Ana Duffy

Ana Duffy is an Argentinean-born writer. She teaches in Communications and Creating Writing units at QUT; her work has been published in Island, Coffin Bell, Swamp and has been shortlisted in QWC Flash Fiction Competition and long-listed for Fish Anthology (Ireland). Ana holds a PhD in the field of Latin American literature from UQ and, in between teaching semesters, she is working on a novel.



Language spoken at home: Spanish

A mess of application forms are scattered on Josefina’s table. I see one with a green stain that will need to be reprinted.

If not for the rain, it would be a more pleasant day.

If not for the day being a Sunday, it would be a less gloomy day.

I pour a bit of water that is no longer hot into the mate that no longer tastes of anything. The quintessence of Argentinean infusions disgracefully vandalised somewhere 12000 km away from home. I sip. It is washed-out and cold: lavado and frío, as expected. I was never pedantic enough about the whole ritual: the slow pouring of the water on the Yerba Mate, methodically set in bevel into the gourd; the right temperature of the water, never boiling hot, unless you can live with the unsupervised sticks of Yerba Mate floating as in a shipwreck. As for the mate-drinking ritual, I know of my bad habits:  a widely accepted legacy from the uni years, when the same mate could go on for as far as to a full chapter (with inevitable green stains), or as far as to the first half of a deconstructed two-hour lecture; when the end of a full mate round was determined by our concentration span, and not water temperature or taste.

I sip again. Josefina jumps at the sucking sound. I pass it back to her.

She mumbles something and keeps on filling in the application form.

No me va a gustar’, Josefina says, and rolls her eyes when she sees the green stain at the centre of page 2.

(I agree that she will not like this job either. But she will push on, and keep doing the work that architects from UQ or Melbourne uni will take credit for, while her own UBA degree coils in a black tube along with five years of study and green mate stains in a stationary vortex of defeats).

I put the kettle on and refill the mate: an old gourd with Josefina’s initials carved clumsily with a pocketknife. I have the same gourd. We bought it together at the markets, in San Telmo, at a time when having it meant nothing of what it now means: a whole ocean, and decades away from there and then. The gourd feels so loaded now, so heavy with every past tense plastered to it. 

Josefina fills in her third application. Nothing out of the ordinary. A name that anyone could say, and a surname that no one could: Rodriguez. An un-rollable ‘r’. An ‘o’ that was not meant to be turned onto an /oʊ/ and an impossible ‘d’, if you try to sound it with your tongue behind the teeth, instead of squeezed between them. The carnage done to the poor ‘gue’ sound is by now such a given, that she’s stopped trying to fix it altogether.

She says she would, if she could, add subtitles to everything around her. Subtitles or a voiceover. And everyone would be happy. The reader and the writer. The speaker and the listener. Maybe, she says, a full-time hologram: a three-dimensional translation under everything said, written and done. And everyone would be happy.

Spanish. Brief description: 27 grafemas. 24 fonemas. If you care to listen closely, it sounds as if you could dance it. Closed embrace. Walk. Figure. At the right time of the day (that can be any time of the day), it tastes like asado, slow-cooked, on an open fire, medium-rare. The signature sound of the “y” and the “ll”, the same fonema: as if we were pissing on the language to own it, to make it Argentinean, to sound it our way.

Spanish. Ancestral tongue, all flat-packed and put away during business hours.

Josefina asks me if I would like to hear about her dream last night.  

I say yes, because no one would want to leave an untold dream festering under Josefina’s vindictive skin. Or maybe because it’s a rainy Sunday, and rainy Sundays make me mellow and a little conforming.

She tells me about an eulogy she was giving in Argentina. An eulogy for a friend. En Puerto Blanco. In a white church. I think of Nuestra Señora de Lourdes because that’s the only church I remember. In any case, you can whitewash the walls of a church that lives, roughly sketched, in your memory. 

(No one really does eulogies in Argentina, Josefina, I know you know it too). No eulogies: we rather cry ourselves dry and exchange hugs and kisses and flowers and tissues and donate to Pétalos de Vida if playing the local philanthropist is your thing. It almost feels as if when dead people die over there, they are a tad dead-er than here in Australia, or we are a tad sad-er because we are all a tad inoculated with tango lyrics, and we are able to sip mate for hours on end in a profoundly depressing, ceremonial silence. Endemic things that give us a kind of death that is thicker, more substantial.

It’s her turn with the mate now and her hands are soft around the gourd. Her fingernails are splitting under a badly applied, inexcusable blue nail polish. She purses her lips and takes a long sip, “el agua de Brisbane no es lo mismo” she says frowning. I do not feel the difference; hot water tastes the same here than in Puerto Blanco, but agreeing with her, today, takes no effort. I nod.

And then she goes on; she describes how she was reading the whole eulogy in English, ‘in fucking English’ (she has been using fucking lately, and it pains me to see that it’s starting to sound almost natural); she says that yes, that she is sure that it was her speaking, when I ask; by now her voice has that pitch voices have when the images run too fast and the narration starts to feel out of sync. A vortex of dead and alive, known, and unknown, friends and foes, in a white church, listening to Josefina’s eulogy.

I can picture the general confusion of a non-English-speaking congregation when Josefina goes “we are gathered here today to bid farewell (a bit overdone, I’d say) to the amazing (she cannot remember who had died) whose goodness was beyond measure, a beacon of light (really? Is that what you said? Did you ChatGPT it, or what?). 

She tells me how she was hyperventilating when the alarm went off, and when she sat on her bed, she was toda chivada: all drenched in sweat. She brushes her fingers up and down her body, with a contorted face.  Now she’s all big-eyed as she brings the kettle back.

The dream story goes on and on and on. About how she had tried hard to stop and go back to Spanish. But again, and again she would revert to English, as if her own words were gone, as if they were trapped in the coffin with the beacon of light. And then, as you would expect of her, she Googled. She told me all about an article from the BBC on multilingual dreams, and how hers could have been a ‘linguistic anxiety dream’. She is sipping her mate slowly, holding on to it, watching the hollow gourd as if trying to find deep answers by dowsing in the yerba

Porque es como vivir con un pie en cada cachete del culo” Josefina says, the metaphor of an expat life, quite un-Borgesian indeed, of living as if she were standing on a giant butt: one foot on each butt cheek, makes me chuckle. The living not here, not there, and with a looming fear of falling into the crack. Her metaphor lingers heavily between us.

(At times, I know how much I hate speaking. When my LOTE language cannot be tamed, nor hidden. When it bobs up, unrequested as a Spanish-sounding-English. Because it is always there. At home. In songs I sing along. On a t-shirt. In books and books and books I cannot share. In instructions for the blue Anilina Colibri that was never used to dye a tattered shirt into its senses. Over the years I have fought it; pushed it in, scratched it out, painted it over, flattened it down. Nothing worked. Languages can be some stubborn creatures.)

‘Y si un día lo perdemos del todo?’ she says, half a spewed thought, and half a rhetorical question.

And the truth is that I do not know what would happen if suddenly, we could not find ourselves in Spanish anymore. If one day we wake up and we see pieces of rolled ‘Rs’ spread out like starfishes on the ground; or if we see an ñ (please, pronounce eh-nyeh, like you do for Enya, the Irish singer) clearly determined to get rid of its wormy hat in a way never seen before in anything with no arms, only because it wants to fit in. What if, the mourners in a sad, Argentinean funeral start to sway uncomfortably because of an English eulogy without subtitles, and we feel nothing at all.

(Is anyone able to un-dream a dream, Josefina? Can you at least, edit an alien eulogy out of it?) 

The mate is cold now. And maybe tasteless, again. The biggest and lightest Yerba Mate sticks are floating up and I am butchering the most basic mate etiquette turning the bombilla around and around, stirring thoughts and sticks together like a narcotic cocktail.

Tengo Pilates a las 5’, Josefina checks her phone. Broken screen; battered cover; battery almost flat. She walks while slipping into a pair of black leggings. Her Pilates mat is next to the door (it lives there, but she forgets it again and again). 

Te llevo?” she asks me as she frantically searches for her car keys in one of the many miscellaneous, poli-rubro, drawers.

I say no, that I rather walk. I always rather do.

I hum a Seru Giran song that lands me on the 80s (our 80s) and I forget Josefina’s dream. No one died recently, at least no one that I know of. No one I care for. Or maybe someone did die. And maybe in Argentina, they do eulogies now. I don’t know. I will Google it when I get home. 

Not a clue how to say eulogy in Spanish, though. 

A pity, really.