I Gave You All I Had, or The Pain of the Dollar

When I heard last week that I was turned down for my dream job, I recalled a book I read nearly a decade ago, I Gave You All I Had by Zoé Valdés, thinking that the title poignantly expressed exactly what I was feeling at the time. The truth is that I wasn’t just turned down by one job, but by three for which I was a finalist. This meant rounds of interviews; hours of dreaming and imagining the possible ways that I could contribute to a department, a school, a curriculum, the public; lost sleep, thoughts of inadequacy, campus visits with meals that are not meals but are really interviews. The worst, still, is realizing the privilege that I had in even being able to test my mettle and put myself through all of this because too many people never get even as far as I did. The emotionally manipulative nature of the whole thing is that we’re in the exact same place, myself and the candidates who never made it any further in the interview stage––we’re unemployed.

I remembered Zoé Valdés’s book because I was talking about it during a dinner on one of my job visits. We were discussing authors who experience such acclaim in translation that it buoys their work in their first language. Zoé Valdés is a decorated Cuban writer who possesses French and Spanish nationality; her work has garnered awards in both countries respectively and she is a writer whose work is routinely translated, almost simultaneously, from Spanish into French. I think back on this now because I feel as though I am stuck between the titles of this book: the Spanish––Te di la vida entera (I Gave You My Whole Life), the English (I Gave You All I Had), and the French La Douleur du dollar (The Pain of the Dollar). The mentality of the job search is all consuming and, at least on some level, it is about seeking a future where I am paid what might be considered a living wage.

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My last six months, or maybe my seven years in pursuit of a career in academia, make me feel as though the only way to succeed is to give my whole self away. In this regard my experience accounts for the first two variations on the title, the Spanish and the English. The French title cannot be ignored either, though, because undergraduate education and graduate school these days too often entail a massive accumulation of personal debt and/or the persistent wear and tear of living on or beneath the poverty line. The Pain of the Dollar is the lived experience of working poverty, but it can also mean the unsettling of years of sedimented financial trauma. This is magnified for students who grew up poor and who carry these experiences into the halls of the university where it must be either routinely suppressed or denied.

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            I Gave You All I Had is a novel is set during the decline of the Cuban belle époque and Fulgencio Batista’s regime and follows the protagonist, Cuca Martinez’s, life through the years of the Special Period. It is a novel about excess and scarcity. The overabundance of music, swaying hips, and revolutionary spirit in the beginning and, in the end, the outright lack of provisions, social well-being, and sanity. At one point, Cuca has all of her teeth extracted as she plans for the day when there is no dental care available on the island. Her friends covet what little they do have and one female character notably hides a dollar bill, wrapped in a plastic bag, in her vagina for safekeeping. The coup de grace is when Cuca’s former lover and the father of her daughter, Juan Perez a.k.a. Uan (One, as in, “One Dollar”), to find Cuca toothless and withered. At this point in the novel, her closest friends are Nadezhda, the Russian Cockroach, that inhabits the butter drawer of her broken Soviet refrigerator and an Ethiopian rat that Cuca has named Juan Perez to honor her former lover. Despite all of her challenges, Cuca fashions a certain kind of life for herself and her daughter, Maria Regla, in a world that seems bent on their dispossession and deprivation.Screen Shot 2020-03-20 at 6.00.41 PM

As I re-read I Gave You All I Had, I caught myself laughing hysterically at the more hyperbolic moments and feeling genuinely crushed by the circumstances described in the novel.  (This is, for the most part, thanks to the tireless work done by the novel’s translator, Nadia Benabid, to make Valdés’s prose come alive in English). On some level, I could understand why money and the feeling of lack could cause someone emotional and psychological strain. My life experience is certainly not comparable to the lives of the characters in the novel. Indeed, US academia is not the world of Castro’s Cuba under a US trade embargo. Even writing such a sentence makes me feel ridiculous. But, there is something about structures and systems that makes the novel ring true to me. Systems manipulate and take advantage of those without power. In Valdés’s novel, the average Cuban is neither for nor against the Revolution. It wouldn’t matter if they were or they weren’t because either the Revolution or United States economic imperialism would be their undoing. Reading this sense of resignation helped me, in some way, to put things into perspective.Screen Shot 2020-03-20 at 6.02.50 PM

In the novel, Valdés also makes a compelling argument about the way that trauma and anxiety are stored in the body. She, too, experienced a great deal of financial hardship in her life and eventually fled Cuba to live in France and later Spain when the French government failed to grant her citizenship after numerous attempts. Occasionally, these traumas have a fixed origin, a place in time from which they emanate. Others are constant, they’re the little indignities and aggressions that cause past traumas to build to the point where they cause emotional distress. My financial anxieties began when I was ten and my parents separated and divorced in 1999. It has taken years and, finally, months of therapy to make sense of how these early experiences with financial hardship affect my adult life. I may have diagnosed the problem, located its origins. I may have even found productive ways of coping with these creeping and arresting sentiments. The narrator of I Gave You All I Had reminds us that reading can help us cope, too, if we “just prick up [our] ears and listen up now, or better yet, plunge into these pages where my spirit has managed, with more than its fair share of love and pain, to survive.” These feelings inhabit us and we carry them with us for life, sometimes spreading them out in words on a page of a book, or a blog post.

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