Israeli designer Noma Bar http://nomabar.com/ – in an initiative organised by Spanish graphic designer Alvaro Lopez and Italian paper manufacturer Fedrigoni to raise funds for the NHS in Britain. Artists were asked to design a series of limited edition posters on the theme of observing lockdown. Bar, who’s resident in London, dedicated his design to frontline workers.

“I wanted the viewers to discover the house shape in between the gap of the mask and the head cover; the eyes are two people in quarantine sitting by the window. I think that you can feel the level of stress in the eyes. They look sideways as if something happened outside.”

With graphic simplicity Bar manages to communicate several layers of meaning at once – the burden on the frontline, the isolation of quarantine, the interdependence of the two, and the pervasive atmosphere of fear, the latter surely the hallmark of our time of plague.