Seattle poet Paul Hlava Ceballos spent eight years researching bananas—not just because he likes them (which he still does), and not just because the fruit connects him to the cultures and topographies of Ecuador, one of the so-called “banana republics” from which his family hails, but also because the story of the banana tells “the story of the Americas,” as he put it in an interview with The Stranger.
Using a collage of government documents, news reports, racist tweets, photos, and video stills that he found down his rabbit hole, Ceballos tells his version of that story in banana [ ] (University of Pittsburgh Press). The depth of his dive and the quality of his ear and eye earned him a nomination this year for a National Book Critics Circle award—not too shabby for a debut full-length poetry collection.
He begins the book with a bunch of short lyric poems that focus on US state violence and negligence toward Latinx people, linking the contemporary injustices to the Spanish plundering of the Incan empire. Then in the title poem, “banana [ ]: A History of the Americas,” he widens his scope with a focus on corporate violence in the global south. After giving us enough reason to pick up our pitchforks and torches, he closes out with a restorative portrait of a beautiful, strong, funny, complicated mother figure who thrives and blossoms in the face of oppression.
In a chat last month, we talked about how all of that fits together—and where to buy bananas that don’t totally rely on exploiting Latin American laborers.
I eat a banana every morning. But now when I look at the bunch on my sill, I only see five yellow fingers filled with blood. Is that part of what you were hoping to accomplish here?
Well, many Latin American banana workers have been killed as a result of companies like Dole or Chiquita desiring more land to grow crops. Partly the need for land to grow bananas is due to the fact that it’s a monoculture—actually, a clone of the same banana that we eat. This lack of diversity makes it more susceptible to disease but more easy to advertise, ship, and sell.
So companies try to expand farms to where people have been living for centuries, or force people to join their farms by controlling local markets.
The people who tried to unionize or fight for control of their land were erased twice— once as they were killed, often by paramilitaries with direct financial links to major US banana companies, and a second time as they were forgotten.
Sorry, Rich, this is dark! But the fact that the most ubiquitous fruit in the US is often NOT thought of as bloody was sad!
Yeah, so much of mass fruit and vegetable harvesting is covered in blood, sweat, and imperialist geopolitics. The grocery store is a war zone.
Right, the banana is just a symbol for an extractive economic method—for the extraction of resources by the global north from the global south. And not just resources, but labor as well, which is directly connected to immigration and a national consciousness.
But I hope to make it clear in the book that I am culpable, too. It’s not that because I am from a minority group or have connections to people in resource-rich areas of the world that my conscience is clear. I can go out and buy 10-cent bananas any time I want.
Wait—do you still eat bananas?
Yeah, I try to get the fair trade ones, but if they’re not available, then it’s a whole thing.
Where do you go?
Central Co-op! Of course, they’re the best. I feel like I can trust them to curate my food for me, so I don’t have to do a web search on every food item I buy.
All those thoughts on extraction remind me of what you do in the book: cutting, pasting, and rearranging. You use a lot of cutting imagery in the poems, and you collage texts and images from elsewhere to create most of the book. Why take that tack with this subject?
I think culpability has something to do with that, too. Like, maybe my voice isn’t the most important in this topic. But because of my position as an artist in the US, I can be more vocal about it. So, I wanted to include as many other people’s voices as possible.
As for the photos, I just cut out workers as they were from history or botanical books. So I tried to preserve them as much as possible. But, like their voices, there weren’t a lot of images of them in media! So what remained was just bits and pieces. Even trying to preserve what was available meant just preserving what was cut out by the companies that originally wrote the stories.
You do so much preservation work in this book. What stood out to you?
When I wrote the section of the banana poem that I consider the “say her name” section, which lists the names of banana laborers and union workers killed in the past decade by paramilitaries (often with known links to the major banana corporations), I felt like it was an important archive to show. In fact, it’s the only such list of assassinated banana workers I’ve seen in my years of research.
But it was a dark place and a horrifying rhythm to be caught in, writing it.
Yes, and yet you close the book with a lyrical meditation on your mom, Irma, and her story of immigration.
I was uneasy having an arc that led to a kind of catharsis. I don’t want to give a sense of release or ease to the reader about oppression that is still ongoing. But it was important to have my family be in there, and I thought moving toward love was the answer.
Actually, it’s how the research and writing occurred for me. I found banana laborers and other workers that I liked through the research. So the move was toward a type of caring-for.
A kind of repair felt necessary, especially after the dark historical journey that we took to arrive at the end.
The National Book Critics Circle Awards are at the New School Auditorium in New York on March 23.