Origins and Inspiration

Raul Palma

UNIVERSAL JUDGMENT

I wrote the first draft of “The World to Come” in late spring. My wife and I were already trying to figure out a way to forego traveling to Miami for Christmastime; we wanted to spend it, instead, with friends in our new home, Ithaca. It was an especially hot day. I was house sitting, caring for a friend’s vegetable garden, and I was using that time as an opportunity to revisit Giorgio Agamben’s The Coming Community—a tight, bold little gem of a book that serves as a follow-up to Homo Sacer. The initial spark for my essay came from a passage that revisits the work of Saint Thomas, specifically the question of nature’s existence after the universal judgment. Rather than lamenting, Agamben argued that nature would rejoice in its fallenness. I loved that sentiment. I wondered: what happens when a family, like mine, arrives at cultural assimilation? Can my young daughter rejoice in her not knowing?

I was drawn to the lyric essay in exploring these questions, because the form doesn’t demand that I nail an answer down to an ending; rather, the joy of writing the essay is that it allows me to stage different ideas in a single place—to show, for instance, how my own cherished family stories are enmeshed with the complicated politics that inform the idea of “family.” As someone who has studied family in Latin America, I know how the pressures of colonial systems, nation-building initiatives, and economies of exploitation serve as the repressed DNA of my own family in Miami. This is why, in imagining a world to come, I tried to understand how my daughter would navigate her cultural dissonance, how I would guide her.

I should say, also, that the idea of an essay had long been gestating in me; in the summer of 2017, I visited Havana on a literary-themed trip with a cohort of incredibly talented Cuban-American writers and artists. This trip to Cuba—my first—was difficult to write about. The director of the Tu Cuba program, Daniel Jimenez, my sponsor, had been asking that I consider writing about my family, and I thank him for being so persistent; it’s the first piece of writing that I’ve produced since the trip that serves as a genuine bridge between my life as a Cuban in the United States, and my experiences on an island I’d always been forbidden from visiting.

RAUL PALMA is an assistant professor of writing at Ithaca College. He earned his PhD in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he also specialized in creative writing and ethnic studies and where he served as fiction editor for Prairie Schooner. His work has been supported by the CubaOne Foundation, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, the Santa Fe Writers Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Sundress Academy for the Arts.